The Huntsmen of Nethermoor

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Summary

Genre:
Fantasy
Author:
leanne McPherson
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
35
Rating:
4.8 9 reviews
Age Rating:
16+

Part one: Chapter 1

You laughed as I wept,

Said I only had my naive heart to blame for trusting yours.

Yet in spite of your lies, I let you back into my bed, desperate to persuade beyond that night.

But you gorged yourself on my love for you. Devoured every last drop of my failing respect.

And excused your greed with empty compliment - that other encounters failed to compare.

So our past became no more than satisfied hunger.

Memories discarded, like payment, by the bed that we’d shared.

And the truth of the nothing I had been to you, was finally revealed in the betrayal haunting another’s eyes.

An unfamiliar reflection stared back at me.

By your hand, the blood of another stained mine.

And mistaking my heartbreak for weakness, you turned your back, and turned the page.

And you believed I would forgive you.

And you assumed I would forget…

R.V.



From a distance there was nothing.

Years of winters had ravaged the imposing iron entrance gates, soiled the driveway with layers of decomposing vegetation, and ripped the name plate from all but one rusty pin.

At its edges, the surrounding forest had crept into the gardens, shrouding what remained of the lawns in permanent shadow. Over the decrepit pathways, entangled brambles blocked any onward approach, deterring uninvited visitors from ever venturing forward.

And it waited, as decade followed decade, slumbering in the heart of the rot, windows filthy, walls green with ivy and moss.

It waited for them to stir.

The old man watched her from the shadows.

The storm had worsened since his hasty departure from Cauldwick Hall, and the bare canopy of the old oak under which he now sheltered offered little protection. While the rain continued to cascade from the peak of his cap and over his weathered face, the sodden earth at his feet seeped in through the soles of his boots. He pulled his coat around him further and shuddered. They had both been here before. In the distance the hounds bayed. They never ventured this close. Something always prevented them from doing so.

The young woman appeared dazed as she stumbled upwards. Leaves danced around her bare feet, the wind tore at her loose hair, and she tripped, more than once, as fallen branches snatched at her ankles.

She reached the weathered peak, steadied herself against the trunk of one remaining diseased tree and tipped her expressionless face upwards. Overhead, the charged clouds glowed yellow. Slowly, strangely, the howling wind fell silent and the driving rain eased.

Thick, uncomfortable air engulfed the old man’s body. Instinctively, he loosened his neckerchief, closed his eyes, and waited. The lightning’s fingers crackled across the night sky almost immediately. He covered his ears, and cowered.

The thunder’s roar was instant and almost unbearable. Only when it had finally rumbled itself into the distance, did the old man dare to uncover his ears, and again open his eyes. He stared upwards, bewildered. The clouds above the young woman had parted, and her drenched body was being bathed in cold light emanating from the black expanse beyond them. But it made no sense. His father had taught him all about it - one full moon a cycle he had said. Yet this was the third in as many weeks.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the young woman move. He wiped the rain from his face, turned, and hopelessly watched as she raised a trembling hand to her neck and tugged at the ribbon fastenings tied at her collar bone. Her velvet cloak fell to her feet, and he looked away. He knew she would not stop there. She never did.

Naked and trembling, she spread her arms out at her sides and pleaded with the night. “Why don’t you come…why don’t you come?”

The wind began to moan. Leaves swirled around her thighs and hands, reaching for her fingers and spiralling into macabre formation before her. “Why do you mock me!” she shouted.

Lightning snaked across the sky, but as the old man cowered again, a loud crack forced him to look upwards. He gasped. A blackened branch from the gnarly canopy above the young woman had been struck and was plummeting in flames towards her. Rushing from his hiding place, he hurled himself at her static body and landed hard at her side. For a moment, they were both still.

The old man watched as the force of the impact snatched the young woman from her trance. Conscious thought flickered across her face. Anguish became realization, then horror. With a small cry, she pushed him away, scrambled to her feet, grabbed her discarded clothing and boots, and ran towards the edge of the forest. She pulled on her clothes, mounted the horse that waited patiently as it always did, and galloped back towards Cauldwick Hall.

The old man clambered to his feet behind her, rubbed his throbbing arm, and glanced into the gloom. What kept her coming back here he did not know, but he had no intention of staying to find out. He had lived and worked on the moors all his life, but something about this place made him feel uneasy.

As he hurried away, he allowed himself a back ways glance, and was surprised, but relieved to see, no-one was there.

Arthur Richard Alfred Falshaw, The Right Honourable, The Earl of Wessington, cradled his brow in his large hand and closed his eyes. At his feet, his loyal black Labrador, Hobson, dropped his greying chin onto his front paws, and sighed.

“I’m sorry, my lord,” a voice behind him said. “There is simply nothing more I can add.”

