People are no longer surprised at how determined Georgina Sotherton is. As a young girl her friends and family refused to believe her when she claimed she was determined neither to marry nor have any children. Also, her teachers and classmates took her determination to become the world’s best make-up sales woman with a pinch of salt. Today, as sales director of Europe’s largest and most successful manufacturer of cosmetics she remains happily unmarried and childless.

So when she announced she was determined to buy a derelict, abandoned cottage and to refurbish it as her dream home her friends and colleagues sat back to await their house warming invitations.

Georgina was not a natural electrician, nor did plumbing, building, plastering or decorating come easily to her. However, slowly and surely over the years she perfected the skills she needed, turning the hollow shell that was Hawthorn Cottage into a home. She had determined early on that she would focus on the structural and internal work first, leaving the already overgrown garden until the cottage itself was complete. So it was with no small amount of pride that one Bank Holiday Monday, almost exactly four years since first moving in, Georgina set off to the garden centre in her executive car.

Later, having arranged for the latest, state of the art garden machinery to be delivery she returned armed with a selection of shears, saws and secateurs and eyed the rural jungle that her garden had become. She had already decided to first tackle the hugely overgrown and twisted hawthorn, which she assumed gave the cottage its name. The gnarled twigs seemed to loom over the garden and needed far more than a quick prune. With her usual stoic determination Georgina launched herself into the task at hand, slicing, cutting, hacking and slashing with equal measure as the warm spring sun beat down. Suddenly she felt a sharp blow right to the top of her head. Slightly stunned the novice gardener glanced around to see what had happened. An unusual looking stick was lying on the ground at her feet and had obviously dropped from the tangled branches higher up. Unlike the huge pile of twigs and branches stacked neatly to one side this new stick was almost perfectly straight and seemed to have already been trimmed neatly at each end to around a foot long. Absently Georgina picked it up, considering the unusually smooth branch with a frown. Without thinking she slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans and then redoubled her efforts on the sprawling Hawthorn in front of her.

By the time the setting sun was casting long shadows across the fields that backed onto the garden at Hawthorn Cottage the hawthorn itself had been cut back to a more pleasing and manageable shape. In addition a variety of other trees and bushes had also faced the same treatment and at last the garden was beginning to look a little less like a jungle. Pleased with her day’s work Georgina locked away her new tools in the decrepit shed and trudged indoors, her mind on the bottle of wine chilling in the fridge and the recently installed Victorian style bath in her en-suite bathroom.

The cuts and bruises Georgina had amassed throughout her day in the garden made her wince as she wrestled with the corkscrew releasing the stubborn cork with a pop. As she was pouring the perfectly chilled wine Georgina was surprised to see a sleek black cat peering at her through the kitchen window. Its yellow eyes followed her every move, tracking her around the room and she glared back at it, sipping her drink slowly. Over the last four years there had never been a cat spotted in the garden of Hawthorn Cottage let alone sat on a windowsill. All the local farmers had families of cats prowling their farmyards, however they were all scruffy moggies and bore no resemblance to the sleek black predator that was spying on Georgina as she unwound from her hard days work. Keeping her eyes on the unwelcome visitor Georgina leant back against the granite worktop cupping her wine glass in both hands. As she did so the forgotten stick in the back pocket of her jeans jabbed sharply upwards, making her gasp in surprise. Georgina grabbed hold of the offending stick and flicked it out from behind her back, an action that startled the cat making it shoot off into the gathering dusk with a hiss.

Georgina watched it flee disinterestedly, enjoying the refreshing wine and counting the aches, pains and grazes from her day’s toil. “This won’t do,” she announced to no one in particular and set off towards the sanctuary that was her bathroom, leaving the unusual stick on her coffee table but taking her wine with her.

Sometimes things are so unusual they are not spotted with a casual glance, for example the huge, scruffy owl that was balanced precariously on the narrow sill of the stair window. Georgina had almost walked past it before she saw it’s dull greenish eyes tracking up movement up to the bathroom. For a moment human and owl started at each other from less than a foot apart before Georgina shouted at the intruder, which appeared to shrug before drifting off silently into the dusk.

A calming ‘chill out’ CD, a selection of aromatic candles and the rest of the glass of chilled wine helped Georgina completely forget the two unusual visitors to Hawthorn Cottage, while a foamy and warm bath eased the days hard work. Completely relaxed Georgina dressed and wandered downstairs intent on a second glass of wine and the obscenely huge chocolate cake that nestled in the fridge. She had become so relaxed that she completely failed to spot that not only had the cat and the owl remained in her newly pruned garden, they had been joined by a mismatched selection of their own kind. Several owls perched on the highest vantage points, while a handful of cats prowled in the darker corners, all paying as much attention to each other as to the cottage and it’s human inhabitant.

Unusually Georgina was daydreaming and more unusually she was dreaming of her childhood. In her minds eye she could see the colourful, and unworn, dressing up costumes her mother had given her over the years. Princesses, witches and angels had all bored the young Georgina, whilst ‘playing shops’ had attracted her far more than magical stories and fairy tales. Sometimes she had felt jealous of her sisters and school friends and how they were easily amused by ponies and wands and crowns, but mainly she had thought them silly and childish. Now, having become so successful and self sufficient she felt justified in denying herself such magics while she was growing up.

Suddenly, breaking the silence, there was an abrupt and urgent knock at the door. Georgina, who had barely reached the bottom of her stairs, was jolted from her daydream and stopped stock still, heart pounding in her chest. As a successful and organised business woman she rarely had uninvited guests, every visitor being planned for and met with a smile. She had never received unexpected callers of an evening until tonight. However tonight was to prove very unusual.

Not one to allow herself to become unnerved, Georgina strode purposely to her front door and swung it open startling the stooped and angular figure behind. Had he been stood upright the uninvited visitor would have been taller than Georgina, but his bent frame made him appear short and twisted. Even though he looked painfully thin, his shiny black suit seemed to be two sizes to small and strained against his joints. The stranger’s skin was so pale it was as if rice paper had been stretched over a skeleton and the only colour in his appearance came from a small, glistening badge on his lapel. It took the form of a twisting snake, with it’s scales picked out in silver and green and looked strangely alive against the deathly pallor of it’s owner.

“Can I help you?” asked Georgina, not letting her unease show.

Part 2>>>