The Man from Delaware at Midnight
'This should be an easy day,' thought Brett, as he ate his breakfast waffle. 'No meetings to go to.' Being an unassuming man with a quiet manner, he found meetings difficult. Nevertheless, he picked up a handful of black walnuts from a dish on the table and stuffed them in his pocket, just in case. They had magical properties. A moment later, the walls of his kitchen shimmered and disappeared.
He found himself sitting in a leather armchair in a big room, where the only other furniture was a grandfather clock. It seemed the Powers had summoned him to undertake a task and, as usual, he had no idea what it was. He sighed, stood up and examined the clock. It was old, with an intricate face and a long pendulum in an ornately carved case. The hands stood at just before four. He checked his watch and found it agreed with the clock.
A couple of mullioned windows looked out onto a park, where light was fading from the sky and shadows were pooling under bare branches. That meant afternoon in the northern hemisphere. He remembered the date: twenty-first December, the shortest day of the year, when the dark was most powerful. The hand of the pendulum clock slid over the four, but it didn't strike. That was odd.
At that moment, the door opened and a striking looking man walked in. He was tall and broad-shouldered with massive hands; his skin was brown as mahogany, but his hair and beard were as white as lambs' wool. Brett smiled. Of all the Chorus members, he knew Rob Fielding best. 'Hi, Rob, fancy meeting you here.'
Rob ambled across the room and wrapped his big arms round Brett. 'Great to see you, man. Any of the rest of the Chorus around?'
'Not as far as I know. And I don't think we need to transform. Not yet, anyway. I don't feel I'm just about to turn into a wolf, and you're not a bear.'
'P'raps we need brains, not strength. Pity, I like being a bear.'
Brett smiled. 'I know what you mean. It's about being powerful.' He walked over to the window and looked out. The walls were built of stone blocks and, at each end, stood a crenelated tower. The lowest floors disappeared into shadow, which might have been the water of a moat. 'All I've found out so far is this building is old. A castle which has been turned into a museum, probably. And that clock doesn't strike.'
'Well, I landed in a library full of old books. Isn't that your scene rather than mine?'
'I don't know. Although I'm a librarian, you're a poet...'
'Amateur,' rumbled Rob.
'Perhaps we should be looking for a poetry book. '
'Or a poem about this place?' Rob came and stood beside him. 'It's spooky already and it's going to get worse when it's properly dark. Where are we? England?'
'Probably. My guess is that something's going to happen at midnight.'
'So we better get looking.'
Brett followed Rob into a room where leather bound books lined the shelves round the walls. A couple of tables with carved legs stood in the middle of the room, with upholstered chairs beside them. Brett walked round the room in one direction and Rob in the other. Although Brett's senses weren't as acute as when he was a werewolf, he scanned the shelves keenly, looking for anything that stood out. He had been called to action many times and knew there were always clues to be found.
Rob stopped and took down a volume. 'A History of Englefield Castle. Could be useful.' He laid the book on a table.
Brett joined him and opened the book near the beginning. 'It says the castle was built by the Normans and changed into a house in Tudor times.'
'So? How's that help?' Rob scratched his head. 'Tell you what, I'll go looking for torches. I reckon we'll need them.'
Rob ambled away, leaving Brett to leaf through the book. His specialism was mediaeval history and he had to remind himself to concentrate on looking for clues about their task. At last he found something. It was no more than a legend but it sent a chill through his veins.
When the door opened, he looked up, wary for a moment. However, it was Rob returning with two flashlights.
'Listen to this, Rob! 'The castle has a strange legend. It is said that a monster lies sleeping beneath the park. Once a century it stirs and emerges at midnight on the twenty-first of December, and rampages into the village of Blackmere. On this one night, the grandfather clock in the main sitting room chimes.'
'That'll be it, a monster at midnight,' said Rob. 'But how are we supposed to stop it? Specially if there's only two of us. P'raps we should transform.'
'I'll go on reading. See if there's more.'
Rob went prowling round the room. 'P'raps there are weapons or something else useful.'
Brett smiled. Rob was always restless while waiting for action but, when it started, he was swift and decisive.
After a while, Rob picked a box off a shelf, opened it and took out a bunch of heavy iron keys. 'What do they open, d'you suppose?'
'Don't know. There's still information missing.' Brett went on reading for a while, then gave a shout. 'This might be it! There is said to be a book of secret incantations in a safe in the dungeon.'
'Let's go. There's stairs at the end of the corridor,' said Rob.
The two men left the room and followed a long passageway, until they came to a staircase. Here, the electric lights stopped. Brett turned on one of the flashlights and peered up and down. The stairs were stone and uneven in places.
'I suppose we go down,' he said, doubtful.
They clattered down the stairs, passing several side passages. The air grew cooler and moister, while the stones became broken. Their torches lit small circles in the darkness. In one place, Brett tripped on a cracked step and would have fallen if Rob hadn't grabbed his arm. They had descended several stories by the time they reached a low doorway with a heavy wooden door reinforced with iron. It was locked. Rob tried all the keys on the bunch, until one clicked and he pushed the door open with a creak.
