Sacrifice

Mist was rising from the fens, faint tendrils twisting, curling, folding into fog. The lights of the village huddled on a small knoll faded and disappeared. Gordon had seen many foggy evenings in the past, and knew the channels well. Still, he shivered. Every now and then a man would go missing, his life dispersed in the fog, his bones steeping somewhere in the dank water of the fens.

He was glad when he reached shore and saw the hazy lights of the village ahead. He climbed the slope to the pub, all warmth and noise and light inside, defying the night outside. A pint made him feel even better. He sipped it slowly, in no hurry to leave for his cottage. The practical village girls had all found themselves men who suited them better than a dreamer who wrote stories every chance he got.

It was an urge he couldn’t deny, even when he saw how it doomed him to loneliness. Perhaps if he moved to a town or a city, he might meet a woman who felt differently. But this was his home and he loved it here. He’d been over all this before, so there was no sense dwelling on it. He distracted himself with a second pint.

“Ho there, Gordon!” A stout man with a red face sat beside him.

“Charlie.” Although they were opposites in nearly every way, the fact he was the only other man in the village who remained single seemed to convince Charlie they were mates.

“Frightful night, ain’t it?” He tilted his mug, swallowing deeply, then wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

Gordon looked up. “A bit foggy, but it wasn’t all that bad when I came in.”

“It’s a night for wraiths if ever there was one!” His hand trembled as he poured the rest of the pint down his throat.

“I hadn’t thought you worried about that sort of thing, Charlie.” Gordon sipped carefully, then set the mug on the scarred table.

“Oh, I don’t bother with a lot of useless tales and that sort of rubbish. But this…” He bent closer, lowering his voice. “This is different. I’ve seen one myself, with my own eyes.”

“What is it you’ve seen, then?” Gordon kept his voice neutral.

“A bloody wraith! It couldn’t have been anything else, the girl’s dead!” He picked up his empty mug and stared into it.

“Mightn’t it have been someone who looks very much like her?” Gordon swallowed his last mouthful.

“No! She called after me. She knew… secrets.” He rose. “Another?” He gestured towards Gordon’s empty mug.

“No, thanks. This is my second tonight.”

Charlie darted off, returning with a brimming mug. He lifted it to his lips, throat working as he gulped it down. “You might be right at that. Won’t do to be too wobbly tonight. Thanks for the advice.”

With Charlie gone, Gordon sat staring into the fire. It was hard to imagine Charlie breaking some girl’s heart. Well, that was the traditional explanation, but the old tales said anyone who lay restless in the fens could return as a wraith. All they needed, it seemed, was anger over some wrong done to them. Knowing Charlie, he could have wronged her in many different ways.

Wraiths didn’t have to snare the one who’d wronged them, though. They could go free if anyone came with them willingly, not that such a thing was likely. He rose and left the pub. He’d never given wraiths much thought before. He walked through the village, and over the knoll, thoughts swirling more thickly than the fog. What must it be like? To be wronged, then trapped here by your outrage after you died? To wander, lost and cold? He shuddered, thinking of some poor girl who might be wandering tonight, with no way of escape.

He stood, looking out over the fens, and slowly he became aware of someone beside him.

“It’s a strange night to be out enjoying the scenery.”

He didn’t turn his head, but spoke quietly. “It is. Cold and damp and lonely. But I can escape it any time I like.”

“You’re a strange man. There aren’t many who’d possess the imagination or compassion to consider a wraith’s feelings.”

“I’ve always imagined things. It’s how I deal with the world.”

“I was always a bit imaginative myself, but I don’t think I would have been capable of such sympathy as yours.”

Gordon sighed. “I’m a lonely man. I enjoy life, yes, but I’ve nothing really to lose. If you can get free, if I can help you…”

“You know nothing about me!”

“I know you’re caught in a trap you didn’t make and don’t likely deserve.”

“Yet you can’t bear to look at me.”

He turned to face her. Her figure, grey as the fog that formed it, revealed what she must have looked like in life. She was slender, dark, and pretty. He tried to ignore her nudity. The lads at the pub probably wouldn’t look twice, but something in her face tugged at him. In that instant, he began to fall in love. It figures, he thought, I find a woman to love and she’s dead.

“Am I as horrible as you imagined?”

“I thought it might be easier if you didn’t see me, if I was just a shape to you.”

She smiled. The twist of her lips pierced his heart. “You’re a remarkable man.”

“Someone wronged you, badly enough to deny you rest. That doesn’t make you a cold-hearted monster. I can imagine how hard this must be for you.”

“And yet you aren’t seeking death. You’re offering a real sacrifice, just to set me free.”

“You can read my mind?”

“Not your thoughts, not completely, but your feelings…”

He waited.

“Revenge means nothing. I am tempted. It is colder and lonelier than even you could imagine.” She gave him a gentle smile, and his heart leapt. “But I wasn’t his first kill and I won’t be his last. I have to stop him. That’s what keeps me here.”

“Charlie?”

“Is that his name? I never knew it.”

“He came into the pub, said he’d seen you, and you told him a secret. I never suspected… well, I’ve never liked him, but I didn’t think he’d kill anyone.”

“That’s the trouble. He’s getting away with it! I have to stop him before he kills anyone else, so please go.”

Gordon stood stock still for a moment. He’d intended this as an act of kindness. He hadn’t planned on falling in love. Now, he wanted to stay with her. But she wanted something different, something that didn’t include him, just like all the other women he’d known. This sacrifice was more painful than the first, but he forced himself to respect her wishes, to move, to leave before he broke down and begged.

Alone in his empty cottage, he lay in the dark, haunted by thoughts of what he’d given up. He’d thought it would be hard to walk into the fens with her! He had no idea how to go on living without her. Gordon felt the darkness calling, everything within him rending and fading away like fog before the wind.

Outside, a woman’s scream pierced the thick curtain of fog. Lights winked on in darkened windows, voices called out, doors slammed open, figures strode into the murk.

“What was that?”

“I dunno. Over here!”

As the men closed in, the screams grew louder.

“It’s a girl who ain’t got no clothes on!”

“What’s she running from?”

“You’re dead, you bloody little bitch!”

“It’s Charlie!”

“Stop him!”

“Ow, hey! He’s got a knife!”

“Here!” There was a thud, and a man bellowed in rage.

“Got the bastard!”

A whimper cut through the heavy breathing of the other men. “It’s a trick! I’m telling you, she’s already dead. I slit the bitch’s throat myself when I’d finished with her, and dumped her in the fens.”

“Bloody hell, you hear what he’s saying? Sounds like this ain’t his first time.”

“Ah, we’ll let the police sort that out in the morning.”

“Where’s Gordon? He’s never slept through all this fuss.”

One man ran to the front of his cottage, coming back a few minutes later, face pale. “What a bloody awful night! I found him stretched out on his bed like a carving on a tomb in a cathedral somewhere.”

Huddled to one side, arms wrapped around herself, the girl sobbed. “I never meant to hurt him so much he’d swap his own life for mine.”

“What’s that, miss?” The man who’d overheard turned to the others. “Poor thing. Charlie scared her so badly, she hasn’t got her wits back yet.”

As they muttered together, the sun began to peek up out of the eastern fens. Streamers of light filled the sky, and the fog thinned and rose to meet them. Silently, the girl vowed to never forget and to join him some day.

Sacrifice

WanderingAuthor

Woonsocket, United States

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A very strange love story…

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