Sunday, 4 March 2012

Horror Fiction - Penance

Dark Fiction Image

Penance 

By Casey Douglass


Edgar trudged through the mire of mud and cart tracks that criss-crossed the dirt high street like fat worm trails, the imprints of hundreds of horseshoes creating deep pools of tea coloured water. He wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself with gnarled hands as the rain plummeted with a renewed ferocity. The road was deserted, the main throng of people still in the main square enjoying the festivities. A distant scream stabbed through the thatched roof tops before reaching the low hanging clouds.
Edgar shook his head at the raucous cheer that followed, the half baked whining of a flautist mingling with the thuds of dozens of makeshift drums. He glanced nervously around but found himself to be alone as night deepened in the ramshackle village. He veered off the main road and down a narrow byway, the old cottages leaning so closely towards each other that he became nauseous at the feeling of mass teetering above him.
Warm yellow light shone from the grimy windows, its reflection casting a lattice pattern on the ground. Edgar took one more turn and squeezed down the side of a dilapidated old house which bore a small sign informing the world that it had rooms to let. Reaching an almost invisible side door, he fumbled with a large iron key and let himself in. The door thudded shut in the tiny alleyway, dislodging lingering rain drops from the exposed joists above, the subsequent cascade pattering into the already saturated ground. As the last drop fell, a shadow slowly detached itself from the deeper gloom at the alley mouth and carefully moved towards the door.

