THE HALSTEAD ESTATE, ENGLAND
Two years ago
“You’re gonna love this!” Larry Fletcher opened the door to The Old Dairy and stepped aside, waving Paul and Fiona into the house in the way a circus ringmaster would introduce the next act. “Come in! Come in! Don’t be shy. It’s yours now.”
Paul Devlin walked into the middle of the double-height living area and turned, slowly, absorbing every aspect. Passageway to the kitchen. Wooden stairs to a galleried landing. French windows in the South wall; beyond, a terrace and a view over fields and a lake. A large, picture window looking West over a paddock, where a bare-branched tree stood in a puddle of its own leaves. Newly plastered walls. Fiona, pirouetting and walking backwards, eyes shining with excitement. Her leather boots made echoing clicks against bare concrete in the unfurnished space.
“What do you think, Fi?”
“Utterly awesome!” Fiona Harlow stopped by the West window, looking out. “And God, that view is to die for!” Paul followed and slid both hands around her waist. Strange how they’d both been drawn to stare out of this window, even with a whole house to explore. Outside, newly laid turf sloped down to a lane running along the bottom of the valley. A winter-full stream flowed beside the lane on its way to feed the lake. Opposite them, a gravel drive crossed a bridge and rose gently uphill between a line of mighty oaks until it disappeared beneath the bare tracery of their branches. A pair of ivy-wrapped entrance pillars stood by the bridge, each topped by a carved animal’s head, so weathered that they might have represented anything with a snout and ears. Wolves, probably. Paul remembered a heraldic crest of a wolf’s head on the sales brochure, above text in copperplate script. ‘A unique opportunity to acquire ‘The Old Dairy’, a prestige barn conversion on the Halstead Hall estate, seat of the Bonnevaux family since the fourteenth century…’
The oak-lined drive divided the landscape between a field upstream, to their right, where fine green shoots of winter wheat were already showing, and the pasture with grazing horses downstream. A disintegrating sign beside the lane said ‘Home Farm’, and pointed vaguely in their direction. Fanlights in the window stood open above them, despite the December chill outside, letting fountain sounds carry to them from a weir upstream. Smells of damp leaves softened the bite of fresh paint.
“Ridge and furrow.” Paul nodded past Fiona’s ear towards the pasture. Low, winter sunlight emphasised parallel, gentle undulations in the pasture, like ocean waves frozen under the grass.
“Ridge and furrow. Medieval field patterns.”
“There’s a lost village here, they say.” Larry had overheard. “Disappeared yonks ago, like in the Middle Ages.” He was standing behind them, looking out of place amid Halstead’s rustic charm; expensive city overcoat, cashmere scarf, fresh mud on handmade shoes.
Paul wondered what could cause an entire village to disappear, leaving only traces in the ground. He also wanted to explore their new home without Larry Fletcher breathing down his neck.
“Can you give us a few minutes to look around, Larry?”
Larry blinked; he probably wasn’t used to being asked to go away. “Sure. I’ll see you both outside.”
Paul waited until they were alone before putting his face into Fiona’s hair. It was the same honey yellow as the last few leaves outside. Her smell was changing, beneath the perfume. Less feral. Richer, somehow, even at four and a half months.
“Sweetheart…” Fiona turned inside his arms. Her tone told him he was about to get the big eyes and cute-little-girl look. She worked her fingers inside the buttons of his shirt, just above his belt so that her knuckles moved against his stomach, and lowered her voice as if she was about to suggest they find a quiet place for a quickie. “Sweetheart, do you think we’ve enough money for a horse?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Paul touched her tummy.
“I mean, when the baby’s old enough to be left…”
“Horses must cost shedloads of money.”
“But you’re getting a piano…”
Minx. All the ‘one day’ conversations were coming back to bite him, the idle thoughts of new lovers for whom the future is a far country, and who still talk as two people, not one couple. One day, she’d said, when she had a family, she’d like a nice place in the country. The way she said ‘country’ enriched the vowels with hints of pony clubs, yummy mummies, and four wheel drives. One day, she’d have a horse, just like she’d had when she lived with her parents. One day, Paul had responded, trading dreams, he’d have a real piano, a small grand, not the electronic keyboard and earphones that were jammed into a corner of his city apartment.
