Read Once Online

Authors: James Herbert

Tags: #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Cerebrovascular Disease, #Fantasy, #Horror - General, #Contemporary, #Fiction - Horror, #Horror

Once

Once
Published:
2003
Rating:
★★★
Tags:
Cerebrovascular disease, Horror, Fiction - Horror, Contemporary, Fiction, Fantasy, Horror - General, Thrillers
Cerebrovascular diseasettt Horrorttt Fiction - Horrorttt Contemporaryttt Fictionttt Fantasyttt Horror - Generalttt Thrillersttt

SUMMARY:
The International BestsellerFor Thom Kindred, life is nothing spectacular. A stroke victim, Thom finds himself partially incapacitated and battling daily to regain control of his life. Moved by haunting dreams of his youth, he travels back to the wooded land where he grew up to recuperate. Surrounded by the comforts of Castle Bracken, Thom plans to relive old, forgotten memories.But Thom's return has stirred an ancient evil at Castle Bracken, one cloaked in the guise of a friend. His only chance for survival lies in a world that he no longer believes in. International bestselling author James Herbert opens the door into a place of wonder and terrible danger; where the unexpected becomes the norm, where the separation of dreams and nightmares is thin, and where "Once upon a time . . ." doesn't always lead to a happy ending.

JAMES HERBERT

Once…

A Scary Tale

Of Faerefolkis &

Evildoers, of Lovers

& Erotic Passion,

of Horror & Belief.

Written only

For Adults by

James Herbert.

JAMES HERBERT

Once…

MACMILLAN

‘… there is enough (evidence of fairies)

already available to convince any

reasonable man that the matter is not one

which can be readily dismissed …’

THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

‘… fairies are not tiny; they also

come in medium (brownies) and full sizes

(beautiful human-sized fairies) …’

THE COMPLETE BOOK OF

DEVILS AND DEMONS

Leonard R. N. Ashley

‘Fairy tales can come true

it can happen to you …’

YOUNG AT HEART

Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh

Once…

…upon…

…a…

…death, when life for Thom Kindred was fading fast and his inner eyes, the eyes that focused from his soul, were already dazzled by the shining way ahead (was the brilliance approaching him, or was he approaching it? he wondered in a curiously detached way), when his scant twenty-seven

years apparently were drawing to a close, something occurred that halted the untimely rush. Something, in fact, that not only saved him from death but altered the course of his future life.

The stroke was fierce enough to kill him, but when the pain was at its zenith, the blood disruption at its most threatening, the trauma began to subside, to draw back as if chastised by a new light that presented itself, this one golden and fierce; even though small it was certainly strong enough to influence the fine balance between life and death, the line between dissension and submission.

Just before crashing the car he happened to be driving at the time, he was suddenly a boy again reliving a child-

hood event, an occasion that was too vague to recollect properly and too fleeting to comprehend fully. He felt a great happiness though, and that too was momentary, unlike the headache that had plagued him for two days.

A distant impact - a grinding of metal, the shattering of glass - interrupted this unaccountable reverie, then there was silence. And stillness.

Save for that second light, the golden one, which swiftly dwindled to infinity like the goodnight spot on an old television screen.

Soon all that was left was a void, very black, very deep, but not the least bit threatening …

PART ONE

In which a young man

returns to his childhood home

and learns of things he

never thought possible.

MEET THOM KINDRED

HE’D HAD no idea how he would feel returning to Castle Bracken after all these years. How long had it been? Sixteen, seventeen years? Yes, seventeen - he’d been ten years old when they had sent him away to boarding school. One month after his mother’s death.

Thom used the ‘spinner’ attached to the Jeep’s steering wheel, a device that enabled him to turn the wheel using his right hand only, his left arm still weakened from the stroke - the ‘cerebrovascular accident’, as the clinically cold medical profession liked to name it. Because the four-wheel drive had an automatic gear shift, he was able to keep his left foot on the metal rest, which came as standard with the model, his stronger right leg doing its job of accelerating and braking. The Jeep swept into a narrow, hedge-lined lane and picked up speed again.

