by Geoffrey Gudgion
THE STAG IN the road would change everything.
Inside Kate’s BMW, the sound system thumped out the kind of music that made Fergus feel invincible. Its tribal rhythm tightened the tension, and probably encouraged Kate to squeeze a little more out of the accelerator. She was nodding her head in time with the beat, flexing her fingers around the steering wheel, and holding the car tight to the turns as they climbed. Beside her, Fergus checked his watch, again, and made a mental calculation of their chances of being on time. Maybe. Just maybe, with luck, and if this ancient back road over the Downs didn’t have flooded fords or flocks of sheep or any other obstacles that didn’t appear on maps.
On the high ground the road straightened, and Kate floored the pedal so that the rain ran horizontally along the windows in the slipstream. Where they crested a watershed and grazed the clouds, ancient burial mounds lay humped in the bracken, half-seen through the mists.
Fergus’s attention snapped back inside the car as it swerved.
“Keep your eyes on the bloody road, will you?” Fergus heard the tension in his voice. Kate was prodding the GPS, searching for routes. Wobbles at this speed were alarming.
“Then you work the sodding thing, you’re the tekkie.” Her voice was quite deep, with a purr-or-snarl kind of quality, and that had been a snarl.
Fergus tapped at the satnav screen, unruffled. He and Kate scrapped the way people can only scrap if they are confident with each other, as if the barbs were a form of verbal grooming. They were the best, him and Kate. Choreographed, professional, hungry, top guns in the sales league and determined to stay there. She did the pitch; he talked technology. Hearts and minds, vision and practicality, between them they had it covered. Fergus expanded the range until a cross-roads and the icon of a village started dropping into view, stepping down in minute increments.
A sudden gust of wind punched the car, making him lift his eyes as Kate briefly fought for control.
“Hey, slow down, for fuck’s sake!”
Ahead of them a bend was approaching fast as the road dropped towards the woodland at the rim of a valley. Fergus could see a litter of freshly fallen leaves tumbling over the tarmac where the woods began, on a road scarcely wide enough for two cars to pass.
“Scared, huh?” Kate glanced across at him, smiling her challenge as she ignored the road and pulled the car round the first dropping curve into the valley, burning rubber in a blast of performance motoring.
Their final words together were screamed in harmony; teamwork to the last.
The mind can do a lot of thinking in its final moments. Some strange corner of Fergus’s brain had time to know that the stag in the middle of the road was magnificent. Shaggy-maned and bearing its antlers with all the poise of a medieval jousting helm, the beast had been staring downhill with its nose into the wind as if the last gust had carried the sound of a distant call. At the first thump and shudder of the brakes it turned its head towards them, and did not move. It merely glared at them over its shoulder so that the grizzled, moisture-matted pelt folded into its neck like the stole of an ancient king.
That same part of Fergus’s mind, the bit that wasn’t panicking and bracing his body for impact, wondered at the infinitesimal detail of the scene. A light fog snorting from a greying muzzle. Foliage, crystal sharp in the autumn patchwork of yellow-and-black, leaf-and-bark. The vibrations in a raindrop on the windscreen as the ABS juddered beneath them and they side-slipped over wet leaves with almost no check to their speed. On the edge of his vision the antlers turned to watch them glide past, but Fergus’s focus had switched from the stag to the edge of the road and the drop beyond.
His first reaction was panic. The second was rejection. This isn’t happening, this isn’t real. But the verge still punched them nose-up into the air in a detonation of wheels and suspension, making the CD skip as they launched. Reality was a momentary hiccup in a digital scream. Weightless behind a whining engine, Fergus stared horrified at the canopy of an oak tree that loomed in front of them as the nose of the car started to drop. He sensed Kate’s arms pushing away from the wheel as if to force herself backwards through her seat, but he didn’t see her face. His eyes were locked on the trunk of the oak, a massive pillar of the woods that rushed at the centre of the bonnet. It filled the windscreen beyond wipers that counted them down to oblivion with their metronome beat. Three, two, one…
His final reaction was acceptance. Just before they hit, Fergus knew that the moment was real, that this was the instant of his extinction. And with that knowledge came three heartbeats of calm in which a great sadness dragged him downwards, a sadness so profound it was beyond weeping.
ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Allingley, Dick Hagman felt the rain trickling off his yellow safety helmet, and hunched deeper into his donkey jacket. In front of him the mechanical digger belched diesel fumes, scooped another load of soil, and swung to dump the mess on the spoil pile. Hagman poked speculatively at the fallen slop with his shovel, watching for pickings. You never knew what might drop out from the stuff at the bottom of the old mill pond. Already he’d managed to pick out a couple of old coins, filched from the mud while the new owner’s attention was elsewhere. If Russell saw him, and objected, he’d share the proceeds, fair’s fair. But Russell was busy working the digger and might not notice.
The owner was up there now in the shell of the old Mill House, standing in the gap where the great axle had once connected the water wheel to the grinding machinery inside. Bloody incomer with too much money, Hagman thought, sneering at the sight of him mincing round a building site in a yachting anorak and those stupid cream chinos. At least he wouldn’t come down into the mud dressed like that. The man started shouting at them and Russell killed the engine to hear.
