The Unspoken Contract

 

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Chapter 1

The Unspoken Contract


 

Chapter 1

When I was but a toddler, I remember stumbling down a dark hall. I don’t recall how I had escaped from my caregiver, or what drove me to explore, but I had learned how to walk and I was determined to see what was at the other end. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure if it’s my memory or if the caregiver told me this story later in life… In either case, this is how I first met my father and it would be the closest I’d ever see him smile.

We lived in a large house; more rooms than anyone would ever need, but it was ancient, and it was ours. Our family had lived within those walls since forever, and would continue to do so, forever. I remember how I leaned against the wall to keep my legs steady. It was a revelation to me as it enabled me to walk longer than I had previous. But as I marvelled at the speed I was moving, something obstructed my path. A door opened a few feet in front of me and a stranger came out. He had huge frown plastered on his face; his eyes were shadowed and deep; his chin was clean shaven and tidy. He didn’t notice me right away and looked around the hallway before he closed the door behind him. Our eyes met and his mouth quirked. Both of us just stared until someone came rushing down the hall towards us. His mouth turned into a frown again and a young lady picked me up. I don’t recall her name or what she looked like, but she bowed apologetically and hurried down the hall with me on her shoulder, hissing something at me. My father spun around and I saw him disappear around the corner - and thus he was out of my memory, for another couple of years.


 

I didn’t know what a parent was. They said I had a father, but the word had no meaning to me, for all I ever felt was that he was a stranger, at least until I learned what a father and son was supposed to be like and I wanted that relationship too. Mother had died on my birth and I think father blamed me for her death, though, he never said so outright. Even so, a child loves their parents, no matter what. An innate instinct in all animals, for a child cannot survive without their parents, at least, that is how I saw things. How else can I explain the yearning I felt for a stranger’s love?

My first attempt was to seek his approval by drawing a picture that I remember being very proud of. I didn’t hesitate to run straight to my father’s study to show it to him. The office was empty when I came and it took a fair amount of willpower to enter it. He had never expressly told me I was forbidden to go inside, in fact, he hadn’t expressly told me anything. The office was tidy and there were shelves with books from wall to wall. There were some papers scattered around. I placed my drawing on top of the papers and hurried out of there as fast as I could. I waited several days for a response. It never came.

However, I wasn’t deterred. The drawing wasn’t good enough, I told myself, and I endeavoured to make another. My grandmother, (who was also was my tutor,) encouraged me to show my next drawing and I went back. But this time, the door was locked. I wondered if I should wait for him, but the mere thought of standing face to face with my father made me queasy and I instead slid the drawing under the door and disappeared. I did this a couple of times before I gave up. Maybe he didn’t like drawings? He certainly didn’t like mine…

My grandmother was my only light, in those days. She gave me everything that a parent should. She was attentive to my needs and she gave me her unconditional love. Besides both being my parent and tutor, she would often tell me stories, and there was one particular story that would change me for years to come: I remember it being a cold night. The house was quiet and everyone was huddling wherever there was a fireplace. Me and grandmother sat alone in the parlour, wrapped in blankets as the last sparks from the fire settled into ember. She had been talking for a while, but I hadn’t been listening. The disappointment was still fresh in my mind. Eventually, she noticed my mind’s absence and wondered what was wrong. I asked her. “Why does father not love me?”

Even then I saw that she wanted nothing more then to tell me he did, but she couldn’t, because it wasn’t true. Instead, she glanced up on the wall, where an old sword hung above the fireplace. She lifted me up on her knee. “You know who this belonged to?” She said and pointed at the blade.

Strangely, I hadn’t noticed it before, being a mere six or seven years old I was not tall enough to see it unless pointed out to me. I shook my head. She told me that it once belonged to a great man; an ancestor to our family that lived hundreds of years ago. His name was Hall and he lived in a time when a race called Goblins pestered the land. “Ugly little creatures,” she said. “They enjoy making life difficult for people, but Hall was a brave soul and he would stand up to their tyranny. He and two loyal servants went after the Goblins that lived in the dark forest to the west. For two days they were gone and only Hall came back alive. He would not speak of what had happened in the woods, but he didn’t have to, for the Goblins didn’t bother the people anymore and they haven’t ever since. Hall became a hero and they say that as long as a Wholehart lives on this land, the Goblins would not dare to leave their forest to bother people again.”

