Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

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Back to the Underland

Actual key made by Matt at Arcane Armoury.

Regular readers of these tales will be aware of the circumstances which brought Doctor John Dee, the sixteenth century alchemist and Court Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, to the island of Hopeless. You will, likewise, know why he was now frantically searching for a key to the Underland, a labyrinth of mysterious tunnels, the entrance to which lay far beneath The Squid and Teapot. In addition to this, an attentive reader will also have gathered that Durosimi O’Stoat, sensing the latent magical abilities of Philomena Bucket, had plotted to sacrifice her to Buer, who was generally believed to be a demon, but was, in fact, a Daemon, which, apparently, is not the same thing at all.

“Of course I know where it is,” exclaimed Philomena, in response to Doctor Dee’s request for help. She reached into her pinafore pocket and fished out a heavy, ornate, iron key.

“Bartholomew gave it to me to look after, until such times as he could decide where the best place to hide it might be,” she said.

“Ah… then give it to me, my very soul depends upon it,” said Dee, making a sudden lunge, only for Philomena to deftly step aside and his hand grasp nothing but thin air.

“And so does mine, it would seem,” said Philomena. “Do you know that this is all a plot by Durosimi? He has made a deal with Buer to hand him the key, and in exchange, Buer gets me. Body and soul, apparently.”

John Dee paled visibly.

“Then I cannot possibly go through with this,” he stated, a tremor in his voice. “If I must sacrifice myself to save you, Mistress Bucket, then I will gladly, though all the devils in Hell torment me. My time, however, is short, for Buer gave me but three days to find the key.”

“Nobody is being sacrificed,” said Philomena, gently. “I’ve spoken to Buer, and he is on our side. I need your assistance, though Doctor. I want you to help me find my magic powers; it is our only chance against Durosimi.”

“But, as I have said many times before,” replied Dee, “I have no magical abilities. How do you think I can I help you?”

“Well,” began Philomena, “whatever you choose to believe, you are the nearest to a magician that I’ve ever met. You are a scryer, an alchemist, an astrologer and quite the cleverest person on the island. If you cannot help me, then nobody can.”

“Very well, but I wish Edward Kelley was here. He would know what to do,” said John Dee, remembering how his old friend and colleague had frequently claimed to possess all manner of magical skills. In truth, Kelley had been something of a charlatan, far more adept at self-aggrandisement and the art of bluffing than John Dee could ever be. The Queen’s Astrologer was so convinced of his friend’s occult claims that, upon learning that ‘The Angels’ had confided to Kelley that it would be right and proper for him to occasionally share a bed with Mistress Dee, the good doctor accepted the idea without a murmur. Had Philomena known this, she might have revised her opinion, somewhat.

“I have every faith in you, Doctor,” said Philomena. “And if I am not mistaken Durosimi has given us a clue as to what we need to do. He is keen to get hold of this key, and as far as I know the tunnels all lead to the cavern where you first dropped into Hopeless. That seems to be some sort of magical hub. Something tells me we need to go there.”

“Then we should trust your intuition, Mistress Bucket,” said Dee. “I told you once that the magic lies deep within you, and when once awakened, will find its way to the fore, and nothing, or no one,  including yourself, will prevent it from doing so.”

“Then it needs to get a move on,” said Philomena, “and we need to get to The Squid as soon as we can. I’ve a lot to learn and there’s not a lot of time left before Durosimi expects to get the key and dispose of me.”

Tucked away in the corner of one of the attics of The Squid and Teapot is an old sea-chest; at least, that is what you are led to believe. It is, in reality, part of the brickwork of the inn, cleverly constructed to look like a sea-chest. Once the heavy padlock is undone and its lid is opened, a long, vertical iron ladder is revealed; it runs from the very top of the building to the cellars. On either side of the ladder, at its base, stand two doors. One leads to the cellars, the other to the cavernous tunnels, descending two hundred feet beneath the foundations.

Carrying candle lanterns, it was down this ladder and into the depths beneath the island that Philomena and John Dee ventured.  With their lanterns held high, they passed through the great, cathedral-like cavern, where Norbert Gannicox had once lit rush-lights, and down into the tunnels beyond, not stopping until they reached their goal. Philomena could remember when she had visited this place – wreathed as it was in what she called ‘Good Old Hopeless Fog.’ That was the day that they had first met Doctor Dee. The fog was still here, as was the comforting appearance of daylight beyond, but she was wiser, this time around. Philomena was well aware that this was no route to the shore, for there was no knowing what lay behind the foggy mouth of the cavern. Her first foray into its depths had drawn her, along with Norbert Gannicox and Bartholomew Middlestreet, into a great arena, enclosed on all sides by sheer walls of smooth, black obsidian. This, as it turned out, was actually Doctor Dee’s scrying bowl. After a brief visit to the astrologer’s study they, and John Dee himself, had been spat out into a helter-skelter ride through history.

Now, with their senses heightened, the pair could almost taste the raw magic emanating from within the recesses of the cavern. Instinctively they joined hands, drew a deep breath, and stepped into the fog.

To be continued…

Pandæmonium

Since coming to Hopeless, Philomena Bucket was of the firm impression that there was nothing left to surprise her anymore.  She had witnessed so many oddities, so many weird and not particularly wonderful occurrences on the island, she convinced herself that the part of her brain designated to register surprise had been rendered permanently numb by overuse. It was, therefore, something of a surprise to her to find that she had, against all odds, been taken by surprise.

I do not think that many of us, when finding ourselves mysteriously transported from the chilly, foggy island of Hopeless to the sumptuous, if somewhat stuffy, environs of a London Gentleman’s’ Club, heavy with the scent of deep, leather armchairs, good brandy, expensive cigar smoke and freshly ironed copies of ‘The Times’, could honestly claim to say that the experience had failed to raise the odd eyebrow, or cause us to ponder for a moment. Personally, put in such a position, I would have quickly dissolved into a gibbering wreck, and been sent to inhabit a small space liberally lined with several rolls of rubber wallpaper. Philomena Bucket, however, was made of sterner stuff, and allowed the novelty of the moment to do no more than extract a slightly startled, “Jaisus, Mary and Joseph!” from her lips.

The lean, bespectacled figure, sprawled languidly in the leather armchair, had introduced himself simply as Buer. The name meant nothing to Philomena; happily, for her, she had never seen him in his more terrifying form, with five legs, each tipped with a cloven hoof, radiating from the head of a lion.

“Where am I?” she asked, looking around the unfamiliar surroundings.

“You are in Pandæmonium,” replied Buer. “This is my home… or at least the home that I share with my many brothers, for we are legion.”

“Is Pandæmonium a place?” queried Philomena. “I always thought it was an unholy noise.”

