A Knight of Wolves
A St. Van Helsing Novel
(Opening scenes only)
Copyright 2016 by Vanessa Knipe, all rights reserved. No portion of this work may be copied or duplicated in any form without express written permission from the publisher.
Cover images by Mike Goren (Maypole scene) Mark Kent (wolf) under Creative Commons License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Castle image by Vanessa Knipe.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or places is strictly coincidental.
With the silver paperknife clenched in his sweaty hand like it was his last chance of salvation – and hoping silver-plating was enough – James unzipped the tent flap. Streaks of light appeared in the sky above the moor.
It was dawn, 4 am, light enough to see; there would be no more sleep tonight but at least the howling had stopped.
The parched moor spread out in all directions; sheep skittered along trails through the heather and bracken. Their distressed baas rang out through the still air.
James scrambled out of his tent, through the scratchy heather, yawning from the sleepless night. He tucked the knife through his belt. Watching all around, he folded his pop-up tent and slipped it into the backpack – it would need a long time in the garden before the stink bomb stench faded.
‘Pungent chemicals would block the human scent’, that’s what the weirdo website The Grange had said. And nothing stank like the stink bombs he’d bought from the joke shop. Setting up his tent last night he’d been embarrassed about believing all that nonsense.
His hands still shaking, he pulled out the knife again. The beak of the duck on the hilt dug into his palm.
James had recognized the man who drove through town from the photo on The Grange website. He had come up to the hills to find a hero.
The demon wanted his sister and James knew it, and no one would believe him.
Soon he’d be able to hand the whole confusing mess over and let the hero solve it. If he were honest, what he hoped for was a pat on the head for being a credulous idiot.
But the howling had sounded very real.
It had got under way as the full moon rode high across the cloudless sky. Back in town, people had muttered about a huge dog worrying sheep on the moor above Helmsley. A sheep dog guarding the flock had been mauled.
He scanned the heather covered landscape. If the sheep were running uphill, then the … Wolf … there he’d admitted it, would be back the other way. And if he was right, the man he searched for would be chasing the Wolf.
He was safe now that the sun had risen, wasn’t he?
James pushed aside the bracken. He found a sheep trail and followed it. His heart raced in his throat. As he neared a stream, a trickle only this summer, there was a patch of mud where the sheep had been down to drink.
Blood splashed on stones of the old Roman road.
Something white glowed in the fairy light of a summer dawn. James stumbled over a man sprawled on his back, vomit-splashed, naked to the world. James recoiled from the new stench.
The man lay like the dead, surrounded by a pile of short hairs. One muscular leg, shadowed by the heather, had a pelt of sleek fur.
The Grange website had got this so wrong. The administrator had put up pictures of the men who were ‘exorcists’, sorting out strange stuff so ‘ordinary’ people never knew weirdness was happening. Who believed in ghosts and monsters these days?
But he… it? Lay there, part in shadow. Where the dawn spread over it … him, he was a man – with blond, shoulder-length hair as his only covering. Only the shadow showed James what he was dealing with. Clawed paws on legs bent awkwardly, and the hint of a furred tail. Even unconscious, the lips in the human face were drawn back in a snarl, exposing sharper-than-human teeth.
James had come for a Wolf hunter – and had found the Wolf instead. Unfortunately, they were the same person.
The wrongness of spying on the naked man nagged at his conscience. Unhooking his backpack, James fished out his blanket. The movement woke the man.
Wolf eyes fixed on James and a bowel-loosening growl kicked off low in the man’s throat, a predator’s call.
The pack fell from James’s nerveless fingers. He reeled towards the stream. Reflex made him lift the paperknife to protect his neck. Reflected dawn flickered over the heather as the knife quivered in shaking hands.
The man was human now, but his movements were all dog. His muscles coiled for a pounce. Drawing his left leg out of the shadow ready to spring, the remaining pelt fell off. The man stared at his bare leg. The mad Wolf eyes faded and clear blue eyes stared around at the moor.
Real life hit with a mallet. The man dug his nails into his forehead. Tears dripped between the man’s fingers. His hands dropped. Tear tracks ran through the dust on his face. His blank eyes stared at nothing.
The glinting silver from the knife caught his gaze and he said, “Please, I would take it as a mercy.” His voice sounded rough. If last night had been any example, his throat must be raw from four nights of howling.
James tried to drop the knife but his fingers had frozen, clenched around the only protection he had.
The fur, the sunlight. That meant the rest was not imagined. James coughed to clear his throat.
Voice still squeaky, he said, “I read about you on The Grange website. My sister’s in danger. It said you hunt demons. I need your help.”