I imagined my eyes gleamed then. I felt pride of my ancestor and I said. “Do you think father would be proud of me if I became as brave as Hall?”

Grandmother smiled softly. “I’m sure he would.”


 

Nothing else was on my mind, then. I wanted to be brave and strong, like Hall, and I headed to the nearby grove to pick out a stick that was about my size. I swung it wildly, like a blade, and without direction. I would see clearly, in my mind, the Goblins fall before me, until they fled back into their forest. I was a master. I knew I wasn’t really, but I become stronger, and could swing it for longer, and hit it harder each time. It was only a matter of time before I would make my father proud, I told myself. But swinging a stick around wasn’t enough, I needed to grab my father’s attention, so I made sure to practise as closely to my father’s office window as I could. If he ever looked out, he would see me for I made sure he was there when I trained. But the window never opened, nor did I see any shadow looming that would indicate that he was there, watching. After almost a month, I grew tired of swinging the stick around and I began to feel stupid doing so. I didn’t see myself as a master anymore, and all I saw was a child playing. I needed the real thing, to prove that I was worthy. That evening, when I was sure everyone was busy preparing for supper, I snuck inside to the parlour where the blade hung. I stared at it. It was so shiny and I stood in awe, knowing who it had belonged to.

To climb the fireplace was easy, it was another matter to lift it off the frame. I made careful not to touch the sword’s edge, but as I fiddled with it, a maid saw me and pulled me down to the floor. She scolded me, telling me I could’ve got hurt. But I didn’t care what she said. She saw my indifference and dragged me off towards grandmother, the only one, beside my father, I really cared about. The maid smiled as she saw the terror in my eyes as she dragged me away. Grandmother was busy talking to another maid and when she learned what had happened, she didn’t shout, she didn’t have to, I already felt ashamed. With just one look she could make me regret anything because I didn’t want to disappoint her. I promised not to do it again and when I went to bed, that night, I laid awake, thinking up another scheme to get my father’s attention. But I hadn’t a clue… About a week later, I was in the garden when an old man I’d never seen before appeared. He came out of the west wing, a part of the estate that I rarely ever entered because it was the servants quarters and storage. He had a large beard with a twirly moustache. Spots of soot covered his pale face. As I stared, he noticed me and waved me over. “A fine day, isn’t it? Young master Charles.”

I was in a bad mood and didn’t think the day was good at all. He saw me frowning and he asked what was wrong. I told him my predicament and after listening, he rubbed his beard for a moment and said. “You need a blade about your size then?”

I wasn’t expecting him to take me seriously and I simply nodded in answer.

“There ought to be someone who could help you… I know Fred is a woodsman, he ought to be able to craft you a fine blade.”
I didn’t want a wooden blade, but without any other option, I made my way to the village. The village wasn’t far. We more or less owned all the land this side of the hills; even the Goblin forest to the west, but nobody dared go there. You could see it from a distance on the way to the village, and it loomed darkly, the crowns of the trees preventing any light from entering. Even the trees seemed to be a shade darker than regular and I remembered shivering as I passed it and hurried fast to the village. The villagers noticed me as I was hard not to recognise in my vest and coat finer than anything anyone else wore. It was even harder when everyone knew who you were. Almost all activity froze as I came and they gathered around me, wondering how I’ve been and why I was there alone. I told them that I looked for a man named Fred. They helpfully sent me in the right direction and wished me good luck as I went deeper into the village. But though most villagers were pleasant and helpful, there were some that were not. Around the corner, suddenly, my feet left the ground and I fell head first in the mud. Somebody had tripped me.

“Like the taste of mud?” a sneering voice said.

I stood up, my cheeks puffed up. “You tripped me!” I said. It was only now that I got a good look at the boy. He was a few years older than me and I believe, even if we were the same age, he would’ve been bigger than me.

