Winterberry Hall

Winterberry Hall

By Merinda Brayfield

At first glance, the case seemed like so many others. But how wrong we were. It had started, as so many of our cases, in 221B, on a dark and stormy night, with a young woman coming to us for help.

Her guardian, who was also her Uncle, had been acting strangely and there were odd sights and sounds coming from one of the buildings on the property. And her Uncle had introduced to her a gentleman that only appeared after sunset and that no one had heard of among all her acquaintances.

It certainly was strange enough and Holmes agreed to come and see her. We took a train the next day and I must admit I wondered what had caught Holmes's attention about the case. But I knew he was most certainly interested.

"What do you make of her story?" asked Holmes as we headed out of the city.

"Seems ordinary enough. Perhaps some old acquaintance of her Uncle’s, though it is strange that no one else has seen him or knows of him," I answered.

"Indeed. I made a few inquiries of my own. The only records I could find of a man with that name died a hundred years ago in a house fire."

"Perhaps he's some relative," I suggested.

"Perhaps," answered Holmes, smoking his pipe and turning his attention out the window.

I knew better than to interrupt his thoughts, so I opened up the newspaper I'd picked up at the station. There were some local reports of missing and injured cattle, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

I was soon to learn that I was very wrong in my supposition that this case and what we were dealing with was ordinary.

We arrived at the village in question and even I could notice that the mood of the place was subdued. The driver who took us out to the manor seemed uncertain about taking us, but he accepted Holmes's coin.

There were storm clouds on the horizon as we approached the manor house. The young woman who had asked for our help, Beatrice, greeted us at the door, telling us that her Uncle had gone out hunting, but that he would be back by nightfall.

Holmes told her to let her Uncle know that we were simply passing through and had asked to stay the night. She agreed and then was called away to attend to a household issue, leaving Holmes and I in our room.

It was well enough appointed, with two beds, though I could see that the furniture was worn and perhaps just a bit out of date.

Going to the window, Holmes looked out at the property. I went to his side and quietly put my hand on the small of his back. "You think something suspicious is going on," I said.

He turned and smiled at me. "My dear Watson, I always do. It's been quite some time since anyone has come to me with a problem that wasn't."

"True," I said. I glanced over to be certain the door was shut, then drew him away from the window and gave him a gentle kiss. "You should rest. I suspect we'll be busy tonight."

"Indeed," he said, going to one of the beds and reclining. I looked out the window myself for a moment, then lay down in the other and closed my eyes.

He woke me a short time later. "I should like to take a stroll around the grounds before the rain comes in," he said.

"Of course," I agreed, making certain my weapon was in its place as I followed him down the stairs and out into the back garden.

The landscape was just slightly to the side of wild, as if the gardeners only worked irregularly or if they'd recently been laid off. Holmes headed for a building at the bottom of the hill that looked like it had once been a barn, now fallen into disrepair.

Stepping inside, the place was dim, save for a few places where nature had succeeded in puncturing the roof. But even those holes did little to brighten the place. Various farming accouterments hung on the walls, rusty with disuse. Everything looked dirty and abandoned.

Holmes stepped quietly around the space, looking at the floor, but he said nothing to me. I was a bit worried that if there was a cellar, the whole thing might give way beneath him.

But the boards held and he made his way back over to me. Whatever he was thinking, he kept it to himself. I followed him back out and we looked around the grounds a bit more before returning to the house.

Beatrice met us as we came back in. "Uncle is here. I'll introduce you."

"Thank you," said Holmes, straightening his clothes. We were quickly shown into the study. I had to admit I was expecting someone broad and perhaps a bit rough, but the man who met us was tall and thin and exuded some charm. He greeted us warmly enough and offered us drinks, letting us know it was no problem at all if we wished to spend the night.

While we were chatting the dark storm clouds rolled in, preventing the last of the evening sun from penetrating. There was a knock on the door not long after the first peal of thunder. Beatrice started, but her Uncle smiled at her.

"Go and greet our guest before he gets soaked."

Beatrice nodded and hurried out. And I knew we were about to meet the man of her concern.

