Cover Image
Steve White
A Gambler's Choice

A yellow stagecoach pulled up to the front of the Cotswold hotel. Its four harnessed horses nodding with impatience. The driver sat up high on the coach, holding the reigns in his lap as he looked down towards the hotel entrance and the men gathered there.

     Courtney Littleton acknowledged the driver with a nod of his head as Trevis, the hotel proprietor, followed him out.

     "Sir, are you sure I cannot convince you to stay the night?"

     "It's very kind of you to ask," said Courtney. "But business calls."

     The hotel owner frowned and wrung his hands. "Of course, sir. However, I can assure you, my rooms will be better than those at that old castle. You'll not sleep in a better bed."

     James Stillwell watched the back and forth. "You're wasting your breath."

     Courtney agreed. "Master Trevis, the food you served was fantastic. So, I have no doubt about the quality of your rooms. However, I'm actually looking forward to staying the night in an old castle." Courtney glanced up the High Street. "I was told about the beauty of Broadway and I have to say, they were right. It certainly does take your breath away."

     The proprietor licked his lips. His fingers fidgeted by his belly. He then pulled out his pocket watch before quickly returning it.

     "All the more reason for you to stay tonight," he pressed. "Surely a good night's rest is better for business. You could leave first thing in the morning, conduct your affairs with the Breertons during the day, and then be back before nightfall."

     "You know the Breertons?" asked Courtney.

     Master Trevis coughed and cast his eyes to the floor. "Well, err, not personally."

     "What do you know of them?" asked James.

     "Nothing," said Trevis. "I don't know anything. I'm sure you'll enjoy your stay at the castle."

<  2  >

     Courtney chuckled. "Master Trevis, you can be sure James and I will return tomorrow on our journey back to London. I'd like some more of that excellent beef."

     "Perhaps," said Trevis. He turned to leave then paused. "Would you mind someone joining you on the journey? There's a guest here who's going your way."

     "Of course, there's plenty of room in the carriage," said James.

     Courtney climbed into the coach, followed by James. After a few moments, a middle-aged man hurried from the hotel towards the coach. He opened the door and climbed in, sitting himself next to James. No sooner had he sat down than the carriage moved away.

     "This is awfully kind of you," he said. "Peter Tenley, at your service."

     "Courtney Littleton, and this is my good friend and business partner, James Stillwell."

     "It's a pleasure. Have you been this way before?" asked Peter.

     "No," said Courtney. "This is our first time."

     "Enjoying it so far?"

     "The area is beautiful," said Courtney. "I'd like to tackle some of these hills, but I don't think my legs will be up to it. I spend too much time behind a desk."

     "Then you should let a horse do all the work."

     Courtney smiled politely. "We're usually too busy to leave London."

     "You're from London? What are you doing all the way out here?"

     "We're architects," said James. "We were approached by a member of the Breerton family to have a look at their castle. They came to see us personally, so it was very difficult to say no."

     "And on top of that," said Courtney, "our office is at Blackfriars. It's very rare we get a chance to see what's on the other side of the city walls."

<  3  >

     "And what about you, Master Tenley?" asked James. "Are you from round here?"

     "Born and bred. I live in Pershore. Which is where I'm going now."

     "Do you stay at Broadway often?" asked Courtney.

     "I sure do. And each visit, I use the same hotel, and the same room. You could say it's my second home, and Trevis gives me a fair deal."

     "So, you know him quite well would you say?" asked Courtney.

     Pete shrugged. "I suppose so."

     "Just now, as we were about to board this stagecoach, Trevis seemed… on edge."

     "I can't say I noticed," said Pete.

     "He didn't want us to leave."

     Pete chuckled. "He's a hotel owner. He doesn't want anyone to leave."

     "No, it was more than that. I'm somewhat of a gambling man, Master Tenley. I don't use blind luck when placing money on a horse. Over the years, I like to think I've become a good judge of character. I see subtle emotions which I use in my favour before making decisions. Back there, Master Trevis was worried. I don't know what about. That's why I was wondering if you knew."

     Pete sat back and crossed his arms. "I can't say I do."

