It was a pleasant night to Edie Lockhart’s standards. Despite being Halloween, it was mild. A fat near-full moon cast its pale light through the beech trees. Their silvery limbs contorted into human-like figures whose stretched shadows scattered across the road. Not a breath of wind sighed through the branches. Not even an owl hooted. Edie could feel the silence lingering like an omnipresent narrator nosing in on tonight’s events.
You would be forgiven for being somewhat unsettled on such a night, but not Edie. She’d been in the supernatural business for too long to be phased by a warm, moonlit night.
Beside her, George Nelson rolled on his heels, stretching his calves. His gaze trained on the long road.
‘I can hear it,’ he said.
George would hear it first, thought Edie. What approached them remained elusive to her senses, but not to her partner, who was a cynanthrope (a weredog in layman’s terms). Most dog owners have a habit of looking like their pet. George looked uncannily like a black-haired wolfhound.
Seven years they’d been together, and not an itch to be felt (fleas weren’t an issue anymore). Meeting George had been one of Edie’s first forays into the supernatural and the land of the fae, but that is another story.
It took a full three minutes before Edie heard the faint rattle on the road ahead.
‘The ghost story is true. Lady Howard rides a carriage.’
‘But will it be made from the bones of her four dead husbands she quietly bumped off?’ George raised a thick eyebrow at Edie and grinned. ‘I hope you’re not getting any ideas.’
‘Nonsense! Besides, records say she divorced the fourth one. Neither did she die of a broken heart after the death of her sole infant son; she died when she was seventy-five. The tale about her life is highly suspect when laid beside the facts. I doubt whatever ghost story the locals have conjured has any truth to it.’
‘Her father was a shit, that is truth.’
‘Yes, poor woman.’ The rattling grew louder. Uncertainty bled through Edie’s thoughts. It did sound like it was made from bones. ‘If the folklore runs true, we’ll see a hellhound next.’
‘Leave the hound to me.’
A dark shape emerged on the road, drawing nearer. George ran to meet it.
A black hound. Check. Eyes which glowed red. Check.
A sight which typically left people running in the opposite direction only made Edie burn with irritation. From her extensive experience, the folklore and ghost stories told around the fire were a million miles from the truth. Yet Lady Howard’s ghostly apparition was doing its damn hardest to prove her wrong.
The hound’s nails scratched across the tarmac as it skidded to a halt. Two glowing red eyes stared at George, and its demonic doggy brain could not quite understand why this man exuded the impression of a dog and a big dog at that; one with a jaw much stronger than its own. Quickly deducing there were stranger things at play on this night than even itself, the hellhound whined and ran with its tail between its legs into the beech wood.
‘That’s the easy bit done,’ said George, returning to Edie’s side and giving her hand a reassuring squeeze.
The carriage was visible on the road. Drawn by four black horses and a squat driver dressed in black and theatrically cracking the whip.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ said Edie. ‘Is our ghost a fan of ghost stories? This is getting ridiculous.’
‘I’d feel sorry for the horses if they weren’t already dead,’ said George.
‘Are those skull lanterns?’
‘One on each corner. One for each husband. Let’s see if we can hitch a ride.’
George waved down the driver. The carriage slowed and came to a full stop beside them. Sweat gleamed silver from the horses, their breath pluming in the still night.
The bone carriage glowed white in the moonlight. Edie had half expected it to look like a jumbled collection of ribs, femurs and the like. However, this carriage had gone for the full-blown Gothic style. The bones were carved intricately and the only recognisable parts were the four skulls, each illuminated by a candle like a much more stylish jack-o’-lantern. Four rictus grins with vacant stares greeted them. It was awfully over the top, but a lot better looking than that gold thing the Royal Family trundled around in.
The driver turned to face them. If he had a head, then the previous sentence would be anatomically correct. Edie looked at the void above the upturned collar. She’d read about phantom limbs before, and despite the lack of a head, she felt the driver’s scrutinising stare. An unsettling chill emanated from the carriage, along with the sickly, sweet smell of decay.
