Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Fiction: The Blackwood Oak by Stephen Gallagher
Damien could see that the biker and his girlfriend had pitched their tent among the trees, about fifty yards up the hill from the picnic area. It was an orange two-man ridge job, well-used and a little faded. They’d chosen an awkward spot, away from the other campers. But with the flysheet unzipped they’d have one of the best views in the whole valley, right out across the lake to the wooded hills on the other side.
He took the keys out of the pickup and swung the door closed as the biker walked toward him.
“Damien Ryan,” he said. “Ranger Service. What’s your problem?”
The biker seemed embarrassed. He was about twenty-five, a couple of years older than Damien and a bigger man all round. He wore a white T-shirt, with the upper half of his motorcycle leathers peeled down to his waist. Presumably so he could wash. Certainly not so he could shave.
“It’s in the tent,” he said. “Thanks for coming out.” His cellphone was still in his hand.
They walked up the hill together. The girlfriend was waiting alongside their big Honda Goldwing, arms folded protectively across her chest even though the day wasn’t cold. She wore jeans and a tank top. She was skinny and her arms were freckled, both a plus in Damien’s eyes. But he stayed professional and kept his eyes on the tent.
“I don’t know how it got in,” the biker said.
“They’ll grab any opportunity you give them,” Damien said. “Any food in there?”
“Yes, but it’s all in a coolbox.”
“They’ll still sniff it out.”
As he said this, the tent canvas moved suddenly as if it had been punched from inside. The girlfriend gave an involuntary yelp and there was a sound of claws scrambling across plastic groundsheet.
“Sorry,” she said after a moment.
And the biker said, “If it just turns out to be a squirrel, I’ll feel like an idiot.”
“No,” Damien said. “You did right to call me.” He signalled for the biker to stop so that he could approach the tent alone. The man joined his girlfriend by the Goldwing.
Damien said, “You didn’t get a good look at it, then?”
“It moved too fast.”
Damien was now closing in on the tent, never taking his eyes off it and moving with care.
He said, “It’s best to treat your wildlife with respect. You get a nip from just about anything in these woods, and you’ll know about it. You might want to move a little further off.”
The couple exchanged a glance, then moved together to the edge of their camp. Damien was around the far end of the tent now, with the valley and the view at his back. He crouched down before the half-unzipped flysheet.
The girlfriend called out, “Any danger of rabies?”
“Who knows,” Damien said.
Their tent was one of the old Vango Force Tens, a ground-hugging tunnel of cotton-canvas over steel. The central zip on the inner tent was closed but the zipper across the bottom had been left open. Fine if you wanted to keep flies out, but an open invitation for anything bigger to shimmy under.
Holding the liner at the bottom, taking care not to startle whatever had made its way inside, Damien slowly opened up the zipper and then lifted back one of the flaps.
They weren’t going to be happy campers. As seen in the stifling red-gold light of the tent’s interior, their possessions had been trashed. The sleeping bags shredded, stuffing dragged out and scattered. Maps had been ripped up. Clothing thrown around.
At the far end, in a kind of low apse formed by the tent’s extended shape, was their luggage and the coolbox. The coolbox was a dark blue plastic chest with two white clips to hold the lid down. The clips were thrown back and the lid was off.
And there, rummaging around in the contents, was the culprit.
It was greeny-brown and bug-eyed. About the size of a cat, but with rough skin like bark. It stood on two sturdy legs and rummaged with four racoon-like arms. Its skin was covered in sharp thorns, and it had a tail that was in constant motion. Damien couldn’t see much of its face until it suddenly became aware of him, and looked up.
It had been stuffing bread or cake into its mouth. Its cheeks bulged even more than its eyes. It stared at him and its mouth moved a couple of times, in a cud-chewing motion.
Then it spat the whole mouthful in his direction, with a force
and accuracy that would have drawn gasps of admiration in any Western saloon.
Damien dodged back just in time, and the mess spattered harmlessly on the inside of the canvas.
He ran the zip down again before rising to his feet and taking a step back.
“Yep,” he said. “It’s a squirrel. You couldn’t do me a favour?”
“Sure,” the biker said, eager to earn back some of his dignity. “What?”
“Go down to the truck and bring me those thick gloves out of the cab? And you’ll find a canvas sack in the load bed.”
The biker went hopping off down the hill, which left Damien with the girlfriend. He gave her a grin. She managed something like a smile in return.
The biker came back with the gloves in one hand and the canvas sack in the other, looking doubtfully between them. The gloves looked as if they’d been dragged through the cogwheels of some big machine a few times. The canvas sack wasn’t in quite such good condition. It had leather straps on it, like the fastenings on a straitjacket.
“These?” he said.
“Those are the ones,” Damien said.
With some low cunning and fast reactions and an unavoidable disregard for the campers’ property, Damien managed to get the creature into his canvas sack without letting them see it. He got the sack into the iron cage on the back of the pickup and then he didn’t wait around for their response to the mayhem inside their tent, or for the questions that would follow. Once his captive was secure, he was out of there.
Bouncing his way on the dirt track down to the valley’s metalled access road, he unhooked the pickup’s radio mike and raised his father at the lodge. Don Ryan responded right away. He’d been close to the radio and waiting for the call.
“I’ve got it,” Damien said.
“Did they get a look at it?”
“No,” Damien said. “And just as well. With those four arms I’d never be able to persuade them it was anything common. It’s not a form I’ve seen before. And it’s got a foul temper, I can tell you that much.”
“Any other distinguishing features?” Don said, and Damien gave him a description… the thorny skin, the uncannily accurate and forceful spit-missile ability.
“Let me see if I can look it up,” Don said. “I’ll call you right back.”
Damien tried to hang up the radio mike as he drove one-handed, fought with the curly cord a couple of times, and then gave up and left it hanging onto the floor like he always did.
He could imagine his father at this moment, pulling his dusty old books off the shelf in his study, looking through the indices and engravings for some clue as to what they had in the cage. Don Ryan had been the valley’s Ranger before Damien, for more than thirty years. These days he was semi-retired, mostly due to his arthritis. He answered the phone, dealt with campsite bookings, and dispensed advice to his grown-up children whether it was wanted or not. He knew the valley better than anyone; theirs was a line that had forested and lived off this woodland since the time of the English Civil War.
Some of the volumes on his study shelves were unbelievably rare, and probably worth a fortune. No one since the Victorians had approached the taxonomy of the preternatural world with the meticulous rigour of scientific enquiry; but for Don Ryan, the books were no more than a working reference library. Some had been handed down from his grandfather’s time. Others, he’d picked up as he’d gone along. He scoured library sales, and had contacts who kept an eye on country auctions for him. He’d been unbearable for a few weeks when he’d first discovered eBay.
But good information was essential. Every species was different. They misbehaved at the least opportunity, and the opportunities were many. Whenever one strayed, identification was always the first step in dealing with it.
As he was driving along the lakeshore, Damien’s eye was caught by something out on a promontory overlooking the water. It looked as if someone had been dumping rubbish. He pulled off the road and got out of the pickup, leaving the windows open so that he’d be able to hear the radio if Don called him back.
Before leaving the vehicle, he checked the iron cage. The canvas sack moved a couple of times, and he could hear a muttering from inside it. A spell in darkness ought to calm the creature.
Out on the promontory, it was as he’d suspected. He found the remnants of a burned-out campfire, and beercan litter all around it.
He took in a deep breath, and sighed it out. He’d seen this so many times before. Why come all the way out here for the beauty of the place, and leave a trail of shit like this?
Town kids, probably. Beauty seemed to make them angry. He’d never understood why.
He got a rubbish sack from the roll he kept in the cab, and went around picking up the discarded cans. All he could do with the fire was kick over the ashes and leave the land to heal the damage.
Now, here was something strange. Some of the opened cans were almost full. And here was a six-pack, completely untouched. Like the campout had been abandoned all at once, and in a tearing hurry.
He looked all around, but could see nothing else unusual.
Don was calling on the radio when he got back to the truck.
