Porthos stood on top of the castle tower and gazed down at the valley spread out below him. Panting slightly from the climb, he was grateful for the stiff breeze up here and starting to regret his thick jumper even though the day was cloudy.
The castle was a ruin, with little left of it apart from a few sections of curtain wall, part of the gatehouse and this one tower where he was currently standing. It was half a tower really, there was no back to it and this crumbling section of battlements was out of bounds to the general public. Porthos had a key though, and was able to bypass the modern wooden gate barring the most treacherous part and climb as high as he liked.
As a surveyor for National Heritage, he was responsible for ensuring plans were up to date and identifying any repairs needed on the more isolated and unmanned sites around the country, and his favourite part of the job was definitely getting to access the areas other people weren’t allowed to.
Staring out over the countryside, Porthos briefly pretended he was king of the castle – or more likely a baron he decided, out here on the English/Welsh border. It was the off season, so he’d had the place to himself barring the occasional local dog-walker or hardy group of ramblers. As far as the eye could see the country was green and lush looking and there were jackdaws flying on a level with him, chack-ing irritably at this invasion of their roost.
The castle was situated on a hill to the west of the village of Undercliffe where Porthos was staying. He could make out the rooftops over the trees, and the tower of the church. There were hardly any houses closer, just one cottage nestled into the side of the hill right below the castle. Porthos judged that it must be a dark sort of place at the back, but must have stunning views down the valley to the front.
As he watched, a battered land rover laboured up the track from the village and pulled up next to the cottage. As a man climbed out and proceeded to unload a stack of grocery bags, a gust of wind brought the clink of bottles to his ears and Porthos smiled to himself. He wouldn't mind a lunchtime drink himself, but it would be sandwiches and coffee until he could knock off for the day. He sighed, and went back to work.
Two days later Porthos sat down to his lunch as usual, perched on a relatively dry section of stonework. Unscrewing his thermos to make a drink he was faced with nothing but a dribble of lukewarm water and groaned. Staying at the pub, he'd been filling his thermos from the kettle in his room but he'd overslept that morning and shoved it back into his bag in the rush to get ready, completely forgetting he hadn't refilled it.
The prospect of lunch without a hot drink on such an overcast and drizzly day was a gloomy one, and Porthos wondered if he could be arsed to walk all the way into the village and back. It suddenly occurred to him that he might be able to call at the cottage below and beg some hot water. Surely no one would begrudge boiling a kettle, and it would save him a forty minute round trip.
Filled with renewed hope he sauntered down the path to the cottage. There was no doorbell, so Porthos knocked on the door and waited. After a minute or so when nothing had happened, he knocked again, a little more loudly. He wondered if perhaps there was nobody in, but the land rover was parked to the side of the house.
Porthos was just about to give up and walk away when the front door was wrenched open and a man glared out at him.
"What the fuck do you w- oh." He faltered, apparently taken aback by Porthos' appearance. "Can I help you?" he asked a little more civilly. Porthos suspected his hi vis jacket gave the impression of authority, or maybe it was just that he was tall and rather imposing. He summoned a hopeful smile.
"Sorry to bother you – I was just wondering if it would be possible to cadge some hot water?" Porthos held up his flask by way of illustration.
The man's expression went from cautiously polite to incredulous. "You interrupted me for that? Do I look like a service station?" he demanded and Porthos was taken aback.
"Yeah, well, forget it, eh? Sorry to have troubled you," he muttered, embarrassed and indignant, and turned to go.
The man in the doorway relented. "Look - no - wait." He sighed. "Sorry. You just broke my train of thought when I was on a roll, that's all. I didn't mean to be rude. You just want some hot water?"
"Only if it's not too much trouble," Porthos said stiffly.
"I can probably stretch to boiling a kettle,” the man conceded. "You'd better come in."
Porthos followed him inside, ducking under the low lintel and looking around with interest. The cottage was small and cosy, the downstairs having been opened out into one open space, presumably to maximise the light.
"This is very kind of you," Porthos said, hoping to get things on a more friendly footing. "My name's Porthos by the way. Porthos du Vallon."
"Athos." The two men shook hands, and while Athos went to fill the kettle Porthos noticed a laptop open on the dining table.
"Sorry again for interrupting."
"Oh, never mind. You're working at the castle, right?" Porthos looked surprised and Athos smirked at his confusion. "I've noticed someone walking around the place in hi-vis the last couple of days. What are you doing?"
"Surveying," Porthos told him. "Checking for cracks, subsidence, damage, that sort of thing. Has to be done every few years, in a bit more depth than the occasional visual inspections."
"Must be rather a lonely job?"