     Courtney read the guarded posture but didn't pursue it, choosing instead to watch the scenery go by. Lush green fields of fresh wheat followed by meadows of grazing sheep.

     "It's very fertile round here," he said.

     Pete agreed. "It makes for great ale. The barley in these parts is second to none. It's the same with the wool which we sail down the river to the Stroud valley."

     Courtney looked out the window again. "We seem to approaching a rather large hill."

<  4  >

     "That'll be Bredon. In fact, you should be able to see the castle soon. It's ideally placed on a hillock beside the main hill."

     The stagecoach pressed on, passed a small copse, and just as Pete described, the grey walls of a fortress appeared in the distance.

     Courtney pointed out the window so James moved to take a look.

     "Oh, this is going to be a couple of days to remember," said James.

     "I'd say," said Pete.

     "Staying the night in a castle!" James continued. "I wager Sir Breerton has some stories to tell. Look how dramatic it is."

     Courtney spied some rooftops. "It looks like we're approaching a village."

     "That'll be Elmleah," said Pete.

     The stagecoach began to slow and then came to a stop.

     "What's happening?" asked James.

     A small hatch in the carriage roof slid open and the driver peered in.

     "Why have we stopped?" asked Courtney.

     "From what I can tell," said the driver. "It looks like there's a hanging about to take place. I'd say most of the village has come to watch. They're blocking the road. We'll have to wait until it's over."

     Peter's eyes lit up. He shuffled along his seat and then stepped out of the coach. James and Courtney followed.

     The lane was filled with men and women. Some had gathered around a large stone cross that towered above the side of the road. But most stood in front of a hedge. Beyond the hedge was a wooden scaffold under a huge oak tree. Four men stood on the scaffold. One of them was a priest dressed in a cream-coloured gown, his bible held tightly under his arm. Standing with him were two burly men, holding a fourth who wriggled frantically within their grip. A scarf covered his mouth, preventing him from talking.

<  5  >

     Pete turned and grinned at his fellow passengers. "It looks like we're just in time."

     "I wonder what he's done," asked James.

     "He may not have done anything," said Courtney. "I'll wager he's innocent."

     Pete frowned. "I know you city folk look down upon us out here, but we are capable of upholding the law. What makes you think he's innocent?"

     "Look at what he's wearing," said Courtney. "He's wearing silk stockings, tailored breeches, and the finest of waistcoats. The man's a gentleman. In fact, there's a labourer at the front wearing the gentleman's coat."

     An unshaven man stood laughing with his friends as he twirled in an expensive coat.

     Someone unseen, at the front began to speak.

     "This man was welcomed into our village, and treated with kindness. He was given the finest meals, drank our ale, and tasted exquisite wines. And what was our reward for such generosity? He spread lies about our lords. It is an insult to all of us. There can only be one punishment."

     Courtney waited for a cheer. There was none. A rope was tied arrived the victim's neck. He struggled, hopping back from the scaffold's edge. The two burly men beside him dragged him to the front and then pushed him off. The watching villagers gasped as the rope stretched tight. The women bowed their heads and began to cry. The men held their loved ones while watching the victim wriggle.

     "I'm not entirely sure if gossip is a reason to be hanged," Courtney whispered to Pete.

     "Maybe you're right. Maybe we do things a little differently out here. But you're right to whisper. These are proud people. They have different beliefs to you city folk. You'd do well to keep your opinions to yourself."

     The crowd began to disperse in the direction of the thatched roofs. Courtney and James watched from the side of the stagecoach as the villagers left in couples or groups. They'd glance across to the gallows and the victim left hanging at the end of the rope, then move away discussing what they'd seen.

<  6  >

     With the road clear, Courtney, James, and Peter, climbed back aboard the coach. The driver gave a command to the horses and they were off again, heading deeper into the village. The people walking back stopped to watch and pointed. Courtney smiled at one group. The gesture wasn't reciprocated. Instead, a woman gave the sign of the cross over her chest.

     "If you raise this hanging up at the castle," said Pete, "choose your words carefully. As I said, we do things differently here. You don't want to cause offense."

     "I don't see that as being a problem," said James. "I think we'll be too busy discussing the nature of the repairs to the castle."

     "James is right," said Courtney. "We have one night then we head back to London."