“Oh, it is definitely unholy,” smiled Buer, “But it roughly translates as ‘The Home of all Daemons’.”

“And you are… a demon?” asked Philomena. If there was alarm in her voice she was determined that Buer would not hear it.

 “That need not concern you, for now, Philomena,” said Buer. “I mean you no harm. But tell me, why is Durosimi O’Stoat lying to me, and offering you up to me as a sacrifice?”

The look on Philomena’s face told Buer that she had no idea as to what he was referring. He decided to enlighten her.

“Durosimi is using me to persuade John Dee that he must find the key to the Underland. You, my dear, are the payment I receive when he delivers it.  Apparently, in Durosimi’s words, you will be mine, ‘Body and soul’.”

Philomena shuddered. Her naturally pale face grew chalk white. Buer raised a reassuring hand.

“Don’t worry, I have no interest in you, other than to warn you of Durosimi’s intentions.  I think that obtaining the key is of less importance to him than getting rid of you. Do you know why that might be?”

Philomena shook her head. Although she did not like, or trust, Durosimi, she could not say why. She barely knew the man.

Buer raised himself from the armchair, and walked over to where Philomena was standing. Her body tensed and she became frozen to the spot as he took her face in his hands and stared deeply into her eyes. She could feel his gaze sweeping through her like a searchlight. After what felt like an eternity Buer straightened his arms and regarded her with interest.

“He fears you! Durosimi fears you and does not truly know why. How unutterably delicious,” Buer laughed. “And you have no idea why, either, do you?”

“This is all news to me,” said Philomena. Just an hour previously she had thought that there were no surprises left in her life; now she was currently juggling more than she could cope with.

“I wonder why it is,” pondered Buer, “that men seek to destroy that which they do not understand? Tell me, Philomena, are you familiar with the term ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’?”

Philomena shook her head dumbly, unsure of where this might be leading.

“Then allow me to lighten your darkness,” continued Buer. “In the late fifteenth century there lived, in the city of Florence, a Dominican friar, named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola feared beauty, for he considered art, books, mirrors, cosmetics, perfumes, indeed, almost anything that made life bearable, to be sinful.  That would have been fine, had he kept his opinions to himself. Unfortunately, he managed to persuade the citizens of Florence that, in allowing anything remotely beautiful to exist, they would be damning themselves for eternity. Rubbish of course, but they were driven by fear, and on Shrove Tuesday, in the year 1497, they built a great fire and destroyed every worthwhile thing of beauty that they could lay their hands on… and that was unforgiveable.”

“But what has that got to do with Durosimi O’Stoat?” asked Philomena.

“Because he is no better than Girolamo Savonarola,” replied Buer. “I have seen into his mind. He fears you, and because of that he wishes to destroy you.”

“Ah, go on… why would anyone be scared of me,” laughed Philomena, nervously.  Before she could say another word, Buer held up a beautifully manicured hand to silence her.

“Because you are powerful. Far more powerful than Durosimi O’Stoat could ever be.”

Philomena said nothing. Both John Dee and the ghost of Granny Bucket had told her the same thing, and it made her feel uncomfortable. She wanted to change the subject.

“So, what happened to old Girolamo?” she asked, quietly congratulating herself that she had remembered the friar’s name.

“I hated what he had caused,” said Buer, “so all it took was for me to murmur some chosen words into a few sanctimonious ears, and little more than a year after The Bonfire of the Vanities, Friar Girolamo, along with two of his closest supporters, were fuel on their own bonfires.” He gave Philomena a long, hard look. “When O’Stoat learns that I have no appetite to consume your body or soul, he will, most likely, try to turn the islanders against you. Before that happens, I will deal with him as I did the friar.”

“No,” cried Philomena, horrified. “I can’t have that on my conscience. Anyway, you said that you’re a demon. Surely, you approve of people being evil?”

“My dear young lady,” smiled Buer, “that is a very mediaeval attitude, if you don’t mind me saying. Anyway – I did not say that I am a demon, they are completely different to my race. I am a Daemon. Any ancient Greek schoolboy would tell you that I am no more, or less, than a supernatural spirit. While I admit, I can rarely be described as being on the side of the angels – if indeed, such creatures exist – I am certainly not on the side of evil. I will punish as I see fit and somewhat enjoy terrifying the pious when I don some of my various, less comely, forms; but no, on balance, few would call me evil.”

From seemingly nowhere, a mist arose and began to swirl around the room. A startled Philomena looked about her, and the vision of the elegant daemon in Pandæmonium began to fade; she was once more in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, staring into a bowl of water, which glowed golden as sunlight. Philomena’s heart missed a beat as, alarmingly, the terrifying image of an angry lion’s head with blazing red eyes appeared upon its surface.

“If you do not wish for my help, then learn your craft, and learn it quickly, Philomena Bucket”

It was the voice of Buer that spoke in her head.

Suddenly the spell was broken by an agitated John Dee, bursting into the kitchen.

“I’m giving up scrying, it does not work for me anymore. Mistress Bucket,” he blurted, twirling his beard in anguish. “I am in dire danger and know not how to extricate myself if I cannot find the key to the Underland. Please, Mistress Bucket – I implore you – I desperately need your help!”

To be continued…  

Scrying

The five-legged, lion-headed demon, Baur, had given Doctor John Dee just three days to unearth the key which opened the passage to the Underland, far beneath The Squid and Teapot. Dee immediately decided that the only way that this might be achieved was with the use of a scrying mirror. While he would be the first to admit that he had no talent as a magician, he was more than adept at the art of scrying. Back home, in sixteenth-century England, he had possessed a shallow obsidian bowl, which, when filled with water, did the job admirably. Now, however, on Hopeless, Maine, he would need to improvise.

A niggling thought occurred to Doctor Dee, as he wandered into the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot. Baur was powerful, there could be no doubt about that. He had been seen all over the known world; nothing barred his way. ‘How is it, then’ Dee asked himself, ’that one who commands so much power needs a simple brass key to access the tunnel?’ Surely, the demon could wish himself anywhere.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Philomena Bucket scrabbling about beneath the table.

“Has something gone astray, Mistress Bucket?” he asked.

“I dropped a teaspoon,” replied Philomena. “It’s not that important really, but if there’s a spoon on the floor, it’ll be bound to attract them spoonwalkers in. I swear the little devils can smell lost cutlery.”

With some difficulty Dee got on to his hands and knees and helped her with the search.

“If I had a pint of Old Colonel for every spoon that’s gone missing, I’d be permanently drunk,” said Philomena.

“Then allow me to locate them for you,” replied Dee, an idea forming in his mind. “Furnish me with a dark bowl and some clean water and together we will find them. You and I will go a-scrying.”

