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Once / (by James Herbert, 2001) -

Once /  (by James Herbert, 2001) -

Once / (by James Herbert, 2001) -

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Once / (by James Herbert, 2001) -
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2001
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James Herbert
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Robert Powell
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Intermediate
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14:42:33
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56 kbps

Once / :

.doc (Word) james_herbert-once.doc [3,39 Mb] (c: 10) .
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audiobook (MP3) .


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JAMES HERBERT Once Once upon a .death, when life for Thom Kindred was fading fast and his inner eyes, the eyes that focused from his soul, were already dazzled by the shining way ahead (was the brilliance approaching him, or was he approaching it? he wondered in a curiously detached way), when his scant twenty-seven years apparently were drawing to a close, something occurred that halted the untimely rush. Something, in fact, that not only saved him from death but altered the course of his future life. The stroke was fierce enough to kill him, but when the pain was at its zenith, the blood disruption at its most threatening, the trauma began to subside, to draw back as if chastised by a new light that presented itself, this one golden and fierce; even though small it was certainly strong enough to influence the fine balance between life and death, the line between dissension and submission. Just before crashing the car he happened to be driving at the time, he was suddenly a boy again reliving a child- hood event, an occasion that was too vague to recollect properly and too fleeting to comprehend fully. He felt a great happiness though, and that too was momentary, unlike the headache that had plagued him for two days. A distant impact - a grinding of metal, the shattering of glass - interrupted this unaccountable reverie, then there was silence. And stillness. Save for that second light, the golden one, which swiftly dwindled to infinity like the goodnight spot on an old television screen. Soon all that was left was a void, very black, very deep, but not the least bit threatening . PART ONE In which a young man returns to his childhood home and learns of things he never thought possible. MEET THOM KINDRED HE'D HAD no idea how he would feel returning to Castle Bracken after all these years. How long had it been? Sixteen, seventeen years? Yes, seventeen - he'd been ten years old when they had sent him away to boarding school. One month after his mother's death. Thom used the 'spinner' attached to the Jeep's steering wheel, a device that enabled him to turn the wheel using his right hand only, his left arm still weakened from the stroke - the 'cerebrovascular accident', as the clinically cold medical profession liked to name it. Because the four-wheel drive had an automatic gear shift, he was able to keep his left foot on the metal rest, which came as standard with the model, his stronger right leg doing its job of accelerating and braking. The Jeep swept into a narrow, hedge-lined lane and picked up speed again. How much had changed in his absence? he wondered. Not much, not much at all, he was willing to bet. Certainly not as far as the manor house itself was concerned. Built almost four hundred years ago in the Jacobean period, there had been few renovations carried out since, apart from the usual upgrade of facilities - plumbing, mains electricity, and the like - and certainly no additions, except for the banquet, which was not an integral part of the house but a fancy (there were those who misguidedly called it a folly) which had been erected a mile or two from the mansion in a woodland clearing. Thom wondered how he would feel about Little Bracken, the cottage he had once regarded as his only true home. He'd been away a long time and had changed; from what he remembered of his last visit, so had the cottage. Thom Kindred was twenty-seven years old, lean but not thin, of average height, with thick, tangled mid-brown hair that strayed over his shirt collar at the back. He was blue-eyed and his regular, if not handsome, features were slightly marred by a two-inch scar on his left cheek and another smaller one descending from his lower lip, both wounds sustained in the car crash almost four months before. He had been lucky that the visible injuries were not worse, airbag and seatbelt combining to protect him from serious harm as the car he was driving ploughed into an unoccupied bus shelter. The shelter was demolished, his estate car a write-off; but it was the blood clot in a cerebral artery that might have killed him, for the brain reacts badly to having its blood supply cut off, even temporarily. He was unconscious for sixteen hours, drifting in and out for another ten. When eventually he had properly regained consciousness, his left arm and leg were paralysed and his entire body - not just his head - felt as though it had been pounded by a heavy-duty sledgehammer. The doctors were surprised that he should have suffered a 'haemorrhagic infarction' at such a young age (although they assured him it was not entirely rare), and further surprised there had been no warning (this, they assured him, was not rare at all). Unfortunately, the same doctors could not say whether he would ever walk unaided again, or even if he might regain the use of his left arm and hand, because it would take time to ascertain the damage to brain cells and tissues. Yet he was young and strong, so they remained optimistic. However, for Thom, the wait was frightening; even more so because of his chosen and beloved profession, which required the full use of both hands and arms. Thom Kindred was a carpenter, a master carpenter, you might say, the kind of caring craftsman who would choose his wood by touching it first, caressing its grain with fingertips, by leaning close and smelling its scent, feeling its dampness or dryness, its strength, sturdiness, its suppleness, softness; only then could Thom sense the wood's 'soul'. If convinced of its worth he would cut into it, still testing the quality by the resistance offered, or the compliance accorded. He valued both hardwoods and softwoods equally, for each had their place and applications; he could even be amazed by their contradictions - some conifers, like the Douglas fir or yew, are softwoods, yet they produce a harder wood than many of their opposites, while balsa, the softest of all, is a hardwood. Thom had an affinity with the material he used that usually only came with years, perhaps several decades, of experience (and even so, that was never guaranteed), a kind of synergy that he discovered when he carved his first piece of wood taken from the forest floor when he was six years old. Thom was successful enough to own a workshop situated in a not-yet-fashionable area of north London and he sold exclusively to upmarket stores or individual dealers; he also took on private commissions. Some of his finest pieces had been exhibited in certain art galleries, for his design could be as exquisite as his workmanship. He dealt only in one-offs, nothing was ever reproduced, never made in bulk, and he employed no one but himself, because he was the only person he would trust to carry through his creations with diligence and devotion. He even swept his own floors. Now all this was at risk. The fingers of his left hand had become clumsy and sometimes his whole arm felt numb. He was often exhausted after only mild but prolonged exertion, and each time he suffered a headache he feared the worst. Yet the medics and, latterly, his physiotherapist had insisted that he was lucky, that it wasn't often such swift progress towards recovery was made after an intrusive 'brain attack'. Thom hadn't the knowledge to agree or disagree - what the hell did he know about strokes and their aftermath? He remembered the first few weeks, lying helpless in a hospital bed, his body leaden, his left arm and leg virtually immobile, the frozen numbness of half his face, the incontinence, the slurred speech, the complete exhaustion and confusion; and the indignities - being turned over in bed like a helpless geriatric by brisk nurses, the Convene attached to his penis, there to funnel uncontrolled urine into a plastic bag, the bed baths, and eventually the accompanied trips to the lavatory and the embarrassment of someone watching over him as he defecated. Oh, he'd made good progress for sure, but the fear was always with him, because those same doctors, the neurologists and the haematologists, could not say whether or not another blood clot might form, damming an artery until sheer pressure caused the blood to burst through and flood his brain again, destroying cells and damaging tissues deep inside his head so that this time recovery - any recovery - might be an impossibility. He pushed the dread away and slowed the Cherokee Jeep as a sheep suddenly pushed through a gap in the hedge ahead of him. The animal stopped dead in the middle of the lane when it saw the approaching monster, giving out a startled bleat. 'Yeah, you too, dip-sheep,' Thom replied with a smile, his mood instantly lightening. Years of living in noisy, overcrowded Kentish Town had enhanced his appreciation of the country way of life. He poked his head out of the open side window. Tern gonna move for me?' he called down to the puzzled sheep. 'I'm not backing up, not for you, not for nobody.' The animal casually turned away and began chewing at the hedgerow on the other side of the narrow lane. Thom gave a sharp beep on the horn. In another time he might have left his vehicle to force the sheep back through the gap in the hedge physically, maybe even repair the damage to the shrubbery; but it had been a long drive from London and he was anxious not to exert himself too much, particularly after the repeated cautions of his doctor. He was supposed to be convalescing for the next few months, not pushing the butts of wandering sheep. Easing his foot off the brake, he allowed the automatic gears to roll the Jeep forward. The animal was sideways on to the vehicle, its rear almost half-way across the lane, its other end, the feeding end, still tugging at tiny succulent, summer leaves. Thom applied the slightest pressure to the footbrake, just enough to slow the creeping Jeep even more. At first the renegade sheep refused to get the message, but soon realized a fleecy rump was no match for a ton and a half of moving metal. It shifted position, champing jaws never leaving the food supply (Thom wondered if the creature had eaten its way through the opposite hedgerow), angling its stocky body so that the Jeep could squeeze by without crushing it. You ever heard of road rage?' said Thom, carefully watching the woolly backside below. Not for a moment did the sheep stop chewing. 