‘We would like an audience with Lady Howard,’ Edie told the headless driver.
The driver responded with a nonchalant shrug and jerked his thumb towards the carriage.
Edie smiled. ‘Thank you.’
The driver made no further acknowledgement of their presence. They approached the carriage and George knocked on the door.
‘Lady Howard, my name is Edie Lockhart, and this is George Nelson. We were wondering if we could speak with you?’
There was a long pause. The restless horses snorted, and the hellhound reappeared, keeping a wide berth of George. Edie was about to speak again when a woman’s voice within the carriage said, ‘Enter.’
George, being gentlemanly as ever, opened the door. Although letting Edie go first into the carriage of a four-hundred-year-old ghost was probably not the most gentlemanly thing to do by most people’s standards. She sank into the warm, plump leather seat and George scooted up beside her and closed the door. A solitary candle illuminated the interior, and the figure sat opposite.
Edie had expectations from previous ghost hunts, and Lady Howard surprised her by bursting into tears.
The carriage immediately began moving. Edie glanced at George. A problem, but one they would sort out later.
Lady Howard had sunk forward and was sobbing into Edie’s lap. ‘Lady Howard,’ she said, setting the woman back in her seat. ‘Whatever is the matter?’ George produced a handkerchief and handed it to Lady Howard, who dabbed her eyes. She looked to be mid-thirties, dressed as expected of her class in the seventeenth century, and utterly miserable.
‘I’m sorry.’ Lady Howard blew her nose politely and sniffed. ‘It’s just my carriage has taken this road for the last hundred and eighteen thousand, two hundred and sixty-three nights and you’re the first person not to run away screaming.’ Lady Howard resumed sobbing.
George leaned to Edie and whispered, ‘A meticulous timekeeper. That’s unusual.’
‘Indeed. You had barely any knowledge of how much time had passed for you.’
‘Don’t remind me of my age, Edie. Besides, I wasn’t dead.’
‘And you’re looking good for half a millennium.’ Edie focused back on the sobbing woman. ‘Lady Howard—may I call you Mary? If that is your name?’
Lady Howard blinked back the tears and gave a halfhearted, small smile. ‘Yes, it is, and you may.’
Edie smiled back, thankful to return to a firmer footing. ‘As I said earlier, my name is Edie, and this is George. We are what is known in the business as hedge riders. We flitter between the human realm—the realm you lived in—and what is called the otherworld or the fae realm. We fear you are stuck somewhere in between. You see, Mary, a ghost story has emerged from your nightly carriage rides, and everyone we have met in a situation such as yours would do anything to free themselves from it.’
‘I know I am dead, and rightly caged in this purgatory.’
‘Rightly?’ George leaned forward, causing the leather to creak. ‘Why would you say that?’
Lady Howard looked disapprovingly at George’s seat. ‘Alan always made a lot of noise.’
‘Alan Percy, my first husband. That’s whose skin you’re sitting on. You’re sitting on Thomas Darcy,’ she directed to Edie, ‘my second husband.’ She blushed. ‘I was only sixteen when I married my third, John Howard.’ She patted the leather she sat upon.
‘And the empty seat I take is Richard Grenville?’ asked George.
Lady Howard scowled. ‘Yes, and you’re more than welcome to put your muddy boots on his hide!’ She paused and took a moment to compose herself. ‘I am sorry. Of my four husbands, the memories I hold of him are… undesirable.’
‘Folklore says he died shortly after you had a son together. The records say otherwise and state you divorced.’
“We did divorce. But he was dead to me, and I to him.’
‘Why do you believe you are here?’ Edie pressed.
‘Because I am cursed.’
‘Well, Mary, you will be happy to know curses are a speciality of ours. They are both the easiest and the hardest thing to break, but I am certain we will free you of yours before dawn.’
Hope flashed in Lady Howard’s eyes before reason quashed it. ‘It’s impossible.’
