The villagers of Eastwind knew little of the man who lived in the mansion on the hill, only rumour. Some would tell you his generosity was second only to his irascible nature. Others might say his abrasive demeanor and cold heart warranted his self imposed isolation. The fact was, he simply didn't care what they thought, as long as they left him alone.
Friends were for the weak. For those needing coddled, whose mummies smothered them as children, never letting them learn true independence. That was not Ezra Krook.
No, he reveled in solitude, embraced it as one probably would an old friend. More time to read, practice art, and work in the laboratory. If he had wanted the distraction of company he would have taken a wife decades ago, when the idea had still held small appeal.
So it was to his lip twitching surprise late one autumn evening, peering through the grand arched window in the study that he spotted a small scruffy girl carelessly trudging up the pebble path. No one came to his door. The grocer, butcher, bank manager, everyone knew better, leaving their goods or letters by the gate instead. Most unusual.
Hurriedly crossing the reception room he grunted, aged muscles straining, his black cane clicking across the dusty tiles as the bell tolled for the fourth time. The noise startling him, harsh and unfamiliar, had it truly been so long he had forgotten that sound?
Old hinges screamed in protest, the door groaned open, and Ezra served up his most sickening snarl, but she smiled sweetly and looked past him.
"What?" he hissed.
"Why is your house so big?"
"None of your business. Go on, scram," he flicked out his cane.
"I've nowhere to go, not yet anyways."
"Not my problem. Back to your mother, I've no time for childish nonsense."
The slamming door echoed up through the dual curved staircases and Ezra turned, head shaking.
"I always wanted to ask, what's that?"
He jumped at her voice, swiveling, cane brandished like a rapier.
"What the..how did you get in here?"
She said nothing, a knowing smirk on her pale face.
"Get out you little brat!" Grasping for her threadbare jacket, he missed. No, not missed. Somehow, in a blink, she stood at his opposite side grinning like the cat that got the cream. Oh how he hated cats.
"What is that?" She repeated a little louder, pointing. He followed the direction of her finger to the feathered, armoured, bear standing guard by the dining room entrance.
"An…experiment." He crept closer, nostrils flared.
"You need better hobbies, Ezra." Folding her arms, she tapped her chin. "Probably why the villagers are scared of you?"
He straightened. "They fear me? After all I've done for them?"
"Oh they appreciate your generosity," she moved to the next taxidermied monstrosity, arms behind her back as though at a gallery opening. "But they are terrified of you. Would you trust an old loner who hides behind grand walls and has nothing but animal corpses for company? They whisper, you know? What's he building up there? Where'd he come from? How does he make his money? That sort of thing."
"Of course, people always gossip about their betters. Now I won't repeat myself again, get —"
"Oh I remember this one, this one was real tricky, getting those wings on right, it took days."
"Of course. What did you call it, your wolf eagle, or buzzard hound was it?"
"Close enough. Now get out! These silly jokes are getting in the way of my work. Out!"
"Ok grumpy. I'll call tomorrow unless you want to come with me?"
Ezra’s brow furrowed into a valley of disdain.
"Fair enough," throwing open the door she waved dismissively over her shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
"No you won't, the gate will be chained."
"It is already."
"Well the hounds will be patrolling," he snapped.
"Those hounds?" She pointed beyond withering hedges to three skinny dobermans wrestling over a pigeon's carcass. "They won't stop me."
"Titus! Rex! Brutus!" His roaring fell on deaf ears and he growled watching the little intruder disappear down the overgrown garden path.
"Won't stop you eh? I will soon see about that."
The sun was little more than an orange smear behind the jagged hills when Ezra sprang from his four poster bed. Another sleepless night spent snarling at the water damaged ceiling, but now his thoughts raged with the audacity of that little brat. Barging into his house, he would show her. Her name was a mystery, yet her face wouldn't leave his mind. Those inkwell eyes. Her familiarity with him, it was infuriating.
Appetite forgotten, he stomped from room to room checking the windows and doors were shut tight, and searching for his old hunting equipment. If someone wanted to break into his home, he had every right to defend himself.
All morning he sat by the window, fingers tapping the blunderbuss, other hand picking at the net he once caught a boar in. His fervor darkened with the sky outside as the evening came and went, without sight of his quarry. Seething, he stormed to the other windows, searching with narrowed eyes, but she was nowhere to be seen. So why was he mad? Was that not what he wanted?
