The dark figure scurried, black robe dragging in the dry leaves blowing round the spiral stone steps; steps that were worn to the tread of centuries past.
Musty air parted, laden with dust and smells of powdered bones; dry death; things once rotten, now light and brittle. Cobwebs snagged unnoticed on the shoulders, mingling grey threads with darker stains of age.
The figure hurried on, its stunted arms ending in huge hands that clutched and pulled on the dry-stone walls. Upward, upward and out under a black sky that moved and swirled, announcing a coming storm. No sun or moon, just lowering darkness, suddenly riven by lightning, throwing into relief the worn turrets, the squat figure turning, the black hood pointing backwards, turning to show the front, face hidden in cowled shadows, the face –
Allie bolted upright. Her chest heaved. She stared at the blank bedroom wall, still seeing the turrets, the shadowed hood. Her gasps slowed and she moaned with relief as she realised where she was, realised it was only the dream – again.
Rick turned uneasily. His eyelids fluttered. Allie laid her hand on his warm shoulder, re-assuring herself. Her other hand felt her head, her hair sticking down, soaked with sweat. Sweat ran across her eyebrow and down her cheek. She shivered and pressed her fingers tighter, holding on to Rick.
'For Christ’s sake, Allie, not again,' Rick muttered, waking and pulling away from her.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' she gasped, breathing easier now. Hold me, she willed, just hold me, but he sat up and switched on the bedside light, the lines of his body tense and angry.
'Look at the time. Quarter to three. Allie, you know I have to be up at six.'
'Rick, I can’t help it.' She felt tears coming, pushed them back.
'We can’t go on like this,' Rick turned off the light and flopped down. 'Either you’ll have to go and see someone about these dreams, or I’ll have to move into the spare room.' He turned his back, pulled the sheet tight across his body. Allie lay down, silent so he could sleep. Separate rooms. The idea threatened her. She lay stiff, afraid of disturbing Rick, afraid to sleep.
Ethundrel sat at the top of the tower, watching. The sky formed and re-formed, grey and black above him. Below, the mist swirled, punctuated by the tops of stunted trees. Except for the whisper of wind through the castellations, it was quiet. He hugged his rusty robe about his knees, watching for movement. Something was wrong, something was happening inside his head. His eyes fixed, staring into the distance, into a sky that was blue, not black.
One corner of his mind wondered that there was no pain from that sky, but the rest was filled with amazement at the creature that walked there; a female with small eyes, blue as the cloudless sky, her hair pale yellow and silky, like the tassels on the barley that he nursed and coaxed each year. Grass grew in abundance and red flowers were visited by insects that buzzed in the scented air.
Ethundrel could see drops of dew glittering in the joints of leaves and tracing the edges of petals, despite the shining sun, but the woman seemed oblivious to the wonder of this. She walked aimlessly and a frown marred her face.
The buzzing changed, grew louder, intolerable. Ethundrel put his hands to his ears, transfixed. A monster came flying at him, black and shiny, with glaring eyes, roaring, so fast that he could not move aside and the woman still seemed unaware.
He screamed to her, hands outstretched to ward it off, and fell back, striking his spine against the stone turrets, clutching to stop himself tumbling over into the misted tree tops.
His eyes hurt, stabbed by the rays of sun that had pierced the rolling blackness while he had been looking at that other sky, and he threw up an arm to deflect the light, quickly pulled over his hood and rubbed away the stinging pain beneath his eyelids in the cool darkness afforded by the cowl.
His breath came ragged as he lay back on the floor, reducing the fearful monster to the dream image it surely was, but a screw of longing turned inside him, remembering the impossible green of the grass and the silken beauty of the woman’s hair.
The burning sky had not seemed to touch her. Ethundrel got to his feet. The rolling cloud had once more put out the beams of light. He climbed down into the dim cool of the tower, the echoing steps familiar under his feet.
By two a.m. the party had wound down to the quiet intimacy that Allie liked best. She looked at Rick, who was chatting to Alan across the room. He leaned against the wall, over Alan, his face animated. His brown hair flopped forward into his eyes. She wanted to stand behind him, run her hands over his chest, press herself close and feel his back and buttocks.
'How often do you have this dream?' Maria's large, dark eyes were fixed on her.
Allie bit her lip, brought back to the coterie of women. At least Maria was taking it seriously. She shrugged.
