Goodhorse Manor

Standard

“We only allow guests to stay in the master suite for one night. Any longer than that and some begin to experience issues with their health.”

“Psychological issues, you mean?”

“Indeed, Mister Rattus.” The manor’s keeper and their guide through the tour of the grounds, Mr. Wildschwein bowed his head to the reporter and glanced at the rest of the tour-guest group. The believers, as he thought of them. Even the ones who deemed themselves skeptical.

There was the mysterious and bespectacled Ms. Kapik who lingered in the back; Mr. and Mrs. Mouflon, the posh and professional patrons; Mr. Bantam, the young red-maned traveler; and the trench-coated Mr. Rattus.

They were all there because of the particular answers they had given on the survey that Mr. Wildschwein sent them. There had been a nervous chuckle and shuffling of feet at Wildschwein’s confirmation of the rumors about Goodhorse Manor, particularly the room in which they currently all stood, which had been the private bedchamber of Lady Goodhorse herself. Or as she was sometimes known, the witch Goodhorse.

It was all part of the spooky experience. While the manor was old and had its share of creaky floorboards and shrieking hinges, it was also clean and well-lit and moderately busy, being both an inn and a museum in its modern incarnation. The eeriness was meant to draw in guests and tourists. And during particular times of the year, the lady’s bedchamber was closed to museum-goers and opened for guest stays, but only for one night at a time. The one-night rule’s origin was more likely economical than supernatural.

It didn’t look sinister, the room in which the lady had spent her last day and been found glassy-eyed and dead. It didn’t look particularly notable at all. It was spacious and uncluttered. Not overly ornate or plush. An enormous four-poster bed occupied most of the space. There were hints of opulence, a chair upholstered in gold satin, an ottoman lined with rose velvet. The textiles used for the drapery and linens were of high quality. The woods from which the furnishings were carved were rich and heavy. But though the bed occupied the most space, the central feature of the room, was the window on the opposite wall. The infamous window-glass.

Currently it showed an idyllic view of the front courtyard, the path leading to the manor, the property gates, the far hills beyond, and a hint of sun hanging above a cloudless sky. It had been a fixed window, once upon a time, giving the illusion of a living painting to the dweller of that room. There were smaller casement windows near the ceiling that let in some fresh air. In modern times, the fixed window had too been converted into a casement, to allow for evacuation in case of emergencies.

“No one has…nothing gruesome has gone on here, has it Mister Wildschwein?” Mrs. Mouflon asked. She clutched absently at the collar of her purple dress-coat. “I mean, I’ve read everything I could find about the place, but every place always has an unwritten story about it.”

Wildschwein’s placid face remained so as he answered Mrs. Mouflon’s question.

“There has been one and only one death in this room since the house was built and all the years thereafter. And that was the death of Lady Goodhorse herself. As for the rest of the house and the grounds, there have been tragedies to speak of. Accidents in the garden, injuries upon the stairs. But nothing above and beyond the hurts one would find in any home that had stood for a significant period of time. There have been no murders. No forlorn souls who have done themselves in.”

“What about after?” Mr. Rattus asked.

“Pardon?”

“After they leave here? There have been stories of strange things happening to some of the people who leave here, no matter what room they stay in.”

“What might those strange things be, Mister Rattus?”

“The kind you’re talking about. Murder. Suicide. Mayhem.”

“You said ‘some of the people.’ Many people come and go from here without any issue. Is there a reason you suspect this manor in particular of ill effect, compared to any other inn or hotel?” Despite his words, Wildschwein seemed, for the first time that day, somewhat ruffled. Even his black butler’s suit seemed to pale.

But Mr. Rattus did not pursue the matter. At least for the time being.

And Mr. Wildschwein continued telling the group about the woman who arrived in the village one day, assumed to be a widow and heiress of her late husband’s fortune. The woman who began to build the great manor in which she would reside until the end of her days.

~~*~~

In her later years, Lady Goodhorse grew frail and did not leave her bedchamber, and yet she knew all that transpired in the world. In those days, there were piles of books and scrolls everywhere, and when she wasn’t reading, she would gaze through the window-glass fixed upon the western wall. It was said she could see farther than the far hills through that window. She’d had it fashioned from an enchanted piece of glass she’d found through which the seer could see whatever he or she wished. But if the seer encroached upon someone who knew they were being watched, they could send something back through the glass. Nothing tangible, but magic perhaps. It was believed this is what happened, when one day, Lady Goodhorse was found, standing, but frozen dead in front of the window.

Lady Goodhorse was rumored to be a witch, but a good one who practiced healing and mending, and protected the surrounding lands from common danger. Around the manor there was once a bustling village. And it was not just a village of people, but of animals, knowing animals, who lived and aided the witch as her familiars.

There were always stories in surrounding villages of how the witch procured such familiars. For it would be impossible to grant sense and intelligence to the dumb beasts of the world. Impossible for a mere witch in any case. But it was conceivable that a witch might take people and grant them the forms and talents of beasts. Like the witches of myth, she transformed the willing, it was said, into beasts who then did her bidding. And sometimes she transformed the unwilling as punishment for offense or encroachment upon her village and her people. Some even said that she herself transformed into a pure white mare who would gallop in the forests and plains surrounding the village, sometimes keeping watch and sometimes simply frolicking in a place that was completely in her keeping.

