Philomena Bucket busied herself in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, attempting, with little success, to keep her mind focused on anything other than recent events. She reddened at the brazen way in which she had confronted Rhys Cranham a few days earlier, almost demanding that he forsake his work and way of life, and marry her. Although he had tentatively – and without any great enthusiasm – agreed, she was convinced that the Night-Soil Man must really despise her. Whatever had possessed her to do such a thing? She could only think that all this talk of her being a powerful witch, with some impressive magic at her fingertips, must have gone to her head. Well, she was yet to see any evidence that she was any different from how she had always been, despite having had a year of her life stolen in that strange cavern, deep beneath the surface of the island. Far from feeling magical, Philomena regarded herself as being an abject failure, both in love and life, letting down all who came into contact with her.
Wrapped in these dark thoughts, she did not notice Drury, the skeletal hound, wander through the back door, until she heard his bony form clatter noisily down, and sprawl out upon the flagstones. However glum Philomena felt, Drury would always lighten her heart.
“Ah, get from under me feet, you great lazy lump,” she said, good naturedly. “Are there no spoonwalkers for you to be chasing today?”
Drury’s tail wagged, thumping the floor several times, but he made no effort to rise. Instead he regarded Philomena with a baleful eye, or would have, had he actually been in receipt of an eyeball.
“Well, you’re in luck. I’m almost finished here,” said Philomena. “Come on, let’s go for a walk up the Gydynaps.”
If anywhere on the island of Hopeless, Maine, could be regarded as being Philomena’s favourite place, it would be the Gydynap Hills. For many Hopelessians, the reputation of the Gydynaps engendered a certain amount of mystery, not to say terror. For Philomena, however, they always brought back memories of the Nargles Mountains, an area she knew well, a dozen or so miles west of the city of Cork, in her native Ireland. This was the place to which she would come, whatever the weather, whatever her mood, and always feel better for the experience. True, she had encountered a few strange characters while walking these hills, which led her to believe that the Gydynaps were home to a portal, of some description, that lead to who knows where, rather like the cavern beneath The Squid, but she never felt threatened. Anyway, with Drury by her side what harm could befall her?
The fog came down with alarming rapidity, even for the quixotic climate of Hopeless. Although Philomena and Drury had been walking side by side, they suddenly disappeared from each other’s vision. At least, Philomena could not see Drury. The dog, on the other hand, spotted Philomena in the thinning mist. She was running away from him, down the hill, back towards the town, and waving her arms above her head. Drury loved a game of chase, and if that is what Philomena wanted, then he was all for joining in.
Usually, it’s fair to say that Drury is nobody’s fool, but the day of our tale was far from being a usual day.
Philomena stood alone, wrapped in a cold blanket of fog. All around her was silent and still. Her world had become abruptly comprised of nothing but this chilly cocoon that seemed to be seeping into her very pores.. And then, almost imperceptibly, the whispering began. At first it was no more than the faintest suggestion of breath in her ears. Then came the taunts and the chuckling, barely audible, but all the worse for that. Philomena hugged her body, trying to force out the strange voices. Where was Drury? This was not supposed to be happening. She felt an icy hand clutch at her heart, squeezing and freezing her from the inside.
“Get a grip, for heaven’s sake,” she thought to herself. “You can beat this. You can beat this. You can beat this…”
Philomena kept repeating these four words, over and over to herself like a mantra, rocking back and forth as she did so. With outstretched arms and, still rocking, she began to turn, slowly, at first. Then the turning became spinning, ever faster and faster, and the mantra grew into a great, roaring song. Grey, grim rags of fog swirled all around her body, gathering speed until they were drawn up into a swirling vortex that rose above her head, dark and menacing, a filthy cloud which swelled until it burst into a mass of screeching, bat-like creatures that fled away into the now clear sky.
Philomena fell to her knees, sobbing and trembling, and wondering what had just occurred. Shakily, she managed to stand up and steadied herself against a rock, breathing in deep draughts of air. She stood there for several minutes, regaining her composure and a steadier heartbeat, when Drury reappeared, not a little confused by the events of the last half-an-hour.
“And where the hell did you go. Fat lot of good as a guard dog you were!” Philomena cried, uncharacteristically angry at her canine friend. Anger, however, is not an emotion that Philomena can harbour for long, especially where Drury is concerned.
“I think you and I have been attacked by some enchantment, old friend,” she said quietly, patting the dog’s bony skull. “Sorry I shouted… but I’m damned if I know what was going on there. Come on, let’s get home.”
Durosimi O’Stoat stepped out from behind the rock where he had been hiding, visibly shaken by what he had just witnessed. When Doctor John Dee had let slip that he believed Philomena to have very powerful, but yet latent magical abilities, he was sceptical, but Durosimi resolved, there and then, to rid himself of any threat that this Bucket woman might pose. The deal he had struck with the dæmon, Buer, had backfired, thanks to the incompetence of Dee, and now it was up to himself to end matters. The fact that she had thrown off the fog so easily, a spell that had taken no little amount of time and effort to contrive, was beyond comprehension. It was supposed to wreck both her mind and body. Instead, she had spun around like some whirling dervish and cast it off as though it was no more than an old shawl. Durosimi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He had obviously underestimated her powers. Well, if he could not harm her directly, maybe he could target someone close to her. He would have to make enquiries.
Philomena made no mention of her experience when she returned to The Squid and Teapot, just in time for evening opening. The usual procession of familiar faces filtered through the door, and as the night wore on she was kept busy, ferrying endless tankards of Old Colonel and platters of Starry-Grabby Pie to the tables. The atmosphere was one of warmth and conviviality. It came as a surprise, therefore, when the room fell silent. Philomena, dutifully washing-up, was curious as to what had happened, and came out of the kitchen, tea-towel in hand. Every pair of eyes in the bar was fixed upon the figure of Rhys Cranham. The Night-Soil Man was no more than a legend to some, rarely seen, and then only under the cover of darkness. Now, here he stood, scrubbed clean as a choirboy on Sunday morning, smelling of nothing but soap, and wearing an old, slightly ill-fitting, suit, courtesy of Bartholomew Middlestreet and retrieved from one of the attics of the inn.
“I’ve been thinking about what you were saying the other day, Philomena, and you’re right,” he said, awkwardly. “Naboth Scarhill has been a good apprentice, and he reckons he’s ready to take on the job as the new Night-Soil Man right away.”
Rhys dropped down on to one knee.
“In view of that, Philomena Bucket, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?”