I have always been fascinated by stories of lost civilisations and legends of fallen angels, inhuman creatures who came to impart knowledge to humanity. Over the years, I've written many stories on the subject, and it also inspired my novel, Burying the Shadow. I am currently working on a dark fantasy series of books about the Grigori, the angelic race who interbred with humans, and revealed to them hidden knowledge. What follows is a short extract from an unfinished story about the Grigori, written a few years ago, which I intend to complete and publish as a limited edition booklet, through my information service, Inception.

When the Strangers Came

Storm Constantine
1995
My story is this. There was a wind outside, like a beast howling. It was night-time, very cold. Fire burning in the cottage, smell of burning peat and goat cakes. I was burning my legs, so close to the fire. My back was chilled. I was listening to the sounds outside, sounds like furious hands pulling at the planks across the windows. I could hear my mother and my aunt chewing in their sleep on the platform at the back of the cottage. My place was always next to the fire. I had a pallet there. I never slept on the hair-filled couch because things lived in the stuffing that made me itch. I didn't want to move, burning up my legs so close to the fire.

It was unusual for someone to come a-knocking so late, but not totally unlikely. My aunt waved hands over the dying, so she was sometimes needed at odd hours. I hoped whoever it was would just go away, and didn't get up at first, but they kept on knocking, so I knew it had to be serious.

The wind came in like a hungry dog and I said, ``Don't just stand there!'' Then he came in. I didn't know him, never seen him before. He was just so tall, I thought he had to be foreign, or something. I wondered what he wanted. Had he come for my aunt? He had a long black cloak on, and a wide-brimmed hat, both of which looked wet through, although I couldn't see him too well. He walked past me to the fire, and put one hand on the hot bricks of the wall.

``What do you want?'' I asked him. We didn't get too many foreigners coming to us, and when they did, it was generally to the barter grounds.

``Shelter,'' he answered. Just that. His voice sounded strange, but the request did not. It was a wild night outside.

``We've little room. No beds.''

He turned and looked at me, taking off his hat, smiling. ``Doesn't matter.'' When his hat came off, all this hair tumbled down around his face. A stranger's face; none like it around here, highly boned and pale. His hair was the colour of veins in the salty rock, dark but like sunlight was trapped there.

``Who are you? Why are you here?'' I wondered whether he had knocked upon other doors and been sent away, although that was unlikely.

``My name is Gadreel,'' he said. ``As to why I'm here...'' He shrugged and looked around the cottage. I suppose he was wondering about the answer to that himself.

``You've come to trade?''

He looked at me keenly, for just a moment too long, and then said, ``Yes. Trade. Something like that.'' He took off his cloak and underneath it, he was dressed in grey. The cloth too was wet. Only his hair was dry.

``A storm outside?'' I asked him.

He glanced at the shuttered windows. ``Yes.'' The question had been pointless, of course.

I went and dragged my blanket out from under the couch. ``You can use this,'' I said. ``Put your clothes by the fire.''

As he undressed himself, I went into the cold room to fetch some milk. I would heat it in a pan for him. When I went back into the room, he was sitting in my mother's chair beside the hearth, the blanket wrapped round his waist. His body was thin, but so long, if you can understand that. I had never seen anyone so tall. It looked very odd. The chair was small around him.

``Are you alone here?'' he asked me.

I shook my head. ``No. My mother and her sister are asleep up there.''

``Yet you are still awake.''

``The knocking woke me,'' I said.

``Then I disturbed you. Sorry, but I find the weather uncomfortable here. I had to find shelter. There was light beneath your door.''

I poured the milk into a bowl for him. ``Drink this,'' I said. He looked at the bowl uncertainly and then took it out of my hands. He sniffed it and put his tongue into the liquid. Then, he drank.

``From the breast,'' he said.

``Milk. From a goat,'' I replied.

Perhaps he was mad.

I told him he could share my warmth beside the fire and he stretched out beside me. I turned my back on him, curling into the blanket. It was lucky it was so big, but even so, I think his feet were left uncovered. I tried to sleep, but all night I lay awake there, feeling his body tremble beside me.

In the morning my mother and aunt were surprised to find this big man in our cottage. I told them his name, and my mother gave him hers. Such is the custom. ``What have you to trade?'' she asked him. Gadreel smiled his strange smile and tapped his head.

``This,'' he said.

My mother laughed. ``Your head? Your hair?''

``No, my knowledge.''

My mother laughed again, her eyes sliding towards mine. She too thought him a little mad. ``And what knowledge is this?''

``One part of a great whole,'' he said. ``My brothers will come. They will give you wonderful things.''

``And the price?'' This was my aunt, hanging over the edge of the sleeping platform like a great bat.

Gadreel looked up at her. ``Less than the gift,'' he said. ``To you.''

He came with me when I went to feed the goats. Other people were about, and I felt proud to have him there. He was tall and good to look at, and no-one but me knew who he was. The storm had passed, but the ground was cold and muddy. ``Take me to the hills,'' Gadreel said. ``There.'' He pointed at the green slopes, at the place where the trees were, on top.

``That is where we worship,'' I said.

``Take me there.''

We climbed the damp, slippery slopes, me tugging at the grass with my hands. At the top, we sat down at the edge of the tree circle to catch our breath, and I said, ``I do not think we have use for your knowledge, Gadreel, whatever it is.''

He looked down at me and raised an eyebrow. ``Oh, you think not?''

I shook my head. ``No, but it doesn't matter.''

``You are wrong.''

``Then tell me the knowledge, so I can find out.''

``My knowledge is of the bitter and the sweet,'' he said.

I frowned. ``Taste.''

``No. Not that.''

``Then what?''

He sighed, and wrapped his cloak around his knees. ``It is too soon to demonstrate.''

``How can you say that? You could die before you told us.''

``How?''

``That tree behind could fall on you. The ground could shake and grab you. Anything. Tell me.''

``You are very innocent here. Like animals,'' he said.

``Animals don't build houses,'' I said.

``Animals don't love either. You have shuttered hearts, like animals.''

I did not understand what he said.

``You have been kept in ignorance,'' he said. ``Too long. And it is not innocence any more, but stagnation. There are things you must know, to progress, to evolve, to become great.''

When he said these things, it was like the sun coming down to earth. It made me feel that something indescribable but wonderful was about to happen, but I still did not understand. Then, he did a very strange thing. He stretched out one hand and touched my face, ran his thumb down my cheek and pinched the flesh of my jaw.

``Why did you do that?'' I asked him.

``Because I wanted to. Hold out your hand.''

I did so, wondering what he would do next. He took hold of my fingers and traced a pattern on the palm. It was like being tickled by leaves. ``What does this make you think of?'' he asked. I told him. Then he ran a finger up the inside of my arm. I could feel it in my shoulder-blade. It was very peculiar. ``You must learn to touch one another,'' he said.

``What for?''

He shook his head and dropped my hand, grinning to himself.

Something about his amusement annoyed me, so I pushed my hand against his face. He went very still. I could feel the muscles twisting, the outline of bone. He did not look at me, but kept staring, straight ahead. I kept my hand there until my arm began to ache. Why should we touch one another? What's to be gained from it?

``I could fall upon you like the sky,'' he said.