by Kougyoku (紅玉)
The coach rattled and jolted as it travelled along the turnpike road. James, having been unable to secure a seat inside, was sitting on top of the coach at the mercy of the elements, the cold December air biting at his fingers and the wind dancing about his ears. He had had to remove his hat, lest it blow clean away, and had instead wrapped his scarf over the top of his head and tied it under his chin to keep warm.
Staring out at the fields as they passed, James tried his hardest not to feel too morose. If his trip proved successful, it could mean good business for his father and good experience for himself. Yet, as promising as the trip might prove, it was hard for James to focus on anything other than the weather, especially when he found himself buffeted by a particularly icy gust of wind and was forced to tuck his chin down into his collar.
It was only after a few long, cold minutes that the wind finally lessened and James was able to lift his head once more. Happily, as he did so, he found himself greeted by the sight of buildings on the horizon, their lights glinting out warmly in the gloom of the late-afternoon. Hugging his arms to his chest, James leaned forward eagerly as the coach drew closer. He had never visited the town before, but it appeared wonderfully enticing as it sat bright beneath the low clouds.
James’s father had recommended that he stay at an inn called the Red Lion, and James would have given anything to be there on an instant, with a good fire in front of him and a nice bit of bacon on the table. The light was fading fast, however, and though the town seemed small, James was not sure he would be able to find the inn in the darkness. Politely, therefore, he asked the old gentleman sitting next to him if he was familiar with the town and whether he might be able to direct James towards his destination?
The gentleman, blinking a little, as he had been asleep for the most part of the journey, took a moment to wipe his eyes with his pocket handkerchief before replying that, aye, he knew the town well and that, certainly, he would be able to show James the way.
Being thus roused from his nap, the gentleman seemed inclined to conversation, and he proceeded to mention all the modern delights and conveniences that the town could boast of. James thanked the gentleman for the information, but they both fell silent as they came upon the town and the coach dove amongst the buildings.
The streets of the town, as the coach rattled past, appeared narrow and dark, with only a few large town-houses settled between squat cottages and yards. James didn’t have long to consider his surroundings, however, as the horses had picked up their pace. It was only a few moments later that the coach drove out into a small square where it stopped, the horses snorting into the cold air at their journey’s end.
Climbing down from the coach, his legs stiff and aching with the cold, James took the opportunity to look about himself. The square was lined, for the most part, with houses of a modest size, some with brass name-plates on the doors, but none of them deigning to be the Red Lion. At one end of the square, the houses gave way to the pointed railings of a churchyard wall, with the parish church standing someways back from the road. The churchyard seemed unnaturally large for a town so small, and a great part of it was taken up by a steep, grassy mound that was almost as tall as the house beside it.
“Look there,” said the gentleman, as he climbed down from the coach after James. “I’ll wager you’ve never seen a hillock as strange as that one.”
James, collecting his case, replied that he hadn’t. The mound was almost in shadow in the late half-light, and it loomed large over the gravestones in the churchyard. What the purpose of the mound was, James didn’t know. It was barren save for the grass covering its sides and a small tree standing alone on the top, its branches bare with the season and waving in the wind. There was something about the size of the mound, or the coldness in the air about them, that made James altogether uneasy. It seemed, almost, that to stand in view of the mound was a very lonely place indeed.
“It’s called the Pen,” said the gentleman, smiling broadly, “and most people in this town are as proud of it as they are wary of it.”
James eyed the mound. “Wary of it?”
“I’ve heard that it’s haunted,” the gentleman nodded sagely, “and not just by the souls of those buried in the churchyard, if you catch my meaning.”
“You mean,” James clutched the handle of his case more tightly, despite himself, “haunted by thieves?”
“No, no.” The gentleman shook his head and looked at James with wide eyes. “Worse. There’s a tale that if a man is to walk three times around the Pen, he will summon the devil.”
“The devil?” asked James, glancing at the Pen. He wasn’t naturally disposed to believing in tales of devils and sorcery, but the hulking mass of the Pen was unsettling, even in the light of the strongest scepticism. The wind blew strong again, chasing under the skirts of James’s coat. “Is it true, do you think?” he asked the gentleman. “Do you know of anyone who has summoned the devil?”
“Not in my lifetime,” replied the gentleman, “but I don’t know of any man who has dared try it neither.”
James shivered. He was glad of the gentleman’s answer, and was sure that there was no truth to the tale, but he wished to be out of sight of the Pen all the same. Placing his hat atop his head, James thanked the gentleman for his conversation and wondered if he might be so kind as to follow up on his offer and show James in which direction the Red Lion lay?
The gentleman started as if he’d forgotten Red Lion completely. Brushing down his coat and picking up his case, he pointed towards a narrow lane that led from the square. “Down there.” He said. “Turn left at the house with the ivy, and then left again.”
Grateful for the assistance, James thanked the gentleman and bade him good day, to which the gentleman returned the compliment. Then, as instructed, James left the square by the narrow lane, turned one dark corner, then another, and soon found himself outside a stocky, half-timbered building with a warm glow issuing from the windows and the sign of a red lion hanging from a post beside the door.
James wasted no time in stepping inside, grateful to be out of the wind and the cold. Finding the master of the house, James requested a room, and with a pleasant efficiency, he was shown up a narrow staircase that led to the back of the building. Several small doors led off the staircase, but James was taken straight past these and up to the top of the stairs where, behind a door short enough that James was required to duck his head to pass through it, sat a room containing a good-sized bed with dark, heavy curtains.
The landlord left James at the doorway, and it was only once he had gone that James noticed the peculiarity which the bedroom contained. To be sure, the room appeared comfortable enough, but James couldn’t help the feeling of uncertainty that overtook him as he spotted the window. It was only a small thing, its glass dark with age, set into the wall beside the bedpost, but the view it offered was unsettling.
