My new home became a prison in less than twelve hours.
When the stable clock clanged four times, the congealing blood of my twenty-five-year-old husband was already soaked into the Persian carpet.
I dropped to my knees and leant over him; the swansdown neckline of my ivory wedding dress absorbing the scarlet drops.
I brushed my trembling fingers against his cheek, smearing the liquid across his stubbly skin.
My waist-length blonde hair fell across his muscular chest as I stared into his sapphire-blue eyes. They were cold and glassy.
I adored Brett Flint, and I had brought all the torment of my conflicting emotions to the fury of his murder.
My cash-strapped father had exchanged me for the gold of Blackacre, hoping to keep our ancestral home intact for my brother Alphonse to inherit.
Brett intended to get his money’s worth. All this sounds odd, I know, but deep in the English North, time stands still if not moving in reverse.
The wider world felt a million miles away. This was my reality now.
Brett was a man that a woman could gaze upon once only to worship forever, but I’d already discovered that underneath he was frightening and cold in his cruelty.
Radclyffe. he first time he said my name, a curling snarl of his lip accompanied it.
I had smeared blood across the walls. Death had come to our bridal chamber in the five-hundred-year-old manor house.
Blackacre was festooned with weapons. Blade. Pistol. Dagger. Pike. Plus other obscure candidates for killing whose origins eluded me.
Visitors were few and the mobile phone reception non-existent. There was nothing to do at night except stare into the fire.
I whispered to Brett to wake, but he was beyond hearing me.
Three bells had peeled when I knelt beside Brett’s motionless body to clasp my hands in bastard prayer.
I summoned the gods of our dark, inbred patch of living hell to answer one question: Why?
Twist time to my convenience, I implored the Gods. Show me the night just passed, the dark that is still to break upon the white dawn.
Replay the bridal hours. Show me I was wrong to do this to my new husband. Convince me that he is perfect after all.
And please give me an explanation in time for my father’s arrival. A tale he’ll believe.
Adam of Whiteacre will demand an explanation of why he must repay the monies so quickly.
His unkind hands will deliver rough justice as they have done in the past. Act quickly spirits for I’m certain I have killed my husband.
The spirits surrounded me with the clammy embrace of answered prayer. Time moved in reverse and the bell rang twice.
Brett writhed on the plush red and black carpet. His blood dripped down into its woollen fibres. I put my hand out and felt its warmth against my skin.
Time turned again. One bell rang. My hand gripped the knife handle whilst my husband’s blood flowed in rivulets from his wound.
The clock turned back to midnight. The last bell was chiming as I crept up the spiral wooden stair to the attic. I pushed the door open a crack and peered through the pencil-thin gap.
Brett’s tanned torso rose and fell in rhythmic ecstasy. Modesty’s curly hair lay in a black shock against her pillow.
Brett cried out the maid’s name and buried his mumbled tendernesses in her neck.
I promised myself Brett Flint would pay for his cowardly crime against me, for preferring another on our wedding night.
The spirits worked on. Time’s motion was retrograde.
It was eleven o’clock when Brett left the embers of the parlour’s dying fire to walk the bounds of Blackacre.
Brett’s shotgun lay nestling in the crook of his arm, his black oilskin snugly buttoned up to his neck. His black leather boots clunked against the flagstones of the parlour as he paced towards the door.
“Lock your bedroom door and stay by the fire there till I return,” Brett muttered. “Do not open the door to my father or he’ll welcome you in his own way. First blood to him if you don’t do as I say, Wife.”
I shouted after Brett, “You’ll neither of you have me. You had your chance earlier.”
“In that case, I’ll take my pleasure elsewhere,” Brett told me.
The rain lashed against the oak door as Brett wrenched it open, calling his wolfhounds to their feet. The dogs loped outside at their master’s heels.
I dashed up the main staircase to the first-floor landing and stared out into the night.
I could see cars moving on the motorway down in the valley and the flashing lights of aircraft heading towards Manchester, but other than that it was pitch black.
The dead animals, trophies from centuries of hunting, peered over my shoulder out into the night.
The wind howled and the trees thumped against the leaded panes. The howl of a lone wolfhound rose into the night: Brett’s pack had caught the scent of prey.
I peeked through the north window to spy the lamp swinging with each stride my husband took. How could he leave me to the mercies of his hulking father?
Patrus would take his pleasure before letting his son pick over the gleanings, if I gave either of them the chance.
I slammed our bedroom door and locked it. The stair outside my room creaked. The rap of knuckles that had been weathered by the seasons hit the grained wood.
A man’s deep voice boomed out, “Let me in, bitch.”
With two hours left ’til midnight, I stood on the gravel and watched my last source of support leave Blackacre.
My brother-in-law buttoned up his overcoat and wrapped his grey woollen scarf around his neck. Toby nodded to Brett and shook hands with their father.
“Goodbye, Sir,” Toby murmured. “I’ll take your regards to our neighbours at Whiteacre and thank them once again for sending you a daughter.”