“I’m so sorry, my lord,” he said and began brushing off the mud that caked on my clothes. But he didn’t do so gently and more or less slapped me.

“Stop it!” I roared.

“As you wish, my liege,” the boy snickered a disappeared around the corner.

I had never been so angry before and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to hit something, but as there were nothing soft around, (other than myself) I stood frozen in rage until my breathing settled and I remembered why I was there. Eventually, I found the man named Fred and he was more than willing to help me. He crafted me a fine blade that looked a lot like the one on our wall, only smaller and not as shiny. I had forgotten about the rude boy and as I made my way home, I saw a group of children on the wayside. My heart sank as they came towards me, but I steeled myself, feeling a lot braver with my new weapon by my side.

“Well, well, if it isn’t young lord. Whatcha got there?” the large boy from before, said.

Reluctantly, I presented the blade, still holding it in its handle. But it didn’t matter, as it was snatched from me. The bigger boy swung it around and said. “What are you going to do with this?”

“Protect your village,” I said with more confidence than I had.

The boy grinned. “No you’re not,” he said and smashed the blade on a nearby rock.

I had never hated anyone like this before and I honestly wanted him dead, or at least that he went away forever. The other kids murmured nervously and whispered that he was going too far. I didn’t know it, at the time, but father was a revered man, who was kind and helped the villagers in more ways than one - not to mention the legend that surrounded our family. But it was clear this boy saw things differently and he glared at the other kids to be quiet.  

He saw me glowering and he leaned forward and said. “Got something to say?”

I didn’t, instead and I threw a punch with all my weight behind it and I hit the lower side of his jaw. The shock made him tumble, because he never expected it. But when the shock had settled, nothing could keep him away from me and he pummelled me for a good while before the kids managed to bring up the courage and stop him. I ran home then, not crying, at least I tried not to. But when grandmother saw me and I saw her, the tears would not stop flowing. I wanted her to make the pain go away; I wanted her to pity me, and I cried for a good hour in her lap before I calmed. I didn’t say it aloud, but I vowed that I would be strong so that I could stand up to anyone.

 

At my 18th birthday, I had, indeed, become strong. I practised the sword, everyday; no longer to impress father, but for the sake of my heritage. I delved into books about the sword, but I needed proper training, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to be schooled at the Capital. It was grandmother’s suggestion. She was now too old to do anything for herself and she insisted that she’d taught me everything she knew. Though I doubted it, I was eager to leave the house. Father didn’t care either way, in fact, it was like he wasn’t even there. He didn’t exist to me. Very much like he’d been treating me over the years. I didn’t hold any delusion that it would be some sort of punishment for him, it was simply easier this way. When I had packed and was ready to leave, I was apprehensive because I knew grandmother didn’t have long to live, but she was insistent and she promised she’d live until I came back. I promised to write as often as I could and I went away. The journey took about a week as my home was rural and the roads were non-existent, but when I came to the Capital, it was all worth it. I was stunned. Never had I seen so many people in one place. The buildings were tall and packed side to side. The streets where narrow and the sky was grey, but there was beauty too. Amongst the slums, there were big open areas, large decorated buildings and shops at every corner. I had never experienced modern life and I was shocked to see the progress we’d made. Big hunks of metal moved on rails with the help of steam, much like a carriage only it could take more people further, and faster, than a horse. There were big factories that produced a hundred times faster than traditional labour, and the clothes people wore… It felt like I was wearing a costume with my ancient attire, so the first thing I did was buy a new wardrobe. I didn’t want to risk being laughed at. My heart rarely had time to settle down as I moved from class to class, learning about the functions of the world. So many things we knew! How ignorant we had been!

Let me be clear, I thoroughly believed in the Goblin stories. That they were lurking in the forest and the only thing keeping them at bay was me. It was my duty to become master at the sword, but as I learned more about the world, I became in doubt. I didn’t believe in the Goblins any longer and I lost any motivation to practise the sword. Instead, I dove into modern life and it’s vices. I stayed in the capital for 5 years, a year more than I was supposed to, for I dreaded going back to that dreary house and those superstitious villagers. But that extra year would haunt me for the rest of my life for when I got home, grandmother had passed away a year before. Nobody said anything about my absence or even welcomed me home. I no longer had any reason to stick around, yet I did. I processed my feelings in the only way I knew how and more or less lived at the local tavern.