'No? Well, you're pushing your luck. And by the way, those berries will give you bellyache.' Thom chuckled to himself and brought his head back inside. A chaffinch swooped low into the lane, heading for the windscreen like a kamikaze pilot bent on self-immolation, zooming upwards at the last moment so that Thom almost flinched at the anticipated impact; beyond the hedgerow to his right, two wood pigeons called monotonously to each other; the sweet, chrysanthemum-like scent of the Composi- tae drifted through the windows. It was glorious and he closed his eyes for a fleeting moment to enjoy it all. It was good to be back. Okay, three or four months' convalescence might be too much for him, boredom could set in long before the rest period was over, but right now it felt good, so very good. It was as if the countryside, this Shropshire countryside, was his natural habitat, the mean and grubby city he had left behind a purgatory to be endured while he earned a living, suffered for the love of his craft. Unfortunately, it was a penance to which he would have to return once recuperation was complete. Don't push it too hard, his advisers, professional and otherwise, had warned: recovery, if it was to be, would take its own time and rushing the process might only instigate bodily rebellion, make his condition worse. Unfortunately, insecurity had always been the bug in Thom Kindred's psyche. His life had never been easy for him, at least, not after his mother, Bethan, had died - drowned, they had explained to him, drowned while her mind was 'unsettled'. Suicide had not been mentioned, but when he had grown older and less innocent, he had drawn his own conclusions. With no choice in the matter, because there was no father to take care of him, Thom was shipped off to boarding school in Surrey (not quite as far away as possible, but pretty near so). Even then, Thom was aware that he should have been grateful to his benefactor, Sir Russell Bleeth, father of his boyhood friend Hugo (Sir Russell's other son had been killed in Northern Ireland years before, yet another reason, it seemed to Thom, for the old man's unremitting air of bitter anger), but he wasn't. Instead, he had felt resentment, for he had had no wish to leave Little Bracken, whose isolation was his security, the woodland his playground. The boarding school near Guildford had felt like a prison to him during his first term, with its harsh discipline and strict rules, and it hadn't helped that its inmates initially had not taken to this odd and shy new boy, who apparently had no father - not one that he knew, that is - and who, had it not been for some rich patron, would have been a pauper. (Thom had been a little too honest when answering the questions put to him by inquisitive peers, all of whom seemed to come from wealthy backgrounds; even those whose parents were divorced at least knew who their fathers were. He also had no awareness of society's - particularly that of the young and callow variety - rule that anyone deemed different from itself is treated as an outsider and, in some special cases, as an outcast.) Fortunately, all this changed during the second term when Thom overcame his timidity and stood up to the mob, taking on the worst of his tormentors and acquitting himself very well. It wasn't long before he had made some good friends and, when his prowess on the sports field was discovered, he soon became something of a hero. Those early years of good, healthy country living had left their mark on him. Always running everywhere, unless strolling with Bethan, weaving in and out of trees, constantly scaling the most interesting of them, leaping over fallen lumber or from stone to stone across bubbling streams, had made him agile and quick, as well as endowing him with enduring stamina. Academically, he was no smarter and certainly no dimmer than most of the other kids in his year, but he made another discovery about himself. Often, fee-paying private schools such as his, where selection was not necessarily decided by a child's intelligence, would, in despair encourage some of the less-bright pupils to look towards the crafts, particularly the hard-edged kind such as wood- and metal-work. Parents liked to see at least some result for their hard-earned cash, and if little Johnny could at least make an ashtray or herb rack, then not all was in vain; they could boast that their son's brilliance was on the 'creative' side. Thom realized his true talent lay in working with his hands, particularly in creating things made of wood. Ever since Eric Pimlet, Bracken's gamekeeper and estate manager, had given Thom a whittling knife for his sixth birthday, he had loved carving, shaping things from branches, creating little ornaments, gifts for Bethan. His proficiency quickly earned him more popularity among the other boys, whose skills were less obvious than his; they sought advice or help from him for their own projects rather than seek it from their caustic and impatient woodwork master. Even so, despite his easygoing nature and natural abilities both in sport and crafts, Thom remained something of a loner; one of the gang when it suited him, but mostly a little apart from the crowd. Surprisingly, given his fond memories of Little Bracken, he rarely went to the cottage on his return visits to the estate between school terms, preferring to stay in his allocated room at the Big House, enjoying Hugo's company if his friend was not holidaying abroad somewhere, otherwise entertaining himself designing pieces of contemporary furniture, then attempting to make them using Castle Bracken's empty stables as a workroom and borrowing whatever tools he could cadge from Eric, who also provided him with the wood. Thom had taken the walk to the cottage only once and had been disappointed - no, more than just disappointed; he had been unsettled - by what he had found there, and it had nothing to do with the layers of dust that muted everything inside, nor the cold dank smell of emptiness. It was the absence he found hard to bear, the lack of presence that was not just to do with his mother's death; it felt as if Little Bracken's spirit - its vibrancy, its 'warmth' - had vanished also. Thom had felt a stranger inside its walls, and this had confused him. Worse, it had frightened him too. Once, Little Bracken had been his refuge, his security; now it was a void. When on the occasion of his last visit he had closed the cottage door behind him and strode down the short path of broken flagstones, grass growing through the cracks like inverted tassels, Thom had been sure that he would never again return to Little Bracken. It wasn't far to the estate now. He had reached a T-junction, then turned into a broader road, where traffic was busier and speed appeared to be requisite. Thom was always bemused by the Shropshire countryside - indeed, by most countryside on this little island, England - where one moment a person could feel so isolated they might be the only one left alive on the planet, the next as if a giant curtain had been whisked away to reveal a raging six-lane motorway, or a view over a smoky industrial valley. At least the Bracken Estate was vast enough to convince yourself you really were totally cut off from civilization, and in those deepest parts of the woods you could feel so alone it was scary. Yet over the last few awful months, that was all he had wanted: to be on his own, away from probing medics and bullying nurses, away from well-meaning but tiresome friends and acquaintances who seemed to think that what he needed was good cheer and constant encouragement. He needed to reclaim his strength, regain his vitality, find his life-force again. As he had brooded in his hospital bed, forced into an inactivity that had been alien to him for a long time - since he was a child, in fact - and badly frightened by the shaking suddenness of his invalidism, his thoughts had constantly returned to the only secure home he had ever known (even as a successful craftsman he could only afford to rent apartments in London, never staying in one for long, always becoming discontented after a few months, perhaps even then subconsciously looking for a place where he could feel safe once more). And his dreams, too, always brought him back to Little Bracken. The memory of his last visit had dimmed; the dust left on his fingertips, the emptiness he had felt within the cottage walls, no longer mattered. All he remembered was the fragrant smell of freshly picked flowers, sunlight streaming through open windows, glorifying the flagstone floor. The sound of his mother's soft sweet voice as she sang elegant songs he hadn't heard since. Thom's clear blue eyes swept over the hazy, distant hills and somehow he was reassured by their lack of drama, their very gentleness seeming to mirror the calm that he was already beginning to feel. He passed a wayside inn constructed of limestone and timber, thick, climbing ivy clothing its walls; there were clutches of small cottages, some built with local red brick while others were of limestone and timber, like the inn. On his left, the fields fell away to dingles filled with rhododendron bushes of pink, white and purple; to his right there was only dense woodland, but he knew the entrance to Bracken was not far. Despite the fatigue, his heart lifted. Within moments he had reached the modest lane which, to the casual traveller, might appear to be no more than a small break in the trees bordering one side of the road, for there was no sign to indicate its purpose. It seemed that past masters of the Bracken Estate had favoured seclusion and the present owner was of the same mind. But then, once inside this vast parkland retreat, with its acres of forestry, pastures and lakes, a river meandering through it all, it was easy to appreciate their choice. The estate was a tranquil haven kept secret from a madding and maddening world. He brought the Jeep to a gradual halt and, when the opposite lane was clear, swept into the opening on the other side of the road. He immediately found himself in gloom as the leafy branches stretched overhead to meet one another and provide the narrow lane with its own natural canopy. Woodland scents drifted through the open windows, their blending potent and stirring memories of childhood pleasures, the way such aromas often do. Thom breathed in deeply, flushing the staleness from his lungs, his head becoming slightly dizzy with the rapture. He was nearing home and there was a growing excitement within him. The sun-dappled lane was bumpy, poorly maintained, a further disincentive to the inquisitive uninvited, and Thom happily bounced around in his seat, eyes alert for any small animal or deer that might dart across his path, wary of low branches that might scrape the Jeep's paintwork. He was smiling to himself, occasionally chuckling out loud, enjoying the ride and fully aware that he could have taken the smoother and broader road on the far side of the estate, one used by tradesmen and drivers of larger vehicles, who preferred to use the longer but less rigorous route. There was a rustling in the bushes about fifty yards or so away, probably an animal disturbed by the noise of the Jeep's engine. A sudden, more violent movement, and then something quite large broke loose and dashed further into denser undergrowth. Just before it vanished completely, Thom glimpsed the long, sleek back of a deer and his excitement notched even higher. The arched gateway to the estate proper soon loomed above the trees ahead, its soft red sandstone in harmony with the natural colours around it. As he drew nearer, Thom had the urge to put his foot down on the accelerator, to get through the entrance as quickly as possible lest the old bricks should tumble and fall upon him. It was an odd and irrational fear for, although the structure appeared weatherworn and venerable, he knew it was sound. The gateway was built in an era when longevity was taken seriously, a time when masons and carpenters took as much pride in their work as did the master builders and architects who hired them; the estate's discreet entrance would last as long as the Big House - as a boy, Thom has always called Castle Bracken the 'Big House' - itself, which shared the same materials. Yet the trepidation stayed with him and now he did press hard on the pedal until the Jeep was through. Thom assumed the iron gates themselves had been left open in expectation of his arrival, or that nowadays nobody bothered to close them at all (there was no longer a gatekeeper, Hugo had told Thom on his last visit, and old Eric Pimlet rarely troubled himself with them). He noticed the tall gates were pitted and rusted as he sped by and there was something sad about the neglect; he remembered that twenty years ago these iron gates had always gleamed a shiny black and were always kept locked, stalwart sentinels against the imagined foe without. The ephemeral shadow that fell over the vehicle was so deep that it became night for a second or so. It was instantly chilly too - not just cool, but breath-catchinging icy - and Thom's whole body shivered. Then he was out into the sunlight once more, grassland opening up all around him, the long road, smoother-surfaced now, although still pot-holed here and there, leading straight towards the distant rise on which the Big House stood, its sandstone walls flushed warm by the sun, its edifice somehow inviting on this day. It really did resemble some small but fabulous mediaeval fortress, a splendid refuge inside a wonderful haven. A sanctuary's inner sanctum. Yet Thom frowned as he journeyed down the long road towards Castle Bracken. He felt like the child he had once been again, a little boy who had always been in awe - and in dread - of this fearsome, cold, place. CASTLE BRACKEN AND TWO INTRODUCTIONS THOM KNEW the history of the manor house, this place he both revered and disliked, for his mother, tutor and governess to Hugo Bleeth, had informed both boys of its origins, perhaps at the insistence of Sir Russell, himself; while Hugo's father had never boasted of ancestry, he had seemed keen to instil some idea of lineage and chronology into his remaining son, even though his forebears were not the original owners of Castle Bracken. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, when Shrewsbury Abbey (which owned the land) had been dissolved during the Reformation, Sir Edward Bracken had purchased the estate, passing it on to his son and heir, Matthew, who later commissioned the construction of a large mansion within its grounds. First he engaged a workforce of stone-diggers, masons, carpenters and labourers to prepare the site and the land around it by digging saw-pits, felling timber from the estate's own woodlands, and accumulating stone from a quarry less than three miles away. A local carpenter by the name of John Longford was hired to work with an eminent architect and master mason of the day, Thomas Slingfoot; a frame was built entirely of wood, much of this still in its 'green' state, which made it easier to work with. It took nearly thirty years for the manor house, with its square shape, thrusting turret-like corner bays, advanced centre porch, and parapeted roof, combining deliberately to present a castle-like appearance, to be completed, and by that time Sir Edward and his son, Matthew, had both passed away, leaving the estate to Richard, the latter's eldest. During the two English civil wars, the family remained loyal to Charles I and so suffered under the Cromwellian regime; when Charles II reclaimed the throne, the Brackens' fortunes flourished once more, for the monarchy had become a weakened force; it was the land-owning gentry who were the true victors of the revolution. Richard Bracken, was appointed both Comptroller and Treasurer of the Royal Household and, as such, his influence in court was considerable. The Brackens' wealth and power thrived even more. But for every such politically associated rise, life itself almost inevitably contrives a fall, and the Bracken family was no exception to the general rule. Richard's dissolute grandson, another Edward, scandalized the family name with rumours of his participation in witchcraft, satanic orgies and perverse practices, significantly damaging its reputation and standing at the Royal Court and within society itself. Eventually, Edward, dying of syphilis, passed on the estate to his lunatic son, Thomas, and it was only when his sole heir, a daughter called Elizabeth, married a successful importer of silks and spices from the Far East by the name of Geoffrey Bleeth that good fortune yet again returned to Bracken. The one constant through all the vicissitudes, good and bad, had been Castle Bracken, and the lands surrounding it. Constructed mainly with red sandstone and native timber, it stood solidly symmetrical on a slight rise, formidable in aspect and daunting on overcast days when its stone turned dull and brooding. It rose three storeys high, but located on the flat roof, with its fortress ramparts and terrace, was another floor, much smaller in area, almost a garret, although grander in design and purpose. This in turn had its own roof with ramparts and substantial chimney towers at each corner. The sanguine edifice of Castle Bracken had mellowed even more with time and weather, and was mottled with lighter patches where surfaces had worn away. Several wide grey steps led up to the imposing front door of solid oak that was set into the roof-tall centre porch, and sinuous vines of dead, leafless wisteria crept around it and high up into the stonework above. They should have been cut down long ago, for now they were nothing but naked clinging parasites that refused to give up their host. The many windows, nearly all of equal size, their rectangular frames divided by stone mullions, were dark and impenetrable, as if their glass was a barrier to the sunlight rather than a portal for it to enter. It should have felt like coming home, but it didn't. That, Thom hoped, would come later when he finally reached the cottage. Even before he drew up to the steps, the front door opened and the almost portly figure of Hugo Bleeth was hurrying down, one hand held high in greeting. Thom noticed the shadowy figure inside the doorway behind him and assumed it was Bracken's household servant and, nowadays, general factotum, a frighteningly thin, aloof man who had been with the Bleeth family for as long as Thom could remember. When they were kids, Thom and Hugo had called him 'Bones', but naturally, never to his face for, servant though he might be, there nevertheless had always been a menacing air of superiority about him. Thom! So bloody good to see you,' the Bleeth heir called out as he scurried round to the driver's side of the Jeep. 'So bloody, bloody good!' Thom stuck a hand out through the open window and Hugo took it with relish. Despite the apparent enthusiasm though, the hand Thom held was limp, the palm moist, and it was he who had to pump it. 'Hugo,' he said, his grin wearied by the long journey. 'How the bloody hell are you?' Hugo's eyes, normally protuberant, now looked as if they might pop from their sockets. He had always faintly reminded Thom of Toad of Toad Hall - the enthusiasm, the impatience, and yes, the silliness - and as with Kenneth Grahame's fictional character, there was something immensely likeable about him. Yeah, good,' Thom replied. Hugo regarded him doubtfully. 'Journey not too tiring? You know, you really should have taken the train up from London. Or better yet, I could have sent Hartgrove down in the old Bentley to fetch you. Arrive in style, eh?' Hartgrove - Bones - had stepped from the shadows to appear at the top of the stairs. His cadaverous features remained unmoved as he looked down at Thom, even though they had not seen each other in many years. Thom gave a small wave of his hand through the windscreen, perhaps expecting a warm - all right, a warmish - acknowledgement, but none was forthcoming. Hartgrove - not even Hugo knew his first name - no longer wore the standard butler's uniform of black coat over pinstripe trousers and grey waistcoat that Thom remembered so well - something of an anachronism in this day and age, he considered, and perhaps even then, when Thom was a boy - but instead was attired in a three-buttoned charcoal-coloured suit that appeared just one size too large for him. Even the top of his white shirt collar overlapped where the tie knot squeezed it tight around his scrawny neck. 'Good to see you too,' Thom muttered under his breath. Hugo had already yanked open the Jeep's door and was reaching in to take Thom's elbow. 'Hey, I'm not an invalid,' he protested with a smile. Because he was tired, Thom had to give thought to releasing the steering wheel with his left hand: gripping objects was no longer a problem after months of physical rehabilitation, but sometimes - particularly when he was weary - releasing them could still be something to think about. He eased himself out of the vehicle, allowing his friend to keep his grip on his arm out of appreciation for the concern. Turning back, he pulled a walking-stick from the passenger side. 'Oh no? Not an invalid? So what's this then?' Hugo regarded the cane with undisguised regret in his watery brown eyes. 'Mind you, chum, I expected you to be on crutches.' Thom gave a short laugh. 'Look, I've told you more than once that I'm fine. The first few days after the stroke were tricky - or so they tell me; I was pretty much out of it - but I'm making good progress, and that's official. And don't forget, I've had almost four months of rehab.' Yes, yes, of course. All the same, you're not quite a hundred per cent, otherwise you wouldn't need all this convalescence.' 'Rest, not convalescence. And the stick's only because my left leg gets tired easily and tends to go a bit wobbly.' 'Call it what you like, dear one, but a haemorrhage to the old brain-box is hardly a couple of aspirins and a few days in bed stuff.' Hugo had let go of Thom's elbow and stood with a hand on his hip, one knee bent forward, an effeminate pose he adopted sometimes merely for effect. Even his voice rose a nannyish octave that went with the stance. Thom chuckled. That pose is beginning to look natural on you Hugo,' he warned. But there was nothing prissy about his friend, even though he often enjoyed acting that way. Hugo was just below average height, stocky, with a paunch that was a little more overhanging than the last time Thom had seen it. He remembered Hugo arriving at the hospital a day after the stroke had almost snuffed his light, Hugo with metaphorical cheque in hand ('the very best for you, Thom, the finest specialist money can buy') and a scared, haunted look on his sweat-shined chubby face. His light curly hair -springy, golden locks when he was a boy -- was already thinning, patches of pink scalp showing through like the lighter mottles on the sandstone wall behind him. He wore an unbuttoned camel waistcoat over a pale blue open-necked cotton shirt; red braces supporting grey flannel trousers (Thom caught a glimpse of them every time his friend breathed out and the parting in the waistcoat expanded) that bagged around his ankles. The turn-ups were snaggled over incongruous, stained Timberland boots. The hurried descent of Bracken's stone steps had left him a little breathless and the swollen pouches under his eyes indicated either lack of sleep or too-frequent alcohol binges (he wondered if his old friend was still on the absinthe). Same old Hugo, Thom mused: out of condition, out of style, and probably still out of a proper job. By profession, Hugo Bleeth had been a Lloyd's underwriter, occupying a 'box' at the insurance corporation's Lime Street headquarters until his unwitting (?) involvement in the great mid-eighties insurance scandal had scuppered his career before it had properly begun. Without warning, Hugo threw his arms around him in an embrace that squeezed breath from his lungs. 'So, so bloody good to see you!' he all but exclaimed in Thom's ear. 'I was worried, old mate, I don't mind telling you now. You looked so deathly lying there in the hospital bed. Could hardly believe my own eyes - I mean, when we had our reunion drink the week before, you looked marvellous. Tip-top, in fact.' As his friend prattled on, Thom noticed Hartgrove over Hugo's shoulder: the manservant was staring down at them, face an expressionless mask, but his pale eyes as hard as flint. As a boy, Thom had always been wary of the man - no, he'd been plain bloody frightened of him - with his cadaverous features and long, skinny, dry neck emerging from stooped shoulders, and the dark tones of his uniform, that made him look like some human vulture. Thom always seemed to be catching Hartgrove watching him with those pale, cold eyes, watching him as though resenting his presence in the Big House, this tutor's son, who would have been a pauper were it not for the munificence of his master. Perhaps he had been waiting to catch Thom slipping some tiny ornament or one of Hugo's toys into his pocket. Perhaps he thought Thom might soil the furniture. Despite the passage of time, Thom felt a familiar shiver run through him. With some deliberation, he managed to divert his attention. 'Hey, c'mon Hugo, you're going mushy on me,' he said through tight lips. Hugo immediately broke away and grinned. 'Can't help it. It's just so . so .' 'Bloody good to see me,' Thom finished for him. 'Right.' Hugo lightly punched his shoulder. Thom looked up at the house again, but this time avoiding the gaze of the sombre manservant, who still loitered at the top of the steps. His eyes swept up towards the rooftop and the house, with its dark windows and tall, jutting bays, seemed to loom over him. 'How is he, Hugo?' Hugo glanced back, following Thom's gaze. 