Patrus growled under his breath like one of his dogs and spat on the ground. He’d been whistling an offensive ballad since the family gathered at the altar. Besides, they bought me, like a cow or mare at auction. Their gold bespoke their gratitude.
Toby slammed the door of his beaten-up old car.
As it rolled away down the drive I called after him, “Be careful! Truly, everything is dark here! But you’ll find evil of a different kind at Whiteacre. The greater the purity, the stronger the danger.”
I earned a clip around my ear for my trouble. “Slut,” Brett muttered.
Earlier, Patrus had told Toby, “Marry that other Whiteacre whore before the moon is full. She’ll make a man of you, boy.”
At nine o’clock, Patrus had bidden Toby pack his bags and leave Blackacre within the hour. He was commanded to follow my father home, along the country roads, to Whiteacre. My lunatic mother and younger sister would doubtless make him welcome.
Toby had spent the year since graduating from university studying ancient documents in the Blackacre library.
He’d unearthed in strange tongues horrors no living soul knew existed, but now Patrus had grown bored of his pale and sickly son.
We stood together in the library as the grandfather clock ticked, pretending to look over the plans of the house from five hundred years ago.
Instead, we whispered hurried exchanges about what lay ahead for us both.
“Forewarned is forearmed,” Toby said. “Commit these schematics to memory. Many a secret passage here can help you outrun trouble if only you know which turns to take. There are no more modern sources of rescue at Blackacre. You’ve stepped back in time, here,” he told me.
“Heed your own advice if you intend to last at Whiteacre,” I replied. “It will take all your ingenuity to survive. Keep all your wits about you under my father’s roof. Whatever else do not trust my sister. She cannot forgive either of us for coming in between her and Brett.”
My new husband barged drunkenly into the library and held his shotgun up to my left temple.
“Damn you, woman,” Brett shouted. “Should’ve taken you earlier when I had the chance.”
It was eight o’clock when Brett gripped my neck and forced me up the stairs to our bedroom. Our wedding guests were still drinking in the parlour but no one took our hurried exit amiss.
As Brett pushed me through the doorway I tripped over the rucked-up carpet and stumbled onto the bed.
He climbed on top of me without preamble. I thrashed about, pushing him off and kicking out until he fell, moaning, to the floor.
“Treat me nicely, then you’ll see,” I told Brett.
“Damn you, bitch, I’ll make you pay for that,” he snarled as he lurched back up to his feet.
I felt the chill in my bones. We’d been married less than an hour. These are the first words we’ve exchanged since the altar.
The sun was setting as the church clock rang seven times. Twilight had come at last. Reverend Mandible made the sign of the cross over us. “I now pronounce you man and wife,” he said, with a greasy smile. “Planning to honeymoon anywhere nice?”
Patrus hummed the Ballad of Blackacre. He drew in breath and boomed out from his massive chest cavity, in stirring bass, the final verse. It concludes with the line, ‘The bride dies the night she is brought to bed with child.’
He regaled the congregation with details of how every wife at Blackacre has died in childbirth, either on the night of delivery or soon thereafter. Brett and Toby had different mothers, each stiff and cold within twelve hours of their labours ending. There is no such thing as a true sibling at Blackacre. And the nearest hospital with emergency facilities is sixty miles away across the moors. No ambulance would answer a summons from Blackacre after dark.
As I walked back down the aisle, I promised myself that, whatever fiend of hell I had to conjure to protect me from Brett, I wouldn’t go quietly down into the tomb like the women of centuries past. Yet how I longed for our union.
At three o’clock, my father had told me to pack for a journey. Rumours had fluttered around Whiteacre’s towers since dawn, when Patrus Flint had arrived with his ancient lawyer scurrying behind like a skeletal lapdog ready to draft the settlement. After they left, my father called me to his study.
“Tonight, you’ll be a bride,” he said. “Wear whatever’s seemly without incurring much expense.”
I skipped to the door like a girl half my age. “Tell me, Father, that it’s Brett. Promise me I’ll have the handsome husband I desire.”
“You’ll have the husband you deserve, girl,” he said.
I think I knew then what Brett Flint was. Yet still I wanted him. The ache was irresistible.
The clock leapt back to where it began and the spirits departed. The stable bell rang out four times as Brett stirred at my feet. His body was clean and free of blood. The spirits had given me a second chance to decide my future. Their rolling back of the hours had changed reality.
What should I do? If Brett died tonight, then Patrus would take his pleasure nightly until I conceived a bastard he could pass off as his son’s heir. But what if my husband gave me a child? I must ensure that he survived, but that he was too weak to kill me in childbirth.
I dropped to my knees. There had to be a place to stab him that would weaken but not kill him. I found it, and thrust the knife into his side. Life lingered inside Brett Flint as I bandaged his wound.
The night had passed, and the pale dawn was giving birth to a new day. The homicidal struggle of our married life together was only just beginning.