There, I gathered a small following. Young people of my age and younger that dreamed about the outside world but would never be able to experience it, I became the next best thing as I told them stories of the Capital. Ironically, one of these men were the very same boy that had bullied me as a kid. I wasn’t one to hold grudges and as I paid for the drinks, most of the time, we became fast friends. How many hours didn’t I waste on drink at that place? But it was comfortable and my father paid for everything, like he always has, and villagers were too superstitious to deny me anything. I behaved without decency and I enjoyed myself, thoroughly.

Though it didn’t happen often, I sometimes sat alone to drink. My companions were peasants. after all, they could not indulge in drink whenever they felt like it. I remember one evening, the tavern was more or less empty and I sat inconspicuously in the shadows and listened to some old men talking a few tables away from me:

“That son of his, it is too bad he turned out the way he did.”
I smiled in the shadows, not concerned what old men think.

“It’s true. I dread what might happen when he becomes lord. I heard his father’s health is worsening.”
I winced when I heard, because I hadn’t noticed it at all. My mind raced, could I be lord this soon?

“He’d be sorely missed, he was good to us,” one of them said and raised his drink. The others followed and they turned to silence to lament.

Their conversation turned into reminiscing about all the good things my father had done and I became bored and left. On unsteady legs, I wobbled to and fro on the path home. The forest was as dark as ever. Even the moon cast little light on it, as if the trees absorbed it. I shivered then and I told myself it was because of the cold. The house was quiet, when I arrived, except the old man’s coughing that echoed through the house. How had I not noticed? A smile touched my lips and I felt like celebrating. I poured myself a glass of Brandy and placed myself in the parlour, where the sword still hung. When I was a child, I’d done anything to hold it… My mind drifted and my body melted into the chair. It was the same chair as my Grandmother used to sit and tell me stories. I saw myself, sitting on the floor looking up at me, bright-eyed. My eyes become heavy and the drink fell out of my hand and across the carpet, undrunk.


 

As the old men had said, father wasn’t long for this world and he died a couple of weeks later. Everyone was there, I suppose. I didn’t know everyone in the village but I recognised a few. They nodded at me in condolence, but nobody came up to speak. Not that they had to, they probably saw the indifference in my face, stone cold and neutral. I truly felt nothing at his death. The Reverend said a few words and a couple of the villagers made their speeches which made everyone sob. Even at their tears I felt no sympathy because I couldn’t relate. It was as if they were talking about a different person entirely and, if anything, it made me angry that father had been nice to everyone but me. But, despite it all, when they finally lowered the coffin into the earth and began to cover it, it made me wince. It was but for a fleeting moment, over as quickly as it came, but it had been there. I had felt something. He was gone. It wasn’t sorrow for a family member, but a sadness of losing an object. A presence that had always been there was gone that would never be thought of again…

When the service was complete, I made my way back to my estate. It was truly empty now. Most of the help had resigned after father was dead, only a couple, that had nowhere else to go, remained. The scruffy old man with the beard (that had greyed significantly since I was 6 years old) was still around too, but not always. He seemed to come and go as he pleased. I didn’t mind because he kept in the shadows and it was nostalgic to keep him around. As the realisation that I owned everything in the house sunk in, my first thought was to search my old man’s office. It was a room shrouded in mystery and something I had only seen once when I was five years old. My hand trembled a bit when I turned the knob, but I calmed almost instantly as I looked around because it looked horribly average and smaller than I remembered. The eyes of a child makes everything bigger, I suppose.