“Damien,” his father said unnecessarily, “it’s me. Looks like it’s just a low-level wood sprite. Did you say four arms?”
“And a grip like the meanest monkey you ever saw.”
“Can you look and see if there’s a blue stripe under its belly?”
Damien cast a doubtful eye over the sack in the cage, just as the thing inside it seemed to be embarking on a new bout of restlessness.
“If you want to get that close and personal,” he told his father, “you’re on your own.”
“It probably doesn’t matter,” Don said. “Meet me at Fiddler’s Point.”
Fiddler’s Point was a relatively new planting on the valley slopes just above the dam. The slopes had been badly scarred when the dam was being built, and once the heavy machinery had gone away an extensive programme of replanting had begun.
That had been more than a century before. It had left a legacy of young woodland that was neat, ordered, and almost entirely without soul.
Wood sprites, Damien was thinking as he drove up to the Point. There are thousands of those. You could live your whole life in a place like this and never come across the same species twice.
Maybe those people down at the lakeside had disturbed something with their partying, and given themselves a scare. They’d be civilians, unaware of what lay in hiding all around them, assuming—when they thought about it at all—that the preternatural was no more than the stuff of dreams and stories.
Which suited Damien fine. The less people knew, the less likely they were to interfere. For him, the preternatural was something to be dealt with on a daily basis. A whole other stratum of wildlife with its own, very different set of rules. Don had taught him to see his trade as a combination of conservation and pest control, protecting the people from the wildlife and the wildlife from the people. For which a need-to-know arrangement was probably the best.
Don was there ahead of him. He could see his father’s blue-grey Land Rover waiting in the parking area. The area was of gravelled earth, with ruts and low spots where rainwater collected. Damien made a mental note to send out a crew to level the ruts before the season got fully under way.
Don was out of the Land Rover. He was poking his walking stick into one of the puddles to test its depth.
He said, “You want to get a load of stones ordered and—”
“I’m on it, dad,” Damien said.
Damien put on the gloves, and lifted the entire cage out of the back of the pickup. He remembered how lively the sprite had been when he’d struggled it into the sack, and didn’t want to risk having it fight him through the bag while he was trying to carry it.
“You got it?”
“I’ve got it.”
Don led the way. All the trees here were tall, straight, and evenly spaced. As woodland went, it was kind of boring. It could take a thousand years for a forest to grow a soul. There were many theories as to how it happened, all of them more speculation than science. One went that if a habitat was cleared, then its nature spirits were gone forever; slow migration was the natural way, as the creatures rarely bred. Throw a chainsaw into the equation, and it stopped adding up.
All the more reason to conserve what remained. They followed a straight path up through the trees, on ground that was covered in a spongy carpet of pine needles and dead bracken.
After a while Damien said, “How much further? This thing’s heavy.”
“Stop complaining,” Don said. “At your age I could do one-armed press ups.”
“Only because you never took your other hand off your wallet.”
Don paused for a moment. He was getting his breath, but he pretended that he’d stopped to point through the trees with his stick.
“That one, I reckon,” he said.
At first glance, it was a Scots Pine no different to all the others. But on closer inspection it seemed slightly less healthy. It had been marked with a red circle of spray paint.
When they reached it, Damien set the cage down with some relief. The thing in the sack was trying to flip itself around.
“Still pretty lively,” he said.
“Well, let’s put all that energy where it can do some good.”
Don placed his walking stick on the cage to steady it while Damien slid back the door and reached inside. Damien deftly unbuckled the straitjacket straps and then withdrew his hand before the creature could work itself free. Which it did at the first whiff of fresh air, fighting its way out to the light and then rocking back on its haunches and looking around blearily.
As soon as it saw Damien, it bared its teeth and launched at him. It was a short-lived show of aggression because it instantly hit the bars with a bang and fell back, eyes rolling up in its spiny head.
“Idiot,” Damien said.
Spotting an opportunity to make a tricky job easier, Don quickly slid open the door and reached into the cage. He took the sprite by the scruff of the neck and hauled it out, rising to his feet and turning to the tree. With one hand bracing his weight on his cane, he offered up the sprite to the waiting pine.
The sprite dangled in his grip like a slaughtered turkey. For a moment nothing happened, and then it began to rouse and open its eyes.
“Come on,” Don said, seeing that he was about to be stuck with a fistful of one very lively and pissed-off entity. “What are you waiting for?”
What happened then happened with speed, and with no voluntary participation from the sprite at all. As its eyes began to open, it was as if some great force was already drawing it toward the ailing tree. The creature had no time to panic or resist; wham, bang, and it was gone. Sucked in as if by the backdraft of a Bullet Train.
Don showed his relief. “Thank God for that,” he said.
Then he fumbled in the pocket of his outdoor coat and brought out a spray can. He shook it, and the metal ball inside it rattled around noisily.
Raising his voice over the noise, he said, “Any chance you could go and meet your sister for me?”
“I thought you wanted to do it.”
“That was the plan. But something’s come up. There’s been a sighting.”
“You get sightings all the time. What’s so urgent about this one?”
Instead of replying, Don popped the cap from the can and sprayed a red X through the circle on the bark.
“See how that goes,” he said. Then: “Well? Can you do it?”
They started back down toward their vehicles. All had gone to plan. The errant sprite would settle in its new home and the woodland on Fiddler’s Point would gain a little character, in more senses than one.
They walked side-by-side now. Don said nothing, and seemed preoccupied.
What could deter a father from rushing to meet the daughter that he hadn’t seen in almost a year?
Ariane’s train was due to pass through their little rural halt at around four o’clock. When Damien’s pickup arrived in the lane beside the station, the train was just leaving. It was a branch line Sprinter service. Two little carriages that always looked as if they ought to be carrying goats and milk churns from one village to another.
For someone who’d been travelling for at least the past thirty-six hours, his big sister was looking remarkably fresh.
“No dad?” she said.
“He’s checking something out,” Damien said. “How was Borneo?”
Ariane slung her backpack into the pickup’s load bed and moved around to the passenger door.
“You know you’re on a loser when the lost tribe you’re studying wants to clear all your questions with its PR agent,” she said. “I want a pint mug of real tea and a hot bath. Let’s drive.”
Damien drove. She sat with her feet up on the dash and her head tilted back against the rest.
Ariane Ryan was a leggy, low-maintenance beauty with all the social poise that Damien knew he lacked. As soon as she’d been old enough, she’d been out there into the world. And with a vengeance. Borneo! Damien had once grown homesick on a school trip to Scarborough.
Without opening her eyes, she said, “So how is he?”
“He doesn’t get out so much now,” Damien said, “but he keeps busy. He’s making a database.”
“Every woodsprite and nature spirit that goes AWOL. A kind of Nature’s Most Wanted list. He’s got his silver-surfer mates up and down the country emailing him sightings.”
She turned her head and looked out of the window. She probably wanted to sleep but was too wound-up by her long journey to manage it. Damien glanced at her as they turned into the valley road.
Ariane was older than him, by a couple of years. Old enough to remember their mother. Damien had always been a little in awe of his sibling; while he went to the agricultural college, lived at home, and went out with local girls, she went away and got a degree and continued on to a doctorate, heading off to remote parts of the globe to study anthropology in the field.
Damien could barely imagine it. The valley had too much of a hold on him.
The valley was home. How do you turn your back on that?
Before the building of the dam and the flooding of part of the valley to make a reservoir, succeeding generations of the Ryan clan had lived scattered throughout the farmhouses and small villages on its lower slopes. The reservoir had wiped out all the villages, and time had taken care of the clan. Now there was just the family and they were, as Damien sometimes put it, pretty much the Last Ryans Standing.
Back at the time of the big relocation, most of them had moved to a small barracks of newly-built wooden cabins in an upland clearing. It was only supposed to be temporary, and it stayed temporary for the next seventy-five years until the stormy night that a lightning-struck ash came down onto a roof and started a fire that had spread to the other buildings.
