“Priest,” the voice whispered. A grating sound more akin to a rasp, “Thy cross is of little use if the armour behind it is broken.”
“Step into the darkness, say goodbye to the light. We live in eternity, where every day is night.”Unknown Author
“They had forgotten the first lesson, that we are to be powerful, beautiful and without regret.”Anne Rice
This is another short story for this months
Maggie woke layered in perspiration. Trickles of blood ran from the edges of a silver cross the returning nightmare forced her to grip in sleep. She dreamt, as always, of Houghton Fengrave and Eleanor Carter. The she-devil dressed in innocence and smiles. A temptress her brother had been beguiled by when stakes were supposed to render her to ash.
Maggie had fled straight into guilt. Driven by terror and not even looking to see if Jacob was following. She had lived, he was missing. Except she knew he wasn’t. Just not there as Jacob anymore. The trappings were yes, but his eyes were those of Eleanor. It was these that sent her dreaming into paralysis.
Maggie fumbled with the cross now on a small silver chain around her neck. She looked at the priest.
He nodded understanding. “The dreams are getting worse aren’t they?”
She stared back, the child acting in keeping with his words.
“Does she ever speak?”
Maggie shook her head, “She doesn’t need to.” Her words ran dry.
“You seek a meaning?”
“Is it real or just trauma at losing my brother?”
The priest laughed nervously, “Maggie, Maggie, it is both. You don’t give me much to go on. Each week you come here seeking help, but not from what.” He stared across the Mediterranean Sea, taking in the salt and watching gulls skimming the waves.
Both were seated on a balcony overlooking the beach. Maggie refused to visit his church. God had left that night, although she hadn’t totally left God. Her scarred hands proved that.
She handed him a folder. Inside were newspaper clippings.
The priest opened it. At the one tagged “Father Paul Beechworth,” he gasped muttering to himself. He cleared his throat. “This is what you hide?”
“Yes, I fear people will think me mad.”
“A priest hangs himself. This is a travesty. I had heard one of the flock had gone insane. But these other clippings are pointing in another direction.”
Maggie let him continue.
“Eleanor Beechworth. Does the name sound familiar?”
“It should. But for a slip in translation this would read Beechwood.”
Maggie looked blank.
“Elizabeth Beechwood of Marshbank House. Surely you know your local history? It is no coincidence Houghton Fengrave and this Eleanor are connected.”
“I’m sorry Father. I haven’t had time to think clearly recently.”
“Of course… I am distracted. Elizabeth had a child called Eleanor.” He drew breath and tried to stop his hands from trembling. A cold had drifted through him despite the midday heat.
“I will tell you a story. Something I have hidden for similar reasons to you. But first come. I have something to show you.”
It was 5 a.m. when the first boat arrived carrying sailors from HMS Terror. Not all were accounted for. Of one hundred and twenty nine men they had recovered thirteen. An unlucky number that none mentioned. Most survivors were shaken, wide eyed and in shock. While many assumed this was due to cold water and exposure. One did not.
“You boy,” his tone was accusing. “You jumped ship, why?”
The boy was no older than fifteen. Of the remnants of crew he seemed more alert. “Jonah onboard.” At this point his demeanour collapsed.
“Address me as Sir, boy, and pull yourself together. The Terror and Erebus are substantial assets that need accounting for. Not only that, but you are wildly off course.”
“Aye, Sir.” The boy stood and gripped a railing for support. He shivered even though the sun was now above the horizon. It brought both warmth and safety. “The passenger list had a woman, most beautiful she is too.”
“Too young for that lad, move on.”
“There came a dense fog. A man with red eyes stood at the bow. He brought it in from clear seas off Cornwall and steered a course unknown. We lost sight of the Erebus within minutes.”
The Captain rolled his eyes.
“Then the screaming started. The deck ran red.”
“You’re supposed to throw Jonah’s overboard not the other way round.”
“It wasn’t that simple Sir, I’ve never seen such strength. She looked and the crew just fled o’erboard. Leapt into the sea to be lost in the fog.”
“And you lot?”
“Jumped in freely Sir.”
“And the ship is where?”
The boy looked scared. “I don’t know Sir.”
The priest stood near a hearth in his parlour. He pointed to a mirror that hung above the mantle. “This,” he announced, “came to me in a most curious circumstance.”
Maggie humoured him, “It looks lovely.”
He smiled, “You’re a terrible liar Maggie, it’s why I find your circumstances all the more believable.” He looked into it, then pulled away sharply. “It’s claimed this mirror has supernatural powers. At least the man who appeared one day said.”
Her eyes felt drawn to look. As she did so it appeared to lose definition. It made her feel dizzy.
A hand took her arm offering support, “I was advised not to look too long. Advice I ignored and now have to live with the consequences. You do not.”
Maggie sat down confused. “I don’t see what this has to do with my nightmares.”
“This mirror,” he continued,” comes from a house in Houghton Fengrave. It belonged to Elizabeth Beechwood.” There he paused to see if Maggie was listening. Satisfied he carried on, “I am told in her house there was a room that people entered and failed to return from. The man who carried this here claimed to have fled into it to get this very object away from a madman. One who used this and became possessed by its owner. Then carried out atrocities and murder.”
