This is a retelling of the Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle myth by Alan Parkinson that originally appeared in Wear’d Tales by Spectral Visions Press.
The Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle
They’ve been coming here for weeks now with their plans and their big ideas. Hard hats perched upon their heads, as if a castle that has stood for hundreds of years is suddenly going to come crashing down around their ears.
Apparently the castle is going to be regenerated as a community building, with classrooms, meeting rooms and a cafe.
I’m not against the redevelopment, far from it, I like meeting new people but it’s been like this for a long time, change takes some getting used to.
Perhaps now would be a good time to introduce myself. My name’s Roger, Roger Skelton. Never heard of me? Not many people have but don’t worry, I’m not offended. Maybe you have heard of me by my other name, The Cauld Lad?
Yes, that’s me. Been haunting this place for over 400 years and now they want rid of me. Not that they’ve told me personally but I can take the hint. Double glazing and central heating? Hardly the place for a Cauld Lad, I’m being managed out.
It was different back in my day, that day being 1609. The castle was never a warm place, at least not for a stable boy. Of course the Baron, Sir Robert Hylton, was warm enough, he had servants to put on the big fire for him. His daughter was lovely and warm as well, but more about her later.
I hear the horse approaching, the familiar sound of the hooves on the drive albeit faster than usual. They come to a halt in the courtyard and the Baron enters the stables, his shadow appearing against the flickering torch light. I’m waiting for him to smack me around the head but it doesn’t come.
“I have urgent business in the morning, ensure he is ready by first light.” He hands me the reins and staggers off, leaving the stench of wine, women and a good time behind him.
I begin stripping the horse down, poor lad has been driven hard, steam rising from the sweat on his back. I sponge him down and he reluctantly offers up his hooves. It’s a relief to both of us that the shoes have a couple more days’ wear in them.
He deposits a load on the floor but the stink no longer bothers me. I lead him to his stable, hoping he appreciates the fresh hay I have laid down for him and I pick up the pitch fork to clear his mess.
The horse has cooled and I stroke his back, willing him to sleep and get the rest he needs.
As he settles down for the night I begin polishing the saddle. The Baron probably wouldn’t notice in the morning, especially in his hungover state, but I can’t take that risk. He can be a brutal man.
My bed is calling me. I struggle up the ladders and crawl towards my pit, a cloth sack in amongst the comfort of the bales in the hay loft. I don’t know what time it is, two, three maybe. I don’t take much persuading to fall asleep.
I sneak a look at the plans over some bloke’s shoulder. Got to be honest they are looking canny good. I would be excited if it weren’t for concern about my own position. I’m not going to be the Cauld Lad for long if they have their way. I think these days they would call ‘The Cauld Lad’ my brand. Everyone has a brand, mine will soon disappear if it’s toasty warm in the castle. Hardly a terrifying legend if I’m sat around having a cappuccino and nibbling on a chocolate brownie.
Not that I’m much of a coffee drinker, I prefer a pint. I’m nipping over the pub in a bit if you want to join me. Meeting my mate Billy Moore for a game of dominos. Got to admit that I’m chuffed they named the place The Cauld Lad, it’s closed now but still open to us ‘regulars’ if you know what I mean.
I sense the presence above me before I notice the light streaming in through the cracks in the roof, reminding me that I should have been up hours ago. I fight my way out of the sack, terrified of the beating I’m about to get.
But a soft finger touches my lips. “Sssssh, it’s me.”
My eyes adjust to the light, the silhouette of her figure clearly visible through her lightweight dress.
“I’ve got to tend to the horse, the Baron will kill me if he isn’t ready,” I say.
“My father was steaming when he came in last night, he won’t be up for ages,” she places her knees either side of me and pins my hands down, “plenty of time.”
I knew there was no point in arguing, she could be as demanding as her father. She was right, it was already way past first light and there was no sign of him. Plenty of time. I lift my head and kiss her.
We lay facing each other, her blue eyes squinting against the sunlight.
“Buggering Hell.” I drag myself up, grab my trousers and stumble towards the loft ladders whilst attempting to put them on. I miss my footing on the top rung and end up in a heap on the stable floor.
“Where is my bloody horse?”
The horse peers over the stable door, clearly only woken by the noise and settles back down again, unconcerned at the trouble we were in.
“He’ll be ready in just a moment sir,” I stagger to my feet, “he was very tired when he got in last night.”
“I don’t want your excuses.”
The riding crop wallops me on the side of the head, I should have been expecting it. Blood trickles from my ear.
“Sorry sir, he’ll be ready in just a jiffy.”
The riding crop caught me again, this time on the back of the head. I manage to stay on my feet and stumble towards the stable door, undoing the bolt just as the crop raps against my knuckles.
“He’s barely bloody awake. Where’s his saddle? What the hell have you been doing lad?” He punches me so hard that it knocks me clean off my feet. The horse rears up in shock.
“Leave him alone.” A voice from the hayloft.