“Scrying?” queried Philomena. “I thought that was for looking into the future.”

“Not solely,” said Dee. “You have to concentrate, state your intentions, and the surface of the water, or mirror, if you’re using one, will show you that which you ask for. You need to be careful though, especially when looking into the future. There you will be shown a possible future, for although the ultimate destination is inevitable and decided by destiny, the journey may take one of several paths.”

An hour later Philomena found herself watching, fascinated, as John Dee located the whereabouts of more than a dozen missing spoons. Several were scattered around the inn, but more than a half had been taken to a spoonwalker’s nest, up in the Gydynap Hills.

“There will be no getting those back,” said Philomena. “Leastways, not if you want to hang on to your sanity.”  

She had heard enough tales of islanders being driven mad by prolonged exposure to a spoonwalker’s gaze to doubt the truth of this.

 “May I borrow this for the morning,” asked Dee, flourishing the now empty bowl.

“Of course,” smiled Philomena. “Pottery bowls are something we have plenty of.”

She watched Doctor Dee amble off to his room, clutching the bowl under his arm.

What was it that he had said?  Concentrate, state your intentions, and the surface of the water will show you that which you ask for. That did not sound too difficult. And the doctor had told her more than once that she possessed some magical ability.

Philomena took another bowl from the shelf and filled it with water. Then she lit a candle and tried to remember what Dee had done, how he had sat, what movements he had made. Despite her best efforts, nothing seemed to work and the dark surface of the water remained stubbornly devoid of any image. Philomena shrugged, and was about to give up, when the memory of Granny Bucket’s ghost, sitting on the bottom of her bed, came flooding back to her. Granny had been most dismissive about Philomena being in thrall to John Dee.

“Who cares what Doctor Dee says? Know yourself, girl,” these were Granny’s exact words. Well, maybe it was time to practise her so-called magical powers.

Philomena blew out the candle, settled once more in front of the scrying bowl, told it in no uncertain terms what her intentions were, and concentrated hard. There was no mysterious chanting or hand-waving involved, as Dee had done, no calling upon the spirits of the scrying bowl. Just Philomena and her ferocious desire to make this work. And work it did…

The water in the bowl grew cloudy, with a thin mist hovering above it. Minutes ticked by, then as the mists began to clear Philomena could just make out a figure on the water’s surface. With a shock she realised that she was seeing herself standing in front of, what looked like, a golden disc. The disc became brighter, and gradually grew until it filled the surface of the bowl; she had become no more than a tiny dot at its centre. Then she noticed that the disc itself was changing, and a face, with leonine features, now glared out of the bowl with blazing red, demonic eyes. Philomena could not tear her own eyes away from that stare and she found herself being drawn, as if into the bowl itself.  For an instant the whole world took on a vast golden glow. When it eventually faded, and Philomena had rubbed her eyes, she looked around at her surroundings. It was more than a little surprising to see that she was now standing in a lavishly furnished room. In a corner, sitting quietly in a deep, leather armchair, was a smartly dressed, somewhat languid middle-aged man. Seeing Philomena, he arose, smiled faintly and extended a pale hand.

“Ah, there you are Miss Bucket. I’ve been expecting you. May I call you Philomena?”

“Um… I suppose,” replied Philomena, hesitantly. She had no idea where she was, or even if she was still alive.  

“Am I supposed to know who you are?” she asked.

“I doubt it very much,” said her host, “But you may have heard of me… please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Baur…”

To be continued…

The Summoning

There are few people brave, or foolish, enough to wander abroad on the island of Hopeless, Maine, after darkness has fallen. Having said this, Philomena Bucket, who is neither particularly brave nor foolish, has done so with impunity, on several occasions. This probably has something to do with the fact that both Drury, the skeletal dog, and Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, have taken it upon themselves to be her personal protectors. Of course, Philomena has no knowledge of Rhys’ presence, as he always makes a point of keeping out of sight and well upwind of the object of his affection. On the night of this tale, however, Philomena was tucked up in her bed, safe in The Squid and Teapot, while Rhys, accompanied by Drury, was busily servicing the earth-closets and outdoor privies of a grateful clientele.

A lone figure stood in the misty moonlight, looking out over the ocean. Had anyone on the island been watching, they would have instantly recognised the long flowing robe and equally long flowing beard of Doctor John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist lately deposited upon Hopeless. Dee had become popular with many of the islanders, never slow raise a tankard or two, and relate a few treasonous, and decidedly racy, tales regarding the daily goings-on in the court of Good Queen Bess. The old alchemist judged that from this vantage point of being several hundred years in the future, his head was safe enough from the royal wrath.

Dee’s mind, that night, was dwelling on other things. Earlier in the evening Norbert Gannicox had been regaling him with an account of the time that St Anthony’s Fire, otherwise known as ergot poisoning, had caused mass-hallucinations on the island (as related in the tale ‘Baking Bad’). Norbert laughed heartily as he described one of his own hallucinations that day. It had been that of a strange beast with no body, just a lion’s head with five goat-like legs radiating from it. Strangest of all was that the creature moved by its legs rotating, resembling a large, hairy Catherine wheel.

“A creature like that would have been weird, even for Hopeless,” chuckled Norbert. “The strange thing was, though, later on I could have sworn that I saw Percy Painswick pulling its hair. Can you share an hallucination?  Funnily enough, that was the day old Perce disappeared. I never saw him again after that.”

Dee said nothing, a sudden chill running down his spine. He immediately recognised Norbert’s description, and was horribly certain that the distiller had not witnessed an hallucination at all. Even the most ergot-raddled brain could not have invented such a monster. What he had seen was the demon, Buer. A few months before, with the help of his friend and colleague, Edward Kelley, Dee had conducted an experiment intending to summon Buer, following a set of instructions in a book entitled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’. This had been written by a friend of Kelley’s, Johann Weyer, a Dutch physician and self-styled demonologist. The experiment had been a failure, but Weyer’s description of Buer had haunted John Dee. Until now he believed that the Dutchman was mistaken, and doubted that such an odd looking entity could exist. Norbert’s account proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that others had seen Buer, and that he was at large on the island. Despite his fears, Dee felt compelled to try and summon the demon once more. Despite his advanced years, he still had a keen mind and an excellent memory; he could easily remember the ceremony.

Dee had scratched a Sigillum Dei on a flat rock. This was a replica of the magical diagram he had inscribed on the floor of his study, as described in the tale ‘The Obsidian Cliff’. Standing at its centre, this was his only sanctuary, should the demon be tempted to attack. With great solemnity, and a slightly nervous tone, John Dee incanted the arcane words necessary to summon Buer. During the silence that followed, a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. For what felt like an age, nothing happened, then the air grew still. Even the roar of the waves seemed to be muted.

