Excerpt: The Lonely Merman

The path into Shanty Wood was muddy. Each step Ben took presented the danger of slipping on a discarded crisp packet or being tripped by the meandering root of some godforsaken tree.

He was unsure what variety of trees populated this place. Few had leaves this early in the year, and their trunks were black with damp rather than any nice shade of woody brown. Several had been daubed with neon spray, and others brutally stabbed with the initials of lovebirds—the only sort of bird that’d left much evidence of existence that day, apart from the odd crow. Beyond the faint rustle of the breeze, the wood was quiet.

Ben drew the zipper on his jacket up to his chin and checked his GPS position on his tablet. He frowned. Spending Friday afternoon in search of a public danger that might not exist was one of the “joys” of working for the County Environmental Office. The possible hazard he sought—some shack that a posh dog-walker called Mrs Buxton had phoned in that morning to report as unsafe—wasn’t marked on his digital map. Neither was the deep body of water that Mrs Buxton had complained about at length. “You people should get out of your warm offices and do your job,” she’d repeated, at least four times.

If just to shut her up and get to his second cup of coffee, Ben had promised Mrs Buxton he’d treat her complaint as urgent and get to it today. After some extensive searching in the archives, he’d found the word “folly” marked on a yellowing chart of the area, and figured that could be what he was after. According to the grid references, he ought to be almost there. Although he’d have to travel off this footpath to get to the exact spot he searched for.

After stuffing his tablet back into the heavy knapsack he’d lugged from the carpark, he veered due east, stomping through the ferns and bracken. The mud clogged thick on his boots, making each footfall heavier. A glance at his tablet confirmed both that he’d lost his GPS signal and that it was already a quarter past four. Ben peeped up through the treetops to the steely sky and prayed he’d be out of Shanty Wood—and preferably safe in his favourite pub—before it got dark in an hour or so.

“Where is this bloomin’ place…? Oh!”

Ben stopped in his tracks and stared. He’d been obsessing way too hard about where he was treading, forever glancing down, or he ought to have seen the structure before him some distance off. It still seemed odd he’d missed it.

This was no mere shack. Rather, it looked like some giant or god had chopped a single round tower off a medieval castle and dumped it in the middle of the forest. It stood higher than an average house, topped with mini battlements and—good heavens!—leering gargoyles. Yes, there were winged dragons, poised beneath the crenulations with their jaws wide and their wings unfurled, as if ready to pounce and feast upon some unsuspecting prey.

On realizing he held his breath, Ben let out a long, shuddering sigh. If today had been a brighter day, or if he’d been on a hike with his family, stumbling upon somewhere like this might’ve been exciting. Fascinating, even. But he was alone, and his heart beat way faster than it ought.

This place was creepier than a bathtub full of spiders. He’d get his inspection over with and get out of there.

Ben dumped down his heavy luggage, retrieved his tablet, and started to snap images and make notes. On first glance, the red sandstone tower seemed safe enough. When he touched the walls, they stained his fingers with reddish dust, yet they weren’t as crumbly and weatherworn as he would have expected of an ancient place. A scan of the surrounding area showed no signs of the rest of a great castle. There weren’t even many nettles, a species that loved to grow over old ruins. He guessed the tower had always stood alone and hadn’t been here much more than a century or so.

Indeed, the tower didn’t seem to have any real purpose. The base was about six-feet across and no good for comfortable habitation. The only entrance was a door-less dark portal that appeared to have been smashed through the solid wall, rather than designed as an entrance. A quick peep inside confirmed the tower had no floors, no staircase, and no roof. He got out a flashlight and checked inside for falling debris. The beam disturbed a pigeon, which cooed and flapped from its perch. Ben jumped back out to avoid a shower of grubby feathers.

Structurally, the tower looked okay so far. He hoped this wasn’t going to prove a futile exercise. Ben sighed and trudged around the parameter of the tower before drawing to a halt in front of the carcass of a dragon, its scaly back buckled, its wings shattered, and its neck snapped.

“Ah,” said Ben. He held up his tablet, framed the fallen stone gargoyle on the screen, and took a picture. Maybe this hadn’t been a wasted trip after all.

As he crouched down beside the remains of the gargoyle, melancholy overcame him, as if he’d stumbled across some broken woodland creature, a badger or a deer. Although much of the detail had been destroyed when the dragon crashed into the earth, Ben could make out the diamond shape of its eye, the curl of its lip above a single remaining fang.

He put one hand to his knee and rose, shaking himself slightly. No point being sentimental. If one dragon had fallen, the rest could easily follow suit, and the tower needed cordoning off. He returned to his knapsack and pulled out one of the metal poles that stuck out of the top.

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