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The Ghosts of Blackthorn Hall

Chapter Text

Part 1

Tuesday 12th of September, 1843

 

 

 

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It had rained all day.  It was a mean sticky type of rain that drifted in the breeze, rather than falling straight down like honest rain should. To the passengers that shivered away the miles inside the old post-chaise, the drops appeared possessed of sentience, as they sought and found the best ways to increase the travellers’ discomfort.

To pass the time between town, village and hamlet, they commiserated with one another, cursing the weather and their own bad luck for being caught in it. A chorus of complaint, accompanied by the percussion of the descending rain, the clatter of horse shoes on stone and dirt, and the regular creak of wheels spinning in rusted metal housings, as they ate up the distance and the hours, beneath their heavy tread.

One passenger, among the fractious group, showed little inclination to join the concert of discontent. To the chagrin of his companions Mr Castiel Milton endured the hardships of the long journey with placid indifference. His attitude was so constant, and his blank expression so unchanging, that half of his companions perceived it as haughty disdain, while the other half suspected his faculties were sadly impaired. Happily, neither was the case, but he gave his companions no evidence to the contrary. Attempts to draw him into conversation were met with monosyllabic responses and a mildly confused frown. Eventually they came to a silent, yet unanimous, decision that it was better to leave him to himself and to whatever entertainment he garnered from staring, unblinking, out the mud spattered half-light at the dim world beyond.

For his part Castiel was relieved when they finally stopped asking him questions. His reserve was never intended to snub or offend; he was simply not a talkative person. He never had been. He did not feel the need that other people clearly did to clutter up the quiet of empty spaces with nonsense just to make a noise. He would talk if there was something to say, if he had something useful to contribute, or when he was truly interested in finding out the answer to a question. But he found the meaningless formality of small talk baffling and more than a little absurd. Besides he had learnt long ago that silence was preferable to saying the wrong thing, or speaking at the wrong time. The hard training of early childhood was not lightly thrown off, the lessons etched indelibly on his personality, though the bruises were long gone. 

The discomforts of the road did not bother Castiel the way they bothered the other passengers who griped and complained. It was true that the air was cool, but that was only to be expected on a mid-September day; it was not actually cold. The dampness inside the coach was unpleasant, but what did it really matter in the long run? The journey would be over sooner or later and anything could be endured so long as there was an end in sight. He even found he rather liked the sound of the rain; it had been his only constant companion since he had set out on the journey. It skittered against the hard shell of the carriage, soothing and surrounding him, drumming a soft beat as he moved forward to a new future and new possibilities.

 Raindrops tracked like tears down the outside of the glass that Castiel gazed through, pulling the colour from the world as they went, smearing and softening a landscape painted in shades of grey, washing it clean and making it new. This was what Castiel wanted. This was what the journey was all about – a fresh canvas where he could paint a new life, a different sort of life to the only one he had so far known.

***

Castiel could not explain what motivating force was behind his sudden need to uproot himself. He had been content more or less; though perhaps content was not the right word, resigned was probably more precise. His had been a life shaped by circumstance; the early death of his parents had left him wholly dependent on the generosity of an uncaring uncle with a ready anger, and ever ready fists. At just six years old, following a serious bout of illness, which to his uncle’s great dismay, Castiel managed to survive, he was packed off to St Ethelwold’s school for boys and there he had remained ever since. First as a student and then, with no fortune, no prospects, and no family or friends to call on for assistance, he had stayed on as a teacher. 

St Ethelwold’s was a church school populated by quiet blank-eyed children, left there because their guardians either could not or would not send them somewhere better. It was austere, highly regimented, and so cold in winter that the boys had to break the ice that formed on their basins overnight before they could wash their faces with tiny trembling hands. However, despite the hardships, the teachers were not cruel and the education was good. It was a place where a boy like Castiel, already possessed of strong faith and a willingness to obey commands without complaint, could find a place and something resembling peace.

