Stories From The Fenlands: The Hounds and The Sprites

This tale is about a life changing experience I had when I was 9. At the time, my mum was going through a rough patch financially. She had lost her job as a barmaid and fallen behind on mortgage payments. She’d done her best to hide this from me but I’d seen the red letters pushed through our letterbox each morning, I’d overheard whispered conversations between her and my aunt and I’d been unable to ignore just how stressed she was.

She had managed to pick up some temporary work over the summer holidays as a nanny for two 5-year-old twins whose parents were incredibly wealthy. The Houghton family lived on a large estate out in the sticks of Norfolk, and they allowed my mum to take me with them when she worked, so it was the perfect arrangement for us. I’d spend the day playing around Houghton Estate with their 10-year-old daughter, Poppy, while mum watched the twins inside.

I got along with Poppy well, and that summer began as one of the most wonderful ones of my life. As the Houghton’s had a lot of land, we spent hours each day just running around their modest woodland area, building fort castle dens and crafting wooden weapons to have battles. One day, though, everything went terribly wrong when Poppy’s psychopathic older brother insisted on joining us to play.

It was early morning, not long after dawn had broke. Mum and I had arrived at Houghton House particularly early that day because Poppy’s parents had been struck with food poisoning the night before and were unable to get up with the twins. Mum took me into the servant’s kitchen and set me up at the table with breakfast before leaving to deal with the twins for the morning.

Poppy wasn’t up yet, so I sat alone, munching on a slice of toast and rubbing at my bleary eyes. Just moments after my mum had left, an older boy stalked into the kitchen. I hadn’t met him before but I already knew he was a Houghton because he had their look. Dark shadows under his eyes, pale skin and a stiff posture. He looked like Poppy but he had a coldness about him, with a nasty glint in his eye as he looked at me as though I was a meal.

“Do you know who I am?” He asked me, smiling in a way that I knew most would find charming. I, on the other hand, was nervous.

“You’re Jake,” I mumbled, keeping my eyes on my toast. Jake was Poppy’s notorious older brother. Until this moment, he had been nothing but a scary rumour to me. Poppy had told me that Jake spent most of his time lurking around the west side of the manor, and that all the staff – and even Mr and Mrs Houghton – tended to avoid him. He didn’t go to school because he had been expelled for bad behaviour. Apparently, the final straw had been when he lured a younger girl into the school bathrooms and done something awful to her.

I didn’t know what he had done to that girl, and I didn’t want to, either.

“Do you know my surname?” The teen demanded.

“Houghton. Jake Houghton.”

“You’re the nanny’s son, aren’t you? Perhaps you are as simple as the staff say you are. As one of the servants, you should refer to me as Sir Houghton. You’re not to use my Christian name. Do you understand?”

I looked at Jake, my cheeks blushing. He was smiling devilishly at me. I couldn’t understand if he was joking or not. If I agreed to refer to him as Sir, would he ridicule me for being so gullible? If I laughed it off, would he put my head down the toilet for disobeying him?

I was saved from answering him when Poppy skipped into the kitchen, whistling a little tune on her way. When saw Jake standing in the kitchen with me she stopped in her tracks. I saw fear flash over her eyes, but she quickly covered it up and stood defiantly.

“What are you doing here, Jake? I thought Mummy told you not to leave the West block?”

Jake ruffled his little sister’s hair with force, causing Poppy to wince. She glanced at me and smiled brightly. “Hi Mikey!”

“Hello Poppy.” I did my best to hide my agitation but there was a shake in my voice.

“I think you mean Lady Poppy,” Jake sneered at me.

I looked at Poppy, hoping she would laugh and confirm he was joking. But she side eyed Jake and shrugged at me apologetically.

I kept quiet as Poppy and Jake chatted about playing in the woods. To my horror, Jake intended on joining us. Poppy was clearly nervous around her brother but she wasn’t scared like I was. I felt physically ill at the thought of him tagging along with us for the day, and I was almost frozen with fear when he decided it was time to go into the woods to see the castles we had made.

Jake stood over me as I washed and dried my plate, checking that I ‘had done it correctly’. I could almost feel him breathing down my neck and nearly dropped the plate because of how uncomfortable he was making me. When I heard the Houghton’s Groundskeeper, Dill, approaching, the heavy thud of his boots echoing around the stone utility room, I felt relieved. Dill surely wouldn’t let Jake follow us into the woods… Not when he was supposed to be grounded to the West Block of the house!