"Not really. Most people you meet want to stop and talk. Apart from the ones I manage to piss off, anyway," Porthos smiled. "What do you do?"
"Writer. For my sins."
"Now that has got to be a lonely job."
"I quite like it that way," Athos admitted. "I came here for the peace and quiet. But people keep knocking on my door to ask the way to the castle, which considering that you can see the fucking thing if you just look up, gets really annoying. I've considered nailing an arrow to my door with a sign reading 'that way you blind twat'. What do you reckon?"
Porthos laughed, reflecting that it at least explained the irate manner in which Athos had opened the door to him. The kettle clicked off and Athos reached for the flask. "You sure you only want hot water?"
"Yeah, I've got a bunch of instant coffee sachets from my hotel room," Porthos told him. "Well, I say hotel, I'm staying at The Lion."
"Can I tempt you to a decent cup instead?" Athos asked, not having missed how Porthos' eyes kept sliding to the half-full cafetiere steaming fragrantly on the counter.
"Well – as long as I'm not derailing a work of staggering genius or something," Porthos said, nodding at the laptop.
Athos conceded a smile. "Alright, I confess, you mostly interrupted me staring out of the window."
Porthos laughed. "Why not then. Thank you."
Athos poured him a mug and slid it over. "You want milk or sugar?"
"No thanks, I like it black."
"Me too," Athos murmured, and Porthos wondered if he'd imagined the briefly assessing up and down glance Athos had given him. "How long are you staying?"
"About a month," Porthos said, wandering over to the front window and looking out. He'd been right about the breathtaking view. "Bit less maybe if I get done quicker. There's not exactly a lot of this one left." He looked sideways at Athos, who'd joined him at the window. "You know, I could maybe speak to my people, get some better signage put up on the footpath? Might stop people bothering you."
Athos looked surprised. "Oh. That would be kind."
"One good deed deserves another," Porthos smiled, toasting him with his coffee mug.
They chatted idly for a while, mostly about the village and the view, and Athos even fetched out a packet of chocolate digestives. Eventually Porthos drained the last of his coffee and sighed.
"I'd better be getting back. Thanks for the coffee, that was fab."
"Don't forget your flask." Athos handed him the freshly filled thermos.
"Thanks." Porthos smiled at him. "You should drop into the Lion one night, let me buy you a drink in return. I'm in the bar most nights, there's not a lot else to do round here."
"I might just do that," Athos agreed.
"Well. See you round then." Porthos found he was reluctant to leave, but tore himself away. As he climbed back up to where he'd stowed his equipment Porthos found himself hoping Athos really would drop in for that drink and wasn't just being polite.
In fact, Athos appeared in the pub that very night. When Porthos came down from his room he found Athos already at the bar talking to one of the local farmers, a ruddy-faced man named Paul who'd helped Porthos out when he first arrived, with access to some of the fields around the castle.
"Athos." Porthos walked over with a broad smile. "Good to see you. What'll you have?"
Athos joined him in a pint of the local ale, brewed just ten miles up the road, and while they were being pulled Paul nudged Porthos in the ribs.
"See you've met our local celebrity author then," he declared.
Porthos looked at Athos in some surprise and wondered with vague embarrassment if he should have recognised him. Athos gave him a self-conscious smile.
"Hardly that," he admitted. "I've had one book published, that's all. And it didn't exactly trouble the best-seller lists."
"Set round here though," Paul put in for Porthos' benefit. "Not named, obviously, but you can recognise the place right enough. They've got copies of it in the shop, you should get yourself one. Not my sort of thing, obviously," he mused as an afterthought. "But if you skip the mucky bits it's clever enough I suppose."
Athos pressed his lips together, looking like he was trying not to laugh.
"He's your resident celebrity then?" Porthos said to Paul with a grin, mostly to annoy Athos who was looking increasingly embarrassed.
"That he is." Paul clapped Athos on the back. "Poof mind, but you can't have everything, can you?" he added philosophically, before wandering off to watch the darts match that was going on in the corner.
Porthos looked at Athos with considerable amusement. "He's not on commission is he?"
Athos gave a splutter of pained laughter. "There's something unique about the way people round here can make praise sound like character assassination."
"I'd best get meself a copy then, by the sounds of it."
"Don't feel obliged," Athos said hurriedly. “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.” He smiled. “Or thermos of hot water, for that matter.”
The next day Porthos ventured into the village's one general store and found that sure enough, in their small display of books they did have several copies of what he presumed was the right one.
Cast A Long Shadow, by Athos de la Fere. There was a stylised impression of a ruined castle on the cover, sticking up from a swirl of green and yellow fields like the stump of a broken tooth. Porthos turned it over and grinned at the author photograph on the back, a small black and white shot of Athos looking neatly groomed and with that same self-conscious smile. He bought a copy and tucked it safely into his work bag, intending to make a start during his lunch.
