Squelch. Squelch. Splash.
I clambered to my feet, soggy and irritated, for the third time that morning. With a groan and a sucking plop, I dragged one foot out of the mud and forged a step onwards.
Damn that witch. Sending me out here on a fool’s errand. “It’ll be in the shallows close to the bank,” he’d said. “Expect to get your feet wet.”
My trousers were caked with mud and I was dragging weeds around my knees. I’d sensibly removed my trench coat and carried it over one arm, but the first slip into the lake had it as sodden as the rest of me.
I climbed back up the bank and emerged out of a shady patch of trees into bright sunlight. In crisp contrast to my mood, the scene before me was practically glowing with tranquillity.
Autumn had left its calling card on the hills and valleys of the Lakes. A fine dust of gold and burnished copper on the trees glinted in the sunlight against a clear blue sky. All around me the gentle ripples of the Wastwater twinkled invitingly against a stark neighbouring peak. The eastern side of the lake butted up against a towering wall of steep scree slopes, a dramatic backdrop of natural architecture.
If I weren’t cold, and wet, and tired, and wet, I groused, I’d probably be enjoying this.
I once thought that days like this were the reason I loved to travel. I thought that the freedom of the open road would come hand in hand with the freedom to enjoy life’s small pleasures, on my own terms.
Of course, once on the open road it quickly becomes apparent that life’s small pleasures are less about enjoying the scenery, and more about knowing where your next meal is coming from. Whether that azure sky can be traded in for a solid roof over your head. Whether you’re going to be able to dry your clothes later. Romantic notions like smelling the flowers and soaking up the sun are far, far down the list.
I wondered if Ang would appreciate this vista. Though she was brought up in the hot dark of a mine, her beady eyes had swallowed up the outside world with an avaricious appetite that almost – almost – matched her appetite for cooked pastries.
Right now she was in the care of Mark Demdike, the witch of the Lakes. I’ve known the man for nearly a decade (and I swear he hasn’t aged a day past twenty-five in that time) and as much as I despised him for sending me out to look for an aquatic weed, I was grateful for the care he’d given Ang.
After inspecting the parasite he’d removed from her throat, he’d taken me to one side.
“Who have you antagonised this time, Hansard?” he inquired gravely.
I counted off names in my head. There were plenty of dissatisfied customers I could think of, but the trick to my trade is to be long gone by the time they realise they’re dissatisfied.
“No one of consequence. Why do you you ask?” I replied innocently.
He frowned. “A little advice, Hansard. Whatever it is you’re dealing in at the moment… don’t. Someone, and by this I mean a very formidable someone, has gone to a lot of trouble to make a corpse of you.”
“Didn’t go to enough trouble, by the looks of things.”
He shook his head, lips pursed. “You see that worm I dug out of your friend?” He pointed to its oozing, blood-red remains in a tray by the sink. “It is a thing not of our world.”
I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t.
“A lot of things aren’t,” I prompted.
His eyes narrowed. “It’s an anomalous entity, Hansard.”
“Yes.” I could tell he was starting to get irritated by my lack of reaction. It was amusing to see his feathers ruffled for once.
He folded his arms, a sure sign he was about to unload something heavy. “There are some things so dangerous, Hansard, so perilous a threat to the existence of our world that they have been sealed off. Locked away in their own hellish dimensions and banished to eternity. And this worm, as you call it, exists only in one of these forbidden dimensions. What does that tell us?”
“Someone has a key?”
“They would need a more than just a key. They would need resources to capture and contain a creature like this, and then the ability to unleash it onto its victim – you.”
“But it wasn’t unleashed on me,” I protested. And then I stopped, remembering the worm’s first victim. Or at least, its victim before Ang. It was the man I had arranged to meet, the man who supposedly worked for, and was going to give me the inside scoop on…
“Baines and Grayle,” I murmured.
There was only the slightest twitch on the witch’s face.
“Out to get me, eh?” I mused, rubbing my chin thoughtfully. “I suppose they noticed I was sniffing around. Must mean I was getting close. I’m not the only one here they’ve tried to kill though, am I?” I said, brightly.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You work for them?” I shot back.
He looked appalled. “Of course not.” He frowned again, thinking it over. “You might say they sent me a business proposition, which I refused. So they sent me another… message.”
“Looked more like a bloody great troll to me.”
“Lucky I was around to save the day, eh?”
“Lucky I’m willing to help your friend. Eh.”
