Geoffrey of Whalley is a slayer on the mend. Still healing from an almost fatal demon hunt, his full recovery has been slow, with missing memories and odd dreams impeding his recovery.
A call from a friend to investigate a report of an incubus in a small village, sure to be nothing more than an innocent falsely accused, gives him an easy job while he regains his full strength, and an opportunity to find a new intermediary, one who suits better than the last.
When Geoffrey arrives, he finds the accused is new to town, and none of the usual signs of an incubus. But four people have disappeared recently, and he refuses to leave until he finds out why. There is evil in the village, but not in the form Geoffrey imagines.
A scowl on his face, Geoffrey strode through the mob of people in front of the house he'd been directed to. He hated drawing a crowd. Especially one that expected something supernatural to appear at any moment. 'Sblood, they'd scatter fast enough if a demon did appear. Not that they wanted Geoffrey too close either, of course. As far as they were concerned, the evils he faced to protect them could have infected him. Superstitious fools.
Nestled among rolling hills, and close to the town of Barley, the village didn't look as though it was the home of anything dark or demonic. Unfortunately, the recent witch trials left the inhabitants of this tiny hamlet nervous and suspicious, quick to make accusations and believe the worst of their neighbours.
Geoffrey glared at the nearest villagers, sure most of them were only there to boast to friends and neighbours about having been close to an actual slayer. They drew back slightly at his approach, now that he'd been noticed, enabling him to finally reach the house. Geoffrey knocked at the door and, while he waited, tapped the sides of his boots against the step to dislodge some of the muck. Best not to irritate anyone before he knew what was going on.
A small woman opened the door, peering up at Geoffrey uncertainly.
"I am Geoffrey of Whalley, slayer. Is your master home?"
"Please come in, sir. Follow me."
Entering the house, Geoffrey removed his hat, tucking several unruly strands of hair behind his ears. It was unlikely he'd find a witch in the village, just some poor crone who'd offended a local squire, or a girl who resisted unwelcome advances. He'd seen it often enough in the past. Thanks be that they've called me rather than take matters into their own hands. Or called upon one of the Slayers who were little more than mercenaries and for a couple of pennies would offer up their own grandmothers to be burned at the stake.
Hugh, the leader of the local parish council and the man who'd petitioned for a Slayer, awaited him in a modest drawing room. A good friend, he could be trusted to tell Geoffrey the truth of the situation. But not in the presence of the other men in the room.
One was an elderly clergyman whose bald pate gleamed in the sparse light. At the parson's side stood a man whose ruddy face and ample stomach plainly reflected his devotion to good living, add his finery his wealth--probably the local landed squire. The pinched expression on the squire's face told Geoffrey he had already judged and found the accused guilty, without need of a Slayer. It seemed Geoffrey's fears were well founded.
For all that Hugh was my friend, it seems these three are an unholy trinity it would prove unwise to cross. It piqued Geoffrey's interest that all three deemed the situation important enough to be in attendance. The Church archives had contained no other reports of witchcraft or demonic influence in this little hamlet for quite some time, and usually there were at least indications of an area being more susceptible to such things.
Hugh extended a hand which Geoffrey shook cordially. "Thank you for coming, Master Slayer. Permit me to introduce you to our local squire, Sir Henry, and our parson, Father Thomas. They are both aware of the situation, and in agreement that we need the services of a Slayer, especially with All Hallow's Eve so close upon us."
"It's good to meet you again, Hugh," Geoffrey said as he clasped the older man's shoulder. Although it had been a few years since he'd last seen his friend, Hugh hadn't changed much. The same worried, hang-dog expression, as if the woes of the world were upon his rounded shoulders, still graced his face. But at least Hugh was an honest man, one Geoffrey trusted and respected. He wasn't so sure about the parson and the squire.
The parson--who looked as though he'd been around since the village was founded--nodded in greeting, his rheumy grey eyes wide and round with the wonder of seeing a real Slayer. Even so, the man's gaze didn't settle on any one thing, instead darting about as though he expected Satan himself to appear in a cloud of sulphur and brimstone. Was Father Thomas a naturally anxious man--he also wrung his hands continually--or were his nerves due to something more?
The squire merely gave Geoffrey a curt nod, which Geoffrey returned. As arrogant as he was rich--hardly a shock.
"Thank you for coming." The squire's voice was deep and ponderous, much in keeping with his portly frame. "I have little doubt the incubus will resist any attempt to bring it to justice, therefore you are given leave to act first by killing it before he strikes again. We are relying on you to free our village from this creature's taint. Our blessing is upon you, and whatever actions you take against it."
"Incubus you say?" A male. How interesting. Usually it was women or girls accused of being demons of seduction, and he'd assumed the report used the male term due to a lack of knowledge on the subject. Geoffrey glanced at Hugh, who shifted nervously. He was not as convinced of the man's guilt as the good squire. "How can you be sure you have an incubus? What proof do you have?"
"We're not su--" Hugh began, but Sir Henry cut him short.
"You may have your doubts. However, I am quite sure the fell creature caused the loss of our young folk."
"I never thought to see the day I need be so directly involved with Satan's work." Father Thomas shook his head, and clutched tightly to his Bible. "As Master Hugh will tell you, we have no direct proof, although the circumstances are quite damning. Which is why we requested your services, Master Slayer." Father Thomas looked beseechingly at Geoffrey, reminding him of a pleading puppy.