“Good mornin’, Miss Poppy and Master Mikey!” I’d always liked Dill. He was rough and ready but always kind to us. He looked at Jake and I saw distaste all over his face. “Jake, what are you doing down here? I thought you were on lock down.”

“Day pass, Dill. Ask Mother. I was just about losing my mind, all locked up. So I’m going out with these young ones. They’re going to show me around their little dens in the woods. Precious little things.” Jake ruffled Poppy’s hair again, more gently this time. His tone was sickeningly sweet and I wondered if anybody could actually fall for an act like that. I hoped desperately that Dill would send him back to his lair.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. “Well, you make sure you’re good to them, Jake, else your Father will hear of it. Do you understand?”

Jake ignored Dill and made his way outside. I felt utterly deflated, knowing I had no chance of getting out of a morning with this terrifying, older bully. I wanted to tell Dill how scared I was, but I didn’t want to cause any problems.

As Poppy and I made our way out, Dill called after us. “What’s the rule of the woods, kids?”

“Never cross the stream!” We chanted in unison.

“Aye, that’s right. Else the water sprites will get you!” Dill winked before turning to the fridge, and out we went.

Dill had always told us that, every time he saw us (which had been most mornings in the last 4 weeks I had spent with Poppy). On the first day I’d come to Houghton House, Dill had brought Poppy and I a picnic to take out into the woods with us. Before we left he told us we must never cross the stream. He said that the water sprites were an army of water fairies that protected the stream from humankind. They were dedicated to stopping mankind from hurting plant life and animals, and that they did not like trespassers. We weren’t to go in the stream, else they would be angry, and who knew what they would do?

Afterwards, on our way into the woods, Poppy had told me that the stream actually separated the Houghton’s land from their neighbours, and her father had always told her that it would be very rude of us to ignore the border. She wasn’t sure if that meant the water sprites were make believe, but either way she would never dream of risking it. Which suited me just fine – I like following rules.

When Jake and Poppy and I got into the woods that day, we showed Jake our dens. He decided that mine shouldn’t be as big as Poppy’s, seeing as I was one of the staff. I tried not to cry as I watched him kicking half of my den down. I had worked on it all week. Poppy whispered to me that we could rebuild it tomorrow, and that if we just waited until Jake got bored then he’d leave us alone. But he didn’t get bored.

He inspected our wooden swords that we had made (with the help of the handywoman, Jane, that the Houghton’s employed). He challenged Poppy to a sword fight, and when he hit her hard on the wrist and she began to cry, he turned to me, scowling. “Are you going to stand there and watch your Lady get beaten by a man? Are you too scared to stand up for her? That sort of treasonous cowardice deserves execution…”

was too scared to stand up for her. I wanted nothing more than to run up to the house to my mother and the twins, and hide with them for the rest of the day. But I was more scared that Jake would beat up if I didn’t stand up for Poppy, so I meekly challenged him to a sword fight in his sister’s honour.

I was no match for him, of course, what with my shaking hands and tear filled eyes. He ended up jabbing me in the ribs with the wooden sword until I fell to the floor with a thud. I lay there and tried to cry, but the wind was knocked out of me.

It gave him a panic, I suppose, because he ran over and knelt next to me, pretending to be sorry. He said he had just got a little excited and he really never meant to hurt me. I didn’t trust anything that came out of his mouth but I went along with it. I got up and let Jake brush me down.

Poppy and I were reluctant to indulge in any more of Jake’s nasty games, and he sensed he had pushed us too far. He left us alone for a little while, walking off round the woods while Poppy and I calmed down. He was back before long, still wanting to have ‘fun,’ I suppose, because he offered us something that he knew we would struggle to refuse.

“I’m really sorry I hurt you both. I’m so excited to have friends to play with after being all on my own for so long that I just got carried away. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have company. Please let me make it up to you… I have the best idea! Why don’t we go and play with the puppies?”

Poppy’s father, Mr Houghton, bred hunting hounds on the estate. His best pair had had a huge litter of pups just months before. Poppy and I had begged her mum and Dill to let us play with them, but they always said it wasn’t a good time. Now Jake was offering us something we had dreamed of all summer, and even though he had been horrid, even though he was a cruel and scary young man, we nodded eagerly.

