Music: Majestic Nature by Craig Stuart Garfinkle
Artwork by Steve English
Episode 14 – Interlude – Origins of Darkness
Before the madness and pain, a beautiful country house stood in the idyllic countryside of the North York Moors. There lived in that house a very fortunate family. Although, some would say that the blessing and good fortune were not of their own making. Instead, the blessing had found them and made its home there. Why it should do this, I can’t say for sure, but I suspect this happened because they neither sought after nor longed for it. Instead, they concentrated on loving each other and caring for those around them, being thankful for all they had.
So, beauty and bounty followed wherever they went, and everything they put their hands to succeeded and prospered, which led to more thankfulness and joy. And so, it seemed that from each generation, this fortune flowed to the next, as sons and daughter grew up learning to love and care, with gratitude for the blessings they received. They lived in peace, drinking in the beauty all around and happily sharing their good fortune generously with others.
Around the country house, small villages grew for workers who tended the estate. Their housing was modest but comfortable, and a step beyond what they could find elsewhere, for the Briggswaths were good people who looked after and valued their workers.
Beyond the villages, the Briggswaths built a large hall, which they used as a meeting place and church. Generations of Briggswaths and villagers were married there, worshipped and gave thanks for all they’d received.
The land of the Briggswath estate was incredibly productive. Orchards were plentiful and loaded down with fruit; animals grazed and multiplied; woodlands were well-managed for healthy supplies of timber; crops grew both in the fields and the many gardens and allotments of the villagers. This part of Yorkshire really did seem to be ‘God’s own county’!
The lord and lady of the house at this time had four children, three girls and a much younger boy. All of them were exceptionally good looking, and before the boy was very old, his three sisters married and moved away, leaving him as the last child in the rambling country house. His name was Lealholm Warn Briggswath.
However, Leal, as he was known, was not like the rest of his family. Right from the start, he was spoilt, indulged and never disciplined for behaviour his sisters would never have got away with! So, Leal learnt how to manipulate his parents to get whatever he wanted. He perfected tantrums and grumpiness; he became a master at lying – no matter what it cost other people – as long as it got him what he wanted. To your face, he was about as charming and lovely as you could imagine, until that is, he had what he wanted or decided you were no longer of use to him. Then, you were at his mercy. This was especially true for his parents as they grew older and frailer – suspiciously frail for their age.
It was during this time that the Briggswaths stopped meeting at the hall for church on a Sunday. Leal always felt very uncomfortable by what was said in that place. And so, when ill health prevented his parents from going, Leal did nothing to help them, preferring to stay away and make excuses. Whereas his parents had loved the villagers, Leal despised them, wanting nothing to do with them – except get their labour as cheaply as possible.
Then the time came, as was the way of things at that point in history, when Leal was expected to marry. And, while his parents seemed to be increasingly blind to his outrageous and selfish behaviour, the rest of the community was not. No family for many miles around would risk their daughter marrying someone like Leal. So, his parents looked further afield for a bride – but none could be found. If a young lady visited as a possible match, Leal would cause the whole occasion to be such a disaster that her family would leave early with no hope of a union between the families. Until that is, the day came when one Natland Helm Laithes – known as Natty – and her family arrived.
Of course, Leal had no intention of marrying anyone. He had everything he wanted! And, as the only son, he stood to inherit the whole estate because, at that time, girls weren’t treated fairly and his sisters wouldn’t get anything!
Leal didn’t intend sharing anything with anyone! Least of all the ‘nice’ girls his parents introduced him to. But Natty was not like the other girls, for beneath her great beauty there was nothing ‘nice’ about Natty.
At first, Leal did everything he could to put Natty and her family off. You had to experience his level of rudeness and sniping to understand how selfish and arrogant he was. Many times, Natty’s parents were on the verge of storming off and leaving the revolting young man to himself. But somehow Natty stopped them. You see, this beautiful young lady had two advantages the previous girls had not.
Firstly, she was every bit as nasty, twisted and self-centred as Leal himself – meaning Leal had very likely met his match.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Natty was greedier and more scheming than Leal and would stop at nothing to get what she wanted.