"The beast is seductive in both looks and manner," Sir Henry snapped, nudging the parson aside and attempting to crowd Geoffrey. "Don't be fooled by its outward beauty. I've lost a stable boy; the blacksmith, an apprentice; and two other young people have disappeared from our fold as well."
"The other two, were they man and woman?" Geoffrey asked. The other two were male. Interesting. Very interesting.
"Yes. The girl is my ward, a girl of breeding. She would not simply vanish in the night." The squire's expression soured. "The youth was one of the village boys."
Geoffrey nodded slowly. Clearly the missing village youth was of no concern to the squire. That, plus the fact that more than one of the missing people shared a link with the squire fired Geoffrey's curiosity, even if it wasn't uncommon in a small village for the residents to all be closely connected.
"You don't want me to bring the maâ€¦incubus to you as a prisoner? To be tried like the Pendle witches?" Geoffrey aimed the question at Hugh, but looked sideways at the squire. The man's podgy face darkened, confirming that his emotions--pride, at the very least, if not jealousy--were behind his insistence.
"I believe it best--"
"Believe me when I say the creature is deadly," Sir Henry interrupted once more. "If you value your life, Slayer, and your honour as a man, strike first. You have our full support if you do. I even prepared this for you."
Frowning, Geoffrey took the scroll from the squire's hand, opened it, and read the overly elaborate writing.
We the undersigned do declare that the bearer of this scroll, Geoffrey of Whalley, Slayer, is empowered to act in any way he sees fit, to rid our town of its resident evil.
Listed beneath the statement were the names and signatures of the town councillors, the parson, and even Sir Henry, who'd left his insignia in wax.
Rolling it back up, Geoffrey nodded. "You have my thanks, Sir Henry. If I find myself imperilled, it is good to know I can act as required without fear of retribution." The squire and parson completely missed his sarcasm--the Church offered far more protection from human retribution than a minor squire could, and Geoffrey could hardly use the scroll against a preter except to beat him over the head with it--but Hugh glanced askance at him briefly.
"I assure you we have the fullest confidence that you will do what is necessary, Geoffrey," Hugh murmured.
"You may stay at my manor as my guest, Master Slayer," the squire announced magnanimously as he drew himself to his full height. It still left him head and shoulders shorter than Geoffrey.
Geoffrey inclined his head. "Thank you, my Lord, a generous offer indeed. However, I am a man of simple tastes and would likely feel out of place in your no-doubt magnificent home."
"There are rooms at the tavern," Hugh suggested. "We are willing to pay for your bed and board there if you prefer, and the smith has already been notified that your horse is to be stabled at our cost."
"Aye, I was told as much when I stabled my horse there earlier. The tavern sounds far more in keeping with my needs." Geoffrey smiled, relieved Hugh had mentioned an alternative. "I thank you again, Sir Henry, but a room at the tavern shall more than suffice."
"When will you go after the creature?" Sir Henry leant forward eagerly, his voice dropping. "If you have need of men, I shall gladly supply some."
"I will make enquiries around the village over the next day or two before I decide upon a course of action." Geoffrey secreted the scroll between his doublet and jerkin. "After all--" He held up his hand as the squire started to speak again. "--surely it is better for the village that I ensure no one else is under the incubus's spell, and that its insidious tendrils haven't yet spread? You haven't suggested anyone is directly imperilled or currently suffering at its hands, unless you have further information for me?" Geoffrey didn't intend to reveal his exact plans to anyone but it always paid to be politic around the powerful men of the villages he visited.
Unseen by either the parson or squire, Hugh scowled at Geoffrey, picking up on Geoffrey's sarcasm despite his impassive expression. Sir Henry huffed and puffed but, as Geoffrey expected, wasn't forthcoming with the names of any more possible victims.
"But of course." Father Thomas bobbed his head.
"Yes, indeed." The squire gave him an appraising look and Geoffrey bore the scrutiny silently. "Well, I shall return to my manor. Please feel free to visit at any time, Master Slayer."
"And I must get back to my church." Father Thomas bowed slightly to Geoffrey. "Thank you for coming, and may God's blessing be upon you."
After the two men had taken their leave, Hugh glared at Geoffrey in exasperation. "I well remember your impatience with the gentry, but it isn't wise to make a fool of the squire. Sir Henry is a powerful man around here. We may only be a small village, but he travels in high circles."
Geoffrey waved the scroll. "If I find that you do have an incubus, I will deal with it. If not, well I refuse to kill a man just because your squire has a dislike of him. You know me better than that, Hugh."
"I do indeed, which is why it is you here and not the mercenaries Sir Henry would doubtless have preferred. Your reputation affords you respect, even from him, but take care lest he decide your presence is more inconvenience than your reputation is worth. More than one person has disappeared after annoying the squire."
"I'll keep that in mind, Hugh, I promise. For now, I'll take a walk around the village. Get a feel for it, the current mood, and your people." Geoffrey patted at the scroll. "I have free rein thanks to this, and you can be sure the threat to your young people will be removed, no matter what it may be."
"I wouldn't expect anything less, Geoffrey." Hugh smiled. "I'll show you to the door myself, then head directly to the tavern and let the innkeeper know you are to lodge and eat there. You'll like his food--it's excellent, as is his company. And if you could come by my house tomorrow, I'd appreciate it."
Geoffrey grinned, then followed Hugh to the front door. "If you like him, I'm sure he's a man I'll enjoy meeting. As to tomorrow, I'll be there. I look forward to spending time with an old friend again. Thank you, Hugh."
"Come early, and may God protect you in the meantime." Hugh waved as they parted company, and Geoffrey continued down the street.