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Creative Production => Competitions & Activities => Topic started by: Mandle on 10 Jan 2022, 09:13

Title: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Mandle on 10 Jan 2022, 09:13
As it says in the thread title, the theme for this round of the FWC is "Local Legend".

This means the story must be somehow based around something that is part of a small community's mythology.

For real-life inspiration, think The Mystery Of Oak Island, or Nessie... or even something like The Smiley Face Killers, as the community nurturing the legend could be an internet-based one.

It can be based on a real-life legend or completely fictional. The story can be written from the point of view of someone investigating the legend, someone who is accidentally embroiled in it, or even the perpetrator(s) of the mystery, or whatever, but the legend must be central to the story.

Another rule is that the "solution" to the legend must be made clear to the reader by the end of the story. We must learn if the legend is true or not, or somewhere in between, and all the secrets of the legend must be revealed...  if not to the characters, then to the reader at least.

No loose ends.

The deadline is January 24th, 2022.

Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Mandle on 14 Jan 2022, 14:50
I came up with my own story which fits this theme, kind of, but which I, being the host, am not submitting as an actual entry. Just a short read that I hope someone gets some enjoyment from:

Interview With A Horror Icon
_______________________________________ ____________________

Firstly, allow me to address the elephant in the tomb: The article title.

The reader would be excused in thinking that this was mere crypt-bait upon finding out later in the article that this is not an interview with any Horror World heavy-splitter that we know and love.

But, I promise you, that even though you are currently as skeptical as I was upon discovering this individual, that you will also be as convinced of his worthiness of the title of "Horror Icon" as I upon learning of his true contribution to the popularity of the Horror World/Human World collaboration:

I pulled up in front of the bar.

It was a dark and stormy night, which will surprise nobody as the Weather Report section of this magazine has never had need to change its unholy rune-set since its instigation.

I stepped out of my car and looked up at the iconic sign above the joint:

"Freddy's Bar And Grill", with the "B" and "Gr" overwritten in red-dripped paint as "Sc" and "K".

The one place in Horror World where the rich and infamous can hang out without the fear of a reporter catching them in a moment of drunken embarrassment.

So, you may ask, how is it that I, first time reporter for Fun-Gorier Magazine, have managed to penetrate the sanctity of this establishment where only registered offenders may apply for membership?

Well, under the rules of the bar, anyone who has appeared in at least one Horror World/Human World collab as the main hero/villain is allowed entry, even if their rampage/franchise failed to continue.

And that's where I come in: Previously known as The Bye-Bye Man, I currently go under my reporter moniker as The Byline Man.

Only one slaughter under my belt, and little chance of another given the lack of popularity in the Human World that my first outing garnered, but enough to allow me access to Freddy's and some, if not complete, leeway in what I could report on on-the-record while there.

The front door is guarded by two of the lesser Cenobites, Chatterer and Butterball, who look deep into my soul, read my credentials within, and swing wide the rusty, iron-barred doors of the nightclub for me.

I'm whisked inside, into the moody blue and orange fog, tinted by the neon wrapping around above the central bar counter, and the flaming torches set into the stone walls above every booth.

It is to the far back-corner booth I go, as my hellegram instructed, where I find the subject of my interview seated, deep in animated discussion with Pinhead himself, and The Nailgun Killer.

As I slide into the booth, I hear my interviewee finish up what appears to have been a long and convoluted joke with the line "The Aristosplats!" and Nailgun Killer laughs out loud and even Pinhead manages a deep chuckle.

Pinhead turns his head to me fluidly, without even the barest movement of the rest of his body, and intones "Name your pleasure." in his deep, ringing voice.

I glance over at the bar counter where J.V. tends bar and hold up one finger.

He nods his hockey-mask-clad face once and gets to business chopping the lime with his machete for my Sin-and-Tonic.

I say "He ain't a very talkative barman, but he *can* serve a mean Bloody Mary... Whenever she's in here at the bar, I mean."

Before anyone in my booth can even manage a laugh, even if out of politeness, the slashed face of the lady herself, her charming bloody eye-sockets squinched ironically, appears around the seat from the next booth and she says "Hey! I'm right here, buster! Call me once, or twice, or five times, but don't never, ever call me late for last-call!" and her booth erupts in the kind of laughter that only gremlins and leprechauns can provide.

I turn back to my three hosts sheepishly and grin and whisper "Well, I guess I've been told." which garners a bigger laugh than my lame joke probably would have anyway.

The ice has been broken, my drink arrives, and, after a few more unpleasantries, I launch into the interview with my subject:

"So, you call yourself a horror icon... That's a bold claim from someone I've never even heard of before."

"And a claim that I will uphold before we are done here tonight."

"What is it that makes you think you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Michael, or even Freddy himself?"

"Well, my dear Byline Man, once, and once only, previously known as The Bye-Bye Man... I have simply been in more "movies", as the vulgar Human World phrase goes, than any of them."

"That's an astounding claim, considering that I have never seen your face nor heard of you before."

"Ah, this is true, but I am almost always there whenever a group of randy teens goes off on a lark investigating some local legend or haunted house."

"Is that so? Then why has your face not become known to the public until now?"

"Oh, I go in ahead of time. Just the other day, for example. I dragged my bulging, heaving, struggling hessian sack through the back door of a haunted manor and made my preparations."

"Yeah? And what were these "preparations"?"

"I take my treasures one by one from my sack and plant them here and there. In overhead cupboards, in long-closed fridges, and in dusty broom closets, just waiting for one of the intruders to find them."

"And what, pray tell, are your "treasures"?"

"Why, cats of course, really really riled-up cats."

My mind blew! I was lost for words for a moment and then managed to stammer "S-so you are t-the..."

"Yes," he replied "My work appears in almost every Human World collaboration we have ever done."

I deliver, as I promised to you, dear readers:

A true Horror Icon:

The Me-Ow Man.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: WHAM on 16 Jan 2022, 16:37
I might have something in the works. Should be up in a few days time.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Mandle on 16 Jan 2022, 21:57
I might have something in the works. Should be up in a few days time.

Good news! I smell a mystery, Scoob!Or hamburgers.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Sinitrena on 17 Jan 2022, 23:24
I'm working on something as well. I'm about half-way there (If only the ghost would cooperate better; she's a bit ellusive)
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Mandle on 18 Jan 2022, 07:45
I'm working on something as well. I'm about half-way there (If only the ghost would cooperate better; she's a bit ellusive)

Great to hear! I was especially looking forward to what you would do with this theme!
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: WHAM on 18 Jan 2022, 16:38
I realise upon writing more that my story might not quite follow the rules as written. Could something like a local sports team coach be a "local legend" and the story could revolve around finding out something about them or solving a mystery related to them?
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Mandle on 19 Jan 2022, 12:33
I realise upon writing more that my story might not quite follow the rules as written. Could something like a local sports team coach be a "local legend" and the story could revolve around finding out something about them or solving a mystery related to them?

Of course! As long as we get the reveal of the mystery and aren't left wondering.

It's the unique ways the entrants go with the theme that makes the contest the most interesting!
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Baron on 20 Jan 2022, 05:58
I've got something in the works!  It's a little fuzzy around the edges still, though.  Well, more feathery than fuzzy....  (roll)
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: WHAM on 21 Jan 2022, 16:43
Heck, I'm still not sure if this story quite matches the theme, but the phrase 'local legend' sparked an idea and I had to run with it.

The Black Blaze of Legend

The bed in the master bedroom hadn’t been made. The blanket had been kicked to the floor in a haze of feverish dreams and left there. The door was left ajar, as was the underwear drawer. A single sock had fallen onto the carpet.

The pages of the morning paper, Hillcrest Daily, were spread across the kitchen table. The center opening was stained with a brown ring left by the bottom of a coffee cup, which now sat in the top shelf of the dishwasher. It listed advertisements for local businesses alongside various small stories. The local Starbucks was closing down. A family of nine welcomed a new baby called Emma-Amber-Chamilla, born over the weekend. A daredevil roadshow featuring the mysterious ‘Black Blaze of Zanzibar’ was to perform in a nearby town as part of a tour. A new plumbing business had opened up on Prince street and offered 25% discounts on inspections.

Beside the paper sat a pair of cereal bowls, one of which still held a sliver of milk and a handful of milk-soaked, brightly coloured grains. A third grade history textbook with important homework tucked between its pages sat beside one, while a butterfly-shaped hairpin covered in bright plastic gem lay forgotten beside the milk-stained spoon of the other. A yellow sticky note on the fridge door read: “Hank, food for you and kids in the fridge. Reheat 150c for 30 min. Love you!”

Two hooks for keys hung above a side table near the front door, labelled 'hers' and 'his'. Hers was vacant, while on 'his' hung a set of keys. The house key. A bicycle key. A key for the shed. The metal loop for the car key was empty.

-

Hank folded his sunglasses and tucked them behind the sun visor of the dull silver Toyota Camry, then rubbed his eyes, strained from driving toward the slowly setting sun. A loud voice, echoing in the distance, filtered in through the windows. He smiled and shook his head in disbelief at what he was about to do, then pushed the door open and stepped out onto the coarse gravel so that it crunched underneath his leather shoes. The echoing voice, too indistinct to make the words out, faded and was replaced by the booming sounds of rock guitar music. Despite having been here before, in this exact same field, to see this exact same show, Hank still felt out of place. It was his thirteenth time, though, so he brushed the thought aside just as his hands brushed over the front of his casual button down shirt. The sleeve displayed the company logo of his employer: Hillcrest Financial Services. He’d taken a day off. The car let out a beep to confirm it was locked up, and Hank walked up to the gates that led him into the fenced off area filled with carnival air. Colorful posters, small rides, cheerful families, junk food. The lights were starting to come on as the sun sank lower in the horizon, turning the sky a brilliant orange hue overhead. A group of kids rushed past him, shouting about wanting to see the main stage. A visibly winded man with a puffy brown beard, the father, ran after them but had to stop to pick up his dropped sunglasses. As Hank ordered an orange soda from a stall selling snacks and beverages, the young man serving him, a boy with a face covered in freckles, eyes glimmering with a kind of genuine cheer that was rare in customer service jobs, smiled and nodded in greeting.

“Evenin’ mister Bennet! Good to see you again!”

Hank smiled back and returned the nod, paying in cash. It was still a strange thought that people here recognized him, but it made him feel welcome. Like being part of a family.

“Big show at seven, right?” -he asked the boy, even though he knew the answer very well.

“That’s right, mister Bennet! Plenty of time left ‘fore the big one! Might want to take a look at the stalls back there, we got a new guy who makes these real nice meat pie -thingies. I think ‘e’s polish or somethin’!”

“Yeah? Maybe I will. No rush, eh?” -Hank affirmed as he turned and began to make his way to the main stage area without even considering the other stalls and distractions. He walked past a carousel which had been decorated so that the kids were riding on plastic hot-rod motorcycles painted in black with red and yellow flame decals. A band of bearded men was playing rock music on a side stage, surrounded by a small crowd cheering them on, singing along.

When Hank made his way to the stands that made up the main viewing area, only the janitor was there before him, sweeping away trash and fallen leaves with an old broom. As he walked up to the sturdy chain link fence that would eventually separate the crowd from the show, all Hank saw was the sand pits, the ramps, the hoops and the large tent off in the distance. All ready, the marks of previous practice runs swept away. The sound of an idling engine sent a tingle up his spine, and the ice in his drink rattled with the shake of his hand.

-

It was an hour later when the crowds gathered, finding their places all around Hank until the press of bodies pinned his chest to the fence. He was right at the front, just like he’d wanted. The half-empty soda cup, diluted by the melted ice, sat in the dirt next to his foot. A set of loudspeaker blasted music with the event organizer welcoming the crowd and building up tension for the coming show.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” -he roared, stretching out the words, putting on his best showman voice. “Welcome to the Redcliff Roaming Roadshow’s ultimate event! The fastest, the most dangerous, the most epic and entertaining show you’ve seen this side of the big pond, or the other!”

