Part 10: The Gamekeeper
“Yes,” the gamekeeper babbled, shuffling through the empty door frame and into the house of the family that once employed him, his shotgun still broken absently over his arm. “To think that I was worried those turrets would put me out of a job! And instead they saved my life. It's funny how things work out isn't it?”
Thurlow placed a hand on my shoulder and spoke low in my ear. “The old coot seems to have found his voice, unfortunately. Remember: don't eat or drink anything he offers you. It will all come from the forest.”
“As I need neither food nor rest,” EON-4 said quietly, “perhaps I should stay outside and see what I can learn about these turrets?”
Thurlow nodded. “Good idea. And keep an eye on the tree line for any of those forest creatures.”
The inside of the house was about what you'd expect for a place with a tree growing up through the roof. No floor to speak of, just the forest earth scattered over broken wooden boards. The wallpaper was ripped and burnt and the furniture was broken and rotted.
Lady Una briefly placed a gloved hand over her mouth and nose, before she found the strength to compose herself. “You've presumably been here for more than the past five years?” she gasped politely.
“Much longer,” the gamekeeper answered. “My father was gamekeeper for the Portmans.”
“And these past five years,” Una continued, “you've seen the forest change?”
The old man scratched at his knotted mop of hair. “Didn't even used to be a forest here.”
“I'm sure there also didn't used to be strange people, not quite human?”
“No,” the gamekeeper agreed, “they're new too. Look, let me show you upstairs, milady. That's where all the family records are kept.”
Lady Una looked at the narrow, rickety stairs and then gestured to me. “After you, doctor.”
I must have looked a little surprised, because she added, “You are curious, aren't you?”
Thurlow and Sigrid were opening up their rations. “Have fun,” the Major said.
The first floor of the Portman home was somewhat better preserved than the ruins below. Tree roots and branches poked out of the ceiling and wrapped around the light fittings, but otherwise things seemed to be holding together quite well. The furnishings were faring better up there too, dark wood and mostly unblemished silverware lending the place a more distinguished air. I couldn't say much for the family's choice in trophies, however.
Lady Una appeared, looking a little flushed. She dusted down her hoop skirt.
“Trouble with the stairs?” I asked.
“I'm fine,” she answered, dismissively. She gave up on her soot-blackened skirt and looked around. “Oh, my goodness! You-” She cleared her throat and addressed the gamekeeper. “I see that you have kept yourself well occupied.”
Mounted in a long row down the length of the hallway were the heads of forest dwellers, nailed to neat wooden boards as if they were hunted deer. The gamekeeper must have been a skilled taxidermist. That line of dark, fish-like eyes seemed even more human than I remembered from the creature that Thurlow had killed.
The old man seemed disconcerted by Lady Una's remark. “I've done what I can to cull the ungodly and unnatural. To try and keep things... normal. Follow me.”
He shuffled along, taking short steps down the hallway, apparently oblivious to the dozen pairs of eyes peering down on him from above. I followed at some distance, with Lady Una gliding silently behind me. Down the hallway we rounded a corner, and found ourselves beneath another row of dark eyes - this time the eyes of actual deer. Photographs and oil paintings interspersed the trophies, depicting generations of a happy family; dozens of smiling eyes that had never known the Sky Spiders.
“The Portmans,” the gamekeeper growled, waving his hand at the images. “One of the finest families you could find. All gone now.”
At the end of the hall we reached a small wooden door, mottled purple leaves sprouting from the cracks in the frame. The gamekeeper fumbled with the door knob and then let us inside.
It was undeniably what you'd call a 'spare room'. Sundry items of every kind were bunched into the corners and stacked beneath the cracked window: children's toys, fishing rods, golf clubs, a wedding dress... The gamekeeper set down his shotgun and rummaged through a stack of books and photo albums. After a few moments of uncomfortable bending, he came up with a battered, hardback tome bulging with added pages and photographs.
“I kept a record of the last five years,” he said, studying the thing. He sounded almost surprised to realise that he had shown such presence of mind. “When the trees came. When the townies started to change. When...” He leafed through the pages with shaking fingers. “When I started to lose the Portmans. And the Iron Queen.”
Lady Una perked up suddenly. “The what?”
“Yes,” the gamekeeper said, stepping towards me with the book open. “I started to lose the Portmans slowly. As they started to change.”
I looked down into the open book and saw a photograph of the gamekeeper and another man standing either side of a young boy and forcing painfully fake smiles. The boy's eyes seemed unusually far apart.
The gamekeeper sighed. “Yes, one by one they changed. Became strange. Lost their humanity.”
“What did you- What happened?” Lady Una asked, her voice a little strained.
The gamekeeper met my eye. For the first time I really looked at him. I saw something I didn't care for at all. “I told you. You have to try and keep things normal. I preserved them the way they would have wanted to be remembered.”
“You killed them,” Lady Una said.
“They were turning strange,” the old man said, matter-of-factly. “You know: strange. I mean, you know all about strange, don't you?” He was speaking to Lady Una. I looked at the shotgun lying on the floor and felt the weight of my revolver in its holster.
“I assure you,” I said, stepping between the gamekeeper and Lady Una, “we're all quite normal.”
“Oh really? Even your lady friend there? Haven't you seen the way she moves? Don't you wonder why she dresses in clothes my mother would think old fashioned?”
Lady Una put her hand on my shoulder, tried to push me out of the way, but I resisted. “There are much stranger people in the world,” I said. “And they're all quite human.”
“And then,” he continued, “there's that metal fellow, so much like the other one. No, you've got a hidden kind of strangeness, but it's still there. You can't fool me. You thought you had one over on me, but it's the other way round, you realise that now.”
I was about to dive for the shotgun when the old man casually reached into a pile of antique detritus and swung out a fat-barrelled rifle. He aimed it square at Lady Una and rapidly worked the bolt. And then he smiled.
“You're not stupid,” I said, trying to keep myself between the gamekeeper and his target. “You're crazy, but you're not stupid. I bet you used to pulled that bumbling old man routine on the Portmans as well.”
He shrugged. “As a joke, at first. But it proved to be useful in the end.”
“Out of the way, doctor,” Lady Una said firmly, still trying to push me aside. “I mean it.”
“Let him play hero,” the gamekeeper said. “This elephant gun will cleave right through the both of you. It'll even make short work of your metal friend.”
“You won't kill us all,” Lady Una said, gripping my waist tightly with both gloved hands. “The two downstairs are soldiers. They've faced armies that would make these forest dwellers look like harmless babies.”
“Well, I've always thought that it's good to know how you're going to die,” the gamekeeper said simply. He leaned forward, bracing himself in anticipation of the elephant gun's recoil.
It was a confusing second - and it really can't have been any longer a stretch of time than that. With surprising strength, Lady Una swung me around by the waist, throwing me across the floor and onto my hands and knees. I heard the gun fire while I was still falling, the report shattering the cracked window into shards. I spun round in time to see Lady Una hit the floor some distance from where she had been standing, a ragged hole in the front of her dress. Her hoop skirt deflated instantly, like the sail of a sinking ship.
The gamekeeper took in a slow, deep breath and let it out again. And turned the smoking barrel of the elephant gun towards me.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Is this the end of Lady Una? Is this the end of Dr Greve? Will this series be changing location to the afterlife?! You'd better check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!