Sinister and salacious were the tales told of Lady Goodhorse. Of her dalliances while in horse form with a man she had likewise transformed into a horse. Of carrying a child from that union, which when born, was a creature out of myth, much more so than his mother. He was half horse and half boy. A centaur. While his mother and father loved him well, and the villagers, accustomed to inhuman beings gave him no more grief or good will than they would to any other child, the centaur boy grew lonely. For he was the only one of his kind. He begged his mother to teach him her craft, so he might transform at will, and choose to be either completely human or completely horse.

But she could not teach him, or would not.

~~*~~

One day—as it was later related by one who claimed to witness it—the centaur boy walked into the forest in the company of a stranger who was passing through the village. The stranger was some kind of merchant or noble, or someone of some repute from far away. No one seemed to care as much for his origins as for the gifts he had granted them. Two nights of merriment at his expense in the town’s largest inn. (This inn was larger than Goodhorse Manor, but burned down in a fire some six months after that weekend.) Everyone though he must be a candy merchant for he passed about tins of refreshing mints.

When the centaur boy did not return that evening, his mother went about the town asking after him. Everyone, still merry from the revels of the weekend past, told her not to worry. He would be along shortly. Lady Goodhorse was too distraught at first to wonder about or be dismayed by the nonchalance of her fellow villagers. Another day passed, and still none but the lady and a few of her household were worried about the boy. Still, when she gathered a search party, the villagers obliged. They followed her. Many even volunteered to be transformed by her into hounds, the better to sniff out the boy. But still they seemed unworried. Their wills were so easily bent by her every command. That was when she suspected something foul was about. Something that had stolen her son and stolen the wits and will of her people.

Out of desperation, though she knew their wills were not completely their own, she did indeed transform some of the fittest and strongest among the searchers into hounds. They plunged into the forest, searching.

Alas, they found nothing.

But on the sixth morning after the boy disappeared, he walked out of the woods surrounding his home and approached the manor from the west. His mother happened to be looking out of her window-glass. She dropped the teacup in her hands and rushed to the front door.

And it was then that she saw a sight quite different from what she had seen through the window.

There were gasps from the servants on the grounds. Some took steps toward the boy, and then hesitated.

For he was human. From head to toe.

~~*~~

They rushed him inside. Gave him something warm to eat and to drink. Black tea and bouillon broth. Fresh bread and steaming eggs. But though his form was changed, he seemed otherwise the same. He laughed and asked everyone not to make a fuss about him. Then he grew sober, bowed his head, and begged his mother’s forgiveness for making her worry over him. And he told her what had transpired in the forest.

The stranger who had dined the village and charmed the boy was a witch, like his mother. When the boy learned of it, he asked whether or not the man could transform his own body and if he had ever taught anyone else, an apprentice perhaps, to do so. The boy understood that his mother must have forbidden it for a reason, so he did not entreat the man to teach him. He was only curious. The stranger laughed and clapped the boy on the shoulder. He explained that the bonds of blood prevented a witch from teaching his or her own children, which sounded much as his mother had explained it to him.

The stranger only asked the boy if they might go for a walk away from the raucous carousing, so that they might hear each other as they spoke of complex matters. The boy lost track of time as the man begin to teach him some of his tricks. When it grew dark, the man built a fire in the woods, and he claimed to have sent word to Lady Goodhorse by enchanting a parchment to fly through the air. The boy dozed off for a while around the fire, as the stranger told him many stories, and a few other carousers joined them. It did not seem strange or frightening to the boy, even when he woke and the fire had died down, and the others were gone.

The stranger showed him a note written in his mother’s hand granting him permission to try and teach her son the power of transformation for as long as the stranger remained in the village.

So the boy stayed and he learned. The woods were beginning to grow chilly at night, but it was bearable with a fire present. The stranger said he preferred staying in the woods, and that he would be gone in a few days, and loved to teach youngsters.

Once, the boy heard someone calling his name. He thought someone must be looking for him and darted away toward the voice. The stranger agreed to search for the caller and to end their lessons, for it seemed he had kept the boy away from his mother for far too long. But the boy had learned much, and hungered for more. He insisted on entreating his mother for more time. Their search was futile. They never found the caller. The stranger sent another parchment shaped like a dove, flying through the air.

The boy could not quite learn to transform himself before the stranger said that he must be going. But the boy asked if the stranger could transform him. The stranger said he could not, for that would mean the boy would become his familiar. But then the stranger changed his mind, and said that he would allow the boy to stay with his mother for many, many years, until he was old enough that he would want to come and either serve or apprentice with the stranger. The boy agreed. The stranger asked him what he wished to be, horse or human. The boy wavered for a moment, then said he wished to be a human boy. He did not want to be a familiar, and anyway, his mother was human most of the time, and most of the villagers were human, and he loved to speak and sing, so he wanted to be human. The stranger laughed a jolly laugh and transformed the centaur into a boy.

When Lady Goodhorse heard the story, she held him close, crushing him to her body so tightly that he jested he couldn’t breathe. Those servants who were present said they were struck with fear when they saw the forlorn and empty look in their mistress’s eyes. She quickly thrust the boy away from herself, told him to finish his breakfast, and as soon as she was out of his sight, she collapsed in the hall.

She feared this stranger was no man, but some otherworldly and unnatural being, who had lured her son into his own world for a time. She set herself to the singular task of freeing her only son from the diabolical pact to which he had unknowingly agreed. She watched for the stranger’s return. She warned the villagers, who even after his spell upon them was broken, were uncertain that the stranger had been anything but a jolly candy merchant passing through their humble village.

