Garry Marek sighed as he turned his head to watch raindrops chase each other in frantic loops around the window before being whisked away into the night. Peace reigned at last after a noisy crowd of boarding school boys on their way back to Cornham College had piled off at the last stop. As the train picked up speed on the way down to Riversham, the carriage swayed slightly to the rhythmic sound of the wheels on the rails, and clouds of smoke and steam from the old locomotive billowed past as it was caught by the wind swirling through the cut. Sleet and rain streaked by like tracer bullets, and darkness obscured most of the countryside apart from a few spots of pale yellow from the windows of isolated farmhouses and the occasional flicker of car headlights somewhere in the distance.
He could see by the reflection in the glass that there were only three other people in the carriage, an elderly lady who was absorbed in her knitting, and a laughing teenage couple who were beginning to pack up their things, presumably in preparation for leaving at Kington Brideway, the next stop down the line. So it should be quiet for the next part of the journey until the usual crowd of commuters piled on at his destination, Castle Junction, and he just hoped his mind would stay away from the dark places it had been pulling him recently. Once he was in ‘The Royal George’ with the Friday night team things should be better, at least he hoped so.
On the lower part of the gradient the driver applied the brakes and to the uncomfortable squeal of metal on metal they pulled in to the old country station of Kington Brideway with its overhang of glass roof and a waiting area that hadn’t changed much in twenty years. The engine hissed and expelled clouds of steam as the young couple exited the carriage to a blast of cold air and the sooty odour of coal smoke. When they closed the door behind them Garry and the old lady with the knitting were left to listen to the ticking of hot metal, the sounds of receding voices and the almost life-like huffing of the huge engine. In the weak yellow of the platform lights the hands on the station clock with its Roman numerals announced that it was four fifty five, and a glance at his watch confirmed that for once they were actually on time, a miraculous occurrence for British rail. With a flurry of door slamming and a few shouts, the guard finally blew his whistle, and with a jolt and a series of huffs and clanks they were off once more.
Once clear of the station the window once more resembled a steamy mirror, and Garry rubbed a section clear to find himself looking at his own reflection. The beard made him look a little older than his twenty seven years, and the deepening shadows under his eyes didn’t help. He inwardly cursed. It was lack of sleep due to the nightmares that had been wakening him in the small hours of the morning, leaving him in a pool of sweat with his heart thumping, and the damn things had been so vivid recently it made getting back to sleep again nearly impossible. The most disturbing aspect of each incident was a sense of impending doom, of being dragged ever closer to some dreadful encounter. That and being aware that he was dreaming but not being able to escape, like being caught in a spider’s web, knowing it was just biding its time until he was too weak to struggle. And now weird images had started to intrude into his daytime thoughts and he was seriously worried he was loosing his mind.
He shook his head and returned to watching the blur of dark countryside whizzing by outside and tried to think of normal things, but it wasn’t to be. A few weeks ago, just before she'd gone back to Australia, his ex flatmate Laura Kyle had talked him into something he now wished he’d never agreed to, convinced that it was somehow connected to the recent spate of terrifying nightmares that were wearing him down. Staring out into the blackness he began to ponder over it all as he’d done a hundred times before. She’d sprung it on him one evening when they were in the middle of their second bottle of wine. She’d met a medium who said she may be able to help her contact Jenny, a friend who died when she was sixteen years old. She missed Jenny and wanted to give it a try. The woman, who called herself madam Cassandra, had given her a card with a phone number, should she give her a buzz and ask if they could arrange a session? Mellowed by the alcohol he’d agreed, after all, it was just a bit of harmless fun. He was naturally skeptical but curious at the same time, so why not.
Not only was the good lady at home, but if they could get to her place before nine o’clock she would be happy to accommodate them, for a modest fee of course. As the woman lived only a mile or so outside the village, they hopped into Garry’s car and drove on up there. It was just as he’d imagined. Madam Cassandra had prepared a table in a small room of her bungalow that was illuminated only by candle light, the windows covered by heavy drapes. A small uninspiring looking woman, she wore a long dress with a black pearl necklace, and even had the obligatory black cat that purred and rubbed itself around their legs before settling in an armchair, its wide green eyes watching every move.
Instructing them to simply address her as Cassandra, she proceeded to ask a few personal questions, advised them to please remain silent when she started to invite spirit guests into the room, and stressed that she not be interrupted once contact had been made.