James huffed on the glass, rubbed at it with his sleeve, and peered through the window again, but despite his efforts, the view had not changed. Looking out, as the last of the sunlight faded, James could see the great mass of the Pen with its lone tree, standing sentinel over the square in which the coach had stopped.
On walking to the Red Lion, James had been sure that the inn did not back onto the square, and yet there the Pen was, through the window, as clear as could be in the weak light. The sight of it provoked the most uncomfortable feeling in James; almost as if that tree were watching him. With a shudder, James turned away and made his way down into the coffee-room with no little hurry.
The coffee-room, stout and warm like the rest of the building, was almost empty despite the large fire at one end. It was with some relief that James noticed that the windows in this room gave out onto the street and nothing more, and he almost fancied himself a fool for being so scared by the small window in his room. Without further ado, James sat himself down near the fireplace, and was soon brought a good piece of beef and some potatoes by the waiter.
While James was enjoying his meal, he couldn’t help but think that this town must be a very sorry place for the inn to be so empty. Perhaps not many people were inclined to travel on such a cold winter’s day, or perhaps the Red Lion enjoyed a particularly bad reputation, although James found himself hoping that the cause were the former rather than the latter.
With the inn as empty as it was, the coffee-room contained only one other occupant. He was a young gentleman, maybe no older than James himself, wearing a dark brown coat with a yellow waistcoat, and a circular, silver brooch on his lapel. He was sitting near to James, his back close to the warmth of the fire, and it appeared that he had finished eating, for his table was clear and he was sitting back and smoking.
This young gentleman seemed to be watching James out of the corner of his eye, taking draws from his pipe and then smiling to himself in a curious sort of way. Feeling that maybe conversation was expected of him, James asked the young gentleman if he was familiar with the town?
The young gentleman smoked for a few seconds more before turning his dark eyes fully on James and smiling widely as if he were amused at the question. “You could say so,” he said.
James, worried that he’d caused offence, was quick to state that he’d meant nothing particular by the question, but that the inn seemed rather more empty than he’d been expecting, and he asked if the young gentleman might know why?
The young gentleman laughed heartily, and raised his pipe in a friendly way to indicate that he hadn’t been offended in the slightest. He turned and glanced out of the window into the dark, quiet street before looking back at James. “Some might ask,” said the young gentleman, “why a man would wish to travel on a day like today, in the middle of winter.” He went to say something more, but seemed to stop himself, and instead stated, “This is only a small town, and there aren’t many who have call to come here at this time of year.”
Embarrassed, James realised that he hadn’t thought to introduce himself at all. “James Sedge,” he said, leaning across to shake the young gentleman’s hand, “solicitor’s clerk, for my father. I’m here on business. My father would normally make the journey, but the cold weather doesn’t treat him as well as it used to.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr Sedge,” said the young gentleman, with a nod as James sat back down, “and I hope your business goes well.” He took another draw from his pipe. “I don’t like to stand on ceremony.” Here, he gave James a smile. “Please, call me Edmond.”
James couldn’t help but feel glad to be on intimate terms with such a friendly, young gentleman. There must have been something about Edmond’s quick manner, or the look in his eye and the tilt of his head, because it made James feel as if they could be fast friends on an instant. “Likewise,” said James, “if I am to call you Edmond, then you must call me James.”
Edmond smiled warmly. “I hope you’re enjoying your meal, James. The beef is good here.”
“It is,” replied James, suddenly remembering the table in front of him, and for a while they sat in silence as James finished eating.
When he was done, James pushed his chair closer to the fire. He warmed his hands slightly, before pulling out his own pipe and lighting it. After only a short moment, the silence of the room was interrupted by a loud roar as the wind jostled past the window-panes. With a start, James’s thoughts were drawn back to the window in his room and its strange view, and once again he found himself very glad that he was down in the coffee-room with company.
Thoughtfully, James looked to Edmond. “I hope you don’t mind my asking,” said James, “but do you know much of the Pen?”
Edmond’s eyes crinkled at the corners and he turned to James. “I know enough.”
“Have you,” started James, then stopped, feeling foolish for even thinking of asking. Yet still, the thought of that lone tree and the unnatural, looming mass of the Pen had piqued his curiosity. “Have you heard the tales they tell?”
Edmond sniffed and leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs. “Tales?”
James laughed nervously. “I mean no offence to your town,” he said, “but I met a gentleman on the coach who told me that to walk three times around the Pen is to summon the devil.”
Edmond’s smile grew wider and he made a point of studying the tip of his shoe in an attempt to conceal his amusement. “Aye,” he said. “They do say that.”
“And,” James was not sure why his companion appeared to find such fun in the story when James himself felt so uneasy at the mention of it, “do you believe it to be true?”
Edmond looked up at him, made as if to speak, and then appeared to pause to compose himself as the amusement threatened to overtake him. “People tell plenty of tales that have no basis in fact,” he said, nodding to James with a knowing smile. “You are a sceptic yourself.”
Startled at being so easily discovered, James jumped a little in his seat. “I am,” he acknowledged, hesitantly, “but there is something about that mound that makes me think I may be wrong.” James glanced at the window. “The sight of it almost makes me grow cold.”
Edmond appeared sympathetic. “There’s been many a man who has felt the same,” he declared, rising from his seat and placing a hand on James’s arm, “but there’s no devil in the Pen.” Then, with a squeeze of James’s arm and with a brief nod by way of a good-night, Edmond stepped out of the room.
James sat watching the fire for many minutes afterwards. He was glad of Edmond’s words, and he wanted to believe them, but he couldn’t stop the dread from creeping through his limbs at the thought of the Pen. Once again, he had the feeling that, even in the coffee-room, the lone tree was watching him.