     The stagecoach began to slow down.

     "This is where I must leave you," said Pete. "Well, it's been a pleasure meeting you both. I hope you enjoy your stay at the castle."

     Pete opened the door once the coach came to a stop.

     "It's been an engaging short journey," said Courtney. "I hope you arrive back home safely."

     "Thank you," said Pete. "One more piece of advice: trust your instincts."

     As the stagecoach moved away, James chuckled. "What does that even mean? He was an odd fellow."

     Courtney stuck his head out the window and glanced back towards the whitewashed walls of The Queens Head Inn. Pete stood beside the door to the inn and waved. When Courtney settled back down again, he exhaled wearily.

     "It's all odd,' he said. "Everyone's odd. Why would Trevis, at Broadway, try to stop us from coming here just because the night's drawing in? Why would a small village hang a gentleman for lying? Maybe he spoke up about something they were trying to keep quiet? As much as I'm loving the scenery, I'll be glad to get back to London."

<  7  >

     The stagecoach trundled up the hill towards the castle. Huge potholes in the track made the carriage rock violently. Courtney and James hung on, laughing with each lurch. Out the window, the grey stone walls of the old fortress drew closer. Two ruined bastions protruded from the walls. The stone blocks were weathered and rounded. The cement between them, slowly turning to powder and washing away. There were signs of war too. A big V-shape in the wall was surrounded by scorch marks.

     "If the rest of the castle looks like this, we'll have our work cut out for us," said James.

     "It depends on how bad it is inside," said Courtney.

     The driver headed straight for the gate and passed under the doorless arch, into the castle's courtyard. Roofless buildings built against the walls showed no sign of life. Their glassless black windows sprouted weeds from their sills.

     The stagecoach continued across the courtyard and then rumbled across a wooden bridge, spanning an inner moat. Darkness engulfed the inside of the carriage as they passed through another gatehouse. As the light returned, several men stood waiting in the inner ward. One moved towards the stagecoach and opened the door once the vehicle had stopped.

     "Welcome to Elmleah Castle," said the man.

     Courtney and James stepped down and arched their travel-weary backs.

     "We've traveled light," said James as the other men in the group went about collecting the luggage before carrying them up some stairs to the castle's main entrance.

     Courtney slowly turned, taking in the buildings that encircled them. His experienced eye picking out the different phases of the build. The keep and what looked like the great hall were Norman. The others were Tudor reconstructions.

     "Please," said the man, indicating the castle's entrance. "Lords Fermat and Pascal await your arrival."

     "Of course," said Courtney. He glanced up. "It'll be dark soon. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the castle tomorrow with the help of the sun."

<  8  >

     The man forced a smile. "Perhaps."

     Courtney turned and frowned. The man stuttered before answering.

     "What I mean is, sir, you have much business to discuss. The day is old, but the night is young."

     As they reached the entrance, the men who carried the baggage reappeared and began to make their way to the gatehouse. They nodded their heads as they passed. The last to leave was the man who guided them.

     "Please excuse me, but I must be heading home."

     "You don't have lodgings here?" asked James.

     The man smiled and started backing up towards the gatehouse. "I prefer my own bed. Sorry, I can't linger. It's unwise to be out in these parts after dark. Good evening."

     He then hurried away and caught up with his friends.

     Courtney and James looked at each other. The latter shrugged.

     "Well," said James. "If it's unwise to be out after dark it's a good job we're staying the night in a castle."

     "I don't believe any of it," said Courtney. "I wager, whatever they fear is just local superstition. I once read that many parts of the country still hold onto the old gods. These people probably fear the full moon."

     James chuckled. "I'm sure you're right. Come on. I want to see inside."

     Courtney bowed and swept his hand towards the door. "Then after you, my lord."

     The hinges of the door groaned as James pushed the door open.

     "Oh, my word," said Courtney. "This is just as I imagined."

     Faded banners patterned with the Breerton family coat of arms adorned the walls. A huge circular chandelier, hanging above their heads, lit up the room, helped by the roaring flames of a large fireplace in the far wall. Two of the walls were covered in intricately carved wooden paneling, while above them, a wooden walkway crossed the room.