I didn’t bother looking on the shelves and placed myself at his chair. Somehow, it felt wrong, like I wasn’t supposed to be there… But I ignored it and opened the first drawer and rummaged through his papers. At the bottom, I noticed something colourful and found a crude drawing that depicted a house with some stick figures next to it. Two parents and a child. There were more drawings underneath and that is when I realised my father had kept every single drawing I sent to him. I was so confused, why had he saved them? Why hadn’t he said anything? I began to shake and I didn’t know what to do with myself; should I be angry? Happy? But all I felt was sadness and I turned into a gloomy daze which only drink could solve. That bastard had pushed me away only to draw me in when it was too late. I hated him then, more than I hated anyone, and he would give me even more reasons to hate him beyond the grave.

 

When I had settled down, I continued to look through my father’s papers to get an idea of my finances. What I found would be the final nail that made me wish his soul would burn in the underworld, forever. Only this imaged sated my rage for I had learned that we were massively in debt. It all became clear how my father could have been so frivolous with his money, how he was able to afford to help the villagers and how he paid for my education and my indulges without complaint. It was all borrowed, all of it! He had no intention of leaving anything to me and it would only be a matter of time before everyone realised that I wouldn’t be able to pay my debt. As in all situations, I turned to drink for solace. I didn’t leave the house for days and I roamed the halls like in a daze, or blur would be a more accurate description. I pulled down the blade that I had so revered and I felt nothing holding it. I took out my anger on the house, swung the blade in the narrow halls, cutting paintings, walls, and furniture wherever I went. The Help was scared out of their wits, though I never killed anyone, nor did I try to. My father’s office was the worst victim of my wrath as I slashed everything in it. All the books lay in pieces, scattered on the floor. I ordered the Help not to clean it up. It delighted me to see everything my father owned in ruin.

For four days this went on, until I ended up on the tower, to feel the cold breeze on my face. It was a tall tower, and one would surely die if one would fall… Drunk and delirious, I leaned over the side and thought how easy it would be to end it all. But as I stared and let the cool air clear my mind, I noticed the dark forest over the horizon, and I thought, maybe I could exploit it somehow?  And just like that, a small speck of hope was born and I no longer felt the urge to hurl myself over the edge.


 

It was surprisingly easy to find a buyer. The first company that I approached was interested and if the forest was as pristine and untouched as I described it, I would be able to pay my debts and then some. On my way home, two surveyors from the company came along with me that would evaluate the worth. I showed them to the edge of the forest, where they prepared their equipment, when a small group of villagers noticed us in the distance. I steeled myself for they would surely protest. But to my surprise, they were more concerned about my safety than anything else:

“What are you doing here?” I asked, sternly.

They ignored my question and instead eyed the surveyors, suspiciously. “Do you intend to go into the woods, my lord?” One elderly man at the front of the group said.

I wasn’t planning to, but I felt like defying them and said. “So what if I am?”

They exchanged worried looks and said. “My lord, you mustn’t. You of all should know what lurks within.”

The surveyors glanced at each other and my cheeks grew red. “How dare you speak to me that way, begone!!” I bellowed.

They cowered to my will, just like they always did and they left. I was satisfied, but as I waited for the surveyors, old fears began to emerge. The forest somehow seemed much darker, more fearful than before. A strong wind pull me towards it, as if it drew breath. The hair on my skin stood on its end and only I seemed to have noticed. The surveyors lightened their lanterns and made ready to head inside. They waited for me to join them but I excused myself and said that I had other matters to attend. However, they knew why I didn’t come and I heard them murmur insults on their way inside. I stared at them until the light from their lantern vanished, feeling relief that I had avoided going with.


 

They were experienced at their job so I didn’t think much of it when they hadn’t shown up after 24 hours. Surely they were just being thorough? But as the third day was coming to an end, it became clear that they would not return. I tried to rationalise how it could’ve happened as it would be easy to leave the forest if one simply followed the compass in one direction. Rumours spread like wildfire. The villagers were sure the Goblins had taken them and it was useless to try and gather a search party. I was ashamed that I relief that nobody was willing to search for them, because I was apprehensive as well. There were no such things as Goblins, but it was clear the woods were dangerous. Maybe they went mad inside the dark? Thankfully, the company sent another team in their stead.

