Roads less travelled.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: The Dark And Suspenseful

Tales from beyond the shadows.

Submitted: September 10, 2018

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Submitted: September 10, 2018



He awoke to the sound of a murder of crows squawking outside his bedroom window, the grey light of the half dawn barely illuminated the tiny room.The frigid air in the small cottage caused his breath to come out in vapor clouds, and his nose felt like a piece of ice stuck to his face. Even the mountain of old coats barley kept the bed warm enough to sleep in, Kevin thought about pulling the coats back over his head and staying put. However the pittance he earned as a farm hand on the estate was all that kept them from starving. His father had been dead three years now and ever since his mother depended on his income to support their meagre life style. At fifteen years of age Kevin was the bread winner now, so he dragged his thin frame from the bed. His pitifully skinny body seemed to soak in the frosty October air, and by the time he was dressed even his insides felt cold.

Downstairs the thin gruel of porridge wafted steam from the big iron pot that hung in the open hearth, the few sods of turf smouldered just enough to keep it warm. His mother had already left the house; it had become a ritual for her. Hail rain or snow she would walk the half mile to the graveyard at first light, there she would stand by his father’s grave in mute silence. In the beginning he would often follow her and watch her silent vigil from a concealed spot behind the old yew tree. When she would turn to leave he would race ahead of her and be back at the cottage before she arrived, Kevin would search her face for a hint of tears or sadness. But the only emotion she ever portrayed was a strange look of resignation, later he would think to himself that she longed to lay in the cold soil with her husband.

The thin porridge was bland, neither flavored with sugar or salt. Both of which were expensive and therefor used only very sparingly. Kevin ate his meager breakfast while standing as close to the smouldering turf as possible, he needed to absorb as much warmth as he could before heading out to work. His mother would collect whatever eggs the hens had laid later and take them to village to sell or barter; while she was there she would look for any few hours’ work that might be available. The fire would have burned out long before either of them returned in the evening, when it was relight it would take a long time for any heat to be generated.

Another person of his age might well have despaired at their miserable existence, but it was all Kevin or his parents before him had ever known. The only lift in their circumstances would come with a death in the locality, Mary his mother was a “Handy woman” she would wash and lay out the dead. More often than not this would bring in two shillings, two shillings made a big difference in their household it was not far short of his week’s wages. Kevin finished his porridge and washed the bowl and spoon in the basin of water on the kitchen table, and then he took the tongs and dropped an ember from the fire in each of his boots. Shaking the boots over and back just long enough to warm the cold leather, he idly wondered if he could get some new socks when Mary got her next two shillings.

 It was almost full light when he set out to walk the mile and a half to work. The rest of his day was spent in hard labor, being the youngest in the work force Kevin was given the tasks that more senior staff avoided. The pig pens had to be cleaned out and the vegetable garden tilled and made ready for next year’s planting. The horse stables had not been mucked out in a while and he was given the chore, the manure he barrowed to the garden and dug into the soil. The sun had long since sunk behind the hill before Kevin began his weary trudge home, the only illumination came for intermittent moonlight through the clouds.

Kevin was only a hundred yards from the main gate of the estate, when he spotted the glow up ahead in a small stand of trees. By the time he drew near the source he could make out the silhouette of a barrel wagon, the sounds of a horse whining softly came to him on the cool night air. For some reason he could not quite fathom out, he found himself leaving the road and walking towards the wagon. It was as if some kind of force drew him in that direction, he was near enough now to see the lone figure hunched over the campfire. A mouth-watering smell of meat stew wafted from the direction of the fire, his stomach made rumbling sounds that sounded impossibly loud in the still air.

The lone figure sat with his back to Kevin a wide brimmed hat pulled low over his face; every now and again the figure would lean forward and stir the pot that hung above the burning wood of the fire. The aroma of food wafting from the pot drew Kevin a few steps nearer the fire, but then a strange thought came to him. This thought brought a feeling that once he had any contact with this stranger, his life would never be the same again. Hesitating now he turned back towards the road fifteen yards behind him, however as quickly as the feeling came it also dissipated. When the stranger spoke Kevin blindly obeyed, “Come closer my child and heat yourself by the fire, the days are closing in and a hard winter will soon be on us”.