How much had changed in his absence? he wondered. Not much, not much at all, he was willing to bet. Certainly not as far as the manor house itself was concerned. Built almost four hundred years ago in the Jacobean period, there had been few renovations carried out since, apart from the usual upgrade of facilities - plumbing, mains electricity, and the like - and certainly no additions, except for the banquet, which was not an integral part of the house but a fancy (there were those who misguidedly called it a folly) which had been erected a mile or two from the mansion in a woodland clearing. Thom wondered how he would feel about Little Bracken, the cottage he had once regarded as his only true home. He’d been away a long time and had changed; from what he remembered of his last visit, so had the cottage.

Thom Kindred was twenty-seven years old, lean but not thin, of average height, with thick, tangled mid-brown hair that strayed over his shirt collar at the back. He was blue-eyed and his regular, if not handsome, features were slightly marred by a two-inch scar on his left cheek and another smaller one descending from his lower lip, both wounds sustained in the car crash almost four months before. He had been lucky that the visible injuries were not worse, airbag and seatbelt combining to protect him from serious harm as the car he was driving ploughed into an unoccupied bus shelter. The shelter was demolished, his estate car a write-off; but it was the blood clot in a cerebral artery that might have killed him, for the brain reacts badly to having its blood supply cut off, even temporarily.

He was unconscious for sixteen hours, drifting in and out for another ten. When eventually he had properly regained consciousness, his left arm and leg were paralysed and his entire body - not just his head - felt as though it had been pounded by a heavy-duty sledgehammer. The doctors were surprised that he should have suffered a ‘haemorrhagic infarction’ at such a young age (although they assured him it was not entirely rare), and further surprised there had been no warning (this, they assured him, was not rare at all). Unfortunately, the same doctors could not say whether he would ever walk unaided again, or even if he might regain the use of his left arm and hand, because it would take time to ascertain the damage to brain cells and tissues. Yet he was young and strong, so they remained optimistic. However, for Thom, the wait was frightening; even more so because of his chosen and beloved profession, which required the full use of both hands and arms.

Thom Kindred was a carpenter, a master carpenter, you might say, the kind of caring craftsman who would choose his wood by touching it first, caressing its grain with fingertips, by leaning close and smelling its scent, feeling its dampness or dryness, its strength, sturdiness, its suppleness, softness; only then could Thom sense the wood’s ‘soul’. If convinced of its worth he would cut into it, still testing the quality by the resistance offered, or the compliance accorded. He valued both hardwoods and softwoods equally, for each had their place and applications; he could even be amazed by their contradictions - some conifers, like the Douglas fir or yew, are softwoods, yet they produce a harder wood than many of their opposites, while balsa, the softest of all, is a hardwood. Thom had an affinity with the material he used that usually only came with years, perhaps several decades, of experience (and even so, that was never guaranteed), a kind of synergy that he discovered when he carved his first piece of wood taken from the forest floor when he was six years old.

Thom was successful enough to own a workshop situated in a not-yet-fashionable area of north London and he sold exclusively to upmarket stores or individual dealers; he also took on private commissions. Some of his finest pieces had been exhibited in certain art galleries, for his design could be as exquisite as his workmanship. He dealt only in one-offs, nothing was ever reproduced, never made in bulk, and he employed no one but himself, because he was the only person he would trust to carry through his creations with diligence and devotion. He even swept his own floors.