'Not so good. Some days Father perks up a little, others . well, other days he seems to sink as far as a person can go without actually dying. Even in these advanced times nothing much can be done for a diseased heart and I'm afraid the trauma of a transplant would kill him off more quickly in his present weak condition. Sod's law, it seems. He's not strong enough to withstand the op, but without it his health will never improve. Perhaps if they'd caught it sooner things might be different. As you know, the old boy has never been in what you might call mint condition, so we failed to notice the change in him right away.' Hugo's voice trailed off as though it was too upsetting to continue. For as long as Thom could remember, Hugo's father, Sir Russell Bleeth, had been a figure to revere. His sharp manner and equally sharp temper had always made the young Thom nervous, and the man's overbearing presence seemed to govern Castle Bracken even when he was absent from the place. The deaths of his first, then second wife, later followed by the loss of his eldest son, who while serving as a British Army officer in Belfast had been blown to pieces by an IRA bomb before Thom was born, may have contributed to his aloofness, but only Hugo would ever talk to Thom of these tragic events; others in the Bleeth employ, including his mother, Bethan, were discreet to the point of secrecy where these tragedies were concerned. Now Sir Russell had an illness that would eventually finish him off and, although Thom had never had any fondness for the man - how was it possible to like someone you feared so much? - he could not help the sadness that spoiled his mood. 'He should be in a hospital, where they can take care of him properly, ease his pain for him.' Thom lowered his gaze to Hugo, who remained looking upwards. You think we haven't tried? He won't leave his eyrie.' Hugo said with such regret in his voice that Thom thought his friend might start to weep. 'Lord knows I've begged him, but, well you know how stubborn he is . He loves it up there because he can view everything he owns right there from his bed. The room was probably designed for that very purpose, just so the original lord of the manor could indulge his own vanity. I never imagined it would become my father's death chamber.' He turned back to Thom and gave a brisk shake of his head as if to shed the mood. 'He moderates the worst of his pain himself with an intravenous morphine drip controlled by a button at his side, but it can do strange things to him. Sometimes he raves or speaks of odd things. He also insists that before he is buried, his throat is cut, just to be sure he's dead. He has a morbid fear of being buried alive.' Hugo shrugged. It's a matter of time, Thom, but let's not dwell on it today. We should be celebrating the wanderer's return.' He managed a smile and allowed his pleasure to reassert itself, a seemingly inherent ability that Thom had often wished he, himself, possessed. 'How about a beer, or something stronger? You must have a thirst after your long drive.' Thom didn't like to tell his friend that following his stroke he had lost much of his appetite for alcohol. Thanks, but no,' he said, clasping Hugo's shoulder with an appreciative hand, anxious not to offend. Td kinda like to get to the cottage and settle in. We can catch up tomorrow.' 'Or later tonight?' Hugo suggested hopefully. We'll see. I'm not quite up to strength yet and as you say, it's been a long drive.' Well. okay. But at least let me get Hartgrove to drive you over and help you unpack.' Thom glanced at the manservant, who still watched from the top step. You kidding?' They both grinned at each other knowingly. You know what I'd really like to do?' Thom said. Td like to walk from here. It's funny, but that was all I dreamt of when I was laid up in hospital, recovering from the.' he hated the word '. from, the, uh, stroke. I just wanted to stroll through the woods again, you know? Come up on the cottage as I remembered it.' 'Alone?' Thom nodded. 'Understand perfectly, old son. If that's your wish .' There was no direct road suitable for vehicles to Little Bracken; to take the Jeep would mean going back to the main road and finding the rutted track that led directly to it. 'Leave the Jeep and I'll get old Eric to drive it over later. It'll give you time to get used to the place again.' Eric Pimlet along with Hartgrove and Mrs Boxley, the cook who came in once a day from the nearby village of Much Beddow to serve lunch and evening meals, were the manor house's only permanent staff; gardeners and cleaners were employed on a once-a-week basis nowadays. 'It'll be good to see old Eric again,' Thom said. 'I'm sure he'll be pleased to see you, too. Now look, I've had your larder filled with essentials, plus a few goodies you'll like. And someone will pop over from time to time to help keep you stocked up. Unfortunately, I haven't had the phone line switched back on yet, but I can' 'No need.' Thom patted a jacket pocket. 'I've got my mobile.' 'Hmm . reception's not always that good in this part of the world, but I can get Eric to look in on you every morning.' 'Not necessary, Hugo. I'll be fine - honestly. The doctors haven't quite given me the all-clear yet, but they're amazed at my progress. Besides, I'll have a physio working me over three times a week in the cottage to make sure I get back to strength. A kind of buy-your-own-torture scheme that the doctors insist upon.' "Well, if you're sure .' 'Hugo, believe me, I am.' Thom reached out to his friend's shoulder again. 'Listen, you've been great. You know I appreciate all you've done.' Hugo's face reddened and for a second or two his already watery eyes became even more liquid. He cleared his throat and looked towards the distant woodlands. 'Don't mention it, Thom,' he said, a little hoarsely. We've been pals a long time .' He left it at that and Thom grinned. Who else would put up with you?' Thom said, dropping his hand away. He, too, looked towards the lush woodlands in the distance. 'Best be on my way. I've been looking forward to this.' 'I can imagine, laid up in hospital like that. You still love the old place, don't you, Thom?' He hesitated. 'I'm not sure if that's true. There was a time when I hated it.' "When Bethan .? Hugo brought himself to a halt. Insensitive though he could be sometimes, even Hugo understood how hard the premature loss of his mother had hit Thom all those years ago; so hard, in fact, the grief had not yet faded entirely. He reached into his trouser pocket and drew out a long, worn iron key, which he thrust at Thom. Its rounded head was made up of three simple, flat circles resembling a metal shamrock. The bit was hidden behind Hugo's fleshy fingers, but Thom easily remembered the solid plain pattern of its ward cuts. Thom reached for the key and, as he did so, felt a frisson of . of what? He couldn't be sure. Excitement? Yes, there was that, but there was something else also. Relief? Yes, that too. But this, paradoxically, was mixed with . it couldn't be fear, could it? No, not quite that. Apprehension was more correct. For just a moment, he had experienced a fluttery nervousness in his stomach, paranoid butterflies with hard-edged wings. Could he really be nervous of going back to the home he had loved so much as a child? Was it the thought of its emptiness, the absence of the mother he had lost so many years ago? Since the illness Thom had realized that his emotions were more frail, that tears seemed never far away, and he had assumed it was because of a barely suppressed self-pity. Well, maybe it was exactly that. Yet this . this apprehension . seemed to emanate from outside himself, as though it tainted the very air between the two outstretched hands. Then he had the long key in his palm and the disquiet dissolved, was merely a passing sensation. The key seemed to become warm against his flesh as he looked at it and something inside him . his spirit? . lifted once more. Bemused, he smiled at Hugo. 'It's good to be back,' he said. And at that time, he honestly meant it. A WALK THROUGH THE WOODS HE WALKED away from the Big House, descending the gentle slope to the wide path that led towards the river and concentrating on keeping his left foot from turning inwards, another symptom of the damage he had suffered. At this stage, his walking-cane was merely a prop; before he completed the journey to the cottage, however, and his left leg was even more wearied, it would become a necessity. Half-way down the hill he turned to see Hugo still watching him, hands in his pockets, the distance too far to read his expression. He waved the stick and his friend raised an arm to wriggle his plump fingers in response. Thom's smile faltered when he noticed Hartgrove - Bones - remained by the front door, as still and watchful as a black bird of prey. Jesus, what was it about the man that made his flesh creep? Was it the incident in the cellar? Was that why he still had nightmares about the man? With an effort, Thom dismissed the manservant from his mind and went on his way. He soon reached another path that entered a leafy tunnel and that would take him to the old stone bridge crossing the river. A coolness settled over his shoulders, the sun's rays barely penetrating the thick ceiling of leaves; a breeze came off the fast-flowing river to meet him. Once, long ago, he had relished the sudden drop in temperature when his mother had brought him across the great sunshine-filled meadow (didn't the sun always shine its hardest when you were little?) from the opposite direction, where she had pointed out insects and grey butterflies barely visible to the human eye, flowers with exotic names, and even animal droppings, evidence of creatures who preferred to hide from view; now though, the coolness was almost unpleasant, for it seemed to freeze the perspiration on his brow, and today the river sounded angry rather than swift. The short straight bridge had been built from greystone soon after Castle Bracken was finished, and the mortar had become either crumbly or filled with moss; a greenness tainted the stone, deeper near the water that rose and faded wash-like as it reached the jutting parapet. Thom paused towards the middle and peered down into the agitated foam below, its rush caused by a sudden dip in levels beneath the dark arch itself, a singular rapid that increased the river's flow. He thought of the many times he and Bethan - how his heart softly ached for her - had lingered at this same spot as she had dropped a leaf or small twig into the froth and they had watched it being washed downstream, a fragile craft tossed and swirled by the currents, Thom laughing and pointing a finger, Bethan smiling indulgently. He smiled now, seeing in his mind's eye the valiant little vessel fighting against the bullying waters, bobbing to the surface again and again every time it was immersed, finally becoming too far away to see any more. The air was always damp here on the bridge no matter how bright the sun, invisible droplets of moisture filling the shade offered by the trees and shrubbery on either bank. Indeed, long twisting branches reached across the river to meet their counterparts on the other side, leafy fingers intertwining so that the span was in a permanent gloom, even the winter sun finding it difficult to penetrate the naked but dense interlacing. Pushing himself away from the wall by his elbows, Thom moved on, following the wide track through the wooded area on the far side of the bridge, the sound of the river's flow receding behind him, the air gradually warming with each step he took until the trees ended and he was confronted by a rickety wooden gate and fence. The barrier was there to keep in the deer, a few horses, and other, less obvious, animal Me that wandered or skipped the meadows and pastures beyond. The gate was kept shut by a simple but heavy metal latch. Again he lingered, taking time to view the broad expanse of coarse, browning grass beyond, searching towards the thick fringes of woodland on the other side, and his spirit lifted afresh, something within escaping its shell to soar high into the deep summer sky. His smile became a grin and his breath became an appreciative murmur. He quickly pressed down on the latch, leaning hard to disengage it, and then he was through, carefully closing the gate after him. Wary of the grass snakes that always appeared to be in abundance in this particular field, he strode purposefully