“But the episodes are getting worse, Ramsay,” he answered. “Good god, man. Look at the night. Who in their right mind, let alone a young woman on her own -”

Doctor Ramsay’s eyes dipped to the damp silk hat in his hands. “Tell me again what happened before she fled,” he asked.

“I have told you many times,” Lord Wessington replied. “The account is always the same.”

“You fought? Apart from being upset, was there anything else, any other sign that Eloille was feeling - unwell?”

Lord Wessington spun in his chair, and glared at the doctor. “Unwell? So you do think she is ill?”

“No. No, my lord.”

“Then, what?”

Dr Ramsay wiped his forehead and tried his best to swallow. The room was hot, he had been at the Hall for what seemed hours, and the conversation was going nowhere. “My lord,” he said. “It is possible that Eloille suffers from a nervous condition compounded by confrontation. Perhaps her inability to express herself satisfactorily when she is angry, renders her unable to reason calmly. Therefore her best, her only course of action, is to find solace where she can gather her thoughts before returning to you in a better frame of mind.”

Lord Wessington shook his head, and laughed. “A nervous condition? Eloille? The same Eloille who refuses to ride side-saddle, and who has declined more offers of marriage than most young women could ever hope to receive? No, Ramsay, I doubt there is anything Eloille does fear, a fact that makes her night-time outings even more distressing.”

“But your daughter has been seen by some of the finest experts in the field,” Dr Ramsay whispered, “and their reports are always the same. There is nothing wrong with her. She is just a little high spirited and perhaps something of a daydreamer.”

“I will pay, Ramsay,” Lord Wessington whispered. “Money is no object.”

“And you would be wasting your money, my lord. You have to trust my profession. We have come a long way since... ”

“Then what do you suggest?” Lord Wessington demanded.

The Doctor removed his handkerchief from his trouser pocket, and wiped his brow, relieved that his blunder had gone unnoticed. “Eloille has a great deal of time on her hands,” he replied, “and chooses to spend most of it on her own. This is not healthy for a young woman. I am right in thinking your hunting lodge re-opens again in a few weeks?”

The Earl nodded.

“Then encourage Eloille to take a more active role in the estate and the guests. A little company may be all she needs.”

“And if the episodes continue?”

“I can give her a tincture, my lord. It will help calm her spirits. But if the root of the problem is, as I suspect, your disagreements, I would urge you both to come to some accord.”

Lord Wessington shook his head, and turned away from the doctor with a sigh. “If only it were that easy.”

Catherine Mary Shalcroft, The most Honourable, the Marchioness of Kaymoor, thanked the doctor, and made her way back into the study. Dismissing the loitering staff with a glance, she closed the doors behind her, and turned to her agitated brother as he paced across the room.

“You heard what Dr Ramsay said?” Lord Wessington asked.

“Yes, Arthur,” Lady Kaymoor replied. “I did.”

“Always a logical explanation,” he scoffed, “despite being our family physician for years. Do you think there is any truth in it?”

“Very possibly.”

He stopped, and faced her. “You agree with Ramsay then? That I am the cause of these episodes?”

“No. It takes more than one to have a disagreement.”

“And Eloille and I have certainly had our fair share of those over the years,” he muttered. “But what I don’t understand is why must she run away? I am not unreasonable, am I?”

“Arthur, I, too, would rather Eloille did not flee, but I have to admit to being somewhat relieved when she does. Your argument in the parlour this evening could be heard in the stable block, and the conclusion that I, and probably most of the staff came to, was that you were never going to reach an amicable resolution. It has always been the same.”

“But I have never known anyone to react so vehemently, Catherine.”

Lady Kaymoor moved to her brother’s side and reached for his hand. “But we are not talking about just anyone, Arthur. We are talking about Eloille. And yes, you have always fought, but you have also always been friends. And Eloille is mature enough to understand that an angry tongue can leave its scars long after it has finished lashing. Perhaps, Eloille feels it is better to run away with your friendship intact, than remain out of pride.”

For a moment, Lord Wessington was quiet. “I wish she was more like you,” he murmured. “We never really did argue as children, did we? You were always so willing to accept my point of view.”

“Oh, my dear Arthur, I knew that for you it was always about winning the battle. For me, however, it was more about the war.”

Lord Wessington’s brow furrowed.

Saying nothing more, Lady Kaymoor cleared her throat and smiled sweetly at him.

“I don’t expect too much, do I?” he eventually asked. “Surely Eloille knows I only want her to be happy?”

“In her heart I am sure she does,” Lady Kaymoor replied.” But again, you are trying to reach an accord with a will inherited from your own, and that fight has to be won from both sides, or at least perceived as such.”

“Then what do you suggest, Catherine? I have begged, I have pleaded. I have even compromised, and I have certainly never bent my will to anyone in that manner before.”