The voice and the words were the same as every time, serving only to bring back memories of his past visits to this show. Hank had driven out a number of times to catch them as they toured the country, but this time they were closer than usual, one town over, just like they had been the first time he’d come to see the show.

“Seven of the finest riders known to man will entertain you tonight! Seven of the fiercest daredevils will put their machines through hell and fire to show you something you’ll recount to the grandkids one day! Don’t lean too close, you might lose an eyebrow!”

With that last boast a number of flame jets burst out across the showgrounds ahead, bathing many of the ramps and decorations in a bright orange light that left bright spots in Hank’s vision. The three great hoops set near reinforced ramps caught fire and remained lit.

The music intensified. The crowd cheered. Hank cheered, holding a fist up at the darkened sky. The front wall of the tent ahead parted and a set of six motorcycles roared to life, surging out into the caged field with incredible speed. With perfect choreography they ran around one another, weaving and swooping close enough to the crowd to send dirt, sand and smoke flying up into the stands, while the leather-clad riders pumped their fists and goaded the crowd into cheering and clapping ever louder. As they roared up the ramps the pyrotechnics bathed their leather jackets in flame as they became airborne, and smoke bombs and sparks detonated as they landed on prepared platforms. It was a wild show filled with impressive feats of skill and daring. Hank lowered his arm and clutched the chain link fence before him, feeling it’s cold metal on his fingers and palms, feeling it shake and rattle as the crowd jumped around him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve had a taste, but are you ready for the main course!?” -screamed the man on the loudspeakers. The crowd screamed back in the affirmative.

“You know her! You love her! It’s The Black Blaze of Zanzibar, and she is here to blow your mind with feats no man could pull off!”

The tent flaps parted again and a sleek black motorcycle emerged, rolling out onto the dirt. A black, shiny machine with a rider clad in an equally black outfit complete with a helmet. A shadow in the form of a rider. Only a few narrow stripes of white, and the reflections of the bright lights made the shape of the seventh rider distinct.

Hank felt himself smile.

With the music changing to a menacing, thrilling track of heavy drums and electronic sounds, the rider raised the front wheel of her bike into the air and surged out into the field, where she was met by screams of adoration and applause. Hank wasn’t the only fan to come see the show more than once. He knew some of the regulars by name.

Almost two years ago, when Hank first came to see the show, he hadn’t been all that impressed. He’d been dragged out by colleagues from work, agreed to go only because the company was paying for it, and all he really wanted was to go home. After the show they’d gone to a local dive bar for drinks, but as his friends got their party on Hank had stayed back, deciding to take the bus home later. He couldn’t even remember why he’d been so down and out that day.

Hank watched intently now, as the other riders formed up obstacles, and The Black Blaze charged up the ramps to fly over her friends, who all turned after her as she passed. The show turned into a high-speed chase past the mounds of dirt, over the ramps, through the flaming loops which exploded with light as the riders passed through them. Faster and faster they went, at dizzying speeds. The stench of exhaust intoxicated the audience.

She’d introduced herself to Hank after he’d nearly spilled her drink in that dive bar. A stupid mistake, but he bought her a new one just in case, so as not to be the out-of-towner causing trouble. Somehow they’d wound up sitting together, talking over their drinks. As the minutes went on and the two had got to know one another, Hank had to admit he had no idea who she was, other than the name she’d given: Samara Nyoni. When he’d asked her where she was from, she’d recounted the atle of how her family migrated from a faraway land called Zanzibar when she was a small girl, and how she had come to live in a nearby town. A quaint little place called Hillcrest.

It had been her face, front and center in the advert on the coffee-stained newspaper this morning. She was smiling a mysterious smile, surrounded by flames and sparks, her eyes filled with promise of thrill and adventure. The Black Blaze. A daredevil. A local legend known to all down at the bar. And in their first meeting Hank had been oblivious. Back then she’d laughed when she figured out he hadn’t even recognized her, hadn’t realized she was the one he’d just watched perform. She’d made sure to jab him about it all night without mercy.

Now, two years later, Hank knew full well what he was seeing. He felt tension building in his gut as the chase intensified, with two of the chasing motorcycle riders crashing in a spectacular, if well rehearsed manner. The crewmen of the show rushing in to pour white foam on the bikes was done to cover up the cushioning hidden in the dirt rather than to put out the pyrotechnics.

Hank had gone home after that night in the bar, but he hadn’t forgotten. Samara had explained to him bits of how it all worked, how much effort and precision went into it all. To hear her words, and the passion of her voice, had been mesmerizing. To think that someone could find such excitement in a job was, to Hank, alien.

He’d booked a ticket a few months later to go see the show again, even if it meant having to plead with his boss to let him handle a business trip that just happened to lead him to the right city. That second time had been a wholly different experience for Hank, and after the show he’d sought out Samara again, so he could tell her how impressed he was now that he understood.

A large man bumped into Hank, spilling a warm, fizzy beverage down the back of his shirt. The burly passer-by tried to apologize, but another man shoved him forward and the apology was lost in laughter. Hank, having been snapped back to the moment, strained his eyes to see more. Only three riders chased The Black Blaze across the scene now. They were riding around in a shallow pit, going around and around in a tight circle, their bodies pressed down into their machines as the engines screamed louder and louder. The riders were dizzy, but to push themselves for just one more loop was a matter of pride. Samara had told Hank they always pushed past the agreed number of laps. The one who couldn’t take it any more and gave up first was the one buying a round of beers for the crew. This time, like every time, it was one of the chasers: a man with a bright-red helmet and a black visor. Samara was too good, or too crazy, to give up. As the final chaser roared his bike out of the pit, so did The Black Blaze, thought as she landed in the narrow space between the other two bikes her ride wobbled dangerously from side to side, giving the audience a clear idea of just how dizzying the ride had been so far.

But it was far from over.

Hank watched as the speed began to build again, with fresh bikes joining the chase as those knocked out earlier returned into the picture. The main ramp, only used once before this moment, was the destination of the wide arc the riders took just past the audience stands. The chasers gave up at the base of the ramp, one veering off, another sputtering to a halt halfway up. At the tip of the ramp Samara leapt into the air, with the greatest gouts of flame seen so far that night accompanying her into the air, the heat of the flames washing over the faces of even those in the audience.

A woman screamed. A man shouted in surprise.

As The Black Blaze landed with a great slam of wheels on dirt the riders jacket was on fire, flames streaking back behind her as she revved the engine. The music halted with a screech, so that the roar of engines overlapped only with the sound of the shocked crowd. The rider turned, wobbled dangerously, and could be seen hastily reaching for her chest with one hand while the other struggled to maintain control of the beastly machine she rode. A strap came loose. Then another. The bike turned, seemingly out of control, and was headed right for the audience stands as the flames grew more intense. A woman standing beside Hank covered her eyes.

It was all about the thrill, Samara had told Hank during one of their many secret meetings. All about pushing yourself and feeling like you’d done something nobody else could do. About following your dreams and proving you can.

The last strap came off and the rider swung the jacket off her, sending out an arc of flame. It turned into a smoldering flag in her gloved hand, trailing after her as she revved the engine and yanked the front wheel up into the air again to celebrate. As she turned from the audience at the last second, her body tensed up over the rumbling motorcycle, her white undershirt soaked with sweat as its fabric clung to her body. The audience screams turned into cheers again as their heroine was safe and sound. She tossed the scorched leather jacket into the dirt and braked hard, bringing her bike to a stop amid a cloud of smoke and dust.

Hank watched her every move. The way she pressed her knees into the bike. The way her legs moved and her feet manipulated the weight of the bike. The way her body was bent over the machine as she rode, and the way she arched her body back as she stopped and raised her muscular arms up to the crowd. The black helmet came off, revealing a head of curly black hair, and Hank could see her eyes, filled with the kind of intensity only a true adrenaline junkie could display. She smiled at the crowd, threw her helmet off so that it rolled in the dirt, then began to ride her bike in shallow arcs before the audience, showing off. The show was winding down, the music returned for the encore, the chase was over, and the other riders joined her in celebration.

As they rode, Hank had his eyes on Samara, and eventually she found him as well, one pale face somehow standing out to her in that crowd. Her smile widened and she winked at him. Hank forgot to breathe, and a moment later gasped as his head began to feel faint.

He blinked...

-

And opened his eyes to see hers. Bright, caramel brown irises locked onto his own dull green pair. That smile on those wickedly twisted lips. The scent of her sweat and her breath hot on his face. A bead of sweat on her brow, a smear of saliva on her lower lip. The weight of her body on top of his own, and the softness of her skin under his fingertips as they trailed down her spine from the back of her neck. She sighed and let her head fall slowly forward, her cheek coming to rest against the coarse stubble that had manifested on Hank’s own. Her fingers felt hot to the touch as they slid in between Hank’s white digits, intertwining. He could almost imagine feeling the flames on her, still.

“You were amazing.” -Hank whispered in a shuddering voice, then turned his head to press his lips to Samara’s cheek.

“I always am.” -she replied, her voice sly and fiendish, and yet far more delicate than one might have anticipated from such a daredevil. Discarded clothes were strewn across the floor. A single car key sat on a desk below the TV bolted to the wall. Barely any light filtered in through the curtains. The cheap motel bed creaked beneath them as she pushed herself up, one hand on the pillow, the other pinning Hank’s into the mattress. She arched her back, finally bringing her face over Hank’s so she could look him in the eye again. Her soft lips parted to speak, but Hank replied before she could voice the question.

“I am. I’m sure of this.”

She paused, snapped her lips shut, then giggled and shook her head, the black curls that framed her face swaying with the motion. The smell of smoke wafted from them.

“We’ll see in the morning. The plane leaves at ten.” -she whispered as she sank back into Hank’s embrace. His arm snaked around her and pulled her close, bare chest to bare chest, stomach to stomach. He could hear their heartbeats in the darkness.

A pair of plane tickets sat on the nightstand.

Destination: Abeid Amani Karume International Airport, Zanzibar.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Baron on 22 Jan 2022, 03:06
Quoth the Raven

   In the tiny mountain village of Bergwaithe they had thirty-six local words for fog, or so outsiders liked to claim.  In fact the reality was slightly more nuanced, for anyone resident long enough on the cloud-shrouded slopes would understand that there were in fact many distinct fogs, each subtly different from the others and requiring its own separate name.  There was the rolling fog that ebbed and flowed as it churned over the hillsides, tricking the eye and the mind as it obscured and revealed like the peddling swindler it was named for.  There was the fog as thick as sheep's wool that made it seem as if one was blindfolded.  There was the fearsome blowing fog that left half a man soaked and the other half bone dry, and the mizzly fog that was almost rain and seemed to linger on like a woman's foul mood.

   But of course these distinctions were lost on Jairus Cain, Witch-Hunter.  He had been in the village of Bergwaithe all of one day and had come to the characteristically quick conclusion that all fogs were in fact the same: nasty, mischievous, and no doubt devil-spawned.  He spat on the ground outside the village's one inn, sneering as the rain began to soak the pyre in the village square that had been his day's work.

   “Actually, sir, it's just a Weeping Fog...” the stable boy began before being silenced by the Witch-Hunter's glare.  In Jairus' experience these isolated villages were usually well-insulated from the devilry that seemed to rot at the underbelly of larger centres, but sometimes their own ignorance began to work against them.  Too much fog on the brain, he supposed.

   “It is time for the meeting,” the Witch-Hunter told the boy brusquely.  “Are the good-hearted men and womenfolk of the village assembled?”

   The stable boy nodded.  “I haven't seen the inn's common room so packed since the great Dancing Fog of – er, well, they're all here, sir, yes.”