“The Grange! What a lot of nonsense.” The man screwed up his face. “Believe anything you read, do you? Tell me your fairy-story, then.”
James tossed over the blanket. It would be a fine summer’s day later, but now it was still dawn and still cold, and the man was naked. James rummaged in his pack for the flask containing soup, leaving the man some dignity. When he was certain the man was covered, he offered the flask over. The man glugged it. Like an old street tramp, he hugged the blanket around his shoulders, his graying blond hair hung in ragged rats’ tails around his shoulders.
James took the time to order his thoughts. “It’s the Luck Pageant the Town Council is reviving. Everyone believes the disasters will stop happening ‘cos some girls do a play. This Luck has them hypnotized or something.”
“That sounds like it’s close to the end of the story.”
“Oh right! My mum says the Luck of Helmsley is an old pageant dragged out for the tourists. But I read the town archives, and they say something different.” James shivered; when the archives talked about the Luck, ice spiders crawled down his spine. “My sister has been chosen to dance the part of one of the brides. One dancer is chosen as the Bride of the Luck and is given a stone egg. The disasters stop. My mum says I’m ruining it for Tori inventing horror stories, but I want my sister safe.”
The man scraped the last of the soup into his mouth with a finger.
“So, from reading these old manuscripts you’re an expert and you’ve decided a demon is about to hatch?” The man’s summer blue eyes stared straight into James’s soul. “You said your mother believes it’s a play.”
James tried not to cringe away. “The Bride’s always from a family that doesn’t fit. It’ll be my sister – none of the local people can stand my Mum’s paintings, even if she has been in the Tate.”
The heather was fair game; James booted it hard enough to kick stalks loose.
The man lifted an eyebrow as he rinsed the flask in the streamlet. “I’m not saying you’re right, I’m not saying you’re wrong.”
Setting the flask to one side, he splashed water over his face; the blanket slid to his elbows. His hair fell in a gray-streaked mane down his back. Was it long from his scalp or did it grow from his spine?
“What about you? Was that real?” James demanded.
“If you are right, however, this ‘Luck’ will kill you to keep its secret. Ignorance protected you. The Grange is right about one thing, I was a Witch-Finder, was being the operative word, before they made me one of them.”
James felt some of his certainty slip away. Was this man able to help his sister if demons had got to him?
The man stood and shielded his eyes from the growing light. “Where’s my van?”
“There was a black van parked on the road beside the bridge. Is that the one you mean?”
Handing back the thermos, the man winced as he got to his feet. His gait was stiff as he staggered in the direction James had pointed. The man pulled the blanket around his shoulders, like a child’s comforter.
James had just been told a demon wanted to kill him. Staring after the man, the knife fell from James’s right hand. It slapped on the dirt path through the heather. The man frowned at James.
“Pick it up. You’ll need the knife if I lose control. And hurry up. Any help I can give must be before the next full moon. I nearly didn’t come back this time.”
James retrieved the knife from where it had fallen in the heather, and hurried after. All in all, it was a relief; someone else was willing to believe him about the Luck. Help was available after all. His neglected video games called out him. Charlie had beaten James’s high score on Zombie Massacre, time to sort that out.
“Your van was over here, Mr. Trewithick,” James said, remembering the name listed on The Grange website.
“Nathan – Mister is for people worthy of respect.”
The van stood at the side of the road – a little dusty from the dry summer. Grimacing as he bent over, Nathan reached up under the wheel arch and produced a pair of trousers. He tugged them on and tossed the blanket over to James. Moving like an old man, Nathan knelt and scrabbled under an innocent stone by the back wheel. What he was doing?
Nathan produced a car key. He gritted his teeth as he used the rear door handle to haul himself back to his feet. For a moment he had problems where to put his feet but he regained his balance then walked to the front and opened the van. A tee shirt lay on the front seat: he pulled it over his head and tucked it into his trousers. Reaching in again, he picked up a pair of glasses from the dashboard and a bottle half-filled with amber liquid from the seat.
Fingers slid through his hair, slicking unkempt strands behind his ears. Clothes and glasses on he came into focus, like an academic sort of teacher; more like the demon hunter James had read about. Nathan unscrewed the lid from his bottle of supermarket brandy. He halted with the bottle halfway to his lips.
“God! How old are you?” he asked.
“Fifteen.” The flush crept up under James’s shirt collar.
Nathan recapped the bottle, tossing it into the van. “I won’t be asking you to drive then.”
Wincing, Nathan folded his stiff body into the driver’s seat and gestured James to the other door. As James opened it, Nathan slid a sword from under the passenger seat and chucked it into the back of the van, giving James some legroom.
