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Black Dog - Chapter 43

At the crossroads two women stood, silhouetted against the lavender and cream of the day's end. The moon lurked somewhere deep in the veils of black branches. Down the hill, Reverend Milton was putting a heavy chain and padlock on the churchyard gate, the sound carrying clear in the quiet.

Olivia grimaced at their exposed location. It had to be here, at the crossroads. "Verity!" she hissed. "Go and keep a lookout. Please," she added.

Nonetheless Verity hesitated. She was holding a shovel awkwardly, the weight of it appearing to strain her stick-thin arms. "I need to be here when..."

"That's hours away." Olivia took the shovel from her easily. "Go keep a lookout or we'll never get that far." She glanced over her shoulder, towards the house, the kitchen window. She exchanged a look with Grace, who was holding her own shovel and looking almost as ill at ease with it as Verity had. The last digging Olivia had done had been with paws. Now they set to work, shovels scraping against gravel and a minute later Reverend Milton joined the unlikely work party.

"Goodness me!" he exclaimed some time later, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow, angelic curls plastered to his skin. "I'd like it ever so much if you two ladies would help me dig over my flowerbeds sometime!"

Olivia snorted a laugh, not pausing in her work. Digging gardens, pulling stubborn weeds, even removing an unwanted sapling ash had been little training for a hole this deep. This was the ultimate in 'men's work' that her mother hadn't wanted her doing.

Day slipped into dark, and they hadn't dared bring lamps or torches, for fear of drawing attention to themselves. The full moon alone illuminated their business, pulling on Olivia's skin, light at first but increasingly insistent. She spared a worried glance at Grace: visibly wearying, almost haggard, but determined to dig until she dropped. The words 'Grace, take a break if you need to,' almost came out automatically, but Olivia bit them back. They couldn't afford to waste time. Soon the hole would be too deep for all three of them to dig at once, and then Grace could rest.

Verity slipped silently into their midst, gazing mesmerized into the black dirt at the bottom of the hole. "I peeped in at Imogen," she said quietly to Olivia, tearing her gaze away from the sight of the raw earth, the echo of her grave. "Don't worry, she didn't see me. She's sitting by the fireplace, falling asleep over some book or other. I think it's safe to say she hasn't the slightest idea what you're up to."

"Thank you," said Olivia, her gratitude genuine and clear, as evidenced by Verity's own tentative smile.

"But Eli's heading for the house, I think."

Olivia snarled in irritation, making Verity take a smart step back. "How close?"

"I followed him to the witch's hill with the twisty tree... you're lucky he didn't come this way. I ran straight back when I realised where he was going."

Too close. And Verity should have come back with her warning as soon as she'd spotted Eli, not when it would have been too late. "Grace..."

But Grace had already dropped her shovel: she was off and running.

*

Solitude, perfect serenity. The empty drawing room, cocoon of books carefully restored one by one to their rightful places, though it had taken countless hours. Imogen dozed curled in her chair by the quiet fireplace, a rightful part in the decades-long unchangedness of the room. The soft snoring of a cat curled up close in a perfect grey circle, the wind whistling through a crack in the window frame, the distant light patter of rain - all these things that were right and good and familiar.

A loud sound startled her awake. Clockless, the passing time congealed into an indefinable mass. Had she imagined...

Then she heard it again, the distinctive rattle of somebody trying the back door.

Imogen pushed herself up by the arms of the chair, ignoring the sleepy reproachful chirp of the cat, to stand uncertain and alone in her drawing room. "Libby?" she whispered, though no one would have heard her over the constant song of the elements. Libby had a key.

A dog barked a challenge somewhere out in the night, and Imogen scurried into the hallway, through to the dark kitchen, shadows made unfamiliar by fear. Had she seen a figure pass the window, or had it only been the waving of branches? What did she have to be afraid of, anyway? Teeth, be they ever so big and sharp, couldn't rend the soul of her. Mortal hands couldn't touch her.

But mortal hands had the power to take everything away from her, dismantle her home, break down bricks and mortar and sell heirlooms to greedy collectors; to scatter the physical things that held memories like a sponge holds water. The world could consign her to dust and shadows and the loneliness of the forgotten.

If she hadn't imagined those sounds, if someone had come to the house (at this hour? Unannounced? In silence and darkness like a thief?) she had to see who it was. The door was locked and Eli must have taken the spare key.

She could walk through it…

But for the first time she couldn't. Something stopped her - fear, perhaps, keeping her indoors where all was safe and known. She stood and stared at the locked door, then went to the window, squinting out into darkness veiled in grey mist or drizzle. The world seemed to go no further than a few yards in any direction, the house its solid core, this Englishwoman's castle.

Surely it was her place to stay at the metaphorical battlements and defend it.

 

*

Grace had been nominated as the best runner out of them, but for once in her life, out-running Eli was exactly what she must not do, though legs and lungs spurred her to fly. She lurked out of sight, keeping her distance, circling, growling.

Any mortal man should have been afraid, surrounded as it must seem by wolves.

Eli was no mortal man. He saw her, grey shape amongst the black trees, and lost all interest in pursuit, turning away. Back towards the house.