Now all this was at risk. The fingers of his left hand had become clumsy and sometimes his whole arm felt numb. He was often exhausted after only mild but prolonged exertion, and each time he suffered a headache he feared the worst. Yet the medics and, latterly, his physiotherapist had insisted that he was lucky, that it wasn’t often such swift progress towards recovery was made after an intrusive ‘brain attack’. Thom hadn’t the knowledge to agree or disagree - what the hell did he know about strokes and their aftermath? He remembered the first few weeks, lying helpless in a hospital bed, his body leaden, his left arm and leg virtually immobile, the frozen numbness of half his face, the incontinence, the slurred speech, the complete exhaustion and confusion; and the indignities - being turned over in bed like a helpless geriatric by brisk nurses, the Convene attached to his penis, there to funnel uncontrolled urine into a plastic bag, the bed baths, and eventually the accompanied trips to the lavatory and the embarrassment of someone watching over him as he defecated. Oh, he’d made good progress for sure, but the fear was always with him, because those same doctors, the neurologists and the haematologists, could not say whether or not another blood clot might form, damming an artery until sheer pressure caused the blood to burst through and flood his brain again, destroying cells and damaging tissues deep inside his head so that this time recovery - any recovery - might be an impossibility.

He pushed the dread away and slowed the Cherokee Jeep as a sheep suddenly pushed through a gap in the hedge ahead of him. The animal stopped dead in the middle of the lane when it saw the approaching monster, giving out a startled bleat.

‘Yeah, you too, dip-sheep,’ Thom replied with a smile, his mood instantly lightening. Years of living in noisy, overcrowded Kentish Town had enhanced his appreciation of the country way of life. He poked his head out of the open side window.

‘You gonna move for me?’ he called down to the puzzled sheep. ‘I’m not backing up, not for you, not for nobody.’

The animal casually turned away and began chewing at the hedgerow on the other side of the narrow lane.

Thom gave a sharp beep on the horn. In another time he might have left his vehicle to force the sheep back through the gap in the hedge physically, maybe even repair the damage to the shrubbery; but it had been a long drive from London and he was anxious not to exert himself too much, particularly after the repeated cautions of his doctor. He was supposed to be convalescing for the next few months, not pushing the butts of wandering sheep.

Easing his foot off the brake, he allowed the automatic gears to roll the Jeep forward. The animal was sideways on to the vehicle, its rear almost half-way across the lane, its other end, the feeding end, still tugging at tiny succulent, summer leaves. Thom applied the slightest pressure to the footbrake, just enough to slow the creeping Jeep even more.

At first the renegade sheep refused to get the message, but soon realized a fleecy rump was no match for a ton and a half of moving metal. It shifted position, champing jaws never leaving the food supply (Thom wondered if the creature had eaten its way through the opposite hedgerow), angling its stocky body so that the Jeep could squeeze by without crushing it.

‘You ever heard of road rage?’ said Thom, carefully watching the woolly backside below. Not for a moment did the sheep stop chewing. ‘No? Well, you’re pushing your luck. And by the way, those berries will give you bellyache.’

Thom chuckled to himself and brought his head back inside. A chaffinch swooped low into the lane, heading for the windscreen like a kamikaze pilot bent on self-immolation, zooming upwards at the last moment so that Thom almost flinched at the anticipated impact; beyond the hedgerow to his right, two wood pigeons called monotonously to each other; the sweet, chrysanthemum-like scent of the Compositae drifted through the windows. It was glorious and he closed his eyes for a fleeting moment to enjoy it all.

It was good to be back. Okay, three or four months’ convalescence might be too much for him, boredom could set in long before the rest period was over, but right now it felt good, so very good.

It was as if the countryside, this Shropshire countryside, was his natural habitat, the mean and grubby city he had left behind a purgatory to be endured while he earned a living, suffered for the love of his craft. Unfortunately, it was a penance to which he would have to return once recuperation was complete. Don’t push it too hard, his advisers, professional and otherwise, had warned: recovery, if it was to be, would take its own time and rushing the process might only instigate bodily rebellion, make his condition worse. Unfortunately, insecurity had always been the bug in Thom Kindred’s psyche. His life had never been easy for him, at least, not after his mother, Bethan, had died - drowned, they had explained to him, drowned while her mind was ‘unsettled’. Suicide had not been mentioned, but when he had grown older and less innocent, he had drawn his own conclusions. With no choice in the matter, because there was no father to take care of him, Thom was shipped off to boarding school in Surrey (not quite as far away as possible, but pretty near so).