The man that came in with Beatrice was younger than I expected, with dark auburn hair and dark eyes. He carried himself a bit stiffly, but greeted us, though his attentions were clearly more on Beatrice. There was something about him that I found unsettling, though I could not precisely name why.

We were called to dinner shortly thereafter. The food was good and though did not participate fully in the conversation, Holmes and the stranger carried on, speaking about certain events that had happened over the last century. The man was certainly an expert.

Beatrice begged off after dinner, claiming that she had a headache. The stranger looked disappointed but he wished her well. The four of us went back to the study for a short time, before Holmes bid goodnight for the both of us.

I could hear the rain lashing against the house as we went upstairs. "What's wrong?" I asked once we were alone in our room.

"He knows many things," said Holmes, pacing.

"You think he's the same person," I said.

Holmes nodded. "I know it's impossible, but yes. We need to go to the barn, but in a little while. Or, if we see him leave, we'll follow him."

"Alright," I agreed.

Holmes stayed by the window, watching. I reclined in the bed, picking up a book from the bedside and occupying myself, though after a while I must admit I started to doze.

It was near midnight when Holmes shook my shoulder. I rolled out of bed at once, again double checking that I had my weapon. We went quietly as we could down the stairs. Slipping out the back door I thought I saw a light in the old barn, though in the gathering fog and lingering rain it was hard to say.

As we approached it. I thought I heard lowing, though of course there had been no animals in there earlier. The hair at the back of my neck was standing up, some primeval warning of what we were about to encounter.

We reached the door and I found myself wishing for at least a sliver of moonlight instead of this gloomy darkness. Holmes eased the door open.

I expected the barn to be pitch black, but instead a trap door was thrown open, flickering light coming from it as if encouraging us to enter hell.

I heard voices, too, sinister and cackling, though the words couldn't be made out.

We tread carefully across the barn floor. I had my gun out, wondering just what we would encounter.

Suddenly a figure loomed out of the darkness. Holmes reached out to stop me from firing. She put a finger to her lips and took a step closer.

She was dressed most unconventionally, more like a male soldier than any woman we usually dealt with. And she moved like a soldier, too. I knew instinctively that this was a hunter and a dangerous one at that. I'm not so blind as to assume that a woman could not pursue a more dangerous profession, no matter how unlikely that might be.

She led the way to the trap door, silent as a cat on the old floorboards. She drew something from her hip and dropped it down the opening, waiting only a moment before hurrying down after at. There was shouting and Holmes and I scrambled to follow her.

I was unprepared for what I saw that night. An animal had been slaughtered and was laying to one side of the cellar. The half-dozen creatures occupying the space had clearly been feasting. And the stranger was at the middle of them, blood around his mouth, eyes ablaze with unholy anger.

I had only a moment to observe before they were on us, moving with speed beyond that of mortals. I got off one shot before my gun was knocked away and I landed on my back.

If not for the huntress we almost certainly would have died in that place. she clearly knew exactly what to do to defeat these creatures. I fought the best I could, the creature tearing at me.

The creature cried out and fell back as Holmes struck it. I scrambled to my feet, but the battle was already over, the creatures, including the stranger, dead or dying, the huntress making certain they were dispatched.

"You're hurt," said Holmes, urgency in his voice.

I looked down and realized that the creature had indeed penetrated my coat, leaving a gash on my arm.

The huntress finished her grim task and came to me, taking my arm and inspecting it. From a bag on her hip she produced a small vial. "Tend the wound as you usually would, but use this as well," she said.

"Thank you," I said.

She nodded. "Go," she urged us.

For once Holmes refrained from asking questions. We both knew what that charnel house had represented and neither of us were eager to spend another moment in that wicked place.

Holmes helped me up the ladder and we made our way back to the house. No one marked our presence as we returned to our room and Holmes steered me to sit on the bed.

Outside the storm started up again, fiercer than before, thunder booming in great waves across the landscape. Without speaking, Holmes helped me out of my clothes and then tended my wound, his agile fingers careful and making certain he applied the woman's ointment.