'Two or three times a week, over the last month or so.' She looked into Maria’s eyes, saw sympathy, wobbled on the edge of tears and looked away, at Rick.
Patsy lit a joint and sucked on it. Her straight blonde hair swung across her face as she shook out the match.
'Is it always the same?' She leaned back, holding her breath, then puffed out the smoke.
Allie took the joint, steadying herself. She hesitated, guilt touching her lightly, but the promise of pleasure, release from her fears, overcame it. It wouldn’t do any harm, she told herself, after all, she wasn’t even sure yet. She took a long pull and felt better, gathering her thoughts as the smoke burned her lungs.
'More or less,' she said on her exhaled breath, passing the joint over to Maria. 'It – he sits on top of the tower. He doesn't seem to see me, or do anything, but there's a sense of awareness', she broke off and felt in her mind, 'as if, as if each time, he comes closer to me, our worlds come nearer. I don't know – it's like each time I know a bit more about him, even though he scares me to death. Last night I saw his eyes for the first time. They were huge, but not as frightening as I thought they would be, you know, when I could only see his hood. Big blind eyes, like some night creature.'
'How horrible.' Patsy stared at her. 'What a nightmare. I would die! I would just die! Is he really scary?'
'It’s not like that.' Allie almost smiled at Patsy’s horror. 'It's not so much him, he's weird all right, his arms and legs don't look right, but like some strange animal, there's a softness, a sadness about him. It's the place, the atmosphere, it's so black, always black – and it's somehow so...real.'
Patsy’s eyes were glazed, her lips parted as she listened. Allie shook herself, smiled wryly at Maria.
'This is silly. Let's talk about something else.'
'Have you spoken to anyone else about this?' Maria sucked on the joint and passed it on. Allie picked at her skirt.
'Rick thinks I should see a psychiatrist. He thinks I'm crazy.’ The words came out tinny with fear. She looked up defiantly. Maria’s eyes were calm.
'I don’t think that’s a good idea,' she said. 'I've got a friend who's experienced in the paranormal.'
'What, ghosts and all that?' Patsy’s eyes were brilliant. She leaned forward staring at Maria.
'You don’t think it’s a ghost?' Allie said uncertainly.
Maria shrugged. 'What do you think it is?' The joint came to Allie again but she refused it and passed it to Patsy, avoiding Maria's stare.
'Whatever it is, it's persistent,' said Maria. ‘Have you been anywhere like the tower recently, old castles, stately homes?'
Allie shook her head, puzzled. She felt cold, thinking about it. The sound of Rick and Alan laughing made her feel better.
'It's probably just some bogey from childhood, working its way out,' she said, unconsciously siding with Rick.
'Look, don't get tied up with psychiatrists. You'll end up on medication you don’t need, with syndromes you never heard of. Jesus, Allie, you could end up worse than when you started. Give my friend a try. There could be all sorts of explanations for this kind of thing.' Maria wrote down a name and address on a scrap of paper.
Allie took the note, surprised. She had only spoken about the dream as a conversation opener, but Maria seemed really concerned. She realised how worried she had been herself. She had needed to talk about it. No one had scoffed. She looked down at the address. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to try it.
Ethundrel had only to close his eyes now to see the woman, but he was torn between his longing for her and the sweet things of her world, and his fear of the roaring monsters that seemed to roam her environment at will.
He sat in the cool darkness at the base of a tree. The forest trees retained enough leaves to protect him should the sun come out. Hunger had driven him from the tower, searching for movement, life. He had caught a rabbit, a sickly specimen, but meat of any kind was rare.
The woman was talking among other women in a room. They drank from clear vessels. There were no monsters. Her beauty shone against the other two.
''Tis not a dream,' Ethundrel whispered to himself, conscious of his wakefulness. A vision? But why? He pondered as he made his way back to the tower through the silent wood, the rabbit swinging from his waist.
'There are two ways of looking at this.' Portia Vane tented her fingers, grey eyes regarding Allie calmly. 'Either you’re trying to tell yourself something, or someone else is.'
'What do you mean?' Allie was taken aback. 'You mean my subconscious?'
'Subconscious – unconscious, whatever. Maybe.'
'I thought of that,' said Allie, 'but what? And why the hooded figure?'
'Something hidden, somebody tall and threatening. Some family secret?' Portia smiled.