I took the point, and left it there. No amount of pressing was going to make him open up about what he knew, if he knew anything at all. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was as in the dark as myself. It would explain his apparent fear, and fear on a witch is not something to be taken lightly.
I had only gotten so close to Baines and Grayle – at least, I hoped I was close – through a complex web of bribes and favours and whispered half-truths. Trouble is, a man will feed you information with one hand and alert your enemy with the other. I thought of the whistleblower I was supposed to meet, and felt a little sorry he’d become a casualty as a result of my poking around.
On the upside, this slug, or worm, or whatever, it felt like another piece in the puzzle. If they were behind it, it proved that Baines and Grayle were not just petty thieves of bluecaps: they were murderers too. Murderers with the power to open the gates of Hell, if Mark’s explanation had been anything to judge by.
I wondered, for the thousandth time, whether the quiet eyed thief was Baines or Grayle. Or whether she merely worked for them. Maybe there was a whole hierarchy above her, before you got to the names at the top.
Most people know better than to stick their nose into things they know absolutely nothing about. I hate not knowing things.
At this moment, I hated not knowing where to find the bloody quillwort I’d been sent to retrieve.
“It looks like a kind of spiny grass,” Mark had said. Lots of things looked like spiny grass.
Eventually I thought I spied it, growing just a few feet from the bank. I gingerly placed a foot in the water, testing the depth. And then it seemed I slipped, or maybe some aquatic root tangled around my foot; whatever it was dragged me into the lake. Foetid water hit my throat before I could close my mouth. I thrashed blindly in what should have been two feet of water, but felt like miles above my head.
Be still, murmured a voice by my ear.
I tried to comply, biting back against the watery fire in my lungs. Something slid free of my ankle, and suddenly I burst back into air and sunshine. I flung myself back onto dry land, spluttering.
Feeling wretched, and soggier than ever, I sat down heavily in the mud and stared out into the lake. I was only mildly surprised to see eyes staring back.
I took them for feminine immediately. Perhaps it was their graceful almond shape, or the suggestion of long eyelashes. They were framed by a ragged mane of hair, and rested just above the surface of the water, peering at me with curiosity.
“Go on then,” I said wearily. “What are you, and what have I done to offend you?”
The eyes bobbed uncertainly on the waves, then rose slightly, revealing a nose and mouth underneath them. Besides the grey-green pallor of the skin, it was quite a handsome face.
“No offence,” it said, and the voice confirmed it as female. Her tone had a lyrical quality, but it contained a lilt of sadness as nuanced and beautiful as a minor chord in a major symphony.
“What are you?” I said again.
The eyes looked down towards the water. “I am nothing.” Then they flashed upwards, and speared me with a look of such soulful despair that I momentarily forgot my own misery. “Help me,” she said simply.
I began wringing the water out of my coat. “And why should I give any help to you? Didn’t you pull me under the water just now?”
“No!” The tone was so insistent, I almost believed it. “You fell. I saved you.”
I considered this, and decided not to voice my doubt. “You think I’m in your debt, lake lady? What favour are you about to ask of me?”
The eyes bobbed down again, and for a moment I thought she was about to disappear under the rippling surface. She looked as though she was afraid to speak. And when she did, I understood why.
“I was murdered,” she whispered.
“Ah,” was all I could think to say. So that’s what we had here. Some drowned victim turned water ghost; an avenging spirit, maybe. Poor woman. “What happened?” I asked, as delicately as I could.
“I was walking by the lake. A man attacked me. Dragged me under and held me down until the water swallowed me.” The water around her stirred, as if moved by her memory.
“That’s very sad. And I sympathise, I really do. But if you’re about to ask me to help you kill the guy responsible, well, I’m afraid vengeance isn’t really my thing.” Technically a lie. I deal in vengeance all the time. But I draw the line at outright murder.
She shook her head wildly, flinging fine spray from her weed-ridden hair. It caught the light like a fine sand of diamonds. “No killing,” she said, and it sounded like a plea. “But let me speak to him. Ask him why. Ask him why all those children.”
“Children?” I wish it hadn’t slipped out. I truly wish it hadn’t.
Around her, several small, dark shapes bobbed to the surface of the lake. Bodies. Small, small bodies.
“I don’t think talking will do much good, love,” I said, quietly.
I don’t know why the ‘please’ got me. Maybe it was how simply she said it. Maybe it was the heartache in her eyes. I’ll bet she was a mother, in life.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“My name was Lillian.”
