Chapter One

The Cloud Catcher – Chapter One

Fran reined in her pony and stared up at the sky. Great wispy clouds curled in long tendrils, turning pink as the sun set. A single darker cloud to the West stood out, solitary and intriguing. 

The countryside was deserted. Traffic rarely travelled that road, certainly not in the evening. Her father’s farm was over a mile away. Being Friday, he’d normally be in his study, the door locked, curtains drawn. Fran shuddered, shoving away unwelcome memories. Today was not such a day, she reminded herself. Her parents were away, gone to stay in her father’s hunting lodge on the other side of town. From all accounts, it was a dull place. She couldn’t understand why they’d been so excited about going there.

Only the faint rustle of the breeze could be heard. Fran enjoyed being out alone. She found the peace and quiet profoundly moving. Sitting still in the saddle she drank in the silence, long and deep, imagining it could wash her soul clean. As if that were ever possible.

Sighing, she was about to nudge her pony forward when a muffled moan at the horse’s feet had her looking down. In the gloom under a solitary walnut tree, a girl her age sat barefoot in an old-fashioned nightdress and nightcap, her back against the tree trunk, crying softly.

Dismounting, Fran tentatively offered a hand, saying, “You shouldn’t sit too long on the ground, it can get very damp when the sun sets.”

The girl stared up at her, her expression blank. Fran took a step closer, meaning to help her stand, but the girl shied away, fear in her eyes. Fran let her hand fall to her side and looked the girl over. The skin on her face was drawn tight over her bones as if she hadn’t eaten in days, possibly months. Her legs and arms were all flesh and bone. As for her nightdress, it was stained and torn in places and her feet were filthy as were her hands. Goodness only knew what ordeal she’d been through. 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Fran said, trying to keep her tone soothing. The girl urgently needed help, but Fran was at a loss what to do.

Thinking food might do the trick, she rummaged in her saddle bag and drew out a ham sandwich. She’d brought it in case she felt peckish. When she offered it, the girl snatched it and sniffed it warily, her nose wrinkling in disgust, then she ripped the slices of bread from the ham, tossing them onto the grass and stuffed the meat in her mouth, desperately trying to swallow the piece whole.

Within seconds, she was choking, coughing violently. With her mouth wide open, Fran could see only gums and no teeth. No wonder she was starving. When a violent cough sent the meat flying in Fran’s direction, she deftly caught the slimy lump. Her turn to be disgusted. 

She wished she had her penknife. At least then she could have cut off small pieces and handed them to the ravenous girl. What on Earth had happened to her teeth? Her mouth was like a baby’s. A baby. Yes. That would work. She’d seen a mother do it. That was all very well with a baby, but this girl was her age. Her saliva in the other girl’s mouth. She couldn’t. Yet there was something uncanny about the girl that made refusing difficult. A kind of unspoken ‘Yes’ that forced itself on Fran.

Steeling herself against her disgust, Fran lifted the lump of meat to her lips and bit into it. The other girl began trembling with rage. If she’d had the strength, she’d probably have flung herself at Fran. Had she had teeth, she’d have bitten her. Through it all she made no sound. Fran was beginning to wonder if she wasn’t deaf and dumb.

Having chewed the meat to a pulp, she took it between her fingers and offered it. At first the girl didn’t react, as if she didn’t understand. Then she grabbed Fran’s wrist and plunged meat and fingers into her mouth. 

In her alarm, Fran tried to recover her hand, afraid the girl might seek to swallow it, but, for all her weak appearance, the girl had a grip of steel. So Fran stood still and let the girl lick and suck her fingers, surprised and embarrassed at the way the slobbering sent waves of pleasure coursing down her spine. In a distant corner of her mind, she heard her pony shift uncomfortably, whinnying softly.

When the girl finally released Fran’s hand, she felt bereft, a sinking feeling of loss in the pit of her stomach, her fingers cold and dissatisfied in the evening breeze. Bringing the remainder of the ham to her mouth, she bit off a further piece and set about chewing. She did so several times, till all the meat was gone. Unable to resist the waves of pleasure, Fran would not have pulled her hand free even had doing so been possible. Her whole attention was riveted on her fingers. 

When the girl took hold of her empty hand and slid the fingers back into her mouth, Fran wondered if the girl was trying to torture her. But she dutifully licked between her fingers and sucked each one in turn. Fran couldn’t help moaning as a delicious shiver shuddered down her spine and lodged deep in her stomach. She finally pulled her hand free, her lungs heaving as she sucked in breath after breath trying to get a grip on her rampaging emotions.

Fran turned back to her pony and rested her forehead against the cool of the leather saddle trying to recuperate. She closed her eyes. The strong smell of the animal mingled with the characteristic odour of the grease used to treat the leather were reassuring. 

Who was this girl? And what had she just done? Fran had never felt such a violent upheaval in her body. She dragged her thoughts away from the memories as they set off renewed shivers coursing down her spine. She was afraid she might shatter if the experience were to repeat itself.

Gathering her courage, she opened her eyes and turned to face the girl, bent on getting answers to her questions. To her shock, the girl was gone. Disappeared. Only a faint depression in the grass hinted that anyone had been there. Fran hurried to check behind the pony. No girl hid there. No one was behind the tree either. She’d only just met the girl, yet the feeling of disappointment and loss was acute.

