Cotton-wool clouds scudded across the Cheshire sky, parting occasionally to reveal a sallow moon; its watery light faintly illuminated two figures beneath a solitary chestnut tree. The horse beside them snatched gulps of night air before exhausting steam through billowing nostrils. In the short silence between each inhalation, four ears strained against the night for the sound of pursuit. The chain-mailed figure rested a hand against the mighty trunk and stared back into the darkness.
“I think we've outrun them, Ada, we shall soon reach sanctuary at Astbury Church.” He turned to face the pallid maiden at his side.
She locked up into the strong brown eyes she’d admired since first she saw them at her father's house, but now darkened with fear for her safety.
“Even when we are married, Rudolph, he will not rest,” she said. “My lord Denbigh does not give up easily, especially as I was promised to him.”
The young knight grew angry. “Your father had no right, he knew of your hatred.” He patted the horse's neck and spoke softly into its ear.
“You have done well tonight, old friend, soon you shall rest.” He prepared to mount but turned once more to stare back the way they had come. The curtained moon shed little light across the plain, and he could see nothing. The chestnut leaves undulated in the light wind as he strained his ears towards the distant dark horizon. Some sound carried on the wind, and he pulled the chain mail covering from one ear to catch the notes of night-muffled hoof beats before springing into the saddle.
“Behind me, Ada, give me your arm.” He swung her easily up onto the horse and stirruped it into movement.
The horse laboured through the open country, the wooded groves, and across water-filled ditches with its double load, slowly reeling in the miles to Astbury. Ada’s cloak billowed behind her, torn on hawthorn and bramble, as she clutched her lover not to be thrown from the horse. With each ration of the moon’s light, Rudolph’s eyes searched hopefully for a sight of the stone building that would give them sanctuary.
Behind them, the drone of hooves beat ever closer as he risked a rearward glance to search for signs of their pursuers. The horse stumbled in a foxhole, whined in pain, then laboured on, its pace ever reducing. He urged it forward, pleading into a pricked ear for better speed, and then at last, as it stumbled to the top of a rise, they saw before them the stone building.
He gave no reign but spurred it up the steps beneath the stone arch and across the cobbled graveyard path towards the chink of light showing beneath the mighty oak door.
Even before the horse stopped, he was off its back and hammering at the portal. “Pastor Lewis, in the name of God, open the door.” He snatched Ada from the horse to the sound of drawing bolts and ever nearing hoofbeats, then urged his horse away from the door with a sharp slap across the flank.
A fearful face peered through a chink in the door before recognition opened it wide enough to admit them. Then it was slammed home and secured again with the bolts. The pastor turned to them and spoke in subdued tones.
“Rudolph de Brereton, Ada de Venables, I fear for you this night. It is not good to arouse the anger of one such as Lord Denbigh.”
Even as he spoke, hooves clattered on the cobbles outside and the thud of a short hilt battered against the door. The pastor wrung his hands in anguish as he paced behind his wooden shutter, regretting his offer to help. Rudolph tried to persuade him into action.
“Marry us, pastor,” he urged, “as you promised. Then Denbigh’s siege is to no avail.”
The obscure priest was unsure. The de Brereton name was revered for miles around, but it was as nothing compared to the might of the Lord Denbigh. He hesitated, unsettled by the hammering at the door and the booming voice of Lord Denbigh.
“Come out de Brereton,” he roared, “and bring my lady with you, before you taste Welsh steel for your night’s work. And you priest, turn them out of your church. My sword grows hungry for your holy blood.”
Rudolph grasped his sword and partly withdrew it from its scabbard before being restrained by Pastor Lewis. “Come,” the priest said, “against my better judgement, I’ll marry you. But on your own heads be it, not mine.”
He walked hesitantly up the central nave and left them before the altar. They stood silently in the dim light until the pastor returned from the ambry, a prayer book in his hand.
The prayers were short, the ceremony non-existent, until at length he said, “I join you, Richard de Brereton, and you Ada de Venables as man and wife, in the sight of God and man.” He glanced around the empty church, mockingly echoing his words, then closed the book.
“I will go out,” he said, “and tell them it is done. Bolt the door after me till you hear them ride away.”
The bolts were sliding silently back until the last was drawn and in an instant, the priest was outside and the door secured behind him. Outside, they heard the muffled tones of the priest's gentle voice interrupted by the roar of Lord Denbigh’s. Then the clank of armour and the restless trampling of hooves, followed by the screech of unsheathed steel. “For God’s sake, Lord Denbigh, no……” An unfinished plea, then the rattle of death in the priest’s throat. Then Denbigh again, quietened this time with determination.
“Hear me, de Brereton, and hear me well. I failed this time, but never again will a de Brereton and a de Venables be joined in this church. Live in fear till you crawl to the safety of your grave, and pass my message to your issue. I shall be watching, forever.”