‘Excuse me for being so blunt,’ said George, ‘but folk say your husbands’ deaths were not through accident or misfortune, but by your own hand, and that is why you are here.’
‘Folk said such things while I was alive. Although never in my presence. Said Richard got off lightly by divorcing me. I divorced him! But no, I never murdered them. Men circled me like carrion after my father died and left what remained of the family fortune. King James himself intervened and sold me off to the Duke of Northumberland, and he in turn married me off to Alan Percy. Neither wanted me, just my money. The Percy’s were unhappy when Alan died of a fever whilst on a hunting trip, and angry when I eloped with Thomas. He was such a sweet young man. It was such a pity he died of a fever too. But then I wouldn’t have met John.’
‘He was a better match I take?’ Edie asked.
Lady Howard bit her bottom lip.
‘Presented the better parts of the two previous husbands?’ offered George.
‘Yes. John Howard was from a family befitting of me to marry. We got on, and I was content. But it wasn’t love. A fever took John as well.’ Lady Howard’s spine bowed. ‘Maybe I did kill them? Poisoned by my very presence?’
‘If that were true, then your fourth husband would not have lived,’ said Edie.
‘It is sinful for me to say, but sometimes I wish he hadn’t.’
‘Why did you marry Sir Richard Grenville?’ asked Edie. ‘Was it by choice? Did you believe he would bring you the love you craved?’
Lady Howard looked pained. ‘I—thought he would… hoped even. I vowed never to remarry, but after six years alone, I knew the children needed a father, but I needed a husband and someone who saw me beyond my money. Richard was my Lancelot. Only now do I see how much he took from me. He controlled every aspect of my life and I foolishly allowed it to happen. Now I see John loved me in his own way, but back then I couldn’t see it. That is why I took his name when Richard and I divorced. I felt more comfortable with his name than even my own. Richard reminded me of father in all the good ways and all the bad.’
The carriage jolted in a pothole. Edie swore she heard the leather seats groan. The small space unsettled her. Not in the usual way of hauntings, where the sense of dread becomes all-consuming. This space felt stuffy and claustrophobic. The leather seat had been warm when she first sat in it, and now it positively radiated heat. Edie couldn’t shake off the unnerving feeling she was sitting in Thomas Darcy’s lap.
She pinched the leather and sensed the seat squirm beneath her. Could she feel a heartbeat? Or was it just her own? She glanced at George, knowing his keen senses would confirm her suspicions. The carriage may be adorned in her husbands’ bones, but all those squidgy parts which normally wither away were firmly locked within the tanned leather. Asking aloud in front of Lady Howard probably wouldn’t take a positive turn.
Besides, things were piecing together. ‘Your father—’ Edie began.
Lady Howard pretended to be interested in the passing scenery. ‘Do we have to talk about him?’
‘I feel we must.’
‘Later? I am in no hurry. Do stay.’
‘Lady Howard,’ said George, ‘I do not know where you and your carriage go after dawn, but I am sure it is to a place where the living are not meant to tread. If we remain here with you after dawn, there is a chance we won’t be here come dusk when you ride out again. We know you are lonely, but please show us the kindness to let us depart. We promise to meet you on the road tomorrow if we cannot break the curse tonight.’
Lady Howard’s eyes glistened with tears. ‘You cannot break it. I have tried. Every night my hound plucks a blade of grass from Okehampton Castle and lays it back on the granite rock outside my home. When the castle mound is bare, I will be at rest.’
‘The impossible task,’ said Edie. ‘Your mention of Lancelot makes me think you were keen on romance and tragedy stories. We can help you break the curse, but I’m not spraying chemicals over the castle mound when there is an easier and more nature-friendly means of breaking it.’
Lady Howard frowned. ‘There is no other way.’
‘Mary, who is driving the carriage?’ she asked bluntly.
Lady Howard shrank into her seat, which moaned softly.
‘A headless driver, because you refuse to speak or acknowledge who he represents: your father.’
