(as told by an elder of the village, to a passing stranger)
The Hearthstone family has presided over this small town since beyond memory; and the Hearthstones themselves, and their home on Cairn Hill, are older than the town. They are as old as the land itself, maybe. The old story-tellers said once, once when people were more likely to believe such things, that Hearthstone babies aren't born like normal people: when it's time the Hearthstones perform their rituals in the forest at night, and after doing that, they dig their right out of the solid earth.
You scoff, I know; I scoffed too when I was younger. We want facts, now, don't we? Well, the fact is, that they have alway been here, by some name or another, and always will be. They have powers, friend, whether that meshes with your way of thinking or not. The skies accord with the mood of their house; there is lightning nine times out of ten when there is rancour within Hearthstone Manor; and every summer the farmers pray for a death in the family, for nothing is more sure to bring the rains. Yes, yes, laugh all you like.
We have no taxes, here, you know? Don't ask me how they manage it, but they do. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of government officials I've ever seen in our village, and I've lived here my whole life, and quite a long life it's been at that, too. No; the Hearthstones own this land, and their power is sovereign. They won't allow any petty bureaucrats to encroach on their domain. So, they protect us from the government, and some other things besides, and we pay them, handsomely, for the privelege.
What other things do they protect us from? Well... well, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. But, I suppose we can give it a try, though, can't we, seeing as how you're buying?
This, well, this is a dark place, friend. You don't go out at nights, and for God's sake you don't go out in the woods. There are things about, creatures. What things? I'll be damned if I know; ha, maybe even literally. They're the things that infest nightmares; they flit across your vision; you can't see them, you can't fight them. They come at night and they kill us, if we're not careful. They kill us, that is, when the Hearthstones are lax. Like I said, the Hearthstones have power, and they protect us. I've got about as much conception of what's out there in those woods as a sheep does of a wolf; all I know is that deep fear. You really want to know what's out there? Go out into the woods at night. Or ask the Hearthstones. Ask our shepherds; our butchers, too, if you like.
Yes, I know you don't believe me. But ask anyone around here, they'll tell you the same thing. Ask about what happened in 1861, then you'll hear something. See this? This photograph, here? What do you think that is? A wolf, right in the middle of our town square. I know there haven't been any wolves in England for the last hundred years; that isn't any wolf, anyway, it's much too big. Damned if I know what it is, then; you tell me. Like Hell it's a "blurry picture of a hobbled horse". I'll tell you what it is: something that crawled out of those woods, something that wanted blood. And it would have gotten it, too, if old Zosimus hadn't ridden in and ordered that thing out. Don't ask me how he did it; I'm just damn glad he did.
Ah, but there's going to be much worse than that, soon. Old Zosimus Hearthstone, you see, patriarch of the family, is dying. You can see it in his eyes, in his cheeks. And those six little children of his, they all want a piece of the fortune, a piece of the power; you can see it in their eyes, too, and in their clenched fists. You can see in their eyes, too, their brutality: there will be war, open and likely bloody, between those Hearthstone children, and with it there will be great storms in the sky, and with it the darkness of the forest will grow deeper and deeper, and the monsters within it hungrier. It's happening already, even.
Well, you're welcome for the story; thanks for the company. You're not going out, are you? Haven't you been listening to me? I warn you again: don't go out at night: don't go out in the woods. Don't be a fool; don't think you know everything. Fine, be a fool. It's your funeral, and your soul, too, perhaps. Good luck, though, all the same. God bless.
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