“Lillian. I’m not sure I can be of much help. I’ve no way of finding this man, you see, not unless I’ve got something that belonged to him, or a name at the very least.”
Something shot out of the water and landed with a splat next to me on the bank.
“Will this do?”
I stared at the muddy – bloody – gift. Three severed fingers.
The lady phantom had the grace to look ashamed. “I bit down hard when he first tried to choke me,” she explained. “I didn’t die like a frightened squirrel.”
“I suppose that’ll make him easy to identify,” I murmured, mostly to myself. She must have sensed my hesitance, as the next thing to land on the bank – startling me, with the thought that it might be another body part – was a large clump of quillwort.
“You were looking for this?” she said hopefully. “Payment, maybe? A favour for a favour?”
I nodded, slowly. That might do. After all, I was only going to find the guy and bring him to the lake. No actual harm involved. It’s not like she was asking me to help her drown him.
The small bodies, still floating despondently in the water, caught my eye again.
Not that it would necessarily be a bad thing, if the man responsible happened to slip in the mud and sink under the still waters of the Wast, never to be seen again. Not a bad thing at all.
“All right, Miss Lillian. I think I can do you a favour,” I said.
She nodded gratefully and sank, along with the small bodies, back into the cool, watery dark.
* * *
There are many unconventional ways to find a person who doesn’t want to be found. My favourite consists of a finely tuned quartz crystal – in this instance, with a severed finger attached to it with string – used to point at the target’s location on a map. I sat in the car with the heater full blast, futilely trying to steam the dampness out of my clothing, while the crystal honed in on the resonations of our lakeside murderer. Technically speaking, I couldn’t have asked for a better item to tune the crystal with. Usually one would have to make do with a piece of clothing or jewellery, which will hold some of its wearer’s resonances, but only enough to help the quartz indicate a vague location. An actual body part should provide pinpoint accuracy down to just a few metres. The only downside was that it meant I had to handle a grotesquely wrinkled and slightly rotting digit.
Couldn’t fault the accuracy though. Led me straight to the hospital in nearby Whitehaven. Which, in hindsight, was probably the most obvious place to search for a man who had recently had his fingers bitten off.
A & E seemed the most logical place to begin my search. I realised I hadn’t asked the aquatic spirit when her untimely demise had taken place. Was it just this morning, and I should expect to find her killer waiting in the queue? Or was it several days ago, and he’s been unceremoniously confined to a hospital bed to heal up? Or, as I rounded the corner, was he that man with the bandaged hand arguing loudly with the nurse about how much he needed to be discharged right this second?
I paused and leant casually against the wall. I unfocused a little, just letting myself drain away from the scene. Wouldn’t want them to think I was intruding, would I?
“Sir, please calm down. We’d just like to wait for the doctor to give you a final evaluation–” The nurse, clearly harried and tired and trying her best, was cut off by the patient.
“Don’t give me that shit. I heard you talking. ‘Psych consult’, right? You think I’m crazy? You want to keep me in here so I don’t take my crazy onto the streets, is that right?”
“Not at all, sir,” she said. “But we do want to make sure your hand is in good condition before we discharge you–”
“Does it look like it’s in good condition to you?”
“Please don’t shout at me, sir. We really are just concerned for your own well-being.”
“You think I did this to myself, don’t you? I didn’t cut off my own fingers for fun!”
“You did say it was self-inflicted, sir.”
“Yes, but not in the way that you think!” He seemed to catch himself, as if realising how crazy he really did sound. He tried a different tack: “Please nurse, I didn’t do this to self-harm, and I promise I’m not suicidal. I don’t need some kind of mental evaluation, I just want to go home.”
The nurse was a credit to the very concept of patience. “I understand that, sir,” she said calmly. “But I really would recommend that you stay with us for just a little while longer.”
The man threw up his hands in frustration. “What’s to stop me walking out of here right now?”
The nurse sighed. “Nothing, sir. But I would ask that you sign a piece of paper for us, just to say that you’ve decided to discharge yourself.”
Her eyes sparked. “So that if you drop dead as soon as you walk out the door, you admit that it’s your own fault.”
He seemed taken aback, but not enough to reconsider his decision. He shrugged it off. “Fair enough. Give me a pen.”