into the longish grass, walking-stick held under his arm, his leg steady enough. He suddenly felt happier than at any other time since the stroke, including when he had received the good news that, if he was careful - cut out the smokes, easy on the booze - and if he obeyed and worked with the therapist, then there should be no recurrence, he would be just fine. Thom felt oddly unburdened, as free as he had been as a boy, chasing through this same meadow, clapping his hands and giggling at butterflies or startled rabbits, his mother's caring eyes on him at all times. Perhaps he sensed that same protection now; maybe he was reminded of a glorious era when he was cherished and guarded, when he was invincible against the bad things; a time when his soul was light and his mind untroubled, his young body bothered neither by weakness nor pain. It stayed with him for a while, this dreamy glow; stayed with him until he approached the woods and his leg began to ache. It was as if he were entering another world, a hushed world, a world that was shaded and cool, shafts of sunlight angling through its twilight in long, shimmering beams, the silence only occasionally interrupted by a falling branch somewhere out of sight, or a rustle of undergrowth as some hidden animal, aware of his presence, broke for home. Thom followed the path he and Bethan and all past visitors to Little Bracken, from one century to the next, had taken. There were other paths running through the woods, not as obvious as this one, and as a boy he had explored most of them; he wondered now how many such tracks had been lost to time and neglect, untrodden and so reclaimed by the forest. Did any one walk these woods anymore? Who would bother unless they knew of its 'magic', the serenity within? But then, who would have access anyway? Eric Pimlet, of course; it was part of his job. But Thom could not imagine old Bones venturing into such wilderness. Nor Hugo - certainly not Hugo. No nature-lover he, nor one to enjoy strenuous exercise - any exercise, for that matter. And Sir Russell had been too frail for years and was now too ill. It was a waste and a shame; but he was glad, for it meant that the little kingdom belonged to him alone. Thom was aware that this was a fancy, but the notion was not new to him, it was something in which he had always indulged since the early days of running through the trees, surrounding himself with imaginary friends, invisible beings who were never too tired or too busy to play. Even then he was aware that he was considered an odd, solitary child, whose only real companion was Hugo Bleeth. But Hugo was older and under Bethan's tutelage; he was also the boss's son and Thom had constantly been reminded he was to be treated as such (though never by Hugo, himself). But Thom - and his mother - knew better. He had never been lonely here, not when imagination and fantasy were his true friends. Or perhaps, his mentors. It was they who had given him a Me that was far from empty, a time when his thoughts were boundless, his imageries true. And the woodland, itself, had invoked its own treasures, mind treasures, which could be explored and experienced, and relished and owned. For an instant - and only an instant -the childhood memories became a reality, became now, and he felt the same excitement, the same soaring blissfulness that could only come from a special kind of innocence and a willingness to believe. A nightingale, singing somewhere deep within the woods, diverted his attention for a moment and the sweet call was not an interruption to his thoughts but somehow an endorsement of the remembered happiness. Thom listened a while, then pressed on, even keener to reach his old home. He passed by shade-loving flowers along the side of the trail, sanicle, archangel, yellow pimpernel, flora that usually waited for late summer to bloom, but here - as ever - they had arrived early. He heard the low pitch of warblers singing to each other, while a blackcap swooped down into a glade off to his right, disappearing briefly into a tangle of hawthorn and rooting around until it found the insect noticed from the air. A flurry of wings took the bird back above the treetops. Because of his profession, Thom took a more than usual interest in the trees themselves, noting their condition, their texture and robustness, the slight 'sheen' of the silver birch, taking pleasure in naming aloud each variety. He came upon a huge oak, one easily remembered because of its age and sheer scariness. Its gnarled bark seemed to contain images, carvings that were not quite discernible but that resembled grotesque, twisted figures and tortured faces; its great thick branches spread outwards as if ready to grab anything that might pass by. To allay his fear, Bethan had explained that such ancient trees were invaluable in nature, for they supported the perfect Me cycle: their leaves, bark, acorns eaten by animals and insects, which in turn were prey to others; their remains passed on as droppings or simply discarded to be broken down by bacteria and so replenishing the earth itself. A fine system, unless you were first in the chain. The big old oak also provided the perfect home for small creatures - animals, insects and birds - who lived inside the trunk or the deep channels of its bark, or simply nested among the boughs. He went on, delighting in the colours along the way, their random display exhilarating, the perfumes almost intoxicating, and, for a time, the trauma of the last few months was completely forgotten. But soon - too soon - his aching leg began to weary and a numbness began to spread down his arm like a creeping frost. Thom knew he was abusing his weakened body, ignoring the doctors' advice to take things easy for a while, to exercise every day but not to overdo it; and after months of therapy, he still needed time to build up his strength and impatience could be his worst enemy. That very day he had driven all the way from London and, although the left side of his body had barely come into play, the journey had taken its toll. Then to walk from the Big House to the cottage (not on a whim, it had to be said, but on a self-promise) might have been pushing himself too far. Nevertheless, he did not regret his decision, even if his breathing was becoming a little laboured and he had consciously to lift his left foot from the ground, a sweat beginning to break out on his forehead once more: the air was too fresh and scented, the forest and its flora too beautiful, for him to worry over fatigue and physical discomfort. In a clearing ahead he saw the jagged trunk of a tree that had been struck by lightning, its base still firm in the ground but rising like a blackened spire pointing darkly towards the sky. The top half lay by its side, leafless branches withered and dry. There were other fallen trees in the forest, but this one struck Thom as particularly unsightly, as though the drama of its felling had left its sickly aura. He wondered if he bore a similar aura, the suddenness and fierceness of the attack on his own body similar in its way to the lightning strike on the tree. No. He was still alive and the tree was dead. Such comparison was as foolish as it was self-pitying. He shrugged off the idea, only too aware of his persistently delicate emotional state. Leaf mulch beneath his feet softened his footsteps, yet still his left leg seemed unusually heavy. The cane's tip sank further into the earth each time he leaned on it, an indication of his increasing dependency. When he spied another toppled tree trunk close by the path, this one nothing more than a thick log obviously undisturbed for many a year, the scars where branches had been lopped off covered by lichen, he decided to rest awhile. Trudging through long grass, he made his way over to the natural bench and sat down. The faint challenge of a cuckoo came to him from somewhere in the heart of the woodland. A breeze shifted through leaves overhead. Something small, perhaps an acorn from a nearby oak, dropped to the forest floor, the sound soft but singular in the near-silence. And then another noise, one he did not recognize, as faint as the cuckoo's call, yet closer. Thom held his breath and listened. Was it in his own imagination? It wasn't the common sound of the forest, it was neither a bird, nor an animal - yet inexplicably, it seemed natural enough to the environment. The noise stopped, but he continued to hold his breath. It began again, a soft. whistling. A high-pitched, almost gentle . whistling-ringing. He turned towards the sound, puzzled, expectant, and saw nothing. That is, he saw nothing unusual. The woods were perfectly still. Normal. The queer yet sweet whistling-ringing persisted, but he could not recognize its source: it was somehow melodious, but with no fixed tune, like tiny faraway wind chimes caught in a draught. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. And yet . and yet it seemed familiar to him, as though it might have originated from some forgotten dream. Then it occurred to him that this was not a noise at all, but some kind of weird, unreal tintinnabulation that emanated from within his inner ear, a sensation rather than a real sound. Another belated surprise thrown at him by the stroke, blood-flow through the ears distorting the vibrations that are turned into the electrical impulses we know as sound? It wouldn't have surprised him - it wouldn't be the last nasty shock the illness had in store for him, no matter how well he was progressing, he was sure of that. He mentally kicked himself. Give it up, he silently chastised, you can't blame everything on the stroke. Some things in Me just happen naturally, and with no dire consequences. A peculiar whistling-ringing in his ears was nothing to get stressed about. It would pass. How many times in his life had he thought he'd developed tinnitus before, only for it to disappear again in less than a minute? Then a strange thought occurred and he had no idea where it had sprung from: maybe this noise was something that connected with the subconscious before it reached the conscious; maybe it was only a vibration that gave off a peculiar sound. For some reason, the theory was perfectly rational to him at that moment. Even so, it had to have a source. Eyes narrowing, he peered into the thicket from where the - now he had no idea of what to call it, so settled for his first recognition - the whistling-ringing appeared to emanate. It could have been in his own mind, or a breeze might have been the cause, but were the leaves shivering? Remaining on the log, he leaned forward and realized that they truly were disturbed and in a way that no air current could sustain, for the thicket quivered in a regular rhythm while nothing else in the area moved at all. The first of the tiny lights appeared. Initially, he reasoned that they were fireflies, but common sense and country wisdom told him that such creatures were only visible at twilight or night-time; besides, such insects were more prevalent on the Continent that in England, so it would have been a doubly rare occurrence. And anyway, the many glows from these lights were different from anything he had ever before witnessed. They seemed to range through an unusual spectrum, from bright silver to violet, from white to pale green, iridescent and twinkling as though their image could not be maintained; nor did they move in the way insects might, for their flight was swift and smooth, but by no means erratic. Thom realized he was still holding his breath and he let it go in one long astonished rush. Even from this distance and in bright sunlight - the thicket stood in the centre of the glade - the dancing lights sparkled. There were at least five - no, six, no, now there were seven of them - and they winked in and out of his vision, little glimmerings as bright as diamonds and looking as delicate as snowflakes. Forgetting his heavy leg and numbed arm for the moment, he slowly began to rise, afraid any sudden movement might frighten these skittish creatures away - or spoil the illusion, for an illusion they might well be. But still they flitted in and out of the leaves, occasionally alighting on one as an insect might rest on a smooth surface. Cautiously, taking each step with great care, he moved towards the phenomena, his breath held once more