The Galloping Lantern
All Copyrights belong to Rowan Visser
Flora sat with her back against the wall, legs crossed, next to the great hearth of the dilapidated Castle Dean, hands covered in purple blotches from the cold air. Her bare knees were freezing were they stuck out between her fur boots and the hem of her dress. In her quivering fingers she held a little bed she had been making. Seven inches, but five, by two. She bent over it again as she tried to fix the little stick frame together.
Around her the forest was white and quiet. All through the winter she had been coming up to the ruins to entertain herself, building little houses between the pillars of the great hall. The little bed she was working on was meant for a house she had built in the hearth next to which she was sat. When finished and inserted she would have managed to put a bed in everyone of the seventeen houses she had build in what used to be the Great Hall of the Old Castle Dean, the houses averaging two and half feet in height and one and a half feet in width.
The hall was immense, the partially collapsed roof taller than most trees. Little houses, made to look even smaller by the sheer size of the room, stood clutching against remnants of pillars, in corners, against the walls and now also in the great hearth where her best house so far was stood, bearing out over the others.
Most of the little houses consisted of two floors, one left empty and the other occupied by two small beds or one big bed. The beds were made from various materials, some from stones arranged into little cots, others were hollowed out pieces of wood, some
just twigs messed into nests. For soft covers Flora used olds bits of linen, which she tied around feathers she had found in the forest. The empty floors were meant for kitchens, left empty except for a little pebble circle on the floor of each.
She finished off the bed and held it up in her two hands, investigating it from all angles. Smiling, she leant over and gently slid the bed into the large hearth house. She got unto her knees, took a dozen crows feathers out of her canvas bag and stuck them under one knee. Her hand went back into the bag and fished around, using the other hand to hold it open. She pulled out a bit of linen. Holding it up she judged the size and then straightened it out on the stone floor using the palms of her hands. The feathers from under her knee were placed on top of the piece of linen and then folded carefully until she was satisfied with the shape. Using the fragile spikes of dried leaves of heather she pinned the open ends of the linen shut into a rough square then she used her index and middle finger to test the softness of the µmattress¶. She smiled again as she placed it on the bed that she had slid into the house a minute before. Standing up from her knees she turned around to observe her handy work.
In the far corner of the great hall, where the roof had fallen in, sunlight streamed through in beams across the floor and walls. She loved this light best as it reminded her of sunlight through clouds after a storm, feeling like a new beginning for her village.
She walked over to the pile of rubble where she had left her shawl, picked it up and pulled it tight over her narrow shoulders. µNot spring yet,¶ she thought to herself, µPerfect.¶ She returned her canvas bag to its hidey-hole; a loose stone in the hearth behind which she could slide it, but not before checking over her shoulder to see that no-one was watching.
µGood night, I¶ll see you all tomorrow¶, she said to the little houses and then walked out of the great hall towards the animal trail she knew would take her home. She hummed a tune to which she did not know the words and listened to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.
Her mother would have preferred that she spent her time with books and calculations, but her father, a learned man, always said that Flora had a natural affinity to learning so she would be better off left to her own devises. Tutors would only spoil her, he said. But that was a long time ago, before her mother had been killed and her father had taken to drinking.
She kept her eyes on the path in front of her, looking to see how fresh the animals tracks were and which direction they were going. This way was much shorter than the way her dad had shown her and she found that she could even walk it barefoot if she wanted as it was all soft soil and grass. In places she would have to stoop low under a thicket or go sideways along a log, all of which she did nimbly, effortlessly, passing amongst the ancient trees and ferns unnoticed.
By the bottom of the ravine, where the brook turned left down the hill, an old oak had laid its roots half way across the bank. Climbing along its roots she got to within three feet of the opposite edge. She set herself and made the jump easily, hitting the opposite bank with a soft thud. Ahead the forest cleared and a thick bush of ferns, taller than her by at least three hands, blocked the way to the road. Left shoulder first, she pushed through, letting the soft ferns brush her face, shoulders and legs.