It was with a great amount of reluctance that James went to bed that night. In his room, the window was dark and he could see nothing through it, but he felt uneasy in its presence all the same. He closed the curtains of his bed to block it from sight and lay there, sleep escaping him for many hours.
In the morning, James felt more cheerful. He had a great deal of business to attend to and he was required to rise early to see to it. After a quick breakfast, and after discovering the location of the local solicitors’ practice from the waiter, James set off.
James’s way meant that he must pass through the square in which the coach had arrived, and it was with much trepidation that he approached it along the narrow lane. For reasons that he could not explain, James did not wish to stand in front of the Pen again. Luck, however, was on James’s side; the morning was cold and bitter, and a thick fog hung heavy in the streets. When James emerged into the square, he found that he could hardly see anything on the far side of the square, with most everything hidden from sight, including the church, and the Pen.
With the cold air burning at the back of his throat, James stopped and peered into the whiteness. If he tried hard enough, he could just make out the the railings on the churchyard wall, but they were faint and he could not see past them to the Pen. Relieved, his heart beating fast in his chest, James turned and continued on his way.
The rest of the day went well. James consulted the deeds to a property that one of his father’s clients wished to purchase, and he found that they were all in order. The fog had lifted by noon, and when James set out to inspect the property itself, he found his journey very easy. Indeed, James found that the business went so well, that the work which he had expected to take two days, had instead taken him only one.
It was with good spirits, therefore, and clutching a bundle of papers, that James made his way back to the Red Lion that afternoon. The light was beginning to fade once again, but the air was crisp and the sky was clear.
The day’s work had distracted James so thoroughly that he had almost forgotten about the Pen, but he was soon reminded of it once he entered the square. There was no fog to hide the mound this time, and it stood tall and dark behind the churchyard wall.
James felt his footsteps falter. He stopped without meaning to and looked over at the Pen. Once again, he found himself overcome with the feeling that, when he looked at the Pen, the Pen looked at him in return. Without warning, a shiver ran down James’s spine.
There was no wind this day as there had been the night before, and the lone tree atop the Pen was utterly still in the cold air, but this did not mean that all was quiet upon the Pen. To his surprise, James fancied he caught a movement beside the tree, and his heart jumped at the sight of it. As he watched, with mounting terror, James realised that the movement came from a sitting figure, dark and ominous in the fading light, and when James took a step toward the Pen, the figure unfolded itself and stood up.
For a moment, James’s scepticism left him entirely. Against all reason, he found himself rushing toward the churchyard, and as he did so, the devil descended the slope of the Pen to meet him, walking with slow, terrible steps. With his heart beating wildly and his hands shaking, James reached the iron gate in the churchyard wall just as it swung open.
Through the gate stepped Edmond.
Gasping for breath, and his legs shaking with fright, James found that he had to sit on the churchyard wall to steady himself.
With wide eyes, Edmond rushed to James’s side and asked him if anything was the matter?
It took a moment before James could reply, the white, feverish clouds of his breath casting out into the square. In an attempt at comfort, Edmond put a hand on James’s shoulder and James felt ever so glad for it. He took off his hat, ran a hand through his hair, and apologised to Edmond for giving him a fright.
Edmond’s smile was concerned. “It seems that you are the one who had the fright, not I,” he said. “Your face is as pale as your shirt.”
James laughed in his embarrassment. He apologised again, and asked if Edmond had just been atop the Pen?
Edmond replied that he had, and James laughed some more at the thought of how foolish he had been. “Despite your assurances to me last night,” he said to Edmond, “I felt almost certain that I had seen…” James met Edmond’s eyes, and Edmond was the one to laugh this time.
“You believed I was the devil,” said Edmond as he helped James to stand.
James replaced his hat atop his head, feeling more than a little guilty. “Yes.”
“Well then,” said Edmond, “that is why one should never listen to local people mongering outdated folk tales,” and brushing down his coat, he asked if James was on his way back to the Red Lion?
James replied that he was, and Edmond declared that they would both do well to have some dinner after standing so long in the cold. The offer was a tempting one, and James was only too happy to agree. It wasn’t long before they were both back in the coffee-room, warming themselves before the fire with a good meal in front of them.
Once they had eaten, and once James felt he had calmed enough from his earlier shock, he dared to ask Edmond why he had been seated upon the Pen?
Edmond smiled to himself and kicked his feet out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. “It was your curiosity that spurred me to it,” he said, looking at James. “I’ve heard that tale of the devil often enough, but I’d become so familiar with the Pen that I’d forgotten how strangers see it.”
“Then,” started James, “you believe the tale?”
Edmond laughed merrily. “Nothing of the sort,” he said, “but you reminded me that I had not sat atop the Pen for a long time, and I felt it was worth a visit.”
James looked to Edmond and was filled with warmth at how unconcerned and confident he seemed. Ruefully, James wished he had the same courage, feeling ashamed at his own fear.
Edmond must have noticed James’s discomfort, for he continued with a sympathetic look upon his face, “There’s no need to be embarrassed. Many a man has felt uneasy at the sight of the Pen when he has not seen it before. Come,” he said, leaning over and squeezing James’s wrist, “you must use your sceptic’s mind to sort the truth from the fable.”
Sorrowfully, James declared that he wished he knew how.
Edmond leaned back and gifted James with a smile. “Then let me help you,” he said. “There are two points that you must remember. Firstly, no man in living memory has seen the devil in this town; ask anyone for a true account and they will not be able to give you one. Secondly, you must consider the Pen itself: it is formidable, and unusual, and situated in a churchyard; all points that will lead an imagination astray if it is not set in the right direction.”