within a tight chest. The sounds (for he suddenly understood that there were many high-pitched whistling-ringings making up the whole) were the equivalent of the collective hum of bees, and the colours had become even more diverse - blues, yellows, greens, purples and red, all dazzling to his eyes. He thought they might be some minute and uncommon breed of luminescent butterfly, but the shapes were too indistinct and swift to tell. Their noise became a light but busy clamour inside his head as amazement gripped him. His gaze became intense, his footsteps faltered . He hadn't noticed the rut in the ground, its edge raised only slightly but enough to catch his left foot, which by now had become difficult to raise without conscious effort. He stumbled forward, his weakened leg giving way, the cane unable to help him keep his balance. Thom fell, landing on hands and knees on the mulchy forest floor, mercifully unhurt, but with the wind knocked from him in a surprised cry. When he raised his head again to look, the thicket was just a thicket, the leaves empty and unmoving in the sunlight. The images were gone. And so was the sound. LITTLE BRACKEN THE BLUEBELLS were a surprise. Normally they would bloom from late April to early June, but here they were in late July, stretching across the path that had widened into a sun-dappled clearing. Thom scarcely wondered about the late blooming, for he could only gaze towards the building beyond. Little Bracken, standing in the centre of the glade, was just as he remembered, a sandstoned, octagonal-shaped, two-storey building, a turret - this, too, eight-sided - rising beside it, pointed bell-tower at its top like an open umbrella beneath a clear blue sky. This turret would have been a ridiculous appendage to such a small building had it not been skilfully integrated into the whole structure and made from the same red sandstone, the square, leaded windows with frames of grey stone copying those of the main section. It was as if the architect responsible for the grim Castle Bracken had decided to design its very antithesis, a glorious summerhouse (or folly) that resembled a miniature faerytale castle. Towards the late sixteenth century such banqueting towers, built at a distance from the main house, were extremely popular among wealthy landowners, and Sir Edward Bracken had been no exception to the trend: he had commissioned Little Bracken for the purpose of entertaining guests after their main meal at Castle Bracken, having them driven to the summerhouse by coach or, if the weather was clement, encouraging them to make the journey on foot (what better way to renew the appetite for the treats to come?), there to indulge in desserts usually comprising sweetmeats, fancy sugar moulds, fruits, and spiced wines. Afterwards they might take in the panoramic views over the woodland from the banquet's flat, balustraded roof. It was rumoured that in later years, various lords of the manor kept their mistresses at Little Bracken, away from their poor long-suffering, yet mostly resigned, wives, out of sight, but close enough for frequent visits. Latterly, estate workers had used the place as a tied cottage, but then it had lain empty for many, many years until Bethan Kindred, tutor to Sir Russell Bleeth's somewhat dim-witted youngest son, Hugo, had taken up residence, eventually giving birth to her own son there. Memories flooded back to Thom as he stood there and were almost overwhelming: skipping ahead of Bethan through the little flowerbeds either side of the short, flag-stoned path, laughing as she called out to him to wait for her, he might get lost (even though she knew he would never lose himself in this beloved woodland that he knew so well). He recalled the animals - deer, squirrels, rabbits, and even shy hedgehogs - that would wait by the front door or beneath a window, lingering there until receiving a scrap of food or just attention; the birds that settled on the windows-ills and doorstep, chirping for cake crumbs and pieces of bread. Thom felt suddenly dizzy as the thoughts assailed him. Dark winter nights, huddled around an open log fire, front scorched, back frozen, while his mother read adventure stories or told him of nature, sometimes explaining the ways of a puzzling world or just singing simple songs in her sweet soft voice; answering all his questions, save one -the mystery of his absent father; acting out little plays to each other, playing charades, giggling over silly verses and rhymes. The memories came, faster and faster, little snatches, picture snippets, all joyful but none staying long in his mind. He saw faces, always fleeting, never focused long enough to register, and there was merriment and laughter, all the things that were good, so that a warm flush filled his body, touched his heart. He reached out and held a branch to steady himself as more and more thoughts threatened to engulf him and his head began to spin. The sensation soon passed, leaving him to wonder at the mental barrage and its effect; maybe physical tiredness had made it difficult for his brain to cope with the overload. He needed to rest, catch his breath again. He needed to calm himself. Leaning heavily on the cane, he approached Little Bracken, glancing up at the rooftop as he did so. He had the feeling of being observed, so was not surprised to see the magpie watching him from the thick rail of the stone parapet. Thom had never warmed to the crow family as a species, but for some reason among them he particularly disliked the magpie, despite its sleek shape and beautiful black and white plumage and the glossy tail that in certain lights shone like a rainbow. The magpie had always been regarded as a bird of bad omen by countryfolk who, on sight of one - 'one for sorrow, two for joy' - would spit three times over their right shoulder and say: 'Devil, Devil, I defy thee.' All nonsense, the towny in Thom told himself, yet he still felt uneasy under its black-eyed gaze. Perhaps it was because he knew there was something devious about its kind, who stole eggs from other birds and sometimes took away the nestlings. Thom approached the big, green-painted door to the cottage, a stained and rusted (and rarely used in his childhood because the door was always open in daytime) bell on the wall next to it, reaching into his jacket pocket for the long key that Hugo had given him as he did so. It lay heavy in the palm of his hand and felt warm to the touch, as though the heat of the day had seeped through the material of his jacket to take the chill from the metal. Holding the flat shamrock-shaped head between thumb and crooked finger, he pushed it into the door's lock and turned it to the right. Nothing happened. It felt as if the key were in a void, an empty space that offered no resistance, the long shaft turning effortlessly but uselessly. Round, and round again; the lock did not catch, the door did not open. Thom withdrew the key and stared at the bit as if it might reveal the problem. He tried the lock again. And felt heat run through the warm metal into his fingers, then up as far as his wrist. The bit caught, the catch clicked. The door opened. It opened smoothly. No creaks, no expected squealing of rusty hinges. A nice, easy movement, as if the painted oak door were gliding weightlessly on oiled bearings. A stale and malodorous wave of air swept past him as though it had been waiting centuries to make its escape, rushing out into the freshness behind him, submission to something purer the price of release. Thom stepped back, an involuntary reaction to an unexpected and physically intangible pressure. The stink of decay and waiting was quickly gone, the remnants chased away by the sweet air that now wafted through the open doorway. Its fresh, scented breath revived further childhood memories, for the smell, itself, was part of his childhood: nature's own fragrance, a hint of Bethan, the aroma of a house filled with wild flowers and traces of other, unnanieable balms and bouquets. But this time, mindful of the dizziness before, he did not allow such tumbling thoughts to occupy his mind: he confined them to distant quarters. Thom took his first step for many a year inside Little Bracken, pausing a while on the threshold, leaning forward and quickly scanning the interior as if expecting to find some biding intruder inside. He saw the oak table in the middle of the room, its sturdy legs and round top etched with marks and writing that Bethan had encouraged the young Thom to make, for they - the scratched names, dates, even the games such as hangman and noughts and crosses, together with little clumsily rendered drawings - gave the wood an extra dimension, turned it into a receptacle for Thom's earliest energies, his imagination, his raw but enthusiastic carvings, such efforts absorbed by grain and fibre and sealed within to create a scrapbook of scratchings, a wooden time-capsule of early impressions. He ventured further into the room to stand immobile, as if in awe, taking it all in: the large, pine dresser pressed against the whitewashed wall to his left, its long shelves bereft of the delicately patterned crockery he remembered so well, now replaced by plain, functional plates and dishes and an equally plain set of cups and saucers. A couple of striped mugs provided the only colour. The black, iron range that had once served as oven, grill, hotplate - even though there was an elderly, enamel-chipped electric cooker standing at the end of kitchen units almost opposite - and fireplace was set into the broad soot-stained chimney-breast, metal saucepans and other cooking utensils cluttering its shadowed top. (He noticed that the fire had been laid with kindling and small, chopped logs, presumably by old Eric, who in the past had always taken a reserved but kindly interest in the welfare of the boy and his mother. A dusty bucket of slow-burning coal rested in the hearth itself.) The bookshelves on either side of the chimney-breast, built into the slants of the octagonal-shaped walls with timber from the forest were filled with weary-looking titles that mostly had to do with nature and gardening, poetry and travel books; the lower reaches, however, were stacked with tales of adventure and olden-time chivalry, while at the very top were ancient leather-bound editions, dreary-looking tomes that had no appeal to a young boy who could not even reach that high. The deep, old-fashioned porcelain sink, beneath one of the arched windows that framed the woodland beyond, was big enough for him to have been bathed in when he was very small, solid enough for him to have stood in and flannelled himself down when he was a little older, the makeshift tub filled with water from saucepans warmed on the nearby range. (With regard to at least some modernity, an electric water-heater had been fitted over the wooden draining board, its thin, metal arm and spout swung over the sink itself, and he fondly remembered the day it had been installed, his and Bethan's delight at their bold advance so late into the twentieth century. Now he wondered at how sparse their living conditions had been - and how gloriously cosy they were.) He was still smiling as he took in more details, finding himself both amused and bemused. No central heating here; no TV, either, just an elderly radio that had hissed and squawked with atmospherics (atmos-hysterics, Bethan had called them). And no telephone for a long while, no car (shopping meant a bus ride into Much Beddow), and scarcely any money (Bethan's tuition fees for Hugo had been minimal, for Sir Russell considered rent-free accommodation plus the bird and rabbit regularly shot and delivered by Eric Pimlet added to the weekly wage as remuneration enough). Yet the penury, if it could be called that, hardly mattered - no, it mattered not at all. They had been happy together, Thom and his mother, and although he had sometimes seen sadness in her face, a sudden unannounced melancholy in her eyes, most of their days had been filled with the magic of their environment and the simple pleasure of being alive. They were wonderful, safe times, when love and isolation had been both his security and his sanctuary. How cruel then, when it was all snatched away. Thom's expression darkened and he immediately pushed this last potentially lachrymose thought away: he'd endured enough