I retired from London soon after the fatal accident that took them from me, as I needed time to be on my own, come to terms with my grief and to bury myself in my writing. I do not remember the journey to the mansion where I used to spend long, hot summers with my wife and child, so deep I was in internal reflection. Yet I found myself one dreary early December noon standing alone outside on the wet gravel drive that lead up to its grey stone facade.
The wind had an early winter chill in the air, so I pulled my great coat close-to and hurried up to the front door. Finding myself standing in the entrance hall, I found it cold and uninviting, with a lingering smell of damp. The house appeared to be in quite the abysmal state. The staff had clearly not given the house the cleaning it had required in some weeks, if not months.
Had it been that long? It struck me that I had forgotten my own affairs, perhaps even forgetting to pay them. I made a mental note to rectify the situation, as it was too late to raise attention to it, then went to the drawing room to set about lighting a fire.
After this was done, I sat down in a dusty leather chair, still wearing my outdoor attire which seemed to offer no avail against my frozen abode, and watched the flames dance in the hearth. My writing arm throbbed with a dull ache that I recalled had been unremittingly persistent on my journey, so I rubbed it keenly, my thoughts turning to trivial matters.
It occurred to me that I had not brought any luggage with me, mistakenly believing that I had clothing in the house for just an occasion. Of course, this was a summer house, so anything I'd had left previously would be woefully inadequate for the weather. There should be plenty of food in the storage area, but the general upkeep of the place gave me some cause for concern as to what I would find.
That said, if I had to live with what was in the cupboards, however meagre, then so be it - I wasn't hungry. The village shop would be open the next day if needs be.
I spent a short time watching the fire die down, allowing myself to doze a while. My dreams were full of imagery I'd hoped to forget. Her face, her scent, the sound of my daughters voice. It always comes back. Then my mind would roll over into darkness once again and all I could recall was the screaming of horses, the clatter of wood, pale faces and the metallic taste of blood.
I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and turned my mind to plans for the night ahead. Before I had set out, I had elected to spend my evenings writing. There were things, important things, that I had to write down and with each passing day they ebbed away. So I trudged to the back of the house and walked into my study, which was in the same state as I'd left it some months prior only now coated with a thick layer of dust.
Wandering over to my desk, I removed my coat and slung it around the back of my chair before sitting down. The leather rests were chilled and uncomfortable, but it would soon warm up. Opening a drawer, I found it contained enough ink and paper to keep me happy, or at least approximately so, for a good long while.
So, I sat down and set to making my preparations, the physical pain of my arm and the cold put aside to allow for the anaesthesia of creation, and as I began my scribbling I allowed all mortal concerns to fade away. Hunger and cold be damned. The pain in my arm be damned.
At least two hours passed before I allowed myself to look up. I had fervently written several thousand words by this point, my nib scratching at the paper as it raced across each page. I could not say for certain if each sentence was particularly satisfying, as pleasing my more finicky creative side was not my intent. Usually I did not want to look back, but to progress, move on, then do the editing when the final story is laid bare on the page. Only in this case, I wasn't writing a story. More... a confession. I leant back and allowed the pain in my arm to rush back, put my pen down and took a breath.
Looking up, my eyes wandered to the window and the wild darkness outside. A gust of wind rattled the glass squares in their wooden frame and I gave a shiver, my attention settling on the hill that rose beyond the garden. It cut through the horizon; a curved knife edge, ragged soil rent asunder by the farmers heavy plough. The sky still held some light, clouds glowing a dark blue as they gusted quickly over the ridge. And there, a figure.
I sat up, startled. I hadn't expected to see anyone braving the weather on a night like this. It struck me as odd, as it was hardly the sort of evening to take a walk - if anything, it was the sort of evening that would mean you would catch the most damnable chill, if not even death.
I stood and slung my greatcoat back on, as my consciousness had returned from its internal fantasy and the chill of the mansion now clung to me. Putting on my eye glasses I paced around the desk toward the window to take a closer look at the silhouette beyond.
The glass was not perfect in my country retreat. Each square had an imperfection that flung the world beyond into a distorted spasm like a defective lens. I leant to one, my nose pressed up against the pane, to take a closer look at the lonely figure above. Scrunching up my eyes, I nearly came to the conclusion that I was mistaken and I had taken a gnarled, weather-worn tree for a person. But as the image swam before me, in and out of focus as my vision danced across the warped glass, I made out a tall figure wrapped in ragged cloth, with what appeared to be deer horns jutting sharply out of its head.
Startled, I jumped away from the window. Glancing about in distraction, putting my hand to my mouth, my mind whirled as a cold pit dropped in my stomach. Disbelieving, I looked again. The figure stood on the curve of churned black soil, clouds swirling about it, the very image of something from Dante's darkest poetry. And worse...