Garry had determined not to let his skepticism show, and just went along with things as Cassandra asked that they all hold hands and close their eyes. She then began incantations inviting any nearby souls to come and join them. She made no reference to Jenny, but after a short while she said, “I know you’re there. Kachina you say, that’s an interesting name. Laura is looking for a friend who has passed, will you stay a while and talk with us, maybe you know her. Who? Speak a little louder.” Cassandra’s grip suddenly tightened, her voice changed, and sounding nervous she said, “who are you?” Then four things happened once. The temperature dropped dramatically, a draft bent the flames of the candles, they all opened their eyes and the cat started spitting furiously as it stared at the ceiling. Cassandra let go of their hands, yelled “no”, and switched on a light. To Garry and Laura’s amazement she then stood up and said, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave. I really don’t feel very well.” Laura tried to ask what happened, but the madam was having none of it. Pale faced she’d apologized again as she handed back the money, and then ushered them as quickly as possible to the door and out into the night without saying another word.
He and Laura had tried to make light of it but it had been disturbing and they both new it. They that night Garry’s dreams had taken him somewhere far back in time where a wolf pack howled in the forest and the cries of tormented beings flooded his senses.
Giving himself a mental shake he glanced at his watch, and wasn’t surprised to see that barely ten minutes had passed since they’d left Kington Brideway, because that was the subjective nature of time when the mind is under pressure. As he was frantically trying to conjure up more pleasant thoughts the train entered the first of the long tunnels that carved their way through Dunford gap, and the sudden rush of noise made him jump. Then the lights went out and he felt himself spinning like a leaf in a whirlpool, tumbling deeper and deeper into the vortex until the sensations became too much and he blacked out.
As consciousness returned he found himself on a raised piece of ground at the edge of a forest where veils of sodden mist flirted with the trees in a cold embrace. The sensation was dreamlike, as though he was observing from another dimension, and certainly the people closest to him ignored his presence completely even though he was within touching distance. Hot talon like hands or claws gripped his wrists tightly, and an inner sense told him not to turn around because whatever held him should never be seen by mortal eyes. A ghastly cracked voice hissed into his ear. “You will watch everything that unfolds before us, the better to understand the punishment that awaits you.”
The whole scene was ghostly, like looking through a gossamer thin veil. Dressed in the fashion of the sixteenth century, a crowd of men women and children stood around in a hollow where a man in black robes was reading aloud to a crowd of poor peasants. Garry couldn’t understand the language, but he guessed it to be eastern European, possibly Hungarian or Romanian. At the side of the man who was reading stood another, a wealthy type judging by his fancy attire, and beside him, a solemn looking priest was clutching a bible to his chest.
The gaunt face of an elderly woman in ragged clothes stared out through the bars of a cage on the back of a nearby cart, her grey hair a tangled matted mess and the cruel stripes of a whipping visible on her bony arms. Even from where he stood Garry could see terror and loathing in equal measure in her eyes which had turned in his direction and bored right into him in a sign of recognition.
The grip on his wrists tightened. “That is you in the black robes Garry Marek. Petrov Bunda Nicolescu was your name at that time. That is you, the bringer of death, reading from the scroll of lies you concocted in alliance with that other vile being, Count Ackerley Rousseau, the monstrosity by your right side, who is now the man you know as Michael Lamont.” Garry could smell something rotten on the rank wheezing breath, the sound not much more than a rasping whisper. “Strange don’t you think that the two of you should live again at the same time after almost four centuries. But it means the search is finally over, my work is nearly done. I found Rousseau first so his punishment is in the final phase, just as yours will surely follow in the coming days. The die is cast, the wheel of fate is turning.”
Some in the crowd jeered and shouted abuse in the direction of the poor wretch in the cage, but most stood in sombre silence as the reading continued. The words ‘Constitutio Criminalis’ and ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ were now uttered louder than the rest to audible murmurs and gasps from the crowd. When the speech was over, two burly looking men went to the accused, opened the cage and dragged the woman across the clearing to where stacks of faggots had been piled against a wooden stake. They manhandled her through a narrow gap in the wood pile, fastened her frail body to the post with chain and looped a small casket on a rope over her head to hang in the middle of her chest.