“Why do you disturb my rest, John Dee?” The voice was silky smooth and charming… and speaking in Latin.

“Master Buer, is that you? I cannot see you,” said Dee, who fortunately, was fluent in the tongue.

“Then answer me, why do you disturb my rest?” as the words were forming, a great golden shape began to materialise in the mist, terrible to behold.

In truth, John Dee had no idea why he had summoned the demon. Edward Kelley was a magician, and yearned for power, but Dee had no such desires. His driving force, in all things, was curiosity. This, however, was not a sufficient reason to call forth one such as Buer. He had to think quickly.

“Oh mighty Buer,” stammered Dee. “I am lost in a distant time and an unfamiliar land, and have no idea how to return to my home. As one who effortlessly strides through time and space, I beseech you, instruct me in the manner of how this might be done.”

This was totally untrue, of course. Dee, almost uniquely, had enjoyed his stay on Hopeless, and had no real wish to return to sixteenth century England, with its many terrors. However, he had to say something, and hoped that Buer was not given to mind-reading.

“That is easy, John Dee, but there is a price for this information.”

“Of course there is,” said Dee resignedly. “Do you want my soul?”

“What ever would I do with your soul?” asked Buer, with some surprise in his voice. “Of course I don’t want your soul. What I need from you is more solid and far simpler; just a key.”  

“Just a key? Any old key, or one in particular?”

Dee could have sworn that Buer rolled his eyes I disbelief.

“One key in particular will do nicely,” said the demon, sarcastically. Then he added, “and by that I mean the key to the tunnel that brought you to this island. By the way, as far as I am concerned that will not only pay for the information you require, but will compensate me for being disturbed. You have three days. The clock is ticking, John Dee.”

With these words, Buer melted into the mist, and Doctor Dee realised that there was no going back. He had to get that key, wherever it had been hidden, or face the consequences, and he shuddered to think what Buer’s consequences might entail.

“Is it done?” asked Durosimi O’Stoat.

Baur regarded him for a second or two before replying.

“Do you doubt my ability to carry out such a simple task?” he asked, somewhat sardonically. “Why, the old fool actually came looking for me, chanting some mumbo-jumbo that was supposed summon me from the pit, I suppose. It was almost laughable, but worked in our favour. He will bring me the key, and I will bring it to you. Then he will be on his way and my part of our bargain is complete.”

“Good!” said O’Stoat, “Then you will have your reward, as I promised… The Bucket woman will be yours, body and soul.”

To be continued…

A Little Touch of Drury in the Night

Durosimi O’Stoat stared gloomily through his window; outside, Drury, the osseous hound, was rattling happily along, having spent a rewarding couple of hours chasing spoonwalkers.

“Blasted dog!” muttered Durosimi to himself. “He gets on my nerves. He’s always hanging around and causing trouble.”

While no one could reasonably argue with Durosimi’s assessment of Drury, on this occasion the dog could not be held totally responsible for the black mood currently spoiling his evening. For that he squarely – and quite unjustly – blamed the sixteenth-century visitor to Hopeless, Doctor John Dee.

You may remember that, in order to get Dee’s attention, Durosimi had attempted to abduct Philomena Bucket. This had failed dismally and, to make matters worse, he had no memory of exactly what had happened. One minute he was confronting Philomena, and the next thing he knew was that several hours had slipped by, and he was propped up against his own front door. It was obvious to Durosimi that some sort of sorcery had been employed and, as far as he knew, the only person capable of such a feat would be John Dee. Despite Dee having protested, on several earlier occasions, that he was not a magician, Durosimi chose to disbelieve him. What he did not know was that any magic being wielded in the Town Hall, on the night of the Beltane Extravaganza, was exclusively Philomena’s, and his threat had been the spur that had brought it to full and spectacular fruition. It was to Philomena’s great surprise when she successfully repelled his advances and sent him hurtling along the length of the Town Hall. The force stunned him so completely that he could not even remember struggling to his feet and staggering home afterwards.

It was almost dusk, and John Dee was sitting on a bench outside The Squid and Teapot, gazing up at the soft, pallid lights of the gnii, fluttering high above. Drury clattered up to him, his bony tail wagging furiously. How times change. Just a few weeks earlier, when they first met, Dee was convinced that he was looking at a Hell-Hound, come to drag him and his heresies into the fiery depths of the Underworld. Now he knew that Drury was no more than a regular, friendly dog, albeit one who refused to recognise that he had died many years earlier.

“God’s wounds, I’ll miss these evenings, when I go home again, Drury,” Dee said sadly. “Deep in my bones, I can feel that my own time is trying to drag me back.”

Drury cocked his head, apparently listening intently as the elderly Elizabethan poured out his woes.

“You have no idea of the pressure I’m under,” confided Dee. “Do you know, I had to make an astrological chart to forecast the most propitious time for the Queen’s coronation. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had got wrong? It would have been the Tower, for me, for sure. Oh… I could put up with the fog, the eyes in the sky and those things with tentacles, if I could only stay. But I suppose there is my wife and children; I should take them into account…”

Despite being in his sixties, Dee had married the much-younger Jane Fromond some ten years earlier, and now had eight children to support. They would certainly miss him if he remained on Hopeless.

Drury snuffled and leaned against Dee’s legs. Did he have any idea of what was being said? Your guess is as good as mine, but if nothing else, he was a good listener.

“But enough of my rambling,” said Dee, stoically. “Come on, old friend, let us go into the inn, where I might be persuaded to immerse my sorrows in some of Master Middlestreet’s finest ales.”

For the islanders of Hopeless, the novelty of having a sixteenth-century alchemist wandering around had worn off after the first couple of weeks. Much to his relief, these days Doctor Dee was greeted like any other regular patron of the inn. He settled himself in the snug, ordered a tankard of Old Colonel, and fell into conversation with Norbert Gannicox.

Drury ambled off to the kitchen, where Philomena had just taken a batch of Starry-Grabby pies out of the oven.

“I’m going to take one of these over to Rhys Cranham,” she said, putting a steaming pie into a basket, where it kept two bottles of ale company. “Coming?”

Drury did not need to be asked twice. Joining the Night-Soil man on his rounds was one of the dog’s favourite pastimes, second only to chasing spoonwalkers.

As they made their way to The House at Poo Corner (The official residence of every Night-Soil Man), Philomena allowed herself to voice her concerns to Drury, confident that her secrets would be safe with him.

“This magic business is a worry,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m doing. It seems that I’m last in a long line of witches. Me! Would you believe it, Drury?”

Drury would believe anything that Philomena told him. In his eyes she could say or do no wrong.