‘My father died a long time ago.’
‘And so did you, Mary. Yet some part remains, and it chooses to cage herself in the bones of her dead husbands while being driven by the shadow of her father. The simple truth is, you cursed yourself.’
‘God cursed me for the evil I have done.’
‘And I bet King James gifted you a copy of his book on Daemonologie before he sold you off,’ said George wryly. ‘Impressional bedtime reading for a nine-year-old. Did the king suggest demons drove your father to madness, murder and suicide?’
‘There was good in him! He loved me!’
‘By all written accounts, your father, Sir John Fitz, was a nasty piece of work the moment he came into money,’ said Edie. ‘He knowingly murdered two men. Rather than face his growing list of enemies, he chose suicide. Then you inherited what remained of that fortune, although he tried his hardest to spend it. Your father’s history didn’t put off potential suitors looking to increase their wealth. Then a series of unfortunate events made you believe whatever demons plagued your father had followed you. Mary, I can tell you now that demons don’t exist. This is all a story you have conjured in your head, and you have the power to make it stop.’
Something in Lady Howard’s demeanour changed, like the centuries of tension had suddenly come undone.
‘Lady Howard,’ George said kindly, ‘As one once cursed, let me assure you that what Edie says is true. You speak of the wickedness of your fourth husband, and how his controlling ways made you believe what he said of you was true. Curses are no different. Someone can curse you, but for it to root and take hold you have to believe it. These words you have spoken to yourself have been said for too long.’
He took her hands and looked deep into her eyes. Edie knew that look. Even in his human form, George could stare at you with that doggy sense of unconditional love and loyalty that could melt all but the coldest of hearts.
‘We ask of you one thing: rebel. You’ve allowed this cage to grow around you. Now it is time to set yourself free.’
Lady Howard withdrew her hands and tightened them into fists. ‘You know, I always wished I killed him.’ Without warning, she punched the seat that had been Richard Grenville. Sinking her nails deep, she scratched into the leather, leaving a wake of red welts across the seat cushion.
George withdrew a Swiss Army knife from his pocket, flicked the blade, and offered it to Lady Howard.
‘Oh, thank you.’ Lady Howard stabbed the blade into the leather. A man’s scream pierced the carriage and turned into a guttural moan as she sliced through it like cake, emptying Richard’s bowels onto the carriage floor (and over most of George’s boots and trousers) with a wet slap.
Lady Howard was up from her seat (no small feat in a carriage where you are knocking knees with the person opposite) and slashed wildly at both Richard’s seat and John’s. The carriage braked at a supernatural speed, slamming both Edie and George into Lady Howard and the gore-soaked seating.
Outside, the hellhound barked in alarm.
‘Excuse me, ladies. I think we are going to have problems with our driver.’ George took off his coat, opened the door and exited the carriage, leaving a wake of clothing before dropping onto all fours. As he moved between moonlight and shadow, Edie thought his shape-shift from human to a huge, black wolfhound looked eerily like a bad stop-motion animation from a horror film. Lady Howard now wildly attacked Alan Percy’s leather hide, which George had been sitting in.
Edie tore the seat which had been Richard Grenville from its bone bracket and tipped it out of the carriage, hitting the half-open door on the way, which tore apart like paper.
Dusting off her hands, and in full knowledge Lady Howard was taking care of things inside the carriage, Edie clambered into the driver’s seat. It seemed the hellhound had decided George was an ally as the two of them now circled the headless driver. Her hand brushed over something familiar and she took from a pouch a rifle.
How did guns work back in the Jacobean era? The word matchlock stuck in her mind, but little more. Bloody Hell! Worst case, she could use it as a club.
Edie raised the rifle. ‘George, get out the bloody way!’ Powder flashed, searing her cheek. She saw the driver pushed back by the force of the bullet. The recoil alone slammed her into the driver’s seat and the world disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
‘George?’ she called. He barked in return at the same moment a figure rose from the smoke, and she found herself face to… well, face to space with the headless driver. A gaping hole was visible in his torso as well as where his head should be. Edie aimed the barrel between his legs and drove it into his groin, an action which did nothing to hinder him.