Maggie felt hairs rising on her neck. “Are you sure what he said is true?”
The priest nodded, “Yes.” He pointed toward the mirror, eyes looking down. “She appears in it.” He left this trail here. “The point is through this and the man, Conrad, pieces of your clippings tie in. Elizabeth herself was led from that room. Into a kitchen where there was a cellar. Within that was a hatch, leading to a false wall where a child had been bricked in alive.”
Maggie’s face drained. To be buried alive was one thing. Jacob had mentioned the watchmen as they entered the cemetery. Listening for the tinkling of a bell as some poor soul opened their eyes in the blackness. That didn’t bear thinking about. Saved by the bell had solid foundation as a saying. But to brick up a child that was not even comatose was unthinkable.
“I see this sits badly Maggie, as it should for any normal circumstance.”
“But you’re a priest dammit.”
“And an exorcist.” He looked at her gauging reactions, “Another thing I keep secret lest all manner of miscreants seek blessings of a different kind.” He turned toward a bookcase. In it was a panel which he pulled aside. Within that was a latch. This he released and the shelving opened outwards.
Another small room came into view. This was floor to ceiling in oak. On it were books and parchments. All looked old. Some were written in long dead languages, but her eyes rested on a cabinet. The staves within it she did recognise. More elaborate than those they had entered the graveyard with, but the function remained the same.
“What are you really father?”
He picked a book from the case, “Read this when time allows Maggie.”
The title was in French, Affaire des possédées de Loudun. She looked quizzical.
“I know you are fluent in several languages. This is an example of why such matters are not public. However, this distracts from your question.” He paused, contemplating before taking courage from his own faith. “The story goes the child was a monster, a sanguisage from a time long before the Beechwood’s took the house. The marsh was once pasture. It was created to purge a folly in the centre. Some say this is the resting place of the child’s creator, others say it is a gateway to Hell itself. Either way it has passed into common lore as unconsecrated. A desecrated place that is a door to another world full of magica and daemons.”
“If it were not for Eleanor I’d think you a madman.”
“Hence the need for secrecy.”
“But what has all this to do with my nightmares?”
The priest sighed as his hand subconsciously toyed with his rosary. “Elisabeth was lured to the cellar by the revenant child. There she was bitten by the husk that remained as she tried to remove the corpse. She herself was unwittingly turned. At the time she was with child. However, both perished in a great fire. That, I thought drew closure. Until,” again he paused as if realising it all sounded incredulous, “Conrad brought me the mirror.”
Maggie was getting exasperated, “It makes no sense. If she died in a fire before childbirth then her unborn perished. Purged to use church language.”
“Agreed,” the priest closed the wall panel. “The mirror is the key. I looked into it, God forgive me, and Elisabeth showed me her past. The child is much older than she… it leaves an alternate explanation.”
“Eleanor is either her mother, grandmother or some remote ancestor. The likeness between them is too great to offer a separate lineage.”
“Then the blood lust is endemic in their genealogy.”
He nodded, “Right back to the bricked up child and the folly. Whatever rests in the unconsecrated ground sired the child. Eleanor is old. Possibly returned to seek the source. She needed the house so when the Beechwood’s moved in there was an avenue to explore.”
“The room again. History says it does many things including showing a path to the folly that can be seen from nowhere else. It is why it casts anyone who enters deep into the past. It waits because this was the room of the bricked up child.”
“Then why am I being hunted?” Anger was building as again time was floating toward a new night and yet more dreaming.
“Did you not try to stake her? You revealed yourself to her. She will hunt everyone down to protect herself. That, Maggie, now includes me.”
Two figures watched HMS Terror listing to port. It was cloaked in fog. A fitting death shroud. It’s hull rusted as if centuries of decay had set in. Soon nothing remained as it sank beneath the waves. Around the pair mists swirled blocking the sun.
Eleanor was courteous, as always, but turned to Jacob. “Thank you for your services.” With that she slit his throat pushed him off the cliff to join the wreck now resting unseen below.
She turned and smiled. “Now for the priest with failing faith.”
Maggie gasped and all but fainted.
“What is it?” The priest caught her fall.
“Jacob is dead.”
“How in heaven can you know that?” He avoided the obvious. He already knew she had left him to the succubus before fleeing England.
“Because she let me know. Just now.”
“Crazy, impossible, supernatural?” She tapped the book he’d given her. “Witch like?”
“I didn’t say that,” he sighed and glanced through his window. The sun was ebbing. How had midday advanced to evening so quickly?
“I know Father, but we are out of time.”
“She is here already?”
Maggie nodded. Her heart had stilled now. Fear of the dark replaced by acceptance another morning might not rise. “Perhaps if we had been more frank and less secretive time might have provided a better defence.” She gently placed the book on a side table. If live to rise tomorrow, I shall return to read this.”
“We are not dead yet and the biggest armour we have is faith.”
Maggie snorted, “Then I am as doomed as you.”
“What makes you say that?”
“She told me yours has failed.”
For those interested HMS Terror and Erebus were real ships. They left England in 1845 to chart the North West passage. Both vanished without trace. Assumed lost in the Arctic. The date range ties in with this story, give or take a few years. I have used these with a touch of poetic license.