No one had been hurt because, by then, most of the buildings were no longer occupied. Uncle Wilf had gone to a nursing home and the cousins had gone to live in Canada, leaving Don Ryan and his new bride to continue the line. After looking over the damage, the forestry people had decided to replace it with a modern timber lodge that would double as a Visitor Centre and the Head Ranger’s home.
Ariane got her pint of tea, and fell asleep in her hot bath. Damien had to bang on the door to rouse her for dinner.
They dined as they had in the old days whenever there was something to celebrate, in the rough and ready fashion of children who’d been brought up by their father alone; good food, with no finesse, and everybody mucking in to help. The meat sat on the table in the foil in which it had been cooked, and none of the crockery matched. A candle sat in a beer bottle. Don had iced some champagne, which they drank from school-style water glasses.
“Blame your brother for that one,” Don told Ariane. “I gave him your mother’s best crystal to wash, and he snapped every stem.”
After dinner, they moved through into the sitting room. It was fairly spectacular, with a rustic stone fireplace and a high angled ceiling of wooden beams. The architect had been thinking big and hoping for an award.
“Is anything wrong, dad?” Ariane said as they went. “You seem a bit out of it tonight.”
For a moment it looked as if Don was about to deny it and make some excuse.
But then he turned serious. “We have a problem to deal with,” he admitted.
“I knew it,” Damien said. “Ever since the break-in.” He turned to Ariane. “Whenever I asked him, he said there was nothing.”
“What break-in?” she said.
“It was about ten days ago,” Don said.
He went on to explain. Someone had got into the lodge and disturbed a few things. Up here in the woods and miles from anywhere, he and Damien tended to be lax about domestic security until the season got under way. When there were more strangers around, they took more care.
No great damage had been done. Some old clothes had been thrown around and a few of Don’s books had been pulled from the shelves, but the intruder couldn’t have known their value because none of the books was missing.
“I wanted to think that was all there was to it,” he said. “But this morning I got an email.”
It had come from one of the people that Damien referred to as ‘Don’s silver-surfer mates’. There were several dozen of them in a loose online community; in all corners of the land, mostly retired, all party to the Well-Guarded Secret and forever telling each other the same old stories that they’d told each other a hundred times before. Some had worked on the land. Others just had an interest in the subject.
One had posted a forum entry on the sighting of a particular errant earth spirit, way down south of here.
“It had started the change to human form,” Don said, picking up a book that he’d left out on the coffee table, “but the spotter picked up enough detail to identify it. Sylvanus Roscoe, of the genus Sylvani. That sounded familiar so I went to the shelves to look it up. When I came to the relevant entry, I found this.”
He showed them the opened book. About four of its pages had gone; ripped out in a hurry, and without much care.
Don said, “I had to get a friend at the Bodleian to scan their copy and send the pages to me.”
“Are you saying that this woodland spirit was behind your break-in?” Ariane said as he passed the scans of the missing pages over for them to see. The first showed a meticulous engraving of a puck-like creature. Not a piece of fantasy art, but a scientific illustration.
“This is not your usual woodland spirit,” Don said, “but an Elemental. And not just any old Elemental, but a prince among his kind. Folklore traditionally associates him with… ”
“The Blackwood Oak,” Damien read aloud.
In the visitor centre’s map room, Damien switched on all the lights so that they could look at the big display. The room’s centrepiece was an enlarged then-and-now map of the valley, surrounded by historic photographs from a time before the building of the dam.
Don said, “In the eighteen-nineties, they flooded this valley to make the new reservoir. It meant losing three villages and a forest that had been there since well before the civil war.”
He pushed one of the interactive buttons that had been set in a row along the bottom of the map, and a black-and-white photograph was spotlit. It showed people in old-time dress by the base of a magnificent tree, obviously a great tourist attraction of its day. Its trunk was the size of a small carousel and many of its roots were above-ground, as if it had tried to prise itself free of the earth. Iron props supported some of the longer branches.
“At the highest point of the forest stood the Blackwood Oak,” Don said. “They couldn’t dig it up, so they cut it down. The timber went to panel the staterooms on the Oceanic and the stump ended up at the bottom of the lake. And that’s how it stayed until a couple of months ago.”
Ariane said, “What changed?”
“Remember those earth tremors we had last October?”
“I wasn’t here.”
“So you weren’t. The dam sprung a few leaks. They’re draining the reservoir to repair them. You probably saw the machines on the drive from the station. Anybody want to tell me what that means?”
“If the water level drops far enough, we’ll see all the old ghost villages again,” Damien said.
“And the old forest,” Ariane said.
Now Damien was beginning to understand.
“Uh-oh,” he said.
“Any sprite, sylph or elemental that didn’t get out of that woodland will have been trapped under the lake for close on a hundred years,” Don said, at which point the timer on the interactive button cut out with a thunk and the photograph of the Blackwood Oak went back into shadow. He turned to them. “I’m not going to dress it up,” he said. “An Elemental in its human form could be one hell of a loaded gun.”
Later that evening, while Don was online and the dishwasher was dealing with the aftermath of dinner, Ariane joined Damien out on the deck. Moths danced below the outdoor light. Damien was leaning on the rail with a glass in his hand, looking out into the darkness of the forest.
Ariane had been studying the printout images of the stolen pages.
“What do you reckon?” she said.
Damien gave a little shrug of his shoulders. “Drive down, do the gig, bring Roscoe back,” he said. “Piece of cake.”
Ariane opened out the pages, and held them out under the light so that she could and read aloud from them.
“‘The Elementals occupy a position between humans and pure spirits. Made of flesh and blood, they eat and sleep and procreate like humans do. But unlike mortals, they are long-lived, capable of superhuman speed and movement, and without immortal souls.’”
Damien tried not to seem too worried.
“Just another day on the ranch,” he said. “Hunting fairies with pickup truck and cattle prod.”
“Hey,” she said, and punched his arm. “That’s quite enough from you. Don’t ever let dad hear you using the ‘f’ word.”
Then she grew serious and leaned on the rail alongside him.
“So how is he?” she said, with a glance back into the lodge. “Really?”
“He gets lonely,” Damien said. “He’s got his mates online. And I’m here a lot of the time. But you know how it is. That can never be the same.”
Damien was out behind the lodge at dawn the next morning, loading up ready for the long drive south. The little birdcage affair that he used for wood sprites would be of no use on this trip, so he put that into storage and brought out the big cage that, by tradition, one of his great-uncles had made for the great Undine hunt of ‘22. He was struggling to get it off the hand-trolley and up onto the load bed when Ariane appeared and helped with the lifting.
They heaved, and on it went. The pickup bounced on its springs and everything in the load bed jumped.
“You’re up early,” he said. “I thought you’d be ready to sleep for a week.”
“No chance,” she said. “I’m coming with you.”
“Says me. I thought we could make it like the old days.”
“Okay,” Damien said.
He fixed the cage in place and got the rest of the gear loaded. A tarpaulin to cover it. Ropes. His padded gloves. By the time they were ready to go, Don was up and about.
They shared some breakfast. Don gave them all the details and the contact information that he had, and then he walked out with them to the truck.
They stopped beside the cab and he said, “Look. I’m not going to insult you. You both know the score. Hunting these nature spirits can be a tough and dirty business. We try to use compassion, but there’s no room in it for sentiment. That’s why I want one of you to have this.”
He produced a heavy-looking flashlight. When he held it out, Damien saw that it also had two short pins on either side of the lens.
“That’s not just a flashlight, is it?” Damien said.
“It’s a stun gun,” Don said. “I bought it over the internet. So far I’ve never had to use it. You almost certainly won’t need it. But I want you to have with you it just in case.”
He handed it to Ariane. Then he turned to Damien.
“Look after your sister,” he said, and then he turned to Ariane. “And you look after your idiot brother.”
“Hey,” she said, snapping the stun gun on and off and making it crackle. “Watch out, world. Armed feminist.”
She stowed the stun gun under the passenger seat. Then they said their goodbyes and off they went.
When they reached the lakeside a few minutes later, Ariane turned to get a look at the water level. It was well down from the shore, and as it retreated had left a series of bands that resembled contour lines drawn directly onto the bed.
