Bessie Bell and the Goblin King
Tales of Aylfenhame #3
The Lincolnshire Wolds, 1812. When housemaid Bessie Bell is thrown out into a cold October night, her prospects could scarcely seem worse. With nowhere to go and no one to help her, how will she survive? But on the road she meets a mysterious gentleman, and her fortunes take an immediate turn for the… strange. For the nightmare horse Tatterfoal stalks the fog-drenched Wolds, and Mr. Green is determined to catch him. But why?
Caught up in a dark adventure, Bessie is swept far beyond the shores of England and into Faerie Aylfenhame. Dangers untold await the unwary in the Goblinlands, though the greatest dangers of all may lie behind her. For Tatterfoal answers only to his master, the Goblin King…
Good evenin’ to ye, an’ well met! Welcome to the Tilby toll-bridge. Steady, now. Yer horses are havin’ a hard time seein’ through the fog, an’ when it’s dark t’ boot, well! Ye’ll want to go good an’ slowly through the town. Not that ye’ll meet any other folk on the road. Yer carriage is likely to be the only one sailin’ the streets o’ Tilby at this hour.
I’m Mister Balligumph, yer friendly toll collector. But don’t let that worry ye! Mayhap we’ve met before ̶ I can’t altogether tell in the dark o’ night, yer face is a mite too hidden-like. But either way, the toll’s not steep. I’ll not be needin’ any coin from ye ̶ what would a troll do wi’ English money? It’s a little bit of information I’m after. A bit about ye will suffice. What brings ye to our fine Tilby-town in the depths o’ November, an’ on such a damp an’ foggy night? Thas all I need, an’ ye can pass. An’ if ye’re minded to tell me somethin’ else ̶ somethin’ by way of a secret, like ̶ then I might tell ye a tale by way o’ thanks.
There’s been some mighty strange goin’s on in these parts this autumn. Oh, I know thas not entirely out o’ character fer Tilby. Ye might’ve heard one or two oddly stories about us before ̶ mayhap from me. I talk to a lot o’ folk. But this one’s the strangest yet, an’ a touch on the dark side.
Ye’d like to hear more? Tis a recent tale, all happenin’ only a few short weeks back. I had best warm up yer carriage a trifle before I begin ̶ ‘tis cold t’ be sittin’ long wi’ no heat. There, thas better.
And so, to my tale. It began, in point o’ fact, on a night much like this ̶ dark an’ chilly an’ deep in fog. Rumours had been flyin’ about fer a week or two aforehand, ‘bout a menace on the roads. Travellers bore tales o’ shadows an’ strange noises an’ flamin’ eyes in the night. ‘Twas wishy-washy mutterin’s to be sure, but most folk agreed: wanderin’ about at the dead o’ night may be a poor idea. But fer Bessie Bell, it weren’t rightly a matter o’ choice…
In the humble opinion of Bessie Bell, housemaid, the residents of Hapworth Manor bore a remarkable talent for making a vast quantity of mess in a short space of time. Crouched as she was over the drawing-room carpet, she had plentiful leisure to reflect upon their slovenly habits as she sweated over the sweeping-up. Just how was it possible for four people to leave a pristine room in such an abominable state every single evening? She took pride in her work, and she knew that the drawing-room had been spotless only that morning. Now it was a deplorable mess, and it was her unhappy task to render it respectable once more. And there was a fresh, new stain for her to endeavour to remove, for some obliging guest had spilled Mrs. Adair’s expensive tea all over her floor, and Bessie had been instructed to ensure that naught remained of the mishap by morning.
The Adair family were reckoned as good employers, and not wholly unjustly. They were generous enough with the wages they paid to their servants; they did not stint on such necessities as nourishing food and warm clothes for the winter, as some families did; and the room Bessie slept in each night was shared with only one other servant. These were not inconsiderable benefits.
But in other respects, they left a great deal to be desired. Mrs Adair was exacting in her requirements, almost ferociously so. Bessie rose at four every morning, in order to ensure that the fires were lit for the family before they were pleased to rise. From that hour until ten or eleven o’ clock in the evening, her day was filled with back-breaking labour, and it was not unusual for her to be bidden to clean a room twice over, if Mrs Adair was dissatisfied with her work.
‘I will help you with that, Bess-Bess,’ said a small, mild voice from near Bessie’s elbow.
Bess smiled gratefully at the speaker. Derritharn was a brownie, and though she was only as tall as Bess’s knee, she was a hard worker, an efficient cleaner, and the only being in the world Bess could call friend.
‘Thank you, Derri,’ said Bess. ‘We are gettin’ tired, no doubt, but with a little more effort, I am thinkin’ we’ll be done. And then we can go to bed.’ She sighed, and added, ‘If milady will permit it.’
Derritharn’s little becurled head drooped with weariness, and she wiped her tiny hands upon the ragged grey dress she wore, nodding her agreement. ‘And about time as well! ‘Twas a long day and no mistake.’