This time, when Edmond smiled, James smiled in return. Edmond’s reasoning was sensible and intelligent, and while James might still have been a little embarrassed, he felt less uneasy than he had done since he arrived in the town. The only thing that Edmond’s logic had not counted for was the view of the Pen from James’s bedroom window, but James was sure that there must be a reasonable explanation for it, and he dared not mention his uncertainty to Edmond for fear of looking more foolish than ever. Instead, James thanked Edmond for his trouble and his patience.
Edmond laughed, his eyes bright. He gave James’s wrist another squeeze, and changed the subject of their conversation, this time asking James if the day’s business had gone well?
James replied that it had, and before he realised it, he was explaining the purpose of his visit, the property to be sold, and the effect it may have on his prospects should it go well. Edmond seemed genuinely delighted to hear James talk about his work, and James was happy to detail the life of a solicitor’s clerk and the business of his father.
From that point on the conversation took many happy turns, wandering onto various subjects, and through each, James found Edmond to be both informed and intelligent. Edmond laughed often, and smiled his wry smile even more so, his dark eyes lighting with amusement, and James soon found that he was laughing and smiling along with equal vigour.
Indeed, they talked for so long that, without warning, the clock on the mantelpiece was striking midnight. James was tired, and though he was reluctant to leave Edmond’s company, he knew that he must go to bed.
Before James could rise, however, Edmond stayed him with a question: “I presume you’ll have further business to attend to in the morning?”
James replied that he hadn’t. He had nothing to see to the next day, but as he had finished his work ahead of schedule, he wasn’t due to take the coach back home until the day after.
Edmond sat forward. “A day to spare?” he asked with a smile. “Then, if you will accept my services, I will be happy to give you a tour of this town.”
James couldn’t help but smile in return. “I would be delighted to,” he said, and with that, he bade Edmond a good night.
In bed that evening, James felt far more easy than he had done the night before. The small window beside the bedpost was dark once more, but James hardly paid it notice. He fell asleep promptly, and when he did wake in the night, his mind was not filled with thoughts of tall mounds and lone trees, but with thoughts of Edmond instead, quick and amused and intelligent.
The next morning, Edmond met James at breakfast and they soon set on their way. Unlike the previous day, there was no fog to be seen in the streets; the sky was bright, frost covered the cobblestones, and the air was cold and sharp.
Upon leaving the Red Lion, they didn’t turn towards the square; instead Edmond took James in the opposite direction, weaving through narrow streets. They observed many fine places on their way: Edmond showed James the town hall and the corn exchange; they passed the public baths; the market hall; and a fine, old ale-house, its ancient, half-timbered frontage listing to the side. Then they crossed a bridge over a narrow brook, and found streets with water pumps and a free school, and a stately row of houses on a street fitted with gas lighting.
Edmond was an admirable guide. He could tell James the history of many of the places they saw, and it was obvious in the way he spoke of them that he was proud of his town. When James mentioned this, Edmond merely smiled his wry smile, took James’s arm in his own, and they continued on their way.
Back over the bridge they went, through the bustling market place to a wide street full of respectable houses with brass nameplates beside the doors. James recognised this as the street where the solicitors’ practice was based, and, indeed, it was only a short walk later that they found themselves in the small square, the church at one end and the Pen standing guard over the solemn churchyard beside it.
Despite the wisdom in Edmond’s words from the night before, James felt himself shiver. He knew that there was nothing to fear in the Pen, and yet the sight of it, tall and silent, set an unnamed dread crawling through him. Edmond must have noticed James’s discomfort, for he reached out and squeezed James’s hand in a comforting manner.
Calmly, Edmond led James into the square, pointing out the rectory and its unusual twisted chimneys, and from there they stepped into the churchyard. James tried not to feel anxious as they passed through the heavy, iron gate. He’d not yet been so close to the Pen, the grass rolling up and up on one side of the path. They didn’t stop, however, and instead, Edmond led them down the path and into the church.
For a while, they sat in the pews together. Edmond explained the architecture and the features that had been added throughout the church’s history, and James couldn’t help but feel astonished that Edmond knew so much. They looked up at the great, wooden roof and down at the inscriptions on the floor, and then they found pieces of the ancient rood screen around the base of the font.
When they were done, and had walked up and down the nave many times, Edmond stepped back, gave James an impish smile and said, “Now then. Would you like to see the Pen?”
James felt himself tense. He had no desire to see the Pen, but he also knew how foolish he was for it. When Edmond asked him again, softly, James agreed.
They walked out of the church and into the bright light of the day. The churchyard was stretched out before them, impossibly large for the size of the church and scattered with headstones and stately yew trees. They made their way along the path between the graves, and it was not long before they were once again beside the Pen where the grass began its long climb upwards.
“Come,” said Edmond, taking James’s arm once more and leading them forward, off the path and onto the grass, “there is but one way to make the sceptic in you win out over a folk tale.”
From where they stood, at the base of the mound, it was almost possible to believe that the Pen was the same as any other hill. Up above them, the lone tree stood, waving silently.
“There is no devil in the Pen,” said James, hoping to believe his own words.
“Precisely,” replied Edmond, and led them around the side of the Pen, where the banks were steeper. As they kept walking, the banks grew less step once more. Stopping and looking upwards, James admitted that the Pen looked no different on this side than on the other. Edmond laughed in agreement and they walked on.
Soon, they had made a complete circuit and were back on the side nearest the path.
“There,” said Edmond. “Do you like the Pen well enough now?”
“I can’t say that I like it,” replied James, “but I am certainly more easy now that I’ve inspected it from all sides.” He gave Edmond a wide smile. “Besides its size, I truthfully cannot say that there is anything remarkable about it.”
