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Precious Vile Things Chapter One

Enter the town of Crow’s Hollow, where everything seems perfect and nothing is what it seems.

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen,

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”, Act 2, scene ii

CHAPTER ONE

The moon hung bright and low in the starless sky as my eyes blinked open against it.

The ground under me was unforgiving, unrelenting, as stones and other assembled rocks and twigs dug into my back in a way which was as familiar as it was not. The air chilled me but clung to my clothes and sunk seep into my bones.

This land brought forth empty space where there should have been something.

I couldn’t remember.

A grassy ditch surrounded me on three sides, but everything before the sight of the moon remained as elusive as the reason that I faintly remembered hating this region.

That tree, the one hanging right above my head, I remembered something.

But I couldn’t recall why, or who I was with. Or even my name.

I twitched a finger, at first. Then I jolted a leg, rolled my neck and shoulders hard enough I heard them crack.

I had all my parts, so that was okay. I just didn’t know if they were assembled in the correct order.

Wallowing, I thought, would do me no good if I didn’t know why I was even wallowing.

So, I sat up one vertebra at a time and assessed that, yes, that was a steep incline for a ditch. But if I grabbed that jutting rock there, and placed my foot on that bit of sod, I could haul myself up like so.

I saw tarmac, and twin lights in the distance.

I’d gotten myself on both feet and mostly stable ground at that point, the road was littered with potholes, you see, when the twin lights were right there and then I flew.

Back in the ditch, with an ache in my chest and the sensation that fuck, that hurt, and was my ribcage knitting itself back together?

By the time I’d pulled my aching body back upright, the car had gone. Skid marks where there’d been acceleration, but nothing to indicate they’d tried to slow down.

Fucking drivers.

This time, when I’d made it to the side of the road, nothing hit me. My ribs thanked me for that, but not for patting myself down in a rather sorry attempt to discover who I was and why I was in a ditch.

I was, I discovered, wearing one of those fancy watches that told you everything about the day. I also had a mobile telephone on my person, which relayed to me the same information.

It was just gone eleven at night, on Thursday. It was the seventh of May. And my driver’s licence was in my phone pocket.

My name was Evander Bone. The name fit me like an itch, it was as familiar to me as it wasn’t. It didn’t quite fit, but nothing about it indicated what about the fit was wrong.

I’d keep the name for now.

But I had to find the address, 13 Hawthorne Hall Road. A house the road was named after.

Or was the road named after the house?

In any case, Google Maps told me I was standing on that road. Convenient, suspiciously so.

Only a five-minute walk, I was edging the town’s perimeter.

Something told me I’d travelled longer in less time.

But the town was called Crow’s Hollow, and Google also told me it did, in fact, qualify as a small town. One of many in Eastern England, it turned out.

I set off in the direction my phone told me. Hawthorne trees dotted the roadside amongst overgrown bushes and uneven fields, becoming something like a forest the further out it went in both directions.

Maybe something at the house would tell me who I was. Maybe I’d even discover why I’d woken up outside.

No other cars met me on the road, so I had to question where that driver had been heading. Because that’s what people did, wasn’t it? Question motives and invade other’s lives in a quest to know everything about everyone.

The moon disappeared behind a grey cloud, and a chill descended with it.

My jacket was more suited for mid-afternoon rambles than night-time strolls, but I was almost there.

The light of my phone gave enough light to ensure I didn’t step in dog shit.

A gate loomed ahead on the left, black wrought iron and framed by a towering brick wall topped with stone acorns matching the colour of the mortar. Something resembling a gatehouse sat just behind the wall.

I touched the lock, because of course, you would lock the gate at night, but it fell open as soon as I wrapped my hand around it.

And the gate swung open with a loud and rusty squeak.

Nothing to do but follow the winding hawthorn lined path.

A few paces up the dirt track and the gate clanged shut behind me. I turned and saw the lock was back on the gate. Nothing remained to suggest I’d ever touched it.

The house itself became clear with a few paces more, emerging from behind a tree and a large but dormant fountain of a crow about to take flight.

It was a county house, of Elizabethan brickwork but with the spooky Gothic revival arches and stained-glass windows.

I only pressed a hand to the door before it swung open and permitted me to enter the vestibule.

There was a fucking stair tower to my right and a little front office to my left. A long gallery spanned the length of the building, everything was decorated in dark wood but lit with flickering candles. Runners and tapestries in faded rich colours muffled the sound of piano music straining from the far end of the left-wing, so I followed the sound.