Like many towns and villages in England, the Lincolnshire town of Tilby possessed, alongside its human residents, a population of the fae. These varied creatures had chosen, for whatever reason, to leave their natural home of Aylfenhame and settle in human households. Hapworth Manor was home to several brownies who assisted Bessie and the other housemaids with keeping the house clean. Mrs Adair, rather unwisely, treated them more as slaves than servants; too satisfied was she with the unpaid labour she received from these gentle beings, and she worked them every bit as hard as she did Bessie. As such, brownies rarely remained long in the Adairs’ service. Neither did housemaids.
Heartened by the thought of her bed, Bess attacked her work with renewed energy. Her bed was narrow and hard and not nearly so well-smothered with warm blankets as she would like, but at least it was hers. And in it she could lie down, stretch herself out, and welcome the sweet oblivion from her daily toil that she so badly required — even if her slumber tended to be all too brief.
She and Derritharn finished cleaning the carpet, using wadded cloths to protect their hands, and moved on to tidying the rest of the chamber. This work was soon complete, and Bess recognised the end of her working day with relief. But just as she was collecting up the rags and brushes she had been using in her labour, she heard the door creak as it opened.
‘That,’ said a male voice, ‘makes far too much noise. You will see that the hinges are oiled before you retire to your bed.’
Bess controlled her instinctive scowl with an effort. Mr. Edward Adair, the son of the house, had a repellent habit of waylaying her as she went about her duties. His manner was autocratic, and he invariably found additional work for her to do.
Not only that, but he watched her with lascivious eyes every moment she remained in his presence. With his immaculate dark hair and sculpted features he was considered uncommonly handsome, and the other housemaids giggled over his long, appreciative looks. But Bess deplored his character too much to appreciate the undeniable beauty of his face, and the way he stared could not gratify her. She read more than appreciation in his eyes: she read… intent.
Alas, she could not contrive to avoid him altogether. Nor could she point out that the hour was far advanced, and she ought to be asleep. What Mr. Adair required must be done, and Bess could only bob a reluctant curtsey and murmur something assenting.
But he stood in the doorway, blocking her egress. She was obliged to pause and wait, her eyes respectfully lowered, in hope of being permitted to leave. Usually he would look his fill upon her face and figure, and then leave her be.
Tonight, though, he stepped farther into the room and shut the door behind him. ‘A little later,’ he decided. ‘First, I have another duty for you.’
To Bess’s disgust, he approached until he stood only a few inches away from her. He stared down at her, his beautiful blue eyes cold and hard. ‘Bessie, isn’t it?’ he said. Abruptly, he reached out and tore off the frilled white cap she was obliged to wear. ‘Take your hair down,’ he ordered.
Bess’s eyes narrowed, and a flicker of anger flared in her heart. She took a step back, shaking her head. ‘Sir, I have work to do. Mrs. Sanders is expectin’ me below stairs ̶ ‘ She hoped that invoking the name of the housekeeper might give him pause, but the gambit failed.
‘Never mind,’ he interrupted, and advanced upon her once more. ‘I’ll do it.’ He began yanking the pins out of her hair and dragging long tendrils of it out of the formerly neat arrangement, hurting her but blatantly uncaring. He ran her black, wavy locks through his fingers, and then tugged sharply. Surprise left her unable to suppress her involuntary cry of pain, and he smiled. ‘Forget Mrs. Sanders.’
‘Sir ̶ ‘
‘Not another word,’ he said, his smile gone. ‘As my servant, you are obliged to attend to any duty I should require of you. Do you understand?’
Bessie understood. She felt a flicker of fear – and a surge of fierce anger. This, on top of all of the day’s trials! She lifted her chin. ‘I was hired to clean the house,’ she said firmly. ‘Sir.’
‘Your duties are as I define them.’ He advanced and took hold of her in a hard, cruel grip, one hand tangled painfully in her hair. He kissed her shrinking mouth with violent force, and began pushing her backwards towards the wall behind her.
Bess knew that his behaviour was not uncommon. Some housemaids accepted such duties as an inevitable part of their lives, and submitted; some even enjoyed the attention, provided the young master was handsome enough. But Bess could never submit. She fought his bruising grip, panting with the effort to free herself before he could succeed in pinning her. But he was much stronger than she, and her struggles only hurt her and angered him.
‘Stop that,’ he growled, tightening his grip on her hair until she cried out with the pain of it. He began dragging at her clothes, and Bess heard the tearing sound of fabric ripping through.
Then abruptly he gave a yelp of pain, and released Bess to stare down in bewilderment at Derritharn. The brownie looked smaller than ever, contrasted against his considerable height. But she wielded a tiny metal bucket with both hands, her expression ferocious. She swung it back and smashed it against Edward Adair’s shins twice more, as hard as she could, and shouted, ‘You leave Bess-Bess alone! You’re frightening her!’
Mr. Adair kicked Derritharn, and the brownie fell to the ground with a cry of pain. She lay in a miserable little heap and did not move.