<  9  >

     "Hello," said a voice from across the hall. "Welcome to Elmleah Castle."

     A young man, Courtney guessed no older than thirty, stood in an arched doorway. His swept-back blond hair glowed golden in the candlelight.

     "Good day to you, sir," said Courtney. "This is my friend and business partner, James Stillwell, and I'm Courtney Littleton. Together we are Stillwell and Littleton Architects. May we come in?"

     "Of course, make yourselves at home. I'm Fermat, son of Lord Randolph Breerton the 3rd, owner of Elmleah Castle and all its estates." He indicated to the room behind him. "Please, join me for some food."

     Courtney let James go first and Fermat stepped aside so they could enter. The room was brightly lit with candles and oil lamps. A huge fireplace, big enough to walk in, heated the room. Hunting paraphernalia covered the walls with the heads of proud stags as decorations. In the middle of the hall, a long table was filled with dishes and plates of cooked meats and vegetables, bottles of wine and ale.

     "Please, sit," said Fermat. "Eat and drink your fill. We've created this feast just for you."

     "For us?" said James. "We're honoured. I feel under pressure now."

     Courtney agreed. "We usually get rewarded after the work is done."

     Another voice joined the conversation. "Try and see this feast as a thank you for accepting this challenge."

     The man who entered was blond, too, though his hair was long and tied back at the nape.

     "This is my twin brother, Pascal," said Fermat. "And he is right. This feast is our gift to you. It has been a long time since we've had visitors from London."

     Fermat and Pascal moved to the ends of the table and faced each other. They smiled fondly picked up a glass filled with red wine and held it towards their guests.

<  10  >

     "A toast to you." They then turned toward the fireplace and the portrait of a middle-aged man. "And to you grandfather."

     Courtney looked at the painting. The man in the portrait was dressed in Tudor period clothing.

     "Please," said Pascal, "have a seat. Help yourself to the food."

     Courtney and James moved to the nearest chairs and began filling their plates with meats and vegetables. James poured the wine.

     "How was your journey?" asked Fermat.

     "Uneventful," said Courtney. "James was worried about highwaymen before leaving London, but his fears were unfounded."

     "I call it luck," said James.

     "Do you agree?" Pascal asked Courtney.

     "I don't believe in luck," said Courtney. He drank from his wine. "There's a logical explanation for everything. The day before we left London, twelve men were hanged at Tyburn. For two weeks after such events, the roads are always quiet and travelers move around unmolested."

     "What a wonderful answer," said Fermat. "How about chance? Do you believe in chance?"

     "Well, yes, of course," said Courtney. "Just as the word infers, there's a chance that something could happen. But when you use the word luck, it suggests chance plays no part and there's some sort of divine intervention."

     Pascal clapped and laughed in delight. "You're perfect. It will be a pleasure working with you."

     "Yes," said James, "now the subject of work has been broached, which parts of the castle would you like us to concentrate on?"

     "We were wondering, too," said Courtney, "in which style would you want the renovations? As you well know, I'm sure, since London's great fire, there's been a trend in French architecture. However, traditional Tudor rebuilds are still in demand."

     The two brothers smiled at each other across the table.

<  11  >

     "Your enthusiasm is delightful," said Fermat. "However, shall we leave talk of business until tomorrow? Let's talk about you two."

     "Quite right," said Pascal. "You must understand, we rarely leave the castle. To make up for this we tend to invite people to be our guests. To hear their stories gives us great joy. So, please, tell us your story."

     Courtney picked up his wine and drank the remaining mouthful. He placed it back down and patted his stomach. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten so much and now he was feeling lethargic. James was explaining what life was like in Oxford. The brothers, Fermat and Pascal listened intently. They'd talked for two hours straight and the brothers showed no sign of boredom. They lapped up every word.

     Courtney yawned.

     "I'm sorry," said Pascal. "You'll have to forgive us. You've had a long journey and you're tired, and here's us asking you to tell us your adventures."

     "Quite right, brother," said Fermat. "How about I show you to your rooms."

     "That would be nice," said Courtney.

     Pascal stood and bowed. "Then I bid you a good night."