James climbed in and set his backpack between his feet in the foot well. Nathan reached into the glove box; pulling out some painkillers, he swallowed four of them dry. He leaned his head on the steering wheel, unimaginable pain lining his face.
The matted, graying hair hung down Nathan’s neck. Had he the right thing in recruiting the old man?
“You’ll have to do the bindings, son,” Nathan said. “I’ve got books, I’ll show you.”
“But …?” James’s heart sank. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He found the hero who would take over and rescue his sister. James was more sidekick material; in fact he had envisioned his role as applauding from the side lines. “Why can’t you do it?”
“The Wolf demon possesses my soul. It will take over, very soon now,” Nathan whispered. “It won’t allow me to do that sort of thing anymore. All I can do is take out as many of my kind as I can before the pain of changing drives me insane. I hunted down another like me before this full moon.”
“You said they ‘made you one of them’. What do you mean?” James felt a creeping in his stomach like worms were crawling in.
“You saw me, son. Believe your eyes.” Nathan lifted his head from the steering wheel and stared down the road. “I got smug in taking out the big ones. I wasn’t smart enough to realize they’d infect me. They got their revenge.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“You take on this demon, they will find you and change you too, because I’ll teach you how to take on them,” he said.
“You’ll be with me, helping, right?”
“For now, but once this is over you’re going to take the knife and stick it in my heart.”
Nathan stared straight in James’s eyes. “That’s the price for my help. I’m not going to go like the last one I caught. All his neighbors said he was a quiet man. His body count was eleven.” Nathan paused for a moment. “I need your mercy.”
“Will silver-plating be enough?” This time James hoped the answer was no.
Nathan held out his hand, arm muscles tensing. “Lay it over my palm.”
James laid the blade over Nathan’s outstretched hand. The whole arm shook as he held it against the silver. When he lifted the knife a red weal crossed Nathan’s palm.
“My demon is afraid of the knife. That’s a good sign,” Nathan said.
The older man meant what he had asked, but this might be James’s only chance to save Tori. He had to say yes, didn’t he? But he hoped something would happen so it didn’t have to be him.
Nathan rubbed his eyes then settled the glasses back in place. He drove off without speaking. How odd he didn’t ask where they were going. Perhaps it was some sort of sorcery that let Nathan know his destination. The frown of pain on Nathan’s face discouraged questions.
About a mile down the hill, he pulled into a quarry and parked his van.
“Stay here, please,” he said. Reaching into the back of the van he pulled out a black, overnight bag.
“Where are you going?”
“There’s a waterfall back there. I’m going to take a wash.” He smiled, a bit wryly but perhaps the pain-killers were kicking in. “There’s a road atlas on the window ledge; you can fill in the time plotting a route to your house.”
Disappointing: there was no special traveling sorcery. James watched him hobble out of sight.
The road atlas was under a piece of paper on which was printed Nathaniel Trewithick owns this van. He is investigating something of ritual interest and expects to be back by:
The sheet was laminated and in the space left he had written today’s date in white board marker.
Well, it made sense. If anyone noticed an abandoned van they might have told the police and had it towed away. Nathan planned his life to cope with his embarrassing monthly problem.
Opening the map book, James traced the route back to Helmsley. It wasn’t far, after all James had arrived here on the bus. He spent the rest of the wait trying to figure out the last time he’d been awake this early. It must have been in primary school on the morning of a school trip or something like that. The sun lifted a little higher off the horizon.
When Nathan came back he was dressed in slacks and a shirt. The headache lines had smoothed off his face. A casual jacket hung over his shoulder. When he reached the van he laid the jacket over the top. Through the open window, he picked a comb off the dashboard. Adjusting the wing mirror he slicked back his hair, now several shades darker from washing, and caught it back in a ponytail. James couldn’t tell if it was as long as it had been without his clothes. It still hung around his shoulders.
He crouched and produced a tie from his overnight bag. Still using the wing mirror he lifted the shirt collar and fastened the top button. Before the button closed James noticed a silver chain glint at his throat, bringing up a rash. Talk about wearing hair shirts. He knotted the tie around his neck, and shrugged into the jacket.
He opened the back of his van and dumped his bag inside. There was a mattress and neat sleeping bag laid out and all his stuff stowed away in plastic crates. He lifted the sword he’d chucked in the back earlier and hooked it in a spare place in the rack on the wall. He used a bungee cord to strap his bag down so it wouldn’t crash around and walked to the driver’s seat.