Edmond chuckled. “Then you shan’t mind,” he said, “if we walk around it once more.” He went to move on, but James remained standing where he was.
James looked up at the tree, warily. “They say that the devil is summoned by walking three times around the Pen,” he said. “I may not be scared of the Pen any longer, but surely it is best not to tempt fate?”
“James,” said Edmond, looking him in the eye, “this is exactly why we must continue walking. Once you discover that nothing will happen, you will see this talk of the devil for the nonsense that it is.”
James looked back at him, and Edmond appeared so confident and calm that James couldn’t help but believe his words. In his heart, James knew that the only way to escape his fear was to do as Edmond suggested. Thus, scared though he was, James agreed and they walked on.
Their steps were faster this time as they were no longer inspecting the mound so closely, and it wasn’t long before the second circuit was complete. James’s heart was racing, his breath coming fast, and, for all his confidence, it appeared that Edmond was similarly affected.
He looked at James, his dark eyes bright. “Once more,” said Edmond. “We shall walk around the Pen once more to prove that this tale is false.”
James looked back at the church and then out at the square. The sun was low in the sky, and it seemed as if they wouldn’t have too much daylight left. For all that he knew that he shouldn’t, James wanted nothing more than to run out of the churchyard and back to the safety of the Red Lion. He clutched Edmond’s arm tightly and nodded. “Once more.”
This time, they walked slowly, almost hesitantly, as if their boots were complaining against the task. Beside them, the sides of the Pen grew steeper and then less so as they made their way around. Above them, the tree waved silently.
As they approached the end of their third circuit, the racing of James’s heart turned into a pounding and he could hardly catch his breath at all. Edmond’s hand squeezed at his elbow, and James squeezed Edmond’s fingers in return.
Together, they took the final few steps.
Once the circuit was complete, they stopped and looked upwards. Behind them, there was a flutter of wings as a flock of starlings took to the air from the roof of the church. Atop the Pen, the tree continued to wave.
With his heart in his mouth, James waited. Nothing happened, and so James waited some more.
After a few, long minutes with no sign of anything out of the ordinary, relief crashed through James like a wave. He couldn’t help but laugh with the force of it. There was no devil in the Pen; it had been nothing more than a folk tale. James could hardly believe that he’d been so scared, and suddenly, the very idea of it revealed itself to him in all its ridiculousness.
Beside him, Edmond laughed too. They laughed and laughed until they had to sit down together in the cold, damp grass.
It was some moments before James could speak again. He gasped for breath. “We didn’t summon the devil,” he said, smiling through the words.
His cheeks flushed with the cold, Edmond smiled in return. “That we didn’t,” he agreed.
When James finally found the strength in his legs again, he stood up. Beside him, Edmond did the same.
“Now,” said Edmond. “We have proved that there was no truth in the folk tale. Would you like to take a look from the top?”
James agreed readily, breathless with relief and laughter. Nimbly, Edmond made his way up to the top of the mound, and, finding it a little more difficult, James scrambled his way up behind.
At the top of the Pen, James could see that the lone tree was hardly taller than himself. The wind was brisker at this height, but nothing more was out of the usual. Edmond sat himself down in the grass, and James sat down beside him. Together, they looked out over the square, and James couldn’t stop himself from laughing again, giddy with happiness. After many minutes, when he had finally revived himself, James apologised to Edmond for his behaviour, but Edmond merely grinned in return and put his hand on James’s shoulder in a friendly way.
Overhead, the flock of starlings turned as one, twisting through the red sky, and it was only then that James noticed the light was fading fast. Wiping his eyes, he stood up, and suggested that they return to the Red Lion before darkness fell. With a smile, Edmond agreed.
Dinner that night was a very merry affair. The relief and the laughter that they shared refused to ebb, the both of them flushed with their victory. James even went so far as to propose several toasts to the Pen, and Edmond, his eyes glittering, was only too happy to join him.
After they had finished eating and they sat warming themselves beside the fire, James found it hard not to break into smiles at the smallest of things, and if it weren’t for the fact that Edmond seemed to be suffering from the same plight, James would have worried that Edmond may have thought him a lunatic.
James chuckled to himself and rested an ankle on his knee. “Did you know,” he said, “when I first met you, down here, two nights ago, I was more terrified than anything.”
Edmond raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and smiled. “Not terrified of me, I hope?”
“No, no.” James waved his hand. “I was glad to have someone to talk to. But after arriving at dusk and hearing tales of devils, my imagination was quite distracted; especially once I had found the window in my room.”
Edmond appeared confused. “The window in your room?”
Suddenly, James remembered that he had neglected to mention the window to Edmond. With a smile at his own hesitancy and foolishness, James explained himself: “The window made me quite uneasy,” he said, “but I kept that fact from you. I didn’t wish you to think the worse of me for being scared of a view.”
“You were scared of a view?” asked Edmond. “Why ever so?”
James didn’t reply. He stood, the confidence of victory surging through him, and pulled Edmond out of his chair by his elbow. “I shall show you,” said James, “and then you shall see how foolish I have truly been.”
With a smile, Edmond emptied his pipe, placed it in his pocket, and followed James out of the coffee-room.
Once they had entered James’s room, the both of them ducking to enter through the low doorway, James made his way over to the window by the bedpost.
Edmond stood admiring the room, and he declared it to be a fine one. James admitted that it was, but it was not the room that he wished Edmond to see, so he walked over, took Edmond by the arm, and manoeuvred him to the window.
“Look there,” said James, pointing through the dark glass. “What do you see?”
Edmond leaned close and James was obliged to step out of the way as Edmond put his hands to the glass and peered through.