She watched her son as he grew up, fearing wickedness in him that never came. When he left at last, having received word from the stranger, she was loathe to let him go. Her son, being by then an honorable young man, told her that he must now pay the price for the gift the stranger had granted him. A gift of a wonderful life with many friends, a lady love who would keep his mother company waiting for him, and a chance at a trade beyond tromping through the forest. He wanted to be a witch, like his mother. A healer perhaps. A seer.

He swore to his mother than he would return, after his studies were completed and his debt was paid.

And as Lady Goodhorse feared, the day she watched him walk along the path away from the manor was the last she would see of him.

He never returned.

~~*~~

“Why did she let him go?” Ms. Kapik asked. “Though I guess people will do what they will do, but why not go with him? Why not tell him what she suspected once he was old enough?”

Mr. Bantam sighed. “You’re ruining the story, Kathryn.”

Mr. Wildschwein smiled as he poured more wine into their glasses. “Actually, yours are fair questions. There is much more to the story. Many details I didn’t speak of on the first tour. Most likely, she feared that there would be some terrible consequence. He would go mad perhaps, or turn evil. She let him go believing that the stranger would not harm him, and hoping that in time, she would find a way to break the stranger’s hold on her son. Or better yet drive the stranger back from whence he came.”

The three were gathered at a dinner table set for six. Mr. Wildschwein was treating his special guests to a special dinner at the end of their first full day at the manor.

Ms. Kapik watched the wine and suddenly sat up. “Oh, Mr. Wildschwein. I’m so sorry. I forgot to tell you.” The red of the wine reminded her of the nosebleed she had suffered earlier that morning. She’d turned her head and felt something drip out of her nose. Half asleep, she’d reached for a tissue in the dark and wiped her nose. When she woke a few hours later, she saw that a few drops had fallen on the pristine white pillowcase.

Mr. Wildschwein told her not to worry about the pillowcase, and hoped that she was feeling better.

Mr. Bantam then chimed in with a mild complaint about a rash on his wrist. He thought he might have been bitten by some insect in the middle of the night.

Mr. Wildschwein immediately stiffened and proclaimed that he did his utmost to assure that the manor was free of insects and vermin.

Mr. Bantam laughed and proclaimed that he was a nomad, and was quite accustomed to dealing with the unexpected company of critters while he slept. He joked that he might be having an allergic reaction to ghostly presences.

As they spoke, they were joined at dinner by Mr. and Mrs. Mouflon, who apologized for being late. In truth, Kapik and Bantam had merely come down early, having agreed to compare notes on the story and the manor, and their purpose. The mysterious Ms. Kapik, as it turned out was a detective. She was at the manor on vacation, not for any professional reason. But the story and its mysteries fascinated her nonetheless.

They caught the couple up on their further discussion, and the reporter once he sauntered downstairs to the dining room.

***

“She never saw her son again,” Mr. Wildschwein continued, taking a sip of wine. “But it’s said she did see the stranger again.”

“He’s the one who did her in, wasn’t he?” Mr. Rattus said, waving an accusing fork in the air.

“No certain accounts exist. She may have passed naturally. But perhaps.”

Mr. Rattus nodded and took a bite of his dinner roll, brushing a stray crumb out of his mustache. “Apologies, ladies and gents. I’ve let my whiskers grow out a bit too long, eh?”

The Mouflons chuckled. Mr. Bantam shook his head and dipped a spoon in his tomato soup. Ms. Kapik peered at Wildschwein.

“She was found in her chamber. The doors and windows were locked from the inside and unbroken. How did he get to her? Could he pass through walls?”

“As you might imagine, she tried to use the window-glass to see her son,” Mr. Wildschwein said. “But she had to be careful. When you look through an ordinary glass and see someone, that person can see you just as clearly. Even windows that are coated to be ‘one-sided’ are not truly so. Shine enough light on the side that is meant to be invisible, and it can be seen. If you reach out and try to touch that person, however, the glass would obstruct you, and so would it obstruct the other person from touching you.

“Now, they cannot reach you with their hand. But they can reach you. Imagine you were looking through the glass at someone you love. If Mrs. Mouflon, for example, was gazing at her husband. If he were to smile, it would warm her heart, would it not?”

The Mouflons glanced at each other and smiled.

“But what if he were to frown? She would wonder what was wrong. What if he were to glower, to gaze at her as if she were his greatest enemy, with bitterness, with malice. She might grow fearful, confused, hurt. Moreso if his voice could reach her and he spoke insults.”

The Mouflons held each other’s hands and gazed at Mr. Wildschwein.

“When Lady Goodhorse looked through the glass, she never looked upon people in their private moments. Because when she gazed through the glass, she was vulnerable to being touched by these intangible things, much moreso than she would be if looking through an ordinary glass. If she were spying on someone, they could just as easily see her, and most likely would grow frightened or angry. What they felt would strike her like a blow. That was the cost of such sight. But if she looked out upon a parade that all were free to watch, or through a window onto a park, or a town square, then any looking through the window to her would likely only smile or ignore her.”

“So, she could see her son’s travels as he moved through different towns and villages,” Mr. Rattus said.

Mr. Wildschwein shook his head. “The window-glass had another limit. Its sight could be clouded and shrouded by any who possessed the skill to do so.”

“Which the stranger did,” Ms. Kapik said.

Mr. Wildschwein bowed his head in agreement.

“So, what happened?”

“Her son’s lady love decided to go out and visit her lover. Lady Goodhorse told her that she would watch from her window-glass. She also asked the young lady to take along one of their dogs as protection.”

“Let me guess, she was never seen again,” Mr. Rattus said.