It was a peace that ended abruptly some twenty-five years later when Castiel had awoken with pressure in his head, the lingering lightning flash of a fever-dream, and an overwhelming sense of discontent, of restlessness, and a tight tugging pull that started behind his ribs. At first he thought it might be a passing malady, but instead of fading, it only increased as time wore on, demanding his attention and a resolution, as it pulsed in his chest and swirled in his stomach, spreading and diffusing outwards cell by cell until it claimed his whole body. Though unshaped and abstract there was one thing about it that Castiel recognised; this strange force, this energy and need to move and change had been placed in him by God, and therefore Castiel would follow without hesitation, wherever it led.

The newspaper had been abandoned in the common room. It was out of date, tattered, and its pages were yellowed and crisp to the touch. It did not matter in the slightest; within minutes of opening it Castiel knew what he must do to satisfy the sensation that inhabited his chest. He drank in every inky black word from the paper and let them roll around inside his head until they formed fragile new thoughts. An unknown world was written out for him there, across the pages of The Times; the onward march of the railways; the agitation of mill workers; great engineering works of the age; trouble in the colonies; the summer exhibition at the Royal Society – things that stirred his interest and lit up the corners of his mind, where before there had been only cobwebs and duty.

 The plan was solidified almost as soon as it was thought and within a fortnight it was arranged, paid for, and out there for the world – or England at least – to see. On the page next to Mrs Harlow’s Wonder Water – an all round cure for ailments of the stomach, and above bold text declaring ‘Cope Bros & Co, the finest American tobacco products in London,’ was Castiel’s advertisement. Just a few lines of plain text on the rough grained paper and Castiel’s future hung from the edge of each crisply printed word.

A letter arrived addressed to him a few weeks later. It was written on thick cream-coloured paper in an elegant looping hand, from one Mrs E. Harvelle who was, ‘pleased to offer the position of tutor in the household of Mr Dean Winchester of Blackthorn Hall, to undertake the education and care of one male child aged seven years.’ The terms were more than agreeable, and Castiel accepted without pause.  Within the month he had set out on the road to the North and did not once look back with regret on anything he had left behind.

***

The journey proved long, even though the newfangled railway lines that criss-crossed the country like metal veins gobbled up most of the miles – and oh, how Castiel had loved the railway. The blur of action and rush of wind, the scent of the coal fire that left his skin peppered with tiny flakes of ash and caught at the back of his throat until he could almost taste the furnace at the heart of the engine. It was new and wonderful and it felt like freedom as it moved him across the surface of his expanding world. But it had soon become apparent that his destination was more remote than Castiel had imagined it to be, and he had spent the whole day on the mail coach as it trundled along muddy country roads that twisted and turned, over hill and through dale, until Castiel no longer had any idea where they were, or even what direction they were travelling in. He had fallen into a reverie by the time the driver pulled up the horses with a rattle of horseshoes on cobbles.

“Crossthorpe!” The shout from the driver came down from the box above them, each vowel sanded off at the edges by a thick local accent.

There was a brief flurry of activity all around. Two passengers alighted and a lone female traveller embarked shaking out her voluminous black skirts to fill one side of the coach. The precious cargo was thrown down to the post office men waiting on the ground. They stood with their arms outstretched and their shirt sleeves rolled up, their skin wet and shiny from the rain, ready to receive the latest load from Her Majesty’s Royal Mail. Hessian sacks packed with penny post letters and parcels, carefully wrapped in paper and cloth, all handled with careful respect. New packages and post bags were drawn up on to the roof and lashed there securely. Finally everything was covered with a rough waxed cloth for protection from the inclement weather during the onward journey.

Castiel recognised the name of the village as the last one on the map before Blackthorn Hall. From what Castiel could see, it looked more like a market town than a village. There was plenty of activity and people were going about their business, despite the ever present rain, weather that would have kept everyone at St Ethelwold’s hidden behind their doors, for fear of rheumatism and influenza. He had heard that folk from the north were hardy and industrious and the evidence of it was pleasing.