Lighting an oil lamp he wandered, blowing out an exasperated breath as he stared around the peeling wallpaper of the reception. To bed? A book perhaps? The laboratory? He eyed the door to the basement, this latest creation sat down there in the moist moldy darkness, unfinished, calling to him, as all unfinished business calls. Sleep would not come tonight, he could feel it in his bones. Insomnia had cursed him in recent weeks.
Hand grasping the basement door's brass handle he began to turn.
"A gun? Really?"
His eyes grew wide at the moonlight edged silhouette leaning against the front door. The voice was unmistakable, full of self righteous confidence.
"You," he spat, hobbling forward.
"Were you expecting someone else? A chimera of yours maybe?"
He shot a sideways glance at the doorway of the study, and more importantly the weapons within. He would never make it. So, tucking his cane under his arm, he clapped. Loud and slow.
"Well done. You've snuck up on an old man, in an old house. You must be ever so proud." He stepped forward, straightening his back as much as he could. She mirrored him. "What is your name, little girl?"
"I’ve many names, different people call me different things."
"What do you call yourself then?"
"I tell you what," she stepped closer still, "simply catch me three times, and I will tell you everything you want to know."
He snatched her arm, and to his surprise, caught it. She was real, solid, not a figment as he had been inwardly dreading.
A syrupy smile dripped over her oval face, "So that is a yes, and one to you."
Bolting up the stairs with such speed as only a child could muster, timbers shrieking underfoot. He followed, once again on the hunt.
She would not get far, no one knew these halls like him, every creaky floorboard, every unoiled hinge would lead him to her. And so they raced through the utter darkness, cat and mouse, hunter and prey.
As the night rushed by so did his mood, anger melting away to be replaced with curiosity.
The few times he thought he nearly had her, ready to pounce, she would whisper in his ear.
By the time he turned all that was left was the fading sound of giggles in a rush of footsteps. A strange sound, distinctly unfamiliar. One this house knew little of. Hours passed of this bizarre game of hide and seek, and a stranger noise rose with the sun. Guttural and raspy, alien and familiar all at once. His own laughter.
How long had it been? Had it ever been?
"Ezra? I'm down here." She sung from the kitchen.
Dashing down the stairs he threw away his cane, the aches and pains of age forgotten, the desire for the catch more potent than any opium.
She stood beyond the back door, amongst the remnants of flower beds now overpowered by towering weeds. He slid to a stop, hands gripping the door frame. He wanted to cross, but could not, she was so close, yet so far away.
"Come on Ezra, let's go," she beckoned.
As if an anchor had been dropped he was stuck, trapped inside, stumbling backwards his legs suddenly trembling, shocks of crippling pain arcing from hip to shoulder. He careened into the counter and held it as if it was all that kept him afloat. His head swam, buzzed, waves of rancid odours clawed at his throat and nose.
"Help." His voice was weak, almost imperceptible, he let go and the cold floor hit hard. No help came. The girl was gone.
He lay there for an unknowable length of time, listening to his wheezing breath, feeling it grate against his chest. Heart hammering, ears ringing. Too old for playing games you idiot. Yet for the first time in a long time, he felt alive. He hoped she would come again.
Is this what it's like to have someone, something to look forward to, to have a…
He dared not even think the word, let alone speak it.
Dusk brought a giddy feeling to the old man.
He had spent the day preparing, when he wasn't swatting away flies that was. The damn hounds must have dropped their bird carcass near a window, and now the house hummed with an ever increasing urgency. Still though he had prepared a few tricks just for her.
Thought she could run away from me? I'll show her.
Pacing the upstairs landing he tugged the sleeves of his fresh shirt, stretched his legs and back as an athlete may before an event.
He checked his pocket watch, walked from one staircase to another, then checked again.
"Did we set a time?"
He turned to her sitting on the balustrade, legs crossed, and arms folded in her lap as if the drop behind her posed no threat.
"No, no we did not. I was not even sure you would come again." He rolled his cane in his palm, "Could have used a little help this morning."
"I am helping you," her voice was flat and somber.
She looked over her shoulder and down to the floor below.
"That is a terrible waste of books, they are precious things, timeless, immortal things. You should not have done that."
He leaned on the railing beside her and gazed at the thousands of pages he had scattered across the lower floor.
"I wanted to hear you coming, and yet I didn't. So you must have come in an upper window. The west wing guest room perhaps? It has a trellis nearby."
