Read an Excerpt
Daggers of water and hail lashed the windshield as Lord John Dimwitty peered through the darkness at the tiny area inadequately lit by the car's headlights. Beside him, Sir Walter Charles Turner shifted uncomfortably, moving his stiffened leg into a new position.
"You have storms like this often?" Walter asked.
"Oh, no. Quite uncommon, I assure you, W.C."
Wincing at the use of the nickname foisted on him by his blue-blooded classmates at Oundle, Walter asked, "Blow over soon, then, d' you think?"
"What say we pull over and wait her out?"
John frowned. "Could do that, I suppose."
He kept driving. Walter sighed. He'd noticed this tendency in John as a boy. He was so thick-headed, once he got an idea in his head it was do or die, all for the honor of the Queen. But then, John was the only paying student at Oundle who had paid a mere scholarship holder any mind. He twisted again. Damn English Autumns, anyway.
"I say, you feeling all right?" John peered at him with concern.
"Fine, don't worry." He turned his attention to the woods. "What was that?"
Was there a flicker of movement? A brief flash of lightening turned the woods into stark black skeletons against the heavy sky. It also illuminated a humped shape, running, he was sure of it, through those stark trees.
"What?" John spared him another glance.
"Over there. Something in the woods." Walter tapped his friend's arm. "Pull over."
"Now? Are you daft? We're less than a mile from Huxley Hall."
Whatever it was, it had been big ... and walking upright. Tales of Bigfoot and the Yeti crossed his mind, but they were neither inAmerica, nor Tibet. It was probably just a local man hurrying home. Except that it had been very big. John pulled the car over spraying mud up past the windows.
"I hope you're pleased; Wilson will have quite a job to clean the old girl..."
But Walter was already out of the car, using his cane to feel before him like a blind man. The slope would have been treacherous for him at any time; in the dark and the rain, it was hellish. Skidding and sliding in the mud, he finally made it to the place where he thought he'd seen something moving. Nothing.
"Hello?" he called. "Are you all right? Do you need a lift somewhere?"
He was answered by a horrendous clap of thunder. The resultant flash of lightening showed something on the ground ahead of him that defied comprehension. Eyes dazzled in the sudden darkness, he blinked rapidly to try to regain his night vision. Stiffly, he dropped to one knee and felt on the ground. There was a rough depression under his fingers. A light appeared over his shoulder.
"I'd a torch in the boot," John said. "If you'd waited before taking off like that, I'd 've lit your way."
Walter barely heard him. He was staring at the depression revealed as roughly the shape of a human footprint. But far, far too big. Slowly, Walter spread his hands and held them against the print. And again. His span was approximately eight inches, and the footprint measured nearly four of them.
"My God," he breathed. "It's almost a yard long."
"I know," John said. "Why do you think I asked you to come up to Aldous-on-Huxley?"
The trip back up to the car was easier with the torch, if a little more nerve-wracking knowing that ... thing was out there. Despite pressing, John refused to say any more until they reached the relative warmth and safety of Huxley Hall.
Huxley Hall, like many such, was situated at the end of a long drive, amidst sprawling gardens. Behind it the Dimwitty ancestral lands spread their comparatively meager acreage. Four stories high, the Hall was open to tourists in the summer. There was even a guest wing where they could let rooms, but this late in the year the wing was dark and silent, shutters drawn against the weather. Walter had visited the Hall a few times as a boy, before the shrapnel from the American Patriot missile had sliced his leg from hip to knee. At the time, he'd enjoyed racing up the Hall's half dozen staircases finding various new routes to John's room at the top of the house. Now the thought made him quail. As he pulled up to the main door, John looked over as if reading his mind.
"I've put you in the green suite. It's still up one flight, but I'm afraid there isn't any suitable place on the ground floor."
"It's fine, really; you're quite kind to think of it." It was unlike John to think at all.
"Mother would have my hide if I didn't." John came around and opened his door for him, just as if he hadn't seen Walter running pell-mell down a muddy hillside in the dark. "She's in London, by the way, so no fear of encountering her."
That was some relief, anyway. On the few occasions he'd met Lady Theresa Dimwitty, she'd been overcome with guilt and continually tried to force food and gifts on him. As if the Dimwittys had much beyond their summer rental income and Lord Philip's barrister's salary. Better, he supposed, than an East London flat and a mum on the dole, but not as if it were her fault, was it? Either of them, his mum for getting pregnant at 16, or Lady Dimwitty for being better off.
Inside, the main hall was shabbier than he remembered, though two of the three family servants were the same. Bob Wilson, the groundsman, stayed long enough to mumble the barest of greetings before slipping out to put the car in the garage. The cook, Mary, bobbed as quick a greeting as Wilson had and hurried into the kitchen muttering that it was lunacy for folks to be out in such weather.