He took us to the barn where the pups were kept and I saw the couple of staff members there scarpering off when they saw Jake. He unbolted the door and we all stepped inside. We were greeted by ten beautiful beagle babies, and they were the most adorable sight I saw for a long time (probably until I held my newborn daughter many years later). They all ran up to us excitedly, jumping up with their tails wagging all over the place. They were only up to my shins and I just wanted to roll around on the straw with them and let them jump all over me.

As Poppy fussed three puppies at once, I spotted a small one lurking at the back. It was too scared to come over and had a lonely look on its face. It was very different from its sisters and brothers… It was pure white, whereas the others were brown and white. I quietly approached, not wanting to scare it, and scooped it up.

She was a snuggly little girl and I felt full of love as I cuddled her into my chest. She squirmed around and licked my face with pure pleasure, so pleased that she was being given love.

Jake watched from the corner of the barn, impatiently shooing away the pups who were trying to get his attention. “That’s the runt of the litter. She’s an albino. I suppose they haven’t got round to drowning her, yet.” He shrugged. My stomach lept into my throat as I cradled the little white puppy.

Jake told us that these hound puppies were being trained to chase the scent of humans, so they could be sold to those who wanted to hunt but without killing foxes. Hunting is not a thing that my social class has ever enjoyed (or supported, for that matter) but Poppy and Jake had grown up with it. “Will they attack the people they chase?” I asked, sadly. How awful that these innocent little creatures might be taught to attack. But Jake laughed at my stupidity and told me they wouldn’t attack anything, as they wouldn’t be trained to.

He decided that we were all going to take the puppies out and play a game to help train them. Taking a red rag from the corner of the barn, he rubbed it on his chest and under his arms, then exited the barn. He called through to us, telling us to let the dogs smell it for half a minute then let them come after him.

I put down the little puppy I held and watched Poppy letting them all sniff the red rag. Their mood changed immediately – they went from playful and disorderly to excited and ready to work. It was fascinating, really, witnessing their innate need to chase. Jake had instructed us to run behind the dogs, who would certainly chase him through the woods, because some might get distracted and need herding them towards him.

I had to admit to myself that the game did sound like fun. As soon as the 30 seconds were up and we opened the door, the puppies raced in the direction of the woods. We hurried out after them.

Jake wasn’t that far ahead of us and we all ran after him. The puppies barely needed directing – it was in their breed and their soul to chase, and it was brilliant watching them do what they were made for. To my surprise, the little white runt was the fastest of the lot!

As we started running through the woods, the runt soon caught up with Jake and playfully yapped at his heels. Poppy and I laughed, and she called out to Jake, who was approaching the stream in the woods, “The puppies win this round!”

I’d relaxed a lot and I’d even go as far as saying that I felt quite happy. I believed that we were all having fun together, finally. How foolish of me. Jake didn’t like being beat by the runt of the litter, and so he turned around and booted her, hard. She yelped loudly and he booted her again, this time sending the pup rolling.

“No!” I wailed. Jake continued to run into the woods. “GAME’S STILL ON!” He shouted over his shoulder to us.

The other puppies carried on chasing the filthy cheat happily, but the runt sat miserably on the ground. I went over and cuddled her again, whispering that it was ok to try and soothe the poor little thing. She licked my face gratefully and a second later her tail was gently wagging once more as I held her close to me.

“Don’t cross the stream, Jake!” I heard Poppy yell. “The sprites will get you!” I looked up and saw Jake splashing through the water, the top of the flow barely covering his trainers. Just before he reached the bank on the other side he knelt down and picked up a large rock from under the flowing stream. He turned back to us and held it up threateningly.

I watched the puppies following him through the water. I felt like I was about to vomit, because I knew, oh I knew for sure, that whichever unlucky little creature was to ‘catch’ Jake next was going to get bludgeoned with the jagged rock he held. And I doubted he’d stop until it was dead.

But when the puppies were half way across, there was a sudden flash of light. The entire litter of puppies froze. The stopped in their tracks, perfectly still. Too still. It was as if they were suspended in time. Jake, who had only just reached the bank on the other side of the stream, called out to them. “Come on, you stupid idiots! I dare you to come and get me!”