The fire flared brightly as Edgar pumped the bellows, the unruly smoke fighting with the smell of damp and mould. He turned and removed his cloak, draping it carefully over a drying rack to one side of the hearth. His grey fringe was plastered to his forehead, small rivulets of water running down his nose. He raised an arm and brushed his sleeve against his face. Lifting a taper from a small vase to one side he lit it carefully from the flames before moving across the room, trying to light the oil lamps before the flame reached his finger tips. He puffed gently and blew it out before throwing the thin blackened stick into the fire.
He stood in the middle of the room and surveyed his temporary domain. It was a threadbare room, the only stand out features being the fireplace, a small desk, a bed in the opposite corner and what once might have been a comfortable armchair. A small washbasin was squeezed into a small nook in the other corner but the large rusted hole in the bottom showed that it was certainly for decoration only. He smiled.
‘I do like the glow of a nice fire!’
A gentle knock on the door made him flinch. He clenched his hands into fists as he deliberated what to do. Nobody should have known who he was or what he had been doing, so the chances were that it was someone lost or looking for a previous tenant. He blew out a sigh of air and moved to the door, his face a war of half expressions, trying to settle into something that looked self assured.
He twisted the key and creakily opened the door. A dark form blotted out the light from the house opposite, the earthy smell of the rain wafting into his face.
‘Yes?’
‘Mr. Edgar Wright?’ The voice was jovial and youthful, a smell like honeysuckle carried on the breath. Edgar’s mind whirled in a maelstrom of fear. Who was this and how did he know my name and where I am staying? Realising a brief hesitation had turned into a far longer pause, already probably confirming to the stranger that it was him, he sighed.
‘Yes...that’s right. Who are you?’
‘Oh thank goodness, I was afraid I had the wrong house. I am Ruvian Fellows, and I have information for someone...in your line of work.’
Edgar’s heart thudded in his chest. So...he knows what I do too. He has all the power and I am at his mercy, I may as well let him in and see what he has to say.
‘You’d better come inside.’
Edgar moved aside to let the shape inside, quietly impressed with the sterling job he had made of keeping his voice calm and confident. The figure was already shrugging itself out from a thick hooded cloak as Edgar closed the door on the darkness outside. When he turned back, a blonde young man stood in the centre of the room, smiling at him, the dripping cloak held at arms length.
‘Oh, err that can go over there next to mine if you like,’ Edgar took it from him and hooked it over the drying horse.
‘Please, have a seat,’ he motioned to the rickety chair near the fire. The smartly dressed young man eased back into the chair, the smile still on his face.
‘This is a...let’s just say...rustic room!’ he laughed.
Edgar moved to the small bed and slowly sat on the corner facing the man, his back clicking noisily, his face betraying the merest glimmer of pain.
‘It’s enough, I don’t intend on staying long.’
‘No, I can imagine,’ the smile slid from the face. ‘I’m sure certain people would pay handsomely to find out where you are...sympathizers and what not.’ Ruvian’s eyes went glassy, the muscles on the sides of his jaw line momentarily clenching.
Edgar felt a chill run through him, freezing the acid in his stomach to a dull ache.
‘And are you one of those people?’
The face broke into a broad grin and Ruvian laughed raucously.
‘No no! I’m sorry, I’ve always been a bit of a joker...are you okay? You have gone quite pale!’
‘I’ll be fine, it’s been a trying day.’
Ruvian laughed louder this time.
‘Trying day! That’s a good one!’
Edgar felt his face flush as he watched Ruvian enjoying his unintentional joke. He sniffed.
‘I don’t find it funny, I take no pleasure in what I do, although of course I feel it is my duty.’
Ruvian spluttered and sighed out a deep breath, trying to regain his composure.
‘Of course, I didn’t mean to offend you. Others I’ve met have had a more morbid sense of humour about things that’s all, but the error is mine. I shouldn’t have assumed you all to be the same. May I ask, how long have you been a witch finder?’
‘Fourteen years now.’
‘That’s a very quick answer if you don’t mind me pointing it out.’
Edgar stood from the bed and paced over to the desk. He stared down blankly at the few items scattered across it, his eyes finally settling on the black leather bound book with the golden title.
‘It was a swift answer because my work weighs on me heavily, and I feel each and everyone of those years like a grinding stone hung around my neck.’
He brushed a finger across the rough surface of the leather, his finger tips tracing the well worn cross. The book vibrated to his touch, sending a shock up the length of his arm and into his mind. He stood motionless for a few moments, the noises of the house and his guest mingling with the humming inside his head. He closed his hand into a fist and slammed it down hard on to the desk. He heard the rustling of Ruvian getting to his feet behind him, the glow from the fire at the edge of his vision distorting as Ruvian partially blocked the light. Edgar turned and addressed him with a stiff face.
‘If you don’t mind, I am weary and feeling fractious. If you have something to tell me that is of some use please do, otherwise I must ask you to leave.’
Ruvian gently nodded and sat back down slowly, carefully resting his right ankle on his left knee, his hands pressed together in a mock prayer fashion, the tips gently pushing into the underside of his chin.
‘I have information about a plot to assassinate the three most prominent witch finders in the country.’
Edgar nodded and moved back to the bed, sinking down onto it wearily.
‘There are always plots afoot to do that.’
‘Yes, but this one is an inside job.’
‘Inside from where?’
‘The church.’
Edgar’s mouth fell open in abject horror.
‘No!’
‘Yes, although I am sorry to say it.’
Silence fell between them, the crackling logs in the fire the only sound to stir the heavy atmosphere.
‘How do you know about it?’
‘I was a servant at the meeting. I mean, there were around thirty high rollers there, Lord Maryland, His Reverence the Holy Father, Albacas the lame...as I said they were all there!’
Edgar felt hot and chilled at the very same time. It couldn’t be. Why on earth would they turn on the witch finders? Their own servants. Ruvian continued.
‘I’m sorry, I can see this is a shock and I’m not surprised, it’s a lot to take in. I was as shocked as you are and I sneaked away at the first opportunity to warn as many witch finders as I could. You are the second I have been able to track down, you are very elusive people, although that is to your credit.’
‘Who was the first you warned?’
Ruvian shifted in his seat to face the fire more directly, his hands held out against the warm billowing heat.
‘That was young Arthur Moore.’
‘But...he died two weeks ago!’
Ruvian shook his head sadly.
‘Alas, he didn’t take my advice quickly enough and they caught up with him. By they I mean the mercenaries they have hired to fulfil the contract.’
‘Why haven’t they come for me yet?’
‘I think you have been protected by the sheer distance between you and the capital. I mean, look at it out here, it might as well be another world away. It took me thirteen days to get here from Rill, and that’s the nearest town!’
Edgar nodded blankly.
‘What should I do?’
‘Do you know where any other witch finders are? I must warn them too.’
‘Yes of course! Let me think...I know where at least a score or more are, I’ll write it down, it will be easier.’ Edgar stood and hurriedly moved to the desk, shoving things out of the way to gain control of the small writing ledge. Ruvian sat back again in his chair, the merest hint of a smile twitching the corners of his mouth.
 ***

