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Ms. Hodgkinson is out to ruin the entire Kebler enterprise... no cookies for you!

What I Do

By

Marie Hodgkinson

Itís a big house. One of those old jobs that they use for period dramas nowadays, and while that may seem to fit the job description for someone straight out of training, for me itís a whole new field.

I do my best to scope the place out as I walk up to the front door. Hardened soldier and veteran of a full handful of New Yearsí I may be, but Iím used to defending small places. Council flats. Semi-detacheds. Even the odd country cottage. Nothing like this. Looking at the high stone walls and narrow tablet windows, I wonder why there werenít more people assigned to Greyholme; a site this big usually requires a team of three or more just to get the initial defences grounded.

My question is answered when the front door opens. My host, and this must be him, because the files specified that Sir Grey and his wife donít keep a butler or indeed any staff over the holiday, is a man in his late sixties. I suddenly remember this yearís other major break site; a school holiday programme on the other side of the country. Two hundred kids welcoming in the New Year and whatever nasties it brings with it. One old codger and his wife, no matter how shiny a trophy she may be, arenít half as much a danger as that would be.

ďYouíre from Ė hmph Ė the people who called?Ē He hasnít opened the door the full way. Heís nervous, and I donít blame him for that, but the sight of his haggard face peering bleary-eyed and suspicious around the edge of the door irritates me all the same. Or course Iím from the ďpeople who called.Ē Who the hell else would come all the way out here at five oíclock in the morning? It wasnít even light yet.

ďYes, sir,Ē I reply. ďYou must be Sir Lucas?Ē

His head jiggles a bit, and I guess that means a yes.

ďWell, sir, if youíd just let me inside, Iíve got a fair bit of work to do before tonight.Ē

ďHave you got a card?Ē I can see that itís only his hands holding the door where it is, and it occurs to me that if I really was a dangerous burglar with my dirty rotten heart set on cleaning this place out, my lack of a card wouldnít exactly be an obstacle to getting inside. Luckily for my sense of professionalism, however, I do have one.

I pass the scrap of cardboard to Grey and he squints at it. Suspiciously, of course, but what he sees satisfies him and he finally lets me in.

After five years of working on flats and cottages and a lifetime of living in places not much better, the entrance hall of Greyholme actually takes my breath away. Great high walls covered in the types of paintings you always expect to have peek-holes in the eyes of, wooden floors so highly polished they looked like honey and Ė hell, even the ceiling is fancy, lined with carvings of tiny birds and animals all staring down at me. Amazing stuff, but Grey starts talking, so I have to shut my gaping mouth and pay attention.

ďNow, my girl, you must realise that I myself am entirely sceptical of this whole business. If it was up to me, you people would be standing up in court on charges of wasting my time with your nonsense, but my wife is quite taken with your claims and insisted that we allow one of you over.Ē He rolls one pale blue eye at me and I grin inside, imagining the old boyís rage when he had found out that his blonde baby of a wife believed in fairies. ďIím just saying this to warn you that if and when this is all revealed to be some sort of scam, youíll all end up where I wanted to put you in the first place, no matter what my wife says.Ē

ďUnderstood, sir,Ē I reply, with a straight face. ďIs your wife up yet? Itís policy that I inform all members of the household of what Iím going to be doing here, so that no one accidentally upsets something.Ē

ďYes, yes, sheís waiting upstairs. Portrait gallery: Iím sure she wants to confide in you her damn fool theory... well, hurry along. Iíve no wish to be stuck in this draughty hall all morning.Ē

I follow him down the long entrance hall, watched all the way by a menagerie of carved wooded eyes, up a wide staircase and along several identical corridors. Eventually, long after Iíve got to around the middle of worrying about how Iím supposed to go about defending a house if I can lose my bearings in it this quickly, he opens a door and ushers me into another room. This one is so well carpeted I can feel my feet sinking into the floor with each step, and wonderfully heated Ė a wall of warm, dry air hits me as I walk through the door. Itís not the portrait gallery Sir Lucas promised, though; this room is small, cosy. I guess that itís some sort of in-between room, maybe a very short corridor refurbished to house cold gentry. God knows itís the warmest room of all the ones we walked through to get here.