Perhaps this was not the industrial or cultural nexus he might have imagined when he had picked up the newspaper and been awakened to the wider world that existed beyond the walls of the school. But the people looked lively, there was a church tower rising solid and reassuring above the rooftops in the distance, and a little clutch of shops fringed the square where the coach had stopped, close to a group of crumbling stone crosses – Anglo-Saxon from the look of them – from which the village clearly took its name. Even if that proved to be the sum of the place it was already more interesting than St Ethelwold’s had ever been.

The coachman gee'd on the horses a few minutes later and they drove out of the village. The rain was starting to ease and the cloud cover thinned enough to allow pillars of wan sunlight to break through, highlighting the passing country in patches. The days were starting to draw in with the approach of winter but there was still time enough left in the day for Castiel to get an impression of the place that would be his new home. In the thin light, the moorlands were leeched of colour, and there was only the merest hint of brown and green against the grey of shale and limestone that jutted from the steep earthy hillsides at unforgiving angles. The high peaks in the distance were shrouded in cloud, hidden from view, like a mystery that Castiel longed to have revealed.

“I do hope we get beyond Blue Moor before dark.” The woman’s voice dragged Castiel’s attention abruptly back to what was passing inside the carriage. He looked over at her and she was gracious enough to spare him a glance and a shy smile, though it was obvious she had been addressing the other passenger who rode with them in the coach.

“You’ve heard the stories then I see?” It was Mr Crabtree speaking this time. He leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner as the good lady’s eyes widened and shone excitedly. Mr Crabtree was an older gentleman with a steel grey and impressively bushy moustache that covered a large portion of his face. There was an impish glint in his eye that made him look considerably younger than the years etched in lines around his eyes indicated. The lady, Castiel had not caught her name, but he presumed she was a widow judging by the dark colour of her gown, nodded enthusiastically. The action made her dark curls bounce with alarming energy around her face, and called to mind an image of Medusa Castiel had once seen in a Greek text at St Ethelwold’s. “Perhaps we should not talk about such things in front of Mr Milton.” Mr Crabtree paused and threw a quick wink in Castiel’s direction. “He’s on his way to stay at Blackthorn Hall and we don’t want to scare him off before he’s even settled do we?”

The lady made a little gasping noise then attempted to cover her open mouth by holding a flimsy, embroidered, and practically useless handkerchief to her lips. She looked horrified and for the first time during the entire journey, Castiel was interested in the conversation.

“If there are stories about the Hall, I would like to hear them,” he said looking directly at the lady. She pulled the little handkerchief away from her pink mouth and smiled approvingly.

“One should always be prepared and have all the available information when one visits a new place don’t you think? It does you credit, Mr Milton.” She spoke seriously and blushed a rosy pink as she looked up at Castiel through dark eyelashes. He wondered, and not for the first time during the journey, why ladies all seemed to pull that face at him, he did not think she had graced Mr Crabtree with such a look even though he was doing his best to entertain her. Mr Crabtree and the lady looked at each other for a moment until Mr Crabtree nodded for her to go ahead and tell the tale. She smiled and took a breath before she began.

“Well, Mr Milton, for all the grey of its ramparts, Blackthorn has had a pretty colourful history and those Winchesters...” She paused and sucked in a whistling breath through her teeth. “Half savage from what I hear, even if they are the richest family in the county.” She enacted a little shiver to illustrate her disgust, and then dropped her voice down to a whisper, getting more animated now she had her audience’s attention. “They say it’s haunted.” She bit her bottom lip as though she had accidentally cursed. “They say that people have seen all kinds of strange goings on there at all hours of the day and night. That people are bundled into the house in secret and are never seen or heard from again! My cousin’s wife’s friend has a maid whose mother used to help out in the kitchens there.” She nodded as if that was proof enough of the veracity of her claims. “She said that old John Winchester murdered his wife, right in front of his own poor children too!” She pursed her lips for a moment and frowned. “But then again, the youngest would only have been a baby back then,” she considered, “so he probably escaped the worst of it, but the elder, the current Mr Winchester, they say he saw the whole thing, so it’s no wonder he grew up all wrong.” She shook her head sadly, resulting in more bobbing of ringlets and rustling of satin ribbons. “Now they say her ghost walks the passages at night, weeping and wailing, pulling at her hair and I know not what, and anyone who stays there can get no sleep for the noise of her grief.”