He looks up at where the voice had come from and it takes a couple of seconds for it to register with the Baron who had spoken. A couple of seconds I should have used to make my escape but my legs betrayed me. I lay there, resigned to my fate.
He ignores the pleas from above, the vein throbbing at his temple, his face scarlet.
I scramble backwards, my fingers searching for purchase, searching for something, anything to defend myself. I found nothing but muck and straw. I manage to sit up, resting my back against the wall. Not for long as the Baron kicks me firmly in the guts, making me vomit.
I hear footsteps on the ladder. “Please don’t come down,” I think.
I edge round the wall, trying to make my escape but there’s nowhere to go. Tears are forming in my eyes but there’s no point in crying. The Baron is circling, prolonging the agony. Prolonging the inevitable.
She’s nearly at the bottom of the ladder, the Baron is distracted briefly. This is my chance. I push myself up from the floor and lunge at him with everything I have. It isn’t enough. He catches me with the back of his hand and I know my nose is broken. I stumble but I have to keep moving, I can’t let him get to her. I swing a punch but he blocks it easily. I’m now off balance and the push of his boot sends me flailing towards the wall.
The metallic taste of blood is now in my mouth, it drips down my body and onto the floor. I crumple into a heap. His shadow looms above me, this is it. I am finished.
Then I see it. A little more than an arm’s reach away. The pitch fork. If only I could get it, I could save her, save us both.
I stretch but it’s useless, I fall. He laughs.
I slump back against the wall again and I see her behind him, desperately trying to think of a way to save me but I shake my head. He has the pitch fork now, it is over.
I look her in the eyes, I want my last view on this earth to be her, not him.
He takes one step forward and spears my belly.
I try to use my last breath to ask him to spare the girl but I have nothing left. The cauldness of death approaches.
Now there’s someone here with a camera. Lots of dignitaries lining up for a photo. Not that there’s much dignified about this bunch, at least not compared to back in my day. It’s all pot bellies and ill fitting suits.
Time for a pint I think.
It seems like quite a big deal this regeneration, I wonder what the lads are going to make of it. We can tell them about it when their game of darts is finished.
Oof ya bugger. A dart pings off the wire and heads in my direction. I lift my top and show off my scars, the lads laugh. It’s an old joke but always funny.
It’s not like you see in the cartoons; I can still drink my pint without it streaming out of the holes in my stomach. There’s a couple of big scars but otherwise no lasting after effects.
Apart from being dead of course.
The strangest feeling. My body is being hauled across the floor. I know I am dead but can still feel it; I am separate to my body but connected somehow. I’m hoisted onto the back of the horse and he leads us both away. Doesn’t take long before I see where he is headed; the well.
I want to run and get help, tell the town of the Baron’s crime but the pull of my body is too strong, it is not yet time for us to part.
The drop takes an eternity and my corpse makes a splash as it hits the water in the dark depths. The horse’s footsteps are only just audible in the distance as the Baron leaves.
Is this to be my final resting place? Am I to stay with the body for ever more? Cauld, damp, miserable. Did I deserve this? I pass the hours counting the bricks in the well. I do this each day until night fall comes, trying to beat my record. The cauld from the wall enters my bones, I shiver and pray for sun. Time drags for days and weeks, still nobody comes to the well. Nothing but silence and darkness and the occasional glimpse of sunlight.
Then a bucket comes hurtling down the well, bouncing off the wall. Through sheer luck it scoops up my body and the slow ascent begins.
I am going home.
Then a scream, a high pitched wail. A pair of eyes staring down the well and the bucket drops. It starts rising again, quicker now and eventually my body is dragged into the sunlight.
From the months of nothingness down the well, everything happens so quickly now. I have a funeral, not many attend. There is no sign of the Baron or his daughter.
Once my body is in the ground we part company and I roam as ghosts do.
It’s never really struck me much before but I am cauld, very, very cauld. I go to the kitchen for a warm. Nobody notices I am there and I watch the cook and his wife go about their business.
“What will happen to our jobs?” said the wife.
“Lets not concern ourselves with that. Our only concern is that justice is done for young Roger. The Baron killed him in cold blood and deserves to be hung.”
They know of my murder? I race through the castle, there is no sign of The Baron. His daughter cries in her room, I go to comfort her but she does not know I am there.
I move on and hear more servants talking.
“It’s the big court case tomorrow, do you think they will find the Baron guilty?”
They have arrested the Baron? This is great news.
The pub’s getting busy now, it’s darts night and there’s nowt like a few roast tatties on the bar to bring the lads in. I sometimes wonder whether the Baron will set foot in the place, apologise for what he’s done. I’ve waited 400 years; I’m not going to hold my breath.
The court is filling up but of course I can sit where I please. I sit between two fur clad gentlemen so that I can get warm. I shall enjoy this.
For someone about to go to prison, or possibly be hung, the Baron does not appear to be very nervous. He stands proudly in the dock, smiling to his friends in the gallery. He appears to have been drinking.
This isn’t as exciting as I imagined, the day drags on, The Baron denies any wrongdoing and nobody seems overly keen on proving otherwise.