A woman I assume is Mrs Grey Ė Susannah, the file said Ė has her back to the door, but turns around as we enter and I at once feel some of my dislike for Sir Lucas fade away. Susannah Grey is in her early sixties and looks well for it, clad in a two-piece and pearls with her grey hair swept into loose waves that stop just below her ears.

ďLucas, has the Ė oh, I see she has. Good morning, dear. I hope your trip wasnít too bad?Ē I nod, and she continues, shooing her husband in front of an old oil heater where he rubs his hands together and glowers at me. ďI suppose my husband has already told you all about our opposing views on this matter?Ē I nod again. Susannah Grey speaks so quickly, and with such ringing vowels that itís impossible to get a word in edgeways. Iím no longer surprised that itís Mrs Greyís influence that brought me here. ďGood. Well, before you start doing, uh, whatever it is you do, thereís something I want to show you. Please follow me into the gallery.Ē

She sweeps out another door and once again Iím trailing along behind. This second door leads to the actual portrait gallery, a long, narrow room with high vaulted ceilings Ė we must be at the top of the building Ė and, as you would expect, a line of paintings down either wall. Mrs Grey walks briskly past all the faces until we reach the middle of the room; judging from the plaques set below each of the paintings, the people Iím staring at havenít been around for a good few hundred years.

ďHere we are,Ē says Mrs Grey. ďLord Samuel Grey and family, 1796. He was one of only a few of my husbandís ancestors who deigned to have his family included in the official portraits, and he had them done once every few years, which is very good for our purposes. Iíve had them all installed here so you can see why I believe you when you say why we need your help Ė there are diaries too, you can see them next . But, look here first-Ē

I do look. The first painting shows the Lord in what I suppose to be the first painting of him after inheriting his title; young, practically beardless, with his wife and young child by his side. Hard to tell what sex the baby was, all wrapped in swaddling like that, but the next painting alone shows it to be a boy, and another child on the way. I walk quickly down the row of portraits; the family grew seemingly year by year, sons and daughters springing up like beanstalks and some of them as weedy-looking, until suddenly Ė

I have to go back and do a head count the first time I notice, but what had happened was clear. One of the sons, a boy with a halo of golden ringlets, was missing. He looked about eight. Ordinarily Iíd put it down to the dangers of living in a time period when it was considered good doctoring to put a boiling hot mess of leaves on a wound if the leeches didnít work, but seeing as Mrs Grey had linked these paintings to my job, I keep looking.

Another son was missing in the next painting. After that, a daughter, a tiny fragile thing with light red hair. Then another son, and the year after that two more daughters, until in the last painting Lord Samuel and his wife sat, faces drawn and lined with more than age, one either side of their one remaining child. A pale girl of about seventeen in a long white dress, she looked as though her parents were guarding her, as though by being her protectors in a painting they could ensure that she would stay with them in life.

She didnít, of course. Once these creatures target a family they always finish the job, and the next painting was of Lord and Lady Grey alone.

ďThe title went to a cousin, after that.Ē I jump; Mrs Grey had appeared behind me. Or perhaps sheís been there all along but, too intent on the portraits, I didnít noticed. ďIt wasnít until Lucas and I married that the lands came back to his side of the family, and that was only because none of his uncles had children. No title, now, of course. Thatís long gone,Ē she adds, almost as an afterthought.

ďBut there havenít been any disappearances since then?Ē I ask.

ďNo. After what happened to Lord Samuelís family Ė look at the portrait five down.Ē I walk down to the painting she had indicated and what I see makes me feel strange. Proud, that here was evidence of the provenance of my profession, but shamed, as well, that seven children had died before anyone had realised what was going on at Greyholme, or done anything about it.

All three faces are strangers to me, or course, but one of the two men in the painting was wearing Hunter colours. Sky blue and dirt brown Ė a different uniform, of course, but this long-dead man wore the same insignia I do and the same watchful expression on his face that Iíve seen on those of my colleagues.

I look back at Mrs Grey. She smiles, but her face has gone pale, and looking at it I imagine what it must have been like for her, finding all this out. Had it started as an innocent attempt to research her husbandís genealogy, maybe fix some broken links or find a rumoured illegitimate child or twenty? And then, finding something like this ...