“No, actually. The young lady returned. She was unharmed but dismayed. She hadn’t found her love in the town where he said he would be. The young woman was not too worried. The stranger was one to move around, and his apprentice had to move with him. She comforted Lady Goodhorse, by saying she was certain they would hear from the man they both loved dearly soon enough. And while the lady appreciated the young woman’s kind words and her report, she was keen on learning what the other had learned. The dog.

“He was no ordinary dog, but one of the witch’s familiars. And he told much the same tale, but had one detail more. He had smelled the lady’s son in that town. And the trail was fresh. Moreover he had sensed a presence near the girl’s room the following night. He had woken and positioned himself before the door, ready to attack whoever or whatever came through.”

Mr. Wildschwein paused and dramatically took another sip of wine as the rest waited. “As the dog familiar approached the door, he sensed some hesitation in the footsteps outside. The unsettling sulfurous odor he began to smell changed, seemed to fade, replaced by a hint of cologne, and the footsteps moved away. In that story, Lady Goodhorse found a clue that she would follow until she discovered the stranger’s weakness, and perhaps his reason for being fascinated with her son.”

Ms. Kapik suddenly forgot her dinner. She placed her elbows on the table, laced her fingers together, and leaned over her plate. “Animals?”

Mr. Wildschwein smiled. “Animals, yes. They protect us against this stranger. He does not like them at all. It is harder for him to control them than it is for him to control us. What’s more, the son of Lady Goodhorse, having the form and nature of both human and animal, must have been of great concern to this man.”

“Is that why he came to the village?” Mrs. Mouflon asked. “Because he’d heard of the centaur boy and wanted to…figure out some way around his weakness?”

“It seems likely.”

Mr. Rattus shook his head. “Hell of a thing.”

“I had just heard there was a witch haunting this place,” Mr. Bantam said. “This story though…it’s…”

“Yes,” Mr. Wildschwein said.

And all fell quiet. For a long moment, the only sound was the sound of Mr. Rattus chewing his steak.

“It would seem the mood needs some lightening,” Mr. Mouflon said at last. He explained that he and Mrs. Mouflon had mingled with some of the others guests of the manor after the tour. They had gotten themselves invited to a party that was being held in the garden house, an outdoor dining and gathering area in the rear grounds. It looked a bit like a greenhouse, being built from panes of frosted glass. It could be rented out by private citizens, and Mr. Wildschwein confirmed that a wealthy patron had booked the garden house for the weekend.

The Mouflons were taking their turn in Lady Goodhorse’s bedchamber that night, and could not make it to the party. They passed their invitations on to Mr. Bantam and Ms. Kapik. Mr. Rattus mentioned crashing the soirée, though the Mouflons insisted they’d been told it was invitation only. Mr. Wildschwein mentioned even he was not allowed in as the party’s host was using his own staff.

“Good luck in the chamber,” Ms. Kapik said to the couple.

***

“What are you doing, darling?” Mrs. Mouflon asked as she primped her hair in the dresser’s mirror.

“Calling Wildschwein. There’s a wolf or some wild animal running around out there.”

It was late, almost midnight, and they were retiring for the night. They’d spent hours gazing through the window-glass in Lady Goodhorse’s bedchamber, and had seen nothing but a beautiful sunset. As it grew dark, they’d watched the arrival of cars and carriages as partygoers who were not guests of the manor arrived and walked the path leading to the garden house. Mrs. Mouflon turned and gazed out of the window.

“I realize the place allows pets, but that hound or whatever it was looked like it was attacking the boy.” Mr. Mouflon dialed the phone. “Good thing Bantam ran out and got him inside to safety.”

Mrs. Mouflon saw what her husband had seen. A shape darting about on the grounds. Some kind of animal, but it was too dark for her to see what it was. “That’s strange.”

“What?”

“It ran right up to that couple but they didn’t flinch. They’re acting like they don’t see it. Oh, I think I know what it must be. Poor thing. It probably got loose from somewhere. We should go down and try to help corral it.”

“This isn’t a farm, honey. That thing is wild. It must have come from the forest. Ow, and I think I have a headache.”

“Do they have wild boar in the surrounding forest?”

“I don’t know, but the front desk isn’t answering. You may be right about—“

“Oh!” Mrs. Mouflon suddenly exclaimed. She yanked at the ties to the window drapes and whipped the drapes closed. She moved away from the window, as if there were some sniper ready to strike her from below, and pressed her back against the wall.

“I see the truth through the window glass,” she said, her eyes wide. “I see past his velvet suit and feathered fedora. I see the orbits of his blood-red eyes and the winding canals of his eavesdropping ears.”

“Marie!” Mr. Mouflon put the receiver down and rushed to his wife. He set his hands on her shoulders and she seemed to snap out of a daze.

She exhaled and looked at him. “Her words,” she said. “Goodhorse. About the…oh Marlon.” She gulped. “He’s here. We need to get out of this room. We need to find Wildschwein.”

She went to the dresser and began to pull out their clothes.

***

“Don’t go out there, whatever you do,” Mrs. Mouflon told her husband as they made their way down the stairs, all luggage in tow. “I don’t think he saw me. But it’s best not to take any chances.”

“I won’t, dear,” Mr. Mouflon said, glancing at her. He didn’t know what had just happened to his wife. One moment, in her fashion, she was remarking on some poor beast in need of human kindness. The next she changed before his eyes into this shaken paranoid, who nevertheless was sound enough of mind and resolve to command their immediate movements and actions.

He was happy to see a familiar face in the manor’s front parlor.