'Guess this is our dungeon.'
Brett stepped into a dark room with a low ceiling, walls and floor of stone. The cold seemed to seep up through the floor and the walls glistened with moisture. Rob walked round, shining his torch on the stones and probing cracks or openings that could house a safe.
'Nothing' he said at last.
Brett shone his torch across the floor. At last, he noticed a slight dip in the stones at one corner. Hurrying across, he ran his hand over the dip and found a metal plate. It was encrusted with grime but, when he scraped that off, it revealed a key hole. Rob knelt beside him and tried several of the smaller keys. One fitted and he pushed aside the metal plate. He thrust his hand inside and drew out a small book, bound in faded leather.
'Let's take this upstairs,' said Brett. 'The light's better and it isn't so cold.'
Once he was sitting in the library again, Brett opened and examined the book. It was a few inches long, less wide and the entries had been handwritten. 'This is interesting,' he said. 'Some of these things look like recipes, or charms. Others are more like diary entries.'
'Any incantations?' asked Rob, standing behind him.
'Give me time. We've got 'til midnight.'
Rob resumed prowling round the room, looking at books, while Brett turned the pages of the book one by one. The writing was small and neat, and Brett felt sure the writer had been a woman. For a while, the silence in the room was broken only by the ticking clock.
Suddenly, Brett looked up. 'How about this? '22 December 1817. There was much weeping in the village after the events of the night. Accounts were confused and I was unsure what to believe, but old Mother Holmes, who some say is a witch, said there was a verse to keep the black monster away. I begged her to let me write it down and promised to keep it secret.
Power that lights the sun at dawning,
fills the leaves with green in spring,
arise and fell the beast at midnight
fill our hearts with hope and light.
Rob crossed the room, placed his big finger on the page and grimaced. 'Not my kind of verse, but it might do.'
'It's all I've found.'
Rob shrugged. 'Is there anything to eat in this dump?'
Brett emptied his pocket. 'Black walnuts.'
Well before midnight, the men walked down the stairs, shining their torches along side passages. They chose one that was wide, carpeted and had wallpaper with a big fleur-de-lys design. It led to a front door of heavy oak, which was locked. Rob fumbled through the bunch of keys, found one that fitted and swung the door open.
Everything was dark. The sky was heavy with cloud, blotting out stars and the wood hunched in deeper darkness. There was no wind and the trees seemed to droop as drops of water fell from their branches. As mist rose from grass and dead leaves, Brett stood in the doorway, feeling a kind of hopelessness creep over him. Fifteen years ago, he'd taken an oath to fight against evil. It sounded a noble cause but there was no end to it. Evil always rose again.
'Don't know about you but I'd like a stiff drink,' rumbled Rob.
'Afterwards,' said Brett and took a step out into the park.
The men swept their torches over the wood, but it stretched into the distance, featureless except for a wide ride down the centre.
'Where d'you think we should look?' asked Rob.
'Don't know. Let's just walk round the castle.'
They trudged, sweeping their torches over bushes and across the castle walls. Nothing moved, but the grass and gravel paths were wet. The moat was a black well and even the stone walls seemed draped with darkness. Brett felt the water seep through his brogues and a damp cold chilled his bones. Doubt filled his mind. Did he know what he was looking for, or what to do if he saw something?
From inside the castle, Brett heard the clock strike midnight. At once there was a loud splashing sound and both men ran towards the source. They reached the corner of the castle in time to see something emerging from the moat. As they stared, a huge dark head rose, followed by a body covered with massive black scales. The creature heaved itself out of the water, its great claws digging into the ground and churning up mounds of earth. A long, scaled body and lines of legs emerged. It crunched past the castle, crushing and shredding bushes and trees with its massive jaws. Brett froze and stared, daunted by the size of the creature and the fact it had no eyes.
'Read the poem,' said Rob in a commanding voice.
Brett shone his torch on the book and spoke the words, but nothing happened. Rob took the book and tried with the same result.
The sense of hopelessness that Brett had felt since they left the castle swamped him in huge waves. 'What can we do?'
'Head it off! We musn't let it reach the village!'
Already the creature was crashing in the direction of the road, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. The men ran and passed it, moving well away to avoid the crunching jaws.
'It can't see us!' yelled Brett.
'Hope it can hear. Otherwise we're stuffed.'
The two men reached the castle gates and turned to face the monster. Beyond lay the village, where people lay sleeping in their beds. Brett gazed at the eyeless head and struggled against despair. The Powers had never given him an impossible task but, on this occasion, he felt lost. He asked himself what helped when everything seemed hopeless. Music.
'Perhaps we should sing and go on singing until we burst,' he said.
He launched into a version of the words, finding a tune that fitted and belting it out in his best baritone voice. Rob joined in a powerful bass, then doors began to open in the cottages and people came out with torches. As the singing rose and mingled, the sound of an organ with Heavy Leslie boomed out from somewhere. The monster stopped and began to shake, then smoke rose from it, curling up into the air and disappearing. At the same time, lights came on in the castle and the houses in the village, until the whole scene was suffused with light.