Fiona was rushing him. Not so long ago they’d just been friends, in the edgy, high-octane way of the city. Bed buddies. One spectacular romp too many and they were about to have this place, a mortgage, and a kid. He was still getting his head around living together. Horses? He’d never even touched one.
“I dunno.” And it was mostly his money they were spending. “Let’s look around. That’s what we’re here for, ain’t it? Final inspection before we move in?”
Larry was waiting outside with a smartphone glued to his ear, punctuating a conversation with waves of a cigarette. A man that Larry had introduced as his ‘project manager’ stood beside Larry’s Mercedes, bull-necked, unsmiling, radiating an air of barely-masked belligerence. Mentally, Paul had given him a nickname, Knuckles, and he didn’t fit, either.
Larry closed down the call in crisp, decisive tones. Larry always had a deal going down, always had an edge. ‘Come and have a look, Paul,’ he’d said, two months before, in a chance conversation after a business meeting; an invitation that would have been impolitic to refuse. ‘No obligation. I’ll do you a special deal if you like it.’ Paul hadn’t expected to like it. Hadn’t really wanted to like it. Not this far out of town, anyway. And Paul would have preferred not to have to deal with Larry, who was so close to his boss. The word on the street was that you didn’t mess with Larry. He was a grizzled sort of guy who’d be in the gym, beating the crap out of a punch bag, while younger wannabes coke-snorted their way towards burnout in the wine bars. But there was something about The Old Dairy that had grabbed them. A rural dream for Fiona, double-height acoustics for Paul. And yes, he’d buy a piano.
Larry smeared his cigarette into the concrete and waggled his phone at them. “Sorry about that. Pleased?”
Fiona grinned at him. “Fabulous. When can we move in?”
“One more week for carpets and fittings. Like I said, you’ll be in before Christmas.”
Movement beyond Larry’s shoulder caught Paul’s eye. They stood in a concrete, open square that must once have been the farmyard of ‘Home Farm’, bounded to the South by The Old Dairy, to the East by the farmhouse, hard against a steeply-rising hillside, and to the North by another, ancient barn that looked as if it was on the point of collapse. A grey-haired woman stood unsmiling between the farmhouse and the other barn. Shapeless in an old, waxed coat and rubber boots, she stared at them with mute hostility.
“What’s been the reaction from the locals, Larry?” Paul nodded past Larry at the woman.
“Them?” Larry looked before turning his back on the woman. His tone was dismissive. “Don’t you worry about them. Her bloke works on the estate. At the moment, anyways.” He paused long enough to make ‘at the moment’ significant. “But that farmhouse could be done up beautiful when they leave, hmm?” And he had an irritating habit of turning statements into questions, hmm?
‘That farmhouse’ looked good to Paul as it was. A bit crumbly, perhaps, but mellow, with grey timbers bracing patterned brick, and the deep-set, small windows of great age.
“What about the people in Halstead Hall?” Paul nodded across the valley to a where a jumble of roofs and chimneys showed above the treetops. Even at this range, the organ-pipe clusters of chimneys had a candy-stick, Tudor look to them.
“The Bonnevaux family? There’s just an old crone and her son. The son’s past his sell-by date himself, and easy to manage, hmm?” Which probably meant that Larry was ripping them off. “There’s a grandson in the Army, and a grand-daughter who’s some kind of do-gooder in Asia, but we don’t see much of them. This is my next project, though.” Larry led them across the yard towards the other barn. The woman straightened, and turned to call over her shoulder.
Paul smiled at her, angling towards her to introduce himself, but stopped as the woman backed away, scowling.
“That’d be good, eh? Get some young professionals in there as neighbours?” Larry behaved as if the woman didn’t exist.
A tall, grey, raw-boned man appeared at the woman’s shoulder. He wore a frayed, tweed jacket the way a washing line wears a blanket, and for a moment the pair reminded Paul of a painting he’d once seen of a Mid-West American farming couple; a gaunt man beside his lumpy wife, both in late middle age, both glaring at the world through eyes heavy with toil. The man in the painting, though, had carried a pitchfork. This one carried a shotgun. It trailed from his hand, safely broken, but as he swept it up to settle it into the crook of his arm, Paul saw the gleam of cartridges in its breach. A mean-looking dog stood by his heel, ears flat back along its head.