Once I was bandaged and helped into my nightshirt, Holmes changed and lay down next to me on the further bed from the door. Ordinarily, we would not sleep this way away from home when there was a second bed provided, but after what we had witnessed, I knew we both craved the safety and comfort.

I rolled onto my good side and faced the door, feeling him curl up around my back, hand on my hip under the blankets.

"So Beatrice is out of danger?" I asked in the darkness.

"Yes. I don't think her Uncle knew entirely what he was dealing with, but the stranger was making promises and temptations. It's just as well that she came to us for help."

"Not that we were any help. That huntress probably saw us only as a distraction and in her way."

He huffed a laugh against my hair. "Indeed. This is one circumstance far beyond even my learning. With any luck, it will be rare indeed."

"I do hope so." While we had certainly encountered things in our life together that were founded in fear and superstition, they had always, in the end, turned out to have mortal explanations. This was far different. I knew what we had witnessed and I had the wound to prove it wasn't all a nightmare.

"Try to sleep," Holmes murmured, getting comfortable.

I closed my eyes and soon found myself walking through restless dreams, the sort that left one feeling unsettled, even if they could not be remembered on waking.

I woke early in the morning, the light of sunrise peeking through the curtains. Holmes snored softly by my side. I slid out of bed and leaned in to kiss his cheek, then got up and went to the window.

To my surprise, the barn was gone, burned to ash, with only a few ruined beams to show what had once been there. I hesitated to wake my companion, but, feeling this was important, I gently shook his shoulder.

"Come and look," I said quietly.

He rolled to his feet and went to the window. "Interesting," he said. "How is your arm?"

I looked and found the wound nearly entirely faded. It should not have healed that quickly. Frowning, I looked at the nightstand where Holmes had left the vial we'd been given. But it was gone.

"Holmes I know I did not dream last night," I said quietly.

"Nor did I," he answered. "Come, let's get dressed and see if the household is about."

We dressed quickly. The tear in my coat was not as bad as it had been either, adding to the strangeness and uncertainty. We headed down the stairs. Beatrice was awake and greeted us. "Are you going so quickly?" she asked.

"I’m afraid so," said Holmes. "Business to attend to. How are you feeling?"

She cocked her head. "Fine, Mister Holmes."

"Did you dream?"

She frowned. "I don't remember. I know we had a fierce storm last night."

"One more question," asked Holmes. "What happened to the barn?"

"The one down the hill? Oh, that burned down years ago, struck by lightning."

"I see," said Holmes

I did not, but I knew better than to press the question, at least, not now.

"Thank you. We’ll be going now," he told Beatrice.

"Not staying for breakfast?"

"We appreciate your hospitality, but we should catch the early train," said Holmes, smoothly. "Watson, will you fetch the luggage?"

"Of course," I said, hurrying up the stairs. I took one last look around the room and messed up the blankets on the second bed, then picked up our luggage and went back down the stairs.

"Bid farewell to your Uncle for us," said Holmes. "You'll have no more trouble."

"I will," said Beatrice.

A servant took the luggage from us and before long we were in the carriage being taken back to the station. I turned around once to look back at the house, but all looked perfectly normal and serene. I was a bit surprised Holmes hadn't wanted to investigate the barn, but perhaps the horrors of the night had tempered his curiosity.

It wasn't until we were ensconced in the train and he'd taken out his pipe that he spoke. "I'm sure in time our memories will fade as well."

"What happened?" I asked with a frown.

"You know what we witnessed. Likely the Huntress had something to do with the events of this morning, but we're not likely to find her or her like again. A woman of her profession would not survive if she was well remembered."

I looked out the window and found I couldn't call her face to mind. Not even the color of her hair or her build. "Indeed," I muttered.

He reached out and patted my hand. "Soon enough we'll be back in London and dealing with the more usual criminal classes. "

I glanced at him and nodded. I knew what we had encountered, even, as he said, it was already fading into the memory of thunder. But at least Beatrice was safe and that nest of monsters was no longer a threat to anyone.