Grace ran after him, barking, but she didn't dare get too close, fearful of his poison.

He ignored her.

Taking a deep breath, she drew herself up into a human shape, skin and hair luminous in the moonlight, marbled with shadow. "You!" she shouted. "You bastard!" She bent to scoop up a handful of pinecones, flinging one at him. "You killed him!" Grace shouted. Real tears choked her. "You killed Giles! Did you think I wouldn't find out?"

As if Eli cared. No response at all as the pinecone went flying past him. He wanted Olivia. Long strides took him back in the direction of the house, but Grace had long ago toughened her feet and learned how to run barefoot on the forest floor. Another pinecone found its mark, hitting Eli square in the back.

"You're weak!" she shouted. "Olivia proved that - you're weak and pathetic. And I've come to finish what she started!" She dropped to all fours, shaggy and snarling, and charged towards him.

 

*

At the crossroads, Olivia and Reverend Milton took turns to bear the brunt of the digging, while Verity hauled up buckets of dirt. Olivia's muscles shivered, her nerves burned. God, how had Eli dug a grave, alone in the middle of winter, when the earth must have been hard as iron? He'd been driven by nothing more than curiosity, not the dread that closed its jaws on Olivia's chest as she kept on pulling up reserves of strength she hadn't known she had. She'd heard the barking in the woods, she'd heard the frantic screaming, she'd laboured on with her shovel. If she didn't dig, then whatever Grace suffered would be for nothing.

The hole was deep, cast in featureless black, but not there yet. For some time now, the hole had been deep enough that two people digging had been more in each other's way than anything. It would be easier for a dog, Olivia reasoned, so she sloughed off her human skin like a heavy coat and dug in, stronger than before. Reverend Milton climbed back down into the hole to clear away the earth she loosened, handing up bucket after bucket to Verity.

 

*

Grace pulled herself back to human shape one last time, panting for breath, hands braced against her knees. Eli had dodged her again, and she'd skirted the edge of the aura, teeth bared, close as she dared get, out of arm's reach. Over and over, she'd rushed in and feinted away, seesawing between fury and terror. Eli, for his part, didn't seem to want to waste his time on a fight with her.

"We're going to sell the house!" Grace screamed, her throat raw. "Do you think you'll be able to come and go so easily when strangers own the place? What's going to happen to poor precious Imogen then?"

Eli stood still, staring at her. She'd more than touched a nerve, there. Before setting out, she'd comforted herself with the knowledge that she'd proved herself disloyal and tricky and a bad dog. She told herself Eli lacked the imagination to do anything worse than to kill her. The fear blossomed in her that she might have been mistaken.

 

*

"Olivia," Milton called down into the hole, his voice reaching dog's ears but going unheeded the first time or two. "Olivia? Verity says it's about time we finished up here."

It took an immense effort to pull herself back into weak-limbed shivery naked flesh. She whined at the pain as she fought the moon. "All right," she panted, "Verity..."

A parcel of folded fabric thumped into the bottom of the hole beside her: she pulled the heavy jumper over her head, the dungarees on and hastily fastened, before she climbed up, reaching for the welcome hands and arms of Milton and Verity. They hauled her up onto the deck and she lay there a minute, eyes closed, heart hammering fit to burst. She heard the scrape of something heavy dragged across gravel, a sound at once close and distant. Her stomach cramped so hard she was almost sick then and there, and she seriously wondered if she might die. How embarrassing, she thought disconnectedly, to go through everything that she had and then die of overdoing it digging a hole.

It was just starting to rain, sparse gentle drops, running cool down the side of her hot face, trickling slowly between the roots of her hair like a memory.

"Don't just lie there like a big fat useless lump!" snapped a familiar voice.

Olivia rolled over and stumbled to her feet, groaning at the appalling effort of it.

Verity was holding the bag with the things, but she didn't hand them over. "I'll do it. You're all done in."

"No," Olivia reached for the bag. "We talked about this." They'd already agreed that Olivia had to be the one to do it. Verity certainly couldn't. "He mustn't see you," Olivia reasoned, the same argument as before.

"He won't," Verity spat, fiendish and feral, eyes bright, teeth sharp.

"It would only take one word from him and you'd..." From up the hill came the sound of something barrelling through the undergrowth, the crack of half-rotted fence panels, that shattered the debate. Olivia lunged for Verity, grabbing her by the arm, wrenching the bag from her and swinging the girl out of sight behind her as easily as if she were a bag of feathers.

Out of the woods a moonlit shape streaked, flowing fast as water down the path straight towards the crossroads.

Small fingers clutched at the sleeve of Olivia's jumper, and she could feel Verity trembling against her back. "Let me do it," Verity whispered, "Let me do this one last thing and then you can bury me again, I swear it."

"No," Olivia whispered back, standing frozen and helpless. She'd known the plan...she'd made the plan... but it made her knees weak to see that Afghan hound figure hurtling down the hill towards her, Eli close on the dog's heels.

Mid-run Grace went down, twisting, fierce jaws snapping; Eli lost his footing on the loose gravel; they half-skidded, half-rolled towards the open pit. Milton lunged towards them, wide black wings obscuring what happened next.