   Witch-hunting, as a profession, was sadly not all forest-chases and flames.  There was the scouring of gossip and the muscling of informants to find good prospects for a hunt.  There was the hard days of travel to the very corners of the map.  Then, once arrived, there was the building of the pyre.  Aye, before any speeches or any investigation, there needed to be a pyre.  Its presence focused minds, and was handy to have ready just in case.  And then, then the real work began.  The good people of the community had to convince themselves of what had to be done.  The act itself.  The thrilling, terrifying, odiously righteous act.  Timing was everything: they would weigh the evidence one way and the other through the evening, with especially the women having their fair say on the matter.  But as the night drew on he would subtly steer the crowd, stoking their prejudices and their fears, working them into an over-tired and half-drunk state of frenzy by the wee hours.  Then the torches would be lit and the menfolk armed.  Before anyone could talk themselves out of it the hunt would begin, falling upon the witch's lair just as the first rays of dawn sapped her of her vilest strength.  Jairus considered the waning day (or was it just a denser fog?!?) and decided it was time to begin.

*   *   *   *   *

   “But why, grandfather?” asked Shyla with all the curiosity of a seven year old.

   “Why, because it is fun!” the old man replied, the bells braided into his long white beard jingling merrily.  “And at every village I show them I can earn at least six shillings.  Ten, in the larger ones!  You wouldn't believe the fuss when I first arrive: the townsfolk purses are as open as their gaping mouths!”

   But of course Shyla could believe it, for she was thoroughly entranced by the majestic creatures.  Her grandfather's ravens were so black they seemed slightly blue-tinged in the light, with ferocious looking beaks and claws but oddly pensive looking eyes.  They were brilliantly intelligent, as her grandfather demonstrated to Shyla's great delight, able to perform the most complicated of tricks and the most entertaining of pranks, all on cue.  But it was their speech that truly awed her.  How could a bird be taught to mimic the voices of men?  It was all so magical.

   “Patient training,” her grandfather assured her.  “Kindness, persistence, and no small amount of food for motivation,” he laughed.  “But I'm no genius.  In fact, as much as I've taught these birds, they've taught more back to me.  It's with an open mind, and an open heart, that the truest magic is possible.”

   The words, the birds; Shyla drank them all in.

*   *   *   *   *

   “She put a curse on my sister!” Mrs. Flaber told the crowd.  “Made her break out in hives and swell up like a singing frog.  These things I know!”

   The crowd gathered in the inn's great hall cheered and booed in equal measure, allowing Jairus to gauge their collective temperament.  It was too soon, he knew, far too soon to set things in motion yet.

   “Your sister used to swell up like that even as a child!” Mrs. Jorring retorted.  “Every time she got into Granny Tata's acorn cake she'd be out like the fur on a scared cat's back.”  Slightly more cheers than boos: far too soon.

   “She helped my son,” Mrs. Whorler said.  “I don't know the how of it, but she found those roots what no one else could find.  And from them we made the medicine what saved him!”

   “And she saved the Corksen boy that got lost in the snows a few years back!” someone else shouted.

   “What's to say she wasn't the one that lured him off the path?” another anonymous voice shouted.

   “And how does she know all the news three valleys over?  She hardly ever leaves her cottage in the woods!”

   “Nonsense!  She is well-known in Kleindorp, and all the way in Wasslefuhrt.”

   “Some say they've seen her riding on a stag....”

   “That's just a trick of the Peddling Fog!”

   “Old man Jom and I crossed paths on the Aerie path some ten summers ago, and when the Bridal Veil Fog lifted he was there across the way in the distance, but she was there between us.  We both remarked upon it afterwards, as she had passed neither of us to get there.”

   Murmurs of agreement spread through the hall.  Few nursed grudges with the Lady of the Dell, as she was known, but the strangeness of her abilities was agreed upon by all.  Jairus nodded encouragement, and waited.

*   *   *   *   *

   “Hush, dear friend,” Shyla said, trying to stop her voice from quavering.  She gave a nut to the great black bird perched on the gravestone and absently patted his beak.  He cooed back at her, in a voice he must have learned from a dove. 

   Her grandfather had been dead for a week already, but this was the first opportunity since the family had left for her to bring the birds down to say their proper farewells.  People, even her people, didn't really understand the birds.  At best they were seen as dogs would be, as beasts that served a function, although even those people thought it bewildering that these creatures had the run of the house as if they were members of the family.  To most, there seemed something slightly sinister about the hold the black creatures seemed to exercise on their handlers.

   The ravens slouched and bobbed their heads at the stone, each taking a turn to hop atop of it and mumble something soft and gentle in recognition of the bond they shared.  Shyla wept again, despite herself.  There was no question of her keeping Grandfather's house: her cousin Bayle would take possession once he returned from crusade.  But there was no one but her to take the birds.  Take them where, though?  Her father's cottage was high in the forest two valleys over, but the creatures would be most unwelcome there.  Her step-mother had not even bothered to come to the funeral, so scared she was the black wraiths, as she called them.  Shyla shivered slightly, although it was much warmer than she was used to down here in the valley.

   One of the ravens - Cothar was his name - landed gently on her arm and nuzzled her cheek affectionately.  Shyla blinked back her tears and smiled wanly at the beautiful bird.  “We're in a bit of a spot,” she confessed to the bird.  “With grandfather gone your care must fall to me, but I have no home to which to take you.”

   The bird cocked its head, quizzically.  “Why?” he asked.

   Shyla smiled more broadly, for the magic of her grandfather's ravens had never ceased to warm her soul.  “Because a teenage girl does not make the rules of the world,” she whispered.

   The bird turned its head to stare more deeply into her eyes.  “Why?” he repeated.

*   *   *   *   *

   “The facts speak for themselves,” the blacksmith spoke to nods of agreement.  “She has lived alone in the old Hagley cottage for three dozen years or more, without any visible trade or income.  And yet she seems better off than the honest woodsman her father was.  She seems better travelled than the Wandering Fog, and she has an uncanny power in the forest.  I tell you, there is only one explanation, and that is that she has harnessed the power of magic!”  The resounding cheer that greeted this speech was exactly what Jairus the Witch-Hunter was waiting for.

   “My friends,” he called to the crowd, stepping up onto a bench to be better seen and heard.  “My friends, we have deliberated long into the night, but I think we have arrived at the truth of the matter.  The woman of the woods, the so-called Lady of the Dell, truly does wield a supernatural power.  And while some of you may see it as a kindness that she has used it to your benefit, you must realize that the devil tempts more with honey than with vinegar.  She has ingratiated herself, but to what end, I ask?  Did the serpent cause Adam's fall with naked animus or apparent generosity?  Your Lady of the Dell is but a wolf in the guise of a gentle sheep: do not be fooled by her deception!  Steel your hearts, brave friends, for you know now what must be done to purge the devil from your midst.  It is the only way to be sure that your children will not disappear in the night!  Join your fellows of good heart and pure soul and do what must be done!  Join in the fiery work of God's most righteous judgement!  Join me in the Hunt!”

   The crowd cheered.  Torches were lit.  Pitchforks materialized from under tables and behind benches.  Jairus Cain the Witch-Hunter was eager for the chase.

*   *   *   *   *

   “But there is nothing in the cap,” Shyla noted quizzically, shaking the felt cap to the roaring amusement of the crowd.  The cap's owner had turned beat red in front of the crowd, chuckling himself.  A few people shouted him encouragement as he was a well-liked member of the community, which only helped in the illusion as the crowd would not expect him to be complicit.  Shyla shrugged her biggest shrug, addressing the crowd once more.  “Well, I guess I owe you three silvers...” she said sadly, handing the cap back to the man.  But at the very last instant before he touched it she carelessly dropped the cap to the stage.  She feigned clumsiness, miming an “oops” to the crowd as the man stooped down to collect his hat.  A sudden roar of laughter erupted from the crowd as he picked it up, revealing the bunny at the front of the stage.  The man turned even redder, grinning from ear to ear, and the crowd erupted into applause.  Shyla grinned, spread her arms wide, and curtsied.  Two ravens flew to perch on her outstretched arms as she did so, the others bobbing merrily from atop the stage's backdrop.

   “Encore!” some men shouted as her temporary assistant descended from the stage to cheers and applause.

   Shyla grinned again, flourishing a small wicker basket.  “Perhaps....” she began, and the crowd quickly fell silent.  “Perhaps, if you help me with one small trick, I can persuade my poor hungry birds to perform a slight while longer.  If my bird can fill this basket with small change in five minutes or less, we shall be able to afford enough birdseed to keep the show going!”  At this the raven in her arm grabbed the basket in his beak and flew off to perch on the edge of the stage, shaking the basket expectantly.  There were laughs and guffaws and no small amount of people pressing to the front to contribute a farthing for the cause. 

   Shyla's cheek muscles hurt from all the smiling, but they were doing a roaring trade this day.  She took a few steps back and relaxed her cheeks ever so briefly as she took a much needed drink of water from a flask she kept hidden at the back of the stage.  “That rabbit was almost too late,” she whispered through smiling teeth to the raven that still perched on her other arm.

   The raven inched up her arm to speak equally quietly into her ear.  “He's new,” he said softly.  “The old one ran off yesterday to make babies.  I'll get Roffla to speak to him.”  Shyla nodded ever so slightly.

   “Croda!” a shout came from the top of the backdrop.  Shyla turned to see one of the ravens perched there nodding skyward, and she soon picked out the familiar form of yet another raven descending from the sky.  She reached out her free arm and Croda deposited a small roll of paper that he had been clutching in his claws before joining his fellow ravens atop the stage backdrop.

   Shyla unrolled the paper and read it, frowning.  The ravens on the backdrop shook their heads and murmured: bad news travelled faster on tongues, no matter the species.  The raven on her shoulder looked at the paper curiously: “the hen-scratch paper marks still perplex me,” he admitted.

   “It is father,” Shyla told him.  “He has fallen gravely ill, and my step-mother has left him.  I think it might be time to go home.”

   The raven on her shoulder nodded solemnly.  “Is it time for the grand finale?”

   Shyla nodded, the fake smile returning to her face.  The raven flew off to whisper to its brethren.  There was a flurry of activity as birds rushed here and there, preparing.  “Ladies and gentlemen!” Shyla shouted, “Do I have a treat for you!  Not only will you have the honour of seeing my most daring trick to date, performed in public for the very first time, but also you will have the great privilege of storing my wagon-stage for the rest of the season.  Do treat my few possessions kindly: one never knows when a raven might be watching.”

   The crowd whispered in confusion as the whole troupe of ravens swung into action, decking Shyla out in her travelling cloak and a sack of her necessities (money and food, mostly).  And then they perched on her, the whole flock, gently clutching at her shoulders and her feet and her arms and her legs.  “Good day,” she smiled, and then the birds began to flutter madly and she rose up into the sky.  The crowd gasped as she disappeared over a hill, one stray raven with a basket full of coin flapping after her.
   
*   *   *   *   *

   “Brace yourselves!” Jairus Cain the Witch-Hunter shouted, waving his torch for attention.  “We are entering the witch's domain, I can feel it!”  Actually the local stable boy had informed him about the invisible property line (and the maddeningly Inauspicious Fog), but the Witch-Hunting craft required a certain amount of theatrics to keep all of the protagonists engaged.  “The clearing is now but five hundred paces ahead and the cottage slightly beyond.  And look, the blessed rays of dawn are here to wilt the witches powers.  Charge on, my friends!  Bring her to ground!”  A somewhat tired and less-than-enthusiastic cheer went up, and the townspeople surged forward up the steep wooded hillside.

   “Stags!” someone shouted, and indeed their outline could be seen, dozens of them silhouetted in the morning fog, in a line across the slope as if arrayed for battle.

   The villagers exchanged glances somewhere between fear and bafflement, and the charge came to an abrupt stop.  “Do not lose heart!” Jairus shouted, waving his torch menacingly behind the men in front of him, which caused them to reluctantly resume their ascent.  But through the fog he thought he could see villagers discretely backing away along the flanks. 

   The men in the front made some brave lunges at the stags, who for their part lowered their antlers and engaged in the fight.  The slope was against the villagers even if they had been more daring and less over-tired, and so quickly most were pushed down the slope, some rolling headlong.  But the Witch-Hunter himself and a few other zealots found a gap in the stag's line and continued to climb.