Lady Kaymoor inhaled. It was tiresome to keep giving the same advice, especially when that advice always fell on deaf ears, but she had a duty to keep the peace “Forcing the subject will only make matters worse, Arthur.”

“Then you do agree with Ramsay?”.

“Just give Eloille time to come around to your thinking, Arthur. “I am sure she will.”

“But she does not have time, Catherine! I was prepared to go along with her promises when she was younger. That the next ball or the next meet would present someone she considered acceptable. But years have passed and no-one, despite the eligible gentlemen who have passed through these doors. Goodness only knows there have been many, and some whose disappointment has almost ruined my reputation.” He turned away from Lady Kaymoor, faced the windows and thrust his hands into his pockets. “And,” he whispered, “these last few weeks she has fled more times than I care to remember. Does she do this to ail me?”

Sensing her brother’s despair, Lady Kaymoor crossed the study, perched on the edge of the long chaise positioned in front of its large windows, and gestured for Lord Wessington to take a seat by her side. “Of course not,” she said, grasping one of his large hands as he sank down next to her, “You know how much she adores you.”

“Then why am I left with such terrible guilt every time I ask her to consider the match?” Lord Wessington whispered. “This proposal is by far the best, and probably the last, she will ever receive. The Brocklebanks are a good family, Grangemoor is a magnificent Estate, and William, well, in some respects he reminds me of myself at his age...” He bowed his head, and sighed. “Oh, perhaps I am to blame,” he said, turning to face Lady Kaymoor. “When Eloille’s mother died, I was sure I could manage, but it’s obvious she needed a woman’s intervention. I should have asked you to return much sooner than I did.”

Lady Kaymoor cupped her brother’s hand with her other, and peered at him. “Arthur, I don’t doubt that losing her mother at such a young age affected Eloille, but her spirit has always been a part of her life rather than a product of it. Always feeling that the next field would provide a more challenging ride, that the next room was more exciting than the one she currently occupied, only to discover, when she moved, she preferred where she had been.” She squeezed Lord Wessington’s hand and smiled. “You remember those two imaginary friends Eloille conversed with for hours and described in such detail when she was a child – what were their names again? Something foreign I think.”

Lord Wessington frowned. “I’ll be damned if I can remember,” he muttered. “I had forgotten all about them.”

“What about Eloille’s insatiable inquisitiveness for my life in London, then?” Lady Kaymoor said. “Arthur, you have been more reasonable than many fathers would be. When Eloille expressed a desire to leave the countryside and relocate to London as I once had, you delivered her into Elizabeth’s care with your blessing. And yet,” she continued, “for all her free-spirited talk of finding solace with people who would understand her, she returned lost and subdued only weeks later.”

With his eyes still fixed on the floor beneath his feet, Lord Wessington nodded.

“My dear brother,” Lady Kaymoor whispered, “Eloille returned to you and the Hall, because this is where she feels safe, and this is where she belongs. Surely that must count for something… Privately, I think Eloille knows the perfection she seeks does not exist, and that is why she runs from you every time you mention the proposal. She cannot admit being wrong because her pride simply will not allow it. I will speak to her again. You and I both know the match could make her very happy.”

Lord Wessington turned to face his sister, and swallowed. “I hope you are right, Catherine. I see so much of Eloille’s mother in her.”

The past echoed between them as a shared, but unspoken memory. For a moment, Lady Kaymoor remained quiet, locked in her brother’s distant gaze, but knowing full well who, and what, occupied his thoughts. “Your wife was beautiful and vibrant,” she whispered. “And you are right. Those traits do live on in Eloille. But do not let doubt deceive you into seeing more. Believe only what you know to be true and discard everything else. You heard Dr Ramsay. The experts can find nothing wrong with Eloille.”

Lord Wessington patted his sisters’ hand, and gave her an unconvincing nod. “Oh perhaps you are right, Catherine. I do so wish she wouldn’t ride out at night though.”

Lady Kaymoor rubbed the back of his hand, and giggled. “Then you must make a pact, that the next time you disagree, you take yourself off to the stable block and she head to the attic - at least until you are both capable of being nice to one another again… Come on. Don’t stay in here on your own. The fire in the grate is dying low and the prevailing north easterly wind always turns this room icy cold this time of year.”

Side by side, and with Hobson at his master’s ankles, Lord Wessington and Lady Kaymoor exited the room. At the doors, Lady Kaymoor glanced back into the room and paused. With a resigned, but relieved smile, she watched, as a rider beyond the large windows halted and defiantly stared as Doctor Ramsay’s coach passed by.

Eloille dismounted, composed herself, and turned to the oldest stable boy in attendance. “Make sure he is dry before you leave tonight,” she murmured. “The rain has soaked us both.”

