Go back to previous chapter
Tomce was a rather sickly-looking person. His mousy hair clung to his head sparsely as though afraid that at any moment it would lose its grip and fall off. His skin was waxy and anaemic. His body so cadaverously thin that he sometimes padded his shirt with straw when he visited the City, to avoid incredulous looks. His face wore a constant dreamlike expression, which perpetually contradicted the two deep-cut lines of repressed anger that ran from his nose to his mouth.
He was loading a large carpet-bag onto the buggy when the four strangers approached him. He had known they were nearby, because he had indeed spied on them the night before. And yet he had thought there was very little chance of them actually "dropping-in". People rarely did, unless invited.
"You did come after all", he said, almost in wonder "I never thought you would".
"We're sorry to disturb you", Adam began.
"Please don't be", said Tomce "I may live all the way out here, but I'm not a recluse. I love people and company. I would like to build a community of my own out here, but people don't seem to have the money for that kind of project nowadays".
"You look as though you're going somewhere".
"Oh only into town for a few days. A spot of business. Routine stuff, nothing terribly important. I don't have to get off yet, perhaps you would like to come in for a drink?"
The cottage was small but exuded an air of relaxation, so much so that it felt like walking into a womb. A log fire in the grate smelt enchantingly of sweet apples, the china on the walls was willow-pattern, the table was scrubbed white, the scarlet coffee-pot painted with a bright floral design. It all seemed an incongruously cheerful background for the spectral-looking creature that had shown them in.
"My little bolt-hole", he said, in quiet rapture, as though seeing it again after an absence of several long years "I do love it so. Please sit down. I'll make some fresh coffee".
"If you have to do business in town", said Adam "It must be a touch inconvenient living so far out of the way".
"Oh but I only have to go in every so often to clinch a deal. I buy and sell rare and antique coins. It is sufficiently profitable for me to live out here for the rest of the time".
"Nice work if you can get it", said Joby.
"Do you get involved in excavation work and such like? Digs, that sort of thing", said Adam.
"Oh no", Tomce laughed, in a wispy fashion "I leave all that to the experts. I just advise and trade".
Adam repeated the well-rehearsed patter about them being nomads who had strayed out of their way. Tomce looked dangerously wistful on hearing this, as though the nomadic lifestyle was one he'd dearly like to try for himself. He started to ask awkward questions about their customs.
"I can't see why you'd want to live rough when you've got a place like this", said Adam, with feeling.
"Yes, I am happy here", Tomce touched a beam lovingly, and for a moment was lost in thought "People have accused me of being nothing but a dreamer, but I find that without dreams how on earth do we get anything we want?"
"Do you live alone here?" asked Hillyard.
"Yes", he replied, shortly "You must forgive my spying on you last night, but I so rarely get visitors out here, and the nearest neighbours are many miles away, so I have to be sure that I am safe. There used to be a little hamlet a couple of miles away, but it is deserted now. So many of these isolated communities are disappearing it seems. Soon people will only live in the City if we're not careful".
"You don't fancy living there then?" said Kieran.
"I don't like the way it's going".
"How do you mean?" asked Joby.
"Life in the City is getting highly disturbing for some of us. Suspicion and distrust everywhere. Particularly towards anyone who is different in any way".
The other four stared at him blankly from around the table. Tomce stared back at them, and then gave an embarrassed half-laugh.
"I will have to leave soon", he said "I will be gone a few days, but I would like you to stay here in my absence".
"You don't know us", Adam protested "You're prepared to turn your house over to complete strangers?"
"You would be doing me the most tremendous favour. I worry so much about leaving the place empty".
"Aren't you concerned that we'll run off with the silver?"
"I'm more concerned about wolves and wild dogs ransacking the place whilst it's empty. Not that they ever have, they never come close to the house. Even so, I would feel a lot more contented in my mind if I know the place is being looked after, and it would save me having to damp down the fire. If I leave the cottage empty it'll be as cold as charity by the time I return, and I've never got used to returning to an empty dark house. Please stay".
"I must admit that a part of me felt we should have cadged a lift to the City", said Adam, after they had seen Tomce off on his travels "But I'm so damn tired I didn't feel like it".
"You sound like you've got a cold coming on to me", said Kieran.
"We'd never have all fitted into the buggy anyway", said Hillyard "I'm with you. I think it'll be nice to stay somewhere comfortable for a few days".
"The whole place feels like a huge armchair, ready to sink into".
"Summat a bit spooky about him though wasn't there?" said Hillyard "Tomce I mean. He looked ill to me and I should know, I've lived with someone who worked his way through the entire medical dictionary".
"That was strange", said Adam "You'd think that living out here, plenty of fresh air, stress-free lifestyle, that he'd be a picture of health".
"You don't think he was a vampire do you?" said Joby "He looked bloodless to me".
"A vampire wouldn't live right out here", said Hillyard "He'd be cutting himself off from his food source. You don't seem to know much about them, or much else for that matter".