   But what's this?  Soon the men in front screamed of burning, and danced about as if their legs were aflame.  Jairus could see no sign of fire through the fog except on the tip of his own torch.  Nevertheless the men flung themselves down slope, rubbing and jumping and twitching laughably as they went.

   “Ants,” muttered the stable boy, pointing to the ground.  The boy and Jairus were all that were left of the once numerous party.  They picked their way past the swarming insects, continuing to climb through the trees.  Light and shadow now played with their sight, as the full sun suddenly burned very near above the fog.  “It is the Vivid Fog,” the boy said.  “A great truth shall be revealed this hour.”

   “Indeed it shall,” said the Witch-Hunter, drawing his sword.  “Today you shall see that the forces of devilry are no match for -GAH!”  The sword was suddenly knocked out of the Witch-Hunter's hand by a flash of dark lightning.  Then the torch disappeared in a similar manner.  Jairus stared at his hands in disbelief, blood dripping through deep rents that had appeared in his lower sleeves.  And then suddenly there was cloth wrapping around him, binding him from neck to toe, and he could see that they were birds that attacked him so.  He could not move, but nor could he fall, for they had tied a thin rope from his back that attached up into the tree branch above.  As quickly as they had fallen upon him, the birds disappeared again into the dazzlingly white fog.

   “I'm the Corksen boy,” the stable boy admitted.  The Witch-Hunter looked at him in confusion.  “You know, the one that got lost in the snows.  She saved me.  They saved me, the animals that is.  If that's devilry, well, then I guess I'm a lost soul.”  The boy stepped away, but turned to look up slope as the fog suddenly lifted.  There she stood, a wolf at her side, a raven on her shoulder, her hair white as the dazzling departed fog.  She waved at the boy, and the boy waved back.

   “Perhaps you will come back for another lesson later?” The Lady of the Dell asked the boy.

   “I'd like that, Ma'am,” the boy replied, before turning down slope towards the village.  He turned back towards the thoroughly perplexed Witch-Hunter still dangling in his bonds.  “Good bye.”  And with that, he disappeared back into the fog.

   “Your powers won't work on me!” shouted the Witch-Hunter, although it came out as more of a squeal.  “I have been blessed with holy water: you dare not spill my blood, lest it burn you to ash!”

   The Lady of the Dell spoke something that could only be the language of birds, and the raven fluttered away.  “No,” she said with pity in her voice.  “No more blood shall be spilled.  But your ideas are far too dangerous to be allowed to propagate in our fair mountain home.  You will be taken to the Pinnacle, a small plateau atop a quite unscalable spire of rock, deep within our mountain fastness.  There is a cave there for shelter, and my friends shall supply you with food and fire wood.  Perhaps even the odd book to pass the time?”

   The Witch-Hunter shook his head.  “I don't want anything from you!”

   “Nor I you,” the Lady confided to him.  “But the better angels of our nature tell us we should at least try to get along.  Fare well.”  And then suddenly the rope was cut and he was seized by birds, great eagles with wings longer than his arms, and he was lifted up into the air and disappeared into the fog, his screams receding as if a squealing piglet were running away through the forest.

   The raven Cothar returned and settled onto his mistress' arm.  “Please convey my thanks to the stags and the ants and the birds and the wolves,” she said to him in his tongue.

   “Certainly mistress,” Cothar replied in hers.

   “And do let them know that we are happy to repay the favour whenever they find themselves in need,” she added.

   “Indeed,” Cothar nodded.  “The Great Wolf here tells me the only thing he would like is the favour of your famous smile.”

   Shyla grinned widely and turned to the wolf at her side, rubbing him gently behind the ears.  He closed his eyes and nuzzled against her hip briefly before loping off into the Vivid Fog.  The distant ranting of the Witch-Hunter was suddenly pierced by a howl as the Great Wolf gave orders to his pack.

   “He says all is well in the mountain world once more,” the raven translated. 

   “Such good neighbours am I blessed with here in my mountain home,” Shyla said to her ancient companion.

   “A kind word reaps its own blessings,” the wise old Raven remarked as they turned back towards their cottage.  “One day, perhaps there will be thirty-six ways to say that.”
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Sinitrena on 22 Jan 2022, 23:11
Part 1 of 2

The Arbitrator
- The Ghost of Wiltly Hall -


Wiltly Hall was dark. Looking down from the hills surrounding the village and the manor hall on the outskirts that gave it its name, no other thought managed to cross my mind. The mansion was dark, blackened sandstone and the occasional gargoyle on the rain gutters were placed in further shadows by a dark-green ivy that crawled up its walls. The village’s roofs were covered in black shale and soot came from the chimneys that mixed with the rain-clouds hanging above the scene.

I stood there for a while, getting a feel of the place. My long leather coat whipped behind me in the icy wind and slapped against the flank of my horse. She whinnied and nudged me in the back but my eyes had not found what they were looking for yet, so I just patted her neck and ignored her otherwise. I looked over the small village again and again. Situated in a wide valley between hills and bordered by a dribbling rivulet, it was nearly impossible to miss any part of it from my vantage point. I still couldn’t make out the church or the graveyard at first. I hardly remembered them.

A little forest, more like a grove, stood close to the manor, the oaks reaching with their long arms for the walls of the house. There was still green in them, even this late in the year, as the ivy had grown along their trunks and branches. There, underneath a blanket of vines, the church was built as part of the mansion. It had no proper tower. It had fallen in the storm of 1774, some 100 years ago, and was never rebuilt. A new, red roof distinguished it from the rest of the building and the little glimpse of a rose window that blinked through the greenery showed its purpose to the outside world. Even in my childhood, it had been years since anyone went their for service. The neighbouring village’s church was the spiritual centre for Wiltly Hall.

I could not make out the graves among the trees, but steered my mare in this direction anyway. After all, I knew where they were.

A wrought iron gate blocked the path. Hanging slightly askew in its hinges, it groaned like a wounded soldier as I pushed it aside. The path, cobblestone and pebbles where time had taken its liberties with the ground, lead towards the mansion in serpentines that had no connection to the natural lay of the land. The grove was to the left, further behind other unstructured paths and a fountain that lay dry in the autumn day. Turning right, I would have reached the door of the mansion, heavy oak and a bronze knocker. For a moment I hesitated. It would be proper to knock and introduce myself, it would be right to ask permission to walk on this land. But did someone live here now? I did not know for sure. Had someone moved in, despite the legends of the village ghost? I had been away for too long to know one way or the other.

I knew the story of the ghost and the curse of Wiltly Hall all my life, as did everyone else in the village. As a child, I had not taken it too seriously, had visited the manor with my friends to shudder and scream, had talked in hushed whispers about the woman in black that roamed the halls and paths of the forest, that was seen on the hill overlooking the marsh on foggy mornings. I had pretended that I was the ghost or that I lived in the old manor house. Rumours always existed in the village that this family or that had blood connections to the lordship and were rightful heirs, mine just one among many.

The ghost seldom came to the village, but when she did, then with force. She haunted the halls of the manor, chased and scared and hunted the inhabitants. Not always. A scorned lover, they said, a child-murderer, they said. She returned when love found the home of the manor lord, when a new heir was born. But when the child was removed, when it grew up somewhere else, the village ghost did not follow it, did not react to it when the child returned many years later, just grown from an infant to a child or already an adult, it did not matter. The ghost of Wiltly Hall hunted children, and only the youngest of them. How many victims fell to the fear instilled by her, I could not tell, could not even tell if there ever was a single death that resulted from her machinations. So many children die young. Who could say that one more was really because of some ghost, or if the ghost was the explanation that was easier to bare when another child died.

It had been years since I left my home, and only now did I return, after all this time. Other ghosts had followed my light in the balance but I never dared return to my home. What did I fear? That the ghost was real or that it was not? That there was some flimsy connection to it, because the village was small and everyone knew everyone?

Rumours, old rumours and the hint of a name guided my steps through the graveyard. Verena she was called, Verena was what we called into the shadows when we wanted to feel the creepiness of the old building. And Verena was now the name I was looking for on the old gravestones. I soon passed the newer once, built in the last couple of years. On some, still slightly outside of the grove, fresh flowers would bloom in the spring. Now, they stood brown and sad in their beds. The names and the years were clear on these graves, all too young to be of any interest to me. I left my mare tied to a tree and followed the path into the grove. Rotting leaves crunched under my boots and the empty branches above my head blocked the bit of sun that shone through the heavy clouds. Nonetheless, there was enough light to recognize how the graves became more and more decrepit with every year of death that passed. I walked past the forties, the thirties, the twenties, the tens, I walked past the turn of the century into the 18th century, and past the decades into the fifties of this century. Here, the graves were hardly recognizable any-more. The stones had fallen in storms and faded from time, the beds and boundaries had become part of the forest’s undergrowth. Here, too, ivy had found its own way and grown over the tree trunks and the crosses. Still, I knew my way, felt it in the rustling of the leaves and the path of the sun, felt it in the beating of the forest’s heart. And so, with feet that followed invisible steps, I knew that the old legend of the ghost of Wiltly Hall had some truth to it. What else could pull on my instinct and direct me towards a little bit of risen ground?

Underneath a blanket of ivy, a granite stone still stood proud close to a large oak. I walked around the rising on the ground, sidestepping the actual grave as well as I could and brushed and dragged the ivy from the stone. Inlaid with a hint of gold, a small cross was carved into the stone under its rounded head. The name underneath was less visible, faded and cracked from the vines, it still clearly said Verena but I could not make out the last name or under it her birth-name. Though the fact that there once was one already told me a fact about the old legend I had not known before. A date of birth or death were never registered.

I dragged the strong ivy away from the stone until it stood there under the roof of branches and the ivy lay like a carpet on the surrounding forest floor. Avoiding the resting-place again, I went back to the front of the grave. There I took a couple of deep breathes, though I did not feel the cold afternoon air in my lungs. For now I felt nothing but the vague knowledge that I was in the right place but I knew that would soon change. Pushing my coat behind me, I let myself sink on both knees at the same time. The wet foliage caught my fall. Taking my hands from my sides, I put the palms to each other and bowed my head in front of the grave. Every movement in my body was the same for left and right, every part of me was centred towards the middle. Old believes demanded a prayer to a god I had long forgotten, but no words of what was once my religion came to mind. I shook the notion from my thoughts.

“I am the balance.” I whispered instead, reaffirming my status to myself, reminding me who and what I was, just in case there was more will in the remnants of the ghost than I could tell right away. Cold wind rustled the leaves on the ground and dragged on the hat on my head. It pulled on my hair and brought tears to my eyes, but I ignored all physical sensations. Though physical and mental sensations soon became one. The air caught in my sleeves and created goosebumps on my skin, but goosebumps ran all over my body from the energy that death left behind as well. I felt the leaves leave the ground and start to orbit me. “I am the balance!” I said again, interrupting the flow of the wind and the leaves. As if they listened to my words of equilibrium, as if they respected them, there was a hesitation in the air, then it started to create direction. The leaves flew past me, left and right, only disturbed in their path by my presence. Soon, the grave was cleared of fallen leaves and just the mulch still covered the coffin and body. Taking my hands apart, first at the wrist, than one finger after the other, I stopped my breathing. I put the hands between my kneeling legs on the ground, thumb to thumb and waited with bated breath.

Underneath the mulch, I felt the earthworms crawl through the ground. I felt their fear, their confusion, as my mind grazed theirs, I felt them skitter through their tunnels, felt them crawl and dig and disappear. I disappeared as well, left them to their world of eating and growing. Below them, I found wood that once was. Not alive like the trees around me, it had found a form that was not its own. For a long time, it had followed its orders, long it had kept the earth from its occupant, but then, after a long while, the weight had become too much, it had groaned and creaked and fallen upon itself. This, too, I left behind, until I found the occupant. Her hairs lay towards the gravestone, the fingernails further down, the toenails at the bottom, and between it all the bones. Once, they had lain in order, connected by muscles and flesh, but both were long gone. And by the time the coffin collapsed, only a skeleton had remained. The earth had pressed onto the skeleton, had pushed the bones apart and together, confusing them.