"Come along," the only servant he didn't know, a cheerful-looking woman in her mid-twenties, said. "I'm Sally, by the way," she added, leading him up the stairs. "Don't worry about your luggage; Bob'll get it. Is it true you were in the war?"
"Yes." He nodded, hoping his short answer would discourage her.
It didn't. "And wounded, too? And made a knight?"
"Yes," he said again.
She pushed open a door. "Here we are. Lord John says you're to have a bath first, then I'll bring you a hot bite to eat. He'll be joining you in here, if that's all right?" She glanced at him long enough to catch his nod. "I'll start the water, make it right hot, eh?"
"That's all right," he said, "I can..." The gurgling of the tub cut him off.
"Already done!" Sally grinned at him as she came out of the bathroom. "I think it's terribly exciting, you know."
"Why you being lower-class at Oundle and a war hero and all. What a grand life!"
Walter sighed. He ran into a lot of this, but it was still tiring. No use explaining the scholarship had been because of the papers making snide remarks about Oundle's remaining exclusive. Of course, he'd needed the marks to go with it. A pity he hadn't been able to approach Oxford the same way. He'd followed and old English Tradition; there'd been no place for him at Oxford or Cambridge-nor scholarship money at any other university-he'd felt no call for the clergy, so he'd settled on the military. And done rather well there, if he did say so himself. He'd been well provided for, even gotten the education he'd been unable to obtain as a civilian. If only the Army hadn't decided to up and fight a war. What was the world coming to?
Left alone at last, he stripped and sank gratefully into the tub Sally had prepared for him. The scalding water did a lot to ease the ache in his leg, though it made the scar stand out a stark white against his reddening skin. He stayed in a little too long; he could hear someone moving about in the outer room.
Pulling himself out of the tub, he put on the robe hanging on the door and poked his head out. To his relief, there was only John, seated at a laden table in front of a roaring fire. He limped over to join him, trying to ignore the pitying look.
After a moment, John said, "I didn't realize you could walk without the cane."
"Only on even surfaces," Walter said, easing himself into the armchair that had been pulled up to the table.
"Don't be. It was a faulty piece of American equipment, not you." Walter picked up his fork. His plate had already been filled with mashed potatoes and steaming dumplings.
"I mean," John temporized. "I shouldn't..."
"Don't worry about it. I'm getting used to odd looks and questions."
"That's what I mean," John said. "I shouldn't be like that, it's just ... well, I'm curious. I suppose people are? Not that it's their business, or mine, but..."
Walter took a forkful of potatoes. "John, you're babbling."
"Oh, yes, I suppose I am." He looked a little bewildered. "Now what..."
"You were going to tell me about that thing in the woods," Walter prompted. "That's why you sent for me."
"Oh, yes. Quite disturbing, isn't it?" John said. Walter nodded, mouth full of dumpling. They were smothered in gravy, which occasionally boasted actual pieces of chicken. "It's the curse, you know."
Walter swallowed his dumpling. "Curse?" His interest was piqued.
"Yes, quite. We've a family curse, isn't that smashing? I always thought it rather a lark as a lad." John's own plate sat ignored in front of him.
"What does this curse say?"
John frowned. "That's the problem, you see; no one knows."
"No one knows? What the blazes kind of curse is that?"
"Well, if you must know," John said, "it's in Cornish."
"But we're over 100 miles from Cornwall!"
"Yes. Well. In the 10th century, this traveling witch..."
"She must've been some traveler."
"Quite." John glared at him. "Will you let me tell the story, or not?"
"Go on." Walter waved his fork.
"The witch asked for shelter for the night. Now, you understand, there was a different Hall on the same site, and it wasn't as large, but the household was quite a bit larger, so they offered her the hay-byre. She didn't take too kindly to that, got bitten by a rat, and cursed the lot of us."
"Oh, come now. You weren't there."
"No, and I'd always thought, as I said, the curse was a lark. Gave the family some respectability, you know?"
Walter nodded. "Do you have a copy if the witch's curse?"
"Of course. In the family records. Why? You don't happen to read ancient Cornish among your copious other talents?"
"No. But we could go up to Edinburgh. Or to London, perhaps. A University don might be able to puzzle this out."
John blinked. "I never thought of that. I wonder why it's never been done?"
"Maybe it's been tried. Wonder why they wouldn't keep the translation around, though. Still, we've nothing to lose in the attempt." Walter shrugged and returned to his food.
John nodded. "I suppose not. We'll look into it, then?"
"Good enough." Walter poured himself more tea. "About the creature?"
"That's the first I've seen of it," John said. "Though I've heard stories, of course."
"'Of course'?" Walter echoed.
"You know, the usual; creatures of darkness roaming the hills, that sort of rubbish." John shook his head.
"Other people have seen this thing?"