Friday flash fiction – When the Barley Man Calls

Dear Georgina, let me begin by apologising for my death. While nobody should think of it as untimely at my age, I daresay it came as a considerable disappointment to learn the bulk of your inheritance comprises neither cash nor property, but foremost a matrilineal legacy of monster hunting.

In an ideal world, your mother would have brought you to learn at my side while she tended to her destiny. As it is, I place my trust in the investigative powers of my solicitor and hope he is able to locate you before your past – my past – no, damn it, our past catches up with you.

Presuming he succeeded in locating you, I urge you to accept Mr Pankhurst’s offer of a financial stipend and take custody of the equipment he’s brought. Some of the contents are explosive, so I recommend you find storage somewhere cool, away from open flames and sharp noises.

The money isn’t much, but it should keep you in ammunition, medical supplies and modest travel expenses. In my day it would have been enough but the cost of living has marched on. I hope your generation’s reputation for navigating the gig economy is well-deserved.

But I don’t need to guess that making ends meet is not your immediate priority. By now you will have had your first encounter with the Barley Man. If you are reading this, as I presume, then I’m afraid it won’t be your last meeting.

We don’t have another name for the Barley Man. I don’t know who or what he was before he put on that appalling outfit, but I do know it won’t come off. When we fought back when I was first starting out, I grabbed a handful of those stalks and tried to pull off his mask. Instead I got a hank of his scalp and a face full of green-black blood. Then he tagged my wrist with his silver scythe. I lost feeling in two fingers for six months after that, but honestly, I was angrier about ruining my Elvis Costello tour shirt.

If you’re wondering why you’re still alive, there’s a theory that he’s enacting some kind of initiation ritual. If you ask me, the Barley Man treats his first visit as a perverse courtesy call. A welcome to the great battle between good and evil, or something like that. I don’t have any proof, of course. The Barley Man’s vocabulary of whistles and growls certainly doesn’t lend itself to ideological discourse. But you rarely hear of anyone falling foul of him the first time. I hope you understand that, Georgina. The first time is free.

After that all bets are off. Be wary, especially in the last few nights before the harvest moon. He’ll come for you early, before you expect him. He only has rules so he can break them.

He’s not the only one you need to worry about, of course. Mr Pankhurst will provide you with a bundle of diaries – the ones kept by my grandmother, my mother, both my aunts. And your mother’s journals as well. Precious few of those, I’m afraid. I will tell you right now, with all my heart, that you should read them last. You need to know what’s in them, but not until you understand who you are and those who’ve come before you.

It’s a lot to get through, and not all your ancestors displayed the best penmanship, so let me provide some highlights. First of all, I suggest you avoid the company of large red-headed men with a Scandinavian accent. Agni Halvorsen, whom you may hear referred to as the Old Viking, is a vampire. To my great regret, I once treated him with a kindness I later learned he didn’t deserve. He’s since become quite obsessed with our family, jealous and murderous. Don’t allow him to fixate on you. He’ll start picking off everyone you love. My error cost me a husband and a son-in-law. Kill him as soon as you can. It never sticks, but it will keep him off your back for a few years.

The Gordonhall Revenant will return in spring next year. We’re on perpetual retainer to Lord Killbrook to exorcise it every eleven years, before it kills the livestock and scares away the tourist trade. Speaking of standing jobs, there’s a malicious fungal entity that crops up every so often in County Gwynedd, trying to subjugate all animal life. Invest in a good quality gas mask for that one.

There’s plenty to keep you busy, Georgina. Old and new. Read the notes, but don’t expect them to have all the answers. You’ll need to stay on your toes. Trust your instincts. Follow your nose.

It was the nose for me, at any rate. I always knew a monster by the scent of sour cherries on the air. No doubt you’ll experience the supernatural in your own way. For your mother, it was always an itch behind the eyes.

I think by now you must know what I’m going to tell you next.

Your mother didn’t just abandon you. She tried to abandon the work. She thought if she ran far enough, she could leave behind the ghosts and ghouls. She left you with your father’s family and fled to the other side of the world.

It doesn’t work that way. Monsters have rules about hunting, ones even the Barley Man won’t break. He won’t quit the game just because you don’t want to play. Your mother believed a temporary alliance would break the odds her way.

The Old Viking doesn’t make temporary alliances. He just makes more monsters.

She should have known. I should have prepared her better.

When they come – the Barley Man, yes, but all of the rest of them too– you have one task. Stand fast. Strike first. Stay upright.

She’ll come for you soon, she and her master. You’re an itch behind her eyes now.

I wish you better luck than mine.

Your Grandmother

I was writing something else and this story came out instead. I guess there’s elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in it, but I was interested in poking at the idea that an chosen-one-to-fight-the-darkness destiny might come with many generations of baggage. It’s probably a bigger idea than fits into this small frame, really, but I don’t always know that until I’m finished.

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