Verena was once a tall woman. I could not see her, not exactly, but I could feel her height like I could feel that the coffin had rotted long ago. Her hair was once black, as black as a raven’s feathers and as slick and smooth as one as well. High cheekbones and a thin skull gave her an almost skeletal look even in life. Her long fingers, thin, almost scrawny, often played nervously with the ring her bones still wore in the grave. The dress she wore to her resting-place had long decayed, but in life it would not have been her clothing of choice. The simple shroud, off-white, did not suit her pale skin. Darker colours were her choice and so it did not astonish me that all descriptions of the ghost were of a woman in a black dress and veil.

Taking one single, deep breath, I forced my mind past the physical aspects of the woman in the grave and to her inner being. Verena died young. Not as a child, not as an adolescent, but not as an old woman either. I hastened past her death, knowing full well that I would feel pain and hurt, anger and fear. Maybe I would feel relief as well, but deaths were never very clear and they never told me much about the people that experienced them. But they shook me, they destroyed my concentration and they pushed me from the state of mind required to see past the visible.

Flashes of a life lived washed over me, daily activities, daily wishes and fears – washing her clothes, would they be clean?; curiosity, fear as a sheep with a fifth leg was born; dancing to music I could not hear, alone, with friends, around the tree on the market square, in the halls of a larger home; getting water from the river, the bucket slips, she has to go back; anger when a boy throws a stick at her; happiness when she lies in a warm bed in wintertime; pain when she is sick, weakness while she recovers…

Too fast, too normal, the images threaten to overwhelm me. I push back, push them back into the bones, into the memories of a time long gone. They fight me, as they always do. Memories want to be lived, memories want to be remembered, but it is not their decision. It is my choice, my prerogative. “I am the balance!” I say and they listen, they wait for me to chose, for me to decide which one I want to see. I destroy them. This choice destroys them, that is the curse of my power. They can only come to me once. If I focussed on one, the others would slip through my fingers. Only brought to the cusp of life by my being, they would fade back into obscurity when I withdrew.

I had a moment, a moment to decide, to pick from thousand memories the one that might tell me more about the ghost of Wiltly Hall. And there it was, the hall, too large for a peasant’s home in the village. She had danced there in the hall, Verena and a man – her husband, her memory whispered to me. Music drifted from the park, music and voices and laughter. To the child! To the happy mother! To the father! They were alone at last, at least for a moment, as alone as they could be. A servant disappeared with a smile. The husband took a goblet of wine. There was happiness in her eyes, true love in his. It didn’t matter that she was not noble born, it did not matter that she was from the village and he their lord, it did not matter for the village. And now their child was born. She still felt weak. It still was difficult to stand, but the smile on her lips was honest and real. Verena stood close to him and his thumb brushed over her lips. Despite all obstacles, they had found each other.

When I removed my mind from the past, I was left with a feeling of pure joy and happiness.

Bowing to the grave, I thanked the remains for their knowledge. For a moment, I searched the atmosphere for the ghost itself, but could not find it. I also searched for the child, but could not make out its essence. Whenever the child had died, it was not close in time to the death of the mother and not young.

In the halls of Wiltly Hall, Verena had found happiness, and that was where my steps lead me now. While I walked back through the grove, the wind whipped up the leaves under my feet, picked them up and blew them over the grave again. For a moment, the vines of the ivy still hesitated, as if they asked my permission to return to their home. As I gave no different answer, they slowly crept over the ground and up the gravestone again. They settled on the granite and no sign of my presence remained.

My mare whinnied as my gloved hand brushed over her flank in passing. Like the earthworms, she had felt my inquiring mind glide through the worlds of life and death. As if she asked for reassurance what world she belonged to, she leaned into my touch and gnawed on the wide sleeves of my heavy coat. I brushed her long black mane from her ears and whispered the words that were soothing for us both: “I am the balance.” She stared at me for a moment, then nodded her head with a snort.

I left her where I had before and followed the winding path to the manor house. I did not turn towards the main entrance, where two horses were now tethered to some winged lions that stood on pedestals in front of it. Instead, I rounded the house towards the kitchen garden and the servant’s entrance. The door was just as sturdy and heavy as the main door, but when I lightly touched it, it swung inside without resistance.

No fire burned in the oven, no pans hung from the hooks. The kitchen felt cold and empty. A door to my right stood open, revealing an empty pantry, another one lead further into the house. My fingers brushed over the large table in the middle of the room. Glimpses of laughter and chopping washed over me, so weak that not even I would have felt them, were I not already attuned to the vibrations of this house. My own memories, of the time I ran through these empty halls as a child, mixed with the impressions I would not have been able to notice then. I heard the clutter of knives and the banging of pans, I heard the screaming of a cook or the steps of inhabitants above my head. It could have been glimmers of past lives, it could just as well simply be what I expected to feel in a kitchen. Nothing was nearly strong enough to awaken my interest. Besides, the ghost, Verena, had not spent her time in the kitchen.

Contrary to the ideas of mediums and psychics that started to grift money from the richer people in the cities with their seances and their spooky stories in the last couple of years, ghosts were seldom bound by their death. What kept them in this world, what bound them to a location, was happiness and sometimes disappointment. They sought out the places that meant the most to them in life.

Verena was happiest after her child was born.

I left the kitchen and followed a long corridor to the more stately parts of the house. No windows allowed light to fall into the hallway and the silver candlestick holders on the walls were empty and cold. Their silver was tarnished and dull, like the whole atmosphere in Wiltly Hall. I tried to grasped the mood of the woman that once was, instead of feeling the coldness of a house that had long stopped being a home. But there was little left to connect the two.

Following her memories of happiness would lead me to her, even though it was hard to sense them here. I passed some doors. Most were closed, but some stood open, revealing empty rooms and cold fireplaces, dusty shelves and missing furniture. It did not seem like anyone had moved in in the twenty or so years I was away from home. My boots echoed unnaturally on the marmoreal tiles, leaving a resonance in my ears that almost seemed like a bell chiming my arrival. The vibrations sure pulsed through the whole house, though their actual volume was probably not significant.

Soon, I came close to the entrance hall, a large room with a wide staircase. The steps were flat and worn-out, their state of use not obscured by a thick and heavy carpet. The staircase lead to a gallery, surrounding all walls except the one with the entrance door. Wooden banisters were decorated with spiralling columns that ended in grapes.

I noticed the ghost sitting with her legs between these columns, overlooking the entrance hall, before I became aware of the two men standing at the bottom of the steps.

Verena’s head leaned against the wood. Her long, black hair was not bound in braids and not covered by a veil or hat. She played with her locks, straightening them between her long fingers, letting them jump back, winding them around the columns of the banister, using their points to tickle her cheeks. She wore no shoes and the black dress was pulled back to allow her legs access to the space between the columns. Had anyone seen her like that, it would have been scandalous in life and death but her lack of consciousness or care let me know more than anything else that she was aware of her current state of being. While she did observe the men below her, I doubted she cared or was very interested in them. Her movements, her expression seemed bored.

I myself stood at the door of the corridor and only became aware of the two man when they had finished setting up a large mirror at the bottom of the steps and started their discussion anew. The mirror stood precariously leaned against a contraption of wood, not unlike an easel. While it’s glass seemed clear, the mirror was cloudy. Dark, blueish, greyish spots from tarnished silver were distributed over the whole surface, giving all things mirrored in it an eery and unnatural atmosphere. Its thick frame was adorned with dull and splintered gold, that was mainly carved into abstract symbols I did not know.

I had not seen such a mirror before. Nonetheless, its use became clear to me right away, especially when I listened to the two men for a bit.

One of them was young, handsome, with dark brown hair that caressed his moony head in a full beard. He wore fashionable clothes in bright colours and a riding crop tapped periodically against his riding boots. The other man was his complete opposite. Dressed in a long black coat and an additional cape, he had a hood drawn deep into his face. Wearing a full beard like his companion, his black hair hung tousled from his old and gaunt face. Streaks of grey, long and short, were slightly tangled in the first button of his coat. A long, ebony walking stick changed between his hands from time to time, explaining the rubbed-off look of the ivory sphinx on its handle. Silver and golden embroidery, its patter not visible to me, flashed through his coat where the sleeves had ridden up or where it swung open when he moved.

“It’s better at night, sir.” the older man said, arrogant servility the dominant feature of his deep baritone.

“At night, with candles surrounding the mirror and some other mirrors and lights to create a spectacle?” the younger man’s scepticism was obvious, not just in his raised eyebrow. His gloved hand brushed through his long hair that had slightly come loose and slipped from its bow. After a moment, he added: “But Lisa wants it. She wants to make sure we’re save here when we move in. But don’t forget, I am paying. And I do not intend to waste both time and money – not even more than I already am. So, tell me, master wizard” – condescension dripped from his words like rain water – “Can you perform your ritual now or shall I send for a more competent practitioner of the arts?”

The older man, the wizard – whether charlatan or real I could not tell – bowed in deference but his eyebrow had shot up as well. “Sir, I do understand your concerns. And I do understand your lack of trust in my craft. But I do assure you…”

“Yes, yes, yes, just answer my damn question, man.”

“Of course, sir. It’s not completely impossible that the ritual would come to fruition during the hours of the day, but for most ghosts, darkness is indeed essential. If I might suggest a compromise…?”

“Yes, yes, sure, man, go ahead.”

“The ritual might be stronger under a full and bright moon, when the spirit world and the living world are closest to each other, but…”

“But?” The riding crop whipped more fiercely against the man’s boots. “Well?”

“But the onset of darkness might – I say might, for I cannot guaranteed anything if you don’t allow me to perform the magic as it should be performed – it might be enough. So I could try the ritual right after the sun has set, if you wish me to do so?”

“As if the sun’s even visible over this godforsaken house. Fine, right after sunset, so in an hour, at most.”

“Yes, sir, of course, sir.”

At least now I understood why destiny or my instincts had brought me home to Wiltly Hall now. Real or not, a medium performing a ritual to oust the ghost was a reason to try and solve her problem and to protect her.

The men’s talk moved away from the entrance hall and I looked up to Verena again. She had not moved, but had followed the men with her eyes just like I did. Now, she focussed towards the side of the hall where I stood, and our looks met. Unblinking, she stared at me as if she were trying to drill through my body with her eyes. At the same time, a distant, uninterested, unmoved look remained in her eyes and boredom still showed in her features.

I left my place underneath the gallery and walked past the blind mirror towards the stairs. I brushed the glass of the mirror with my fingertips as I came close. Contorted and blurred images rushed through my mind, none specific and none identifiable. None even clear enough to tell me if there was any real power in the mirror or if it was just… old.

While I climbed the well-worn steps towards the gallery, Verena’s eyes soon left me. She kept staring at the place I had just vacated.

The first part of the staircase lead straight from the front door to a landing, where it split into two stairs to the left and right. The wooden banister was worn on one side and less so on the other, as if someone had always walked with their hands on the left. Once it had been polished and shining, now it was just dull.

Verena still sat with her legs between the columns of the banister, stared down into the hall and played absent-mindedly with her hair. She did not look up when I came closer to her, but puffed air through filled cheeks as if she had nothing better to do – which was probably the case.

“Good evening, Verena.” I said silently.

I shook her to the core nonetheless. She trembled violently and fell back to the floor, then forward again. Her head banged against the banister and she scrambled to untangled her legs from the columns. She rolled back in something resembling a somersault and came to a stop kneeling on one knee, one hand up in my direction with the palm outward, the other pressed against the floor. She must have imagined a knife between the folds of her skirt, because one was now pressed against the floor with her shaking hand. Her long, thin dress clung uncomfortable to her slim form, half wound around her body, while her hair hung deep into her face. An archaic hiss escaped her lips.

I waited until she had come to a standstill. “I did not mean to startle you.” It was true, I did not mean to do it, but I knew that I would.

Verena’s chest rose and fell in a steady but much too fast rhythm. “You can see me!” she hissed, her voice deep and hoarse as if she had not used it for a long time.