Edgar finished his furious scribbling and carried the parchment to Ruvian, who took it carefully and concealed it inside his robe.
‘Thank you Edgar, you are helping me in the best possible way.’
Ruvian’s hand shot out and grabbed Edgar’s wrist in a steely clench that made Edgar’s bones crunch, causing him to squeal in pain.
‘Do you want to know how young Arthur died Edgar?’
‘What are you doing?’ Edgar writhed and struggled but was held effortlessly by Ruvian.
‘I’ll show you! I was there!’ Ruvian stood and chuckled, it had the sound of pebbles rattling around a rusty bucket. He threw Edgar to the floor and stamped down hard on his chest. Edgar choked and gasped, trying to suck in some air to quell the burning feeling in his lungs. He screamed as sharp pains pierced his palms, a loud concussion causing the small room to tremble and quake. Turning his head, he saw a giant iron nail sticking through his left hand and deep into the floorboards. As he turned to look at the other side, he was stopped by Ruvian's face staring intently into his mere inches away.
‘They say witches are the devil’s handmaidens,’ Ruvian began, ‘and this is indeed true. However, you witch finders only seem to kill poor defenceless women, who are about as demonic as a lamb at its mothers teat. Unfortunately, if you kill enough harmless women for being witches, inevitably, you will strike lucky now and then, and be correct in your accusations.’
Edgar panted as he stared into the face in front of him. The fair countenance had slipped and some hellish thing leered down at him. The eyes were black like onyx, the sneering teeth filed to needle point, the skin thin and viscous with veins snaking across white pulsating flesh.
‘Mrs. Pembleton.’
Edgar breathed more deeply now, and began to recite the lords prayer over and over. Ruvian slapped him hard, but it did not stop him.
‘Fine, pray to your god, he can’t help you now. Mrs. Pembleton, the woman you had burnt today...she had powerful friends, as I’m sure you can work out for yourself. The really delicious thing is that thanks to you, I now know where to kill a few more of you meddling types!’
Edgar murmured the prayer more fervently, his head swaying from side to side. Ruvian watched him in quiet contemplation for a moment. He stared over at the desk and his eyes alighted on the bible.
‘I understand you like books of power Edgar. Would you like to see mine?’
Edgar didn’t respond.
‘Of course you would.’
Ruvian reached inside his robe and brought out a large book. Edgar looked away, but the smell caused him to look back in a kind of morbid interest. A rancid stench filled his nostrils, like raw meat left out in the sun for days.
‘Yes take a look.’
The book was thick, thousands of pages probably, and bound in a red cover that glistened and looked partly melted. Strange black writing was etched into the cover, a kind that Edgar had never seen before. Ruvian opened the book and thumbed through a few pages before smiling and looking back.
‘This one should do it.’
He held the open book above Edgar’s face. As the double page spread loomed, Edgar saw that the page was covered in black ink. It wasn’t stationary, it swirled and writhed as Ruvian pushed it nearer, tendrils reaching out from the page towards his face. One much longer than the others brushed Edgar’s cheek. Immediately a barb dug into Edgar’s skin, latching on and jerking his head upwards. He screamed. Ruvian dropped the book onto Edgar’s face, the thick volume muffling the shrieking. There was a wet tearing sound and after a few leg twitches, Edgar’s body became motionless. Ruvian reached down and picked up the book, snapping it shut with a thunder clap. The exposed skull gaped up at him, its empty expression shining in the flickering firelight. He looked down and grimaced.
‘Oh dear, this blood will never wash out of this damned robe!’
He chuckled a little as he returned the book to its cloth hiding place, his hand brushing against the other piece of parchment. He slid it out as he sat once more in the chair, a self satisfied smile on his face.
‘Right then, where to next?’
He read the writing.
***

The scream of rage reached the main square and halted the festivities. It was the kind of beastly roar that triggered some innate survival mechanism inside the monkey brain of a human. Husbands clutched wives and children ran and hid under skirts. A thunder clap punctuated the outburst and the silence that followed carried such a tension that the air threatened to crush the crowd.
It was sometime later when a brave soul happened upon an open doorway, the wind banging the wretched fragments of door that were left open and closed. It was another brave soul who actually got inside the small room without throwing up. The room was shredded, the furniture and ageing decoration torn and whirled around the small space, large vicious splinters driven into every surface at crazy angles. Alone in the centre, the mutilated body on the floor, a blood soaked piece of parchment rammed into the left eye socket. Gingerly it was picked up, and upon finding someone who could actually read, was found to say:

Do not think that I am fooled by you and your disguise. The stench of hell sticks to you no matter how much perfume you wear or drink. I know I cannot run but if you think that I would give up my brothers, you are very much mistaken. The final victory shall be ours and mine! Tell your master that I have bested you and see what punishment he will prepare for you. I go now to my eternal peace, feeling much better about the things I have done and ordered to be done. Thank you good sir, this wouldn’t have happened had I not met you! - Edgar Wright.

The End

I submitted this story for a competition awhile ago, and while I didn't win, and can see some of the ways the story fails, I am happy enough with it to use as my first posted piece, and tired enough of it to not be inclined to tinker with it anymore.

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