I trailed him as he left the hospital, keeping a distance, and struggling to stay unfocused so that I could remain part of the background. I judged he had been in the ward overnight; he still had the hospital tag on his wrist, and the dishevelled appearance of someone forced to spend a night out of the comfort of their own home. His jeans and denim jacket were muddy and green with grass stains. Still damp around the cuffs.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t given any thought at all as to how I was going to approach this man. This serial killer, in fact. Child murderer and woman slayer. Suddenly it seemed that walking up to him and proclaiming ‘I know what you’ve done’ wouldn’t be the safest course of action.
I followed his determined march to the car park and watched as he stopped by a red Volvo, stared at his bandaged hand, and suddenly broke down into tears. He slid down the side of the car and collapsed onto the tarmac, sobbing into his disfigured fist.
“Danny,” he said softly. It sounded like the voice of a broken man. “Daddy’s coming. I’ll bring you back. I’ll bring you back.”
I was nonplussed. These were not, to my mind, the words of a cold-blooded killer. I decided to make myself known.
“Hello there,” I said, stepping forward. “Need some help?”
“Leave me alone,” he replied, voice thick with tears.
I took a shot and sat cross-legged opposite him, taking care to keep his hands in view.
“I’ve lost someone,” I said.
“I know grief can make a person do crazy things…”
“I didn’t cut my fucking fingers off!” he screamed in my face. Then he withdrew, huddled in on himself. “I’m not crazy,” he wept. “I just want my son back.”
Grief is a monster. It twists and turns in the mind, fuelling pain and guilt and anger. I wondered how it had twisted in this man’s mind, corroding reason and poisoning his sanity.
“What happened?” I asked quietly. “I’ll listen.”
He looked at me with eyes as heart-rendingly pain-filled as the eyes of the drowned lake woman. There were depths of despair in those watery irises that were uncomfortably familiar.
“You’ll listen, but you won’t understand,” he said, sounding as world-weary as I felt. “You want to know what happened? You want to hear about lake monsters and fairy kidnappers?” His gaze fell to the ground, and when he next spoke it was in a dull, lifeless tone. As if he’d said the words so many times before. “I was out walking by the Wast with Danny. We said we’d walk round all the lakes and tarns this summer. Every one. We didn’t though. There’s never enough time.
“I only left him for a second. He wanted me to find some big sticks, so we could build a den. We left a den at Windermere, so he wanted it to be part of the tradition. Leave our stamp on the lakes we visit. Leave a den for when we come back.
“I turned around, arms full of sticks, and I see Danny petting this horse right on the edge of the lake. Big horse, it was; black and glossy. And as I shout at Danny to be careful, I see his hand get stuck to the horse. Its glossy coat turns all to weeds, and the weeds seem to grow right around Danny’s hand. I’m shouting and running towards him, and Danny’s laughing like it’s all a game. He thinks it’s funny, this sticky gross weed coming off the horse.
“Before I can reach him, the horse bolts for the water. Drags Danny with it. Right underwater.” He paused, and his voice became a mumble, filled with exhaustion. “I tried to save him. Swam for hours.”
He looked up at me – glared, really – as if challenging me to call him crazy. I was lost in my own train of thought, racing away down a track of dreadful possibility. It added up. The missing children, the ability to shape-shift, and in fact the horse was the biggest clue of all. There was only one beastie it could be…
“…Kelpie,” I muttered.
The man bolted upright, suddenly hanging on that word as if I’d just offered him a lifeline.
“Kelpie!” he exclaimed, nodding madly. Now he spoke very fast, full of vigour. “Mum used to tell me stories. I grew up round here and you know what kids are like, always playing by the water’s edge. She’d tell us that the kelpies would pull us into the water if we weren’t careful. They were demon water horses, she said. Children’s fairy tale, I thought. I thought, I thought… Danny…” He strangled another sob in his throat. “Anyway, so, she always said that the only way to kill a kelpie was to take its bridle off, right? ‘Cuz then it’d turn into a normal horse, and you could kill it.
“So I went back down to Wastwater with a knife, so I could cut the thing’s bridle off. I stood on the lakeside and screamed and cursed until it came out of the water. And when it did I grabbed hold of its putrid mane… but there was no bridle. No nothing. And the weeds started to grow over my hand, and no matter how hard I pulled I couldn’t pull free. So I… I took my knife and I… I remembered stories where the children escaped by cutting their hands off…”
He went silent again, breathing, it seemed, for the first time. His eyes turned on me again, this time with a plea in them. Please tell me I’m not insane.