     He walked from the room leaving his brother still sitting and smiling. Fermat stood so Courtney and James followed.

     "You'll find your rooms a little dated, but… impressive," said Fermat. "There was a time when the king would visit while on progress. So, some of the rooms on this wing were where his privy councilors would stay."

     They followed Fermat across the hallway to a grand staircase. The walls all around were covered with wooden paneling. Portraits of the castle's past owners adorned the walls. There were hunting scenes too. On each side of the stairs was a door.

     "Your rooms should be warm," said Fermat. "Our staff were given instructions to leave a fresh fire in the hearths. You should find your luggage in good order too."

<  12  >

     Fermat led them along a narrow corridor and across the walkway with the view of the huge oak door they entered the castle. He finally stopped at a closed door.

     "Courtney, I believe this room will be yours. And your room, James, is the one next door. I hope you enjoy your stay."

     He bowed and then returned back the way he came.

     Courtney opened his door and stepped inside. Dark wood panelling covered the walls and a matching four-poster bed stood against the far wall. His luggage was beside the bed.

     He walked to the fireplace and poked the wood, exciting the flames before placing another log on the hearth.

     A knock on the door was followed by James entering. He smiled as he looked around and then nodded in approval.

     "These rooms are fit for royalty," he said. "It makes you wonder who's slept in these beds. In fact, your beds are better than mine."

     "I'm not sure about that," said Courtney. "And to be honest, there's no way I'm going to sleep tonight."

     "I know how you feel. But at least your room is quiet. I can hear music playing in mine."

     Courtney looked at him questioningly.

     "God's honest truth," said James. "Come and see."

     Once there, James stood beside the fireplace and placed a finger over his lips. Courtney stepped closer and tilted his head. Above the roar of the fire, there was a subtle, but definitely audible sound of an organ playing.

     "I can hear it," said Courtney. "It's probably one of the brothers in another wing of the castle."

     "Well, if we're both not going to sleep, how about we go down to the dining room and see if there's any wine left."

<  13  >

     "What a wonderful idea. Though, it might be best if we go easy. We can ill afford to make any errors tomorrow."

     James grinned. "Agreed."

     He turned and hurried from the room. Courtney laughed and followed.

     They crept down the corridor, listening for any hints that their idea may be thwarted, and heard what sounded like a heavy iron lock being slid into place. They reached the walkway that spanned the entrance hall and looked down. Fermat was by the huge door.

     They continued down, making their way to the entrance hall. Their footsteps across the flagstones echoed around the cavernous interior.

     When they reached the door, Fermat was waiting. As they approached, he put a finger to his lips and moved towards them, glancing round, his eyes staring towards the doorways and openings.

     Being taller, he leaned towards them. "You must leave," he said.

     Courtney and James exchanged glances.

     He nodded to reinforce his words. "I fear my brother, Pascal, means to kill you."

     "Good God," said James.

     "Are you sure?" asked Courtney.

     Fermat nodded. "I'm sorry, there's no time for explanations. You must leave."

     James pointed to the huge oak door. "Then let us out."

     "I'm afraid that's not possible," said Fermat. "There's an unknown danger that lurks these hills. It would be madness to open the door."

     "But you've just asked us to leave," said Courtney.

     "There's a door to the right of the grand staircase. Go through there with all haste. On the other side of the door is a tunnel which will take you all the way down the hill to the church."

     He quickly glanced around as if he thought he heard something. "Don't tarry. Heed my words."

<  14  >

     "This is all we need," whispered James as they watched Fermat leave. "What do you think?"

     Courtney gave the question some thought. "I'm hoping this is their idea of a joke. However, at the same time, I would rather err on the side of caution. The village is a short walk away."

     "That's true."

     "Well, the dining room is through there. I wager the kitchen is attached. Maybe we can leave through there?"

     James agreed. "We could always pay someone from the village to come up here and collect our luggage."

     The dining room remained as they left it. Dirty plates and half-eaten meats next to empty wine bottles. A couple of candles flickered on the table and the fire in the hearth was glowing embers.

     Courtney pointed to a doorway in the far wall. They stepped through and stared down an oil lamp-lit corridor that ended at a wooden door. They crept towards it and then put an ear to the wood.