He climbed into the car. He smelt of soap, not dog and vomit. Even at this time of year James felt he would have forgone a wash in cold stream, though since he was taking him back to his Mum’s house, James was glad he had cleaned up.
“Right, perhaps we could have introductions now,” Nathan said, sliding back into the driver’s seat. He swapped his glasses for some sunglasses, now the sun was higher over the hills.
“Sorry,” James said. “I didn’t say, did I? I’m James Collier.”
“Pleased to meet you James,” Nathan said. He studied the map open on James’s knee. “So, where are we going?”
“I live in Helmsley. I caught the bus here, after I read about you on The Grange and I saw your van pass through town.”
“I’ve got a write up in the crank websites now. I used to write for them; exaggerated claims are often the best way to bore people into disbelief.” Nathan glanced over at James, then straight ahead as he pulled out of the quarry onto the road. “Tell me more about this ‘Luck’. Where is the egg kept? If there is a demon, it would be easiest to sort out any problems before it incarnates.”
“No one knows,” James said. “The last keeper was chosen before World War Two. Her house was destroyed in the last of the bombing raids. An enemy bomber got lost and dumped its load on Helmsley before heading home. She was killed, and the egg didn’t hatch on its usual schedule of about 30 years apart.”
“So why do you think it’s hatching now, what 60 years later?”
“Before the last hatching a lot of bad things developed,” James said. “They’re happening again. We had those huge hailstones and the truck load of escaped chickens.”
“Those don’t sound too disastrous.”
James waggled his hands impatiently. “There are so many of them, all at once, so everyone is preparing for the Luck Angel to arrive and clear up the problems. Why can nobody else believe it’s the hatching causing the bad luck? No hatching, no bad luck for the Luck Angel to fix. They say the Luck Angel didn’t hatch before now, because there was no need.”
Nathan pulled his van out of the quarry and down a single track road. After about a mile the road widened and they ran through a village. Some of the houses were built into the hillside, some appeared barn-like.
“This isn’t on my map.” Nathan sniffed. “Ah! So that’s what I smelled last night, out this way.”
“I don’t smell anything,” James said. “They’re the eco-nutters. My mum thought about buying a house here, but they aren’t for sale, you rent them off the folk in the barn conversion.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “Beware, those nutters might yet be your pall bearers.”
“Beg pardon?” James said.
“Just an expression from my generation, it means with their lifestyle they are likely to live longer than you.”
Nathan slowed. On the edge of the village, people pulled uncut stones into a circle. He raised his head, almost tasting the air like a snake.
He directed James’s attention to the work. “Now, they might have helped you too – if you didn’t have an irrational prejudice to eco-nutters.”
James flushed. “Are they real ummm… like witches, then?”
“You’re a tough nut, aren’t you? If you don’t believe, why did you come hunting me?” Nathan flashed him a glance. “They are very like witches.”
The van speeded up again as they passed the circle builders. A quick drive down a dirt track then they were on the main road through the North York Moors, heading for Helmsley.
The moor was brown from the lack of rain this summer and the sheep wandered through, eating up any shoots that had the hardihood to push through the parched earth. The local paper was complaining about day trippers not watching where they threw their cigarettes. The Moors Fire Service had been called out to a spate of fires already, and it was still early June.
A line of concentration dug in between Nathan’s eyes. Put together with the headache of earlier, James decided not to disturb him with questions. Even though he had witnessed the transformation, he was hard put to believe this was real.
The silver knife felt heavy in his pocket.
Nathan turned the van onto the A170. The van purred over the bridge with the signs to the outdoor swimming pool. The river flowed sluggishly under the short span.
Hanging below the Welcome to Helmsley sign was a poster advertising the Luck Pageant. Helmsley Castle lurked as a background for dancing, market stalls and traction engines.
The Norman Castle stood guard over the town to the left as they drove in.
Nathan checked with James. “Now where?”
James dragged his attention away from the poster and back to Nathan. “Through the market square and right. We live on the back edge of town.”
Nathan stopped and pulled his van to the side of the road. Getting out he walked to peer down at a stream – barely a trickle – a small tributary to the main river running behind the market square. James climbed out of the van – curious.
Nathan raised his head as James approached. “This is interesting. I’ve never been here before, but see how the houses are built across the running water from the main entrance into town. This place has had reason to fear my type before now. Running water grounds out our abilities.”
James felt confused. “Hold on, I thought Evil was supposed to be affected by running water. You’re the good guys – aren’t you?”
Nathan’s expression was pained. “You’ll find the definition of good guy changes from century to century in the history books – and it’s the winners of a particular encounter that gets to write those. Opinion is swinging back towards the other side at the moment.” Nathan returned to his van. “Let’s get you home.”