They stood behind the door, hand in hand, listening for the sound of retreating hoofbeats. Beneath their feet, a slowly widening pool of blood flowed in from the dark night, seeking the safety of the church. Ada looked down and seeing it gasped in horror.
As the sound of hoofbeats died away, Rudolph opened the door, but the priest was beyond their help. He ran strong fingers through his red beard and stared at the night sky.
“Our union is blessed with the blood of this just man, Ada,” he said, “I know it will be fruitful.” Then he took her hand and walked around the side of the church to find his horse.
They found it easily by the sounds it made, lying beneath a yew tree, and thought at first that Denbigh had struck it down in his anger. But the green foliage protruding from its mouth told its own story, and even as they watched, its laboured breathing stopped, and it was still.
“I have lost two good friends tonight,” Rudolph said. “Denbigh has much to answer for I fear.”
But Ada’s concern was more immediate. “What shall we do, Rudolph, without horse we are lost.” He said nothing but stared sadly at the beast that had saved them. As he stared, the sound of champing from behind the low wall startled him, and he went forward uneasily to investigate.
A haycart stood close to the wall beneath the bank, and its horse thankfully ripped large mouthfuls of rich grass growing up the side. An oversized man nodded uneasily on a crude seat fastened before the cart.
“Oh, my man, wake up,” Rudolph called in a subdued voice, and again, until the man stirred, and stared about, startled.
“Over here,” Rudolph added in almost a whisper now he had his listener’s attention. “What are you doing here at this hour?”
“Brereton?” the man said gruffly. “Are you Brereton?”
“Pastor Lewis paid me to wait here in case needed. Paid me to take you to Wardley Hall if need be.”
“A moment, I’ll get my wife.” Rudolph hurried back to the yew tree, grabbed Ada’s arm and soon had her buried in the safety of the hay. From atop the load, he instructed the driver to proceed.
“Right my man, away with you. And quietly, we mustn’t be heard.”
“Quietly?” the man said, glancing towards the graveyard. “There’s none here who’ll hear us, they’re asleep too deep and too long.” With that he set off down the winding track, the cart’s jogging helping more than hindering his attempts to get back to sleep.
It was nearly twenty years before Rudolph and Ada de Brereton saw Astbury church again, and on that day they stood with their two sons and two daughters, staring at a stone effigy above a recently constructed tomb.
It was of a knight, with a drawn sword resting on armour-clad legs and two carved hands grasping its hilt. There was a recess cut into the little finger of the left hand, as though for a ring which had not been added. The head lay on one side with open eyes staring towards the church. The elder son read and translated the Latin inscription carved into the stone:
- uneasily and ever watchful –
the Lord Denbigh
“What does that mean, father?” the boy asked after he had read it: “uneasily and ever watchful.”
“I don’t know,” Rudolph replied. “Come, it’s time we were getting home, your mother and I have been away a good number of years.”
The night was warm, and the Cheshire Sky was tinged with the red glow of a blazing sunset. Subdued light filtered beneath the chestnut tree and into the open-topped car at the side of the road. In the back, a couple lay in each other's arms, oblivious to all but each other.
In the distance was the faint whine of a sports car’s engine. The man stirred and sat up, his red hair reflecting what there was of the available light. He strained his ears against the night.
“Sounds like that idiot again,” he said. The girl adjusted her blouse. “Terry ?” she said.
Twin headlight beams were directed skywards by every bump of the road as the car sped beneath the trees and the distant whine became a roar. The girl turned and stared back over the folded hood of the car.
A pair of lights appeared round the bend, and the prolonged blare of a horn cut into the night.
“He’s mad,” the man said.
“I know,” the girl agreed; “I was engaged to him for two years.”
Her companion turned towards her. “That’s something I’ll never understand about you, Sally Venables. Whatever made you want to marry Terry Denbigh ?”
She laughed. “How very formal you are, Richard Brereton. I don’t know I’m sure, just a passing fancy.”
“A two-year fancy,” Richard retorted.
“Never the less, it passed.”
The red car sped past then, only inches away, and they were both jolted by the disturbed air currents.
“God, he’s bloody mad. He nearly hit us that time. Why does he do things like that?”
Sally laughed, a high-pitched mischievous laugh. “He’s still angry about the ring.”
“You haven’t still got that thing, have you? Why don’t you give it back ?”
“Because he gave it to me, it’s mine. Besides, it’s not valuable. You’ve seen it haven’t you ?”
“Then why is he so anxious to get it back ?”
“He says it’s an heirloom - nearly a thousand years old. I don’t believe him. I think it was just an excuse to buy me a cheap ring. Anyway, it’s not the ring he wants back, it’s me. He thinks I belong to his family as well.