Somewhere out across the water, probably not even visible from here, the surface would be broken by a shallow island with the low stump of the Blackwood Oak.
They lost sight of the lake as the road descended by the dam. Here a mobile brew hut and some heavy machinery were marshalled in the shadow of the dam wall, looking like the world’s most functional carnival. The Water Board crew had to be brought out from the town and taken back at the end of every day. Eight or nine men in hard hats and safety jerkins, ferried back and forth by minibus.
Damien stopped to fill the pickup’s tank with diesel and then they were on their way, joining the A-road that would take them out of the region and onto the motorway network.
“I feel like some kind of hillbilly,” Damien admitted. “Heading for the big city to bring back a runaway pig.”
Ariane had her desert boots off and her feet back up on the dash, looking about as relaxed as it was possible to be under the circumstances.
“You need to get out more,” she said, and that was all that was said for quite a while; for although their trip was nothing special and its purpose routine, the stun gun under Ariane’s seat was Don’s reminder to them not to take the job lightly. They’d made the joke about hunting earth spirits with a pickup truck and cattle prod; but now, with an Elemental in their sights, that seemed to be exactly what they were about.
Four hours later, after just one break for a sandwich and a stretch and a wrong turn at a junction where Damien misread the numbers on the sign, they left the motorway and stopped in a service area to locate their destination. Traffic whizzed by on the far side of the wire. Damien’s head buzzed. All around them was asphalt, cars, and concrete.
“A do-it-yourself warehouse?” Ariane said.
“A superstore,” Damien said. “With a timber yard.”
“But of course.”
It was no coincidence that most of these places ran a seniors hiring policy. They needed savvy people in the woodyard, when disoriented nature spirits regularly turned up in timber shipments like tarantulas on banana boats.
It was evening when they pulled into the parking lot of the trading estate where the DIY Superstore was located. There were other businesses on the estate—a shoe store, a sportswear barn, a multiplex cinema—so there were plenty of cars and people about. They could wait around in the pickup until closing time without seeming conspicuous.
As the sky grew dark, the parking lot grew brighter and somehow more sinister. Cars came and went all the time. Every now and again, a few people would drift over from the Burger King or Pizza Hut to catch the start of a movie. Minutes later, a few more would make the reverse journey as the previous show ended.
Damien was startled by a knock on his window.
He lowered the glass.
“You must be Don’s kids,” the man said.
He was somewhere over sixty with pale blue eyes, thinned-out hair, and a grey beard with some traces of his old colour in it. He was wearing the striped shirt and red apron of the DIY chain’s staff uniform. It made him look like a refugee member of a barber shop quartet. According to a badge, his name was Edward and he was Happy to Help.
Damien said, “How did you spot us?”
“Ranger Service on the side of your truck and a big covered animal cage on the back,” the man said. “It wasn’t exactly rocket science. We’re closing up in twenty minutes. I’m going to stay behind. It’ll be easiest if you’re already inside.”
He told them where to hide themselves within the store, and then he went back in alone. They gave it a couple of minutes. Then Damien got his gloves and his sack, and Ariane the shock baton. Damien locked the pickup and they walked over.
As instructed, they hid themselves in a display conservatory when no one was watching; it was all glass, but there were bamboo blinds on all the windows. Once inside, Ariane slid the catch on the door.
The two of them sat in silence as the store closed down around them; the announcements, the music switching off, the final call, the last staff check and then the all-clear.
It was another half-hour or so before Edward came for them. Damien emerged first, feeling a little nervous.
“I’m the keyholder for tonight,” Edward said to them. “I’ve switched off the internal alarms. As long as we keep away from the main windows, we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
He led them through the store. It felt strange. Still bright, but emptier than empty.
Ariane said, “Who made the sighting?”
“One of the girls on the paint counter,” Edward said, looking back over his shoulder. “She’s been telling everyone she saw a ghost. But as soon as I heard the description, I knew there was something going on. I poked around a bit, and that’s how I found this.”
“This” was in a corner of the section where hardboard, plywood and sawn timber were stored. A tall entranceway hung with heavy plastic flaps led to a staff-only area with a forklift and all the packing debris from the week’s deliveries.
In amongst the debris, someone—something—had put together pallets and boards and cardboard to make a kind of den or a nest. They took turns peeking in through the entranceway. It was a strangely comfortable-looking bolthole, and it had been furnished with items from all over the store… a battery-powered lamp, a picnic set, a lightweight sleeping bag from the outdoor section. And, in the corner, opened packets and a lot of stale cake.
An Elemental in its native shape needed none of these. But the longer it was abroad, the closer it would grow to human form.
After he’d taken a look, Damien turned to Edward and said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t just the work of some homeless kid who’s found himself a warm place to hide?”
“Well,” Edward said. “The girl said that she’d seen a green teenager. Said he walked right past her after closing time but when they checked the tape, you could see her looking at someone. But on the tape, she was alone.”
“Is she still working here?”
“What do you think?”
“It’s our boy, all right,” Ariane said. She’d found some papers under the sleeping bag. Now she showed them to Damien.
They were the torn pages from their father’s reference book. The first showed the early engraving of Sylvanus Roscoe that they’d already seen. Along with the text there were other illustrations; a crude carving, an aerial photograph of an earthwork figure, a black-and-white reproduction of one of the Victorian fairy paintings of Atkinson Grimshaw.
“So where is he now?” Damien said.
“He goes out and forages,” Edward said. “Don’t ask me what for. I haven’t been able to work it out.”
Their host led them up to the manager’s office. In here were CCTV monitors with camera feeds from key areas of the store, and a cupboard with long-play VHS tapes covering the past thirty days.
“We can wait here and watch for him,” Edward said.
“But we’ve already established that TV cameras won’t pick up an Elemental,” Ariane said. “They just won’t see him.”
“True,” Edward said. “But I’ve looked at tapes for the past few nights, and they’re starting to pick up something. As he approaches human, he’s starting to register.”
They kept the lights at a minimum in the manager’s office, and when they spoke it was in the lowest of tones.
Edward looked on with some concern as Damien checked over the gloves and the extra-sized sack that he’d brought along.
“That seems kind of extreme,” Edward said, “Why don’t you try talking to him first?”
“My great-uncle Harry nearly made that mistake,” Damien said. “He thought he was talking down a nature spirit, turned out that he’d cornered one of the Sluagh. That’s the Host of the Unforgiven Dead. He was lucky to get out of it with his skin on.” Damien looked at Ariane for support, only to see that something seemed to be troubling her.
“What?” he said.
“What does he want?” she said. “He’s come all this way. He’s made himself a base, here. He goes out every night and searches for something. What’s he looking for?”
“Trust me,” Damien said. “I’ve done this often enough. You don’t waste time in conversation. What does it matter what he’s looking for? You have to grab your chance as soon as you see it. With an Elemental, you might not get another.”
It was Ariane who saw the first sign of movement on one of the screens; a ripple down one of the aisles that in a recording could easily have been taken for a crease in the tape. Moving in silence, Damien shifted to the window of the manager’s office and looked down onto the sales floor.
There it was; just disappearing from view, heading into the timber section and, to Damien’s dismay, wearing one of his old overcoats.
“The cheek of it!” he whispered, as the figure flitted away and out of sight.
They descended from the office to the sales floor. It was almost as bright down here now as at any time during the shopping day; lights were left on all night in order to deter intruders and thieves. Without darkness, they’d no cover. Something which didn’t seem to trouble their quarry this evening.
The three of them reached the hanging plastic barrier. Edward held one of the heavy flaps aside and the others eased through the gap ahead of him. No one had spoken since they’d left the office. Damien noticed that, despite her reservations, his sister had the combined flashlight and shock baton ready in her hand.
Sylvanus Roscoe had gone to ground in his den. He’d switched on the electric lantern and they could hear the sound of cellophane wrapping being opened. He sounded busy.