“It’s this ‘last-in-line’ bit that troubles me, really,” she said. “After all, if I’ve got a bit of magic floating about inside me, then it’s my choice what I do with it. But, whether I choose to use magic or not, it seems wrong that after a thousand years or more it should have to stop with me. That’s a terrible responsibility to burden a girl with.”

Philomena stopped and looked at her bony companion, who immediately sat obediently at her feet.

“I don’t know if I’d be happy to settle down and have a family,” she said to him. “What do you think, Drury?”

As if in reply, the dog stood up and shook himself.

They walked on in silence, Philomena lost in her own thoughts. Arriving at the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, she lay the basket carefully on the doorstep.

“Ah Rhys,” she said quietly to herself, “I wonder what our futures might have been, if you were anything other than a Night-Soil Man.”

The faithful hound, mindful of the dangers that may be lurking in the darkness, dutifully accompanied Philomena back to The Squid. No sooner had she crossed the threshold of the inn than Drury turned around and raced back to Poo Corner, eager to join Rhys before the Night-Soil Man left on his rounds.

Rhys was already at his door, loading the contents of the basket into his knapsack.

“Who could ask for more than a fresh-baked Starry-Grabby pie and a couple of bottles of Old Colonel?” he asked, with a smile.

“Drury,” Rhys added earnestly, “You and I both think that Philomena Bucket is nothing short of wonderful – agreed? Maybe it’s high time for me to look for another apprentice, seeing that my first one turned into a seal! Perhaps one day I could follow in the footsteps of Randall Middlestreet, the only Night-Soil Man to retire and raise a family. I wonder if Philomena would say ‘Yes’? What do you reckon, old fellow?”

Drury wagged his tail and barked enthusiastically. He knew the answer to that, for certain.

Old Magic

You will recall that a Beltane Extravaganza had been held in honour of Doctor John Dee, the sixteenth-century alchemist who had been plucked from his own time and deposited on to the island of Hopeless, Maine. When the final song was sung, and the event had drawn to its conclusion, Philomena Bucket was alone in the Town Hall, tidying away the venerable Edison-Bell phonograph, when suddenly she found herself confronted by Durosimi O’Stoat.

O’Stoat was convinced – quite incorrectly, as it happens – that John Dee was a mighty sorcerer. With this in mind, he had been pressurising the alchemist to find a way in which they could both be returned to Tudor England, where he could plunder Dee’s famously extensive library and learn more of his secrets. When Dee protested that such a feat would be beyond his abilities, Durosimi disbelieved him and decided to force his hand by kidnapping Philomena Bucket. Durosimi had jumped to the conclusion that Dee’s obvious fondness for the barmaid was based upon no more than old-fashioned lust. The truth was far different; from their very first meeting, John Dee was sure that Philomena possessed magical abilities, the like of which he had never before seen.

“A word, Miss Bucket, if I might,” said Durosimi, in a commanding voice.

Philomena felt a cold chill run down her back. The only member of the O’Stoat family that she had ever liked, or trusted, was Salamandra.

“I’m listening,” she replied, coldly, hoping that he could not hear the tremble in her voice.

“You must come with me… now, please.” Durosimi motioned towards the door.

“No thank you, Mr O’Stoat. I have other plans for tonight.”

“But I insist. You will come with me. One way, or another, Miss Bucket, I promise you will.”

Philomena stood her ground, wishing that Drury would burst through the door. She knew, however, that he would be on the far side of the island by now, accompanying the Night-Soil Man, as he did most nights.

Durosimi stepped menacingly towards Philomena, then made a sudden lurch, with the obvious intention of abducting her.

She extended a hand to defend herself, and to the surprise of both, Durosimi was hurled back, as if struck by lightning. From his position on the floor, he looked at her with amazement. He pulled himself up, and stood unsteadily for a few moments.

“I don’t know what you just did, or how you did it, but I’m damned if that is going to stop me…”

He made another lunge, thinking to take her by surprise, but again, Philomena raised her hands in defence, and once more he was thrown backwards, only this time more violently. Philomena stared in disbelief at the figure sprawled apparently unconscious on the floor, fully ten feet away from her; then she raised her eyes towards the shadows at the far end of the room. A grey mist had gathered, and within it there were figures; lots of figures, some more distinct than others. Those whom she could see clearly were definitely women. She could have sworn that one was Granny Bucket, but who were the others?

“This is your heritage, Philomena,” said a voice in her head. It unmistakably belonged to Granny.

The grey mass drifted slowly forward, a swirling mist that flowed over Durosimi’s supine form, as if he did not exist. As the mist drew closer, there appeared to be hundreds of wraiths moving within it, and steadily converging upon her. While some of the company appeared to be of flesh and blood, others were vague shadows, no more solid than the mist that shrouded them. Very much to her own surprise, Philomena was not afraid.

As the ghostly tide engulfed her, some instinct told Philomena that these phantom women were her ancestors, and each one granted the gift, or maybe the curse, of magic. They swarmed around her and their voices echoed in her mind, relating their stories, and telling how the gift would sometimes desert the family for generations, before bursting through once more, when the greatest need arose, like poppy seeds that waited for the harrow in order to flourish. This is how things had been for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, and each wraith had been a wise-woman, a witch, a sorceress, or a seer.   

Granny Bucket shimmered before Philomena, and smiled.

“You, my girl, are the distillation of us all. You have great power… but be careful. ‘The Sight’ was no more than a plaything, the first stirrings of the true magic that is just awakening with you. You need to control it, or it will control you. And Philomena…”

“Yes Granny?” Philomena replied, although she was by no means sure if the words issued from her mouth or her mind.

“We are all Bucket Women, a chain of enchantment stretched for more years than you can comprehend. If you choose to remain childless, you are its last, and strongest, link. This is a decision that you alone can make. Think on it Philomena. Think on it.”

As she said these last words, the mist dispersed and Philomena found herself alone in the Town Hall. Durosimi was gone and the first rays of a pale, Hopeless dawn were struggling to make their presence known through the grimy window panes. She had been here for hours! Had she fallen asleep and it had all been a dream?

A familiar bark broke the silence of the morning and Drury came loping in, his bony tail wagging and obviously happy to see her. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man had just finished his rounds, and was peering through the doorway. As always, Rhys was uncomfortably aware of the all-pervading stench which accompanied him, and was maintaining a respectful distance.

“What the devil are you doing here at this hour, Philomena?” he asked.

“I really have no idea,” she replied. “I think I must have dropped off to sleep after everyone left last night. It’s a pity you weren’t there. It was a grand night, so it was.”