Then his man servant is called. Why are they calling him? He wasn’t there.
“Could you tell me what happened on that fateful day?”
“Yes sir. Young Skelton was late getting the Baron’s horse ready, as usual, and the Baron sent me to hurry him along. I shouted him down from the hayloft from whence he stumbled and, in the most unfortunate twist of fate, he landed on the pitch fork he had foolishly left out the previous night.”
“Are you telling me that all the injuries sustained by Skelton were sustained during the fall?”
“And where was the Baron when this was happening?”
“He was having breakfast in the castle.”
“He’s lying!” I try to shout but of course nobody can hear me.
The case is dismissed and the Baron is free to go.
The Baron and his friends party into the night. I am furious.
I scream and shout but I can’t be heard. The cauldness returns.
I need somebody to talk to, anybody; why won’t anybody listen? I have so much I need to say, so much I need people to hear. They need to know the truth. Months of nobody but my dead body for company. Now nobody can hear or see me. I am doomed to a life, or death, of nothingness.
I take out my frustrations in the kitchen after everyone has gone to bed. I throw pans, smash plates, I spill flour and make a horrible mess. Of course I feel guilty that the cook and his wife will have to clean this up but I need good people to know that I am still here. I need people to care.
I’ve heard many variations of this tale, there’s always someone launching a new book or filming a new version at the castle. You know how people like to exaggerate but that’s how I remember it. I don’t do a lot of the haunting these days, just the odd bit now and again to keep my hand in.
Most ghosts don’t reveal themselves, certainly not to the extent I did, but they’re everywhere. Probably one reading this over your shoulder right now. Are you reading this at night? Did you notice the light flicker earlier? The wind out the back blowing at the gate? Think it’s all just a coincidence? Think again. Now I’m a canny ghost but they’re not all like me. Feel that draft? You want to hope you have a good one.
The next morning the cook is greeted by the scene of devastation in his kitchen. His wife points to the footprints in the flour. “Skelton?”
He nods and cleans up the mess without another word. I wave but they do not see me.
Why can’t they see me? They know I’m here, why won’t they speak? Just say hello, is it too much to ask?
That night I take my frustrations out on the rest of the house. I spread cinders from the grand fire on the floor and leave my footprints once again. I take great delight in emptying the Baron’s bedpan over his bed. I know his loyal servant will get the blame. He deserves it the lying little toad.
Once again the cook’s wife cleans up my mess, cleans up my footprints without mentioning her suspicions.
I am shivering now, the cauldness is getting worse. Two months naked down a well is no good for anyone.
Once darkness falls, when the cauldness was at it’s worst I head to the kitchen to try and get a warm from the embers of the fire. I lay there, shivering.
The flickering light coming round the corner takes me by surprise. I stand up, shaking as the cook’s wife enters with a blazing torch.
She looks right at me.
“I’m cauld.” I say.
She nods. “I know son, we’ll look after you.”
I behaved myself that night, I’m not a bad lad. Nothing was smashed, nothing was spilt, not even a bedpan.
The next night I hoped that she would return again; the slightest recognition was all I wanted.
She did. She laid out a cloak in front of me. “This is for you son, I hope it brings you comfort.”
I could have cried. I took up the cloak and put it on.
“Here’s a cloak and here’s a hood, the Cauld Lad of Hylton will do no more good.”
With that, I vanished.
These developers are going to get a few frights before they are finished. Nothing too bad but when you read about unexpected delays in the redevelopment, you know where to look.
Don’t let me put you off visiting once it’s all done out, I’m sure it’ll be great. But please spare me a thought when you are here, it is my home after all.
If you notice that someone has left a window open, the air conditioning is turned down low or there is just an unexpected draught from somewhere, you know that I am not far away. The Cauld Lad protecting his brand.
I am subtler now. I will have my revenge but I do not wish to cause any more misery on the cook and wife, I am a man of my word.
I move the Baron’s boot to the other side of the bed. He awakes and searches for it. It doesn’t take long for him to find it but long enough to cast doubt. The next day I move his wine goblet just out of reach when he is eating, he doesn’t notice it move but the frustration is evident.
I do this for a hundred days, a hundred nights. Never the same thing twice. A button removed from his tunic, his riding crop hidden in the straw bails, his bedpan moved, a mirror dropping to the floor. I daresay he had gone mad by day fifty. By day one hundred he never left his room, just sat rocking in the corner or quivering in his bed.
He didn’t lay a hand on another servant, didn’t speak a cross word.
He knows it is me, he escaped jail but is imprisoned by his guilt.
My work here is done.
Well that’s my tale, I hope you enjoyed it. I have to go now, Billy’s pint glass is nearly empty and it’s my round.
I hope you come to visit, Hylton Castle truly is a magnificent place.
I trust that after hearing my tale you won’t be scared of me. I’m not a bad lad, I’m just a cauld lad. The Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle.
If you enjoyed this story, you may enjoy some of Alan Parkinson’s novels available on Amazon.