I. Opium

"To hell be with you!"

Mond roared, throwing a punch at Rupert. The two men grappled around in a frenzy of fists and cussing. Eventually, Stephen intervened. He placed himself between the two red-faced men, much to his own danger. Rupert spat across at Mond, both oozing with booze. He flicked a gesture of profanity at his old friend, now enemy.

Stephen took both men by the scruff of their necks and drove them towards the floor. Mond smashed his fist against the packed mud and garbled a mix of curses. Stephen sighed; the overwhelming stench of drink coming off the two men meant that they had gotten access to the brewery.

Rupert lashed out a leg, " Get fuckin' off of me!"

Arthur, despite being only quarter of what any of the men weighed and half of thier ages, knelt to restrain the offending leg. Bate - who stood watching in the corner - was incapacitated with laughter. Stephen shot a killing look at him. Bate scrambled to help; mostly so he didn't loose his handsomely paying job.

"You idiots!" Stephen cried, "You shit-faced idiots. "

The yelling brought attention from Clair, a cheat and gossip who Stephen had regretted having as a shepard, stuck his head into the barn. He snikered and cracked his knuckles. Oh, what fun of gossip spreading he would have. Mond and Rue would have thier reputations ruined!

"Curse of the Pembertons strikes again, " The unwanted presence laughed. Bate went to go fly at the man but was stopped by Stephen, who scolded the idea with a mere inclination of the head.

"You are in deep do-do. Deep indeed," Clair continued. He checked his nails and leaned against the barn door. Bate had had enough.

"You'll be in real shit if you don't shut your trap. The jakes! Mark me!"

Clair, ever vain and pompous, skittered off for not wanting to ruin his clothes or hat. The five men in the barn sighed simultaneously. The two drunks had given up fighting. Stephen instructed they be taken to the farmhouse and locked in the pantry until sobered up.

After Bate and Art stumbled back, they proceeded - with Stephen - to check the brewery at the end of the barn, inside a separate bay. Inside was row apon row of smashed up jugs and floor soaked with booze. From what light permitted, it looked terrible. Yet to much damage for two drunk men. Even Mond, who was the tallest and strongest man for miles, couldn't have done this.

The ladder to the newly built platform above looked splintered and partially burnt. Damage not possible to the two drunks in a fight. Anyway, the frenzy had spilt out into the other bay after a short period. Stephen stroked his stubbled chin.

"What in the name of...?"

Bate, who had gone up to inspect the platform, slid down the ladder, regretted it instantly, but ignored the handfuls of splinters and proceeded to call his boss and friend to him. He pointed up to the platform and gaped before speaking.

"Looks like systematic demolishing. All piled in the cen'er. God knows why."

It was true. Every bit of farming equipment - from sickles to thrashers - was broken in some way. Some were easily repairable: others beyond help. Another lot of scorch marks like those on the ladder were visible. And a beer sodden footprint that was fading in the dry air. It belonged to a naked foot and appeared to go out the window.

Art peered from the small hole, barely enough room to even fit his head through, let alone body. The three men glanced into the others eyes. Art firmly bolted the tiny hatch shut. Bate cranes down and examined the print.

A man, definitely, but naked and with five distinct prick marks before it. Like over-grown nails or claws, Bate thought. Stephen held an axe head in his hands. He found the handle and began ramming the two peices together. Like Clair said earlier, Curse of the Pemberton's.

"Papa! Papa! Papa!" A little voice made all three men jump, until they realised it belonged to a very real child. Little Eda, Stephen's 7 year old daughter, ran into the brewery. The sound of slipping, a thump and then crying echoed below.

"Eda? Papa's up here."

Stephen climbed down the ladder - avoiding all splinters he could before snatching up his crying daughter. She had fallen onto a shard of broken pottery which caused a cut cheek. She clung onto her papa with one hand, smeering blood over her other.

"Quiet, My lamb, What's wrong?"