“I wish I could have been,” Rhys replied sadly, “But… well, you know…”

Philomena did, indeed, know. Much as the Night-Soil Man was liked and respected all over the island, his calling made him something of a pariah, for no one could bear to be within yards of his stench. When she first arrived on Hopeless, Philomena had fallen in love with Rhys, after he had virtually saved her life. At the time she had lost all sense of smell, having been subject to an attack of anosmia, as Doc Willoughby had importantly informed her. It was only after she had almost drowned in sea-water, and her nasal-passages flushed clean, that she realised that their love could never be.

“Well, I’m to my bed,” said Rhys, keen to change the subject. “Will there be any left-over Starry-Grabby pie going spare later, by any chance?”

“I daresay there might be,” laughed Philomena, teasingly. “And, who knows, maybe even the odd bottle of Old Colonel. I’ll leave something by your door, don’t fret.”

Rhys grinned, and with a “Bye, then,” waved, and turned to leave. Philomena watched him through the open doorway, as he tramped down the cobbled street, with Drury scampering noisily at his heels.

“Goodbye, my lost love,” she thought to herself, sadly, with Granny’s final words echoing in her mind.

A Beltane Extravaganza

Readers of these tales, and indeed, any article found in ‘The Vendetta’, would quite rightly come to the conclusion that Hopeless is a somewhat dismal and deprived sort of place, subject to all manner of horrors and privations. Having said this, it ought not to be forgotten that when you or I make such judgements, we do so through the lens of our current era, with its relative comforts and sophistication. For Doctor John Dee, however, the sixteenth-century alchemist recently deposited on the island, Hopeless, Maine revealed itself to be a land of comparative freedom and great wonders.

Although having lived a life of privilege as the Court Astronomer to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee walked as much in terror of torture and an agonising death as anyone else in Tudor England; maybe more so, as his interest in the occult was well known. He had narrowly avoided the flames when accused of heresy in the reign of Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s predecessor. So, while Hopeless can be inhospitable, nightmarish and terribly dangerous, the chances of being persecuted by someone for entertaining beliefs contrary to their own, are extremely remote. Well… on reflection, a bit remote, at least.

It was generally agreed that Doctor Dee’s stay on the island was probably going to come to an abrupt end at any moment, for although it was likely that he would be returned to his own era within minutes of his having left, history was not going to sit around forever twiddling its thumbs while Dee took an extended vacation in the future. Perusal of some dusty encyclopaedias, found in one of the attics of The Squid and Teapot, had made it fairly clear that the old alchemist had a lot of things still to accomplish in his remaining years (not that anyone told him this. He would be far too interested in wanting to know what the future held, and not all of it was particularly pleasant).  It was decided, therefore, to organise a festival, of sorts, as a send-off; something special to for the doctor to remember after he had returned home.  Inevitably, the task of putting together such a programme of events fell upon Philomena Bucket, aided, abetted and generally hindered by her faithful friend Drury, the Osseous Hound.

While Hopeless is not rich in resources, the islanders take full advantage of any bounty that the ocean might provide. Nothing goes to waste, and whatever is not immediately required often ends up being stored in The Squid and Teapot. The most prized of these items, to be produced only on the most prestigious of occasions, is the much-cherished Edison-Bell phonograph, and its attendant collection of wax cylinders. This entertaining piece of technology was, Philomena decided, to be the centre-piece of the festival, bringing with it the possibility of dance, song and no small amount of debauchery, if past experience was anything to go by. As the abysmal Hopeless winter had already shuffled itself seamlessly into a similarly abysmal Hopeless spring, and the month of May was looming, she decided to call the event ‘The Beltane Extravaganza’, which, she hoped, would appeal to Doctor Dee’s heretical nature.

At last the great day arrived and, thanks to Philomena’s efforts, everything was ready. The Town Hall was decorated, every spare chair on the island was commandeered, barrels of ‘Old Colonel’ and ‘Gannicox Spirit’ had been rolled into place and a variety of tables, while not actually groaning, complained quietly beneath platters piled high with steaming slices of Starry-Grabby pie. On walls and in alcoves tallow candles and oil-lanterns twinkled; for a few hours, the island of Hopeless, Maine seemed to shrug off its aura of gloom.

Norbert Gannicox, as Master of Ceremonies, introduced the various performers, starting with the Pallid Orphanage choir, who sang an Elizabethan madrigal, especially learned for the occasion. This was sung under the direction of the usually unflappable wraith, Miss Calder, who almost ruined the evening before it began, by inadvertently allowing her face to lapse into its skull-like aspect every time one of the children hit a bum-note. Act after act followed, some using music provided by the phonograph to back their efforts at singing or dancing. People tended to do their party-pieces; Seth Washpool sang a medley of Hopeless sea-shanties, accompanying himself on the spoons and Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet sang ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor.’

When ‘Les Demoiselles de Hopeless, Maine’ burst on to the stage Doctor Dee almost dropped his tankard of Old Colonel. The phonograph blasted out Offenbach’s ‘Infernal Gallop’ (more often known as ‘The Can-Can’ to most of us) and the five French girls, shipwrecked on the island just a few months earlier, went into their routine with unquenchable enthusiasm. Dee watched goggle-eyed and amazed as they high-kicked, whooped and wiggled their frilly-drawered derrieres in time to the music, much to the delight of the audience. The world that he knew had seen nothing like this, and would not for several hundred years to come. The room had grown suddenly warm and Dee flopped down in his chair, mopping his brow and fanning himself with his cap.

There was only one thing that could possibly follow Les Demoiselles and that was the song that had become Hopeless’ very own anthem. Philomena dutifully fixed the wax cylinder in place on the phonograph, and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle, on to its surface.  There was an expectant hush, then the unmistakable nasal strains of a strangulated Irish tenor came through the speaker…

“In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty…”

Drury’s tail began to wag and a collective smile spread over the faces of the audience. Doctor Dee had heard Philomena singing this, so was well prepared to lurch into the chorus with everyone else, and soon the strains of ‘Alive, alive-o’ were echoing around the room. Just one onlooker failed to join in, or even tap his foot. Durosimi O’Stoat regarded his fellow islanders with nothing short of contempt as they swayed and smiled as they sang.

“What small-minded fools,” he thought. “They have John Dee, one of the history’s greatest occultists, in their midst, and all they can do is try to entertain him with some idiot song about a fishmonger. The sooner I get him back to his own time, and I go with him, the better. All that I need to obtain his full attention is a little bit of leverage in the shape of that Bucket woman, who seems to have beguiled him, for some reason. Now where is she…?”