Damien signalled to the others to spread out and stand ready. Silently, he opened up the mouth of the sack and laid it on the ground. Then he drew on the animal handling gloves.
Chopping the air silently with his hand, he counted. One, two, three. Then he heaved the wooden pallet away so that it fell forward with a crash, exposing the tableau within.
Roscoe was sitting on his unrolled sleeping-bag, knees up, overcoat cinched around him by its knotted belt, his bare legs rattling loose in a pair of the superstore’s Wellington boots. He was unwrapping more cake. A knitted cap had been pulled over his head, covering the tips of his ears. At first glance he might pass for a boy. But his features were pointed. Nose, cheekbones, chin… unnaturally pointed, as if carved in hard angles.
And he was green. Not a vivid green; not even a green that you’d notice if the light wasn’t good. More as if his skin had been dusted with it.
Damien hesitated. He was used to weaselly sprites, all kicking and teeth, that he could grab by the scruff of the neck and thrust into a bag. Sylvanus Roscoe was looking him right in the eye.
Then he moved.
Boy, did he move.
With a speed that seemed to cut through the air, he turned and reached around for something in the back of his den. He didn’t find it. His hand moved here, there, almost too fast to follow. He spun back to face them again.
Ariane called out, “Is this what you’re looking for?” And she held up the pages from Don’s book.
Roscoe stared. And then he launched at her, so fast that he’d reached her before anyone else could even move; she hadn’t even begun to raise the stun baton when he’d snatched the pages from her hand and, with a terrific bound, passed right over her.
She’d later say that she was aware of only a blur. Damien saw Roscoe switch his plane of movement entirely, running horizontally along the shelving before righting himself and dropping to the floor behind her.
Then he was off.
Damien pushed past Ariane and gave chase, out of the forklift area and into the main part of the store. He couldn’t see Roscoe but he could hear those Wellingtons slapping on the vinyl floor. He was aware of Ariane somewhere behind him, moving on to take one of the other aisles. They’d already left Edward some way behind.
Damien ran along the ends of the aisles, looking down each in turn. He came out into an open area with lawnmowers and barbecues on display. He stopped and listened; he had to still his breathing, which was ragged and loud, to give himself a chance of hearing anything.
He couldn’t hear Roscoe’s running footsteps any more. Which meant that either the Elemental had outrun him and was gone, or had stopped and was listening for him in turn.
Damien took a step, keeping it silent and looking all around. Ahead of him was the gardening section, with bags of peat and garden tools. To his left, on the other side of a sliding glass door, the area where they sold outdoor plants and garden furniture.
He took another step and then suddenly the glass door began to open, unbidden, startling him; Damien realised that he’d moved within range of its motion sensor and triggered it off. In the silence of the huge building, it was like a tumbling stack of books in a library. He turned back to resume his search of the store…
And there was Roscoe, running straight at him.
The doors had begun to close. Damien realised that Roscoe was aiming for the opening. On the other side of the glass was open night air and a high security fence with razor wire along the top of it; enough to deter a normal intruder, but small beer to someone who could run sideways along a vertical wall as if it was just another floor.
Roscoe hurdled a patio set. He went by so close and so fast that Damien could feel the breeze of his passing. But he couldn’t move quickly enough to grab him.
No matter. The glass doors had continued to close. Just as the Elemental went undetected by the store’s CCTV, he was invisible to the door’s sensors.
Roscoe mistimed and hit the glass so hard that Damien couldn’t believe it didn’t break.
The Elemental bounced, and landed flat on his back. The book pages, the ones that he’d snatched back from Ariane, were still clutched in his fist. Damien saw his chance. He ran over and threw himself onto the sprite, pinning him down. It wasn’t very elegant and it wasn’t dignified, but it got the job done.
There wasn’t much to the creature. He tried to struggle. Damien realised that, fast as he was, he wasn’t strong. He’d very little mass. But by the same token, like a spider surviving a fall, he hadn’t suffered much in the collision.
Ariane came out of one of the aisles at a run, summoned by the racket.
“I’ve got him!” Damien called to her. “Find me something to tie him with!”
She looked around, and saw a shelf of baling twine. As she crossed toward it, the sensors were triggered and the doors began to open again.
It was then that Roscoe pulled a trick that Damien had never seen before; in a brief, big-effort and highly effective transformation, he inflated his face into something golden-eyed and horrific. Only inches from Damien’s own, the effect was momentarily terrifying.
He lost his grip on the sprite. In a second the boy was out from under him, and racing for the opening.
Ariane sensed him as he passed behind her. By the time she was turning around, he was out and the doors were closing behind him. Damien scrambled to his feet and launched after. He and Ariane emerged into the sales yard just in time to look up and see Roscoe at the top of the fence.
He’d just cleared the razor wire and was starting to drop. His skinny legs were cycling in the air. The stolen coat had filled up and was flapping wide. He seemed to float down, and staggered only slightly when he hit the ground.
He looked back at them.
Then he recovered and was off across an empty stretch of the car park, passing from one pool of light to another.
“He stole my coat,” was all Damien could say.
“He should have stolen some underwear while he was about it,” Ariane said.
They trudged back into the store. Edward had caught up with them and had seen the last part of the escape through the glass.
He said, “Will you go after him?”
“There isn’t much point,” Damien said. “He’s away by now. We’ll need to wait for another sighting and then find him where he next goes to ground. I’d better call dad.”
He took out his phone and moved a few steps away, leaving Ariane and Edward making small talk. There was an atmosphere of disappointment, and he felt that it was his fault. They’d come all this way, and then he’d messed up.
“Dad?” he said. “We lost him.”
So Damien explained. Don pushed him for more detail. His father didn’t forgive him, exactly, but only because he seemed to share in the blame as well as the disappointment.
“I should have briefed you better,” he said.
Damien said, “Shall we come home?”
“No,” Don said. “Not yet. Is Ted there?”
Ted? Damien realised that he meant Edward. Damien waved to catch the older man’s eye and then handed him the phone.
Edward listened to Don for a while. He didn’t say much other than to agree with him a couple of times.
Then he said, “No problem. I’ve got plenty of room.”
After the conversation with his son, Don Ryan rubbed his hand over his short-cropped hair and paced up and down in the lodge’s kitchen where he’d taken the call. His footsteps echoed on the tiles. This place was too big all around. Sometimes he felt more like its caretaker than a person who could call it home. Sometimes he just yearned for the old ramshackle cabins that had stood on this spot, and in which he’d grown up. Those were simpler times. When Damien was away and he was left here alone, the feeling was ten times worse.
What to do.
He’d never had to deal with a problem quite like this one before. Elementals were usually fine as long as you respected them and let them be. But trapping an earth spirit under a lake for a century or more—who could say how that would affect its disposition? Don tried to imagine being confined in the dark for a hundred years, deprived of all senses and unable to move, but he couldn’t. If such a thing were to happen to him, he’d probably go mad.
And if that proved to be the case with Sylvanus Roscoe, that was where the danger lay. Elementals were powerful. They were easily the most complex of the nature spirits. Some of their urges could be childish, their emotions overwhelming. Even their love could be terrifying; he tried to picture that same power channelled into a mass of negative feeling, and his imagination just wasn’t up to it.
He felt responsible. He was responsible. Retired or not, this was still his valley. In a few days’ time, Roscoe would be able to pass for human. There would be no more sightings then.
Don went into his study. He switched on his laptop and waited for it to boot and hook up with the wi-fi, wondering how many of his people were likely to be online at this hour. Quite a few, probably; the hard core of old men like himself, their lives filled and their memories vivid and their minds too active to be ready to let go. Talking about the old times, griping about the new, keeping alive names that the world had forgotten.
He found five of them online and active. They included Brownlow up in New York State and Toni over in Finland. When he joined the forum, they were trading off-topic messages about the film career of Agnes Moorehead. Don wrote up a quick summary of his problem, hit send, and waited. Responses and suggestions started to arrive within minutes, but none of the gang had anything useful to offer; it quickly descended into a grousing session about civilians in water management all over the world.