She had come to take for herself what she considered to be the secret of the success of the Briggswath estate – the blessing! She wanted to control the source of the inexplicably good fortune the family had experienced over the years. Both Natty and Leal believed this was something they could take and exploit for themselves. And so, both of them had separately set their hearts on possessing it.
The problem was, by fixating on the blessing alone, they were deliberately ignoring the giver – the One from whom the blessing came. This was never going to end well.
For Natty to have a chance of taking control of the blessing, she had to win Leal over so she could stay in the house and find the answers she needed. It meant she had to neutralise his attacks and make sure that she was the one he married. It would be costly, but she believed the reward would be worth it, foolishly thinking that blessing like that could be held and controlled by someone with such a dark and evil heart. And so started a kind of twisted game between the two of them, while all the time Natty ingratiated herself with Leal’s ailing parents.
Natty’s weak point, of course, was her parents. She would have to leave if her parents didn’t approve of the marriage. So Leal relentlessly attacked her parents at every opportunity.
He thought he’d won when they seemed to be on the verge of leaving after he’d been particularly obnoxious. But then a strange thing happened. As Natty looked after her weeping mother and furious father, instead of packing their bags and storming off in a rage, they started to smile and nod at Leal while a slightly glazed look came over their faces. Then, with the terrible offence forgotten as Natty whispered in their ears, she gently ‘encouraged’ them to go and have a lie-down. Or, on another such occasion, to take tea out in the garden where they could enjoy the view – and, it would seem, be away from anyone who could tell just how ‘out of it’ they were.
Seeing that his ploy with Natty’s parents was failing, and beginning to feel that this girl was more interesting than he had assumed… for the first time in his life, Leal became fascinated – maybe even infatuated – with a girl who had such control over her parents. And, without thinking that she could have any control over him, a real courtship began. Natty was to become the next lady of the house.
It was Natty who had heard of Leal and his family’s desire for him to be married. She knew that the Briggswath Estate was an exceptional place and was determined to force the blessing to work exclusively for her. You see, many years earlier, Natty had learned how to use words, forbidden words, to control, calm and manipulate others. Using this power had raised her family to their high place in society. But the problem with ambition such as Natty’s was that it would never be satisfied. She wanted more, and when she looked with envy on everything the Briggswaths had, she was determined to take it all.
Controlling Leal, however, was a lot harder than she expected. He was a determined character who seemed able to shake off her enchantment faster than others. So, Natty had a choice, to keep fighting against Leal, or to use his interest in the blessing to help her find and possess it. It was a dangerous game, but not having to use all her energy controlling him would make it easier.
But it was not to be as straightforward or as fast as she had hoped.
For many years, during which Leal’s parents passed away, the two of them researched, stole, lied and tricked their way into getting everything they thought they needed.
The first big step forward was when they discovered from an ancient book that they needed to make a key. But this was no regular key and, if they had read more, they would have discovered that this was a key unsuitable for humans to handle. The problem with their greed and power-lust was that all they cared about was results, leaving warnings and consequences ignored.
The key had seven parts – the first part being the handle and shaft and then six distinct lock-opening parts arranged in a circle around the shaft.
It took far longer than they could have imagined to search out, buy or steal rare materials and items that could only be found in places where people shouldn’t go. But they were so focused on their infernal plan that they couldn’t see the cost to them, and the house, of all they did.
Servants left, animals were mistreated, and crops rotted in the fields. The wealth of the family was squandered on things they shouldn’t have. But still, Leal and Natty searched for what they thought had brought all the good fortune and joy.
As they searched for the elusive blessing, it never occurred to them that if they had simply lived the loving and thankful lives of Leal’s ancestors, they would already have been experiencing it themselves!
And so, silently and sadly, the blessing left, leaving them to pursue their selfish, greedy and bitter paths. Any beauty that had been in the house and family disappeared with the blessing. When Leal’s sisters were allowed to visit – which wasn’t very often – they were horrified at the state of Leal and the house. Yet all their comments fell on deaf ears as they were encouraged to leave by Natty who, with Leal’s consent, used her power as the lady of the house to make their stay as miserable as possible until they stopped visiting altogether.