     Courtney turned the handle and gently pushed the door open. The sweet smell of cooked meat greeted them. They peered in to find the huge kitchen empty.

     "Come on," said Courtney. "Let's check the far wall. There might be a door there."

     He led the way, past a table covered with leftovers from the feast's preparation.

     Somewhere out of sight, an iron dead bolt slid home. They froze beside the table, staring towards the corner of the room where the sound came from.

     Pascal stepped from the shadows and then gasped while holding his chest.

     "You frightened me," he said. "Can you not sleep?"

     Courtney's mind whirled, echoing the warning from Fermat about Pascal's terrifying intent.

     "We came down for some wine," said James.

<  15  >

     "Oh,' said Pascal. "Well, there should be some leftovers from tonight's meal."

     Courtney was about to head back, to put as much distance between him and Fermat's brother.

     "It was a joy to hear your stories tonight," said Pascal. "I want to thank you once again."

     He paused and frowned while fidgeting with a button on his coat.

     "I hate to say this…" he began.

     Courtney tensed.

     "But, be careful of my brother. As much as I love him, he has a tendency to lie. I put it down to envy, especially when we have guests. He feels a need to compete."

     Courtney nodded and smiled. "If we see him, we'll take what he says with a pinch of salt."

     "It would be best," said Pascal.

     As soon as they reached the dining room, Pascal strode away, disappearing deeper into the castle.

     James reached for a bottle of wine and a clean cup. He filled it to the top and then drained it in several gulps.

     "We have just two choices," said Courtney. "We either lock ourselves in our rooms and stay there till morning or we leave by the door Fermat suggested."

     "I prefer your first choice," said James.

     "Agreed," said Courtney.

     They headed back to the staircase. Courtney slowed as they approached the door Fermat instructed them to leave through. A cross had been carved into the wood. They both glanced at each other before continuing to their rooms.

     Courtney opened his door to find Fermat sat on his bed.

     "Why are you still here?"

     "We've just met your brother in the kitchen. He told us not to listen to you. He accused you of being a liar."

<  16  >

     "Of course, he would. He's trying to make you feel safe."

     "Well, we've decided to lock ourselves in our rooms until morning."

     "Are you mad? You think you'll be safe in here? On your head be it. You can't say I didn't warn you."

     He stormed from the room, shaking his head. A moment later, James knocked on the door and entered.

     "Because of the layout of my room, I think it might be best to lock ourselves in your room."

     "I've changed my mind," said Courtney. "We're leaving."

     "What? I thought we'd agreed to stay here?"

     "Fermat was here when we returned from the kitchen. He warned us again to leave. In all honesty, if it weren't for the cross carved on the door downstairs I'd have chosen to remain here. However, it reinforces his assurance that it leads to the church. And as a gambling man, I'd say the odds that he's right have increased. So, I say we leave."

     James shrugged. "Well, if you think it's best…"

     They crept along the corridor, listening for footsteps. The staircase was clear. They descended, pausing at the bottom. The castle was still, with not a sound.

     Courtney approached the door. Suddenly, Pascal hurried from the shadows. His feet never making a sound.

     Courtney tensed and prepared to protect himself. The gesture made Pascal smirk.

     "So, you're falling for my brother's lies, are you? You're leaving."

     Courtney and James remained silent.

     "All right," said Pascal. "But if you insist on leaving, use that door." He pointed to the door on the left side of the stairs. "It will take you to the church."

     He shook his head. "Well, best of luck." Then he chuckled. "But of course, you don't believe in luck, do you? It's all chance."

<  17  >

     He left as he entered, disappearing into the shadows.

     Once they were alone, James moved purposefully towards the door with the cross. Courtney hesitated.

     "What's the matter?" asked James.

     "For the first time in my life, I've received all the information I'm ever going to get and now I have to make a choice."


     "I don't know which door to choose. What if I make the wrong decision?"

     "Welcome to my world. It's fifty-fifty."

     James tried the door. It opened, revealing a corridor with a gentle incline. A flaming torch hung on the wall. He retrieved the torch from the wall and headed deeper. Courtney followed and closed the door behind him.