self-imposed self-pity over the past few months to last a lifetime. Time to move on, live for today. Then why the return to Little Bracken? He straightened his shoulders. To convalesce, why else? And to get some of that happiness back into his Me. He smiled again, turning around on the quarry-tiled floor, muddied boots scuffing the stone, taking it all in one more time. It was beginning to work already. Joy was soaking through his very skin; a lightness was filling his whole being. Thom stopped turning and closed his eyes. He allowed the relief to flood his senses. Using his right hand, he lifted the iron latch to the interior door, this one as big as the front door itself, although unpainted, the grainy wood unpolished and interesting. The staircase beyond spiralled round the interior of the stunted tower that gave the cottage its unique appearance. It wound its way up to a landing outside the cottage's single bedroom before continuing another flight to the door that led out on to the flat lead-covered roof. The space at the foot of the stairs contained a broom closet which also housed an electric meter and small boiler. Next to this, a tiny combined bathroom and toilet, whose tub, were fitted in directly beneath the winding stairs, was only long enough to sit upright in; a small basin with mirror above took what little room was left. Thom peeked in, pulling down on the hanging switch as he did so. The little room was filled with light, the abrupt environmental change paralysing a huge black spider that had found itself trapped in the bathtub. Even though his earliest years had been spent in the countryside where insects and spiders were part of everyday life, Thom could not help but shudder. He hated the buggers. Hated their long spindly legs that ran so scaringly fast, hated their furry bodies and malevolent eyes. Hated them for the evil thoughts he always imagined they were thinking. In disgust and, he had to admit to himself, in fear, he reached for both taps and turned them on, then quickly grabbed the new-looking plastic lavatory cleaner someone had thoughtfully provided for his visit. He used the bristled end to push the spider into the whirlpool around the bath's plughole. The spider desperately tried to swim for it, but it was quickly sucked into the miniature maelstrom. To Thom's dismay, however, it was too big to be flushed through the gaps in the outlet's ring. The spider's cotton-thin legs scrabbled at the edges as its body wedged into one of the openings and irrationally - God, he knew he was being stupid - the sight caused him to panic. He had only meant to wash the spider away and prevent its return by placing the chained rubber plug on the outlet, but now he had to beat at the wriggling creature and push it through and the very thought made him feel physically sick. 'Wuss,' he accused himself and jabbed at the struggling spider with the brush. He fancied the creature was screaming, calling up at him to stop, please, leave me alone, I'm only little, and cursed his own overcharged imagination. He paused from the pounding to turn the taps full on, intent on drowning the bloody thing if it wasn't already crushed to death, poking with the brush again and again until the soft, pulpy mess suddenly disappeared from view into the pipe, one of its black legs remaining stuck (or clinging?) like a pubic hair to the metal ring around the hole. To his relief, the stubborn limb soon followed the mashed body and Thom quickly hung the plug above the swirling water, then let it drop home lest the crushed spider minus one leg miraculously rise up again against the deluge. 'Bloody hell.' he whispered to himself as he leaned back against the bathroom wall, shaken by and ashamed of his panic. It was only a defenceless spider whose long skinny legs made it appear larger than it really was. What the hell was wrong with him? He was supposed to be a grown-up now, not some snivelling kid afraid of creepy-crawlies. No other such creatures, insects or beasts, had unduly disturbed him as a child - not even the occasional rat that might find its way into the house - but there had always been something about spiders that had turned his legs to jelly and sent his heart racing. His mother had often patiently explained that every creature had its part to play in nature, none of less value than the next, but the young Thom had never been truly convinced. Spiders had always remained abhorrent to him. He shuddered as he peeped over the edge of the bath, half-expecting to find the rubber plug wobbling in its metal setting as thin spider's legs pushed through from underneath . Jesus, cut it out! Over-tired and over-wrought, he told himself. Get a grip. Replacing the makeshift plastic bully-stick, he backed out of the bathroom, still eyeing the puddle of brownish water at the bottom of the tub, heart skipping a beat when a single air bubble escaped the side of the plug. The plug remained firmly in place though. At another time he might have smiled at his own nervousness, but today wasn't the day: he was too vulnerable, his homecoming was too emotional. He closed the bathroom door and began to climb the creaky wooden stairs, his left hand brushing over the newel post, the thick trunk around which the staircase spiralled. More memories came with the touch and in his mind he was a child again, in a time when his knees rose high to mount the steps that were thin at one end, broad at the other, his small hand pressed against the circular newel for balance, his head tilted upwards to look into the shadows above: on the first floor landing, the door leading off to the bedroom he had shared with his mother, as big and sturdy as the two below, as if they all had come as a job lot; the leaded window set high in the curved wall, too high for him to look through unless he was on the stairs just past it, always a pot of bright seasonal flowers or a plant sitting on its oak sill. There were no flowers and no plant there now, just an empty vase, one that was unfamiliar to him. He could see through the window as soon as he reached the first step beneath it. The bedroom door was already open and he peered in without entering, noting that this, too, had hardly changed: the same oak four-poster bed, large enough to accommodate himself and his mother, the dark brown sideboard with separate mirror on top that served as a dressing-table for Bethan, the stone fireplace with its heavy duty wooden lintel, the six-panelled windows on three of the angled walls, these too, leaded, their number ensuring the room was always bright, even on the dullest of days. He didn't linger too long, for it was the rooftop with its panoramic views over the surrounding woodland that he wished to revisit most of all. There were even more cracks and holes in the stair-boards than he remembered, some of those holes as large as old penny pieces, and he recalled shining torchlight down them all those years ago. Somehow the beams had never been able to penetrate the seemingly endless darkness, even though the backing board could not have been more than a foot away. It was eerie then, the thought of it eerie now. Yet that kind of thing had been part of Little Bracken's fascination: its warmth in summer, when doors and windows could be left open all night, its winter coldness; its security and sometimes - only sometimes - its bleakness; its interesting nooks and crannies, built-in cupboards and bell-less belltower, places where a little boy could play hide-and-seek with an indulgent mother. Then there were the mysterious scrapes and bumps late at night, the distant yet somehow close-by sounds that would wake him from sleep, or interrupt one of Bethan's night-time stories as he lay by her side in the broad four-poster bed they shared, noises that would cause his eyes to widen and his shoulders to stiffen. Always his mother would give a little laugh at his fear, or perhaps just smile as she cuddled him close and told him there was never, ever, anything to be afraid of, not in this place, and not with her beside him. And sometimes, when he pulled away to look at her face for extra reassurance, her soft features rendered even softer by the candlelight she always kept burning through the night on the mantelshelf opposite, he would catch a certain knowing look in her light-blue eyes, as if she was only too aware of the sound's cause and it secretly amused her. She would explain it was probably a woodmouse rummaging around the kitchen below, or some other little creature from the forest that had found its way inside the cottage, or perhaps a bird or bat settling down in the eaves of the belltower's roof. Even the quiet clank of pot against pan, or the shifting of something across a worktop or table below failed to alarm her, and her unshakeable confidence would soon draw him in so that he was no longer afraid. Never once, though, did he suggest they go down to investigate, and never once did his mother show any curiosity herself. Thom resumed the climb, boards creaking noisily beneath his feet. Normally, spiral staircases in castles and fortresses twisted to the right so that soldiers defending their ground had room to swing swords or thrust pikestaffs at advancing intruders whose own sword arms were disad-vantaged, but Little Bracken's original architect obviously had only peaceful purposes in mind when he designed the banquet and its copycat tower, hence these stairs turned to the left. However, that non-military consideration had not prevented the boy Thom from engaging imaginary foes in battle there, his own short reach and wooden weapon unencumbered by the vagaries of architecture, the invisible villains easily beaten back by his ferocious attack. He was smiling yet again as he quickly reached the short landing where the newel post ended and two thick horizontal rails served as a balustrade. Directly above him was the empty - save for stout crossbeams - conical-shaped space beneath the lead apex which, in truth, was never meant to house a bell. To his right on the landing was another door, this one considerably smaller than those below, which opened out on to the cottage's roof, and Thom lifted the latch, then pushed outwards. The breeze hit him instantly, refreshing him and clearing the mustiness (compliments of the disused cottage) from his nose. Before he had even stepped through he was dazzled not just by sunlight, but by the view itself, and he gave a small gasp of pleasure. It was still as beautiful as he remembered; time had neither enhanced nor diminished the reality. The thousand hues of green were the same, the pale blueness of the distant, low hills was unchanged, the sheer vastness of the clear, open sky was just as impressive. He walked out on to the flat rooftop, pausing each time to lift his left foot over the lead ridges, and approached the thick open stone balustrade that ran round seven sides of the octagonal deck, the tower wall and door taking up the eighth angle. Thom leaned forward, resting both hands on the balustrade's wide coping, and gazed out at the landscape. Below, the woodland was like a deep, bumpy carpet stretching far into the distance, its shades ranging from an intense jade to an exuberant lime and beyond this fields and grassland rising to gentle hills. Easily visible on its own rise was Castle Bracken, its walls washed almost golden by afternoon sunlight that was beginning to mellow. Yet although from this viewpoint and in the scenic grandeur of its setting it truly did resemble a castle from a child's storybook, Thom could not remember ever having been in awe of it. Perhaps even as a boy there had been a dark side to his imagination, an aspect of his nature that had picked up on the misery contained within those stone walls and high-ceilinged halls. A sadness seemed to pervade the very air, as if past tragedies tainted everything that was to follow. In those days he had pitied his friend Hugo, for the older boy seemed crushed by the austere, even grim, atmosphere, and afraid of his own father. Sir Russell had lost two wives in this place, his first dying swiftly from throat cancer, the second - Hugo's mother -even more quickly in a fall down the central hall's main staircase. (Apparently she was a heavy drinker - or had become a heavy drinker since her marriage to the knight -who had many bitter arguments with her husband. She