The Unlucky Man – Halloween Special (3)

Today I’ve got the last post from The Unlucky Man and it’s an absolute cracker – if you haven’t already downloaded this book you can get it from Amazon now. Happy Halloween!

Up ahead, for a brief moment, I thought I saw a flame flare up, an orange beacon in the mist. It was fleeting, but I had the impression, just for a few moments, of a great bonfire, deep within the shifting currents of the marsh, and against it the silhouetted figures of men, dancing and gesturing in the light of the flames.

The light came again. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, if it was the past or glimpses of somewhere else entirely, somewhere that had never been. A carved effigy in red wood stood proudly amid the flames as they licked up all around it. Strange, ugly faces leered along its length, mad eyed human features with lolling tongues and sharp, elongated teeth. A bull’s head with a ring through the nose stared balefully next to an eagle with one overgrown eye perched above its beak. Many and more there were along the length of the wood, curving sinuously in the flames until they seemed to be moving and the whole thing looked alive. The shifting light of the fire the red wood had an almost organic feel. Fish danced with wolves, lions with bears and bats and around all strange shapes and looping patterns told a story I did not have the eyes to read.

With a sudden gout of flame, the figures before the blaze were illuminated for a split second. At their head danced a wizened old man, naked but for some skirts of leathery animal skin. His face and chest were painted with some dried orange clay and adorned with circles and slashes of white paint that glowed in the firelight.

On his face was another white ornament, the full shape of a hand, palm pressed against his left cheek, fingers splaying out across the bridge of a short nose and under his eyes, thumb print stretching down to bisect his lips. His hair was caked with the same white clay and slicked back from his head and so too was the long beard that hung limp from his chin. About his head he wore a crown of antlers and feathers, sewn with wild flowers and vines.

In his hand he held a knife of sharpened bone in the shape of a crescent moon that sparkled and shone in the orange light as he danced before the pyre. His lips were moving as if in song though no sound travelled across the stinking fen to my ears.

With a silent crack, the top of the wooden statue, a great horse’s head crowned with curling ram’s horns, broke away from the main body of the carving and tumbled into the flames. Immediately the supplicants ceased their dancing as one grabbed another by the hair, forcing his head back and exposing the long line

of his neck. That wicked curved blade arched down, cutting through the smoky air and an ardent spray painted the chunk of carved burning wood atop the pyre.

The fire died away as suddenly it had sprung into life.

Then it came again, another flash of light, and now the figures were still, fixed unmoving against the rolling fire and, though distorted and far away and glimpsed only for a second, I was left with the distinct impression that they were watching, waiting. I heard a sharp intake of breath from behind me and knew that the others had seen them too.

“What are they?” Loess whispered and, in the confines of the stinking, otherworldly place, the question “what” and not “who” didn’t seem inappropriate.

“Don”t worry,” I said in answer, “They’re not-” I paused, uncertain of how to finish the statement. It wasn’t that they weren’t real, for they were, I felt sure of it, but rather that they existed in another place and time, that we were seeing them through the skin of the world to where they truly were, somewhere older and stranger by far, a place just below this one, perhaps, but close enough to be almost touching, almost becoming one.

Amid the waters another scene was playing itself out as a procession of funeral marchers made their slow and sombre way through the mire. They were big men and tall, proud women. Long braided hair hung down past their shoulders and the men’s beards were blond and knotted. All wore armour of some description, ringed mail in the main and heavy boots, leathered shields hung at their backs.

They marched in a proud solemn line and at their head four men held aloft a craft of reeds on their shoulders, within which rested the body of one of their fallen. Gold glinted at neck and knuckle where his pale hands rested atop a short sword, the pommel carved into the shape of twin crows in flight.

Gently they lowered the boat into the water, casting it off among the reads and watching in grim silence as it floated off, carried on the current. It bobbed for a long time, edging further and further away from shore until, at length, the small craft was lost to view. Only when it was fully gone did the mourners turn and walk away, in a long line, into the swirling mists. Their shapes distorted, becoming grey shadows amongst the waters before, at last, they disappeared into the smoke.

“They’re not really there,” I said, “Not exactly. They can’t touch us, I think.” And I hoped I was right.

Confused and oppressed by the clinging fog, the stink of the brackish and rotten water, the glimpses of figures half seen and half real, we continued on, following the path to its eventual conclusion, until, at last, in the bowl between two mountains we reached a point where the world dropped down into a deep yet narrow chasm. The water flowed all around us in a slow waterfall, down over the edges of the pit, disappearing into the darkness below, consumed by it.

We stared down into the shadows. This then was where it all began, the well at the top of the world.

It seemed to swallow the light.

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