ďYou said there were diaries?Ē I ask. She nods, and leads me down another confusing series of corridors into a small library, where I spend several hours opening my mind to the horrors of what used to happen to families before they were assigned a Hunter.

I canít have my nose stuck in a book all day, though, so when my watch beeps seven I put the old books back in their cases and strike out for the grounds. Iíve already decided thereís little to no point setting up defences within the building: for some reason nasties canít jump an iron line if itís outside, but are free to climb over one and come down on you from the ceiling if you set up base somewhere warm and walled. Itís one of those rules of unnature that really kills you on the entrance exams. Besides, keeping the nasties out of the building itself means theyíre less likely to smash it to pieces in search of their prey, and that means less suing all around, which is never a bad thing.

Three wrong turns and no right ones later, I find a window with a latch on it and climb down to the ground. Thereís an odd sort of path that seems to, and on closer inspection involving a short walk, does make a ring around the whole building. I decide to make that my barrier.

Now some of my colleagues would use Greyholmeís ready-made and impressively thick boundary walls as their barrier, but me, I prefer being able to see my wolves when theyíre prowling outside the gates. Using the path gives me that visibility, and itís not like the stone barricades would be much of a defence against them anyway. I walk back to my car, which is parked just inside the grounds, and drive it into what will soon be my safe zone.

My car secured, or as secure as anything here is, I begin my work. For the most part, that work is iron, and thatís what I use here: good, solid iron. Iíve always had a sort of affinity with the element, as though it knew what I was going to grow up to be, but I sometimes think that even if iron didnít have the particularly handy properties it does, I would still like it. So, yeah, I love my wonderful grey metal, rust and all, because even when iron rusts itís still there, hidden deep inside the finger-staining orange oxide. It may not burn when itís that far hidden, but itíll still keep out all manner of beasties so long as thereís an atom-thick fence of it between you and them.

Like I say, itís good stuff.

So now I begin. Horseshoes are good for this sort of work, as theyíve got both the iron and the centuries of tradition behind them. I used to get mind second-hand Ė second-hoof? Ė from a couple of stables back home, but these days Management orders them in wholesale. I heave a few bags from the boot, pick my spot Ė a good few feet out from the path Ė and start planting.

As I walk over the path, something hits me so hard I canít breathe, but the shockís nothing compared to the fact that I didnít notice this before. God, Iím getting slack. I chuck the bag of shoes ahead of me just to make sure, then laugh out loud. Oh, this is good. No wonder there havenít been any disappearances since that nameless Hunter began running things around here.

Nevertheless, without any proof that my discovery would have any effect on my own work, I start with the horseshoes. Pointy bits down, and drive them through the grass into the soft soil so that just the top pokes through. I plant a fence two shoes deep, so if two in a row arenít touching theyíll at least be linked by the one beside them.

It takes a long time. After a while Susannah and her husband come outside and start watching me. Sir Lucas starts picking at my fence at once stage, but a single sharp word from his wife and he retreats. As I make my way around the castle I check the path regularly to make sure that what I found earlier goes the whole way around. The sun, what there is of it, is half-way sunk by the time Iím finished.And none too soon, either Ė Iíll only just have time to work the kinks out of my back from all that bending before the real fun starts.

ďI donít know what youíre trying to prove by that, miss, but Iíll make sure you receive the landscaping bill,Ē says Sir Lucas.

ďJust as you say, sir,Ē I reply, ever the happy employee and even happier knowing he wonít have a clue where to send any bills, for landscaping or anything else that happens. ďNow if we could all go back inside, there are a few precautions Iíd like you yourselves to take for tonight...Ē

We walk back to the car first and I grab another bag Ė Iíd already taken the rest of the horseshoes from the boot to finish the circle Ė before we go back into the chilly entrance hall and from there up to what I called the renovated mini-corridor. Susannah darts out to round up some food for their night-long vigil, leaving me to survive a bout of silence and belligerent glares courtesy of Sir Lucas, who has his arms wrapped tight around his front like heís holding something there. Itís probably a healthy dose of belligerent rage, so I donít mention it. Susannah returns promptly, laden down with sandwiches she says she prepared earlier, and then we begin.