“Ah, Mister Hobden.” Larry put enough emphasis on the ‘mister’ to make it contemptuous. “And Molly.” As if he’d only just noticed her. ‘Knuckles’ moved alongside his boss, broadening his shoulders so he seemed to inflate within his coat. He could move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk. Fiona tugged at Paul’s sleeve as hostility became menace.
Larry smiled in a way that didn’t reach his eyes. “Don’t you want to meet your new neighbours? Your dairy is bought and paid for.”
“You got one barn. That’s all you’re gonna get.” Hobden’s voice was a dark baritone, as rough as two millstones grinding together.
“Now, we’re just having a friendly conversation…”
“On this side of the yard, you’re trespassing.” Hobden shifted the gun across his arm, just enough to make a point.
“Paul, please…” Fiona’s pull on Paul’s arm became more urgent. As he let himself be led away, he wondered if buying that barn had been a terrible mistake.II: MOLLY
Molly Hobden watched the Mercedes leave her yard, with Fletcher’s thug waving a crude insult from behind the wheel. Molly felt slightly guilty about the young couple staring back at her through the windows. The woman’s eyes were wide and frightened, and the man looked grim; Molly knew they’d just upset them, badly. Well, if they chose to do business with a man like Fletcher, they’d have to learn. Molly closed her eyes and breathed, concentrating on the sound of the Freybourne tumbling over the weir, until peace came back to the valley. Beside her, Hobden slipped the shells out of his shotgun.
“He’s gotta be stopped, woman.”
“He’ll have the granary off us, if he gets his way.” She could understand about the old dairy, though she wasn’t happy about it. Ralph Bonnevaux had persuaded them. Said the farm was losing money and the estate needed the cash. Home Farm didn’t need two barns, did it? Not since they’d given up the dairy herd. And the family had done their bit and turned the stable block into offices, right?
Ralph Bonnevaux could do what he liked with his stable block. Knock it down for all she cared. But why, oh why, did he have to let that man Fletcher move his company in there? Now he was always around, always smirking, like a fox around the hen coop.
At least her niece Sharon had got a receptionist’s job out of it.
But they did need one barn. Without somewhere to store machinery, there wouldn’t be no farm.
“Mrs B’s getting old.” Hobden’s voice was heavy with regret. “She’s losing her grip.”
“Seventy years she ran this land. She’s a right to be tired.” Molly’s reproof was gently said. “But Ralph Bonnevaux is weak. Always has been. That man Fletcher’s got him wrapped around his little finger.”
“While Hugo’s off playing soldiers.”
“We need Cathy home again.” Dear Cathy. Like a daughter, she was. She’d stand up for them.
In front of her, the young wheat grew lush across Home Acres but showed barer patterns near the oaks. Crops always grew more thinly over the ghosts of settlement. Halge Stede the village had been to the old folk, the Holy Place. It took a local to know it had been hallowed ground long before a Saxon evangelist built a church over Woden’s temple. And the land had a way of protecting itself. The Craft and the Covenant, those were its guardians. It had won through other bad times and it would see off Fletcher, with a little help. Molly closed her eyes, murmuring words from a rune poem that had been old when Halge Stede had been young.
“Eþel byþ oferleof æghwylcum men…” The ethel rune, the rune of inherited right. ‘The ancestral estate is most dear to every man.. ‘
Hobden finished the verse for her. “Gif he mot ðær rihtes and gerysena on brucan on bolde bleadum oftast.” ‘If he may enjoy in prosperity that which is right and fitting.’
They were silent together for as long as it took a shadow of wind to pass through the crop all the way across Home Acres to Thirskot Wood. Thirty years they’d been together, and some things didn’t need to be said. They both knew the way forward was set. She’d use the Craft.
“Don’t do it now. Not in anger,” Hobden warned. “Can’t tell what’ll happen if you do it in anger.”
Molly nodded. He didn’t need to tell her that.
An hour later Hobden shrugged into his waxed jacket, tugged his flat cap down over his eyes, and whistled for the dog. ‘Take care, girl,’ was all he said as he left. Molly smiled her reassurance and shut the door behind him. For some things, it was best if he wasn’t around.
