The rain was savage in the beating it threw down upon Lottie and Squire Malus. Their clothing fell with a rain-drenched heaviness against their bodies causing Malus to shiver. The temperature had dropped so suddenly that steam now rose from his head and shoulders, appearing to hover indecisively before being erased by the wind. Despite the cold, he held up his hand, signalling for them to pause for a few words of caution before continuing to the shelter of the cabin.
Malus spoke just loud enough for Lottie to hear. “The farming folk here in Dairy are pretty conservative. Some of them can be hostile with things like you, so try to act like a real person. Watch me and do what I do.”
“I am intended to blend in with humans.” Lottie stated most informatively.
Malus just stared at her for a second, his sneer apparently caught in transit. But it was only a minor delay for it soon arrived with near perfection. Had Malus not then so abruptly turned and strode toward the cabin he would have seen Lottie match his sneer with uncanny precision and timing.
The old log cabin had no canopy or overhang to shield them from the rain. Malus pounded loudly three times on the rickety wooden door with shouts of “Hellooo!’ and “Anybody home?” He was just reaching for the handle to see if it might be unlocked when they heard several thumps coming from inside, as if someone had jumped from a significant height and were rolling in clumsy fashion upon the ground.
Not long after the series of thumps and bumps had ceased the warm dancing glow of a lantern appeared in the window and a strange scratching sound could be heard approaching the door. The sound of a latch-click shot above the rain sending all eyes to the knob that started to turn. Slowly, the door swung inward, revealing an abode laden with the warmth of the hearth. A homey scent of a savoury barley stew was so luscious it was practically intoxicating.
Framed by all this, a small woman of about sixtyish, peered up at them with beady little eyes that somehow conveyed bewilderment. In one hand she raised a lantern while in the other she clutched a wooden ladle. She was dressed quite neatly in a mottled charcoal frock with a burnt umber apron.
“You ain’t no highwaymen come ta rob me is ya?” Her voice had a musical quality, lilting and airy; it really was a rather pleasant experience to hear her speak. She wore her downie grey hair pulled back tight in a bun with wisps of feathery strands poking loose here and there. Her elongated dark rimmed glasses perched snugly atop her plump cranberry-mottled cheeks, molding themselves to the shape of her face. She was almost too perfect.
“No, ma’am,” replied Malus. “We are traveling from New Babbage to the O’Reatus farm just northeast of here. We were camped with some friends by the roadside but got disoriented when the rain started. We were hoping to find some shelter until the weather clears so we can find our way back to camp.”
“Oh ya poor dears,” the lady shook her head with such sincere-looking grandmotherly affection. “Come, I tells ya, git yourselves in outta that nasty weather.” She stood to the side and motioned that they enter.
“Thanks.” Malus nodded.
“Thanks.” Lottie nodded and then proceeded to follow Malus inside imitating his manner of casual disregard for the water they were spreading all over the lady’s the hardwood floor.
“Not often one gits visitors this time of the year,” the small grey woman trilled. “Spring is usually the offseason fer such treats. Please,” she said as she closed and locked the door, “call me Robyn.”
A few minutes later Malus and Lottie were settled at the table of the small farmhouse kitchen warming themselves near the wood oven with it’s snap, crackle and popping fire. The ceiling was striking for the exposed, natural wood beams. They put one in mind of the thick lower branches of trees. The room itself was full of country clutter; Everywhere one looked, all manner of curiosity filled the many nooks and crannies. Malus held a steaming mug of hot chocolate between his hands. Lottie likewise held a mug in a similar manner.
Malus eyed the large, black slab of meat sitting upon the wooden cutting board with utter revulsion and the grudging realization that perhaps there was some truth to Petra’s tale about the black worms of the Fells. Pooling about the meat was a viscous brown liquid that splattered as the small round woman named Robyn chopped the meat into bite sized cubes with a well-honed cleaver.
“This here’s the magnus sapidum pedicabor but most folks just calls it the big black worm,” the old lady gaily explained as she worked with a butcher’s precision. “One gots ta act quick ta bag one of these effers. Ya needs the right kinda bait ta lure ’em. But bait be hard ta git aroun’ these parts in the spring, jest when ya needs it the most. But here ye be and Gods be buggered, it’ll be so worth the effert. The black worm’s right some delectable all stewed up with the onions and beets.”
There was some quality in the melodic cadence of her speech that had an intensely soporific effect upon Malus. Lottie watched him closely as his eyes took on a half-closed, glazed-over look. She quickly adjusted her expression to match his, drooping her head slightly and then snapping it back into position.