“Should I not?” I said, and then nearly bit into my own tongue. I knew better than to be sassy with a confused ghost. Though her next words made it quite clear that she was far from confused.

“Nooo.” she said calmly but a bit drawn out. “I’m fairly sure you should not.”

I shrugged. “May I sit down? It’s so much nicer to chat when one sits down.”

Up close, and when the alarm slowly disappeared from her features and was replaced by curiosity, I could see that Verena presented younger than she had died. I had the woman with a newborn child in front of me, not the one in her death I had glimpsed and quickly dismissed from my thoughts. Now she slowly sat back on her heels and leaned against the banister. Her ghostly knife came close to her chest, the handle pressed against her full bosom.

“Who are you?” she asked as I squatted down next to her.

“I am an Arbitrator.”

“A what now?”

“I am the balance. When a -” I hesitated a moment, looking closely at the woman in front of me and checking all the little titbits I already knew about her. She had been happiest when her child was just born, she haunted new-born children, she sat calmly and watched the goings-on in the house when none where there, she was surprised that I was able to see her and talk to her. “You know what you are, don’t you? You are aware? You see Wiltly Hall as it is now, not as it once was? You can count the years that have passed?”

A shudder ran through her body. Her hand cramped around the knife, her breathes came in uncontrolled hitches. Verena grabbed for the top of the banister and pulled herself up. She hissed again, then turned around and ran into one of the upstairs rooms.

“Verena!” I called, but could not stop her. I got on my feet as well and followed her into a room that might once have been a small private library. Bookshelves still lined the walls, dark against the greenish walls of the floral wallpaper. Verena had stopped almost immediately. Her back was turned towards me and she held onto one of the empty bookshelves with her thin and bony hand.

“Verena,” I said gently, “What you have known for a long time cannot be a shock to you now.”

“How dare you!” she hissed and turned around, “How dare you come into my house and…”

“This is not your house.” I interrupted her firmly. Diplomacy was supposedly a skill of my craft, but I was never that good at it. “You are a ghost, Verena, and you know full well that you are a ghost.”

Verena hissed again, but did not dispute it either. “So?”

“Not all ghosts do. Some never figure it out, and some don’t ever want to admit it to themselves. But this is necessary, or I cannot help them. Or I cannot help you.”

“Help me? How? What are you?”
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Sinitrena on 22 Jan 2022, 23:12
Part 2 of 2

“Yes, help you. I’m an arbitrator, Verena, I try to find the balance between life and death. You lost your balance and did not leave when you were supposed to. You ceased being the woman you once were and became something different, something new. I am here to help ghosts, move forward or find a balance in this world, whichever seems more appropriate. Tell me, Verena: Do you know what kept you bound to this place?”

For a moment, I feared I had moved too fast, skipped too many steps, explained too little. I was good with sensing the spirit world, but sometimes talking to people was still difficult for me. Still, Verena seemed to try to answer my question.

I could almost see the thoughts flit through her mind. They flashed around her like the lights of a laterna magica. The faces of her past were nothing but blurry shadows, and their actions nothing but a stylized dance on the uneven surface of the bookshelves. As her mind formed around one memory, Verena turned older in front of my eyes. Her hair first straightened out, then it braided itself and draped itself around her head. Her dress added embroidery to its seams and a stronger, clearer defined silhouette. I could have imagined a girl standing before me before, now she seemed like the lady of a greater household. The knife from her hands had vanished, instead they grabbed around the ghost of a ghost’s hand of a child, nothing more than a bit of light that reflected differently from the dust in the air. The boy might have been four or five, going by his size. Other dust bunnies paused in front of her, almost forming the shape of a man. Time passed slowly for me, but raced for the outside world.

“He had found a better match. A proper woman, who would give him heirs. Noble heirs.” Verena said distantly, as if she spook half to me and half to the idea of the scene that once was. “He had loved me once, then he remembered his standing. He told the people that I was an adulteress, that my son was not his.”

“And so you haunt the youngest children that live here and are not yours?”

“Yes!” The vision disappeared and in front of me I saw the younger version of Verena again. “My son, my son’s heirs, they should live here, they should be here!” Verena brushed with the back of her hand over the cheek of an invisible child. Her hand stopped in the middle of the movement, as if she noticed the emptiness under her fingers. “I realized it a while ago – these children, they are not my son, they are not my former husband’s later children, they are not the descendents of either him or me. It’s just… I can’t… I just can’t see such young children here...”

I hesitated a moment, thinking about my next words carefully. Verena was upset but not confused, hurt but not without self-control. I had met many ghosts during my time as an arbitrator, angry ones, deranged ones, unaware ones, happy ones who had found a way to live with their unusual kind of afterlife, but Verena was somewhere between all this. Aware of what she was, aware of what goal she pursued, aware of the time that had passed, I had no doubt that she was also aware that this was…

“Irrational. Verena, you do realize that this is irrational, don’t you?”

Verena eyed me with a dark look, her teeth bared. Then, after just a moment’s pause, she deflated and a much more friendly grin appeared on her lips. “Since when are ghosts supposed to be rational?”

I was caught off-guard. I had seen many things, but a ghost joking about her status was new, even to me. “That is… I… But ghosts… Well, if not ghosts, then who? As a ghost, you don’t need food, money, sleep. All the things that make living people irrational and egoistic are not there for ghosts.”

Verena leaned her head to the side, looking at me like a curious puppy. She blinked between the strands of her hair. “But the world is soo boring! Scaring children is at least fun!” she whined like a petulant child.

I shook my head. “Stop whining, Verena” I said, “you died older than that.” I nearly bit my lip as I realized my lack of diplomacy once again.

She didn’t seem to mind, though. “Nobody talks to me any-more! Nobody can see me! Only the children, they see me, they react to me, they… They… I’m only ever visible to new-born children!”

Memories of my own past slipped through her pain. I remembered calling to the ghost of Wiltly Hall that never came, I remembered the chill that ran down my spine as I crept through the old house, I remembered the morning one day in April, when the fog hung deep over the marsh and I hoped to steal some early cherries from one of the orchards to the south. I remembered the fog whirling around the trees that stood like giants on the plains. Their arms seemed to move of their own accord; no wind blew over them and not rain whipped them about. I remembered the shadowy figure in the shades, floating over the river, her dress dipping into the water while her feet where far above it. I remembered her long fingers stretching towards me, cold, like fleshless bones. I remembered the ghost of Wiltly Hall.

“It is not true, Verena. You are not only visible to new-born children.”

“Yes, I know, you can see me. Even though I do not know how.” she pouted.

“I am not talking about myself,” even though in a way I was, “I’m talking about the rumours and legends of the ghost of this village. Of the shade on the marsh and the howling in the halls, of the woman in black in the graveyard and the fog over the river. You might not know it, Verena, but people are aware of you. And it is your choice if you want to show yourself to them.” I hesitated again, because the next part was always the most difficult to talk about, “Or you can let go. You can leave this world behind and look into the next one, into the great unknown of the world beyond.”

“No! No, I don’t want to go!” Verena returned into her defensive position, the ghostly knife pressed close to her body. “Where would I go, what would it be like?”

But before I could answer, I felt something grip me.

The drag, the pull, the call, I had felt it once before. One glimpse at Verena told me that she felt it too. Panic stood in her black eyes and her hand cramped around the sturdy bookshelf she had leaned against before. Non-existent wind whipped her long hair around her head and the skirt entangled her feet. Slowly, she began to slither, inch by inch, over the ground, while her hand clung to the bookshelf. “You, are you doing this?” she hissed, pain and fear making her voice high-pitched.

“No!” I loosened the belt around my coat and slung the fabric over her back. “I’ll protect you. That’s what I do! You won’t leave against your will. Stay, I’ll take care -” I was dragged over the floor myself. Without the coat, my own protection was flimsy. My instinct was to fight it, panic tried to set in, but I was here to protect the ghost of Wiltly Hall and so I…

...let go. My body was dragged forward in a violent shake. Part of the wind and the storm, I slithered towards the wide staircase.

So, some true powers, I inferred quickly.

The two men had returned. The older one, the wizard or medium or whatever he liked to call himself, stood with his hands towards the mirror. He had removed his coat and mantle and stood there in a black robe. Vaguely Egyptian symbols, hieroglyphs that were probably not real, sparkled in the candlelight from silver and golden threads. The mirror reflected the light in flecks and specks over the walls of the entrance hall, so eerily similar to the effect of a laterna magica as the vision of Verena’s past had been.

Pain shot through my body as I stopped the pull for just a moment to observe. It forced me further towards the lower floor, dragging and pulling me towards the gallery and the banister. My body jerked in erratic thrusts as survival instinct and duty fought with each other. Pulling all my self-perception into myself I finally went with the pull and ran forward towards the banister. Only stopping me for the fraction of a second, it soon phased through me, through my trousers, through my skin, my blood, my bones, more blood, more skin, more fabric, and new pain shot through me. I knew it was irrational, I knew I was as irrational as Verena, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt the pain. The wood scraped over my bones, cut through my muscles, squished my veins.

I screamed as I tumbled over the edge of the gallery, half pain, half anger. But I was not an arbitrator for nothing. I did not fall, I somersaulted down to the ground, coming to a standstill in a similar position as Verena when I first spoke to her.

What must the two man have seen in this moment, if they saw anything at all? Through the darkness that had set over Wiltly Hall, a shape and shade fell from the sky. Long hair whipped around the shape’s head, only held by a wide-brimmed hat. A primaeval scream, blood-curling and deep, filled the hall and the mirror clattered with the vibrations.

The call of the magic dragged me further forward. I heard the wizard mumble some words I had never heard before in a language I did not know. His hands pointed at the mirror and his eyes were fixated on it. Whether he saw me, I could not tell, but he would, he soon would. The mirror reflected the candlelight but something else wafted and churned on its inside. Did the wizard see it? I don’t think he did, for none of it reflected in his eyes. No patterns were visible, but the mixture of light and shadow screamed chaos and imbalance at me. I could not help myself – I hissed at it.

Two sets of eyes turned towards the sound, but neither focussed on me.

Without the protection of my coat, I could not withstand the pull of the mirror for any length of time. As I was pulled towards it, I turned my back to it and grabbed its frame. Forcing all energy into my hands. I could feel it now, the force of the chaos within the mirror, the energy of pure chaos that pulsed through it. Pain and confusion of others pulled into it screamed at me for release. My head started to spin, from the power of the mirror, from the energy I had to spent to keep myself out of the chaos.

Verena slithered over the gallery, a panicked shriek calling my attention to her. The two men looked in her direction and they both shrank back. Verena was a black shadow on the gallery, black in the shadows of the darkened hall, her long hair wild and dishevelled over her face, the black dress whipping behind her in the airstream of the spell dragging her forward. My coat had fallen from her shoulders, all protection I was able to give her in the short amount of time gone.

The new lord of Wiltly hall and the wizard who did not know what he was doing startled at the apparition.

With the concentration of the wizard sufficiently disturbed, I acted. “I am the balance!” I cried and shook the mirror to let it fall from its unsteady easel. It fell backwards, shattering on the stone floor. Shards fell out of the frame, the glass peeled away from the tarnished silver behind.

In that moment I let go of my own protection from the world of the living. A second apparition became visible to the two living men. Just as tall as Verena, I was a confusing vision. A wide-brimmed hat sat on my long blond hair, leather gloves stuck in my belt and my trousers were pulled over my riding boots. A tight white shirt clung to my natural body, no corset giving it any other silhouette. Tattoos decorate the skin of my whole body, though hardly any were visible for the two man staring at me.

My sudden appearance froze them for a second, but when I stepped towards the wizard, he stumbled back immediately. I lunged for him, brushing my ghostly-white hand over his cheek. I felt the shudder run through his body under my touch. “You have no right -” I hissed, but before I could finish my sentence, he turned on his heels and ran. I followed him to the entrance door, howling and hissing and stretching my long limbs towards his fleeing body. Once out of the door, I stopped and turned around.