     As they continued, the corridor began to turn and arch to the left. At the same time, the way became steeper. Moisture ran from the walls making the stone floor slippery.

     James stopped. "Can you hear that?"

     Beyond the sound of dripping water, a faint melodic music played deeper below them.

     "I could be wrong," said Courtney, "but it sounds like that organ we heard in your room is playing."

     "It couldn't be the church, could it?"

     "Not at this time of night."

     James closed his eyes and sighed. "I'll be glad when I'm home. You know what, the next time someone comes into the office asking for us to leave London, we should politely say no."

     "You'll get no argument from me there."

     James slowed and held out the torch.

     "What's up?" asked Courtney.

     "The path ends here. There's a hole in the floor, though the drop looks manageable. Eight, maybe nine feet. But once we're down, there's no coming back."

<  18  >

     "This was always one way. I just want to get out of here."

     James passed Courtney the torch and then lowered himself down. Courtney followed. The music grew louder.

     "That's not an organ," said Courtney. "That's a harpsichord. I remember my grandmother had one."

     "Shall we go and see who it is and say hello."

     The player was excellent. Every note hit clean. The timing and pace, perfect, and filled with passion. The music sounded like it was in a big hall. The notes ending in a slight echo.

     Courtney stepped into a huge cavern, a natural cave deep under Elmleah Castle. Spring water flowed between rocks in the wall to splash into a small pool before streaming through the middle of the cavern. Moss covered the rocks near the pool and ferns grew thick beside the stream.

     On the far side of the cavern, antique furniture and cupboards created a living space. Candles and oil lamps bathed the area with light, causing deep shadows behind the rocks and crevices. The harpsichord and its player took center stage. His back was to Courtney and James. He continued to play, swaying with the melody, feeling every note. Like the brothers, his clothes were old. He wore a scarlet, Tudor-style coat, with wolf fur trimming. He even wore a ruff.

     He suddenly stopped playing and the cavern fell silent. His head turned slightly as if his senses warned him that he was not alone. He finally turned in his chair and stared at Courtney and James.

     "Good evening," he said. "Or is it good night? I suppose it must be night."

     He signaled for them to enter, using his hand to beckon them in.

     "Come in, come in," he said. "Don't be shy."

     James tried to break the tension. "You won't bite?"

     The man acknowledged the joke and smiled. "I'm not sure I can promise that."

<  19  >

     They wandered in but kept their distance.

     "I'm Courtney, and this is James."

     "Pleased to meet you," said the man. "And I am Lord Randolph Breerton the 2nd."

     Courtney remembered the dining room portrait. If this was Randolph Brereton the 2nd, he was over one hundred years old.

     "So, the boys sent you down here?" asked Randolph.

     "We were told this was the way to the church," said James.

     Randolph chuckled. "Fermat?"

     Courtney nodded.

     "That means he's won again. Clever boy."

     "He's won what?" asked Courtney.

     "The great game, of course," said Randolph.

     "So, there's no church?" asked James.

     "No," said Randolph, shaking his head. "Just me."

     He pointed to the harpsichord. "Did you approve of my playing?"

     "Yes," said James, "you're very good."

     "Why thank you. Would you care for a closer look?"

     Courtney and James stepped towards the harpsichord. Randolph watched, smiling. Courtney glanced towards him. Lord Breerton's eyes were bloodshot and his pale smooth skin was tight over his cheekbones.

     Randolph suddenly leaped at James, grabbing him roughly, moving his head aside, and biting down into his neck. James screamed and wriggled in the man's hands.

     Courtney panicked and climbed the nearest rocks, trying to get away. Up above, he spied a small opening, big enough to squeeze through. His foot slipped on a tiny stone. Terrified of being next he glanced over his shoulder. Randolph had released James revealing a hideous sight. His face was a picture of ecstasy. His eyes were closed as if savoring the taste. His tongue slowly moved across his bloodied lips and teeth, smearing his mouth red.

<  20  >

     When he opened his eyes, he stared straight at Courtney. He let go of James and leaped up the rocks.