Poppy and I walked over the the edge of the stream, careful not to slip in. The puppies still were still frozen in the middle. No tails were wagging, no excited whines could be heard. They were like statues. I could see something, though. There were round ripples on the surface of the water all around the dogs, as though someone was skipping invisible stones. I found it very strange that we would see that, because the water had a medium flow to it – it was a trickling stream, not a still lake. The ripples on the water looked as though there was a mass of invisible beings approaching the litter.

I followed the approach, and sure enough I noticed that fur on the back of the puppies necks suddenly dipped, and it looked as though something small had mounted them! Every pup in that water had the same thing happen. I checked the little runt, which I still held close to me, but her fur had no dent.

Jake stormed back into the water, angry at the puppies’ for their lack of participation. He obviously hadn’t noticed that it was down to something very odd going on. As soon as he stepped into the water, I heard a collection of small voices burst out from the direction of the puppies. They shouted, “Prepare!” and then whatever spell had turned the puppies to statues seemed to break.

The herd stood still, but they weren’t frozen anymore. All of the hairs on their backs stood upright and they snarled and growled. There were no wagging tails, no play fighting amongst their siblings. They were nothing like they had been just moments before. They all focused solely on Jake, changing their stances so that they waited like panthers preparing to pounce.

I couldn’t see the puppies’ eyes as they were facing Jake, not Poppy and I. But I watched Jake’s and they were suddenly full of fear. He saw something in the dogs in front of him that terrified him. Perhaps wrongly, it pleased me to see fright wash over him.

The little albino runt squirmed out of my arms once again. I didn’t want to let her go but I could have only kept hold of her if I had gripped tightly, and I couldn’t bear the thought of putting her through discomfort after what Jake had just done. She trotted over happily to the others. “Please, come back!” I called to her. I didn’t know what was going on in the stream but I had a very uneasy feeling.

As soon as she paddled into the water, something invisible ‘ran’ over the water to her. I watched the indents on her fur as whatever it is climbed up and nestled on her neck. This one was bigger than the others.

Immediately, the hair on the runt’s white back stood up straight and her positioning changed to match her siblings. They moved slowly out of her way to allow her room as she stalked towards Jake. Perhaps he should have run while all this was happening, but he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t.

The runt snarled loudly and in the blink of an eye she went for Jake. She leapt up at him, far higher than a puppy her size should have been able to jump. She opened her jaw wide, far wider than her little snout should have allowed. Then she dug her teeth into the side of Jake’s throat and yanked.

I heard Jake’s skin rip open and I found myself unable to look away, as the puppy that I had held lovingly in my arms torethrough muscles and arteries in Jake’s now exposed neck. She did it with total ease, as though they were pieces of spaghetti.

Jake tried to beat the runt off, grabbing her hairy little neck and trying to throw her down. I watched as every finger on the hand he tried to grab her with bent 90 degrees back, and I shuddered as I heard the snap of his bones echo around the woods. Then a fierce voice boomed from the direction of the runt, “CHARGE!”

The runt’s sisters and brothers were suddenly following her lead and pouncing on Jake. He was knocked backwards by their force, and then the pack of puppies were feasting on him.

Jake was thrashing about on the floor in a weak attempt to get the dogs to leave him alone. Poppy and I watched with horror as the stream around him went from clear to red, his blood pumping quickly into it. Poppy screamed and I heard her running away, back towards Houghton House, but I was too scared to move, too scared to take my eyes off the view of ten puppies eating a boy alive.

I should have ran after Poppy, I should have raced away from whatever hell was in front of me. But I couldn’t, I was too shocked and scared to move. Within 30 seconds Jake was no longer thrashing. As soon as he lay still, I watched those indents on the puppies’ necks disappear. I saw ripples leading away from them. And then I saw the puppies relax.

They were back to how they had been before their moment of utter madness! They totally ignored Jake’s lifeless body and began playing happily with one another again, splashing in the stream, their snouts stained with his blood. The white runt trotted back up to me. I shrank away from it at first, tensing for an attack, but it simply lay at my feet. She looked up at me with a soppy look in her eyes, hoping for some more attention.

I sunk down to the floor next to her and placed a hand on her neck. I felt nothing but her soft fur. She burrowed into me, and I sat there, still too scared to move.