 The islanders filtered out of the building, many still singing and everyone happy. The evening had been a definite success. Philomena smiled to herself and reflected that, if Doctor Dee was to be suddenly whisked back to Tudor times, he would at least take with him a happy memory of the island. As she watched the last few stragglers leave she decided it would be a good idea to stay an extra half-hour and make sure that the precious phonograph and its cylinders were packed away properly. Ever economical, she doused most of the candles and worked quietly and methodically. Suddenly a movement in the shadows caught her eye.

“Who’s there?” she asked, wishing that Drury had still been with her. As soon as the concert was over he had clattered off to the House at Poo Corner, where Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man would be preparing to start his round.

A lone figure stepped into the dim pool of light cast by a single candle. It was Durosimi O’Stoat.

“Miss Bucket… a word with you, if I might.”

There’s No Place Like Hopeless

Doctor John Dee sat in the bar of The Squid and Teapot, happily chatting to his friends, Norbert Gannicox, Seth Washwell and Bartholomew Middlestreet. Occasionally Philomena Bucket would bustle by with a tray loaded with foaming tankards of Old Colonel and platters of Starry-Grabby pie, while Drury, the osseous hound, lay in front of the fireplace, resembling nothing more than a pile of discarded bones. Over the previous few days Dee had enjoyed a stimulating conversation with the shade of Father Ignatius Stamage, the Jesuit priest who quietly haunted a corner of The Squid, and a surreal encounter with Lady Margaret D’Avening, the phantom Headless Lady who occasionally manifested in the inn’s flushing privy. This was, indeed, the strangest of places, but Dee had no great wish to hurry back to Tudor England, where a wrong word or spiteful allegation could bring imprisonment, torture or an agonising death. Good Queen Bess could be as unforgiving and ruthless as her father, the much-wed Henry, when the mood was upon her, and her spymaster, Francis Walsingham, had eyes and ears everywhere.  No, this island of Hopeless, for all of its attendant horrors and privations, could teach sixteenth century England a thing or two about the rights of man.

There was one fly the proverbial ointment, however; Durosimi O’Stoat. During his lifetime John Dee had come across a lot of men like Durosimi – in fact one or two of these had also been named O’Stoat – and each, without fail, had self-interest as their single driving force. His position as Court Astrologer and fame in the field of alchemy had drawn these people to him, and now, hundreds of years later, it was his reputation that had attracted Durosimi. Dee smiled to himself. While it was cheering to learn that his legacy would be remembered far into the future, it was baffling, as well. Durosimi, like many others, was under the impression that Dee was some great sorcerer with dark and mysterious magical powers. The truth was that, having tried a few unsuccessful experiments, he knew that he had no magic; undeterred, however, he continued to possess a keen, not to say dangerous, interest in all aspects of the natural, and supernatural, worlds. Other than studying the heavens, taking part in the occasional séance and having an aptitude for scrying, he was very much like any other man of rank of his time, except that he was much, much cleverer than most, and he knew it. That’s how he had stayed alive for over sixty years.  

 “Another drink, Doctor?” asked Bartholomew, raising a hand to catch Philomena’s attention. Before he could reply, a pitcher was placed on the table and his tankard refilled. This ale was considerably stronger than that which he was used to, and John Dee was beginning to feel somewhat inebriated.

“I do not like Durosimi O’Stoat,” he suddenly declared, his voice slightly slurred. “I believe him to be a rogue and a scoundrel.”

Seth, Norbert and Bartholomew looked uncomfortably at each other. None would have disagreed with this sentiment, but would never have dared put it into words, especially in so public a setting.

“You see,” continued Dee, “he wants me to go back… go back to Elizabeth’s reign and take him with me. Ha! The fool does not know that I cannot do that, even if I wanted to.”

Dee regarded his friends fondly with glazed, moist eyes and patted Norbert reassuringly on the shoulder.

“And believe me, my most faithful of comrades, I have no wish… no wish at all to leave this most magical of islands…”

With that he belched, smiled weakly, then slid gently off his chair and under the table.  

“Methinks the doctor has overindulged in Hopeless hospitality,” said Seth with a grin.

“Well… if living in Hopeless is a better deal than being in his own time, it must be pretty awful there,” observed Norbert.

“At least we don’t hang, draw and quarter people,” broke in Philomena, who had come to clear the table, then added, “so much for Merrie England!”

“It couldn’t have been all bad,” said Bartholomew, “but like it or not, at some point he’s going to have to return. I looked him up in one of the encyclopaedias up in the attic. By my reckoning he’s got a lot to do at home and another twenty years to do it in. Let’s give him as good a time as we can while he’s here, because, one way or another, he’ll be whisked back to his own time without so much as a by-your-leave.”

“Then maybe we should start by getting him off the floor and into his bed,” said Philomena.

Doctor Dee woke with a headache. He could only imagine that the fog outside had somehow seeped into his brain. Fortunately, a crate of coffee beans had washed up on the beach just a week previously, enabling Philomena to make the doctor the finest hangover cure that she knew. It was with no little trepidation that Dee sampled the dark brew over breakfast. At first he pulled a disgusted face, but as the invigorating effects of the caffeine coursed through his body, he brightened visibly. Doctor Dee decided, there and then, that he liked coffee and would make a point of obtaining more of it (sadly for him, however, he would be dead for forty years before the exotic brew would eventually be brought to Europe).

Meanwhile, on a part of the island far less welcoming than the well-lit warmth and hospitality of The Squid and Teapot, Durosimi O’Stoat sat in his austere study and contemplated the problem of how to wheedle knowledge from Doctor Dee. The man had obviously been lying when he said that he had no idea how he had arrived on the island, and that he had no magic to help him. It was well known that Dee was a powerful sorcerer.  Durosimi was also aware that magicians were renowned for being secretive; in fact, none more so than Durosimi himself.  One way or another he would extract Dee’s knowledge from him, even if it meant chaining him up indefinitely.

Durosimi smiled unpleasantly. A sudden thought had occurred to him. Dee had made no secret of the affection that he felt for the Bucket woman, the Irish barmaid who skivvied in The Squid and Teapot. Maybe she could be the tasty morsel of bait which would hook Doctor Dee in once and for all.

To be continued…

Granny Bucket

Philomena Bucket had not felt completely at ease, ever since her recent and unsettling conversation with Doctor John Dee. The alchemist, having been mysteriously transported to Hopeless from Elizabethan England, was convinced that Philomena was either descended from, or a reincarnation of, a certain Melusine O’Stoat, an erstwhile friend of his who had been burned for heresy.