After a moment, Edmond turned to James. “I’m afraid,” he said, “I can’t see anything.”
Frowning, James stepped up to the window himself and peered through it as hard as he could. Like Edmond, he could see nothing; the night was too black and, after a moment, even that blackness disappeared as his breath crawled across the pane. “It is too dark outside,” pronounced James sadly.
“Well then,” said Edmond, smiling at James and leaning an elbow on the windowsill. “If we cannot see it, why don’t you describe this view that shocked you so?”
Thus, James took the opportunity and explained what he had seen through the window; he talked of the Pen, and its lone tree, and the fact that he had been certain that the Red Lion did not back onto the square.
As James spoke, Edmond peered out of the window once more, and James squeezed in beside him, crowding his elbows onto the small windowsill and attempting to see into the darkness.
“It must be that this room backs onto the square,” said James. “There can be no other explanation. And I do not know this town well; I may have been mistaken.”
Edmond nodded, and hummed as if he were thinking. “The streets here twist unexpectedly,” he said, “and we are at the very back of the inn. It could be that we are facing the square without realising it.” He leaned forward again, looking through the glass, and from this distance, squeezed together as they were, James could see the bright silver of the brooch on Edmond’s lapel, its knotted patterns swirling and twisting together; the strong line of Edmond’s jaw emerging sharply from his collar; and the dimpling of Edmond’s lower lip as he bit it in concentration.
Suddenly, James had a premonition that something terrible was going to happen. With his heart pounding, he thought back to the Pen, tall and windswept, and its bare, lonesome tree. Despite his earlier bravery, James found that he did not wish to stand by the window any longer.
“James?” Edmond turned away from the window as James stumbled to the bed. Sitting down beside him, Edmond took James’s hand in his own. “Are you not feeling well, James? You’re shaking.”
James shook his head and licked his lips and didn’t know what to say. Edmond was as comforting and confident as ever and it made it all the worse.
“I think,” said James, trembling as Edmond stroked his fingers, “I think that perhaps we were wrong.”
“Wrong?” asked Edmond, his brows drawn in concern.
James felt his cheeks heating and he despaired. “We were foolish to walk around the Pen so many times,” he said.
Edmond frowned, squeezing James’s hand, and James could hardly breathe. “I fear that we did summon the devil today,” explained James, swallowing thickly and feeling as if he were but one step away from a dreadful action, “for he is tempting me. He is tempting me so very badly.”
“Tempting you? James,” Edmond took both of James’s hands in his own, “there is no devil in the Pen.”
“Then,” said James, watching Edmond with his heart in his mouth, “what have we summoned if not the devil?”
“Perhaps,” said Edmond, with a smile, “you have summoned an angel.”
Not knowing what to do, and unable to stop for all the world, James pressed forward and kissed him.
The hands holding James’s trembled and Edmond gave out a strangled gasp. James flinched backwards, intent on apologising, but Edmond leaned forward and kissed James again before he had the chance. Hands rose to cup James’s burning cheeks, and James clutched his own hands in the sleeves of Edmond’s coat, holding on for dear life.
Still shaking, and still unable to catch his breath, James broke the kiss and leaned his forehead against Edmond’s. “An angel,” said James, attempting to persuade himself with his words. “We have summoned an angel.”
James could feel a huff of breath as Edmond smiled, but it didn’t last long before James kissed him again.
What they were doing was both terrible and wonderful in equal measure. Edmond’s mouth was hot and inviting, his lips moist and soft, and when Edmond’s fingers ran down to James’s neck, dipping below his collar, James began to shake harder than ever.
More terrible still, was when James, steered by this growing madness, pressed a kiss to the corner of Edmond’s mouth and breathed, “I want to feel you,” against Edmond’s cheek.
Edmond smiled. James could feel the strength of it beneath his lips and James couldn’t help but smile in return. He ran a hand up into Edmond’s hair and Edmond held them both tight together, whispering, “Please,” into James’s ear.
Leaning back, James hurried to remove his coat and waistcoat. Edmond did the same, exposing strong shoulders and a crisp, white shirt, and fuelling James’s temptations all the more. Edmond smiled again, and then laughed, and breathlessly, James laughed too. Their eyes met, and when their lips met shortly after, James’s hands ran down Edmond’s sides to tug his shirt from his trousers.
With the skin of Edmond’s stomach warm underneath his fingertips, James had no time to think of the devil. He was giddy and breathless, and Edmond’s body was hard and wonderful against him. For the briefest of moments, James’s thoughts alighted on the window and the Pen and the lone tree, but then Edmond’s nimble fingers unbuttoned James’s trousers and pushed inside and James found he couldn’t think any more.
James broke the kiss and breathed heavily into Edmond’s hair as Edmond’s hand curled around him. It took a long moment before James could coordinate his movements enough to unbutton Edmond’s own fly and push his own hand down inside.
Beneath his trousers, Edmond was hard and long and ever so hot. The feel of it against James’s palm was sinful, and almost as sinful as the way Edmond nipped at his jaw when James squeezed his fingers tight.
They didn’t last long after that; they kissed again and rocked up against each other, each movement forcing Edmond harder and stickier beneath James’s hand, and each twist of Edmond’s fingers making James’s heart flutter in his chest. When the kiss broke this time, they smiled at each other, Edmond’s cheeks growing dark, and James was overcome with a dreadful urge to see him; to see all of him.
Retracting his hand, and running it under Edmond’s shirt, across the warm skin of Edmond’s waist, James voiced his wish. Edmond agreed without hesitation, and between them there was a scrabble to push down trousers and pull up shirts until they were both of them laid bare for the other to see, the full length of Edmond jumping as James touched him again, and Edmond’s hands running over the bare skin of James’s thighs.