James followed Nathan and they drove through the market square.
“But you drove over a bridge without getting any problems,” James said, still trying to puzzle out the water comment.
“In this van, I’m surrounded by a lifetime of protections woven into the metal. And the whole thing is insulated from ground by the rubber tires. That’s why a car is a safe place in a thunderstorm. Same principle.”
“Left here,” James said. “We’re just along here on the right.”
They drove up a back lane almost out of town and James indicted a drive entrance between two stone gateposts. A police car was standing on the gravel to one side.
“Uh-oh!” James said.
“I take it,” Nathan said, “you didn’t tell your mother where you were going?”
James shrugged. “I arranged an argument with Mum and slammed my bedroom door. I didn’t think she’d check until later. I don’t normally get up this early on a weekend.”
Nathan parked to one side on the gravel drive. He climbed out of the car and James hung in his shadow. The front door was whisked open.
“James!” Mum came running out. “I got you that gaming station! Why can’t you be a normal teenager? Reading those moldy books from the library cellar doesn’t do you any good.”
Behind her was a relieved police officer.
Nathan stepped aside and let James’s mum get at him.
“Mum!” James tried pushing her off.
“James! Where have you been? I’ve been so worried!” She almost pounced on Nathan. “Where did you find him? Did you take him out?”
The police officer appeared a Nathan’s side. “I need to ask you a few questions, sir?”
“Of course. I’m Nathaniel Trewithick. I’m a retired professor of Theology from the College of St Jude, in London.”
“Are you on holiday, sir?” the policewoman asked, scribbling in her notebook.
“Sort of,” Nathan said. “I’m researching my latest book about the ancient traditions of Britain still continuing today.”
“Oh!” the policewoman said. “You’re here for the Luck Pageant?”
“That’s right,” Nathan said. “I like it when old Festivals are revived and comparing them with the way they were previously performed. I hope to be allowed into the town archives, but of course I’ll have to negotiate.” His eyes were full of life. “I was camping up on the Moors – the fires last year brought some interesting artefacts to light from under the heather, so I was investigating them. James recognized me, from my book photos, and came up to tell me about the Pageant. I’m grateful to him. Though I wish he had told his mother where he was going.”
James received a stern stare. The policewoman folded her notebook.
“Do you have a driving license or other identification?”
“Certainly.” Nathan reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and produced his wallet. He handed over the picture card of his license. “You can get a reference for me from the college if you apply there.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to, but this is quite clear,” she said. “I’ll get the identification done as soon as possible. Will you be staying in town?”
“I intend to find a camp site nearby,” Nathan said. “If you will recommend one then …”
“No,” James’s mother said. “He can stay here. I’ve got plenty of room in this house and you’ll be able to find him again quickly.” Mum held out her hand to Nathan. “I’m Antonia Collier.”
“Antonia Collier? Now where…?” Nathan studied her. “Yes! James said ‘paintings’ – you’re never Antonia Collier.” He made a broad gesture with his hand. “There is no way this peaceful place produced the coiled anger I observed in the Collier oils.”
Antonia’s face lit up, pleased at being recognized.
The policewoman shifted her feet. “That’s a kind offer Mrs. Collier but I think it might be better if Mr. Trewithick …”
“Sir Nathaniel Trewithick,” James said.
The policewoman studied the driving license and became even more distressed. “Umm … if Sir Nathaniel stayed at the hotel.”
“Nonsense,” Antonia said. “He can stay here. He brought my son home safely.”
Nathan ran a hand over his mouth as if trying to wipe away his smirk. “Ms. Collier, I expect the police would be more comfortable if they got to check first that I wasn’t sacked from the college for … ah ‘inappropriate conduct’ with the students.”
The policewoman flushed and stammered.
Nathan rubbed his eyes again, hiding a grin. “And, speaking as one who taught teenagers for years, might I suggest you get a male colleague to question James about how we met.”
Both James and the policewoman flushed.
Antonia tutted. “Fine then, Sir Nathaniel can stay in the granny flat attached to my studio. Will that suit you? I’ll not take no for an answer.”
“Nathan, please. I prefer not to impose …”
Antonia folded her arms and tapped her foot.
James grimaced. “Mum’s in one of her moods, it’s easier to give in.”
Antonia jabbed a finger at the house. “James, get inside now! Would you like breakfast, Sir Nath … I mean Nathan.”
“I’ll accept the breakfast,” he said. “But we’ll discuss other hospitality. Perhaps I can give you my mobile phone number?” he added to the policewoman.
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