It was dusk and she knew her dad would not be home for quite a while yet. He was
never back until at least a couple of hours after sunset. She turned up the footpath and silently made her way between the house and the stables. It would be another night of struggling to light the fires whilst waiting for her dad to come home. Things had been so much easier when her mother was around. Three years now Flora and her father have had to make their house without her.
At the far corner of the house Flora turned left and was nearly at the back door when a big grey shape blurred past to her right, beyond the trees. She spun round. After what happened to her mother Flora couldn¶t help but be wary of the shadowy movements others took for granted. People tried to console her with tales of elves, pixies, ogres, nymphs, fairies and other creatures of similar hue. Flora who had her own ideas about these sort of things, gritted her teeth, shook her head and turned again for the kitchen door. This time two grey blurs shot between the trees, one on either side behind her. She turned quickly, but they were gone.
µHello?µ Flora called out to what ever was beyond those trees.
µHello, is there anyone there?µ she was frightened now. A twig broke to her left and she saw a blur of grey ducking behind the corner of the house no more than six feet away from her. She jumped for the door and only just managed to slip through as something heavy slammed into the wood behind her, shoving her across the kitchen floor. She scrambled to her feet and ran for the stairs. Furniture and glass was breaking everywhere behind her as she took the steps two at a time. At the top of the stairs she turned briefly and saw her attacker running for the stairs. It was a giant wolf, at least seven feet from front paw to shoulder and most of twelve feet long. Behind him there were two others, only bigger, trying to get to their
feet on the slippery kitchen floor. For a brief second Flora could have sworn that there was a man in the kitchen stood amongst the wolves dressed entirely in black with a black broad rimmed hat obscuring his face, but she didn¶t have time to look twice and the massive animal coming up the stairs towards her drew her attention away from him. Flora screamed and sped along the corridor to her room, locking the door behind her as soon as she was inside. Within seconds there was a loud smash as one of the creatures slammed into the wood. µWhat are you going to do now?¶ the question burned in her mind, µyou are three floors off the ground, cornered in your room and they are going to smash through that door at any moment!¶
The other two had clearly joined the one at the door, shaking the house as they persistently slammed themselves against the wood, over and over again. The third time they hit the door it exploded inwards and they tumbled into the room filling it with claws and teeth. They would undoubtedly have smashed her to pieces was she in there, but she wasn¶t.
Her legs hit the ground running. The slide down the slope of the roof had taken some of the skin off the backs of her legs and she gritted her teeth against the pain, but did not dare stop. She dashed up the hill as quickly as she could, heading for the forest. Every second they spent looking for her in the house was another second that she had to get as far as possible away from them. Her legs pumped and her arms pushed her forwards, long, quick paces eating the distance to the top of the hill in no time. She glanced back at the house when she got there. There was no movement coming from her room and she knew she was back on the clock, pausing was not an option.
The forest at the top of the hill was thick, impenetrable - a black and green wall. The undergrowth, mostly thick thorny bushes, grew on top of each other and even the trees were
stood trunk to trunk, their roots miserably entangled underfoot. There was only one animal trail through it and one human trail and Flora knew exactly where they were, well almost exactly. Dusk had fallen quickly and she frantically tried to find her markers before the wolves got too close. Her eyes darted this way and that searching for them.
µThe twisted tree with the branch, the bent branch, the rock«¶ she whispered to herself, µleft of the rock« and there you are, you beauty!¶ she could have shouted with joy, except there were three gigantic wolves after her and she was not going to make it any easier for them. Rushing over she pulled at two branches and slid herself, feet first, into the opening in the undergrowth that appeared behind them. She considered stopping for a second to listen for her hunters, but decided against it and flipped over unto her stomach before scurrying backwards a few feet to where she knew the opening was big enough to stand up. As soon as she was on her feet again she was off, toeing a blurred line down the path that led to the back of the family graveyard.
Some of the graves were old and only marked with empty stones, their names washed away completely, but there was one grave that Flora would never need to read to know what it said and a visit there was long overdue.