There were two things about this revelation that particularly disturbed Philomena, the first being that she might be related to the infamous O’Stoat family. More worrying than that, however, was Dee’s insistence that he saw within her powerful magical abilities. Abilities, he promised, that would resist staying hidden for much longer. The truth of the matter was that, while Philomena had no wish to be remotely magical, she was well aware that she was able to see and sense things which were concealed from others. It was what Granny Bucket, back in the Old Country, had referred to as ‘The Sight’. Granny had also alluded to a lot more, but Philomena, having been the girl that she was, decided not to listen to things she had no wish to hear. How she wished that Granny was here now, to help her understand all this, but it was too late; Ireland was three thousand miles away, and Granny was long dead.

The flock of gnii, quietly flapping through the foggy night, cast a pale light through the small window of Philomena’s bedroom in The Squid and Teapot. She had not slept well and had just heard the stately Grandfather clock, sitting proudly in the corner of the bar, strike three. This, in all honesty, means very little, as the clock insists on striking three at various random moments throughout the day and night (one can only assume that it has a particular fondness for the sorts of things that might happen at three o’clock). On this occasion, however, the sepulchral chimes seemed to act as a clarion call, summoning an unseen presence to Philomena’s room.

The first indication for the barmaid that she was not completely alone was the sensation that someone was sitting on the corner of her bed. Although the light afforded by the migrating gnii was poor, it was enough to establish that the mattress was slightly depressed, with a faint, vaguely person-shaped apparition shimmering above it.  Philomena was not unduly concerned; she had encountered enough ghosts on the island to know that most were harmless, but this was the first time that one had ventured into her bedroom.

“Who’s there?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.

“Jaisus, Mary and Joseph, Philomena, do you not recognise your old granny anymore?” said the shimmer, with annoyance.

“Granny? Is that really you?” asked Philomena, incredulous.

“Of course it is, you great geebag! Has death changed me that much?”

“Granny,” said Philomena patiently, “I can’t see you at all. You’re just a bit of flickering moonlight to me.”

“Blast!” exclaimed Granny, “I’m always forgetting to adjust to the non-astral. Hold on a second.”

Philomena watched in wonder as the indistinct shape before her was transformed into Granny Bucket.

“Granny!” cried Philomena with delight, throwing herself forward to hug her much-missed ancestor. Granny remained much-missed, however, as Philomena’s arms closed around nothing.

“Oh, you’re not really here, then?” she said, sadly.

“I’m as much here as you are, girl,” said Granny crossly, “except that my ‘here’ and your ‘here’ aren’t in quite the same dimension.”

Philomena nodded. She had come across a similar obstacle with Margery Toadsmoor, Miss Calder and other ghostly friends. She had vainly hoped that Granny might be a little bit more corporeal.

“Anyway,” said Granny in her no-nonsense way, “why did you call me?”

“I haven’t called you,” said Philomena. “Although, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately.”

“I know, and that was enough to drag me back to you. It’s that Doctor Dee, isn’t it? He’s been telling you stuff – stuff that you ought to have known if you had listened to me in the first place.”

Philomena looked at her old ancestor with some surprise.

“He is right, then? I’m an O’Stoat? Not a Bucket?” she asked.

“Of course you’re a Bucket,” snapped Granny. “Melusine O’Stoat was a Bucket too, originally, but she defied family tradition and took her husband’s surname – and all for the sake of vanity, if you ask me! O’Stoat was a powerful wizard, right enough, but the cowardly dog dashed back to Ireland after the English burned his wife, leaving his children – his own flesh and blood – behind, in the care of his in-laws, the Buckets.”

“And I am descended from them…” said Philomena, blankly. “So all that Doctor Dee said is true. I am a witch.”

“So now the penny drops!” said Granny, exasperated. “All of the Bucket women have been witches, for more than a thousand years, but it’s not a thing we talk about. Too dangerous by far, even in these relatively enlightened times.”

“Doctor Dee said I have great abilities… “ began Philomena.

“Doctor Dee says! Doctor Dee says!” ranted Granny. “Who cares what Doctor Dee says? Know yourself, girl. Yes, for some reason you have more magic in you that any of your ancestors, including Melusine, or me. I don’t know why. Maybe coming to this god-forsaken island has something to do with it.  It’s something you’ll have to learn to live with.”

“Doctor… ” began Philomena, then hurriedly corrected herself, “I was told that this power is like a wild horse straining to be free.”

“And so it is,” said Granny. “So you better learn to ride, and pretty damn’ quick. Be careful, my girl, it won’t be easy.”

With that warning Granny’s shade began to fade, until it was no more than a brief evanescence.

Philomena peered helplessly into the darkness. Sobs shook her body and tears streamed down her pale face.

There was a distant noise in her head, a noise that she had not heard for some years, not since she had left the Coal Quay of Cork, as a stowaway on the merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’. It was the unmistakable sound of galloping hooves, and they were getting nearer.

The Cursed Letter Opener of Otley Chevin

Otley Chevin inherited the letter opener on the day when he found it inside his great aunt. Given the state of her remains, it was hard to tell whether some person unknown had stabbed her with it, or whether she had simply had a funny turn while holding it and had fallen onto it. That is was between her shoulderblades would have encouraged some people to infer murder. However, Otley knew his Aunt Maud well enough not to jump to that conclusion. 

The winter before, there had been an accident where Maud had been found, pinned to the inside of her front door, by the very same letter opener. At the time she had explained to Otley that she’d been trying to deal with a massive spider on the ceiling and had fallen from the chair that had been serving as a ladder, and that the letter opener had slipped somehow, going right through the skin on her shoulder and trapping her against the door.

It was the letter opener with which Maud’s father, Asparagus Chevin, had cut his own throat. Which given that the letter opener was barely equal to cutting paper, must have been a long and rather unpleasant sort of process.

If there was a story about where the letter opener had come from, Otley had never heard it. He supposed it had to be from the family’s pre-island days, when they lived somewhere that people sent letters to each other rather than just going round and yelling outside each other’s houses like normal people. Great Aunt Maud certainly couldn’t read, and didn’t think her father could read either. Now Otley, equally unskilled in letters in every sense of that term, was the possessor of a letter opener that he had no obvious use for. A letter opener that, at this point had been involved in two hideous deaths. 

Three if you counted that time Herb Chevin used it to kill Heebie Chevin after he died and was buried and then came back again. That one was contentious. Does it really count as killing someone if they’d definitely already been dead once?

Otley buried his aunt in her back garden. Partly because it was what she would have wanted, partly because moving her sticky remains round in pieces on a shovel was pretty undignified and putting in her in a wheelbarrow to get her to church didn’t seem like the right thing either.

He took the letter opener home, and gave it pride of place on the mantelpiece, having moved half a skull and a couple of odd looking stones out of the way. He liked the way the pretty handle caught the light. He was so busy admiring it that he nearly tripped over the hearth rug and barely saved himself from falling face first into the fire. 

(With thanks to Andy Arbon for the prompt and the letter opener.)