He signed out and went into the visitor centre, where he stood with the lights off looking out of the big panorama window. Whenever there was a moon, it was possible to see its reflection in the lake. But the sky was cloudy and there was no moon, just an occasional pearly cloud-glow where the moon ought to be.
After fretting about it for a while, he went and got Damien’s Ranger-issue night vision binoculars. He was halfway down the hill in the Land Rover before he remembered that yet again, he hadn’t locked up the lodge.
He often didn’t. It was an old habit from those less worrisome times. Well, he didn’t plan to be out for long. He drove down to the lakeshore and along until he reached a wide strip of fine shale that made a kind of freshwater beach. By day this was probably the most popular picnic spot in the valley.
There he parked, killed the Rover’s lights, and stepped out with the night glasses in his hand.
Thanks to the lowered water level, the shale beach was five or six times its usual width. Don raised the night glasses and looked out across the water; darkness that was impenetrable to the eye now sprang out in vivid green detail. Sky, shore and water were all clearly distinguishable. He hunted around at maximum magnification and eventually found it; the uncovered island on which the Blackwood Oak had once stood, no more than three or four feet of outcrop with a flattened top that had to be the stump.
Something obscured his vision for a moment. He reacted by lowering the glasses and looking, but of course that was of no help at all. So he decreased the magnification and looked through the glasses again.
Now the view was too wide and he couldn’t see the island, or much of anything else; he was picking up all kinds of movement but most of that was reflections from the water.
He lowered the glasses, and waited for his eyes to adjust. Somewhere up above the cloud parted and let a little moonlight through, which helped.
As he became more attuned to the darkness, he began to make out a figure that was standing between him and the water.
He looked again with the night vision glasses, and saw nothing there. Which set his eyesight back and meant that he’d have to wait for it to adjust all over again. This time he switched off the power to the binoculars, in case he forgot himself a second time.
There was definitely a figure standing there. A figure that electronic glasses did not see.
“Miriam,” he said in a low voice.
No more than a dim shape against the lake, the figure moved closer. As it moved, it made no sound. It stopped some distance from him, and waited.
“It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s the kids. I think they’re going to need some help.”
The next morning, Edward was up and moving around before anyone else. Damien was aware of him tiptoeing past the sofa to get to the tiny house’s kitchen. Crunched up on the sofa with pillows and a spare duvet, wondering if his sleeping posture was going to give him a case of DVT, Damien shifted his position a little to relieve the leg cramps but kept his head down and his eyes shut. At least until he began to smell real coffee, followed shortly afterward by the smell of frying bacon.
Ariane came down about fifteen minutes later, lured by the same airborne incentive and looking ready for the day. Edward had fixed her up with his spare room, after bringing the Ryans home to the two-bedroomed Victorian terraced house that he’d once shared with a wife named Enid and now shared with a cat called Skipper. The furniture and the décor were all Enid’s taste. The widescreen TV and the multimedia PC were Edward’s more recent additions.
“I always like to start the day with a cooked breakfast,” Edward said.
“So do I,” Damien said. “But it’s very rare that I ever get one.”
His phone rang.
“It’s dad,” he said, and everyone fell quiet as he answered the call.
Damien listened for a long time. Then he said, “Ted? Can you check your email?” and then went on listening as his father continued to speak. He could see Ariane watching him, trying to read something out of his changing expression.
When Don finished the call, Damien closed up his phone and looked at Ariane and said, “Apparently it’s all in the painting.”
“What painting?” Ariane said.
“I’ve got it right here,” Edward called from the next room.
They went through. Edward was seated at the workstation in the corner. Don had mailed them a link. On Edward’s screen was a picture that Damien thought he recognised, and which Ariane immediately identified.
“It’s the Atkinson Grimshaw painting,” she said. “It was on one of the pages from the book.”
And so it was. On the torn page, it had been in black and white. Here it was in colour, and accompanied by different text.
Damien said, “Can you make it bigger?”
Edward clicked, and the thumbnail image was replaced by one that more than filled the screen.
John Atkinson Grimshaw. A Yorkshireman, and a self-taught late Victorian painter of townscapes and landscapes and middle-class women in gardens. Not the most prominent of the fairy painters, but one whose choice of subjects reflected the market of his day.
This one was called The Fairy Bride’s Abduction and showed a canvas crowded with figures, most of them involved in the business of the title. An ugly horde of twisted creatures were carrying off a fairy—depicted as a barely-grown woman with dragonfly wings, her nubile form clad in little more than a veil—while others held back a struggling creature who was attempting to interfere. Over it all stood a great dark figure, one arm outflung in a pointing gesture, clearly in charge of the atrocity.
As a picture, it was hard to read. There was so much going on that the eye kept getting drawn off into some detail… this elf pulling the hat off another, that hobgoblin falling back into the brambles, something unnameable riding piggyback on the shoulders of something indescribable. In the background were some buildings, and in the few uncrowded inches of canvas beyond the buildings were a tiny patch of landscape and a moonlit sky.
“You could get a headache just looking at this,” Damien said. “I wonder what dad expects us to make of it?”
“Look at that figure, there,” Ariane said. “Don’t you recognise him?”
She had Edward reposition the image on the screen so that the struggling male figure was central. Two evil creatures were holding his arms and another had him about the waist. Every line of his being suggested that he was straining to reach the abducted sylph; every line of hers indicated her inability to resist the forces that were carrying her off.
The struggling figure was green; his face a mask of fury, his eyes a raging gold.
“That’s Roscoe,” Damien said blankly.
And so it was. Sylvanus Roscoe, in his unaltered, natural, non-
“You realise what this means,” Ariane said. “If that’s a recognisable likeness, then it must have been drawn from life. What’s the date on it?”
Edward read it out.
“Just before the valley was flooded,” Ariane said excitedly. “Look at those buildings in the background! Don’t you recognise them? Dad’s dug the albums out and showed them to us often enough!”
Damien probably wouldn’t have spotted it without prompting. But now that he looked—yes, she was right. They very much resembled the wooden cabins in which the Ryan clan had been rehoused after the construction of the dam. Moonlight shone through the roof of one of them. In the painting, the buildings were unfinished.
Ariane said, “The artist saw Roscoe. He obviously went to the valley around the time when the cabins were built. What if the rest of it’s true as well?”
“What? The whole kidnapping thing?”
“A historical record.”
Damien was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed.
Edward said, “It would explain what’s been driving him.”
They looked at the older man. His was gazing at the screen. He moved the mouse, repositioning the image so that Sylvanus Roscoe and the Fairy Bride were both in frame. Even though most would assume the scene to be fanciful, the distress of the two separated creatures was evident and real.
“He’s been in the dark all this time,” Edward said. “So for him, this is like yesterday. Someone took her from him and he’s set out to find her. He thinks he’s on a rescue mission. This painting is the only clue that he has.”
It was neither the most accomplished nor the most famous picture in the city gallery, but it was one of the most popular. When a new-broom curator had taken the decision to retire it to the basement stacks because she considered it second-rate art, the resulting local outcry ensured that the picture stayed in its place and the new curator didn’t.
It was an enormous canvas. Postcards and textbook reproductions couldn’t do it justice. It occupied almost the entire end wall of one wing of the building. There was a rope barrier to discourage touchers, and a low padded bench in the middle of the room for the weak and weary. In the soft light from a glass roof above, the woodland tableau was there to be observed from ten until six every day.
As Damien and Ariane entered the wing, they could see a solitary figure on the bench before the painting. It was mid-morning. They’d encountered no more than three or four people on their way through the gallery, and two of those had been members of staff.
Roscoe was a small figure before the enormous canvas. Much smaller than his painted self. He was still in the stolen overcoat, with the knitted hat pulled down to cover the pointed tips of his ears. He didn’t move or react as Damien and Ariane approached the bench and sat, one to either side of him.
Ariane said, “Painted over a hundred years ago.”
“From life,” Roscoe said.
Damien said, “You know what we’re here for.”
Roscoe took in a deep breath, and finally looked down from the picture. His features had softened a little in the hours since they’d chased him.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he said.