This land was her life, These animals her family, Wife, mother and best friend, A legend in her own time, And damned are those who took her from us! Annabel Rachel Elizabeth Aine
She burst into the graveyard, clearing the fence in a single leap. The trees above blocked out all the remaining light in the sky, the graveyard cast in thick blackness and Flora had to stop a second to find her bearings. She knew the graveyard better than any, having spent every day there for months after her mother died, but she had to visualise it first.
All the names on all the graves, all the stories that went along with them were familiar to her and making her way through the yard was like picking her way through a family reunion. She almost felt compelled to say µhello¶ as she passed by dead family members, one after the other.
Her thoughts were suddenly pulled back to the present when she heard branches braking behind her. They must have followed her scent and found the opening to the path. µGreat!¶ Flora thought to herself. The sound was still some distance away, but she knew she had to get a move on. She thought for a second and then smiled as she set off again, running full speed down the main path between the old graves.
There was a specific crypt she was heading for; that of Amelia and Robert Aine. Robert Aine was a fisherman who would come home from the deep sea and spend all his time with his wife. One day Robert didn¶t come home and it was said that his boat and crew had found their graves in the deep sea at the heart of a terrible storm. Amelia was devastated and when she died at the age of sixty three she had asked for a crypt to be erected next to hers for Robert, so that when he returned he would have a space next to her, where he belonged. Flora knew that at least some part of the story had to be true, because she had been in Robert¶s
crypt and it was definitely empty, except for spiders, cobwebs and mice nests.
Flora reached Amelia and Robert¶s crypts and put her shoulder to one of the lids. It shifted just enough for her to be able to get in and she pushed herself up before vaulting her legs into the gap. It was a tight squeeze, but she breathed in and dropped through. As soon as her feet reached the floor she realised her mistake.
µAagh no!¶, she muttered, her voice muted in the crypt. She felt like being sick. Amelia had been dead for over three hundred years and there was no smell, but the thought of it was revolting. She scrambled around a little, trying to find a place to sit, but decided to stay on her haunches instead. Next time she came up to the graveyard she was going to make an effort to learn which way round Amelia and Robert¶s crypts were stood.
Outside the wolves were barking at each other. They had reached the graveyard and were running between the graves looking for her. She stayed perfectly still, listening as they moved through the graveyard. They seemed to take forever, going from one grave to the next, sniffing and her legs started aching. After a while, which seemed like hours, she heard one coming her direction, it¶s heavy footfalls vibrating through the floor and walls. It stopped just short of the crypt and noisily sniffed the air. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest. She knew not to hold her breath, but she was so afraid of being heard it was hard not too. It circled the crypts twice, slowly, sniffing the air and Flora was sure she had been found when a whistle, some way to her left, drew the wolf¶s attention. It stopped sniffing and paused for a while before its heavy foot falls carried it in the direction of the whistle.
Never had she felt so much relieve in her life. It was like a pressure which had been
surrounding her was suddenly lifted and she felt as light as a feather, except for the pain in her legs from being on her haunches for so long. She sighed quietly and stepped back. Crack!!!
What must have been a rib and Flora¶s left foot met and together decided to make a noise, so loud and so distinctive that Flora knew, without the shadow of a doubt, that her hiding place was no longer a secret. As suddenly as that pressure on her had gone it was back and she heard the wolves running towards the crypt. In a flash the lid was ripped off and she was pushed to the floor by a head almost as big as she was. The eyes staring down at her had no mercy in them and the saliva dripping off the foot-long canine teeth made it clear that dinner was a happy time for this Mr. Wolf and his happiness was not to be interfered with.
She pulled her knees up against her chest and tucked her head down, preparing to die. It wasn¶t the dying she was afraid of, it was more the pain.
Surprisingly though there wasn¶t any, instead the wolf stood over her yelped loudly and fell to his side, crushing the side of the crypt to a fine dust. It struggled to get up, but before the wolf could find it¶s feet a blur slammed into it and the wolf¶s hind legs gave way, lamed. The wolf growled viciously and started pulling itself over to her. Flora jumped to her feet and backed away from the miserable creature, a vision of horror as it tried to drag itself along, troubled by its useless hind legs. Away to her left Flora could hear the other two wolfs crushing through the undergrowth as they made their escape, running from what ever had maimed their leader.