Eda, with her big brown eyes, stared through tear filled eyes. She wobbled out a words with a higher level of worry in her voice than she had before.

"Mama said. The bad men. They are hurting each other."

Bate took his order without being given it. He slipped from the bay and sped to the house. Art took Eda from Stephen as the elder man went to assist his Farm-Hand. Eda took hold of Art's ears and sobbed a bit. Her blood stained cheek and hand were smearing Art.

"Come now, Edie, Let's go get you healed up. Did you know, my Grandmama was a healing woman? "

"W'ealy?" Eda stared into his hazel eyes in awe. Art carried her to the Well to get cleaned up, telling her childish tales of the magic his Grandmama used to wield.

Over in the Pantry, Bate was struggling against Mond. Usually a gentle giant, something had happened to Mond and it wasn't drink. Bate had seen Mond drunk a while back. He had just thought he was a butterfly. It was hilarious.

What was not hilarious was being on the receiving end of Mond's almighty punch. Bate was sent flying backwards into a beam. He fell to the floor, clutching his chest. He was fairly sure nothing was broken but Bate was winded and his sight was fuzzy.

Shapes danced merrily before him. Sound became altering. Sometimes overwhelming, other times distant and tinny. He could only groan 'Fuuuuuuck' before slipping into unconsciousness. Stephen was left to deal with both men.

"Margaret! " He yelled for his wife.

She was infamous for her slaps that could knock out a healthy man. Stephen needed one now as Rupert grabbed him by the neck and hoisted him above his head. Marge came in, brandishing a mean old drop spindle.

Mond charged her. She wielded the spindle and the swollen fibers broke, acting as a slingshot. The pudding stone wieght struck the giant of a man in the middle of the forehead - knocking him out cold. Stephen was still struggling helplessly with Rupert, who had nearly choked the former to death and back again.

Marge raised her fist and landed a punch on the man's head. He dropped Stephen onto the floor, stumbled for a bit, before turning and falling into an unconscious stupor. Stephen rasped in lungfulls of fresh tasting air. Marge nodded to her grateful husband before stepping over both men to tend to her screaming baby Ambrose and his twin.

As air returned thankfully to his lungs, Stephen coughed and clawed the ground. His vision was returning but sweat still beaded his forehead. Behind him Bate began to rouse. True to form, He swore. He wouldn't be Bate without swearing.

"What in-"

"Margaret," Stephen gasped. Bate understood. That woman was deadly, as well as pleasing to look apon. He was envious of Stephen when his wife was concerned. God, she was a woman.

"Stephen?" Bate wobbled to his feet. He fell again, into a counter this time. Bubbling vomit rose in his throat. It burnt like hell's fumes. He lent on it while on his knees, like he was praying in church. Now, Bate wanted to pray to rid himself of this mischievous hex.

He hated attending Church: calling it a waist of good time. He regretted it. Revenge was apon his soul as he threw up on his knees. Stephen got up and managed to stay up. He felt like a treasonous criminal in the middle of his execution. That wasn't a nice thought.

"Something's playing with us," Stephen rasped. Bate could only nod. He wiped his mouth free of the black bile humour.

He stumbled from the Pantry, ignoring a smashed pot he stood on. He needed to check on his daughter. To his rising relief, Art had cleaned out her wound and was now playing Chase with her. She fled from him and into her Papa's arms.

"Papa, what happened? I saw Mama hit the big bad man with a stone. Where's Uncle Bate? Are you alright?"

He ran a hand over her little coiffe. She giggled when Art pretended to lose her. Stephen encouraged her back into the game. She ran around screaming with laughter until Art caught her and acted like a wolf, growling and howling. Barking and laughing. He was good with children. When Bate was old enough to take a wife, he would easily find one.

A good marriage. Like Stephen's.

"It was fuckin' Clair!" Bate concluded behind Stephen, snapping him from his trance.

"What makes you say that?"