The words were almost whispered yet they carried clearly to his ears, the stranger still remained staring at the fire. The man’s voice carried a subtle hint of accent and had an unusual melodic and hypnotic quality to it. Kevin walked the remaining distance and sat on the opposite side of the fire, up close now the aroma from the pot was heavenly. The wide brim of the hat hid the man’s eyes, the remainder of his face looked leathery and weather beaten with a mist of grey stubble. Without a word the man stood up, he was tall at least six feet and thin. He wore a long dark coat that reached to the ankles of his scuffed boots; he went to the wagon and returned with two bowls. Filling the bowls from the pot he handed one to Kevin, his fingers were long and gnarled like ancient branches.

The stew was like nothing Kevin had ever tasted before, his mother made good rabbit stew but this was the most divine food he had ever eaten. Better than anything they ate in the big house Kevin would swear, the only sounds in the still air was the scraping of their spoons and the crackling of the fire. When he had finished the man took his bowl and washed it in the water barrel by the side of the wagon, he had not spoken since inviting Kevin to join him by the fireside. Returning to the fire the old gypsy filled his pipe from an ornate leather tobacco pouch; he lit a twig from the fire and sparked his pipe into life. “Best be on your way home now son, your mother will be at the cottage door looking out for you and the night is cold”. It was freaky because the words seemed to sound only in his head and the man had the pipe clasped firmly between his discoloured teeth.

 Kevin hesitated, there was so much he wanted to ask the old man, but the old man had resumed staring into the fire as if he was alone. When he came to the turn on the road, Kevin stopped and looked back. For some reason he could not fathom out, the glow of the fire was not visible from here. The remainder of his journey passed without him even noticing; normally he was so tired the walk home seemed endless. His mind was filled with images of the gypsy and what his life must be like, his mother stood by the cottage door her shawl clasped tightly around her waiting for him. Kevin was too preoccupied to notice that his mother wore a troubled expression; he was tired now and went straight to his loft bedroom. He had scarcely touched his head to the pillow when he was asleep.

Kevin awoke with a gasp in the dark hours of early morning; the room was black and cold as the grave. His hear beat wildly in his chest, and for a moment it felt as if the room was devoid of air and the darkness would suffocate him. Broken fragments of the haunting dream that had woken him flitted through his mind, images of death and fresh graves and a tall stranger standing behind a wall of flames. Try as he would Kevin could not still his mind and he climbed out of bed into the frigid darkness, down stairs he fumbled in the darkness until he found the oil lamp. The flickering flame from the lamp dispelled most of the darkness, but the dim light filled the corners of the room with dense shadow that made him even more fearful.

The sound of his mother preparing the fire brought him awake for the second time that morning; he had dozed off sitting by the lamp on the kitchen table. The lamp had been extinguished and the grey light of a pre-dawn had chased most of the darkness away. The thin gruel from yesterday was reheated by his mother, before she left for the graveyard. But for some reason he was not hungry, he felt compelled to follow her this morning. It would mean that he had to run the whole way to work later, but somehow he urgently needed to see if she was okay. He waited for a few minutes before following her out; staying far enough behind her, he traced her steps.

Through the low branches of the tree Kevin watched her; something was different this morning in her behaviour. This time she knelt beside the grave and from beneath her shawl she took what looked like a letter, holding the paper before her eyes she read aloud. Kevin was too far away to hear her words, but when she began to cry pitifully the sound pierced his brain like a knife. The whole disturbing scene was just too much for him, turning on his heels he ran from that lonely place. The road ahead of him looked blurred through his tears for the first half of his journey, but by the time he reached the small stand of trees they had dried up. The empty space where the barrel wagon had been last night made him even sadder, for some reason Kevin felt betrayed by the old gypsy.

The heavy work load came as blessing to him that day, the physicality of the work seemed to dull the thoughts of early morning. Kevin had all but forgotten about the mornings events by the time he dragged his weary body through the main gates of the estate. The late evening was frosty and the moon and myriad of stars lit up the countryside with ghostly silver hue. The smell of wood smoke reached him before he caught site of the wagon and the glow of the camp fire, the lone figure was absent from the fireside this time.