µHello!¶ Flora shouted into the blackness of the graveyard, µis there anybody there?¶ There
was no reply. A little distance away the lame wolf snorted and buffed through it¶s nostrils. It tried over and over again to drag itself over to her, but it could not move it¶s disabled mass. Eventually it lay it¶s head down and just stared angrily in her direction. It looked miserable.
The blackness of the graveyard seemed to grow around Flora as she found herself stood there in the silence, angry wolf glaring at her. When something moved in the corner of her eye it made her jump. Flora ducked behind a headstone and peered out to see what it was.
To her far right, jumping, no, whisking from headstone to headstone in the direction of the wolf was a tall, skinny creature with big black eyes. Its skin seemed to draw the darkness around it which trailed behind like black plumes of smoke when it suddenly moved. Long thin ears stuck out over its head, constantly moving this way like a bat-eared fox. Flora drew her breath in sharply and one of its ears moved, but it did not look over at her. Instead it kept its eyes steadily on the wolf. Again, like lightning, it left the headstone it had been sat on and in a flash appeared again on the lid of a large crypt two graves down, nearer to the wolf. It was like nothing Flora had ever seen before and she found herself frozen to the scene, unable even to talk.
The creature put one clawed hand out in front of it and reached, slowly, all the way down to the ground before moving its other hand. It froze for a moment as if it heard something and then, slowly, started moving itself off the crypt and flat against the ground, edging, an inch at a time, nearer to the wolf. It came very close before the wolf notice it was being stalked, but when it did, it yelped as if it was in pain. The creature brought its legs round behind it, squaring itself to the much larger wolf and then pulled itself up to stand at which the wolf went silent. The two creatures stared at each other for a long time like this before the
gravehopper pointed a long finger in Flora¶s direction and said something in a language Flora could not understand.
µMuridante µi ellyllon?¶ it said, staring down at the wolf at its feet. Its voice was deep, like bark. The wolf did not stir.
µMuirdante µi ellyllon?!¶ it said again, louder. But again the wolf did not stir or make a noise. Instead it looked to its left into the woods and yelped quietly.
The skinny creature followed the wolf¶s gaze into the forest and then whistled once, loud and low. Flora could hear leaves rustle as something made it¶s way from behind the creature into the trees and into the direction it was looking.
µMuirdante µi ellyllon?¶ it said again, this time softly, before adding, µa¶ noridum te¶s necsidot«¶ The wolf still did not move, but it growled deep in its throat, its heckles up in an instant.
Like a flash the creature was on top of him, one long arm hooked around the wolf¶s throat, the other over its eyes. The wolf shook violently and hissed as it tried to free itself, but the black creature was stuck fast. Flora did not want to watch, but she found she could not take her eyes off the two. The wolf shook more and more violently until it seemed to be vibrating and the creature on its back was a blur of black stuck to its hide. After a few seconds of this a mist appeared over the wolf¶s head. The creature stuck its face into the mist and the wolf suddenly stopped moving. When the mist was too thick to see through the creature nestled it face deeper into it and breathed in deeply. With one deep breath it took it all in and wolf
collapsed in its hold. µAaah«¶ the creature sighed and let go of the dead animal.
Flora found herself shaking where she was hidden behind the headstone. She had never been this terrified before in her entire life and she wanted to get away from what she had just witnessed as quickly as she could. She pulled herself down behind the headstone and decided that she was going to count to ten and then run as fast as her legs would carry her. She did not care where she ran to, but she could not stay where she was and wait for what ever that was to come for her.
µTen¶ she counted in her head and waited to hear if anything was coming near her. Nothing moved.
µNine,¶ she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to shut out the world. Still nothing moved, but her heart was going at a million miles an hour.
µFlora?¶ a voice said behind her and Flora fainted.