Short Story - A Prickly Situation

For our December Saturday Story, a reminder of the time our resident Cornish pisky, Romeo Kennedy, first transported you to the Horn and Howl and the spooky tale of A Prickly Situation...

‘And that's when the house turned to dust.’

The small gathering listened to the droll teller’s tale with awe and amazement. The Horn and Howl Inn was renowned for attracting droll tellers and audiences would come from far and wide to listen to some of Kernow’s wonderful stories. The crackling of the open fire and the soft bubbling from the pot of stew that hung above the tickling flames softly melted away the cold, damp evening air and filled the Inn with a welcoming aroma, as well as the sound of hushed, excited whispers mixed with the sipping and slurping of ale by the Spyrys and animals, gathered for tonight’s many tales.

Although on this particular evening things were a little different.

Berens the toad, had just finished recounting his tale for the evening and was looking rather pleased with himself.

‘You ain’t telling it right,’ came a voice from the other side of the Inn. The gathered audience, including Berens all turned their attention to the far corner of the Inn, where a small creature with a rain cloak sat.

‘I beg your pardon strangeling?’

Berens was, as you might imagine, quite upset. He prided himself on his story telling and the passing down of tales.

‘You heard,’ said the creature, not even bothering to look at the audience or Berens.

‘The house grew wings before it turned to dust. Everyone knows that,’ continued the creature.

Berens slammed his fist onto the table and spilled the foam from his ale.

‘Bloody know it all aren't you! So come on then, let’s hear you tell a story. That’s what we are here for after all and seeing as you know so much.’

The creature was silent for a moment and took a sip from his ale.

‘All right,’ he said, ‘I will.’

Turning in his seat the creature faced Berens and the audience.

‘The stage is yours ... Strangeling,’ said Berens

The creature gave a quick cough to clear his throat and began his tale...

‘He was the most notorious highwayman there ever was.’

‘Please! Highwayman stories are all the same,’ Berens croaked. The creature did not reply to the heckling toad and the audience beckoned the teller to continue.

‘For all across Kernow, his name was fear, dread, and an encounter with a highwayman hedgehog named Huxley was never forgotten. It is known that Huxley H. Trebelli was a mild mannered, hedgehog who as a hoglet lived with his family on the grounds of a very wealthy Pisky lord. The Trebelli family were poor but they were happy, living in the cosy hedgerow.

Then one day the Pisky lord told them they would have to leave their hedgerow as he had plans to further extend house and there would be no room for the Hedgehog family. Huxley’s father refused and warned the Pisky lord that he would do anything to protect his family and his home. The Pisky lord did not take kindly to threats, so on one night he had his guards kidnap the Trebelli family. Oat sacks were placed over the parents heads, and Huxley was thrust inside one.

They were taken to the cliffs of Hell’s Mouth and thrown off the edge.

All but Huxley perished.

It is said that when the Lord’s guard hurled the hoglet out of the sack, onto the rocky doom below, the hand of hell reached from the crashing waves, ready to catch Huxley and, just as the hoglet was within reach, he bit the hand of hell’s fingers. There was a roar of pain from the sea and Huxley was thrown back onto the cliff top. By this time the guards had run away in fear.

Shivering on the cliff top, Huxley made a vow of vengeance against the wealthy and those who had wronged him. That was the moment when Huxley H. Trebelli became Huxley Hellbiter the most feared highwayman in Kernow.

Huxley worked the roads alone, and to this day has never been caught by any who tried to hunt him.

Dressed in a cloak that clung to his spines, an empty oat sack over his head with two eyeholes cut out with a tricorn hat on top, and armed with his trusty flintlock pistol. No carriage nor traveller was safe from Huxley.

Some say that the hedgehog would appear without a sound as if he had swooped down on gossamer wings. Others say that to challenge him meant a swift death and others say that he could pick clean a carriage in seconds and leave a husk lying in the road. One thing that is for sure though is that Huxley always left a calling card in the form of a single spine plucked from his body.

Many a bounty had been placed on his head and as time went on the reward amount greatly increased. It was even known that Huxley Hellbiter took part in a hunt for himself, wearing a cunning disguise. The hunters were working for a wealthy Pisky, whom Huxley had robbed of a considerable amount. The party of three spyrys and three animals including Huxley, set out at dawn and were supposed to return at dusk. No one returned. The wealthy Pisky sent out a search party the next morning and they eventually came across three Piskies and two animals hung upside down from trees, all bound and gagged. Each had been stripped of weapons, jewelry, and clothes.

A single spine was of course found at the scene.’

Berens yawned. ‘Not what I heard,’ he said under his breath.

‘I believe I’m telling this story,’ said the teller, placing a lit pipe into his mouth.

‘Let him tell it,’ said a rabbit in the audience.

‘Yes, you’ve had your turn,’ said another listener.

‘I believe the audience has spoken.’ The teller said puffing a smoke ring into the air.

Berens looked slighted but said no more.

The teller continued...

‘Things were getting dangerous for Huxley Hellbiter. The coaches were heavily guarded, and some were even guarded by magic.

On one occasion Huxley almost came unstuck.