I open my bag. It looks like one of those long sports bags people use for carrying hockey sticks in or whatever, but the contents of mine is somewhat different. I dive in with both hands and pull out a clinking pile of thin iron chains.

ďYouíll need to wear these. Hideous and degrading, yeah, but having these wrapped all around you is a damn si- a heck of a lot more effective than slinging a charm around your neck. Covers a greater area, see, and thatís the main thing. Charmsíll protect your neck, and thatís fine so long as you donít mind a pair of nasties playing catch with your limbs. Chains are better.Ē

I reached into the bag again and started talking before either of the Greys could comment. ďThe perimeter circle should keep any would-be intruders out, but-Ē

ďIf weíre so secure, why the chains?Ē

ďBut, in the case of an emergency, youíll need these.Ē I heft two long lengths of piping like fire irons Ėwell, OK, they are fire irons, essentially Ė and pass one to each Grey. They both look at me like Iím mad. You always get that from the adults; kids are far more open to the idea of busting up the bad guys with a hunk of metal. ďI think you can guess what to do with these, if the situation arises.Ē

Their looks of incredulity turn to the blankness of shock, then Ė strangely, I think Ė Sir Lucasí face is the first to settle into determination. Susannah follows close behind, but the sceptic is the first to accept his duty, and thatís odd. Maybe it was the ritual desecration of his lawns that convinced him.

ďHave you got some sort of CCTV system installed? Security cameras?Ē

Susannah nods stiffly, and walks over to a cabinet installed into one of the walls. With the cupboard doors open it becomes a closet surveillance system, a series of screens and keyboards; looking at it, I can see pretty much everywhere Iíve been today, including a couple of those lost-making corridors.

ďGood. Youíll be holing up in here, then?Ē

Another nod. A surfeit of silence.

I sigh. The sunís still sinking, and I know Iíll have a fair few hours even once itís gone completely, but I always get the jitters around this time and Iím itching to go check my fence. Again.

ďRight. Youíre OK to move around the house for now, but be back in here and make sure youíre secure by eleven. Donít go anywhere alone after that, and donít go to sleep. Understood?Ē

They understand. I give them each a radio, because itís always good to communicate, and leave.

The grounds have gone a quiet shade of black now that the sunís gone, a typically early winter sunset, and only the odd security light makes any dint in the darkness. I could turn on my torch, but chances are itíll go out if thereís a scuffle, and then Iíll be blind for a few minutes while my eyes adjust and those few minutes would not be pleasant.

I walk slowly around the perimeter, scraping the grass away from my horseshoes fence so that I can assure myself that itís still there.

It is, of course. Iím just being paranoid, same as ever, but itís a paranoia thatís kept me alive so far, so itís not like Iíll be seeking professional help.

Round and round and round I go, almost full circle from my car and back to it, when the hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle. And thatís strange, because my watch only says ten thirty, and the join isnít supposed to happen until midnight.

The join. Some call it a break, a split in our world that lets in theirs, but I see it more as some sort of unholy matrimony between nature and unnature. Our worlds run separate all the days of the years but one, and of that one day there are only five hours, from midnight onwards, when they collide and we humans get royally screwed over.

Those five hours seem to be starting now. Early, but thereís that smell in the air thatís all fresh leaves in the spring and the smell of grass after rain and rich black soil underfoot and beneath it all the tough, winding roots that hold you down until youíre nothing but putrid rot to feed that leafy tree and that nice green grass. You smell that smell just once, and if you live, youíll never forget it.

I speed up. Iíve almost finished checking my fence but thereís still twenty metres ahead of me to go and that smell means theyíre here already, hiding somewhere in the shadows. Maybe one of them will trip a security light and give them all away, but thatís a slim chance.

I should have checked the ground plans. Iíve had all day; why didnít I do that?

Because council flats donít have grounds that require maps. I swear at myself silently; new situation, new rules. You change your routine to fit. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I quicken my pace again, hurrying to my car. I had done the rounds with a few extra shoes on hand (theyíre good for use as discuses if something turns up) but nothing for hand-to-hand combat. Thereís a fire iron in my car, or at least there was when I packed last night, but it hadnít been in the bag of goodies that Iíd taken up to the Greysí hidey hole, and Iím beginning to worry if it hadnít got itself lost somewhere on the journey. Horseshoes are all very well, but I always feel more secure with a weapon that has some length to it. And some weight. And that isnít just an aggrandised bit of bent wire.