Kevin stood on the roadside but this time he was afraid to approach the campsite, the feeling that drew him to the fire last night was absent now. “Not tonight Kevin, you have an urgent situation awaiting you at home. We will talk again soon”. The voice sounded clearly in his head and he strained his eyes to see into the darkness of the interior of the wagon, he could feel eyes upon him from there but nothing stirred inside. A sudden feeling of impending doom surged through him; Kevin turned back to the road and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. The figure standing at the cottage door was not his mother, as he drew closer he could make out the white collar above the dark clothing. Kevin knew instinctively the priest was not there to bring good news.

“Your mother was not a well woman Kevin; she never quite got over the loss of your father. This latest burden was the final straw and I am afraid her poor mind could not take anymore.” Kevin stared at the letter the priest waved in the air, the holy man continued to drone on but his words were lost to Kevin. That letter was what had driven his mother to find comfort in the cold soil beside his father, the lord of the estate on which he worked his fingers to the bone had decided to evict them. His new bride wanted to bring her own workers and Kevin and his mother were to be thrown on the side of the road. “I have spoken to the lord and he has agreed that you can finish out the month’s work and remain here until then. You will also be allowed a day’s paid leave for the funeral. After that god is good and you may find work and lodgings somewhere else”. The priest was already heading for the door before he finished his last sentence.

Kevin washed and laid out his mother by himself, there was no two shillings to pay for the service. Then he went to the graveyard and began to dig the grave by lamp light, he returned late into the night filthy and exhausted. The old gypsy was waiting by the door of the cottage for him when he got back, a beautiful hand crafted polished wood coffin stood against the cottage wall. The wood had been engraved with magnificent flora and wild life, it was a casket fit for gentry. Without a word he led Kevin inside and sat him beside the bed his mother lay on, a fire blazed brightly in the grate in the kitchen. The steaming brew the gypsy brought him tasted bitter, but the tall man stood at his side until he had drank every last drop.

The next thirty six hours of Kevin’s life passed in a dream like state, he no longer felt any pain or tiredness. At some stage someone had cleaned him and dressed him in fine clothes he had never seen before, they had also placed his mother in that fine casket and real wax candles burned in shiny silver candelabra by her head. The small trickle of people who came to offer their condolences appeared taken aback by how things were. The priest looked like he could be have collapsed into the open grave, when Kevin pressed the shiny half-crown into his palm. Kevin had no clue whatsoever where the coin had even come from.

The small group of mourners had dispersed quite a while ago, but Kevin remained at the grave side. He was waiting for something or someone but he could not think who or what, in the end he made his way home by himself. For the next couple of weeks Kevin tried to continue as normal, early to work and late home became his routine. His already thin frame had by now taken on a skeletal experience, he barely ate enough to keep body and soul together. Every morning he rose before daylight and went to the graveside trying to make sense of it all, it was on one of these visits he found the old gypsy waiting for him. The tall figure stood by the yew tree, a thin spiral of aromatic smoke rising from his pipe.

“It is almost time for me to move on Kevin, the question now is whether you want to come with me? If so there is something left to be done to balance up what has happened here”. Kevin answered without even thinking, and the old gypsy patted his shoulder before seeming to meld into the dark morning. Kevin spent only a few brief moments at his parent’s graves that morning, for the first time in his life he made his way to work with a smile. There was nothing left here in this place for him anymore, and he was certain now that the old gypsy travelled to places most people would never see in this life.

The young woman strode into the stables with a scowling expression, her eyes latched onto Kevin and she barked her orders. The new woman of the manor would certainly be a force to be reckoned with, he was happy that after today he would no longer have to deal with her. “The black stallion you stupid boy, do I look like a pony rider to you?” Kevin remained silent and did his best to soothe the huge beast as he put the saddle on him, Kevin was careful not to tighten the straps so much that the sharp piece of metal would bite into the horses back. The horse reared high in the air the moment she put her weight in the saddle, Kevin could hear the sickening sound of her neck breaking as she hit the cobblestones. The beautiful crafted barrel wagon stood waiting for him by the main gates. The old gypsy extended his gnarled fingers and pulled Kevin up on to the wagon seat beside him, and then he made a clucking sound with his mouth and spoke softly to the horse. The wagon moved slowly and silently forward Kevin looked back but the country side behind did not look familiar anymore; they would be on roads seldom travelled long before her body was even found.








© Copyright 2018 Patrick G Moloney. All rights reserved.

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