Even then, Thom was aware that he should have been grateful to his benefactor, Sir Russell Bleeth, father of his boyhood friend Hugo (Sir Russell’s other son had been killed in Northern Ireland years before, yet another reason, it seemed to Thom, for the old man’s unremitting air of bitter anger), but he wasn’t. Instead, he had felt resentment, for he had had no wish to leave Little Bracken, whose isolation was his security, the woodland his playground.

The boarding school near Guildford had felt like a prison to him during his first term, with its harsh discipline and strict rules, and it hadn’t helped that its inmates initially had not taken to this odd and shy new boy, who apparently had no father - not one that he knew, that is - and who, had it not been for some rich patron, would have been a pauper. (Thom had been a little too honest when answering the questions put to him by inquisitive peers, all of whom seemed to come from wealthy backgrounds; even those whose parents were divorced at least knew who their fathers were. He also had no awareness of society’s - particularly that of the young and callow variety - rule that anyone deemed different from itself is treated as an outsider and, in some special cases, as an outcast.)

Fortunately, all this changed during the second term when Thom overcame his timidity and stood up to the mob, taking on the worst of his tormentors and acquitting himself very well. It wasn’t long before he had made some good friends and, when his prowess on the sports field was discovered, he soon became something of a hero. Those early years of good, healthy country living had left their mark on him. Always running everywhere, unless strolling with Bethan, weaving in and out of trees, constantly scaling the most interesting of them, leaping over fallen lumber or from stone to stone across bubbling streams, had made him agile and quick, as well as endowing him with enduring stamina.

Academically, he was no smarter and certainly no dimmer than most of the other kids in his year, but he made another discovery about himself. Often, fee-paying private schools such as his, where selection was not necessarily decided by a child’s intelligence, would, in despair encourage some of the less-bright pupils to look towards the crafts, particularly the hard-edged kind such as wood- and metal-work. Parents liked to see at least some result for their hard-earned cash, and if little Johnny could at least make an ashtray or herb rack, then not all was in vain; they could boast that their son’s brilliance was on the ‘creative’ side. Thom realized his true talent lay in working with his hands, particularly in creating things made of wood.

Ever since Eric Pimlet, Bracken’s gamekeeper and estate manager, had given Thom a whittling knife for his sixth birthday, he had loved carving, shaping things from branches, creating little ornaments, gifts for Bethan. His proficiency quickly earned him more popularity among the other boys, whose skills were less obvious than his; they sought advice or help from him for their own projects rather than seek it from their caustic and impatient woodwork master.

Even so, despite his easygoing nature and natural abilities both in sport and crafts, Thom remained something of a loner; one of the gang when it suited him, but mostly a little apart from the crowd.

Surprisingly, given his fond memories of Little Bracken, he rarely went to the cottage on his return visits to the estate between school terms, preferring to stay in his allocated room at the Big House, enjoying Hugo’s company if his friend was not holidaying abroad somewhere, otherwise entertaining himself designing pieces of contemporary furniture, then attempting to make them using Castle Bracken’s empty stables as a workroom and borrowing whatever tools he could cadge from Eric, who also provided him with the wood. Thom had taken the walk to the cottage only once and had been disappointed - no, more than just disappointed; he had been unsettled - by what he had found there, and it had nothing to do with the layers of dust that muted everything inside, nor the cold dank smell of emptiness. It was the absence he found hard to bear, the lack of presence that was not just to do with his mother’s death; it felt as if Little Bracken’s spirit - its vibrancy, its ‘warmth’ - had vanished also. Thom had felt a stranger inside its walls, and this had confused him. Worse, it had frightened him too.

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