I reach the car and yank the boot open. The boot light goes on and I wave goodbye to my night vision, but the pokerís there. I snatch it from the car, and oh man does it feel good to have that solid stick of iron in my hands.

Just in time, too. Theyíre here Ė five, this time.

Itís always the first sight that gets you, no matter how many times youíve seen them before, and itís that single moment of paralysis that they use to kill you. Youíre standing there, dumbfounded by this inhuman humanoid thatís surely too slight and delicate to do you any real harm and besides theyíve got pointy ears, how silly is Ė

And then youíre dead.

Not me, though. My five-second pause goes past with me on one side of iron and them on the other, and thatís the way I like it. As soon as Iím mobile again I slip my hands into a comfortable at-ease position along the length of the fire iron and start watching.

Elves will congregate wherever thereís youth to steal, and as Iím still a few years short of lying about being thirty Iím the prime cut on this estate. Only once they get through me will they move on to the sexagenarians inside. And to get through to me, theyíll have to burn themselves up on a ring of iron shoes.

I unclip my radio from my belt and press the button to a hiss of static. ďSir Lucas, Susannah, come in.Ē

There are a few seconds of static, then I hear Mrs Greyís voice. ďWeíre listening. And Ė watching. Is that Ė are they...Ē she trails off.

ďYes. Five so far, but thereís no way of knowing if thatís all will turn up. Keep watching your cameras, and keep radio contact open at all times. Iíll see you when all this is over.Ē

Susannah speaks again, her reply unintelligible through the static. I buzz through for her to repeat her message and while Iím waiting I skim the nearest length of fence with my eyes.

Oh god. I see it just as Susannah repeats herself:

ďOh, god almighty, Lucas, what did you have to do that for? Listen, look out, heís taken some of the horseshoes from your circle-Ē

She might have more to say, but Iíve already dropped the radio, leaving it to dangle from its cord. The gap in the fence, three shoes long, is half-hidden by the shadow of my car, shadow even deeper than the dark of night and how the hell did I not see that before?

But it doesnít look like any of the elves have seen it yet, either. Theyíre still stalking their side of the line in that strange walk they have, slow and controlled with frequent bursts of speed so great it canít be tracked by the human eye. All you can see is a blur when they move like that.

I gulp. I have maybe one chance, just one if Iím luckier than Iíve been ever before in my life. Iíve got three shoes still hooked to my belt, and if I can take just a few casual steps closer and use them to fill the gap everything will be all right again.

I take one step and nothing changes. A second step; thereís a slight shift in the pattern of constant blur and focus that is my prey and greatest predator, but nothing more.

Three steps, though, and Iím lost. I throw my handful of iron at the gap but Iím too slow: one of them has seen the break in the circle and in a second he, she, it, whatever, blurs through and dodges the shoes and suddenly the world is pain and Iím flying backwards, falling winded to skid backwards on hard tiles Ė

Tiles. The elfís attack had shot me backwards onto the path and now I really do have a chance. My back might be stinging in a way that promises aches and pains tomorrow, if Iím still around by then, and my face is crunching in a way that doesnít bode well, but I think I can still walk. I ease myself into a crouching position; my fire iron was knocked from my grasp when I went down, but itís not too far away for me to grab at again and roll away as a foot whistles past my face. I jump to my feet, stumble slightly and wheel around so that Iím standing squarely in the middle of the path.

The elf isnít more than four feet away from me. His lips stretch out wide over narrow teeth and he moves as Iím still steadying myself. I laugh, a bloody bubble of mirth, at the look on his face when he realises that instead of barrelling into me with inhuman speed heís just jerked forward, like a runner making a false start. His grin turns to a snarl and then to a mess of blood and teeth as I swing my iron into his face. One good hit and heís down, but there are four more to go and although they might be wary of the way the path slows them down to almost less than human speed Iím too close and youth-rich a temptation for them to leave me be Ė