Then, one moonlit night, as the soft light shone down upon the country house, their work was finally finished. Bent and gnarled by their years of greedy obsession, the two of them sat at the kitchen table. A single oil lamp illuminated the book as they repeated words that should not have been said, while they put together an object that should not exist, in a ceremony that was, frankly evil. Then, as the last piece of a strange and unworldly key slipped into place with a loud click, a massive burst of darkness shot out from the key, raced around the kitchen and hurried into the hall.
Chairs tumbled to the floor behind them in their haste to follow. Catching sight of it as it moved down a hallway, it seemed alive and pulsated as it searched the country house. Zipping this way and that, the darkness seemed to taste the house and then moved to the entrance hall and up the first flight of stairs. Leal and Natty followed as best they could. Slowing its racing tendencies, it seemed to pause so they could keep up. It was almost as if the darkness needed them.
By the time they reached the first-floor landing, both Leal and especially Natty were breathless, but the darkness wasn’t going to give them any rest as it moved swiftly, but not too swiftly – to the second set of stairs. Then, as they watched, it disappeared as it ascended to the top floor.
No sooner had Leal and Natty arrived panting on the second floor than they saw in the murky light cast by the oil lamp Natty held, the darkness crouching in the middle of the landing. As it pulsated slightly, it looked like some kind of strange, deranged animal that was doing it absolute best to avoid the light from the full moon that shone in through the round window at the end of the landing. It wanted to be seen by Leal and Natty, but it didn’t want to interact with the moonlight!
Once it knew that Leal and Natty had seen it, it rose into the air, a spectre of sorts, changing shape and form and drifting towards the ceiling. Leal and Natty watched in surprise as the ghoulish shape started to shrink and seemed to dissipate. Running to where it had been, Natty lifted the oil lamp, and they realised it had gone into the attic.
Terrified that they might have lost it, Natty stayed put while Leal ran to get the long stick needed to open the attic entrance. Natty tried to catch her breath. It had been a long time since she’d run as fast as she had today chasing the spectre of darkness.
So worried were they that they’d lost the cloud that Leal missed the hook several times until Natty grabbed the stick from him, locked onto the hook and yanked the contraption down to lower the steps to the attic.
Throwing the stick to one side and pushing past Leal so hard he lost his footing, Natty raced up the steps taking the only lamp with her. Her heart was pumping so hard she could hear it in her ears, and she was struggling for breath again. But that didn’t matter now; she was on the verge of acquiring the power and blessing of the Briggswaths.
Leal was close behind her. She had to slow him down, so Natty grabbed at a box near the entrance, spilling its contents down the steps, stopping Leal and causing him to curse loudly.
She had the key on a rope around her neck; she had the power, and she didn’t want to share it with him.
Arriving in the attic, she lifted her oil lamp and desperately searched for the cloud. Moments later, she caught a glimpse of it by a wall that she had always thought was a chimney breast and never taken any notice of before.
Hurrying to the wall, while scattering even more boxes and their contents on the floor to impede Leal’s progress, she examined the brickwork. As she did, a small popping sound rang around the attic, making her jump. She assumed it must be Leal standing on something as he made his way into the attic and so she hurried on, the sense of desperation growing inside her. She didn’t want Leal taking what she had worked so hard all these years to get for herself.
As the black cloud hung by the wall, it seemed to form the shape of a doorway, with the cloud concentrating around the outline. Then she saw a dark, dark keyhole that matched the strange key hanging on the rope around her neck.
Moving her oil lamp in an attempt to hide the door from Leal, the shadows in the attic seemed to move in ways she had not seen before, darting between objects. Some of them almost looked like dogs! But she had no time to think about that now. Her victory was close.
Taking the key from around her neck and examining the keyhole, she paused momentarily to rub her left arm to try and alleviate a sharp pain. Behind her, Leal was calling her name and cursing as he hit his shin against some hard object. But this was supposed to be her time. She had worked all these years for this, given up so much for it.