“... deeper, I want you to do a proper job.” Half a sentence spilled out into the sudden quiet. The accent sounded imperious, like a duchess on testosterone. Russell cupped his hand to his ear theatrically, forcing the man to repeat himself. Hagman hid his smirk by wiping the wet off his face onto his sleeve.
“Take it down deeper. There’s no point in scraping the surface, it will only fill up again.” The accent became clipped and strained as the man tried to establish his authority. He turned away as a loud crash of dropped planks came from within the house, and Hagman winced as the noise jolted his hangover. He kept his face screwed into the collar of his jacket while the diesel restarted, waiting for the steady throb to anaesthetise his skull. Bloody Halloween party. Last night had got way out of hand. Bloody tight-arsed incomers lording it over us. Hagman wished he’d stayed nicely tucked up in a dry bed.
Hagman didn’t want to waste time going deeper. Any good stuff would be nearer the surface, close to the edges where people could have dropped it, like from the earth bank where he stood. In the old days, this dam had given the Swanbourne enough of a drop to power the mill. When he was a kid, families had walked up from the village in the summer to picnic by the pond. Local children still played in the woods above it.
It ought to have gone to a local, this place, but no-one had the money. One of the old families should have taken it, kept it in the community, even if it meant the marsh stayed un-drained and the house had been left to crumble. It looked better that way. Natural, like. And Hagman would never have taken things from the ground while old Bert Millar was alive. Bert’s family had always been there, ever since one of them was called ‘Millar’ because that was his job, running the mill. Now the ancient wheel lay in pieces on the bank, rotted beyond repair but saved from the skip while His Royal Highness decided how to incorporate the fragments as features in his garden. Still, there’d be lots of ways to string this job out and take some of that money off him before they finished.
In front of him, Russell reversed to the beginning of the trench, scowling, lips moving, and started again with another layer. At the limits of its reach the digger strained against the suction of the earth, tilting forwards with the diesel slowing to a near-stall at the effort. Hagman peered into the trench, wondering if some obstacle had snagged the bucket, but saw only black soil in a cut so saturated that the vertical sides wept. Then the ground yielded its grip with a sigh like the exhalation of a long-held breath, rocking the digger back on its tracks with the engine racing to recover.
Hagman shrugged further into his donkey jacket and hissed back at a pair of swans that were arching their necks at him from the bank. He guessed it was only the digger that stopped them attacking. Maybe this was their nest site. Hagman reached into the spoil pile, pulled out a sodden tangle of old sticks, and threw it at them before wiping the slime off his hands onto his trousers. He missed, and the swans pushed their beaks inquisitively at the fallen twigs before settling beside them. Hagman sniffed noisily and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He’d meant to scare them away, not calm them down.
The squall came from nowhere, thumping Hagman in the back and almost toppling him into the mud. More rain came with the wind, falling in great, heavy drops that turned into a chocolate cascade down the spoil pile. Hagman steadied himself and looked curiously at the swans, puzzled at their sudden calm. The sticks he’d thrown now lay curled around one bird, almost as if cradling it. As he watched, the rain sloughed away the surface dirt and a pattern of paler sticks began to emerge. With dry-mouthed disbelief Hagman watched bony digits appear, then an opposing thumb, all impossibly long in the absence of a palm. Behind them the twin bones of a human forearm emerged, splash by splash, from the covering slime.
“Russell!” Hagman’s cry was a falsetto screech, the sound of a frightened child calling for a parent.
As the workmen in the Mill House gathered to gawp at the severed arm, the squall rushed over them towards the Downs, stripping the leaves from the trees in swirling eddies of orange. Two miles beyond the village, where the Swanbourne sprang from under the hill, it struck the steep-sided coombe like an unseen wave. As it sprayed upwards it danced grotesquely with the wreckage of a car tumbling end-over-end downwards through the trees, and ruffled the mane of a stag before fading to nothing amidst the rabbit-riddled barrows of the high country beyond.
By Geoffrey Gudgion
Life will never be the same on
27th August (US & Can) and
12th September (UK)
£7.99 (UK) ISBN 978-1-78108-136-5
$7.99/$9.99 (US & CAN) ISBN 978-1-78108-137-2
Available in paperback and ebook
“Once there was a great classical tradition of rural British horror from MR James to The Wicker Man. Now Geoffrey Gudgion has revived the style, proving there’s still nothing as creepy as the countryside”
– Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant and May mysteries
Author GEOFFREY GUDGION will be signing copies of his debut 'rural noir' title SAXON’S BANE at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore on Wednesday 4th September from 6 – 7pm.
Fergus’s world changes forever the day his car crashes. Traumatised by his near-death experience, he will discover a gentler pace of life, fall in love – and be targeted for human sacrifice.
Clare Harvey’s life will never be the same either. The archaeologist’s dream find – the preserved body of a ritually murdered Saxon warrior and the nearby partial skeleton of a young woman – is giving her nightmares. Fergus discovers that his crash is linked to the excavation, and that the countryside harbours dark secrets. As Clare’s investigation reveals the full horror of a Dark Age war crime, the couple seem destined to share the Saxon bodies’ bloody fate.
For more info, go right here!