The house sat on the southern outskirts of Kendal in Cumberland, in the northern part of England. The rolling countryside was made up of long slopes of green fields and woods of ash and oak. The yard to the front of the house was lit up like daylight even though it was past two o’clock in the morning, human time. The moonlight had cast a frosted sheen upon the dewy grass, and the smell of sweet briar filled the air.
Outside, Titwell ran around the house and headed out to the woods at the back of the property. An owl hooted in the distance, and crickets sang. It was a beautiful early summer night that Titwell wasn’t going to get to enjoy. Instead, he was on a mission and had no time to dawdle. As he reached the woods, the moonlight thinned to only dapple the ground as he entered the tree line. Still, there was enough light for him to pick his way through the scrub and underbrush until he emerged about a hundred yards from the tree line, where the brush gave way to the forest floor.
Titwell looked about, making sure he wasn’t followed. It had been many a harried year as he had roamed the countryside looking for the Emissary the prophecy foretold. He had been chased, hunted down, thwarted, and generally harassed. But still, he persevered. Now that he was so close to completing his mission, he didn’t want to be stopped. Fifty yards away stood the old oak with the hole in it. It was a gateway to Elphame, Land of the Fair Folk, and home to Queen Oonagh. Carefully stepping out from the brush, Titwell gauged the distance and decided it was best to make a run for it.
There were stones covered in slippery moss that he had to cross to make it to the tree. It slowed him down a bit, but he crossed them safely, and just as he was about to breathe a sigh of relief, Groz stepped in front of him. “Going somewhere, are we?” He tried to sidestep the redcap, but the nasty creature hooked his finger into Titwell’s collar, causing him to halt to prevent choking himself. He had no choice but to turn and face his challenger. “I am on the queen’s business and you know it. Step aside and let me go.”
The redcap took a good while to answer as he assessed the situation. Groz was sturdy and grizzled with red eyes, taloned hands, and large teeth, wearing a red cap and bearing a pikestaff in his left hand. His breath was foul, and there was something rotten sticking out of his teeth. His cap was sticky and wet, which was a good thing for Titwell.
Groz’s benefactor probably wouldn’t have let him out unless he could be controlled, and that meant feeding him. Redcaps are said to murder travelers who stray into their homes and dye their hats with their victims’ blood. If a redcap’s cap goes dry, the redcap dies. Titwell was well aware of the precariousness of his situation.
“Eh, you’re always on the queen’s business. What ya got there in yer bag?”
“My personal belongings that I travel with.” A house brownie traveling was odd enough. One packed for a long journey was a rare thing indeed.
“You must be getting pretty homesick what with all the traveling the queen has you on. Yeah, you must be right sick of it.” Groz sucked on his teeth.
“Yes, I’m tired, and yes, I want to go home. Speaking of which, if you would step aside…” Titwell tried unsuccessfully to pass as Groz moved closer.
“No need to be rude. I was just trying to have a friendly chat with yeh.”
“Well, I am in a hurry, and I am in no mood to chat at the moment. Maybe if you would catch me at some other time?”
Groz knew he couldn’t hold the little rat. He would tear him apart if he could, but Queen Maeve’s orders were to observe and report. That was it. “Get on with yeh then, and shove off.”
Groz turned away and Titwell breathed a sigh of relief as he made for the gateway. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Without notice, Groz turned back and slammed him into the tree trunk gripping Titwell’s arms as he pinned him. His breath made Titwell want to gag as he moved in close, forcing Titwell to look him in the eye close up.
“Broonies,” Groz spat with disgust. “Someday, not now, but someday, you’re no longer going to be under Queen Oonagh’s protection, and I am going to be free as well. And when that day comes, ye can be sure I’m coming for ye. I’ve been ready to carve ye up and have ye for lunch for many moons now. Your days are numbered, little one. Of that, ye can be sure.”
Groz let Titwell go, and he inched along the tree as he felt the bark scrape his back. He wanted to move away and make for the entrance, but Groz blocked his escape. The redcap moved and turned his back on Titwell. He gave a wave with his hand as he left through the trees.
The gateway was a shallow hole in the base of a hollow oak tree. As Titwell stepped into the hole, green fire sprouted up all around him, turning yellow and then white as it seemed to consume him. And with that, he vanished from the Earth.