Her workspace had to be cleansed, although it was already spotless of dirt. Smudging, her old mother had called it, cleaning the farmhouse kitchen of stains that would never show on any cloth made of man. Molly kept bunches of dried lavender for that. Only then could she cast the circle, walking deosil, clockwise, the way of creation around her table until she could imagine a white circle of light that reached into a dome above her and above the materials she’d assembled.
A moment of calm to steady her mind while she composed her rune script.
She’d use the Ethel rune, of course.
And Eoh, the rune of the yew tree. It was a channel to the World Tree, and powerful for protection.
Molly pushed a needle through a cork to insulate her fingers, and held the point in the flame of a tea light until it was hot. Frowning in concentration, she began to carve into the wax of a black candle. Black was good for protection too, and for banishing trouble. As she worked, she murmured the words of power for each rune.
“Eoh byþ utan unsmeþe treow, heard hrusan fæst, hyrde fyres, wyrtrumun underwreþyd, wyn on eþle.”
The rough-barked yew, hard and fast in the earth…
Not enough. The rune script needed to be stronger. The memory of Larry Fletcher’s contempt scored her mind the way she’d scored the candle.
Thurisaz, then, the thorn rune, sign of the hammer of Thonor, for strong protection and the destruction of enemies. The perfect rune if events were moving beyond the community’s control.
“Thorn…” Molly reheated the needle and started again. “Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.”
Heat and cut, heat and cut, focus the mind. It would be a long day.
She took a few moments to rest her eyes before she ground dried leaves into fragments with pestle and mortar, releasing the autumnal, tannin scents of oak and ivy for protection, and rowan for success.
Now she could dress the candle, anointing it with essential oil, fragrant as incense, painting it with her fingertip, top to middle, bottom to middle, so that the dried leaves stuck to its surface when she rolled it in their dust.
She had a bloodstone candleholder. Bloodstone was good for protection. She’d found a piece of jade, as well, and jade was a cleansing stone, which she put at the base of the candle beside a saucer of earth. She’d scooped that earth from a patch of ground by the old granary that no horse or dog would cross. Candle, stone, and earth; earth and fire. Add a feather and a cup of water. Earth and Air, Fire and Water. Almost ready.
The torc lay on the table, the precious heirloom that had been handed down from generation to generation since the mists of time. She placed it around her neck with reverence, murmuring words of power until it nestled against her collarbone. It lay there cold and inert until it absorbed her warmth and learned the heat of her intent. In her mind, she held on to the image of a dome of lights above her, listening, aware.
The candle spluttered as she lit it, sending brief, crackling sparks where the oiled flakes met the flame and flared.
Molly began her chant but faltered at the end of the first repetition. Always, always, when she’d worked her magic she’d ended with ‘and harm to none’, but her mind filled with the image of Larry Fletcher’s smirk. By Woden, she wished that man harm. It had all gone wrong when he arrived. Harm to none? None but him. None but Fletcher. In front of her, the candle spat a brief spark. One larger flake caught fire and slid down the candle’s side like a second wick until it met the ridge of wax around a Thorn rune and burnt out.
Thorn. An echo of distant learning tried to intrude, something about the dangers of the Thorn rune if worked in anger. No matter. She continued her chant, pouring her intent into the flame.
And she did not end with ‘harm to none’.
Half a world away, where it was already evening, Catherine Bonnevaux took her sketchpad and watercolours to the beach, hoping to capture the brief glory of a tropical sunset. Later, as on most evenings, friends from the aid workers’ hostel would join her. They’d light a fire of driftwood and palm debris, and sit drinking beer while sparks danced above strumming guitars and quiet laughter, but for now, Catherine was free to scan the view with an artist’s eye.
A bank of cloud lay on the horizon, dazzling white and sun-touched pink at its summit but already shadowed grey at its base, a cloud whose shape reminded her of the hills around Halstead. On summer evenings, from the terrace outside the drawing room, the light would catch Mill Hill like that where it swelled beyond Home Farm and the lake, turning sun-scorched grass into golds and pinks. Catherine sighed, realising autumn at Halstead had passed without her. She’d missed the cider smells in the orchard, and woods brazen with colour.