I felt he deserved some words of truth.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” I said carefully. “And I do think that a kelpie took your son. But I’m afraid your mum was only half-right, as you’ve found out for yourself. Kelpies don’t wear bridles. But if you put a bridle on a kelpie, that’s its weakness.”
A ray of hope shone from his face. “I could kill it?”
“And I’d get Danny back, alive?”
I thought of small bodies, floating on the water. I shook my head mutely.
“I’m going to get Danny back,” he insisted. He rose to his feet with newfound purpose.
“Hold on there, you’re in no state to be monster-hunting!”
“Watch me.” He beat his chest with his bandaged left hand. “It won’t get the better of me twice. I’m not scared of some fairy monster. It can hide in the deepest, dirtiest waters and I will hold my breath until I get to the bottom and drag it out by the weeds in its tail. I will make it pay for taking my son!”
It was a formidable war cry, and I found myself wanting to see the kelpie confronted by this flaming pillar of paternal wrath. Though I also felt a duty to keep this man from walking to his death. Because that’s clearly what the kelpie had intended: to have me lure him to the lake so that she – it – could drag us both into the water, and eliminate all threat of discovery.
The very least I could do was make sure he was armed correctly.
“First thing’s first, we’re going to need to purchase a bridle. Two bridles, actually,” I said.
“There’s the big country store down the road. Who are you, anyway?”
“Jack Hansard. And you?”
“Toby Everest.” He raised an eyebrow. “Local nutjob who thinks his son was abducted by a kelpie. Don’t you read the papers?”
“Ah. No, not really.”
* * *
The sun was still golden warm when we reached Wastwater later that day. We approached the southern tip of the lake on foot, through the trees where it was less open, more secluded. I instructed Toby to hang back, stay out of sight. I’d do my best to draw the kelpie out. The bridle, made of surprisingly heavy leather, sat snugly in one of the large inner pockets in my coat. If all went well, Toby wouldn’t need to be involved at all.
I strode to the edge of the lake as casually as I dared, keeping one eye trained on the ground for errant weeds that might suddenly and suspiciously betray my footing. The water’s surface was still and serene. It didn’t look like a mass grave.
“Lillian,” I called out. “Lillian. I have some news for you.”
I waited patiently for a few minutes. Then, one by one, the ripples on the surface began to gather at a specific point in the water, and there rose the striking grey-green head of the kelpie.
“What news?” she quavered.
“Come closer, it’s something I need to show you.”
She swayed back and forth, apprehension flowing clearly on her features. “What is it?”
“I think I’ve found an image of your killer. I’d like to know if you recognise the face in this photograph.” True to my word, I held up a small square photo, given to me by Toby. He and his wife had kept a picture of each other in their wallets, he said. When she’d died, he’d put his photo next to hers and Danny’s, so they’d be close together as a family, always.
“That’s him,” said the kelpie, with hardly a glance.
“Are you sure? I’ve got a couple of other photos of different people here, and I just want to be really, really sure that I’m looking for the right guy. Wouldn’t want to go accusing the wrong man of murder now, would I? So could you come over and give it a proper look? You’d put my mind right at rest.”
The waves swirled around her for a moment, and then she drifted forward. I began to reach for the bridle.
“Let me just get these other photos out for you to check over as well…”
I threw it out like a whip, and part of the leather strapping caught around her neck. She shrieked and bellowed and the water frothed up into a bubbling fountain. It cascaded down over the skeletal form of a horse, an equine corpse with weeds for tendons and pond scum for flesh. Mad black eyes stared out from deep, hungry sockets.
It tossed its head and the bridle slapped against the shore.
“Shit,” I said.
Something slimy wrapped around my ankle and yanked. I hit mud and pebbles and then freezing water. The rope around my waist tightened with a jolt, forcing the air out of my lungs.
Rope. That was the other thing we’d purchased at the country store. It’d seemed like a good back-up plan at the time. But now it felt like I was going to be torn in half, with the weight of a tree on one end and the strength of a kelpie on the other.
Pain burned bright in my lungs, crawled its way up my throat. I tried to stay calm, knew that flailing like a fish would do no good except to wear me out quicker. But then I opened my mouth and gulped icy water, and reflex took over and I thrashed and I flailed and I beat against the water as if it was a door I could open, and in my head I drowned over and over and over.
And then I was on my back, shivering, being rolled onto my side, and spewing lake water from my lungs. Something slapped me hard on the back and I coughed up more pain and more water.
“Thought you were almost a gonner there, mate,” said a voice by my ear. It sounded exhausted, but triumphant.
