A scary tale for all ages. You've been warned... don't read this in the dark...
A Derbyshire Tale of All Hallows' Eve
By Benjamin B Lewis
The grey church loomed like a living thing out of the mist. The dank morning as dark and flinty as the sound of chisels and hammers on the stones in the distant quarries. No one else was around, at least not as far as Elizabeth could see. Her heavy petticoats dragged over the damp flagstones of the street as she clambered wearily up the hill. Her ancient stooped frame, once tall and proud laboured under the weight of a willow basket of dense bread and vegetables. Near dry leaves rattled down the street in the nearly imperceptible breeze. Soon she would be at the gate of the church. She could hear the clop-clop of a heavy horses hooves on the flagged streets somewhere far ahead and out of sight in the thickly coiling mist. She felt the deep cold of the dawn penetrating her bones.
She put out her hand to rest a moment upon a cottage wall and felt the damp, rough ancient stone under her frail fingers. She resolved to continue onward as she listened to the sound of the receding horses hooves and the clear chink of metal on stone ringing out from the quarries far above the village. Every morning for nearly a year, since news had reached the village that the Jacobite Royal Pretender Charles Stuart had turned away from his march south at Swarkestone, she walked to the church to clean and to make the reverend his breakfast.
Today was All-Hallows Eve or All Saints as the church preferred to call it. All Hallows was once a special time for her and her family but all that was behind her now. Although she smiled a little thinking of her childhood in the little cottage deep in the woods far above the village, where they celebrated these occasions with other kith and kin of like minds that gathered there with them. She remembered that the children would play and sleep in the byre, watched over by the older children as their mothers, fathers and others went to a place deep in the trees. She remembered the feeling and smell of magic as it swirled invisibly through the trees and the countryside like a rush of tingling wind.
Then came a All Hallows night, long ago but still fresh in her mind that the village folk clambered up the hillside on the quarry tracks with burning torches and set alight their home as she watched with her mother from a distant thicket of blackthorns that tore and snagged her clothes. That was the last day she had seen her father. She had left with her mother that night and they went far away.
Elizabeth had retuned to Ashover three years ago, against the protestations of her own daughter. She fulfilled a promise to her mother that her ashes would be returned to the village and place of her birth. She did not reveal her identity for those who had persecuted her family still lived amongst the village folks here. She held no grudge against the ignorant minds of those who had harmed her family.
The mist seemingly thickened as she approached the gate of the church, just visible ahead. Her aching joints struggled to the gate where she paused once more.
She still hung on to the old ways of her family that her mother had taught her and her little cottage, recently built and just outside the village was filled with the paraphernalia associated with magic, although she was careful not to let prying eyes see. She was a churchgoer too; as was her mother before her and neither her nor her mother saw a conflict in the two.
“Witch.” Came the clear whispered voice out of the mist.
Elizabeth, a cold fear clutching her heart could not see who had said it.
“Who is there?” she said, her voice trembling, her throat rasped by the cold air.
“Witch.” The voice said again. This time it sounded closer but still Elizabeth could see no one in the mist.
She tried to hurry on through the churchyard but her painful knees and sore hips would not let her. Her toe caught the edge of a flagstone and she fell onto the cold stones; her head hitting the ground hard and she saw a shower of sparks behind her eyes. Her limbs felt heavy and unmoving.
“Help!” she tried calling but her voice was meek, her body weakened by the fall onto the hard and cold damp flagstones. She pushed her arm slowly out before her to try to raise herself up slightly. She saw the bread, carrots and Swedes scattered before her and across the dewy grass. Her fingers were bloody, grazed from the fall. She moaned, saw blood drip from her face onto the wet flagstone and spread and swirl into the water droplets that had gathered on the cold stones overnight.
Out of the mist she saw two figures emerge like apparitions into slow solidity before her. She was vaguely aware she could still hear the chisels ring out from the quarry.
One of the figures spoke, “Witch.”
She stared at the two figures until they became clearer one was an old man the other much younger. They wore fine woollen robes and well-fitted cavalier boots with buckles and polished spurs.
“Thomas Bower. I see you Thomas.” She whispered painfully, recognising the old man.
“Shut up witch.” He said, a fearful edge to his voice, “Hit her Daniel!”
The young man, a handsome man of not more than 30 held a club in his gloved hand. He was hesitant and nervous.