Verena was floating down from the gallery, her wide skirt filling with air and puffing around her. Her black hair flittered behind her. The knife was back in her hand and she was moving towards the young man, who was still standing in the middle of the room, transfixed and confused, shaking from skin to bone.

“Stop!” I called to Verena.

“He wanted to drag me to death!” Verena barked swinging the knife through the air.

The young man just stood there, transfixed and frozen, looking at Verena with disbelief in his eyes. I could almost hear his thoughts: This cannot be. This isn’t real. A play of the light, an illusion. Ghosts aren’t real. Logical, rational explanations; there must be some. Of course, there were not and staring at the enraged ghost of Wiltly Hall wouldn’t change reality either.

Verena did not stop. Moving as fast as the wind and the stars, she charged towards him, a nightmarish phantom.

But while she was older, I was better trained in the arts of the spirit world. I shot forward and tackled her to the ground. We tumbled over each other. Her knife slit through my shirt and white, ghostly essence dripped onto the floor. It sizzled and little holes formed on the floor. Verena and I rolled over the stones until we came to a stop, me kneeling on her chest and pressing her down. “Stop it!” I barked, “Stop it. What good will it do you if you kill him? Will they demolish this house, your only home? Send another exorcist? Leave Wiltly Hall alone forever until it crumbles and all it once was is forgotten? That’s not what you want, that’s not how you want to spend eternity!”

Verena reared against my weight on her body but my stronger connection to the magic of the world in-between made it impossible for her to throw me off. “And what else is there? Do you want me to leave? Leave this house, my home to this… to this man and I… I walk into this… this broken mirror? Leave this world forever? Is that it?”

“Not into the mirror. The mirror stays broken. The mirror was chaos, not the balance I could offer you -“ She fought against me stronger at these words. “But it is your choice. I will not force you. I can offer you a way away from this world, probably into a more conventional afterlife.”

“A more conventional afterlife? Would I go to paradise?”

I hesitated, because the truth to this question hurt. It had hurt me so much that I decided to stay behind. “I don’t know. I do not know if there is an afterworld and I do not know where you go if you leave. I don’t know if part of you has already left and is in paradise or hell, or if you would become the Verena who once was again. I don’t even know for sure if the wizard’s mirror would have send you to a different place then I could send you. It feels different, but… -  What I do know is that you have new memories, you have become someone else and so I can’t tell you if you will see your loved-ones again or if there is a place for you somewhere else. Maybe you would fall into oblivion, maybe you would find peace.”

Verena deflated under my hands and I let go of her, though I still knelt on her chest.

“I … I don’t think I want to go.” she finally whispered, hardly audible.

“I understand. And you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It is not my purpose to send you away, just offer you the chance if you want to take it.” I waited if she would change her mind, even though I knew that she would not. Ghosts that were aware of their status before I found them seldom did. They had an existence of their own, a being, an identity that they didn’t want to lose.

“No, I don’t.”

“But if you want to stay, we must find a compromise, a compromise that includes the world of the living, and in this case, this man here. We need to find an arrangement, so that nobody else ever tries again to send you into an afterlife you don’t want.”

We had both more or less ignored the man still staring at the unusual scene in front of him. Now, as I rolled from Verena’s body and came to my feet, he stumbled a couple of steps backwards. He had not quite found his voice again, for he opened his mouth a couple of times without any sound coming out. “Who… who are you?” he finally asked with a croaky voice.

I curtsied while Verena stood up. “This is Lady Verena, resident ghost of Wiltly Hall. I am Atalante, the balance, arbitrator for the relations between the ghost world and the world of the living.”

The young lord seemed to fight with himself to find his composure again. After a moment, he stood proud and tall in front of us, while we probably looked like disobedient schoolgirls. “I see. And you expect me to believe this? What is this, some kind of scheme of this... this charlatan to get more money out of me? You can tell him I won’t -”

No, no, no,” I interrupted him, “As a matter of fact, I might know of a way to make you money!”

“So, you’re what, a charlatan of a different kind?” He laughed derisively.

Instead of answering him, I came closer. He shrank away from me, but the wall of the entrance hall was in his back. My long, tattooed fingers brushed over his cheek. He went to shove it away but his hand phased through mine as I had wanted it. I could feel the fear run through his bones. “A charlatan I am not, but a ghost I am.”

I leaned with my hands against the wall over him and whispered in his ears, my voice as eery and ghostly as I could make it. “She will live here, if you want her to or not. You can hold seances as much as you want, most mediums don’t own a mirror with real powers and most don’t know anything about ghosts. You can anger her, have her haunt the house, haunt your family, haunt your children.” I let the shudder run down his spine until his breath hitched. Then I pulled back. “Or you can accept that she lives here. The house won’t go to waste, your family will be save, and if you entertain Verena enough, she might even be good company and you might be able to make money.”

The young man and Verena spoke at the same time. “How would I make money?” - “You want me to allow him to stay here? Have children here? Own this house, my manor?”

I first turned towards Verena. In this situation, she was the more dangerous party.

“Well, Verena, you want this house for your heirs, correct? Well, what if there are no more?”

She turned her head to her side, questions in her black eyes.

“Verena, I am Atalante Thatcher, born in Wiltly Hall in the year of our Lord 1832 and the last remaining ancestor of Lady Verena.” It might even be true. After all, half the village claimed some kind of connection to this old manor and mine more than any other, but what actually mattered was that she believed me, not that it was true, “And as I died in 1860, more than 15 years have passed since there was an heir. I don’t mind giving a house to someone alive who can actual use it and fill it with entertainment for you. Do you?”

She pouted, but she still shook her head. “No, I don’t mind.”

“Perfect!” I nearly clapped my hands, but I just stopped myself in time. My diplomacy skills weren’t quite as bad. I turned back to the living man again. “As for you. People are fascinated by ghosts, by the afterlife. They like seances, they like to feel the eeriness of a haunted house. Just imagine, you hold seances here, regularly, you invite people, and what a show you could offer them! Verena would have fun, she could scare people and play with their minds a bit, a wonderful, exciting life for a ghost, and you can make a fortune.”

“So, you want to turn me into a charlatan?”

“You wouldn’t be one. Verena is real.”

“And you want me to just accept that a… a ghost lives in my house?”

I shrugged. “An hour ago you didn’t believe in ghosts. Why should you fear them now? This arrangement could be really lucrative for you. Milk it, for all it’s worth, just make sure that no-one ever actually tries to exorcise Verena.”

“Fine – If she stays away from my children!”

Verena hesitated, then nodded.

I nodded as well and stepped between human and ghost. I grabbed one wrist of each and pulled them towards me. “This is the agreement of Wiltly Hall” I intoned formally and the magic in the hall began to stir around our bodies. “That Verena shall stay as the resident ghost.” Wind picked up, raising the dust of decades that had settled long ago. “She shall not hurt and shall not feel loneliness or boredom.” The dust swirled around the three of us, as a light started to emanate from my hands and engulf the two parties of the agreement. “The lord shall protect house and ghost, through all generations and fates and shall be company for the ghost, Verena.” The light turned brighter and brighter, until it was a glaring column. “And the Verena shall assist in the business endeavours of her ghostly presence.” I felt the binding magic shoot from my fingers in luminescent ties. They wound and bound ghost and human and for a moment we all stood there motionless while the light exploded into a ball of brightness and then into the deepest darkness.

And as the darkness fell over Wiltly Hall, I let go of the wrists and was gone.

*

It took nearly 120 years to check on Verena again. My horse was the same nervous mare I had ridden then. The change from life to death was a gentle one for her. Having spend all her life with me, she easily decided to stay in death.

While it was just as much a bleak and rainy autumn day as the last time I returned home, the village still felt more alive now. Cars zoomed through the streets, signs advertised a bed and breakfast or the newest movie in the local cinema, and an ugly 1980s hotel overlooked the marsh. Generations had come and gone.

Cars were parked along the winding path to the manor and others constantly drove back and forth. Avoiding their confusion about a woman riding toward the mansion, I had turned myself and my trusty mare into a part of the shadows. Only occasionally, a headlight brushed over my being and disturbed the fall of light, but only the keenest eyes could have seen me.

The old graveyard was cleared of most of the overgrowing ivy, though whoever kept the park in order had allowed it to still seem wild. I did not turn towards the old trees, instead choosing the main entrance, just like everyone else visiting Wiltly Hall and its gentle ghost, the Lady Verena.

Here, more signs advertised the gift shop in the former kitchen and the newest book about Ghosts and Local Legends – From Arrow Head to Wiltly Hall as well as a novel by some author I didn’t really know: The two Ladies of Wiltly Hall. I had read it last year. I couldn’t help but smile at the idea that I had become part of the legend of my home town, no matter how little truth was still left in the story.

The old door, still the original, stood open and a large plaque next to it informed me of the entrance fee for adults and children. A long queue of people told me of the popularity of the former manor. I ignored the clerk just inside the door and slipped past the people.

A red cord separated the old, blind and broken mirror from grabbing hands, but it had been moved to the side, so that it did not disturb the flow of people climbing the stairs. A magnifying glass offered some view of the place where my essence had dripped onto the floor as Verena had cut me and my old coat hung on a valet stand for tourists to take pictures. A heavy, thick red carpet lay on the worn-out steps and electrical lights illuminated the hall much too brightly.

I spotted Verena where I had first seen her in the flesh, so to speak, sitting with her legs dangling through the space between the columns of the banister. She wore the same dress she had worn more than a hundred years ago, but her face had turned even younger, so that she seemed almost childlike. As she noticed me entering the hall, she jumped up and somersaulted down from the gallery.

“Atalante!” she called and I could see the shudder run through the crowd as the otherworldly voice echoed out of nothing. The light flickered appropriately, though only for the fraction of a second.

Before I could even really greet Verena, she pulled me deeper into the house to show me what had changed and what had become of her, still excited after all these years.

The ghost of Wiltly Hall was happy.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Stupot on 24 Jan 2022, 05:40
Could I possibly scrounge one day extension?
I’ve written the story with pen and paper but haven’t finished typing it up. And today is a write-off in terms of spare time.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Mandle on 24 Jan 2022, 08:55
Could I possibly scrounge one day extension?
I’ve written the story with pen and paper but haven’t finished typing it up. And today is a write-off in terms of spare time.

But of course! Extended until January 26th, or until Stu gets his story in.
Title: Re: Fortnightly Writing Contest. THEME: Local Legend. Deadline: Jan 24th.
Post by: Stupot on 25 Jan 2022, 07:15
The Beggarman of Blackbridge

Blackbridge was a shithole.

Once a thriving seaside resort town, it had become the kind of place where old people go to die and young people stay to die. When I was fifteen, my father moved us to Blackbridge. His parents had died when he was young, so there had been no reason to ever visit.

I'd survived my first week at the new school relatively unscathed but hadn't really made any friends yet. One kid had spoken to me - Simon Heman (so-called because his mother had let him choose their surname after his dad had walked out on them when he was five). At the end of school on Friday, Simon was waiting at the gate with another kid I knew to be called Peter Biggs, and they called me over.

"Hey, Craig. You know Peter."

"Yeah. Well, no. Hi Peter."

"Alright mate." Peter was not wearing his uniform and it looked as though he hadn't actually been in the school grounds. I would later find out he'd been expelled for selling pills and weed to the other kids.

"Craig's good people." Simon told Peter of me. It was the first time I'd ever heard an individual person referred to as "people" and it sounded cool.

I called my dad from a payphone and told him I wouldn't be coming straight home. We walked up the hill, through the town and down the main street. I couldn't help noticing something curious. At one point, Simon put his hands in his trouser pockets. It wasn't some casual thing; he seemed to be making a point of it.

Seconds later, Peter did the same thing. Well, almost. He put his hands tightly against the outside of his sweatpant pockets and took a nervous glance into the doorway of the shop we were passing; an old, shuttered, long-disused laundrette.

After some time we got to Peter's house and went up to his room. The house itself was unremarkable. Furniture in all the right places; off-white woodchip wallpaper, a wide-screen TV, which not everybody had at the time.