George sprang, body-slamming the driver and they toppled to the ground. Habit and instinct made George go for the throat, and in the instant of hesitation when he realised there was barely any neck to grab, the driver’s hands clamped over his jaws and tried to push him away.
Lady Howard chose this moment to burst through the carriage roof. George’s knife was still in her hand, and her face and dress were crimson in blood. Pushing Edie aside, Lady Howard let out an almighty cry and plunged the knife into the driver’s seat.
The headless driver loosened his grip on George and doubled over in pain.
‘This isn’t my fate anymore,’ Lady Howard cried. ‘We died long ago. You haunted me in life and in death. Now it is time for us to both find peace.’ With a final flourish, Lady Howard tore through the leather and the headless driver crumpled like a fallen Jedi. The carriage groaned alarmingly and Edie jumped away just as the whole thing disintegrated. Five distinct pools of blood lie among the bone dust and an ethereal wind roared along the road until only Lady Howard remained along with a sleek, grey running hound. The blood from her dress had gone, and she looked around like a convict who’d seen the sky again.
Edie felt George’s wet nose against her hand. The two women and their hounds face one another.
‘Thank you, Edie.’ Lady Howard studied the huge black wolfhound. ‘Thank you, George.’
George bared his teeth into a grin, retrieved his discarded clothing in his jaws, and slinked behind a bush. The bush rustled and some peculiar sounds came from George who, a few moments later, reappeared dressed, his hair dishevelled and hands caked in mud.
Lady Howard looked at them, uncertain. ‘What happens now?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Edie. ‘But we’ll all find out someday.’
Lady Howard took a deep breath. Birds sang. The dawn chorus stirred at the first whispers of the day. Lady Howard smiled. ‘I cannot recall the last time I heard this. Come, Di,’ she called to the hound and together they walked towards the lightening sky. Their bodies lost form until only Edie and George remained on the road.
George put a hand to Edie’s cheek. ‘More battle scars, Edie?’
‘You got away unscathed. And luckily the phantom blood has vanished. When Richard Grenville’s inners came out, I could only think of the pain of cleaning your trousers once we’re home.’
George chuckled. Taking her hand, they walked along the road.
‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘No idea.’ George bent down at the spot where Lady Howard disappeared and retrieved his pocketknife and handkerchief.
‘I’m sure if we keep walking we’ll find a village or a bus stop. What next? Do you fancy tackling the Wisht Hounds at Wistman’s Wood?’
‘No more hellhounds.’
‘There’s the Hairy Hands on Dartmoor.’
George laughed. ‘The Hairy Hands? What do they do?’
‘They’re disembodied ghostly hairy hands which grab the steering wheel and handlebars of unsuspecting travellers and drive them off the road.’
‘Why don’t we give the moors a miss and catch a bus home?’
Lady Howard is a well known ghost story in neighbouring Devon. It says Lady Howard was a wicked woman whose four husbands died under mysterious circumstances. Only after losing her infant son did she too die of a broken heart. Her ghost rides in a carriage made from the bones of her many husbands and is driven by a headless driver. She makes the trip to Okehampton Castle where the hellhound who accompanies the carriage plucks a blade of grass from the castle mound and returns it to Lady Howard’s residence. Only when the mound is bare will she ever find peace. Historical records suggest she outlived her first three husband’s and divorced the fourth, who did treat her badly. She lived till her seventies and was well liked in the community, unlike her father.
Edie Lockhart and George Nelson are from my current WIP, Guesthouse for the Lost and Found. Writing short stories is a fun way for me to delve into character backstories and I thought by combining my writing and my interest in folklore offered my take on a local ghost story.
Happy Halloween! Samhain Blessings! Or, if you’re Cornish, like me. Happy Allentide.