The voice hissed, crackling with venom as the talons dug deeper into his flesh. “How kind of you to show some mercy with the keg of gunpowder around her neck. How easy it was to enrich yourselves simply by seizing a widow's land and holdings. Why wait for her to die when you can just accuse her of witchcraft and take what you want for yourselves.” Feeling the power of the grip on his wrists Garry knew that struggling would be futile, and at each pitiful attempt at protestation of his innocence the words froze in his throat. All he could do was watch in horror while more wood was placed against the tragic figure, and as the priest began further incantations while holding aloft a cross, a torch of burning pitch was inserted into the stack. He tried to avert his gaze from the unfolding horror but he was forced to watch as the flames rose higher. The screams pierced his brain and the sound lifted rooks off their nests in the high trees, scattering them like blackened fragments into the sky. At the same time wolves began to howl in the surrounding woods. Not the usual lupine sounds of communication, but something primeval, more soulful and deeply disturbing, which continued until a muffled explosion and a shower of sparks ended the torment of the poor soul in the fire.
Garry felt himself falling and spinning once more as the whispers continued in his head. “Her name was Aurelia. I am her sister. I know who you are and I will find you again each time you sleep. You will know the agonies that you, Petrov Bunda Nicolescu and your like inflicted on others, each visitation more unbearable than the last until your debt is paid.
A screeching of metal brought him back to his physical self as the train slowed to a shaky stop. A whistle blew and as the commuters at Castle Junction began to surge towards the carriage he looked up to see the old knitting lady staring at him from the corridor by the door. She smiled and it chilled him to the bone. The eyes were pure malevolence, boring right into him. No spoken words were necessary as the message had already been delivered. She was coming for him. He jumped up and tried to follow, he would beg and plead if necessary, it was all a terrible mistake, he knew nothing of these things. The door opened and Garry had to squeeze past a bustling crowd to step down onto the platform. The old lady was nowhere to be seen.
He was shaking as he handed his ticket at the exit barrier, and stepping outside he didn’t even bother to do up his coat against the biting wind and snow flurries that swept around the street lights like moths to a flame. He made the walk from the station down to the High Street entirely on auto-pilot, his mind in turmoil. Trying to take in what had happened on the train was almost impossible. Had it happened at all or was it just another extreme form of nightmare. The sounds of the burning woman’s screams were too fresh in his mind and he knew the answer. He stopped in a doorway opposite the pub to try and gather his thoughts. On the evening buses on the high street the passengers faces looked abstract behind the steamed up windows. Cars honked their horns, and the burger bar at the corner was busy as usual. How could everything be so bloody normal.
There was something he urgently had to find out, one person in particular he desperately needed to talk to. His heart was pounding and his mouth was dry as he reached the bar, and he had to force himself to push open the door. As he walked in he spotted his friends at a table near the back, but as he approached he immediately noticed a lack of the usual joviality. Everyone seemed oddly subdued, even the normally boisterous Roy Kennedy, the joker in the pack was pensively stroking his chin. Roy was the first to notice him and waved as he approached. Garry managed a smile as he pulled up a stool, and tried to be cheerful in response to the muttered greetings. “We’re all very quiet tonight. What’s up?”
Roy’s girlfriend Nancy looked at him and said, “my god Garry, you look terrible, what have you been up to?”
He couldn’t hold back any longer. “Has anybody seen Mike, Mike Lamont, he isn’t here is he?”
Roy immediately chipped in. “Oh dear, you obviously haven’t heard.”
Garry’s heart nearly missed a beat. “Heard what?”
“I’m afraid Mike’s gone completely off his rocker. Rambling on and on about demons and witches and the like.”
Sheila interrupted. “Apparently It all started a couple of weeks ago. He kept it to himself, but as it got worse Hilda insisted he see a specialist, and the results of the tests when Mike was hooked up to some kind of machine showed brain activity they’d never seen before. That evening he started hallucinating and began screaming so much they had to sedate him. He’s still sedated but the crazy brain activity seems to be getting worse. It doesn’t look good I’m afraid.”
Nancy reached out and touched Garry lightly on the arm. “What on earth have you done to yourself, is that a burn on your wrist? Are you OK, you’re really pale and you look exhausted. Maybe you should go home and get some sleep, we don’t want you ending up in the hospital too.”
Garry twisted away, trembling with fear as he made for the door. He wrenched it open and stepped out into the night, walking quickly, desperately wanting to get off the hamster wheel of horror that was spinning beneath his feet. Something made him look back. The old lady was standing under a street lamp, and as a faint smell of wood smoke assailed his nostrils a voice in his head echoed Nancy’s words. “Yes Garry, you should go home and get some sleep.”
© John-Archie Lynn 2021