“As simple as that?”
Without looking up, Roscoe nodded.
Ariane said, “Don’t you want to tell someone the story?”
Outside the city gallery, there stood a city park. They walked out of the great doors, down stone steps flanked by white stone urns, and found a place to sit by a shallow pool with a fountain that looked as if it was never turned on.
Roscoe looked at the dead leaves floating and said, “We can only be as we are. My nature is to fly at any challenge that I face. I thought that if I seized my opportunity and moved with speed, I would surely prevail. Now I can see that it was a hopeless task and that whatever effort I might have made, it would have been in vain. Sometimes there are things that are lost, that we cannot hope to regain. Accepting that is hard.”
He looked down. Damien was finding this strange. Here they were in a slightly run-down park in the middle of a city; not neglected, but frazzled at the edges as public spaces always are. Behind them was the public building that housed all the city’s art treasures, such as they were. Roscoe looked like a scruffy modern boy. But he spoke like the ancient prince that he was. Ariane seemed unfazed by the oddity of it; but she’d travelled so much farther, and seen so much more.
Roscoe went on, “I’ll tell you the tale. And when it’s ended, you can take me back. I slept in the darkness while the world moved on. Now that I know what I know, I will welcome the chance to return.
“I lived in the valley, in the Blackwood Oak. Time meant nothing to us there. To leave is to become mortal, and to become mortal is to die.
“I was counted a prince among my kind. One of the duties of a prince is to marry, and to choose his bride with care. I was lucky. For me, love and duty were as one. I wooed a Dryad, from the willow circle on the hill. Her name was Elaby.
“On the night of our wedding, there was a remarkable appearance. A group of the most distant guests brought in a soul that they had found and at first taken for dead by the roadside. She had been making her way to the valley. Elaby recognised her as Eithna, one of her sisters, disappeared and long thought lost.
“We halted the celebrations and gathered to hear her story. Some had believed her captured, and this turned out to be the case. She told of being tricked and then trapped in a sack.”
Here he looked pointedly at Damien, who had the decency to shrug and look embarrassed.
“Who trapped her?” Ariane said.
“She spoke of being taken to a camp in a meadow. She said there was a caravan, and there were horses. A ring of fire encircled the camp. Beyond the ring of fire there were presences that she could not see.
“She was confined in iron and interrogated. Her captor was a tall man. A dark man.”
Damien thought of the shadowy figure in the painting, standing over all and giving orders to the horde.
“Eithna was defiant. She told him that she belonged to one of the oldest and the strongest groups of folk in the land. She believed that we would soon be arriving to rescue her. We are a gentle people. But in force we can be formidable.
“Her defiance was in vain. No one came for her because at that moment, none of us knew that she was gone. And by the time that she was missed and we started to search, the dark man and his accomplices had hitched up their horses and doused all the fires and the long journey south had begun.
“All along the way, she protested. And little did she realise it at the time… but the more she threatened him and boasted of our community, the more interested the dark man became.
“Eventually they reached their destination. She said they called it the Sunshine Farm. It was a place of horror.
“It was a place where our kind were confined and tortured and studied to find out what makes us as we are. The dark man exchanged his coat for a white one and Eithna found herself in the company of others like herself, who’d been captured in other parts of the land. All were subject to the same treatment. All were the objects of his research.
“Some were in a poor state. It was whispered that when their secrets were all known and their use was finally exhausted, they would be classified and then held in a preserved state that was like a living death.
“Eithna glimpsed such horrors in her time at the Sunshine Farm. Nature spirits in jars with their light dulled to a faint, eternal glow. Lesser forms dead and pinned to boards in case after case, as men do with butterflies.
“She’d abandoned her hopes of rescue, but resolved to escape before her strength waned. At every session she cursed her tormentor, and spat out threats about the anger of her people.
“Then, one day, she was taken from her storeroom to the dark man’s laboratory, and there she was left alone. The dark man did not come, and the room was not secured. At first she could not believe her good fortune.
“She seized her opportunity and escaped from the Sunshine Farm. She was far from the ancient woodland and had seen nothing of the journey down, and her instincts were weakened. But in crossing the country she came upon the great iron way, and followed it North; and in time the countryside softened and became ever more familiar. As she drew closer to home, she could feel some of her strength returning. The damage that she had suffered was great.
“Her best chance of recovery was to be returned to the willow circle, to which she belonged. But it was not to be.
“As Eithna reached the part of her story that concerned her home-coming, those of us listening became aware of a dark and growing presence surrounding the wood. At first it had gone unnoticed, so caught up were we in the horrors of her tale.
“I was the first to realise that her escape had been no accident. We are an elusive people and until now her captor had been an opportunist collector, making forays into the countryside and gathering his specimens in ones and twos.
“He was not intimidated by her threats of our numbers, but intrigued by them. He had contrived her escape in order to follow her to us, and he had not come alone. We were about to discover the true and terrible nature of his accomplices.
“A baying went up all around. It was designed to cause panic and dismay, and it had its effect.
“Within moments, we were being overrun. We had no time to prepare ourselves or to flee. It was here that we learned how Eithna’s captor, the owner of the Sunshine Farm, held command over the Sluagh, the Host of the Unforgiven Dead.”
As the boy spoke the name, Damien flinched. He couldn’t help it. The Sluagh were powerful, bitter, pitiless, and without any fear. The unforgiven dead were creatures with nothing to lose.
“We had no opportunity to resist, and no chance of escape,” Roscoe said. “We were corralled into the willow circle and held there by the Sluagh, while men and women with lanterns dispersed themselves through the woods all around us. Wherever we looked, we saw a waiting light. It was an organised and well-planned attack.
“For a few moments, nothing happened. Then the circle opened and into it walked the dark man. Eithna had said little to describe him, but I knew him on sight.
“He moved slowly, taking his time. He carried a silver-tipped cane and as he passed among us, he used it to point; indicating some of us, passing others over.
“When he came to the spot where I was holding onto Elaby, my fairy bride, he stopped. We’d been forced to sit on the ground and one of the Sluagh was keeping a close watch over us, daring me to move.
“The dark man raised his cane and pointed to Elaby. He did not point at me. Then he moved on.
“The Sluagh who’d been watching me obviously knew that I’d give trouble, and now seized me around the waist. Two more caught my arms as Elaby was taken away. I realised later that the dark man had a special fascination for those of our kind who most resembled human women.
“Much as I fought, and much as she struggled to hold on, Elaby and I were parted.
“I was overpowered, and she was borne away. Normally we make no sound. But I could hear her screams, and the screams of the others, from all the way down the valley.
“In the hours and the days that followed, I grew to understand the magnitude and the organisation of the dark man’s design. This was no one-off raid. It was a campaign, planned for the long term and to serve as a model for others. He’d recruited the Sluagh for the purpose, and rehearsed his forces in advance. He had even brought along an artist to record the event for the generations yet to come.
“The Sluagh had been left behind, posted in an impenetrable cordon. The dark man’s aim was to contain our woodland as an exclusive preserve, to be quarried for new material whenever his researches required it.
“Not a day passed without me making some effort to follow and find Elaby. Others tried to leave the valley and were even less lucky than I. The Sluagh would terrify, damage, and ultimately destroy any being who tried to pass through their lines, dragging the horrifying remains of their victims to the heart of the woods where they’d be left on display as a warning to the rest of us.
“Every now and again the dark man would return and make a new selection, his forces beating the woodland folk out of our refuges and taking certain ones away. But nothing ever equalled that first terrible purge.
“I hatched a plan. One time I managed to follow the raiding party with their captives, and to hang onto the underside of the dark man’s carriage. Gone were the horses, and here instead was machinery; the sudden noise of it startled me and I was thrown into the road, where I was discovered. The Sluagh gave me a mauling and threw me back into the woodland, where the others found me after a while.
“I was close to death. They placed me on a litter and carried me to the Blackwood Oak, so that I might return to it and be healed.
“The healing process took so long that by the time I was well enough to stir, the oak had been cut back and what remained was under water. I could not move. My home had become my prison.