A moment of heart-stopped silence, dust settling, incongruous smell of warm summer evening, and Olivia shoved her hands into the thick leather gardening gloves, fumbling for the stake, iron tooth as long as her forearm, and a heavy mallet that pulled on the aching tendons and muscles of her wrist and arm.

Stretched out across the path lay a pale canine form, snout dark with blood. From the hole came the sounds of a struggle, subdued. The gentle rain swelled to an insistent drumming, plastering Olivia's hair to her skin. With every adrenaline-shot heartbeat shaking her body, she stepped forward, bundling her hair back in an untidy knot, knotting the scarf around her face. Now or never. No second chances, not for any of them. She climbed into the pit where the angel held the demon inside the new coffin. She recognised a word or two, Latin, sounding wrong outside a classroom, but heard no sense in it. Bruised pine scent reached her even through the fabric over her mouth and nose, and with it the dreaded scent of poison that dizzied her. Rain poured in on the three of them.

"Verity!" Eli shouted, though he surely couldn't have any idea how she'd help him.

"Stop it!" Verity's familiar voice shrieked from somewhere overhead, "Stop it!" piercing and hysterical, "I've changed my mind! Get off me!" Something unseen growled low and continuous, and Verity did not appear.

"Do it," Milton turned his face away, eyes tight shut. "Do it now, if you must."

Eli fought to free himself from the angel's restraint, reaching up for Olivia, for skin carefully covered, as she positioned the iron stake with gauntlet-clumsy hands and raised the mallet, taking aim...

A bank of cloud sailed across the moon, and everything went black. She struck down on the stake with all her strength, her heart thudding against her ribs, her ears ringing.

In darkness, something bore her up and she grasped feebly at dry land, climbing to safety like climbing to heaven with the rain washing over her, carrying away the grime and the poison and the fear. Lying at the grave's edge with the rain still spattering around her, she hadn't the strength to move an inch as she listened to the coffin lid being moved into place, Milton hammering down the nails, more obscured Latin, a prayer. Time lurched on unsteadily in fits and starts before a hand appeared at the rim of the pit. Olivia sat up, lurching forth to pull Reverend Milton up like a survivor out of the sea. He looked so much smaller than before, soaked to the bone and muddy with it, and - "Oh, your -" Olivia stopped. Those beautiful, imposing black wings had disappeared completely. Her heart skipped with sudden unexpected joy, "I can't see your wings." She hadn't seen Milton without them since Auntie Imogen's funeral…

Milton looked away. "That's because they aren't there any more," he muttered, looking ashamed.

It wasn't the end of the curse, Olivia knew that in the next moment when she realised she still felt the draw of the moonlight on her skin. Eli was dead, if that was the right word but nothing much had changed. No hallelujah chorus of dancing angels had descended to celebrate, and Olivia couldn't comprehend what she'd asked Milton to give up when she'd asked him for help. Ashamed herself, she said nothing more, dragging herself to her feet, picking up the shovel. They needed to refill the grave before morning's light.

Milton snatched it from her hand. "Let me," he said, fierce, and she suspected tears mingled with the rain running down his face. "Attend to your own."

Grace lay with her great paws across Verity's body, dwarfing the dead girl. The shaggy pale head raised, looking up at Olivia. Verity would not get up again.

"It worked," Olivia whispered, kneeling clumsily at Grace's side, "It worked, didn't it?" She pressed her face into the dirty wet fur of Grace's shoulder - warm body and wet dog smell - and she sobbed, wracking cries of exhaustion, that reduced in a moment to snuffling, to whimpers and whines in the light of the full moon.

*

The work was mostly done by the time the rain began to clear, revealing once more the house across the churchyard. The regular almost mechanical shush of shovel on earth ceased abruptly.

"Olivia," said Milton, quiet but urgent, and the black dog raised her head. At the kitchen window, half-lit by a lamp in another room, a figure clambered out: long fawn-slender limbs, a drape of thick hair to her waist. The ghost of Imogen Lockwood, teenaged with the transgression of sneaking out so late at night, loped across the garden furtive as a fox, and through the iron gate.

Olivia stumbled to four feet as Imogen approached, making the girlish ghost recoil from the frightening sight, straight out of the old stories of her childhood.

"Libby?" the voice came querulous and thin through the darkness, "Is that you?" She saw the grave, so recently refilled, and Reverend Milton standing guilty with the shovel. She saw Verity lying still and abandoned.

Olivia stepped forward, her head bowed, but Imogen brushed past her like cobwebs to collapse to her knees at the graveside, quiet and subdued.

Olivia wouldn't have told her exactly what had happened, even if she'd had a voice to tell the story with. It would be too unkind, and besides, what was one more secret? She tried instead to nudge and shepherd Imogen back towards the house, but the ghost seemed not to notice, her gaze fixed on fresh wet black earth.

"Perhaps best to leave her a while," Reverend Milton suggested gently, ushering Olivia away as the rain closed in again, drumming on the churchyard, drawing veils of silver around the mourning figure, until she was lost from view.

 

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