And theyíre on me. Even with the momentary confusion that arises from their sudden slowness, four elves make for a formidable foe and the sight in my right eye has almost gone: what isnít obscured by my quickly swelling face is coloured with blood, and blinking does nothing to help it. One-eyed and limping, I drive the end of my fire iron into the stomach of the nearest elf and hear something rip before one of them catches me in the ribs. I drop to my knees, foetal, and they swarm like sharks and all I can do is strike out blindly until they retreat long enough for me to get to my feet again. The one I got in the stomach is bleeding and I swing my poker at the wound a second time, ramming the iron into the elfís midriff until he stops trying to get up.Something grabs at me from behind. I tuck the end of the poker under my arm, holding it horizontal like a soldier on parade, wait until he gets a better grip, wrap my hand around the other end and jab backwards. Another one down, the gurgle of bloody breath from behind me rattling into silence as the elf falls to the ground, but there are still three left.

I look around and correct myself. Two left. Theyíre both keeping their distance for now, so I take a second to check the one behind me Ė definitely dead. The hole from my fire iron has made a soggy patch of blood under his ribs but I remember striking upwards as I pushed it through his body, so it must have hit something vital. Iím too relieved to feel sick. Thank god.

Something crackles. For a second I canít place the sound, but then a voice becomes discernable through the white static Ė my radio. Iíd dropped it when the elves first attacked but itís still hanging from my waist by its cord. I fumble it up to my ear with bloody fingers.

Itís Susannah. Her voice cracks and spits across the bed connection, but the message is clear.

As the remaining two elves charge forward, I close my eyes and duck.

The security lights turn on with an almost audible whoomph of power, and even through my closed eyes I can see the glare. Something Ė an elf Ė trips over my hunched back and I roll to the side lest it remember where I am. My arms over my eyes to block the light better that my eyelids can, I wait for the brilliant whiteness to disappear.

A few seconds later it does, and instantly I open my eyes and leap up. The returned darkness doesnít affect me, hidden from it as I was, but my opponents are light-blinded, their night vision gone.

Two well-placed blows take them out. Then another one fells me.

I hit the ground face-first, my mind racing. Had another group come through, or Ė

No. One through the stomach, one behind me and two out of the light Ė Iíd only downed four of the original five, and this was the one Iíd missed. Stupid again, and now Iím paying the price.

Iím still flat on the ground and before I can roll to face my attacker he grabs my left arm and starts twisting it behind my back. Iíve seen this move before; if I donít get free, heíll pull it right off my body.

I struggle against the elfís grip, managing to pull my legs underneath me as he laughs. I keep my weight to one side as though Iím trying to pull out of his grasp Ė or help him rip off my arm, because thatís all a manoeuvre like this would achieve Ė and then slam myself up against him, using his own strength to fling him off me.

But he still has hold of my arm and even as I roll on top of him he uses it as leverage to swing me around and pull me into a headlock. Lights are flashing in front of my eyes but itís not through lack of oxygen; the security lights are flickering on and off, but whatever Susannah hopes to achieve from it isnít happening. The elf flips me onto my back and kneels over me, holding me in place by my neck.

Itís not a male. The creatureís long hair flows down past her almost bare breasts, covering the ragged shoulders of her torn dress.

The elfís clothing seems oddly familiar and I suddenly realise why Ė itís the same dress that that Greysí daughter was wearing in her final portrait. Now I feel sick. This type of thing happens all the time, elves taking souvenirs from their victims, but to keep something for three hundred years? I can feel bile rising in my throat.

All this goes through my mind in less than a second and as it does my hands are rising to those at my throat, my fingernails finding the delicate web of flesh between the elfís fingers. I pinch down, hard, feeling skin part beneath my nails.

She screams but I barely notice, too busy knocking her hands from my neck to gloat over her pain. Free from her grip I scan the ground for my fire iron, but canít see it: the constant polar change of lighting could be hiding it from me, or it might have been got knocked away in my struggles with the elf. Either way, itís gone.

But I can cope. The elf lunges at me and I dodge to the left, grabbing her by the hair and neck and shoving her to the ground. I get one good punch to her face before sheís back up and we grapple together, each desperate for any advantage, any nerve cluster or eye socket that will leave the other vulnerable. She gets it.