This, then, was the truly terrible moment, with James and Edmond both gasping and breathless and smiling. They watched, the both of them, as Edmond found his release, long and sticky against the warm skin of his stomach, and James, shuddering, followed shortly behind.
For a while, James could do nothing but breathe, but then Edmond pressed forwards and kissed him again until James felt as if he might break into pieces. When Edmond pulled back, they both smiled.
Feeling tired and content, James stood, removed all his clothes but his shirt, and climbed onto the bed. Edmond followed suit, kicking off his shoes and his trousers, then lying on his side with one arm on the pillow.
He smiled at James for a long moment, and asked if James was still frightened of the Pen?
James laughed, and stroked his fingers over the warmth of Edmond’s hip. “No,” he replied. “I do not think I shall be frightened of anything as long as you are here to persuade me.”
Edmond laughed, his eyes glinting, and he pressed a kiss to the tip of James’s nose.
They lay there for a time afterwards. James found he was too tired to talk, but he continued to smooth his hand over Edmond’s skin, and Edmond traced his fingers softly down James’s arm.
It was when James had almost felt that he had fallen asleep, and his mind was protesting that he should shut the bed-curtains and climb beneath the bed-covers, that Edmond sat up.
Edmond ran a hand through his hair. “I should leave.”
James didn’t wish for Edmond to go anywhere, but he knew well what might happen if they both fell asleep and were found by the chambermaid in the morning. Reluctantly, therefore, James sat up. He bade Edmond good night with a kiss, and Edmond returned it with a smile and a squeeze of James’s hand.
As Edmond dressed, James lay back down and watched him, thinking that Edmond truly was a wonderful person, so kind and confident and clever. Edmond finished tying his shoes, then pulled on his coat, his silver brooch glinting in the candle-light. Finally, he leaned over the bed, gave James a final kiss, and with a soft good night, left the room.
That night, with the warmth of Edmond lingering on his pillow, James slept very well indeed.
The next morning, James rose early. He dressed himself as quickly as was possible, and made his way down into the coffee-room to eat.
Throughout his breakfast, James waited eagerly for Edmond to arrive, turning happily in his seat whenever the door opened, only to find, each time, that it was the waiter. Even when James had finished his breakfast, still, Edmond had not arrived. Indeed, thinking that Edmond may have slept late, James sat smoking for many minutes afterwards, but his waiting proved fruitless.
James passed an hour in this way, until he decided that Edmond must have left the inn on some errand. As James had nothing to do that day until noon when his coach was to leave, he decided to seek out where Edmond had gone.
Exiting the coffee-room, James found the landlord and asked him if he knew whether Edmond had left the building that morning?
Frowning, and looking very confused indeed, the landlord replied that he knew no-one of that name.
James found himself flushing in embarrassment as he realised that he didn’t know Edmond’s surname at all. He explained as much to the landlord and described Edmond’s appearance, recounting that he had been together with Edmond on a number of occasions, and that Edmond had been the gentleman who had given him a tour of the town and taken him to see the Pen.
“Ah,” said the landlord brightly. “I hoped you enjoyed it; there are some worthy places in this town,” and he inquired whether Edmond had shown James the body from the Pen?
James frowned at the question. He had not heard tell of a body, but he was in too much of a hurry to make polite conversation. Once again, he asked the landlord if he recognised Edmond from his description?
The landlord apologised and said that he didn’t. With a smile, he recommended that James ask the waiter instead.
After returning to the coffee-room, James found the waiter and asked him if he knew of Edmond’s whereabouts?
As the landlord had done, the waiter apologised and said that he knew no-one of that name.
Thus, with increasing annoyance, James gave an account of Edmond’s appearance, and asked if the waiter knew of him?
Apologising more than once, the waiter replied that he was sure he did not know Edmond at all.
James sighed in frustration. “You must know him,” he said. “I have hardly spoken to anyone else throughout my entire stay here.”
The waiter shook his head and said that he did not recall James spending much time with any of the other guests.
It was only with some effort that James did not grow angry. He explained, tersely, that Edmond had been the young gentleman with whom he had dined the past two nights.
The waiter frowned. He stated that he did not want to presume James wrong, but that, “for the past two nights, you have dined alone, sir.”
It was a moment before James could breathe again. “You are quite sure?” he asked the waiter. “You must be mistaken.”
The waiter gave James a look as if he thought he were mad. “Begging your pardon, sir,” he said, “but I would remember if I had served two gentlemen at the table.”
James reeled back as if he had been hit. He did not know what, but something was very wrong. Thanking the waiter for his time, James once again sought out the landlord, almost stumbling along his way rather than walking.
“Tell me,” said James to the landlord, in such a hurry that he could hardly form the words. “I wish to know more about the Pen. What is this folk tale you speak of? You say there was a body?”
“Aye,” replied the landlord. “But it is not a folk tale, sir. It is fact.”
James stared at the man in disbelief. “Fact?” he asked.
The landlord nodded. “Dr Ensham found it himself. He did it scientifically, about two years ago now; dug into the Pen to see what it contained.”
With dread crawling through him, James could barely ask his next question: “And what did Dr Ensham find?”
“As I said, sir: he found a body,” declared the landlord proudly, “and some treasure. He keeps it at his house to show to visitors, which is why I thought your friend would have taken you. It’s very fine.”
James shook his head. “He didn’t take me to see it,” and, hardly knowing what he was doing, James asked for directions to Dr Ensham’s house.
That morning, the fog had descended very low and it clung heavily to the streets and houses, smothering them in its icy grip. James was so distracted, however, that he hardly noticed as he hurried along to Dr Ensham’s house. He could think of nothing for the whirl of confusion in his mind. What had happened to Edmond, James did not know. It felt almost as if the world had shifted and turned a number of degrees, and that now, the morning and the night before no longer fitted together as they should do. Whatever it was that was wrong, James felt certain that the Pen, tall and ominous, had a part to play in it.