The old man was there again, the one who’d lost an eye. He’d always arrive before twilight, always alone, and would sit cross-legged on the sand, staring at the sky. As the stars appeared, he’d smile, nodding his head as if recognising distant friends, until he was enveloped in darkness and his body blended with the moon-shadows of the palm trees. Sometimes animals would gather near him, a scavenging pi-dog, or black, raven-like birds pecking at smells in the tide-line. Later, when the evening noises of the village faded until all that could be heard was the pounding of the surf, his outline would detach from the trees and become human again against the sand. He’d bow towards the ocean, making the palms-together, namaste sign of greeting or farewell, and fade into the night.
Her friends from the hostel were sensitive to their surroundings, and they respected the old man’s quietness, lighting their nightly fires far enough away not to intrude. And if, after fireside flirtations, a couple sought their own privacy, then they would walk in the opposite direction. But Catherine often glanced through the flames towards the old man’s place under the palms, and wondered at the story behind his ritual.
Tonight she passed close enough to see tear-tracks glistening into his beard, and her heart reached out to this unknown sorrow. For a moment she stood close enough for him to acknowledge her, if he wished.
“Ah, the English lady.” He rose to his feet, despite her protests, and made the namaste before gesturing towards the sand beside him. “Please. I am glad that you are coming.”
Catherine sat beside but a little below him out of respect, angling her body so they could look either at the sea or at each other. She sat cross-legged, in the round-backed way of Westerners, wondering at this quiet chemistry she sensed between them.
“Do you know the meaning of the namaste?” He spoke first, bending his head towards her and repeating the gesture with his hands.
“Like a handshake?”
“It says ‘the soul in me sees the soul in you’.” Their eyes met, and she felt a strange spark of knowing, of being known. The missing eye might have been frightening but for the warmth of his smile.
“That’s beautiful.” She’d like to paint him, and try and capture his serenity. He’d such an interesting face.
“Sometimes I am thinking there is destiny in a meeting.”
“I don’t understand.” She’d start with a pencil sketch. The key was in the eye.
“People touch and part like grains of sand.” He lifted a handful, and let it trickle through his fingers. “But even the lightest touch can change our paths in ways we do not expect.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond. Would he be upset if she asked to paint his portrait?
“We should be introducing ourselves.” He sat straighter, tapping his hands lightly against his knees. They both had to repeat themselves, slowing each syllable. ‘Bonne – nay – voh’.
“That is a most unusual name.”
“It comes from very old French. De la bonne vaux, from the beautiful valley.”
“But you are English?”
The old man’s calm seemed to spread around him. It freed her mind and her tongue, letting her blurt out her question.
“Why do you look at the stars?”
He lifted his palms towards the heavens. “The holy text, the Katha Upanishad, teaches us that the tree of eternity has its roots in heaven above, and its branches reach down to the Earth.”
Catherine shifted the canvas bag with her sketchpad onto her knees, toying with the flap, studying the old man’s beard-framed face, a crumpled map of lines and shadows. She knew that a story was written there. It was a moment when she wished she were a photographer; soon it would be too dark to paint.
“A woman at home says that in England people used to believe that the world was formed from a tree.” Dear Molly Hobden. Full of folklore and old stories. “Why is this text so important to you?” The light was fading. The time for sketching was passing.
The old man looked at her. Again there was that sense of being known. “You are wise, Miss Cath’rin.” For a moment he seemed to sag, as if his whole body had sighed. “It is not just the holy text. I come here to be with my family.” He looked away and upwards. Now the lines around his eye were pulled into a serene agony. “The sea took them. Many years ago.”
“I’m so sorry.” Such trivial words. Her hand stilled on her bag, her request frozen on her lips.
“Ah, I was a businessman, you see. Quite rich, very proud. I was in the cafe when the tsunami struck.” He lifted his hand to his missing eye. “My family have no grave, so I find them here.” His tone stayed conversational, giving no hint of the depth of his loss as he looked up at the majesty unfolding above them. Catherine stayed silent, following his gaze to where the first stars were multiplying into a dome of lights.
“I had a daughter. She would have been about your age, although already she was having two fine boys.” He lowered his eye and smiled at her with the unthreatening smile of an old man. “Like you, life shone within her.”
“I’m so sorry.” Her words echoed in the void.