There was a front office, and the large parlour-type receiving hall right in front of the front door which fed into an honest to gods library, and a sunroom was the last door on that side of the house. A massive music room, where a grand piano played itself, had a balcony up above. The front of the house also boasted a solarium.

Besides looking pretty, this one appeared to have the accurate movements of all the planets. As well as comfy chairs and reading areas.

On the other side of the receiving hall, with no gallery door, had a dining room large enough for six down each side and still had chairs at the head of the table.

Next to the stair tower, three doors lined the wall, one door led to a cleaning cupboard, but the next had a sort of tiny antechamber leading into a long study with an attached toilet room. And the last was a breakfast room for six.

Every room had a fireplace, every room had wooden panelling, and every room culminated with accents spanning centuries.

It was as I left the breakfast room, contemplating the rather strange but complementary combination of Gothic, Georgian and possibly Viking furnishings and other, miscellaneous interior decorating, that the piano music stopped.

And I ran right into a fucking skeleton.

The skeleton wore a business suit, carried a tea tray, and did not look surprised to see me.

“Ah,” said the skeleton, “the Master has arrived. Welcome, sir, to Hawthorne Hall.”

I want to say I did the manly thing and played it off with some witty comment and banter. But I didn’t do anything of the sort.

Instead, I screamed.

It was gone eleven at night, I was tired and dirty, the mirrors of the hall showed my hair to be more mud brown strings than the usual coppery red mop. I would deal with my manliness in the morning after I’d slept for ten hours, somewhere on a large and comfortable bed.

After I’d slept somewhere.

The skeleton, however, knew how to deal with me.

“Would Sir like to be shown his suite, so he might freshen up for bed? I have just prepared the room and changed the sheets, so if Sir would be so kind as to shower first, it would not go unappreciated.”

I squeaked. The skeleton cocked his head.

“We shall take the main stair tower since it is closer.” He gestured for me to go first. “The first door on the right, once you leave the tower,” he said, his movements stiff as he ambled after me, “is the servants’ quarters. I am the only one at present, you need not concern yourself with that. These four doors,” he indicated one opposite the stairs and three running adjacent to the half-wall overlooking the receiving hall, “are guest rooms complete with en-suites. Your rooms are here.” He swung open the last door at the end of the hall. “The second staircase leads into this corridor; you have your own morning room should you wish to have breakfast up here.” This room sat above the solarium, because the balcony beyond the glass doors matched the wall below. An arch led to the balcony above the music room. “Here is your dressing room,” a large room full of clothes, which led to, “your bathroom,” a room with a walk-in bath, “your toilet is through that door there, and here,” the skeleton swung open yet another door with a flourish, “is your bedchamber.”

It had another fucking fireplace. At least I couldn’t stand up in it like the one in the receiving hall. Every room had ornate fireplaces and intricate wood panelling.

My bedroom resembled those of old country estates; a four-poster bed large enough for three with an ottoman at the foot of it. Two chairs in front of the fire, a chaise lounge in the bay window covered with flowing curtains trailing to the floor. All the fabrics matched, and the wallpaper complimented it.

I kicked off my shoes and fell face-first onto the rose-scented bed.

The piano music didn’t resume after that.

But the fucking crows started up soon after.

It was a fitful night.

I just hoped everything would be better in the morning.

Wednesday, 18th March in the year 873 AD

It was half-past nine in the evening when a man named Ívarr approached Gipeswic’s northern hills from the south in a flat-out run.

Clouds hid but did not diminish the light of the full moon. The hills made for impressive fortifications, but the town itself was more a port than any real defensible village. These Saxons and Britons had grown lazy and complacent in their lives, but it did not stop a group of guards from giving chase to such a formidable raider and former prisoner as him.

Ívarr did not regret the pillaging, he only regretted getting caught.

And that the lead brute leading the charge grabbed him from behind and launched a rather impressive flying tackle. They both hit the ground hard enough to snap the bone in Ívarr’s arm.

Another local guardsman grabbed that broken arm and hauled Ívarr up hard enough to swing him into his compatriots.

What ensued was a tangle of limbs and many elbows landing upon just as many noses.