“Bantam, I saw what happened. Are you all right?”

Mr. Bantam was standing before a couch where Ms. Kapik tended to the skinned knee of the little boy that Bantam had saved.

“We’re fine. His parents just went to the party. Can you believe it? Left him here. Said they trusted me to take care of him, even after I said I was invited to the same party.” He turned to Ms. Kapik. “You can arrest them for that, can’t you? Child abandonment?”

“There’s a playroom for the kids around the corner,” Ms. Kapik said. “They’re chaperoned by a trained concierge. That’s probably why they weren’t too phased.”

Bantam shook his head disapprovingly.

“Have either of you seen Wildschwein? We tried to call him and the front desk. No one answered.”

“That’s because they were trying to corral that thing outside, whatever it was.”

“A wild boar,” Mrs. Mouflon said. She peered at the boy. “Did you see it, honey?”

The boy seemed a bit dazed. He was more interested in the chocolate bar that Ms. Kapik had produced from her coat.

“A boar?” Mr. Bantam’s eyes widened. “That’s what it was?”

“You were there. You didn’t see it?”

“I was too busy being terrified.”

“You still ran out there to get the boy,” Ms. Kapik said, smiling.

“They couldn’t see it,” Mrs. Mouflon said. “That couple. Other people. But you saw it. And I saw it. You look lovely, by the way, Kathryn.”

Ms. Kapik exchanged a glance with Mr. Mouflon. She rose from the couch and went to Mrs. Mouflon. “Here, have a seat, Marie.”

Mr. Mouflon explained what happened in the master suite. As he did, the reporter, Mr. Rattus, approached them. He brought over the concierge, who guided the little boy away to the playroom.

“You all see the coincidence, don’t you?” Mr. Rattus said, a drink in his hand. “A party thrown on the weekend. The partygoers acting all strange. A mysterious rich guy treating everyone. Sound familiar?”

Ms. Kapik crossed her arms. “We get it, Mr. Rattus. What are you suggesting?”

“I’ll bet this is all part of Wildschwein’s show. I’ll bet he’s the one throwing the party. Like he’s in disguise or something. That’s why he’s not around right now. He’s giving us the experience we paid for, including having animals running around. I don’t think he meant for any kids to get hurt though.”

“What he told us is true,” Mrs. Mouflon said. “And the stranger has returned.” She appeared composed, but still somewhat shaken.

One might have expected Mr. Rattus to flout Mrs. Mouflon’s explanation. But his eyes grew wide. He was, after all, a believer. “You saw something through that window, didn’t you?”

Mr. Mouflon frowned at the reporter. “Sunsets, people going to the party, and a wild animal chasing a poor little boy.”

“I know you’re scared and worried, darling,” Mrs. Mouflon said turning to her husband. “Because of the accounts of people having issues after staying in that room. You feel guilty, because you said those people must have been crazy to begin with. A callous thing to say. I should have scolded you sooner. But I’m not going to go mad.” She turned again, to face her fellow guests. “Not if I can tell you, and tell Wildschwein what I saw. Kathryn, your nose is bleeding.”

“Oh,” Ms. Kapik put her hand to her nose. Mr. Rattus pulled a well-crumpled kerchief from his coat, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand. Mr. Bantam swept a stack of napkins from a nearby table and handed them to the detective, who took the napkins.

Mr. Bantam absently scratched at a rash on his wrist. Mr. Mouflon rubbed sore spots on the tops of his head where it felt as if he’d bumped into something.

Mrs. Mouflon watched them all and wondered. “What is happening to us?”

***

Mr. Wildschwein appeared then, breathless and bewildered. They moved off into the private dining room where they had supped that same night only a few hours before. When they caught him up on their discussion, he assured Mr. Rattus that he was not the one throwing the party in the garden house.

He turned to them all. “Forgive me. I didn’t see, until it was too late.”

There was danger in the garden house; danger disguised as delight.

Wildschwein believed Mrs. Mouflon. She had just happened to be gazing through the window-glass that could see beyond the surface of things when the man who was the host of the garden house party appeared on the path leading to the manor. He was dressed in a fine velvet suit and velvet fedora in which was stuck a glinting blade in the innocent shape of a feather. But she had seen much more than that, not with her eyes, but her mind. She tried to describe it. A squeezing prying awareness. A hungry heavy immensity.

Mr. Wildschwein gave her a look that was both pitying and admiring. “If you cannot see his true nature, his spell only lasts upon you while you are in his presence. But if you so much as glimpse it, then you are forever haunted. You might despair. You might go mad. Some—many—can be saved. But a few, there are always a few that he manages to capture.”

Mr. Mouflon paled and put his arm around his wife’s shoulder. But then Wildschwein continued.

“You,” he said, gazing into Marie Mouflon’s eyes, “are not one of those few.”

He gazed about at the rest of them. “One of our great enemies has returned to our world,” he said without further pretense. “When arcane forces are properly aligned, this enemy can emerge into our realm, through an opening made right here in this place. When that happens, there must be defenders at the ready.”

That was the real reason that the manor museum allowed folks to stay in Lady Goodhorse’s bedchamber, and why rates dropped at certain times of the year to allow people of modest and even meager means to have that chance. The real reason behind the survey that Wildschwein had people fill out before approving their stay in the bedchamber. Wildschwein recruited those who demonstrated the potential to be such defenders. He granted them a complimentary night in the Lady Goodhorse’s chamber. He asked them about what they saw through the casement window. Most saw nothing. But believers in worlds and things beyond common everyday life often saw something extraordinary. Wildschwein would take further steps to entreat and to prepare such believers.