“Oh, they will be reborn, all of them.” He spoke with complete conviction, denying the need for condolence. “Perhaps some of them are already reborn. Maybe today, in the village school, you are teaching an infant who carries the soul of my daughter.” Still his tone was light, inviting no pity. “Ah, Samsara.” He exhaled the word, closing his eyes, as if a sigh had taken form in sibilants and vowels.
“Samsara?” Perhaps that was the name of this daughter.
“Samsara. The cycle of life and death and rebirth. Death is not the end, nor is birth the beginning. The flow goes on forever. Samsara.” Now the word sounded like a prayer, whispered, a fragment of the breeze that rattled the palm fronds above them and took shape in a moment of speech. “So do not be sad for me, Miss Cath’rin. I am losing everything, but finding myself.”
“But your family…”
“Have taken another step on their paths towards enlightenment, just as you and I have lived before and will be living again.”
Catherine fingered the crucifix at her throat, and dropped her hand. It must be comforting to be so sure.
“Of course. Christians are not believing in rebirth, but we are not so different.” The old man seemed to have read her thoughts. “The gods appear to us in ways that we can understand, and they live because we worship them.”
Catherine frowned. That sounded upside down, like his tree with its roots in heaven. Granny would say she worships God because He lives. The old man looked into her eyes, and in that moment she felt transparent, as if he could really see the soul inside her.
“And you, Miss Cath’rin. What are you seeking?”
She opened her mouth to speak but stayed silent. It would be easy to talk here, to an open stranger, with the palms rattling above and the sea breaking nearby. She just didn’t know words that would not sound superficial. ‘Poor little rich girl tasting the big, wide world,’ or ‘there must be more to life than Halstead.’ The valley seemed strangely close, tonight. Soon she’d be home for Christmas.
The old man stretched his arm towards her, so softly that the action would not have frightened a bird, and held his hand open beside her head, without touching, as if listening to an inner voice.
“I am thinking you have a very old soul, Miss Cath’rin.”
“I don’t understand.” This conversation was unexpectedly deep.
“You carry great karma. You are searching, but I think the answers are waiting for you far away. You do not belong here.” She shifted on the sand, uncomfortable, and he lowered his hand. What could he see?
“You must miss your family terribly.” She wanted to change the subject.
The old man nodded as if he understood. “Do not worry, Miss Cath’rin, there will come a time when their souls will not need to be reborn.”
Worry? Such a thought had never occurred to her. Sounds of distant laughter carried along the beach. Her hostel friends had arrived and were strolling towards the bonfire place, their outlines half-seen in the twilight, shapes moving against the whiteness of the surf. The breeze pushed her clothes against her body, a warm softness fluttering over her breasts, and made dry music in the palm fronds above them. The night was full of the crash and sigh of breaking waves, and the affirmation of waiting friendship.
“Why would anyone not wish to be reborn?”
The old man nodded towards the group, where the glimmer of a paraffin lamp swayed from someone’s hand, then danced and jerked as unseen horseplay unleashed a burst of giggles and shrieks.
“To the young, the end of living is like putting out a lamp. One day, after many lives, the lamp will be irrelevant because day has dawned.”
At that she turned back to him, absorbing the beauty of his words. She’d still like to sketch him. Perhaps a touch of chalk to pick out that glimmer where the starlight touched his eye, and which might be a sparkle, or a tear, or the dampness of old age.
“Go, Miss Cath’rin, be young.” He gestured towards her friends, and stood. She too rose, brushing sand from her shorts. “Your karma will find you soon enough.”
His voice had hardened, enough for Catherine to pause her brushing and look up at him. A wave burst with the sound of distant thunder, making the old man’s words seem portentous. She took an involuntary step backwards as the light caught his face at a new angle, so the missing eye was wholly shadowed, turning half his face into a skull. He seemed taller, stronger, mighty, even threatening. For a frozen instant there was no time, no movement, no noise except the whine of a mosquito. She did not even try to slap it away until she felt the bite on her neck.
The waves crashed again, as if released, and the shadows shifted. Once again he was a gentle old man whose beard shone with the same silver as the breaking surf. He bowed, still looking at her, and the glimmer of light in his eye was the wisdom of the stars.