Ívarr took this fortunate opportunity to steal a sharpened and rather ornate seax from one guard, it was a rather sharp blade attached to a gold-wrapped handle with a garnet pommel, swung to punch another guard in the family jewels, and stabbed a third in the eye. By the time any of the guards noticed Ívarr was not amongst the scuffle, he was halfway up the hill and still gaining momentum.

It was only after he’d crested the hill that Ívarr realised how easy his escape from prison had been.

The rest of the guardsmen lined the hill, and at the fore stood the King of East Anglia and a rather large battle-axe.

Two guardsmen grabbed Ívarr’s shoulders and pushed him down to his knees.

Ívarr gathered himself into a crouch and grabbed the men by their armour. He pulled them down to stomp on their faces.

Didn’t they know who he was?

As if this was a signal, the rest of the horde stumbled forwards. Some even yelled out to their God that they’d send him a pagan barbarian.

The only god Ívarr sent prayers to was Óðinn, and that was to lend him the strength to fight in his honour.

These men had battered him, starved him, and told him in halting Norse that for not converting to their faith he’d burn in the pits of Helheim for all eternity. If that was what their God was like, he’d stick with his own pantheon, thanks.

Ívarr steadied his blade and met the onslaught with relish. He could tell his manic grin unnerved some of them, the blood splattered on his face transformed him into one of their devils, but in that moment he didn’t care.

In that moment, he channelled his rage and killed as many as he could. He danced away from their swords and axes, he used their shields to leap from to drive them into the ground.

Ívarr fought like he was made of water, like he was boneless. And it was only the combined effort of five of the Saxons which halted his flow.

Two of the strongest pinned him against them as the King reached into his cloak to draw out a parchment.

The King read from the parchment in Anglo-Saxon, but Ívarr caught the repeated words such as “pagan barbarian,” and “death,” and “crimes against our people.”

No-one asked Ívarr to plead his case. No-one asked Ívarr for his defence.

With a regal and dismissive wave of his hand, the King had Ívarr brought to his knees again, one hand belonging to each captor between his shoulders.

This was to be Ívarr’s execution, then.

His luck had run out, he was no longer in the favour of the Norns. They had shaped his life, and this is how they’d decided his life would end.

The King said something else as he raised his battle-axe high and swung it in a strong, downwards arch.

But then a crow cawed. And the blade glanced off Ívarr’s mail armour.

Another swing yielded the same result, this time landing in the grass.

The crows were watching.

The King swung the axe again, and a large crow landed on the blade.

The crow cocked its head and crowed once to the King, and again to Ívarr, before flying off back into the trees.

The men behind Ívarr began muttering amongst themselves as to their King’s competence.

Ívarr had no such problems. He squared his shoulders under the hand of his captor and raised his head to meet the gaze of the King.

“Kill me, then,” Ívarr said in Anglo-Saxon, “before I kill you like I killed that monk.”

The King swung his axe again.

The moon glinted off the blade before it met its target.​

By quarter past ten the next morning, I had dressed in a clean and designer dress shirt and trousers, brushed my hair until it shone like copper, and sat down at the breakfast table to a view of crows in the trees, a water feature which was not the fountain, and an irate man who held the deed to my house in his hand.

At least, that was what he said when he sat down without waiting for the skeleton butler to introduce him.

“Mister Bone,” said the man, standing rather awkwardly by the window, “my name is Hamish Trevor. I’m the current Mayor of Crow’s Hollow and I have managed this property for the duration your absence. Now that you’re here, I just need you to sign a few papers and the estate will return to you in full.”

A man with salt and pepper hair and wearing a business suit entered the room with a breakfast tray. He had the stiff movements of last night’s skeleton, but the regal bearing and skin of someone from the ancient Mediterranean.

“Might I suggest,” said the strange man in the voice of the skeleton, placing the tray before me, “that my master have a copy of these papers sent to his lawyer?”

“Who’re you?” said Hamish Trevor, his pallid skin turning papery. “I’ve never seen you before.”

The man just smiled. “I would also suggest my master question just how his house ended up in your hands, but we all must keep some secrets, I suppose.”

Hamish Trevor tucked a strand of stringy brown hair behind his ear, the rest of it was restrained in a rather tight ponytail. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose we must.”

I pinched a slice of toast between my thumb and middle finger and pretended I was some spoilt little lord. “Is there any other reason for your visit, Mister Trevor?”

“Just a suggestion for your income, Mister Bone.” Hamish Trevor smiled a smile which didn’t reach his eyes. “Grow some vegetables in your rather large garden. Our farmer’s market could always use some fresh produce to sell to our community.”