“Time meant nothing. It was as if I dreamed. But the moment when I sensed that the waters had fallen and the oak was exposed, I leapt from my place.
“There was the first of my shocks. Instead of the valley that I knew, I found a lake. I dared not sink. I ran across its surface as if it were a piece of glass, until I reached the land.
“More uncertainty awaited me there. So much had changed. I called the names of those I knew, and none replied. I made my way up to the willow circle, but the circle was gone. In its place stood a great building of timber and glass.”
“The lodge,” Ariane said.
“I entered the building. I searched for some clue to what had been before. I found books.”
“Are you telling me you can read?” Damien said.
“The pictures told me all that I needed to know. These were the books written by the dark man and his kind. These were the results of their studies. I found myself in there. I found a reference to the raid.
“I continued to believe that there was hope. I set out and followed the iron road south, using it to guide me toward the Sunshine Farm as Eithna had to find her way back to the valley.
“But the Sunshine Farm is gone. Eithna is gone. Elaby is gone. All have gone and only that painting and I remain. If you wish to be kind, then leave me out here. Then I can grow mortal. Then I can die.”
“We can’t do that,” Damien said. “The land’s been stripped of too much as it is.”
“You’re part of the valley,” Ariane said. “It needs you. I’m sorry.”
“Then put me back,” Roscoe said. “The waters will rise and I’ll sleep again, and perhaps this pain will stop.”
He walked with them to the pickup, which Damien had left on a meter in a square a couple of streets away. Their time was expired but they’d missed getting a ticket. Roscoe climbed into the narrow seat in the back of the cab, and they set off for home.
Little was said on the journey. Roscoe lay across the back seat, curled up, eyes open, seeing nothing. When they stopped for diesel, Ariane took Damien’s phone and walked away from the fuel court to call their father.
Damien was waiting with the engine running when she got back to the pickup. She reported that Don had heard the story through to the end and then told her to call again when they were closer to home.
“Time’s getting short,” she said. “He says they’ve finished the dam repairs and closed the sluices. The lake’s already rising. There’s no saying how long before the Blackwood Oak goes back under.”
Roscoe had turned around, his back toward them. He stayed that way for the rest of the journey.
It was getting dark when they arrived. Ariane had made the second call as they’d left the motorway network, and they were met by Don waiting on the lakeshore with a boat. It was a small dinghy with an outboard. It belonged to the Ranger Service and was usually kept in a padlocked boat house.
Roscoe climbed in without a word. He sat alone at the front of the boat on the journey across the water, looking out toward his island in the fading light and evening mist. Damien felt a pang of sadness for him; he glanced at Ariane and was about to say as much, but saw that she was subdued to a point close to tears. Seeing the extent of her upset, he found that his own had suddenly become more intense. It seemed better not to risk speaking at all.
When they reached the oak, the islet was all but gone and the waves were beginning to wash across the sawn-off surface of the stump. It made an uneven platform, with the jagged planes and lines of the old saw-cuts still evident. The timber had been blackened by its long immersion, but hadn’t rotted.
Damien wondered how his father had managed to navigate out to it in the gloom. It was at no more than fifteen feet across, although it probably widened out more under the water.
There was nowhere to tie up. Don had to keep them close with short bursts from the outboard motor every time the wind and the waves tried to carry them away.
He called forward, “Do you know what to do?”
Sylvanus Roscoe seemed not to hear him, but it was of no matter. He appeared to understand what was required. He rose in the boat and stepped up onto the side, his weight barely tipping it as he balanced with ease on the narrow rail. He was an incongruous figure, still wearing the wool cap and stolen overcoat and with his skinny legs rattling loose in the Wellington boots from the DIY store. He was looking down at the remnant of the once-great oak; then without warning he seemed to let himself fall toward it, toppling smoothly forward with his arms by his sides.
In a second it was over. Roscoe was gone and the coat and boots were floating.
Damien hauled in the sodden coat, Ariane grabbed one of the boots, and Don gave a few blips on the outboard to chase the other as it drifted away. The hat had already sunk and there was no sign of it at all.
“Well, that’s that,” Don said.
He engaged the outboard, took them around the Blackwood Oak in a broad circle, and headed back toward the shore.
For Ariane it was the second homecoming in just a few days, but this one was much more subdued than the last. This despite the fact that, as retrieval operations went, it had been one of their most difficult and successful ever.
All the same, there was no sense of celebration. Ariane curled up in a seat in a corner and leafed through some of the books in her father’s library, while Damien put on a fleece and went out onto the deck.
When Don had finished composing a lengthy post to his forum, he came out to join him.
“All sent?” said Damien.
“Just the bones of it,” said Don.
They sat on the deck furniture in silence for a while, looking out into the evening.
Then Damien said, “Why didn’t we stop him?”
His father considered for a moment. Then he said, “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“This dark man. Whatever his name was.”
“Sir Norman Slingsby,” Don said.
Damien looked at him in surprise.
“Professor Slingsby,” Don said, “later Lord Slingsby. Author of The Romance and Superstitions of the English Counties. The book that Ariane’s looking through right now.”
“Look,” Damien said. “I know I’m the stupid one in the family. But we’ve looked after this valley for ten generations. How could he come and go, and do all those things he did, without our people knowing or doing anything about it?”
“Because we were helping him,” Don said quietly, looking out into the evening air and not at Damien.
“What?” Damien said. “What do you mean?”
“We were part of it. We, us, the family. He couldn’t have managed any of it without the family’s co-operation. Who do you think was carrying the lanterns?”
“But why would we—they—why would they do that?”
“Different days,” Don said. “Different times. I wasn’t there, and I’m not going to speak for anyone else. But everything we know today, it comes from what we learned back then. I’m not saying it wasn’t cruel. I’m not saying it wasn’t wrong. I’m just saying that’s how it is.”
“That makes me feel like crap,” Damien said.
“Try not to think about it too much,” Don said. “I don’t.”
And he went back inside.
The City Art Gallery and Museum, founded in part with the Slingsby Bequest, occupies a building that had once been a mid-sized country house with an extensive estate. Back then, it had stood outside the town by some way. But the town had grown, and the estate had been sold off one field at a time, until eventually a new city surrounded it and only a park remained.
In its heyday the estate was self-sufficient, with a large kitchen garden and a dairy herd. The dairy buildings were painted an ochrous yellow, inspiring local children to call it The Sunshine Farm. With some older people the name is in use to this day, even though the outbuildings in question are long gone.
By the time the house and land were gifted to the city, the Slingsbys had more or less abandoned it. It was a damp and draughty place then; grimy classical in style, but architecturally undistinguished. The upstairs rooms were taken over as offices for various departments of the council, and the reception rooms became exhibition space.
Aside from the occasional wet-weekender or school party, the permanent exhibition draws about as much attention as any other regional rag-tag cultural assortment of its kind.
No one has been in the basement for years. No member of the public, anyway. The basement is where they store all the inherited bric-a-brac of the museum; exhibits of little interest or academic value, that wouldn’t look out of place in job lots at a country auction.
The only visitors ever to unlock the unmarked door and descend the stairway are maintenance people, following some pipe for leaks or looking for a junction box. On those rare occasions, doors are opened and lights are switched on in one room or another, throwing a few beams into areas that otherwise know only darkness.
Typical of the content of those rooms is the collection that can be found stored at the back of one of them. Right up against a wall, and inaccessible behind two broken pennyfarthings and an incomplete human skeleton. There are boxes of files and ledgers, case after case of specimen boards, and jars of a preserving fluid long grown too murky to see through.
The Slingsby Bequest. Forgotten, ignored… and left far behind by the science that it was created to serve.
Time moves on, fashions change. Yesterday’s hot topic is today’s academic dead end. So the collection stands in darkness, and silently gathers dust.
Mice shred the records to line their nests. Spiders throw webs between the boxes, like fine ships’ rigging.
And every now and again, should a door open and some stray light briefly fall across one or another of the jars, something within it will stir.