“My goodness! My dear...” Mr Crabtree interrupted. “That is quite a story.”

“It’s not a story, Mr Crabtree, everyone around here knows about it.” She looked between Mr Crabtree and Castiel with wide-eyed surprise at their doubt. “And that’s not the end of it. It drove old John Winchester mad from the guilt and a few years ago he murdered himself. They said it was an accident, but young Mr Winchester never did produce a body for anyone to see. It was all very suspicious and I shouldn’t trust him no matter how handsome people say he is, and I pity the poor woman who ends up mistress of Blackthorn.” She finished the tale in a rush, a little breathless from the scandal of it, her shiny little tongue darting out as if to savour the remains of the delightful words that clung to her lips.

Castiel did not find the tale as amusing or entertaining as she evidently did, but given that he almost perpetually wore an expression that looked much like a scowl, it was unlikely that she noticed his disapproval. The story was clearly no more than just that, a story, invented by those of lower rank and lesser fortune to sate their jealousy. Mr Crabtree, noting Castiel’s silence and seeing it as the censure it so clearly was, made a valiant attempt to rectify the situation.

“What a very colourful tale! I think Mr Milton might find the reality of life at Blackthorn Hall a little dull in comparison,” Mr Crabtree said. He turned and gave Castiel his full attention for a moment. “Though I have not long lived in the area myself, I have heard these stories before, but I have also heard many good things about the Hall and the Winchester family as well.”

Castiel waved it aside with a sweep of his hand. “Don’t concern yourself, Mr Crabtree, I care little for gossip.” He perhaps spoke with a little more vitriol than he intended, but Mr Crabtree moved in quickly at the first sign of a small pout from the lady.

“When I mentioned the stories, Mr Milton, I was, of course, referring to the legend of the Beast of Blue Moor.” Castiel felt an uncharacteristic curl of satisfaction at the gasp this elicited from the lady opposite, as the colour drained from her face. The lady fumbled in her reticule then withdrew a small blue glass bottle of smelling salts. She wafted it under her nose and inhaled in an exaggerated display of distress, as was the habit of delicate ladies.

“Fear not good lady,” said Mr Crabtree who clearly had some taste for the dramatic. “I shall not linger on the subject any longer than is necessary. Suffice to say, Mr Milton, there have long been tales around these parts of a huge beast, half man half animal, which roams the wilds around Blue Moor at night.” There was another whimper from the lady. “And it’s said that any unsuspecting passerby who is caught out on Blue Moor after dark is never seen again. At least not until many months later, when their bones are found scattered about and chewed clean, with huge teeth marks on them.” Mr Crabtree let his voice waver and drop off into silence on the last word and the story hung there in the stillness between the three of them for a moment.

“Blackthorn Hall!” the driver shouted, with a loud bang of his fist on the roof of the coach. All three occupants flinched at the sudden noise. The lady cried out in alarm and pressed her hand to her chest, and Castiel wondered if she was going to faint. Mr Crabtree laughed nervously for a moment before making his polite farewells. The lady attempted the same but was too overcome to manage more than a small wave and a shallow nod of her frighteningly coiffured head.

“Blackthorn Hall!” the driver yelled again impatiently. “If you’re getting out get on with it,” he huffed in his gruff tone as the horses whinnied and skittered nervously. “I don’t want to be crossing that damn moor in the dark!”