“Oh, you poor dears,” the kindly woman said sympathetically. “So knackered you be from the road. Why doesn’t ya slips inta the bedroom and have yerselves a little rest with the others before supper?”
‘Others?’ thought Lottie who watched Malus for his response. But rather than question ‘what others?’ he took on a rather dazed and confused expression, standing without uttering a single word. Lottie matched his dumb countenance, rising when he did and following him through the curtained doorway into the room adjacent to the kitchen.
It was a small room, barely large enough for the two beds and a couch. Upon one bed lay Junie and Emerson side by side on their backs, eyes shut and breathing shallowly. Malus showed no surprise at the presence of the others, he merely lay down on the second bed next to Petra’s sleeping form, folded his arms and shut his eyes. Lottie regarded the scene for a moment then lay on the couch feigning sleep. She remained unmoving for the next several hours, listening to the odd old lady flit about in the kitchen, whistling while she worked, prepping the ingredients for her savoury black worm stew.
It was nearing dawn when the rain finally eased up and the sky to the east began to glow with a salmon-coloured glow. In the kitchen of the small cottage, the old lady continued to busy herself with preparations.
Prior to boiling the worm meat, the old woman had a most curious ritual in which she engaged. It was a practice performed to spice the experience of the meal with a hint of the transcendental. Using an elaborate brass censer, she scented the air with the fragrant smoke of the fabled Upper Moorland nightshade.
The noxious weed with its pungent purple smoke smelled rank, almost as if she clutched a skunk tightly in her fist and was swinging it cruelly by the tail. But in the adjacent room, the ritual had a most curious and unexpected effect upon Emerson Lighthouse. Somehow the nightshade released a stimulant upon his slumbering nervous system providing him with a moment of clarity.
“We are still in the cabin,” he muttered to no one in particular as he sat up on the bed and looked around.
“We are resting after being knackered from the road,” Lottie spoke up.
“Lottie!” Emerson exclaimed, focusing on her over on the couch. “When did you get here?”
“Malus and I discovered this cabin precisely six hours and twenty-two minutes ago,” she replied. “Malus and I sought shelter from the storm.”
“We did too,” spoke up Petra who was the next to awaken. With her helmet somehow still in place, the pint sized bodyguard propped herself up on her elbow in order to see over Malus. “And then that crazy old bird started talkin’ ‘bout pokin’ us with sticks to lure them worms up outta the ground. I think she poisoned us.”
“I agree with Petra.” Emerson nodded over at his bodyguard, grateful to have her along. He surveyed the room then gestured toward the window. Petra immediately jumped up and with remarkable skill released the catch and raised the window, nearly without making a sound. “Help me wake Miss Ginsburg and the Squire. We need to get out of here.” Petra nodded then walked back to the bed and gave Malus a cuff in the side of the head; Emerson, meanwhile, leaned in and whispered something in Miss Ginsburg’s ear causing her to stir.
As they sludged through the sodden muskeg none of them could help all the glances back over their shoulders; at any moment, they expected to see the crazy, bird lady of the fells flying through the woods to recapture her bait. But other than a shriek of anger piercing the cold dawn air there was no pursuit. Soon the weight of walking demanded all their concentration. Each step became a test of endurance with layers of half-frozen mud and a lumps of thick brown slush caking their legs. The cheer of relief was genuine when Lottie finally led them from the copse of trees and back onto the field, though the walking was no less challenging out in the open.
“It’s a lucky break for us you woke out of that stupor,” said Junie as she carefully stepped from grass tuft to grass tuft in an effort to keep her boots as dry as possible. “There must have been something in her voice that lulled us into that state.”
“Who knows what spell that crazy witch put us under,” said Emerson after they were about halfway across the boggy field leading back to camp. “It is quite likely either or both of us are under the threat of succumbing to a post hypnotic suggestion.”
“What is so threatening about succoming to that, Mr. Lighthouse?” asked Junie.
“Well,” Emerson replied, “for starters, who knows what we might say while under the influence.”
“I have a pretty good idea what I would say,” stated Junie smartly.
“Mmm?” Emerson raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
“Oh my God, Mr. Lighthouse!” she called out suddenly.
“Yes!” exclaimed Emerson proudly.
“The horses are gone!” she finished.
Junie pointed to where the two horses had been grazing, a look of shock spreading across her face. “They’re gone!” she repeated.