The young man nodded.

“Thank you, Flight,” she whispered. “Until next time.”

Without again acknowledging the boy, Eloille turned away from her horse and left the stable block. Shrouded by shadows, and as the rain continued to fall, the captivated youth did not see the look of torment upon her face.

He forced his hands further into his pockets and kicked the ground at his feet. He wanted to beg Eloille not to go out on her own, but his courage again had failed him. In agitated silence, he watched as she hurried towards the rear of the Hall.

“Why didn’t you say nothin’, Jack?” a small voice asked.

Jack looked down at his side and shrugged at the young stable hand staring up at him.

“Cos’ he’s too scared,” another hand mocked from the dark.

“No, I am not!”

“Well, why didn’t you say nothin’ then?” the boy taunted, emerging from the shadows. “You been practisin’ all day. We ’eard you.”

Jack spun towards him and glared. “And you should mind your own business.”

“We all know you’re in love with her,” the boy jeered, “but you’ve got competition. My ma says she’s leading men on all over and it’s them that needs to worry about being alone with her in the dark.”

With a growl, Jack ran at the boy, grabbed him by his jacket and pinned him to the far stable wall. “Don’t ever let me hear you talk about Lady Eloille like that again.”

“Or what?” the boy sniggered. “You’ll tell your pa? I’m not frightened of him.”

“You should be,” Jack hissed, tightening his grip on the boy’s collar.

“Why? Cos he’s got the Master’s ear? Your pa won’t be so popular when his Lordship finds out it’s him Eloille’s meetin’ at night. Don’t try and deny it. My ma says she got you both under her spell.”

Jack threw the boy to the ground, fell onto his knees above him, and rolled up his sleeves. Raising his clenched fist in the air, it was only the look of terror on the youth’s face that stopped him from delivering the blow. “You need to learn your place,” Jack spat, “or I’ll have you out. And you can tell your ma from me, she needs to keep her filthy mouth shut or I’ll have her out too. Now do what the Mistress says!” he shouted, pulling the boy upright by his hair and shoving him away, “and get that horse dry.”

Behind Jack, the remainder of the stable staff had retreated. Silently, he turned away from their stunned faces and towards the stable door.

He had often heard his parents talking in hushed voices late into the night, and he knew his pa was following Eloille, and upon whose request. But when he’d finally confronted him about it in the stables, his pa wouldn’t be drawn on the subject. Said it was none of his business, and Jack had been wrong to listen to things that didn’t concern him. “But I could help you, pa. You always said yourself, two pairs of eyes is better than one.”

“Not in this instance, Jack. Now get back to your work. I won’t hear any more on the subject.”

“But pa-”

“Your work! Now!”

With sorrow, James had watched his defeated son turn away from him. Jack hardly ever gave him cause to raise his voice, and his adoration of Lady Eloille was obvious. But he’d given the Master his word.

Jack leant against the open stable door and watched as Eloille hesitated at the Hall’s rear entrance. “With or without my pa’s blessing,” he whispered, “I will follow you too. I’ve got age on my side, and my pa’s no match for some as go looking for trouble on the moors at night. I’ll follow you both,” he said. “Keep you safe.”

Lord Wessington sighed. His daughter was back safely.

As ever, James’ account had been the same. Eloille had neither met, nor spoken to anyone. She had ridden to the highest point on the peaks and remained there, staring out at the night as though she were waiting.

With his cap in his hands, James had respectfully waited for Lord Wessington to respond. But Lord Wessington had said nothing, and only his weak nod had signalled James’ exit. James took the prompt and silently left, his head bowed. Even after all these years he hadn’t the heart to tell his master the whole truth. He cared little for the raised eyebrows he met every time he ordered the rest of the search party off in a different direction, and had no concern for the idle talk that ensued every time it was he alone that found Lady Eloille. For he always knew where she would go and, more importantly, what she would do. And although he made no claim to understand her behaviour, he had vowed to protect Lord Wessington from ever learning of it. The Falshaw’s had been good to him and his father before him. Their loyalty spanned generations, and, in his time, the present Lord had been through enough.

Lord Wessington turned away from the closing door, and stared out into the night. The wind was tearing through the oaks lining the avenue, and yet, in spite of the roar, he could still hear the voice in his head. He was painfully aware of the growing whispers. Had seen the smirks as the search parties had again headed out, and knew that gossip would be travelling faster than the falling leaves on the cold fingers of the autumn wind. But it was not others’ suspicions that kept him awake at night, but his own.

For despite the doctor’s prognosis and Catherine’s re-assurances, and as much as he tried to ignore it, the relentless voice deep within him had begun to shout. And its incessant persistence brought with it something he had feared for years - a sense of foreboding he could not bear to entertain; a terrible fear that history was repeating, and only he could change it.

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