It’s World Book Day, so I split the morning between catching up on my YA reading and watching this brilliant Authors Live webcast with Anthony Horowitz. Among the pro tips he gave budding writers was avoiding writer’s block by doing something else, be it shopping, going for a walk or visiting a museum. With novel edits more or less done and no day job to do, I decided to try out the theory and head to a castle out in the sticks. And lo, half an hour later and I was in a grassy meadow with the Surface, bashing out words. Three hours later and I had most of my Camp NaNoWriMo wordcount for the day. So, like last November, here’s a whole bunch of totally unedited words for your delectation…
It was one of those quiet tourist attractions, the sort that only the most determined of travellers would bother to seek out. Still, it was an unusually hot April day when a young couple decided to take a chance on it. Nothing could go wrong with their plan.
Hiking up the golden pathway from the ancient church, they were rewarded with the craggy outline of Crichton Castle, its sandstone walls shining almost blood-red in the midday sun. Bright bursts of gorse tumbled down the hillside, surrounding the tightly-packed regiments of pine trees clinging to the valley below. A single buzzard floated above them, frozen mid-flight, eyeing the new visitors hungrily.
‘Well, looks like we won’t have to queue, at least,’ joked Henrik, pointing at the great oak door.
‘This had better be worth the trip,’ grumbled Marta, fanning away yet another eager midge.
The ticket office was deserted, the counter unmanned. Shrugging, the couple wandered into the main courtyard. The angular diamonds on the wall stood out more clearly in the sunlight, black shadows outlining them. Whoever had owned this castle had obviously wanted to make a statement. Marta peered at the sign; Crichton had belonged to Francis Stewart, fifth Earl of Bothwell, who had visited Italy and drawn inspiration for his castle there.
‘It’s far too hot,’ Marta declared. ‘I’ll go and look for some shade while you get tickets.’
Henrik sighed. ‘At least try to look like you’re having a good time. Please?’
Marta had already wandered off, past the castle’s well, long since closed with a grate, dark fingertips of ivy trying to claw their way out into the sunlight. It looked like the grate was in need of repair; a large hole had been wrenched out of the iron bars, perhaps by a falling piece of brickwork. Odd though, Marta thought, the hole seemed to poke upwards. As if something had burst out of the well.
Nearby, the steward had laid out various pieces of decorative masonry, eroded by the elements and recovered for display. Their bright pink and beige tones stood out against the green damp-marked wall behind. Leaky castle, clearly, unless the well water somehow launched itself at the far wall. Peering closely at one of the intricately carved columns, Marta noticed a series of wild scratches on one side. Perhaps there had been a fierce battle here, and these were the sword marks to prove it. She carried on towards the old kitchen, and halfway up the stairs she almost ran into a young man.
‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ he exclaimed, brushing strands of blond hair from his face. ‘I wasn’t expecting many visitors today, so I just thought I’d give the castle a bit of a clean.’
He smiled at Marta. The steward was disarmingly handsome; his face was angular and tanned from working out in the sun, his eyes a strange shade of blue, as pale as cornflowers.
‘Er… oh yes! My boyfriend and I would like to buy tickets, please,’ Marta managed at last.
‘Boyfriend? That’s a pity,’ the steward said, his grin widening. His teeth were perfect, Hollywood white. Sharp too, Marta noted. She gave a nervous laugh.
‘Yes, he’s just waiting by the counter for you.’
She made to turn round and go back to Henrik, but the man gently took her arm.
‘Oh, don’t worry. Why don’t you go ahead and take a look round the castle. I’ll go find your boyfriend and see to your… tickets.’
Something flashed in the steward’s eyes as he spoke. Enthusiasm? It was something more sinister. For a brief moment, it looked like he’d quite forgotten why he was there in the first place.
‘Er, alright, thank you,’ Marta muttered.
The man gave her one last flash of his smile and headed down the stairs. Shaking her head in an attempt to banish the disquiet in her head, Marta came to the kitchen. She cried out at the gruesome sight on the floor. One of the castle’s numerous pigeons lay dead in a pile of feathers, its carcass split neatly in two. What a stupid thing to get frightened about, Marta thought. It’s just a pigeon. They die all the time when they get stuck in old castles.
She busied herself with reading the small sign on the wall. It wasn’t that interesting, but Marta was desperate to take her mind off the strange young man. As she turned to leave the room, she noticed something else on the floor. Among the general wear and tear from tourists’ shoes, there were hoof prints, seemingly freshly made. Why would horses be in a castle kitchen, and not in the large stable the earl had built outside?
Marta climbed the stairs to the older section. She looked out over the parish church, a distant, grim sentry at the end of the path. In the next room, she noticed the steward had left his Walkman and mop and bucket behind. The mop was stained deep red. Maybe it was just dust coming from the sandstone. She sat down on a window ledge and tried to make out some ancient graffiti a visitor had carved on the brickwork.
THI… CAST… IS… FORS… EN
LEA… WHI… OU… CAN
Strange. Most visitors would content themselves with writing their name and the date they were at the castle. Henrik had been a long time getting the tickets, though. Marta decided to cut their visit short and find somewhere else to spend the day.
‘Henrik! Are you down there?’ she called. ‘I’ve changed my mind. Don’t bother buying tickets. Let’s get going.’
She rose, walked to the large window looking down onto the main courtyard, and froze.
The steward was crouching over something, his hands scarlet and soaking wet. In the growing pool of blood spreading across the sandy ground, Marta could just see an outstretched hand, its fingers twitching. Behind the man, two feet protruded; Marta recognised the red trainers at once. Her scream caused the steward to twist his head round. His mouth was gore-stained, his blue eyes now a blazing red. When he stood up, Henrik’s corpse was in full view, illuminated by the blazing sun, a ragged hole in his chest. The young man headed across the courtyard towards the staircase, his feet clattering on the ancient stone. Marta noticed they were glossy, black, and curved like…
‘Hooves,’ she whispered.
‘What’s the matter?’ he said, baring his teeth in a malicious smile. ‘Can’t I have my lunch break in peace?’
There really was a devastatingly attractive gent manning the castle today. And I’m slightly glad the castle was mostly deserted when I genuinely found this on the floor and went HOLY SHIT WATER HORSES. You can’t take me anywhere.