Fran stood in the near dark, her arms tightly clasped across her chest, struggling to reassure herself. Surely she hadn’t imagined it all. She brought her fingers to her nose. They were no longer wet, but there was a faint odour that was unfamiliar. 

She tentatively pressed a finger against her lips which remained pursed, resisting the temptation, as if knowing she was asking for trouble. Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. Relax. She let the tip of her finger ease between her lips. A red hot bolt shot through her body, coming to rest in her belly where it pulsed in time with her racing heart. Alarmed, she withdrew the finger. Had the girl bewitched her? Witches were no longer in fashion, but how else could she explain what was happening?

Casting one last lingering glance at where the girl had sat, Fran mounted and trotted off. The sun had long set although it was not completely dark. Above, the strange little cloud had gone and the pink wisps of clouds had been replaced by more solid dark grey masses that hung heavy in the sky. Not rain clouds. Nor those promising thunder either. Yet sinister, all the same. The world remained quiet, but it was no longer peaceful. The all-embracing silence had been replaced by an expectant lull, like an in-drawn breath. Something was about to happen.

Nothing did. The ride back to the stables was uneventful. In its stall, Fran removed the saddle and brushed down her pony, all the time wondering about the girl. She must have been distracted, because the pony nudged her to draw her attention back to the task. 

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m a little preoccupied.” She flung her arms around the pony’s neck and hugged it, burying her nose deep in its coat, savouring the reassuring odour. Horses had such a characteristic smell. Nothing like dirty runaways. 

None of the girls at school were anything like the one she’d just met. Sure. They could be a laugh, they fooled around a lot when the nuns weren’t around, they shared many things, although rarely with her. But they’d never have sucked another girl’s fingers in such a sensual… No way! Feeling the telltale stirring in her gut, she cut off that train of thought before it could blossom into hot uncontrollableness.

With her parents away – her mother had insisted they wouldn’t be back before Sunday evening – she grabbed a bite in the kitchen, carefully avoiding the ham – would she ever safely eat it again? – and climbed to her room. It was Friday evening and her homework was already done. She had extra chores about the farm to cover for her parents, but otherwise she had the weekend to herself. 

As an only child in a large farmhouse, she not only had her own room, but an adjacent bathroom and a small study where she had her desk and schoolbooks. Her father repeatedly bemoaned she didn’t deserve such luxury. Above all, he begrudged her the limited privacy it offered.

In the small hall that served as entrance she hung her riding hat on a peg next to the riding crop and sat on a bench to pull off her boots. She removed her socks too, planning to change into pyjamas and read a book. She pulled her pullover over her head as she entered her bedroom, almost stumbling over a pile of books she’d carelessly left in the way as she navigated blind. Finally free of the pullover, she turned her back to her bed and tossed it in the direction of the bathroom. Her jodhpurs followed, the two forming a crumpled heap near the bathroom door. 

Dressed in only her underclothes she turned to the bed meaning to get her nightdress from under her pillow and screamed. She screamed so loud the windows rattled. Had any normal person been in the house, they would have come running, thinking she was being murdered. But her parents, especially her father, were not normal and would surely have savoured her screams.

There, seated at the foot of her bed, was the waif, completely unperturbed at having Fran scream. Under the scrutiny of the girl’s implacable gaze, Fran blushed at being caught in only her underwear. Apart from her father, nobody had ever seen her half-naked, not even her mother or the school doctor. Her hands flew to cover herself, a futile effort. Two hands were not enough. The ridiculousness of her reaction was quick to strike her. She ceased screaming, although her body continued to scream long after her voice had stopped. 

However had the girl got in? The doors had been bolted. Could she manipulate locks or was she able to walk through walls? And how had she known that this was Fran’s home? Or that this was her room? Was she some sort of mind-reader? And what did she want? Fran shuddered. Was she out to play with her fingers again? The thought filled her with both desire and dread.

As if to make things worse, the girl pulled back the sheets and blankets and was about to crawl into bed. Fran shuddered. “No!” she shouted. She couldn’t have the filthy girl in her bed. She might have lice or God knew what. The girl seemed unperturbed at the refusal. 

Scooping her up – Fran was alarmed at how little she weighed – she carried the girl into the bathroom. She’d expected resistance, but got none. The girl was alluringly compliant. She’d also expected to be overpowered by the stench, but the girl smelt surprisingly pleasant, mouthwateringly in fact.

Needing to set some distance between her and the girl, Fran sat her on the toilet, hoping that didn’t give her any ideas, and went to run the shower. Once the water was the right temperature, she turned back, half expecting the girl to have disappeared. But she was still seated there, her eyes following Fran’s every move.

“You should get undressed,” she told the girl, only to elicit the same blank expression as earlier. “You can’t shower with your clothes on,” she pointed out. To no avail. There was not even a flicker of a smile, or a tight-lipped sign of stubbornness, just a perplexed stare.

There was nothing for it, she’d have to undress the girl, but could she trust herself to do so? A part of her was worryingly eager to see the girl naked. She dreaded the idea she might have become her father’s daughter. Even if she could get the girl’s clothes off, she had no idea how to persuade her to stay under the shower and wash herself. She had comic visions of chasing a dripping girl around her room.

Sparing use of water was a lesson her parents had drummed into her, so constant running water had her feeling guilty. Unable to wait, she scooped up the girl and stepped into the shower with the girl in her arms and clumsily pulled the curtain closed behind them.

Read Chapter Two