Dr Ensham’s house lay over the bridge, situated on the smart street with the gas lighting. Without delay, James hurried up to the door and knocked.
The door was opened by a footman who showed James into a cold room with high ceilings while he went to fetch Dr Ensham. Once inside, James had a few moments liberty in which to inspect the room, but he found he had no desire to do so, and instead paced impatiently, back and forth over the floor. In his doing so, however, James passed a number of engravings that hung upon the walls. They were all of them dull, except for one, which caught James’s eye against his will.
This print was a large one, and it hung alone upon one wall. When James stopped to look at it, he realised that it showed what appeared to be a skeleton, twisted and old and lying in state. James’s stomach fluttered uneasily, though he knew not why. He had just stepped closer to take a better look at it when Dr Ensham appeared.
Dr Ensham was a small man of an age with James’s father. When he entered the room, he seemed positively delighted to see James looking at the engraving on the wall. Coming up to James, he stood beside him and appeared to gaze at the print with much admiration.
James was so out of sorts that morning, that he didn’t bother with any ‘good day’s or ‘how do you do’s, and instead turned straight to Dr Ensham and asked him what he knew of the Pen?
Dr Ensham seemed little bothered by the lack of greeting. He folded his arms, rocked back on his heels, and declared that he knew much of the Pen, having subjected it to an archaeological study two years ago. Gesturing at the engraving of the skeleton, Dr Ensham asked if James was intrigued by what his study had discovered?
James’s heart danced within him. He looked closely at the engraving. “Then,” he said, “this is the body that was inside the Pen?”
“It is,” replied Dr Ensham. “This engraving shows the body exactly as we found it; see how I have arranged the relics around him in precise imitation of the way they lay in the ground?”
“You mean to say,” said James, looking at the skull, “that the Pen is a grave?”
“Yes,” said Dr Ensham, “albeit an ancient one. This body belonged to a young man. It’s likely that he was a local lord, given the rich goods he was buried with,” and jumping a little, as if he had just remembered something, the doctor made his way over to a large cupboard on the far wall which he opened to reveal a number of small drawers. He gestured for James to come closer, which James did, after giving the engraving one last, hard look.
“Here,” said Dr Ensham and, with an air of excitement, opened one of the drawers. “This cabinet,” he declared, “contains all of the relics that were found with the body,” and out of the drawer he lifted a rusting dagger. He explained to James that though the dagger may look worn, in its day, it would have been very fine indeed.
After the dagger had been inspected and replaced, further drawers were opened; they contained a multitude of things, from beads and small coins to crumbling pieces of cloth and leather. James studied each item with interest, an unnamed concern lingering in his mind, but it was only when the last drawer was opened that James’s concern made itself fully known.
Inside that drawer lay a circular, silver brooch, engraved with knotted patterns that swirled and twisted together. The brooch did not shine, as it was tarnished with age, but there was no mistaking it.
“Tell me,” said James, his hands trembling, “who gave you that brooch?”
“Gave? No,” Dr Ensham shook his head. “This was the finest of all the relics that we found inside the Pen. It was laying on the young man’s breast, so I assume he would have had it clasped onto his clothes.”
For a moment, James couldn’t breathe. He turned back to the engraving on the wall and stared at the skeleton. “How…” James cleared his throat. “How old would you say this young man was?”
Dr Ensham shrugged his shoulders. “Not old,” he said. About your age, I would say.”
His heart beating wildly, James looked over to Dr Ensham and the brooch in his palm, then back to the engraving on the wall.
“Edmond,” said James, breathlessly. “This man’s name was Edmond.”
Dr Ensham frowned. “I’m sorry?”
“Do you have the body?” asked James with a sudden desperation, his eyes not leaving the engraving. “Can I see it?”
Dr Ensham appeared rather flustered at the strength of James’s request. “It is not here,” said the doctor. “We reburied it inside the Pen.”
With a gasp, James stood back from the wall. Then, hardly stopping to give Dr Ensham a hasty goodbye, James ran out of the house as fast as he was able. When he reached the street, James kept running; he ran all the way to the Red Lion, packed his things together, and then ran out again, clutching his case tightly.
It was only when James reached the square that he slowed his run to a walk. The fog had lifted slightly, but it was still heavy in the air. Through the whiteness, James could just make out the churchyard wall, and behind it, the dark mass of the Pen.
Without stopping, James crossed the square and entered the churchyard through its iron gate. The grass was damp beneath his feet as he left the path and walked up to the base of the Pen, but James did not hesitate; fearlessly, he scrambled all the way up the side of the Pen until he had reached the top.
There, beside the lone, bare tree, James sat down and looked out, the shapes of the buildings fronting the square barely visible through the fog.
After a moment, his breath slowly calming, James smiled. “You were right,” he said, into the air. “There is no devil in the Pen. There is only an angel.”
Above him, there was a flutter of wings as a flock of starlings took to the sky. James strained to watch them, remembering the time when he and Edmond had sat there together, laughing and happy.
Ruefully, James sighed. “I told you I was leaving today,” he said. “That is why you have not returned,” and for many minutes afterwards, James sat there and looked out at the square, the wind dancing past him and catching in the branches of the tree.
It was only once he heard the clatter of hooves on the cobbles that James rose. Turning in his spot, he looked down at the grass beneath his feet. “I have to go,” he said, “but I will return as soon as I am able. And so,” he smiled, “I hope that we shall see each other again.” Then, climbing down from the Pen and collecting his case, James walked out into the square to catch his coach.
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