Peter's bedroom was another story. He had clearly gone out of his way to make it look like something out of Trainspotting. A dirty sheet was draped over the window, passing for a curtain of sorts, and the filthy sofa in front of the window was not fit for fleas. A coffee table had been nailed together from an old pallet. It actually looked pretty cool but he would have to do something about the splinters. Atop the pallet sat an old plastic milk bottle that had been clumsily converted into a makeshift bong.

"You smoke?" said Peter.

"Nah."

"Good on you. Want a cup of tea?" He said as he left the room and zipped downstairs to make some without waiting for my answer.

Simon plonked himself on the sofa and seemed to be watching me as I awkwardly perched on a milk crate which I assumed was supposed to be a seat. Several minutes passed and he didn't offer any conversation, so finally I asked him about the pockets.

"What was that back at that laundrette?"

"What?"

"You both held onto your pockets in a weird way."

"The Beggarman." The voice had come from Peter, standing in the doorway with the teas. I was aware of Simon and Peter exchanging glances. I knew something strange was happening.

After a moment, Simon said to Peter, "Show him."

"Show me what?" The mood had darkened.

Peter sighed and put the mugs down. Then pushed aside a bead curtain, reached in and pulled out an old school ring binder filled to bursting with papers. He handed it to me and said "The Beggarman,"

As he said the words, I saw Simon cringe in the corner.

I didn't speak as I flicked through the first few pages. I couldn't. Contained within that folder were some of the most disturbing images I have ever seen, before and since. Pages and pages of sketches and paintings, all apparently of the same man. A dishevelled, bearded man with a huge tattered coat and rage in his eyes. In some pictures he's holding a large kitchen knife, dripping with blood. In others, he is standing in a pile of dismembered limbs and entrails. Yet another page showed just his bearded demonic face. Sketchy though they were, something about these pictures disturbed me on such a deep level that I closed the book without needing seeing the rest.

"These are... good." I said, for lack of a word that would better describe how I actually felt about them.

Peter took the file from me. "My brother drew them... before he..."

Another pause. Simon squirmed in his seat.

Peter sat down and took a drink of his tea. Simon and I followed suit. It didn't taste very good, but now didn't seem like the time to mention it, so I took another sip as Simon stood up and took a deep breath. He was about to tell me a story.

"Years ago, there was this homeless guy. Ordinary dude at first. Just ran into hard times, you know? Young guy too, but you wouldn't know to look at him.

"He used to beg for money, well, all over town, but his regular spot was outside that laundrette, when it was still open. They didn't use to mind him being there.

Like I say, he was a good dude. My mum said he used to be a good dude, anyway. Very polite, never expected nuffing, you know? But grateful if you gave him sumfink.

"But he had drug problems, innit? And people started realizing where their money was going, so they stopped giving it him.

"He started getting all eggy with the passers by. And you know what drove him really crazy?"

"What?" I said without taking my eyes off of Simon.

"Whenever people said 'sorry, no change' but he could clearly hear their pockets jangling with money. He didn't mind if you couldn't give him no money, but he hated being lied to.

"Anyway, one day, this out-of-towner comes past, pockets ringing like Christmas bells, and the Beggarman says to him 'spare any change?' and the out-of-towner goes 'sorry mate, got nuffing on me' and the Beggarman absolutely loses his shit. He stalks this guy all the way to this B&B, the other side of Blackbridge, stabs him 48 times with a kitchen knife and empties his pockets all over the porchway of the B&B."

"Jesus," was all I could muster.

"Then some of the neighbours come outside to see what's going on. They see the Beggarman crouched over this guy, picking up the coins one by one as if nothing had happened. Some of the local men start laying into the Beggarman, kicking him, smacking him, one guy gets hold of the knife and the others hold him down while another guy pushes the knife into his chest."

"They all got away with it too. The police covered up both deaths. Because the guy was an out-of-towner, it just went down as a missing person. And they were glad to be rid of the Beggarman because he was being a real nuisance. Some people reckon the bodies were cremated in secret, but no one really knows... except the police."

I took another gulp of tea. Peter and Simon exchanged another look. I guessed that wasn't the end of the story.

"Since then," Simon continued "They say if you walk past that laundrette doorway with change in your pockets, you'd better hold your pockets down. Coz if he hears that money jangling, he'll follow you home and kill you."

"But didn't you just say the man was dead?"

"Unfortunately, Craig, that hasn't stopped him."

After a moment I came to the obvious conclusion: "A ghost."

"Ghost, spirit, demon, curse. Fuck knows what it is but we know this: he ain't gone and he's pissed off.”

It was a hell of a story, but being skeptical by nature, I couldn't help ask the obvious question. "How do you know all that?"

Peter had been silent throughout Simon's monologue, but he spoke up to answer my question. "My brother, Gary. He was killed by the Beggarman, two years ago."

"Really?"

"Not convinced? Look at these drawings again," he said, tapping the folder of gruesome sketches. "He drew them in the months before he died. He'd been obsessed wiv the Beggarman story. Him and his friends used to dare each other to walk past the laundrette wiv pockets full of money. None of them actually had the balls to do it though... until my big brother did.

"My mum came home later that night. Found Gary hanging from the curtain rail in the bathroom, coins spilt all over the tiles and in the bath."

"Jesus, mate. I'm sorry," I offered.

"S'alright. He was a dick anyway. It's because of him, I'm so fucked up." But I could see the sadness and loss in Peter's eyes even as he said it.

I finished my tea and realised it was getting dark outside, so I thanked them for inviting me up and left the house. As soon as I got outside, a strange sense of unease started to simmer in my gut.

I was still a little unfamiliar with the town but I knew that if I went toward the main road, I'd easily be able to find my way back to the flat. I rounded the corner past the off-license and crossed the road. I couldn't get Peter and Simon's story out of my head. I wasn't sure I believed in ghosts but if Peter's brother really died that way? Surely that was proof that something had happened?

The butterflies in my stomache grew more intense and I felt an increasing sense of dread coming over me. It was then that I realised that, in my reverie, I had already passed the disused laundrette. I stopped and looked back. I knew I'd had change in my pocket. But hadn't I passed the same shop earlier on the way to Peter's? If the story was true then why didn't they warn me then?

And anyway, I’d definitely been up this road a few times already this week. Part of my brain was trying to tell me this was a stupid urban legend. If it were true, someone would have told me about it before today. But I just could not shake off the blanket of dread threatening to overwhelm me.

I took a few steps forward. My pockets were definitely jangling. Was it too late to go back and walk past again?

I tried to shrug off the fear. "Come off it, Craig, this is stupid." And made an effort to control my breathing. I continued walking and took the side road that led to my new apartment. It was darker than I expected but I tried to remain calm.

Then, a tap on my shoulder. I span around involuntarily and froze, but nobody was behind me. I turned and ran towards the apartment building and my chest was heaving and my heart was throbbing as I flew through the entrance and up to the third floor. Nearly home. Dad will be waiting. I turned the corner, but he was there. The Beggarman, sitting in front of my apartment door. I recognised him instantly from Gary Biggs' drawings.

"Spare any change?" He sounded almost vulnerable. I wasted no time in emptying the entire contents of my pockets onto the floor in front of the demon.

“Here. T-t-take it. It’s all yours. Please don’t hurt me.”

I ran back towards the staircase and climbed up two, three steps at a time. My heart was thumping but I kept going, creating as much distance between myself and the ghost as I could.

Another tap on the shoulder. I kept climbing the stairs until I found myself on the seventh floor with nowhere else to go. I ran across the building banging on doors, screaming for help. One door opened, and a head emerged, but it was the Beggarman. Other doors opened and suddenly there were four of him, then five, all holding the dripping knife. I ran to the stairwell at the other end of the building, but when I got there, the stairs were flooded with a rising tide of blood and limbs and entrails. I couldn’t go that way, so I went the only way I could. I climbed over the railing and took one last look behind me as a hand grabbed my shoulder. Another hand tried to grab me from under my arms, but I was able to shake free and leapt, allowing gravity to take me far away from the swarm of demons above.

——

When I awoke, three days had passed. I was told by a nurse that some netting had broken my fall, but I had still fractured my skull and broken several ribs and an arm. As soon as I was deemed well enough to speak, I was introduced to a police officer, a detective who called herself Lam. She listened intently to my story, without interruption, only taking a few short notes in a small jotting pad.

“First of all,” she said, admonishingly once I had finished recounting my version of events, “the Beggarman is not real. At least, not in the way you’re talking about. He’s not some curse or demon. He was a normal bloke. A good bloke by all accounts. He hit hard times, got himself a bad habit and ended up on the streets. It happens.”

She waited for me to say “but”, but I held the silence until she continued.

“The stuff about him losing his rag when people had change in their pockets? That’s true. It did wind him up. It would wind me up. And he did become notorious for shouting at people…”

I started to nod, but it made my head and neck hurt, so I stopped.

“But he never killed anyone, Craig. And he wasn't killed either.”

I suddenly remembered the part of Simon’s story about the police covering up the deaths. Was detective Lam telling the truth or was this, too, part of the cover up. I forced myself to speak, despite the pain.

“Where is he now, then?”

“He cleaned up his act and got the hell out of town. That happens, too. Then, when people realised he was no longer a permanent fixture on the street, they began making up stories about where he'd disappeared to."
It made sense, but I still had a couple of questions.

"What about Peter's brother?"

"The Bigg's boy? That was a suicide, all day long. He was on a highly lethal cocktail of drink and drugs. He had been going crazy about the Beggarman story for weeks. One bad trip was all it took to take him over the edge." She looked me in the eye and said "Which brings me to my next point. I had the doctors run a few tests on you while you were under."

"Okay..."

"You had a very high amount of psilocybin in your system"

"Psilo..."

"Magic mushrooms. Basically, Craig, you were tripping balls, just like Gary Briggs."

"The tea." I exhaled

"Excuse me?" said Lam.

"Peter made some tea before they told me about the Beggarman."

"You'd do well to stay away from those boys, Craig."

"But... I saw the Beggarman with my own eyes. On the top floor."

Lam shook her head and took a more sympathetic tack.

"The seventh-floor residents said you were knocking on their doors screaming for help, but when they came out, you ran from them. They watched you climb over the railing, and tried to stop you, but you wriggled free and jumped.
 
Lam said her goodbyes and I must have drifted off to sleep. My dad came and sat with me most of the time and after a few more days I was discharged. I was able to walk but my dad insisted we take a taxi, even though the hospital was just a couple of miles from the flat.

To my surprise, the taxi dropped us off outside the old laundrette on the main street.

"What are we doing here dad?"

"I wanna show you something." He led me to the doorway of the shop and pointed down to the weathered wooden window frame. "What do you see?"

I looked down and surveyed the crumbling wood. And then I noticed, etched into the flaking green paint were the words "For Craig".

"That was the last time I ever sat in this doorway." He said as I looked up at him silently. "I didn't even know your mother was pregnant. She had left me and moved to the Isle of Wight, where her parents lived. But one day she turned up in this doorway with a baby. She told me 'This is your son. His name is Craig. This is the only time you're ever going to see him' and walked away." He was fighting back tears. So was I.

"I decided to kick the drugs there and then. I scrounged enough money to get me to the Isle of Wight. And begged your mum to give me one last chance. Her parents, your Nanny and Grandad. They took me in, but let it be known that if I ever slipped up again, they would kick me out. I got a job at the gift shop and we were doing alright."

"Then Nanny and Grandad died, and your mum joined them last year. You hated school. There was nothing left for us there, and Blackbridge is the only other place I’ve ever known"

I embraced my father and we both cried for good minute, not caring about the passers by. Then I thought I heard his pocket jangling.

"What was that?" I said, and stepped back.

"Well, there was one other reason I wanted to come back here." He dug his hands into his pockets and pulled out a set of keys.

"Is that?"

"We're going to turn this place into a cafe, and offer free meals to the homeless. I thought we could both use the change."