... I swore I could feel it looking at me.
I stumbled back into the edge of my desk. The feeling was almost indescribable. The terrible apparition had reached its alien will toward me, and an overwhelming urge struck me like a wave to step out into the dark and join it up on that cold, lonely ridge.
Resisting, I left my drawing room and hurried downstairs to the other side of the mansion, away from the creature to the front of the house where I had arrived that afternoon. The corridor was dark and barely illuminated through the small window above the entrance. Clutching the catch at the door, I stood at the exit, ready to throw it open and run down to the village for aid.
But instead, I held myself in check and turned to look back, past the stairs to the back door. My body was racked with a revulsion to the entity but my mind could not remove itself from it. My muscles were taut, willing me to open the door and flee as fast as I could muster back down to my neighbours beyond. But I could not shake the feeling that destiny was calling me to take my chances and confront the demonic presence, whatever the outcome.
I thought hard. Around me the house shifted and creaked. Cold air crawled through the gaps in around the door. The corridor was wreathed in shadow and I felt the entire house retracting from the chill wind outside. The rear exit stood at the end of the corridor, a blank grey rectangle, pulling me towards it. Releasing the catch, I took several faltering steps; then relented, speeding to the rear door and flinging it wide. Wind rushed against my face and through my hair, the garden, devoid of life, stretching out before me, brought to life by the rush of the last dead leaves torn from the complaining autumn trees.
And there the sentinel stood, high up on its cruel mountain, horns piercing the sky, ruined cloak streaming in the gale.
I pushed against the wind and down the stone steps to the garden, pulling up the lapels of my coat, hand shielding my eyes from the weather. The smooth soles of my leather shoes slipped on the wet grass, once vibrant in the summer and now a sickly green-grey. I pressed on to the bushes between the garden and the field, forcing my way through them, cursing as my coat tore across the grasping twigs that clawed against it. Then up and over the fence, my right arm complaining once again, and onto the rocky, jagged earth behind, being careful not to lose my footing in fear of breaking an ankle.
Then began the climb. The hill stretched before me, reaching up into the tempestuous, roiling clouds. The figure was closer now and although I could see no detail, I started to gain an impression of its size. It was tall, taller than any gentleman or soldier I had ever known, and stood proud against the winds that lashed at it mercilessly. I gathered an impression of a figure of great physical power and strength.
I continued my climb, pulling my thick woollen coat closer-to. My glasses were now flecked with rain and wore down heavy and cold on my nose, my beard only just affording me some warmth. One would have seemed quite a sight to an observer, my unkempt red hair streaming behind me, my trousers stained from the dark earth as I awkwardly made my way up the ever-increasing aspect of the hill, occasionally failing to stop myself stumbling to my knees.
I looked up. Closer now, my fears were confirmed. The creature was certainly no man. I could see now that the dirty rags were in fact a heavy, torn cloak swathed around a slender yet powerful frame. It appeared to be wearing some form of ornate, black leather armour, a figure torn from some surreal historical battleground. Its arms and hands were covered in sinewy, metallic gauntlets and its feet were wrapped in similarly adorned greaves. A long helmet elongated its head into a bullet-shape, itself finely patterned. From that the antlers sprouted through it, as if grown from temples of the beast itself. It was huge, at least fifteen feet tall, and a terrible apparition to behold. Fear clutched at my breast.
I drew near and balanced myself. The creature turned its head and gazed down at me. I could not see eyes, but I could feel its attention.
The voice boomed inside my skull, as weathered and old as the rocks the hill was built on, the sound of the plates of the earth grinding together in the back of my mind. The impact of it nearly knocked me off my feet and my head ached from a great stress. My eyesight briefly spotted black with the shock of a sudden migraine, for the beast had not spoken to me, but into me.
I croaked a greeting in return, but whether I actually spoke a coherent word I could not say. I was completely frozen in fear, a fawn facing a hunters rifle, legs shaking and body racked with cold. I was scared I was going to faint there and then onto the hard earth, possibly to never wake up again. My arm ached again with a dull throb, a painful reminder that what I was witnessing was all too real.
The creature shifted its weight and I could feel the black metal boots grind down into the mass of earth and stone below it. It didn't so much stand on the hill as inhabit it as part of nature itself.
I coughed, looked up, then was surprised to hear my own reedy voice.
"Are you... are you a demon?"
It was all I could muster. It seemed so weak, so obvious, but I felt lucky to be able to command any sort of speech at all. The creature stood silent. It struck me that it was thinking. Then, again, it spoke, and I felt the sick feeling at the back of my skull once more as the low, granite tones racked slowly through my brain.