I had no such intentions, but inclined my head in a way to suggest I’d take such a selfless action under advisement.

Hamish Trevor shifted on unsteady legs, coughed into a bloodied handkerchief, and glanced at the man standing half in shadow.

“I’d best take my leave,” he said, inching his way towards the door while using the wall for support.

The man who was perhaps a skeleton tailed after him.

I bit at the toast.

Why should I be so kind as to use my land for others? Shouldn’t I sell what I didn’t use rather than only keep the leftovers?

No, I didn’t think I would grow vegetables in my rather large and, dare I say it, my rather beautiful expanse of turf.

The man who was perhaps a skeleton returned on near silent feet.

He bowed rather low. “My name is Quintus,” he said. “I am the fifth to serve the master of Hawthorne Hall and will remain as long as you require me.”

I couldn’t help it when I burst out with, “But you were a skeleton!”

Quintus did not even blink. “Only after the sun has set and only until it has risen. Such is the curse of those who serve the masters of this Hall.”

Because that made total sense.

Not.

“Might I suggest,” Quintus the cursed skeleton said, “that you explore the town during the daylight hours. It might do you good to see what sort of place you are to live in.”

I took another bite of my toast.

Quintus faded into the background as the crows started up their chorus again.

Maybe I would, if only to get away from those blasted crows.

So, I did everything necessary before departure and ended up following Hawthorne Hall Lane until I came to a junction without much signage but road names. Then I kept in a straight line until there was another junction proclaiming itself to be a roundabout.

This junction, however, told me where the marketplace was.

Curiosity got the better of me, I wanted to see what Hamish Trevor was on about.

I turned right and almost walked right into a sign declaring the farmer’s market was every Friday between the hours of nine and two.

I checked the golden watch I’d found on the dressing table. It was almost eleven, which meant I could snoop around while feigning interest in what the fuck was going on.

Something told me I was good at that, feigning interest in things.

So I followed the sign down a road called High Street, lined on both sides with houses of varying ages and architectural designs, then almost got hit by another car as I turned left and saw a large public square with a few market stalls dotted around.

Ah, yes, it made sense to have a market in a place with the street name “Market Place.” Why wouldn’t you? Even at eleven on a Friday, people haggled and gossiped.

Perfect little towns and their quaint little ways.

This time, I managed to cross the road without incident. Though I did almost run into someone while staring in disbelief at the town’s crest.

A fucking crow. How imaginative.

The man managed to right both of us, I was no help because I was far too busy gaping at him.

He must have had a hard time in his childhood, because that beauty was unparalleled. Fine bones, perfect skin, an amused smirk on his face as he took stock of me and my too-long limbs.

“I have died,” I said, unblinking in my gawping, “because such perfection isn’t meant for mortal men to bear witness.”

Mister Perfect snorted a laugh. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Matt, I kind of get that reaction a lot.”

No fucking kidding. I now had new standards of perfection I would swear no-one else would ever meet.

But of cause, my mouth decided it was no longer attached to any filtering system I may have had before leaving through my front door.

“Did you know,” said my mouth, “that in the Norse myths, the Vanir Frey was renowned for his beauty and is regarded as the one who gives mortal peace and pleasure? Of cause, most of the myths were written after the conversion of Christianity and therefore can’t be trusted. But Frey was always depicted as having a rather large dick.”

“What?” Matt just blinked. “Does that mean what I think it means? And what’s your name, anyway? I’ve given you mine, and I really want to know the name of someone who’s really bad at flirting.”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m Evander, but just call me Evan. I mean, what sort of name is Evander? Who even names their child Evander?”

My brain had left me. I had no words beyond stuttering. What in the name Helheim was I doing?

Take pity, kind human, I needed it.

Matt smiled a little gentler than the one before.

“If I ask you on a date,” he said, “will you turn as red as your hair in another effort to impress me with obscure knowledge?”

“Probably?”

Matt’s grin turned a bit sinister. “So next week’s okay, then? Because I love the way you imitate a fish, and I rather want to see how red your face gets while I show you around the May Show.”

There were no words to describe the noise I made except to say I meeped.

In anything I could remember, I’d never had beautiful people ask me to date them before.

I did what any self-respecting person would do in such a situation. I ran away in a blind panic, to the musical sound of Matt’s laughter.