Elizabeth remembered back to the night of her childhood when she sat behind a blackthorn thicket sobbing as her mother held her and as men burned down her beloved home. She saw those same young eyes that Daniel now possessed but were his grandfathers before him. She remembered as Thomas Bower and two others dragged her unconscious and bleeding father by his hair and clothes down the track and away somewhere that he would never be seen again. She remembered the orange glow that lit the night and flickered across her father’s distant bleeding face. She remembered the crowd of men that jeered and waved their torches as her home burned to the ground and fiery sparks billowed with illuminated grey smoke into the night.
“You took my father, burned my home and now you’ve come for me. Why Thomas Bower? Why?”
Daniel hesitated as he looked at his grandfather, “You are a Witch woman. Your father and mother before you were witches. Aberrations to be destroyed.” He said, his face contorted with hate.
“Quickly Daniel, before she curses us.”
She coughed and weakly said, “I already curse you Thomas. I curse you and any of your family or descendents that dare to step upon this hallowed ground.”
She pointed a weak and shaking bent and bloody finger at the two men and then made a symbol in her blood upon the cold wet stone beneath her.
Daniel fearfully stepped forward with the club and brought it down upon her head.
“There’s just two days to go until Harvest Festival.” Said Mrs Smith, the teacher of year 6, “We have to make sure that we’re ready to get lots of lovely food and nice baskets into the church tomorrow, so make sure you all bring your baskets and boxes tomorrow morning. And I'll see some of you in the church later.” She shouted over the cacophony of scraping chairs and squealing children making a mad rush for the playground and home.
Mathew Bower, new to the school this term ran into the playground with Dylan and Kyle, two boys he’d made firm friends with already. His short blond hair picked up the early autumn sunshine as he ran from the shade of the Victorian building into the gleaming afternoon sunlight. His mother was there as usual, smiling and ready to give him a reassuring but not overtly showy pat on the shoulder. Hugs waited until they got home.
“I’ll see you at 5!” Shouted Mathew at his two friends who acknowledged with a wave.
As they walked to the car Mathew said, “Mum, we’re going to the church tonight.” He looked intently at his mum and noticed she flinched when he said it.
“Okay. I suppose it had to happen sooner or later.” she said looking down at him as she put her hand protectively across his shoulder. Children ran past and parents chatted in knots throughout the playground, all enjoying the bonus sunshine.
“Why are you worried mum?”
“I’ll tell you the story sometime.” She said.
At 5 O’clock Dylan came to his house and they walked together to Kyle’s house. It was still warm and the sun was bright and low in the sky. They chatted, ran in short bursts, laughed, jumped, fought playfully and sometimes painfully and enjoyed summers last gasp as they walked along Moor Road into the heart of the village. The old gritstone buildings glowed like rough gold in the evening light. Windows seemingly exploded with gold or gleaming hammered bronze, their little square iron lights or thin wooden sash frames like deep black etched lines in the riot of light. The tall chestnuts, their leaves beginning to turn yellow or tipped with fire soaked up the last of the golden evening light and stood starkly against the hardening blue of the sky.
The boys were on their way to the church, knowing their friends were there helping prepare for the harvest festival with some parents and teachers. Dylan and Kyle shot through the gate shoving it open as they did so. Mathew stood at the gate, hesitant, the weight of family legend stood deep on his shoulders. Nearly three hundred years of history ominously towering over him.
Helen Bower, stood at the French doors looking out across the big garden and out beyond the beech hedge to the hills that surrounded Ashover. The dying light of summer illuminated the world like fire. She could just see a faint reflected glimpse of herself in the glass, tall and slender, her long chestnut hair framing her pretty features. She knew Mathew was going to the church. The time had come for her son to face the sins of his forefathers. She heard footsteps behind her and felt a hand upon her shoulder and she reached up and placed hers upon it. A reassuring yet apprehensive hand that belonged to her husband, Thomas Bower.
He'd heard the family legend just once, told to him by his Uncle Toby about 5 years ago. Uncle Toby, a resident of London, as they all had been until a few months ago, had for only the second time in his life just visited Ashover and the Church for the first time just the day before. So he relished in the tale of his dastardly ancestor Thomas Bower, who had heinously killed the village witch, Elizabeth Hartskell in 1746. Mathew's father shared the name with his ancient forbearer. Uncle Toby had nothing but disdain for the family legend that had supposedly driven them from their ancestral lands countless decades before. Yet Uncle Toby died, just days after, a horrible death in his own home didn't he? He remembered because it was Halloween when he had died. Dad never spoke of it and mum always promised to tell him the story but never did. Yet neither had said he shouldn't go to the churchyard... And now here he was. About to step across the threshold.
Part II Coming soon
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