“Well, you would have done if you’d married him.”
“No, not then. Before. Always. He thinks I’ve always belonged to his family. There’s some legend about a restless lord waiting for a Denbigh to marry a Venables before he can sleep easily in his grave.”
“What shit .”
“Well, it is. I’ve never heard such…”
The explosion was remote and subdued, but they both heard it and stared in the direction it came from. Then the sky lit up above the trees about a mile along the road. They stared at each other, sharing a sudden realisation.
Richard was over the seat first and already starting the engine when Sally joined him. Then the small car skidded off the grass and sped towards the distant light.
It was as they suspected. Terry's car was on its side, blazing from back to front. They could see him too, writhing among the flames, suspended by his seat belt, until it burned through and let him drop. They both turned away, sickened by the site.
The name of Brereton was well known for miles around Astbury, but that wasn't the reason for the crowds outside the church. Most had come to see the girl who should have married Terry Denbigh but was now to marry Richard Brereton in his stead. It mattered little to them that the engagement was broken off long before the accident, they came to gloat anyway.
Here was ample carrion for the curious vultures swooping on the ancient church.
Heads nodded, fingers pointed, tongues never stilled in gaping mouths. ‘The money it’s costing… the clothes they’re wearing… the cars they’ve come in… she knows a good catch doesn’t she?’ they said. ‘Lost one but soon found another,’ others added.
Then the car they’d been waiting for stopped by the gate with its ancient stone archway, as the clock announced three.
Sally Venables mounted the steps on the arm of her father, pausing and turning at the top to wait for her maids. As she turned, the sun’s light glistened on a curious twist of gold and silver on the little finger of the hand holding a bouquet. Behind the throng, and unnoticed, awakening hands flexed and unflexed around the hilt of a stone sword.
Stone lids flickered across staring eyes and joints never intended for movement, loosened themselves in readiness for their task.
Richard Brereton stood waiting before the plain altar, risking an anxious glance over his shoulder in search of his bride. Subdued coughing echoed around the walls of the ancient Chapel.
Sally Venables commenced her journey up the aisle, ably assisted by her father and Mendelssohn. The outside throng closed in around the doorway, jostling for a better view inside the church.
Behind them, the grating of stone on stone went unnoticed as Lord Denbigh’s effigy clumped across the bedspreads of the sleeping villagers, with its stone sword raised aloft to smite aside any who impeded its progress. As it neared the door, the words ‘...or forever hold his peace’ fell upon its lifeless ears.
Then it was among the crows swiping sideways with the flat of the blade, and crushing underfoot any who fell in its path.
From inside the church, the minister saw it first and rushed down the aisle as an emissary of God to halt its progress. He abjured it, in Christ's name, not to enter this holy place, from the very spot on which Pastor Lewis's blood had fallen over seven hundred years before.
He was the first it killed intentionally, privileged by his cloth - the others merely trodden chaff. The force of its stroke took the head from his body, which hesitated momentarily before falling to the floor.
Then it moved on, a petrified evil mass, ignoring the screams and sickening cries of the terrified congregation.
Richard Brereton had turned to face it and stood transfixed, his would-be bride clinging to his arm. Neither was able to move, each keeping a date with destiny from seven hundred years before.
Its progress was slow but definite, the brother-stones of the church walls echoing the thud of each footfall and adding to its terror. Until at last it reached them, its face still motionless and void of ought but the mason’s bestowed expression. Its blade, now reddened, was raised once more above its head as it prepared to strike.
It smote first at the joined hands between them, severing Sally’s arm and leaving her hand still hanging in Richard’s. Then it struck at Richard’s arm, letting the two fall together, still clasped, their blood mingling on the floor.
Next the heads. First the male, then the female with the reverse of the same stroke, then pointlessly hacking at the bodies till one became the other, the other one, and both were a single mass of hacked flesh.
All except the hands. It left them till it was finished then stopped and picked them from the floor before going back the way it came. Out of the now-empty church into the deserted graveyard and on towards its bed of stone. The severed hands, now useless, discarded on the way.
The police enquiry made little progress. Witnesses spoke of a stone giant, a grotesque icon, some even of an enraged animal. None had seen from where it came, and none had stayed to witness its departure. Some descriptions tallied closely with the knight’s effigy on Lord Denbigh’s tomb, and a thorough examination of it was made. There was nothing unusual the report stated. The effigy was of a knight with unsheathed sword resting on armoured legs. The blade was stained with brown, due no doubt to the iron-bearing stone from which it was carved. Its head rested on a stone pillow and faced skywards, and, as one would expect, the eyes were closed. The only odd thing was a twist of gold and silver wire, resting in a groove on the little finger of the left hand. No-one in Astbury could ever remember seeing that before.