Her excitement was mounting, and even more so as she heard Leal crashing his way closer. Lifting the key towards the door, she struggled to focus her eyes. Twisting the key this way and that, she tried to work out which way round to insert it into the lock! It had six equally-sized parts distributed evenly around its shaft. There were six corresponding slots to the keyhole, but she didn’t know which bit of the key should go in which slot. Leal was getting ever closer. So, throwing caution to the wind, she moved the key up to the keyhole and, as she did, everything in the attic suddenly stopped. The noise of Leal crashing around ceased, dust particles stopped in mid-air, caught in the light of her oil lamp falling from the rafters. The oil lamp itself seemed to give the same flame without flickering or wavering.
Then a voice spoke. It was a man’s voice and had an edge to it that, had she thought about it, she would have realised was hungry. However, years of looking at things she shouldn’t have looked at and listening to things she shouldn’t have listened to had dulled her ability to realise when she was confronted with real danger.
“Beware how you place that key in my lock, many have tried and have found no luck. For if by chance you get it wrong, this door will stay open and all blessing be gone. Yet if you get it right when you open this cell, then maybe, just maybe all things will go well.”
The voice pulled Natty up short; her heart was beating so loudly in her ears that she hadn’t heard what it had said properly. All she could remember was something about ‘all things will go well’. That was the blessing she wanted – no, more than that, it was the blessing she deserved, she demanded. After all, she had given her whole life to find it and possess it, so now it was hers to take.
As she stopped for just a moment in an attempt to try and catch her breath, she heard a strange noise behind her. Looking around, she realised that things hadn’t completely stopped as she’d thought. Instead, they had just slowed down. Leal was coming towards her with a furious expression on his face. Even though he was moving very slowly, he would be with her in moments, so she didn’t have any more time. She would have one chance to get this right, or else Leal would arrive, and she would lose everything.
Looking back at the keyhole, she continued to hold the key in front of the lock to slow Leal down, as she tried to work out which way to insert it. Again, as she approached the lock, the same warning spoke to her. And, as before, she ignored it – no time to waste – it was now or never.
The shaft of the key had a large hoop at the end of it. Looking at the hoop and then at the orientation of the keyhole, she decided that the natural way for the hoop to go would be straight up and down. As she held the key in front of the keyhole, it looked right. However, her heart was pumping so powerfully it was getting hard to see and hear. But just then a crash in slow motion resonated behind her, and she realised Leal was almost there.
So, without hesitation, Natty rammed the six-pronged key into the six-slotted keyhole and turned it until a very loud clank was heard and reverberated up her arm.
What happened next was so sudden it took them both by surprise. As time returned to normal, the door suddenly burst open, smashing into Natty and killing her instantly. It hurled her lifeless body across the attic like a rag doll. Then, as the door flung wide open, Leal found himself standing right in front of it as a massive pulse of darkness vomited out of the doorway, wrapped itself around him and dragged him back inside.
At that, the door slammed shut, but then bounced back open again, just slightly. As it slammed shut, the key flew out of the lock, separating into its 7 component pieces which scattered all over the attic. As each part landed, it started to evaporate, thrown to some other place in time and space. But as the shaft began to disappear, a strange hand grabbed hold of it, and, as it did, the shaft became fully tangible again. The other six bits which had landed in various places were lost, except for one of them which seemed to be attended by shadows as it too started to vanish.
Natty’s body was found sometime later by one of the remaining servants, lying in a heap in the attic. They did a full and thorough search to try and find Leal and some explanation for the state of Natty’s body but found nothing. No one saw the dark doorway in the attic. Not then or at any time after.
Apart from the funeral directors and a couple of servants who felt obliged to be there, no one was present at Natty’s funeral.
Leal was never seen again, and so the house had to be looked after by one of his sisters. None of them wanted to return, but the eldest, no doubt from some false sense of duty, felt she should look after the estate, and so moved in with her family. However, things were never the same again because, unknown to them, a door that should never have been opened – stood slightly ajar in the attic.