Wildschwein couldn’t predict with precision when the enemy would reappear. So he had to be ready as soon as he could. Most times, nothing happened. But sometimes, as now, the enemy returned.

Wildschwein could do nothing to protect the guests that went to the party. He did not own the manor and the grounds. He only kept it up. The only thing Wildschwein could do was try to stop his guests from following their invitations to the party. But the invitations held their own spell, a spell of blindness to trouble, tribulation, and truth. That was why that little boy’s parents had been so blithe.

“It was you. The boar that was trying to scare people away from the party,” Mrs. Mouflon said.

Bantam started. “You scared the crap out of me, Wildschwein. Keep that thing locked up.”

“No,” Mrs. Mouflon said. “The boar was actually him. He was the boar.”

“Forgive me,” Mr. Wildschwein said again. “I did not leave enough time to prepare you, to ease you into the terrible task that I would ask of you.”

“What are you talking about, Wildschwein. Speak plainly.” Mr. Mouflon set his jaw.

“Natural-born animals run away from him. He can’t hurt them himself, but they seem to sense some danger. So even though they are his weakness, he usually doesn’t have to worry.”

“You’re a witch,” Mr. Rattus said, narrowing his bead-like eyes. “You’re aiming to turn us into animals against our will.”

Mr. Mouflon’s jaw dropped. “What!”

Wildschwein shook his head. “You answered the survey. The question about whether or not you would be willing to be turned into an animal. You all said ‘yes.’”

“We thought it was just for kicks,” Mr. Rattus replied.

“Wait, assuming we believe that this astounding situation is really happening,” Ms. Kapik said, pulling a bloody tissue away from her nose, “why would you recruit from among the guests? Why not get some familiars like old Lady Goodhorse did?”

“I cannot have familiars. The practice is forbidden in this day and age.”

“Because you’re not a witch,” Ms. Kapik said, pointing at him. “You’re not the one transforming us. But what is then? Her ghost? The manor? Did she imbue it with her powers? Is that why my nose is bleeding? I do feel different.” Her gaze darted downward and she frowned in thought.

Mr. Bantam nodded. “The question did specifically say, ‘without becoming a witch’s familiar and bending to his or her will.’ That’s why I said I’d do it.”

“Yes, which means if you so will it, you can run away,” Mr. Wildschwein said with a resigned sigh. “The transformation effects will fade the farther you go from the manor. The spell will break.”

That was when they all noticed that there were horns sprouting from Mrs. Mouflon’s head. They just appeared. “The hell I’ll run,” she said. “I’m with you, Mr. Wildschwein.”

Mr. Rattus stepped back. “Hey, I didn’t know female sheep could grow horns,” he said. “What am I saying? You’re not a sheep. You’re a woman!”

“If my wife is staying and standing with you, Wildschwein, then so am I,” Mr. Mouflon said, growing his own pair of even larger sickle-shaped horns.

“This is crazy,” Bantam said staring at the Mouflons, specifically at their horns.

“No amount of training can prepare one to face an enemy like this,” Mr. Wildschwein said. “It is indeed crazy.”

“What is the nature of this enemy? Is it like a demon or an alien, or what?”

“An apt question, Mister Rattus.”

“And the answer?”

“What is he doing to those people while we waste time here?” Mrs. Mouflon said.

“I do not know,” Mr. Wildschwein said, in answer to both questions.

“How do we face him?” Ms. Kapik asked.

“You do not,” Mr. Wildschwein said. “Those of you who are human cannot face him without harm. Only animals can.”

“Boars are fearsome, but they can’t stand up against guns,” Ms. Kapik said. “You’ve gathered help. He probably has too. Hired goons who could easily handle a boar and some sheep from a safe distance.”

“Sounds reasonable, but they would have to see us first,” Mr. Wildschwein said, smirking.

“That’s right, you were invisible to some of those people.”

Mr. Rattus frowned. “Can’t he just give them ‘the sight’ or whatever it is that lets people see? Or can’t he find people who can see just like you did?”

“But then they’d see him too,” Ms. Kapik said, catching on. “So…”

“He’s on his own if he’s battling us in animal form,” Mr. Wildschwein said.

Suddenly, the lights went out.

***

“You’ve been a thorn in my side for many an age,” a dragging bone-rumbling voice said.

Two lights blinked into being. A small flashlight that Mr. Bantam was in the habit of carrying with him. And another held by Mr. Wildschwein.

“How were you able to leave the garden house? How did you get inside?” Mr. Wildschwein asked. He was staring at the corner of the room, just beside the entrance. He seemed to be seeing something the rest could not see.

“I have been invited.”

Mrs. Mouflon seemed to grunt and moan at the same time. She had thought he hadn’t seen her, but he had. And now, a part of him at least, was able to reach through the window-glass in Lady Goodhorse’s chamber, and walk down to the dining room.

A terrible stench of rot, refuse, and decay seeped into the room.

“Do not fret, my dear,” the voice said, directing itself to Mrs. Mouflon. “You could not have known. I have been invited because of him. And now I can drink my fill. I don’t have to pretend and play. I like to pretend. But sometimes, I just want to drink.”

There was a drumming of hooves and a crash. The lights flickered back on and everyone blinked as their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. They were alone, the six of them. The voice and its weight upon them was gone. From where it had come, there was a sheep, an angry-looking sheep. Mrs. Mouflon had transformed completely and rammed the stranger—or whatever emanation he had sent to stalk them.