I slept reassured, that night, knowing that the disappeared would be found. Even so, nightmares plagued me. In the dream, I saw a large shadow loom over me as I cowered underneath my bedsheet. I woke up with a start, and when I got out of bed for a drink of water, I noticed a pouch on my nightstand. It had a foul stench, but curiosity came over me and I lightened a candle and moved closer. There was gold glimmering within. I stared at it for a long while, unable to think clearly - it was so bewildering. But after a while, I noticed how old the gold seemed. There were chalices and trinkets inside; the gold coins depicted images of kings I had no name for… Where did it come from? I let go of the bag as a horrible thought struck me, which I immediately suppressed. I didn’t dare sleep in my room that night and I left the gold where it was, hoping, that it would be gone the next day. But as I awoke, in another room, another bag laid beside me.

I thought I was going mad. And when I learned that the other team had disappeared as well, I couldn’t handle it. I wanted out of the house and I put on my most common clothes to remain inconspicuous and rushed down to the local tavern. The tavern was almost empty, but a few old men sat around a table and talked amongst themselves. It was calming to be around people and the drink soothed my nerves as I listened to their conversation:

“Heard about the second disappearances?”

“They shouldn’t have gone in that forest the first time…”

“Hear hear! What was Young Master thinking?”

Mentioning me hit a nerve, but I remained on my chair and listened.

“He’s gotten strange ever since he went to the Capital… Bad ideas they have.”

“What was he trying to do, anyway?”

“He wanted to tear the forest down, I heard, for lumber or some such.”

“Ha! Good luck with that. He’s gone mad.”

“Ssh, don’t talk so loud about Young Lord…”

“Oh? And who would tell him?” He said and looked around. “That fellow over—,” his voice died down and I reveal myself.

“My Lord!” They all shrieked.

“Lost my mind, have I?” I said.

“No, no, my Lord, I didn’t mean—”

I looked at them as they cowered before me. It couldn’t possibly be them, these frightened old men, they wouldn’t dare stand up to me. Then who would? The more I thought of it, the angrier I became and the surer I was that they were faking. “It was you, wasn’t it?” I said.

They looked at each other.

“You kidnapped the out-of-towners, didn’t you? You couldn’t handle that your precious legends would be found out and reveal the fools that you really are?!”

They stammered in their defence but I simply raised my voice. “Silence! And… and the gold—.”

I hesitated, then. No matter how much I wanted to pass blame, I couldn’t link them to the gold. They didn’t have the means… I heaved my ale and slammed the tankard on the table. “Bah! I’ll prove you wrong. I’ll prove you all wrong!” I shouted and stormed out of the tavern.

 

As I gazed into the darkness of the forest, I regretted my outburst. But it was the only way to make sense of anything. I refused to believe there were Goblins and that handed out gold for whatever reason… Earlier, I had tried to gather any of my drinking friends, but because of recent events, they had become believers and abandoned me. Even my former bully, who was stout and proud, turned me down. It was fine. I didn’t except help anyhow. I had brought with me all the weapons I could carry. Three flintlock pistols were strapped and loaded around my chest. I had two knives on my belt and the family blade in its scabbard. It had become dulled after my rampage in the house, but it would have to do. Before I was able to head out, some villagers emerged over the hills and tried to persuade me not to go. This only made me more determined and I threatened them that I would kill anyone if they forced my hand. I drew the family blade to emphasise my threat, and after they exchanging a few looks with each other, they returned back to their homes without protest. Cowards, I thought and sheathed my blade. I double checked my supplies, lit the lantern and headed inside before I had time to regret my decision.

It was strange how out of breath one felt upon entering the forest, as if the darkness itself drained your lungs. I could no longer see the morning sun, except for slithers of light that penetrated the canopy. I looked at my compass and I followed north. My goal was to penetrate the forest right down the middle and emerge at the other end. I was certain of success, yet, I was nervous. The trees were black and gnarly and roots shot up everywhere. A constant mist lay like a layer on the ground and hid my feet beneath it, which made my journey slow as I stumbled about. After two hours, I took a break. It was so quiet inside. There were sounds but I couldn’t describe them even if I tried. They didn’t sound real. It made me even more nervous and I didn’t rest for long. I wanted to make as much ground as possible before nightfall. But as I checked my compass, I noticed it didn’t behave like it should. The needle jittered back and forth, as if it couldn’t decide which way to point. I could still make out a general direction but it gave me an idea of how the surveyors got lost. Did the forest itself produce its own magnetic field?