By the time Poppy had brought Dill and several other adults to help, Jake’s body must have totally been drained of blood because the river was running clear again. Of course, Jake’s corpse and the puppies’ red-stained snouts were evidence enough of what had happened. His entire neck had been ripped open, and the sight caused one of the housekeepers to vomit everywhere. I myself avoided looking, but I knew what they’d done.

Dill ordered Poppy and I back to the house. I thought they would surely kill the puppies for what they had done, so I scooped up the runt and held her close to me again. I approached Dill slowly. I was in shock and shook like a leaf, but I knew – more than I’d ever known anything – that whatever had ‘taken over’ the puppies was no longer present.

I made sure Dill watched as the little one licked the tears away from my cheeks. I knew that her sloppy kisses would leave traces of Jake’s blood on my face, but all I cared about at that moment was showing the grown ups that these puppies were not evil.

I looked up at Dill frantically, pleading with him. “Don’t hurt them, Dill, please! Please don’t kill the puppies! It wasn’t them, not really. It was the sprites! It must have been the sprites! I saw them, they -”

“- Hush now, Master Mikey. I don’t know what happened here but it isn’t down to me what happens to the hounds. They’re Mr Houghton’s responsibility.” Then he crouched down to my level and checked no one was listening. He whispered to me, “Go up to the house now and hide the runt in your backpack with a blanket. Then find your mum, she’ll take you right home. Tell her everything – and I mean everything – before you show her the little one.” Then Dill scooped up some water from the stream and sprinkled it on the puppy’s head, then wiped a bit on mine, too.

Well, I did just as Dill told me to. On the drive home, and then for some time after, I recollected the entire morning to my mum. And all the way through my story the little runt slept soundly in my backpack. As if on cue, just as I finished telling mum all that I needed to, we both heard her little whimper. Without giving Mum chance to react I scooped the white pup out of my bag. She licked my face excitedly and wagged her little tail so quickly that I thought she might take off.

The next day, mum took the puppy – who I called Nixie – to a vets far from home. They confirmed that she had nothing wrong with her. No rabies, no illness, no vicious streak. Nixie was perfect.

When mum told me that we would not be returning to Houghton House, I worried it was because they thought I was somehow to blame for Jake’s death, or that Poppy hated me. She told me it was nothing to do with that, it was just that she had no need to work there anymore. Sure enough, the red letters stopped and my mum seemed happy again. I later found out that my mother never need to make another mortgage payment again after that summer, though she never told me why. The Fenlands are full of secrets, but this one I suspected I knew… I think that Mr Houghton bought her silence.

You see, just a few months later the litter of puppies that Jake, Poppy and I had played with, the litter that had chased Jake through the woods, the litter that had viciously ripped open his throat and feasted on the insides of his neck… They were pictured in all the local papers. They had won the award for Norfolk’s best litter. The article pictured them all, much bigger than when I’d seen them, still bigger than my Nixie. They were a very happy looking bunch of dogs indeed. The article specifically mentioned their ‘kind sentiment’ and ‘excellent work attitudes’, and they were being sold at £1,000 a dog. Back then, that was worth a lot more than it is now!

So I knew that Mr Houghton had kept quiet about his eldest son’s death, else those dogs would never have sold. I’m not sure how exactly he covered it up, because I never heard any news about a funeral, or even a death announcement. And my mother told me not to speak of it at school. I wasn’t even allowed to mention that I’d ever been to Houghton House over the summer. And, if anyone asked, I was to say I’d found Nixie out in the woods.

Poppy didn’t return to school. I heard that her father sent her to an expensive boarding school in Scotland. I missed her for a while, as we had had such a wonderful time that summer. Until Jake had spoilt it all.

Over the years, I thought a lot about what happened at Houghton House. Nixie remained the most loyal pet I would ever have. I adored her and she adored me. She was the definition of a ‘good girl’. I made sure she lived a happy life, and I was devastated when she passed (which was at a surprisingly old age) but I’m eternally grateful for the time I got to have her as my best friend.

I can’t make sense of much of what happened out at Houghton Estate, but I do know this… Those dogs were not evil dogs, not at all. Jake on the other hand – well, he was a despicable human being. I always strongly believed, and still do, that Jake being put down was necessary for the safety of the public.

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