     Courtney scrambled a little higher then lost his balance, slipping back down again. A hand grabbed his leg. Courtney cried as he was dragged to the ground. The vampire was on top of him, laughing, his blood-smeared teeth glistening from the lamplight. Courtney struck out, punching, doing anything to break free from the vampire's grip. Suddenly, Randolph's back arched and he screamed in pain. He got to his feet and stepped back; his face screwed up in agony. He twisted in an attempt to dislodge something in his back. He'd been stabbed. James stood a few steps away.

     "Come on," said James.

     Courtney got to his feet and pointed up the rocks. "Up there. There's an opening. It looks like a narrow tunnel"

     They reached the opening to find it surrounded by crucifixes carved into the rock. James scrambled in. Courtney put his head through when a hand grabbed his leg. A burst of pain engulfed his calf, making him cry out. Randolph was behind him, biting down on his leg. Courtney gasped and fought back the urge to be sick. He could feel the blood in his veins being sucked from his leg. He kicked with his other leg, but it made no difference. He tried again. This time Randolph released his grip. Sensing freedom, Courtney scurried up the rocks. James was in the tunnel holding out a hand. Courtney took it and allowed himself to be helped through. He shuffled backward, scrapping his elbows and knocking his head, fearing Randolph would follow. The vampire's face appeared at the tunnel opening, but he never entered. Instead, his eyes glared round the edges of the tunnel entrance then he hissed in anger at his fleeing victims.

     After several meters of crawling, the tunnel opened into a large room. At its center was a stone sarcophagus with a smooth flat top.

     "Why didn't he follow us?" asked James.

<  21  >

     Courtney shook his head. "The only thing I can think of was he must have been fearful of crosses. The tunnel entrance was covered in them."

     Someone moved behind James. "And you'd be quite right, too," said Fermat.

     James suddenly fell. Courtney felt a sharp pain in the back of his head and everything went black.

     Courtney came round to the sound of voices. He opened his eyes to find himself sitting on the ground with his hands tied behind his back and his ankles tied too. James was lying on his back on the sarcophagus. Fermat and Pascal were stood beside him.

     "You never had any intentions of letting us go, did you?" asked Courtney.

     The brothers turned and smiled.

     "Your awake," said Pascal. "Of course, we did."

     "It's true," said Fermat. "Everything we told you was the truth. However, having a grandfather who's a vampire complicates things. For one, we can't leave the castle, we have to stay here and make sure Randolph remains imprisoned. And that also means feeding him. For if we don't, he'll attempt to escape. Our father found that out the hard way. Randolph killed one of the locals. Nasty business. They threatened to burn the castle down. However, we made a deal with them. In order to protect them, we arrange for victims to come here. But in return, the villagers make sure our secret never gets out."

     Pascal nodded. "We also grew a little guilty that we were sending people to their deaths, so, we came up with a game. First, we come up with a reason for you to want to leave in the dead of night. Fermat would say I was a murderer, then I would confuse things and tell you he was lying. Then we gave you a choice of two doors. You see, if you'd have listened to me and gone through the door to the left of the staircase, it would have taken you to the church."

<  22  >

     "The previous evening's visitor chose the correct door," said Pascal. "However, the first thing he did was tell the locals we tried to kill him. They in turn stuck to their part of the deal and hung him this afternoon. We can't have our secret getting out."

     Fermat placed a stake against James' chest. Before Courtney could object, Fermat hammered the stake through James' heart. Courtney stared in horror, too scared to scream. Pascal then took an axe and cut off James' head. Blood ran down the sarcophagus and the head hit the ground and then rolled towards the wall. Neither brother showed any sympathy. They dragged the body clear of the sarcophagus and dropped it to the ground.

     "Unfortunately," said Pascal as he and his brother moved towards Courtney, "you've both been bitten."

     "Which means," said Fermat as they carried Courtney to the sarcophagus, "you'll become a vampire, too. And we can't have that."

     Courtney wriggled but didn't have the strength to resist. Pascal held his shoulders down as Fermat placed the stake against his chest.

     "Please," he wailed, but Fermat swung the hammer. The stake buried deep.

     Courtney gasped as the wind was knocked from his lungs. The pain in his chest was more than he could bear. Through the tears blurring his vision, he saw Pascal raise the axe. Closing his eyes, he said a quick prayer.

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