Bess glared at the arrogant boy, making no effort to disguise her hatred of him. ‘That,’ she said slowly, ‘was not the best decision you’ve ever made.’ She caught up the bucket Derritharn had dropped, paused a moment to take aim, and swung it at Adair’s head. It connected with a satisfying thunk, and he yelped with pain.
Bess raised her weapon for a second blow. ‘Tis a tiny tool, but solid, no?’ She made a show of hefting the miniature bucket, and swung it back and forth. ‘Hurts just a touch when it connects with your foolish noggin, don’t it now? Shall I have another go?’
To her satisfaction, Adair fell back, his face a mask of wrath. ‘You will regret your actions today, maid.‘
‘Eh.’ Bess kept her grip on the bucket, in case he should decide to try again. ‘I doubt it.’
Then again, perhaps she might. For she heard the door handle turn, and then the hinges creaked once more as somebody opened it. Bess had no time to hide the bucket she still wielded, and could only phrase the swiftest of silent prayers that it was but Mrs. Sanders come to check on the maids’ progress.
Alas, it was not.
‘What is the matter in here?’ said Mrs. Adair, with regal displeasure. ‘I thought I heard ̶ ‘ She broke off in surprise, and stared at the vision before her. Bessie could well imagine the scene as her employer saw it. Her upper housemaid with her black hair loose in a wild cloud around her face and her arm raised, clutching a tiny bucket with obvious intent to cause harm. Her precious son in full retreat before this vision of fury, his forehead already purpling with a fresh bruise. And a tiny household brownie (whose name she would never remember), lying in a crumpled heap not far away.
Bess was foolish enough to hope that the obvious explanation would occur to Mrs. Adair, and that she might be lenient.
Fool, she thought in disgust as Mrs. Adair’s face darkened with an anger directed at Bessie.
‘Bell?’ she said. ‘Perhaps you would care to explain why it is that you have assaulted my son.’
‘Because he assaulted me.‘ Bessie would not shrink before that disapproving gaze, and she would not abase herself with apologies. She was not in the wrong.
‘She lies, mother.’ Edward Adair, curse him, did not even trouble himself to invent a plausible tale to defend his indefensible conduct. He knew that he need only accuse her of falsehood, and his mother would support him.
Which she did. ‘You will leave this house at once,’ she said to Bessie. ‘You will not, of course, receive a character.’
Shocked to her core, Bessie could only gape in dismay. Turned off in the middle of the night, and without the reference that would allow her to seek another respectable post? She ought not to be surprised, but she was ̶ and a little afraid. The hour approached midnight, the weather was inclement, and with no family living, she had nowhere to go.
But she could match Mrs. Adair for majesty. ‘Nothing could persuade me to remain in this house another instant,’ she said with all the dignity she could muster, though her heart pounded as she spoke. She set down the bucket, dismissed her erstwhile employers from her notice, and went to Derritharn’s side. The brownie had picked herself up, though she bore an unsteady appearance.
‘Well, now,’ said Bess as she steadied her friend. ‘You took a tumble, but I think yer not much hurt. Is that the case?’
Derritharn nodded, her small mouth pursed with disapproval. ‘I’ll not stay another instant either, Bess-Bess. And no brownie will ever set foot in Hapworth Manor again — I’ll see to that.’
Bessie felt a small glow of satisfaction at this statement. She doubted that the loss of her brownies would instil any particular sense of their own wrongdoing in Mrs. Adair or her son, but it was something.
‘Come, then,’ she said. ‘Off we go.’ She picked up Derritharn and left the drawing-room without a backwards glance, not deigning to acknowledge either of the tormentors she left behind.
‘Your hands are shaking,’ said Derritharn as Bess climbed the long staircases up to her attic chamber.
‘Aye, but only a mite. They’ll pull themselves together in a minute, or two.’
Derri disappeared while Bess packed her few belongings, and the very little money she had saved. Bess’s heart sank, for she felt it unlikely that she would ever meet the brownie again, and she was fond of her.
But as Bess made her way back down the stairs, Derri rejoined her, a tiny bag slung over her shoulder. ‘The others are leaving tonight,’ she said. ‘They will spread the word.’
‘And you?’ Bess eyed the luggage Derritharn carried, and tried not to hope too much.
‘I am coming with you. Though I hope you will carry me some of the way, for my legs are rather short.’
Bess beamed her relief, and a little of her tension eased. At least she would not be quite alone. ‘You’re the best friend I ever had, and I’m right delighted to have you along.’ She stooped at once and scooped up Derritharn, tucking her inside the woollen cloak she wore. ‘Though I warn you, I have not the smallest notion of where we are goin’.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Derri comfortably. ‘Wherever we go, I am sure it will be better than here.’
Bess could not but agree. She quit Hapworth Manor without speaking to another soul, and trudged away from the house and into the foggy night, her heart a mixture of sensations. In spite of her dismay and indignation at the night’s events, and her fear at the challenge now before her, she could not stifle a sense of relief at leaving the Adair family far behind.