That evening Porthos sat in the bar again. He’d been hoping that Athos might drop by, but was so engrossed in the book that he didn't even notice when he walked in. Athos saw him first and came over.
"Hello. Mind if I join you?"
Porthos looked up and smiled in surprise. "Hello you. Yeah, grab a seat." he waved the book at him. "This is really good."
Athos flushed slightly, but looked pleased. "Don’t feel you have to be polite."
"I'm not, it's brilliant."
At first it had seemed to be two distinct stories running in parallel timelines – one set in a mediaeval castle with the young steward Philip falling subject to the desires of the dastardly Lord Richard, whilst in the present day a local farm labourer was similarly smitten by a flash newcomer from London. But as the book progressed the two threads began to blur, with dark powers beginning to bleed through between the centuries and the fates of everyone becoming intertwined. Porthos was already halfway through and reluctant to put it down.
“I’m glad you like it,” Athos said rather shyly. Porthos winked at him.
“Especially the mucky bits.”
Athos choked on his beer.
“It’s funny,” he mused, after Porthos had banged him sympathetically on the back. “I was half afraid when it first came out that I’d be chased out of the village. People tend to be very – conservative, shall we say, in these parts. But they seem oddly proud of it. I think half the village has read it.”
“Nothing odd about that,” Porthos said. “It’s an amazing book so far, and I can’t wait to find out what happens.” He frowned. “It’s not going to be all tragic and stuff, is it? No! Don’t tell me.”
Athos laughed. “My lips are sealed.”
“Anyway, it’s very much – my kind of thing,” Porthos said carefully, paraphrasing Paul and hoping Athos got the message.
“Good to know,” Athos murmured, watching him with amused eyes that said he knew exactly what Porthos meant.
By the time Athos got up to leave after last orders, Porthos was feeling pleasantly drunk and considerably smitten. Athos was a dry and witty companion, not to mention severely gorgeous, and Porthos was reluctant to say goodbye so soon.
“Do you have to walk all the way back up that hill in the dark?” he asked.
“I’ve got a torch,” Athos shrugged. “Once you’re out of the village there’s no traffic. It’s quite safe. I do it all the time.”
“Still,” Porthos protested. “I don’t like to think of you all on your own like that. I should walk you home.”
Athos opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again with a knowing smile. “If you insist.”
They walked slowly up the track together, talking quietly.
“So. You, er. Seeing anyone?” Porthos asked casually.
“No.” Athos gave him a sidelong glance. “You?”
“Nah. I’m single.”
They both looked at each other speculatively, then quickly away again as they were both caught out in the act of looking. Both were smiling now, hearts thumping a little at the thought of what they were almost certainly about to do.
“Hey.” Porthos stopped walking and reached out, guiding Athos into the shadow of the churchyard wall. Athos didn’t protest, but clicked off his torch and slid it into his pocket. The darkness wasn’t quite complete, a light on the church porch some way above them meant a faint orange glow filtered down through the trees, and half a moon was visible over the track.
Athos’ hands were on Porthos’ arms by now, guiding him in, and without another word exchanged they kissed each other. It was hot, and slow, and they fell back against the wall in each other’s arms, kissing intently for some time.
Eventually they resumed their progress up the hill, stopping frequently to kiss each other again, laughing and stumbling and by now walking hand in hand. It was quite a while before they made the cottage, and they stopped again to kiss in the porch.
It was at this point that Porthos realised his chivalrous ploy of walking Athos home might have backfired slightly, as he looked back the way they had come and realised the path was a pitch black tunnel under the trees.
“Would you like to borrow my torch?” Athos offered, and Porthos gave him a sheepish smile of relief.
“Thanks. I’ll drop it back tomorrow.”
Athos bit his lips. “Would you, um – I could cook you dinner, maybe, tomorrow? If you wanted?”
“I’d like that very much,” Porthos agreed, and kissed him again for good measure.
“I’m not exactly cordon bleu standard, but I’ve managed not to poison myself yet,” Athos told him. “Come on down when you finish work if like?”
“I should go back and change first,” Porthos said. “You won’t want me all muddy and sweaty.”
“Change here if you like,” Athos offered. “It’ll save you walking all the way down to the village and back. You can have a shower if you want, too.”
Porthos grinned. “If you want me to take my clothes off in your house, you only have to ask.”
Athos gave a quiet laugh. “Let’s have dinner first, eh?”
They kissed each other again, lingering over it with the enthusiasm of teenagers until Porthos finally dragged himself away. Athos watched his torchbeam bobbing away down the track until it was out of sight.