Bate folded his arms. He pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned on the door frame. He couldn't go any further because of his splitting headache. Sick splattered his old fashion brown house, now green-yellow after the introduction of stomach bile.

" 'Cos he poisoned them. He 'as the guts and the spite. Then broke everything. "

The man spread his arms out when he was everything, adding to his point. Stephen wouldn't put it past Clair to do something like this, but really, why would he do it? And the clawed foot print?

"No if you excuse me, I feel shit. I'm going to lie down. "

He trundled away into the barn in which the farmhands slept. It was the cow barn but a small platform had been added to provide a trample free zone. Every now and then, Bate would stop and lean over - his hands on his knees. Concussion was a nasty thing. So was being winded. The combination was absolutely horrible.

Now, back to what drove the two humble workhands into a state of anger. Stephen had seen both drunk. They were happy drunks, laughed and chatted amiably. Well, Mond did think he was a butterfly but all that said and done. Mabye a drug had been put in their drinks? Stephen needed to sit down desperately, he still felt woozy from nearly being throttled to death.

Drugs. What drugs? Foxglove, Nightshade, Opium. Opium. Yes. Art's grandmother, the healing woman, had once given Stephen's father Opium as pain relief for a particularly bad injury (slipped disc, it was the catalyst for his death actually) and he'd had hallucinations as result of taking to much.

Someone with this knowledge could do it.

Take the Opium and put it in the men's beer. But where they specifically targeted. Why, if so. He was rudely interrupted by Eda who leapt into his lap. She giggled and hugged her papa's neck.

"Can Art stay for dinner?"

She backed up and pouted. He couldn't say no to that expression. Art rubbed the small of his neck and put his other hand on Eda's shoulder. Stephen looked up at his young Farm hand.

"She has quite the liking of you."

Art folded his arms, "I know. Mother expects me back though... help with firewood and such."

Ade sighed unhappily and hugged the teens leg he laughed and tried to shake her off. Stephen pushed himself up - sliding his back along the wall of the well. He removed the leech he called daughter and picked her up, putting her in a cradle of arms. The sun was going down: so low it kissed the horizon.

Last duties were to be done and it was harder because of three incapacitated men. Margaret helped drive the geese and chickens in, save them from the Foxes maw. The cows were left to roam and Clair was to stay with the sheep.

When Art turned to walk home, Eda prevented him by pressing her face into his leg. He brushed her coiffe and Stephen, again, removed her. He disappeared down the well worn track that led to the nearby village of Aberhowe-on-Weald.

A two and a half mile's walk. But for a fit fifteen year old like Art, it was light work. Ade waved him off and had to be literally dragged in to prepare for last meal. A fire was lit and the table dragged into place. The twins, Ambrose and Stepney, slept, luckily, all through the meal. But Eda wouldn't shut up about how pretty she thought Art's eyes were. It made Stephen laugh.

Marge struck up conversation about all manner of things to stop Ade from talking. It didn't work. In the end, Stephen had to intervene and diverted the conversation to his working theory of Opium poisoning. Eda was very interested, if too interested in how to extract Opium and its uses. Marge touched her saintly amulet and uttered a silent prayer.

"-but it should've worn of by morning, " Stephen dismissed his wife's fears.

Outside, a sudden clap of thunder and light patterning of an oncoming storm echoed. The twins woke up and called for thier mother. She swept to thier side, the dark circles that almost completely rimmed her eyes more prominent then ever.

The hall became darker. Shadows crept the walls in a macabre hunt for light. Eda buried her face in a fur blanket on her little stool. The pantry, where the two men slept off the Opium, seemed the centre of shadows. Stephen tried to hide his new fear but failed.

The oncoming storm blanketed the sky and smothered stars. The moon drowned in its wake. Up in their platform room, Stephen lay awake and listened to the vengeful rain. Everyone else had fallen asleep a long while back, but Stephen stay awake.

He could feel something coming in his bones. 'The Devil.'