“Mister and Missus Mouflon, follow me,” Mr. Wildschwein said. “The rest of you should stay in here.”

“Where it’s unsafe, you mean?” Mr. Rattus said.

“He will be far more dangerous in solid form.”

“Are the people in the garden house dead?” Ms. Kapik asked, as they all made their way to the back of the manor.

“No, they are entranced,” Mr. Wildschwein said. “He is not here to kill. He is here to corrupt and ruin.”

“Why?”

“Why do we lay cement or till the soil? He is setting a foundation and planting his own kind of crops that he will reap when the time is right.”

They dodged partygoers who were shuffling through the manor to the rear grounds where the garden house lay. There was nothing horrific going on in the back of the manor. No vampires drinking the blood of maidens in dark corners. No wolves devouring entrails. No corpses stirring and rising into an unnatural mockery of life. And yet Wildschwein and his five guests sensed something gray and choking in the air.

“Three animals should be enough to drive him back to wherever he came from,” Wildschwein said.

“For how long? How do we get rid of him permanently?”

Wildschwein ignored Ms. Kapik’s question. “The rest of you need not transform,” he said. “Just be ready to help us in case we are wounded.”

One of the partygoers bumped roughly into Ms. Kapik, and she fell to the ground.

“Watch it!” Mr. Bantam said, kneeling to help Ms. Kapik up. He glanced up at the man, who turned to him.

“No!” Mr. Wildschwein said. But it was too late.

***

Mr. Bantam met a pair of inhuman eyes. They were round and red and seemed to pulse rhythmically like a heartbeat. Something swirled in those eyes, mesmerizing him.

Beside him, Kathryn Kapik rose, averting her eyes. She seemed to shrink out of her clothes, which fluttered to the ground. And from within them, there sprung a tiny furred creature with a long and unforgiving tail. Mr. Wildschwein’s heart leapt. She was a monkey! Then she leapt, right onto the stranger’s face, wrapping her tail around his throat. She pulled the man’s hat with its deadly feather-shaped blade off, raked him across one cheek, and shrieked into his ear. He recoiled, desperately trying to bat her away. She leapt off.

“Atta girl, Kapik!” Rattus said. He twitched his nose and it grew long, and then his whiskers grew long. He vanished into his clothes as Ms. Kapik had, and Wildschein saw a black rat scurry out from under the reporter’s fedora.

He turned to see that Mr. Mouflon too had transformed. His horns were larger and he stepped between the stranger and the still-mesmerized and still-human Mr. Bantam. And his wife stepped beside him. And Mr. Wildschwein saw how fierce sheep could be.

“Surround the garden house,” Wildschwein said, pulling open his coattails and shirt. “That is where he emerged. We must drive him back from whence he came.”

With that he transformed into a boar. Mr. Mouflon charged and rammed into the stranger, who still looked like a man. Then Mrs. Mouflon took a turn. They drove the stranger back toward the garden house. All the while, partygoers passed by and walked absently around the stranger and the angry sheep.

The monkey suddenly appeared again, jumping atop Mrs. Mouflon’s back and shrieking without mercy. Mr. Wildschwein charged forth and plunged a tusk into the stranger’s ankle. When he caught a glimpse of the stranger’s face, his eyes, it wasn’t anger or fear he saw. It was not wise of him to look into the face of madness. But before he glanced away, he saw it. Raw madness. True chaos. Absence of logic. Absence of order. Pure meaninglessness.

Mr. Wildschwein reeled. His whole being should have fallen apart. There was no sense in it staying together.

He heard a ferocious squeaking and dared to look again.

A black rat was scratching the stranger’s eyes out, plunging his tiny arms into the sockets, and scooping out gelatinous masses of pulsing red tissues.

The stranger roared. He grabbed the rat, yanked him off, and flung him as far as he could.

Wildschwein snorted and squealed in horror. It should not have been possible.

He watched the monkey scramble after the rat.

The stranger rose, blind but still standing at the threshold to the garden house. The Mouflons tried to ram him, but blind though he was, he now dodged them. The hand he had used to grasp the rat was dissolving away.

There was a price he paid for harming an animal. But it had come too late for Mr. Rattus.

Mr. Wildschwein braced himself. The stranger would hear him coming, would likely dodge him. But he and the Mouflons had to keep trying.

Suddenly, a rooster crowed.

***

A rooster crowed and the stranger clapped his remaining hand to his ears. The sky began to fill with light.

Mr. Wildschwein would have frowned in confusion if he had been in his human form. Sunrise should have been hours away.

The stranger could have born the sunlight, if not for the rooster’s crowing. To those who wish to sleep past dawn, a rooster’s crow is but a terrible nuisance. But to the stranger, a rooster’s crow was deadly. It was the relentless song of the herald of sunlight. A song that transformed that sunlight into a sword. And the rooster kept singing.

If the stranger entered the garden house now, with the animals pursuing, they would drive him too far back, back through the crack from whence he had come.

But the first rays of sun were striking the ground, and the rooster continued to crow, not as if he were announcing the sun, but as if he were summoning it.

Mr. Wildschwein peered at the rooster perched upon the wall enclosing the manor. It was Mr. Bantam. The spell upon him had broken. Because of Mr. Rattus no doubt, destroying the stranger’s eyes.

The approaching sun drove the stranger backwards into the garden house. The Mouflons followed, like guards driving a prisoner back. Mr. Wildschwein surged forth to join them, noting that the people around him were settling where they stood and slowly drifting off into sleep.