“Di’ we win?” I mumbled to the earth.
Toby hauled me upright. “Worked just like you said. It was so distracted by you, it didn’t notice me until I jumped on its back. It tried to pull me under, too. But I wrestled it, even under the water, and I forced my bridle over its damned evil head and I tightened that sucker til not even a flea could get under it. And the kelpie, it just, turned to foam in my hands.”
He pointed to a thin layer of froth now dissipating across the lake’s mirror surface. One less beastie in the world.
“Good job,” I croaked, and coughed up more water.
“What are they?” said Toby, looking out towards the scree slopes.
One by one, small shapes bobbed to the surface of the lake. One of them, I noticed, was wearing a red raincoat. I saw realisation wash over Toby’s face, and then horror, and then pure, unalloyed anguish.
“Danny,” he whispered.
I watched him dive into the Wast, swim like a man possessed, and heave one of the bodies to shore. I watched him caress it and speak to it and plead with it, and finally I watched him crumple into a broken heap over it, clutching the dead child to his chest as he lay in the dirt.
I called for an ambulance, and I left. I don’t do aftermath.
But I drove back to the witch’s house, and I thought of small bodies.
* * *
I didn’t exactly storm into the witch’s kitchen. A storm is a wild, lashing, emotional thing full of noise and energy and destruction. Whereas I walked into the witch’s kitchen like the pressure before a storm. Straining under the weight of a fury yet to be released. Grey clouds gathered overhead.
I set the bridle down on the wooden table with a heavy thump.
Mark turned round from his place at the sink, where he was scrubbing his hands.
“You were a while,” he remarked airily. My jaw clenched.
“There were some complications,” I said in a clipped tone. I saw him glance at the bridle. “But you knew there was going to be a complication, didn’t you?”
“It was a kelpie then, was it?” he said in his usual, affable way, as if it was only of mild interest.
“It was killing children,” I said, evenly.
“It’s what they do. I presume it won’t be killing any more?”
“Why didn’t you tell me to expect a kelpie?”
“I thought you could handle it. I was right.”
I smacked the table with the palm of my hand and left it there, shaking with barely suppressed anger.
“Next time,” I hissed, “deal with your own monsters.”
He nodded pleasantly, as if he hadn’t noticed my outrage. “You deal with my monsters, I deal with yours.”
He calmly indicated a figure lying on the floor that my eyes had completely omitted from the scene. I recognised it as the corpse that I had dumped on the witch’s doorstep only a few days ago: the corpse of the demon worm’s previous host. Only, when I’d last seen it, the chest had been intact. Now there was a… cavity.
And it was at this point that my mind finally registered that Mark was cleaning blood off his hands. Lots of blood.
“What happened here?” I demanded, unwilling to let go of the anger still pumping in my veins.
Mark dropped the bloody towel in the sink. “Parasites tend to do two things. One: they feed. Two: they lay eggs.”
A grotesque picture began to form in my mind. “Eggs?”
“Many, many eggs. I wonder if Baines and Grayle knew what they were setting loose, when they hatched this thing in our world?”
“You’re so sure it was sent by them? Couldn’t it be a wild… parasite?”
He regarded me with the look he reserved for when I was being particularly dense.
“If things like this were wild, I can assure you the human race would be a somewhat less dominant species by now.”
“Poor excuse fer a dominant species, anyhow,” sniffed a gravelly voice from the doorway.
“Ang!” I exclaimed, and the last of the anger drained away, washed off in a swell of relief. “Feeling better?”
“Aye, gwas.” She stepped gingerly around the corpse and poked it with her toe. “This’un dead fer good, now? That was a right mess wi’ all them worms squirming all over the place.”
“Dead for good,” assured Mark.
“Wasn’t he dead before?” I asked, perplexed.
Mark smiled grimly. “Complications,” he said.
“Ah.” I wondered if it was a fair trade, one kelpie for a dozen diabolic pest removals. Judging by the blood splattered on the walls, I supposed it was. “I’m afraid I didn’t get the quillwort.”
“No matter. You can fetch me some tomorrow.”
We stayed at the witch’s house for one more night, savouring the walls and the roof, knowing we’d have neither come the following day. Life’s small pleasures. I wrapped myself up in a thick fluffy duvet, relishing the bounce of the mattress, the aroma of fresh sheets, and the feel of real goose feather pillows cushioning my descent into the last comfortable night’s sleep I would have in a long while.
And I dreamed of small bodies.