It was late one evening and Huxley had spotted a carriage rumbling down the dusty road from his lookout. The carriage was getting closer and Huxley leapt from the tree with speed and silence and headed straight for his prize. The carriage was not as it seemed for when Huxley drew his pistol the carriage stopped, shook once and transformed into an incredibly large blue dragon. He had been tricked. The dragon breathed blue flame and singed Huxley’s cape. Huxley fought bravely and cursed himself for being foolish. The dragon lunged to take a bite of the highwayman hedgehog and that was when Huxley noticed a charm around the dragon’s neck. Quick as a flash, Huxley grabbed the charm and attempted to escape the dragon’s deadly bite. Only no bite came. With the charm in his grip, Huxley stared at the space where a few seconds earlier the dragon had been. Sorcerers, witches, of Spyrys and animal would be close, ready to retrieve the body of Huxley and the very handsome bounty on his spiky head. Huxley narrowly escaped just as a band of bounty hunters arrived. The hunters said that they could hear laughter coming from the wood that night.

The close call made Huxley even more cautious than usual, so he decided to lay low for a while.

Of course everyone thought that he had either been caught or killed, so the roads were declared safe again. The peculiar thing with Huxley was that no one really knows what he did with the riches he stole. He lived well within his means when he could have lived as a King. Some say that he gave what he had to the poor. As well as those who search for the highwayman, there are those that search for his mass of riches. No one has ever found anything of course.’

The teller was silent for a minute lost in his own thoughts, ‘Where was I? Oh yes.’

‘Huxley was not seen on the roads for a year. There were of course individuals that claimed they had seen him and in all manner of exaggerated situations. But Huxley didn’t come out of hiding until after a year and a day had passed.

The twilight of early evening made the perfect conditions for Huxley to emerge from his hiding place. Sitting on his lookout he surveyed the dusty road as night fell, and the stars twinkled like jewels in the sky. First he heard the rumble of hooves and then over the hill shone the lantern from the coach. Huxley was as swift as ever and reached the carriage just before the bend in the road. He stood in the middle of the road with his paws behind his back, tapping his foot, watching the carriage slow down. The coach came to a stop. The horses’ breath steamed into the night air.

Huxley pointed the pistol at the coachman who made no effort to protest at his carriage being held up. Moving to the side of the coach the hedgehog tapped the butt of his pistol on the carriage door and asked the passengers to come out.

There was no answer.

Carefully, Huxley opened the door and peered inside. Empty. Except for a chest with a huge padlock. He made a grab for the chest but the voice of the coachman stopped him.

“Oh, night of nights. How fortuitous this encounter,” said the coachman. Huxley made his way to the front of the carriage and pointed his pistol at the coachman and told him to hand over the keys to the chest.

“All in good time, all in good time,” replied the coachman, not moving from his seat. “This is a night for changing the fates of you and I.”

Huxley looked around the road sensing some sort of trap. Something was wrong. Very wrong indeed. Huxley demanded the keys to the chest again and withdrew the rapier at his side. With a swish and flourish of the gleaming blade the point of the sword was at the coachman’s throat.

“You see my lad,” said the coachman, “You can have the keys, the chest, and the whole carriage.”

The coachman removed his hood. Huxley Hellbiter dropped his sword, and the pistol in his grip shook with fear.

For the coachman had no head.

The phantom horses neighed and the moonlight shone through the ghostly carriage.

“I have waited so long for this,” said the coachman, “Doomed and damned for all eternity. To drive these horses whilst my bones turn to dust in the ground.”

The carriage will always need a coachman and a soul in the chest. On the night of the third crescent moon of the season of summer, all of that can change and an encounter with the headless coachman on the phantom carriage can mean a dramatic change of one’s fate ...’

The teller took a sip from his filled ale tankard.

‘What happened then?’ asked one of the listeners.

‘Yeah, tell us,’ agreed Berens.

‘A mist came from the woods and covered the dusty road, Huxley tried to run but found that he couldn’t move from the spot.

“The carriage needs a coachman. That coachman will be you.”

Then came the flash of a steel blade and Huxley’s hat and oat sack fell to the dusty road. And that was the end of Huxley Hellbiter the Highwayman, damned for eternity to drive the phantom carriage, his soul enclosed in the locked chest. Those who have seen Huxley Hellbiter the Headless on the road are frozen with fear, there are others that say as he drives the carriage he draws his trusty flintlock pistol and shoots forth a green mist that petrifies those who witness his ghoulish ride. Others say that this tale never happened and he was caught, imprisoned and hanged.’

‘I’ve seen him!’ said one of the listeners, a rabbit, ‘I saw him when I was on that very same road.’

‘Me too!’ exclaimed the spriggan innkeeper.

The audience started chatting excitedly, and shared their tales of sightings of Huxley Hellbiter the Headless.

‘His horses breathed fire!’ said a Knocker, ‘Almost burned me to a crisp.’

‘I wouldn’t like to come across’un,’ said a mouse.

‘I don’t believe it,’ said a Pisky.

Berens turned away from the listeners and returned his attention to the story teller, ‘What do you think teller? Do you believe the story?’

But the teller was no longer there.

Berens looked at the table where the creature had sat and there, by the teller’s empty ale tankard, lay a single hedgehog spine.

Story copyright Romeo Kennedy.
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