Jamie Thorpe had been a country person for all of three hours before her first contact with stale horse manure. Surely some kind of record. Gross.
She would have to get used to it: Jamie had her own parcel of land in Marlstrake, Northumberland, as of one week ago. Paperwork signed and filed, Jamie had moved her worldly goods—books, more books, and an espresso machine the size of a toddler—sixty miles from her old place in Alnmouth (and the relationship that had blown up in it) to become a country person.
There was certainly enough country to merit the label. The property—Carterhaugh—came with several acres, making the estate a tempting investment, but the house and associated land had lingered on the market until Jamie came across the listing online and fell in love. She hadn’t seriously considered moving until discovering Carterhaugh had its own well; part of Jamie, forever five years old, loved the possibility of a well as a place for secrets to be hidden or unearthed. A whirlwind of paperwork later, and Carterhaugh was hers. Manure and all.
Investment in the espresso machine had been Jamie’s last act as a city person. Coffee would taste all the better when accompanied with the view from her new kitchen window. Fields and rolling hills stretched to the west in shades of vibrant green, turning russet in places as autumn took hold, while to the south a river meandered along the far reaches of Jamie’s land and delineated the boundaries of Marlstrake. Flowing east, the river led to a thicket of trees clustered into a fist, opening its hand to touch Northumberland National Park. The estate agent had said sometimes deer wandered close to Marlstrake and Carterhaugh, lost from the Park.
Jamie’s garden was big, but not quite big enough to get lost in. Scraping her boot clean on a rock, eyes and nose alert, Jamie sat on the low stone wall bordering her land, the masonry crumbling with age and grown over with moss. Everything in the countryside seemed to have an air of timelessness about it, so the wall might have been constructed twenty years ago or pre-date Queen Victoria. A rosebush bloomed over and around the wall, and the tangle of thorns and flowers could be older yet if what Jamie remembered reading about roses was right: didn’t they bloom for centuries, sometimes? Jamie knelt for a closer view at a double-headed rose near her feet and swore when she nicked her fingers on a thorn. Typical.
Jamie took out her phone for a picture of the flower, getting bloody prints on the case. She’d send the photo to Emily, who’d been convinced Jamie’s purchase of Carterhaugh signalled an early mid-life crisis. ‘Why couldn’t you buy a Ferrari, Jay? You’re thirty, not retiring!’ she’d said when Jamie gave her the news, the day Emily brought the final box of Jamie’s stuff to her office at the University of Newcastle. ‘I don’t know. Why couldn’t you stop sleeping with other people?’ Jamie had asked. That was three weeks ago. They hadn’t spoken since.
Maybe she’d send the photo later.
Pocketing her phone and getting to her feet, Jamie gave the horizon a last long look and returned to the house. She had dozens of projects to tackle before returning to work, like modernising the plumbing. But first things first: Jamie needed to get the coffee machine situated in time to watch the sun set while sipping the perfect caffè macchiato.
Following the bridleway criss-crossing between her land and the next property over, and deep in consideration of said caffè macchiato, Jamie nearly crashed into the huge white horse that barged into her path. She scrambled back with a yelp, almost losing her balance as she rushed to avoid getting trampled. The horse whinnied, and the rider swore, bringing the horse to a stop and drawing back in her saddle.
“Holy crap, watch where you’re going!” Jamie yelled. Her heart beat hard in her throat. The horse was huge. Was that normal?
Ignoring Jamie, the rider patted the side of the horse’s neck, murmuring to the animal. The horse huffed and shook its head as it settled, breath steaming.
“Good boy,” the rider said. She raked the tangle of her hair back from her narrow face and grinned at Jamie. The rider’s wide brown eyes were creased at the corners, like she spent a lot of time mowing people down with horses and laughing at them about it. Her victims probably didn’t even notice their broken bones, her beauty anaesthetising them to the pain.
“W—what is—?” Jamie stammered, the question half-swallowed as she stared.
“Awfully sorry about that. Didn’t see you there,” the rider continued, ignoring Jamie’s mumble, her accent from somewhere further south than Jamie’s Midlands burr. The rider’s cheeks were flushed with exertion, making the freckles across her upturned nose stand out. Jamie tried not to find it cute.
Failing, Jamie threw her hands up, exasperated. “No shit! Do you always ride like that? You’re not even wearing a helmet!”
The rider rolled her eyes, shifting her weight as the horse did. “I’ve ridden this track for yonks and there’s never been anyone here before.” She narrowed her eyes at Jamie. “Say, what are you doing at Carterhaugh? Who are you?”
I’m the person about to push you off your horse, Jamie didn’t say. Instead, she pointed to the house. “I’m Jamie Thorpe. I own the place. Moved in last week.”
The words felt like a proclamation. From the rider’s gawk, they must’ve sounded like one. A shift from the horse brought her back to herself and she grinned again, something sly about the expression.
“Then you’ll be at the village hall tonight, of course. There’s a meeting for the festival. As owner of Carterhaugh, you should attend.”
The festival? That was right—the village had a Halloween festival; the real estate agent had told Jamie the festival dated back to pre-Christian times. He’d looked at Jamie expectantly when explaining, like her degree in the history of the Russian Empire had imbued her with knowledge about holdover pagan rituals in Northumberland. Jamie knew nothing about non-commercial Halloween, but providing there was no burning of effigies, she was fine with whatever.
Jamie nodded at the rider, stepping back from the path as the horse huffed impatiently. Jamie didn’t have much experience with horses. Or, okay, any. They had a leg in each corner, right?
“Sure, sounds interesting,” Jamie said. “Will I see you there?”
The rider laughed and shouted a yah! The subsequent clatter of hooves over the loose stones of the bridleway almost obscured her voice when she twisted to call back at Jamie. “Seven-thirty. And don’t be late!”
Jamie grabbed her phone from her pocket and took a blurry photograph of the rider and the big white horse, the sun sinking ahead of them. She sent it to Emily.