I walked for many hours until I found lantern on the ground - half hidden under the mist. It was undamaged, but empty. They must’ve abandoned it, I thought and searched the ground around me. I was hoping to find more clues of the surveyors’ whereabouts, but instead, I noticed that there was an old path hidden in the undergrowth. If they had been here, they must’ve found the path, as well. I looked to my compass and saw it was now useless as it was spinning wildly. I decided to follow the trail. The path was difficult to follow as I was forced to check the ground every now and again to make sure I hadn’t strayed from the trail. Eventually, I reached a clearing. Streaks of light shone more brightly here as the leafage wasn’t as thick as everywhere else. It revealed ruins of an old village that was half buried in trees that grew through the walls. To think there once was a village here… How old could it possibly be? But I didn’t have time to investigate as it was turning into night. I found a house that still had part of the roof intact and I decided to make camp and continue in the morning.

The air was clear and chilly and it took a while before I was able to sleep. But sometime in the night, I was awoken by something skulking nearby. I could only see the silhouette of the creature, but it was hunched over my bag and looked through my belongings. “Who’s there?!” I demanded. But the creature didn’t turn and leapt through the window instead. I gathered all my weapons, strapped them on, and hurried out on the courtyard. The moon gave some light and allowed me to see the contours of the ruins. “Is somebody there?” I called.

There was no answer.

I held out my gun, ready to fire at a moments notice, when I heard something scurry amongst the rubble to my right. I didn’t hesitate and fired. There was no indication that I had hit anything. “I warned you,” I said with a quiver in my voice, believing I had killed someone. To my relief, I found no body, or blood, where I had shot. I considered packing my things and leave, but it would be impossible in the dark and I had come to prove the villagers wrong and I would see this through. I gathered my things and looked around, now with the lantern lit, and I noticed a glimmer to my left. Cautiously I moved closer and found another lantern lying in what seemed like a cellar entrance. Suddenly, I heard a faint moan coming from below and I shot to my feet. The sound came sporadically, and it sounded like somebody was in pain. I steeled myself, with my gun held high and my lantern higher. I descended into the dark.

The moaning became louder the deeper I went. I was becoming hard to breathe as a foul smell filled the air. On the final step, I shone my lantern on the wall and there was one, two… four people, hanging by their limbs. Their eye sockets were empty and they seemed unable to speak. One of them was stirred to life as my lantern light fell upon them. It tried to say something but writhed in pain as whatever kept them on the wall buried deeper into their flesh. I stood frozen. Who’d do something so heinous? Then I heard the most monstrous voice, more akin to nails against a blackboard than human speech.

“So this is the visitor, eh?” It said.

“He has guns,” another voice said. “And… Ooo, look at the blade, so shiny, tainted with blood.”

There was no blood on my blade, I knew, and I clutched the handle tightly but didn’t dare say anything in answer.

“Ah, you’ve startled the poor thing.”

“What’s he doing here? Does he want more gold?”

“Hmph, what he has should be plenty. Humans are so greedy.”

“So very greedy,” the other voice agreed and they burst into laughter.

Their laughs were like ice and I couldn’t take it any longer. I dropped everything and ran out of the cellar. I continued to run for miles and everything after that was a blur. Some farmers eventually found me at the edge of the woods in the neighbouring county. As they took me home, I remember seeing the sun without feeling it. Their laughs still lingered in my mind, chilling me to the bones. Ever since then, I cannot be completely warm. Even wrapped in blankets and near a fire, my veins won’t fully thaw. I spend most of my days in the parlour, where the only warm memories of my childhood soothe me. The blade still hangs on the wall above the fireplace. I can now see the blood stained on it - stains which all members of the Wholehart family share.

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