The crack appeared like a raw and bleeding wound on the far wall of the garden house. The stranger melted back into it.

“I will return,” he hissed.

“I will be here,” Mr. Wildschwein said.

***

Wildschwein transformed back into a human, and not stopping to find clothes to cover himself, either for protection or modesty, he sealed the crack. It was a simple incantation, for the breach was an unnatural one and wanted to close.

He led the others—still in their animal forms—past all the sleeping party and manor guests, inside to where they all could fetch some clothing and transform back into humans before anyone woke.

Ms. Kapik had found Mr. Rattus, and carried him inside gently cradled in her small monkey arms. He was in rough shape. He could not transform until Wildschwein’s ministrations restored him to consciousness. But he was most certainly alive. According to Kapik, he had luckily fallen onto some lady’s voluminous gown. He would surely have died if the good lady had not chosen such soft and extravagant skirts.

In a few days’ time, when he was better recovered, Bantam began to tease him about it, calling him a cad. Rick Rattus merely shrugged. His wounds would be slow in healing, but they would heal. Boris Bantam and Marie Mouflon were not so lucky. They would be forever wounded by what they had glimpsed in the stranger’s eyes.

Mr. Wildschwein had his small staff take tallies and surveys of the rest of the guests. None others were affected. None had gone missing. None had perished. None seemed perturbed or disturbed in any way, aside from the embarrassment or shame of finding themselves asleep all over the manor and its grounds. They’d gotten drunk, they thought, or perhaps tried too much of some drug-laced mints passed about at the party in the garden house.

***

“You were guests. But you became guardians. I cannot thank you enough. I cannot repay you.” Wildschwein smiled in pride and gratitude at the five guests gathered around the table in the private dining room.

“You can reimburse us for the cost of our lodging for starters,” Mr. Rattus said, earning an elbow near the ribs from the nearby Mr. Bantam. Near and not in, since Rattus’s ribs were still healing.

This Wildschwein had already done, of course. And they enjoyed a hearty meal. Mr. Rattus, still in need of a wheelchair’s aid, had fully regained his appetite and now tucked into the herb-roasted chicken before him. Wildschwein asked no more of them with regards to the ordeal they had faced together. For a few days, by unspoken agreement, they had enjoyed a respite from thoughts of animal transformation and despoiling otherworldly beings. But as Wildschwein had suspected, now that they were soon to be parted, the conversation turned to the subject.

“Why does he keep coming here?” Mr. Rattus asked.

Mr. Wildschwein set down his fork. “One of the rumors about the lady was that she was the stranger’s daughter.”

“The devil’s daughter you mean? Let’s not beat around the bush folks. Not after what we’ve been through.”

“He’s not that. I don’t think…” Wildschwein seemed uncertain. “It might be as simple as having no choice. If he painstakingly carved out a doorway that only leads here, then he can only emerge here.”

“Why bother if you keep driving him back?” Ms. Kapik asked.

“Because he’s hoping that you’ll be gone one of these days,” Mr. Rattus said. “He’s waiting you out.”

“You’ve been standing guard against him for a long while, haven’t you Mister Wildschwein?” Ms. Kapik peered at him with her piercing detective’s eyes.

“And all by himself, at that,” Mr. Mouflon said, giving the manor’s keeper a stiff-lipped nod.

“I wonder if you could be rid of him for good if you were to change that,” Mrs. Mouflon said, and her eyes twinkled with a bright spark of hope.

And so, they all made their vows.

Mr. Bantam would continue his travels. But he vowed to keep in touch with Wildschwein so that if he learned anything that was not written in books, stories that were only passed down orally, encounters with any stranger similar to the one they had driven back, or any clue that might help them to seal the doorway for good, he would pass it on. Ms. Kapik, who collected samples and evidence from the manor and the grounds, would let Wildschwein know what she found in her analysis. She would direct him in how to record observations for her continued study. Mr. and Mrs. Mouflon each had contacts in many countries and professions whom they could petition for any helpful information. Likewise did Mr. Rattus have many sources he could tap.

Wildschwein thanked them all. Their sincerity, for him, was bittersweet. For he had heard such vows and promises from other groups of guests who had fought just as valiantly to safeguard the manor, to serve as the only line of defense between the stranger’s further encroachment of a world in which he did not belong, and one he would despoil if he were allowed to walk it freely. But these five, like the others, would soon forget the manor and their ordeals. They would recount the experience to friends and loved ones as wild dreams they had in a haunted manor. Even Mr. Rattus would forget where he obtained some of the scars he would bear upon his body. The story they would remember was the one that Wildschwein told about Lady Goodhorse and her ill-fated son.

He could not defeat his enemy on his own. But he could not allow others to be trapped as he was. He had taken an oath of blood, and it had kept him there, tied to the manor.

He was therefore both pleased and dismayed to find a letter from Detective Kapik a fortnight later. And a postcard from Mr. Bantam a few days after that. Wildschwein absently read their correspondence, unable to discern the meaning in their words, so distracted was he.

He cast his memory back, wondering what could have been different this time. There was one thing. A small thing. But perhaps it signified a greater thing. The remembrance brought a smile to his weary cheeks.

The night after he and his brave guests faced the stranger, he had dreamt of the garden house. He had dreamt of something emerging from within. Not something horrible. But something beautiful. Not something maddening. But something steadying.

Two sheep, a rat, a monkey, a rooster, and beside them, a white mare and her little foal.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel.  Artwork: “The Chamber of Lady Goodhorse” by Sanjay Patel.

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