"I don't need a window, or door"
She did not move, nor look away from the tattered library below. Only an arm's length away. Surely some trick of her own, but he could not miss the chance. He squeezed her shoulder and she turned, those big black eyes wet with unwept tears.
"That's two," she sighed.
"What's wrong girl. Have you given up already?"
"I'm sorry Ezra." Her hand rose, pointing out the circular window above the front door. In the distant pinpricks of orange lantern light broke the utter blackness. Growing larger, brighter, closer.
Ezra's face twisted to anger, "Who did you bring here? Why?"
"It's some of the villagers, they are concerned."
"Concerned…concerned about what?"
She looked away, at the strange creatures of his own creation mounted around the walls.
“What did you tell them, girl?”
She remained silent.
“Have you been busy gossiping with the villagers? Spinning tales of the old loner and his hobbies, well, have you?”
Her silence made his blood boil, "Answer me dammit!" He cracked the railing with his cane.
She did not flinch.
Pebbles crunched. Worried muttering drew near. The bell tolled. Then came a familiar voice.
"Mr Krook, it's Samuel from the bank, is everything ok?"
Ezra did not answer. They could all go to tarnation. The muffled exchange outside resumed before someone knocked.
The door shrieked open and the pages whirled in the breeze. Three men warily stepped inside, lanterns held high bathing the entrance hall in burning yellows. Stifled gasps and curses echoed across the chamber.
"Ezra, are you here?" squeaked Jon the grocer.
"Mr Krook?" called out Arbuckle the butcher.
"Yes I'm right here and you can all get out of my house! All of you!" He spun on his heel to face the girl but she was gone. Unsurprisingly.
"Eugh, what the hell is that smell?" gasped Samuel, waving his hand in front of his face as they proceeded further in, feet crunching on the crisp paper.
"I know what it is," said the Butcher sniffing the air then following it like a hound.
"Are you deaf?" Ezra demanded as they disappeared along the hall below him. He thundered down the stairs.
"Stay out of there!" he roared, as the three men stood before the basement door. Arbuckle turned the handle. A mass of black specks swarmed out. A bloated, well fed, cloud. The three swatted the air, recoiling at the musty waft. Arbuckle entered alone, the rickety staircase moaning under his weight. Seconds later he tumbled back through the threshold, gray faced, bent double and gagging.
"What is the meaning of this!" Ezra hurried towards them, cane ready to strike. He had enough of intruders.
A hand, small and delicate, grabbed at his.
"Don't Ezra, don't look," she was back and not letting go.
"Send for the Preacher, Samuel. We will need a cart," said Arbuckle. "Jon, check the kitchen for something to feed them hounds, poor things are skin and bones. It must be weeks."
Samuel hastened towards Ezra and the girl, eyes glassy, a handkerchief held to his quivering mouth. Ezra squared his shoulders, but Samuel did not stop, he simply passed through them. Gasping Ezra stared at his hands, and her hand in them. A third touch.
"What is happening girl?"
"You already know Ezra."
"But I, I…last night, our game, I felt so…"
"I know," she patted his arm as a parent consoles a child.
His throat grew thick with regret.
"What…who are you?" he asked.
"I think you know, I have many names but they all mean the same thing."
"An angel, a demon?"
She just nodded towards the open door. Somehow, although the moon was high in the star speckled sky the horizon began blazing white. The hills, village, his garden all vanished under its intensity until the entire portal filled and pulsated.
"Are you ready to go?" The girl asked, stepping towards the glow, trying to guide him.
"But there was so much I didn't do "
She raised a quizzical eyebrow and shook her head. "Ezra Krook, you were ninety seven years old, there is little you didn't do. You took over your father's legacy, grew that village, established the trade routes with the big cities and made it thrive. You paid everyone's interest to the bank so they could prosper, you made sure every house had sufficient food via your agreement with the grocer and butcher. And that is but a few of your deeds, and none of it you did to bathe in glory, you did it cause you were a good man, an honourable man. You were everyone's unlikely friend."
"How do you know any of that?" He took one step forward, feeling himself become lighter. Untethered.
"Cause I've always been here Ezra, you were never alone."
"So…you're a guardian?"
"Close enough." She smiled and tugged a little more, he stopped resisting.
The light was warm, as if embraced by mother nature herself. His pains vanished, and with them his worries. He could feel himself disappearing like mist at the dawn.
"What happens now?" He asked.
"We try again."
"Yes Ezra, we."
"You still haven't told me your name."
"Friend Ezra, you can call me friend."