Demon. I have been called that.
I allowed myself a second of composure.
"Wh... why have you... come f-for me?"
The demon threw its head back and laughed. The force of it in my mind pushed me to my knees, hands falling down into the mud and grit, my head weighed by internal pressure. As suddenly as it began, it stopped and I looked up to see the figure once more regarding me in stony silence.
After a moment, it lifted its head and appeared to be looking down into the valley. I traced its gaze and twisted myself back to see what it was regarding. Beyond my mansion, back across the gravel drive, through a copse and to the cluster of grey slate rooves that huddled together against the elements. Soft orange light from the windows betrayed the life within, as did the tall chimneys that streamed thin smudges of smoke that were pulled thin with the wind.
I watch the village.
The voice still rattled the inside of my skull but had now turned gentle. I turned back to look at it over my shoulder.
Understand I am not the judge, nor the executioner. I am the collector.
The beast raised a hand and pointed down into the valley.
When they are ready, I will lead them to where they must go.
It turned its gaze back to me.
I am not the only one.
I struggled back up to my feet and balanced myself, sick and weary, head pounding. The demon looked down from on high, the wind whistling across its armour, the ribboned cloak waving against the clouds.
I am yours.
I steadied myself as my mind raced in confusion. Then, looking down at my hands that were thick with black soil, something released itself from the darkest recess of my consciousness. Raising them to my face, I leant to them and breathed in deeply. The damp, warm, almost metallic smell of earth. I recalled the taste of it, mixed in with blood. Gravel against my face, ground into my top lip. My arm bent back. Immediately I was struck with a sharp pain where the dull throb haunted me.
Staggering, I held my forearm and steadied myself.
I looked once more at the implacable, featureless mask of the demon. It nodded. Turning back to my sleeve, I took a breath and pulled it back. There was no blood, but my arm looked as if something had taken a bite out of it. An arc of grey flesh had been torn up to the bone.
I heard myself as if I were at the other end of a vast tunnel. My wife, pulling me from the wreckage, my daughter clinging to my breast. I screwed up my face and began to sob, dropping again to my knees, clutching the distorted ruin of my arm.
The anguish wracked my body as the reality of my situation hit me. The storm clouds above raced ever fast, the rain drove harder, the creature itself seemed to grow taller, to dominate all around it. Never in my life had I felt such misery and as I sunk further in, the more oppressive the beast and landscape became.
But what could I do, outside of accept the situation? What's done is done, in the eyes of God.
Resolve returned to me, slowly. My breath slowed and I could feel my brow knit as I attempted to regain myself.
I raised my head back to the creature.
"How long has it been?"
It is not for me to know.
Slowly I stood once more. My fear began to ebb away and as it did, I realised that the sky had begun to lighten. I looked again at the valley below. The storm clouds had gone and it was morning. The sun streamed down from behind me, casting my shadow long across the tilled earth.
Holding my arm up, I saw that the terrible injury had disappeared. I couldn't do anything but bring myself to smile. Then I felt something step to my side, and I turned.
It was the creature, still standing tall, the same pointed helmet, the same antlers reaching out into the sky, but now without its ferocious aspect. Instead it looked elegant, beautiful. I could see the ornate detail in its leather armour, the horns were covered with a green moss and through the slits in the helm golden eyes regarded me with a gentle concern. The robe wasn't torn, but ribboned. A slender arm reached out, hand open.
We leave when you are ready.
The voice no longer hurt me.
I turned back to the mansion. At the study window I could see a pale face staring back.
It was her.
* * *
As she gazed up at the grave on the hill, she thought she could see two figures. The light from the morning sun made it difficult to see, so she raised a hand against it and squinted. The tall gravestone stood against the light, yet there was no-one standing on the ridge. Despite herself, she felt someone looking back at her. Yet it wasn't an unpleasant feeling; rather, she felt at ease, at peace. Possibly for the first time since...
The sound of her daughter playing in the corridor called to her attention. She called out to her, then peered once more through the square panes of glass. All she could see was his grave. The feeling of peace remained yet the presence had disappeared. Her thoughts were always with him. Always. Yet until now she'd always felt as if he'd left this earth without the opportunity to bid her farewell.
Now, she felt something akin to release.
The thought made her giddy, so she sat back down into his old leather armchair holding her head. As she did so, her other hand fell to the table and onto a set of papers. Regaining her senses, she looked at them puzzled. Were they there when she moved back for the summer? She couldn't say...
Taking them up, she began to read. She smiled forlornly, and as she did so, she began to cry.