My eye burns with pain and I hurl myself backwards out of her grip, falling to feel grass underneath me. Iím off the path. Knowing that I only have a few seconds before the elf realises what this means, I kick her feet out from under her as she comes to stand over me, then pin her to the ground in the same position she had me in before.

Iím almost too late. I can tell the exact moment she realises the change: her pupils dilate and I reach to my side, hoping to god that I havenít misjudged the distance.

I havenít. Just as she makes to push me off her with her regained strength I pull my hand from the ground and crush it against her neck, the two prongs of a horseshoe springing like claws from either side of my fist. A strange noise, half-rage and half-pain, gurgles from her throat as she falls backwards. I drive the horseshoe deep into the ground. The smell of burning flesh fills the air.

I sit back. With the last elfís death all my adrenaline disappears, and to make up for the loss all my injuries start making themselves heard. Too exhausted to move and too sore to care much if another party of elves does come and pull me to pieces, I check my waist for my radio. Still there, by some miracle. I click it on and speak into the mic.

ďMrs Grey? Sir Lucas?Ē

Silence.

ďI donít know if you can see me,Ē God, my voice sounds like someone dusted my throat with sandpaper, ďbut everythingís good down here, problem most definitely taken care of.Ē

More silence. My stomach going icy, I look up at the castle. As I scour the windows for any sign of an intruder, still rasping into my radio for someone, anyone to reply, a light on the second floor switches on.

Iím close enough to recognise them. Lucas and Susannah Grey, unharmed, alive, and looking down at me. Susannah raises a hand to her mouth and I wait for her voice to come over the radio, but she drops her hand again without speaking. They stand there for a few minutes longer, then draw the curtains.

I think if I were a few metres closer and less banged-up in the ears area, I might hear the clank and hiss of hydraulic bars as Greyholmeís security system goes into lockdown. They hadnít told me about this.

Fair to say, I hadnít told them I would be spending the night turning their front lawn into a bloodbath. Even so, though...

I fix the holes in the fence and spend the night in my car, divvying up my time between bemoaning my various injuries and fuming about the Greys. No sleep. They might have abandoned me, but it is still my duty to watch over their home Ė even if it is through a car window.

The new day dawns through a mist of rain and my job is done. Now is my chance to indulge my curiosity, get rid of the bodies and hike up that landscaping bill even more. I grab my shovel from the boot and get to work.

The cold rain is a blessing on my swollen face as I dig up the path, and the labour helps to work out the inescapable muscular cramps that come part and parcel with spending the night in an old Ford Escort. Two hours later Iíve scraped a nice big hole out of the ground and found what I was looking for.

It wasnít what Iíd expected, mind.

The bottom of my hole is lined with the desiccated bodies of eight elves draped with iron chains, packed tight in a row that perfectly mirrors the path above. That had been what Iíd sensed the previous afternoon. There arenít just the eight there, though; a bony arm protrudes from one side of my hole, and a leg from the other. This grisly grave must go the whole way around the castle.

I laugh. I canít help it; the laughter bubbles up from my gut and I collapse against the side of the pit, tears streaming down my face. No wonder the elves were so weakened when they stepped on the path; along with iron, the earthly remains of their fallen comrades are anathema to the Fair Folk. No wonder Greyholme hadnít suffered any mysterious disappearances since they found a Hunter.

God, what a man. You donít get Hunters with that sort of imagination these days.

And after a night being dragged across ceramic tiles by elves, Iím not very imaginative either. My catch freshens up that nameless old Hunterís stockpile and, topped with a few shoes, looks very fine indeed.

I fill the hole up again and head back to town, my rusty old car leaving a cloud of black smoke to mark my progress. My bag of goodies is lost to the Greys, still locked inside their house, but that doesnít matter.

See, I reread the Greyholme files last night. It turns out that before last night, there hadnít been an incident there since 1917; Greyholme had been such an easy job that my people even used it for a training ground during the Ď50s. Not any more, though.

Once elves target a place, it takes a lot to shake them off. Far more than my little bout of slaughtering. I donít know why they gave Greyholme a wide berth for so many years, but I do know this: no matter how little Lucas and Susannah Grey like the idea, theyíre going to play host to the longest-running war in the history of humankind for a good many years yet.

And when they do, Iíll be waiting. After all, this is what I do.