"Because we're time-crossers that's why", said Kieran, earning howls of anguish from his two colleagues.
"You pillock!" Joby cried.
"I think it's time he knew", said Kieran "I'm fed up with trying to pass meself off as something I'm not. We did our stint at Henang for time-crossing Hillyard. Now you know".
"I thought there was something odd about you three, that you weren't normal nomads", said Hillyard "So, when are you from then?"
"The 21st century".
"That far back!" Hillyard exclaimed "That's pre-Warming! History was never my best subject, but I've heard that you were more advanced than us, technically I mean".
"You could say that", said Adam, tartly, remembering the antediluvian computer equipment at Buskin's house.
"Strange isn't it?" said Kieran "In our time we always imagined the future to be even more sophisticated than our own, but it's not the case. I spose it all peaked at some point and then slipped back".
"So, you didn't have vampires in your time?"
"No, we had women instead", growled Joby.
"Vampires were only the stuff of fiction and legend", Kieran explained Some people did claim to be vampires and to drink people's blood, but they were usually deranged".
"Why are they so common here?" asked Adam.
"Dunno", Hillyard shrugged "Always have been, at least in my lifetime anyway. Nobody knows how many there are altogether. They don't tend to mix with the rest of us. I suppose when you say vampires though most 'em are really just ghouls. They eat people's flesh and blood. They're beasts, it's hard to think of them as human, although that's what they look like. They don't have minds and consciences like we do".
"Sounds just like Angel", Joby muttered.
Adam and Hillyard sat on either side of the fireplace like bookends. Hillyard was sleeping, but Adam fought away the urge to sleep himself. He wanted to spend some time just revelling in the sensation of comfortable exhaustion. Kieran drew near and rubbed his hair.
"How strange it must be for Hillyard", Adam whispered "To him we are as foreign as the Ancient Greeks would have been to us".
"He seems to be bearing up under the strain", said Kieran "Not losing any sleep over it anyway".
"He's worn out. In a matter of days he's fled from some monster on the tundra, lost his closest friend, and met three time-crossers".
"You're not in that brilliant a shape yourself. Tomce's bed is upstairs. Why don't you go and get comfortable for the night?"
"Oh, but I'd like to sleep down here by the fire, it's so wonderfully soothing. You and Joby take the bed".
"Are you sure?"
"Well I don't think Joby would appreciate bedding down with Hillyard do you?" Adam took Kieran's hand and kissed it.
"Particularly after all that talk about vampires earlier", said Kieran "I wouldn't be surprised if he started seeing Angel coming out of the wallpaper tonight!"
Joby was spending a very pleasant few minutes going through Tomce's store cupboards. He gazed lovingly at the many items of food and drink as though he was counting money.
"And not a bag of rice to be seen", he said, with great satisfaction, as Kieran entered the kitchen.
"Well try not to eat all of the stuff. We'd better leave some supplies for our generous host when he returns", said Kieran, who had started removing his clothes.
"Why are you taking your trousers off in here?" said Joby, suspiciously.
"In case you hadn't noticed they're covered in mud from the forest", said Kieran "I'm going to hang 'em up in here and brush it off when it's dry in the morning".
"You know, this place may all be very cosy and that, but it's a bit primitive isn't it? No electricity for a start, and where the hell does he get his water from?"
"There's a pump outside".
"A pump?" Joby sounded like an outraged duchess.
"Yes, a big iron thing with a handle, you must have seen it".
"I know what a pump is! I'm just surprised he bothers with one".
"It's either that or he has no water I spose", Kieran shrugged.
"All the jugs are empty", Joby pouted "And I was gonna wash me feet too".
"It's only two steps outside the back door! It's not as if you have to go trekking through the forest to get to it", said Kieran "Honestly Jobe, you're nothing but a focking whinger sometimes. If Amy was here she'd have had all the jugs filled by now".
"Yea well she's not here is she?"
"I don't need reminding of that unpleasant fact", Kieran snatched an enamel jug from the draining-board "I'll go and get you some bloody water, you useless great fairy".
Kieran walked through a small parlour to the back door. Outside, the sky was a deep, velvety blue decorated with wisps of smoky-coloured cloud, behind which the Moon dodged occasionally as though anxious not to be seen.
He put the jug under the pump and yanked at the handle. Cool, clear water came out in laborious gluts. He was concentrating so hard that at first he didn't hear the noise in the bushes. When he did he stopped pumping instantly. Wolves, wild boar, Angel, Yeti's, Reptile Men ... all paraded menacingly through his imaginary line of vision in about a sixteenth of a second.
"Who's there?" he asked, feeling absurd. All the creatures he had imagined were hardly likely to give name and number "Look, if you want something, come out and get it. Stop pratting about, trying to act menacing, it's pathetic".
There came a harsh gargling sound from very close by. Kieran knew at once what it reminded him of. A death rattle playing coarsely in somebody's throat. Suddenly, the foliage parted.
Kieran dropped the jug and screamed.
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site