had tripped at the top of the long staircase during a particularly heavy binge and after an especially nasty quarrel.) Then, Hugo's elder stepbrother, the son from Sir Russell's first marriage, had been blown to pieces by a booby-trapped bomb planted by the IRA while he was serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland. It was little wonder that Castle Bracken seemed burdened by grief, shadowed with gloom, and not surprising that Sir Russell himself presented such a gruff, embittered figure. Only when he and Thom had played together outside in the grounds or down by the bridge had Hugo truly come to life, his humour and unbridled enthusiasm infectious, so that Thom, himself, would become boisterous and joyous, revelling in the companionship. The only minor hitch in their relationship was that Hugo would never enter the woods, no matter how much he was begged by Thom, who knew there were even greater adventures to be had and secrets to be discovered there. But Hugo had been forbidden by his father ever to wander into the forest, intimations that he would become hopelessly lost and that nasty animals roamed the wildwoods enough to discourage the boy if Sir Russell's order alone was not sufficient. Thom wondered how his old friend would cope with the latest in a long line of tragedies that haunted Castle Bracken: the impending death of his father. Would he succumb to the grief? Would he be lost without his father's - overbearing? -guidance? Or would he feel liberated, would he at last become his own man? It remained to be seen. Thom heard a car's engine growing louder and looked below to see his Jeep emerging from the lane almost opposite, its wheels bumping over the rough unmade road, bodywork jolting as it passed over the deeper holes. He caught sight of Eric Pimlet through the windscreen and raised a hand to wave, but realized the gamekeeper was concentrating too much on handling the vehicle to notice. The Jeep came to a halt close to the front door and the horn sounded twice, upsetting a bird settled in a nearby bush. It took to the air, complaining loudly, and, as Thom turned from the balustrade to make his way back across the leaded roof, he noticed another bird perched on the lip of the belltower. The magpie studied him coolly - seemed to watch him coolly - apparently not at all intimidated by his closeness, and Thom felt sure it was the same one who had watched him approach the cottage earlier. There was something eerie about its unblinking gaze, as if the bird were thinking dark thoughts, all of them about Thom. He suddenly clapped his hands together, sharp and hard, hoping to make the bird take flight. It didn't. The magpie did not even flinch. It continued to watch. For a few moments longer, man and bird stared at each other, and it was Thom who broke first. Eric's waiting below, he reasoned, somewhat ruefully, and here am I trying to face down a bloody bird! He shook his head and passed beneath the magpie into the open doorway. The bird made a short hacking sound and Thom muttered, Yeah, and fuck you too,' as he began to descend the stairs. Of course, it was in his own imagination, but the next cry he heard sounded like a challenge, as if the magpie were warning him off its territory. Stupid, Thom, he admonished himself, very, very stupid. NIGHT-TIME AT LITTLE BRACKEN HE HAD no idea what had roused him. A noise? He didn't think so. His sleep had been deep and he was sure that only a sound as loud as thunder would have woken him. It had been a tiring day - the drive up from London, the walk through the woods and the re-exploration of the cottage, then later helping Eric unload his gear from the Jeep and chatting with the old gamekeeper over steaming mugs of coffee, reliving past times, chuckling at most of them, until the sun had turned golden and begun to slip away. For some reason, it had been a relief to find the gamekeeper had scarcely changed - perhaps it was because he represented a kind of constant in Thom's own changing life. In fact, whenever Thom looked back on passing years, he always saw Eric as 'old', so that now the most that could be said was that the gamekeeper had 'grown' into his proper age: his abundant head of hair was overall white rather than a patchy grey as Thom remembered, his pale blue eyes, a little watery these days, rheumy even, squinting so much more that they were almost slits, and the lines and wrinkles of his face, especially the 'crow's feet' that ran from the corners of his eyes to large, stick-out ears, had deepened, become more established rather than increased; thread-veins splayed his ruddy cheeks and hooked nose, and his thin lips were now a purplish colour with clefts at each side. Even Eric's clothes appeared to be the same - baggy brown corduroy trousers held up by a thick leather belt, green tweed jacket with patched elbows and cuffs over woollen check shirt, knitted brown tie worn on all occasions, and green Wellington boots - although the major items must have worn out over the years to be replaced by exact copies which, due to the nature of his work, must have quickly worn in. Thom knew that Eric had been married once long ago and that his wife had died before Thom was born. He knew also that Eric was the last in a long line of Bracken gamekeepers, for he had no heir of his own, either male or female, to follow on the tradition. After Eric had left, he had eaten one of those sad prepacked dinner-for-ones cooked in the mini-microwave he'd brought up with him, followed by a bath, knees and shoulders well above the waterline in the short tub and, finally, he'd taken the weary climb up the creaking stairs to bed. If he had needed reminding he was still a convalescent, then the busy day had done the trick. When he'd pulled back the bedsheets he had been almost dead to the world. After taking his routine medication - aspirin to thin his blood, a mild and, by now, probably unnecessary dose of pravastatin to reduce his cholesterol level; he decided the diothiepin to help him sleep and ease any anxiety wasn't needed (night-time was always bad for stroke victims, for death was always closest when others slept and shadows seemed to beckon the invalid), because he was too exhausted not to sleep - Thom had turned off the bedside lamp, laid his head on the pillow, and had been instantly out. If he had dreamed, he could not remember, for the sudden awakening had wiped the dream-slate clean. He regarded the underneath of the four-poster's sagging canopy, the corner curtains and pelmets restricting his view of some of the room, then lifted his head to glance towards the stone fireplace opposite the end of the bed. There was enough moonlight to tell there was no intruder - unless he was hiding, of course. But although he was tense, he could not feel another's presence, there was no shift in the atmosphere, no sneaking scuffles. There were, however, faint reflections on the part of the ceiling close to one of the stone-framed windows. Subtle hints of colour gently moved against the greyness overhead, as if someone outside were playing weak lights through the leaded glass. Thom rose from the bed, a slow and awkward movement because of the stiffness in his left arm and leg - it always took a little time for the muscles in both to loosen up, even after only a short nap. He shuffled to the window behind the bed and peered out, his feet cold against the bare floorboards. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, not quite believing what he saw a short distance away. A half-moon waxed in the night sky, providing enough silvery light to see the stretch of grass and scrub directly below, but it was what lay just beyond at the dark edge of the surrounding forest that had drawn his attention . Thom pressed closer to the window so that his nose almost touched the glass; his breath misted the thin barrier between himself and the night. He quickly cleared the vapour with a wipe of his flattened hand and looked again, this time holding his breath and squinting his eyes. It was hard to tell from this distance, but the cores of the dancing lights seemed very small, only the halos around them initially making them appear larger than they were. These surely were the same tiny creatures - beings - he had come upon in the woods earlier that afternoon, only now their colours were more intense, sharper, vivid - more beautiful. And there seemed to be many more of them, all weaving and diving in arcs and loops, with no regular pattern, yet without collision, their movement exquisitely synchronized. The spectacle - the greens, the blues, the purples, and now the denser colours, the mauves, indigos, the deep blues - was astonishing . and breathtaking. His chest was tight, his lungs frozen sacs, and he had to force himself to exhale, the glass before him immediately clouding once more. Again he rubbed at the window with the palm of his hand and the tiny gemstone lights reappeared, dancing among the shadows, some now flitting crazily, while others hovered, their light strong but flickering, as though it was movement that gave them puissance, their energy generating the luminescence. Thom was unaware that he was smiling in the shadowy room, his face lit both by moonlight and the auroral ballet below, colour tinges fluttering across his whitened skin in faint playful shades, only the reflections in his eyes sharp and stunning. Occasionally, he breathed a sigh or murmured a sound of wonder as if observing some splendid but silent pyrotechnic display, and soon he lost all sense of time itself. And next morning, he neither recalled dawn's arrival, nor leaving the window to climb back into bed. NELL QUICK SOMETHING BANGED against the front door below. Then the iron bell-pull grated rustily and he heard the dull, wasted clunk of the long-neglected bell itself. Thom had awakened only moments earlier, sunlight pouring through the bedroom's windows, dust motes dancing in the brilliant shafts. He had lain there pondering the lights, his face creased in puzzlement, bedsheet pushed down to his waist, not even the numbness tormenting the left side of his body distracting the thoughts. Twice he had seen them, these tiny glittering orbs, and he could only wonder at their source. If he hadn't come across them in broad daylight, he might well have thought he'd only dreamed them last night. Another bang against the front door, someone using the old brass knocker this time and, momentarily forgetting his condition, Thom attempted to whip back the sheet. He winced as the stiffness turned to a stab of pain and became still again, waiting impatiently. An even sharper knock on the door now, as if someone was frustrated by the lack of response. He thought he heard a voice calling. 'Okay, okay,' Thom muttered, easing his legs over the side of the bed. He sat on the edge. 'Okay!1 he said aloud and irritably as yet another clunk of the bell, this time a looser sound, almost but not quite, a clank, came from below. Leaning forward with a groan - Jesus, it felt like he had a hangover - he grabbed the cargoes draped over the arm of the two-seater settle close by the bed, mumbling curses as he dragged them on. One foot got caught up in a leg and he had to wriggle his ankle to free it, his curses becoming louder and more angry. Finally, he stood and hauled the stone-coloured trousers over his hips, snapping them shut easily because of the weight he'd lost recently, then reached for the white linen shirt hung over the opposite arm of the settle. Shrugging the shirt over his shoulders and slipping his arms into the sleeves, he limped across the room to the door. As he began to descend the winding stairs, right hand slipping round the newel to steady himself, creaking floorboards cool beneath his bare feet, the bell rang yet again, clank becoming a hoarse clang. Light streaming from the stairway's window momentarily blinded him and he almost stumbled, saving himself by bracing his arms against the curved wall and newel post. He blinked rapidly, and as the haze cleared he thought he saw something small scurry across the ground floor landing to disappear through the slightly opened bathroom door. Thom blinked again, not quite believing what he had seen. Imagination? Still half-dreaming? No, he was sure he'd caught sight of something scooting across the floor. Maybe a mouse. No, t