'But I come from a happy family. Really,' Allie cried. 'And why now, suddenly now?'
'Has something changed recently? Something different in your life?'
Allie felt uneasy. She began to feel resentful of Portia's line of questioning. What qualifications did she have for all this analysis? Only the questionable validity of Maria's recommendation.
She looked over the sparsely furnished room. There was nothing to give any clues regarding the owner's experience of the paranormal. No crystal balls, pentacles, no framed certificates on the walls, and yet – perhaps she was right. Allie's hand covered her stomach.
'I hadn’t thought of that,' she said haltingly.
Portia raised an eyebrow but didn’t press her.
Look, I’m no psychiatrist,' she said, 'I've just talked to a lot of people who have had paranormal experiences. Call it a hobby, an interest. Maybe I'll write a book about it one day. Anyway, repeated dreams of this kind of intensity indicate some kind of message is trying to come through, if not from inside, then from out.'
'You mean a ghost?' Allie sat back in her seat.
'I don’t like labels,' said Portia, sitting back too. 'It could be something as simple as vibrations, trapped in a building you've visited. Something that happened in the past, never resolved, forever sending out vibrations. You may be sensitive to it, pass by and pick it up. Might have nothing to do with you personally.'
'On the other hand, it might.' Portia tapped a long red fingernail against her teeth. The room seemed darker, almost menacing despite its simple furnishings. Allie suddenly felt afraid. The very ordinary Portia seemed threatening. She wanted to escape.
'Well, what should I do?'
'Try to listen dear, that's my advice.' Portia smiled encouragingly. 'If it's trapped energy, it will dissipate through you after a while. If it's important it will come out anyway. Just try to relax. Don't fight it. It doesn't mean you any harm.'
Allie thought about it as she drove home. How could she relax when she was so terrified of the dream? Each night she fought sleep, tense with fear. She was still biting her lip when she let herself into the flat.
Rick was home and in a good mood. She didn't tell him about Portia Vane. He would scoff and get annoyed that she hadn't followed his advice. Anyway, she had other news. She shrugged off her uneasiness and put the dream memories firmly to the back of her mind.
She sat at the dining table as Rick drained a pan of pasta. Her hands stroked her stomach under the table as he served the meal.
'I’ve got something to tell you,' she said gently. 'I went to the doctor's today.'
Ethundrel left his room in the tower and went slowly down the turning steps. He hesitated at the bottom, outside the door on his left opposite the arch that led outside. He pushed the unlocked door and showers of dust flew as it creaked open. He had never opened the door since Caladriel had died.
He stopped in the doorway, mind rolling back to the time when there had been others. His mother, Caladriel his little sister and the one-legged man. He struggled for the name. Cordor? Was it Cordor?
Even then they had mostly kept out of the main building. It had made them afraid. Cordor had remembered the men who had lived there, men who worshipped the god and wore long skirts. The god had caused their deaths, all the deaths. Cordor had told him this as they sat round the tiny fire in the tower room on cold nights. Cordor had tried to explain it to him but Ethundrel had never understood.
His feet sank in the thick dust of the dim room. He looked up at the high carved and vaulted roof, keeping a hand over his eyes to ward off the coloured light that filtered through the stained glass windows.
They had kept his mother here for many days when the thick snow had come and they had been unable to dig a grave. Cordor himself had lain here waiting while he and Caladriel had struggled to make a big enough hole.
He tried not to look at the big cross but his gaze was drawn to the dull, tarnished metal. Once, when Caladriel awaited her burial, the light had struck it so fiercely it had burned his eyes. He drew closer to it, dragging his feet reluctantly. The soft rags tied round his ankles swished across the floor. Why he was there, he did not know but something had drawn him. He felt as if something were about to be explained and despite his fear, curiosity drove him on.
On the great table before the cross were candlesticks and books in woolly dust jackets. Cordor had forbidden them all to touch them. He'd said they were a source of evil. Convinced of the truth of Cordor's words, Ethundrel had put them out of his mind but now he was tempted to examine them for himself. His shaking fingers brushed dust from the largest book. The huge room seemed to hold its breath as he turned the cover, felt the unfamiliarity of the stiff board, heard the seductive whisper of the first page, worn thin with age.
A rat ran across the table and Ethundrel was almost drawn away by this sudden, unexpected promise of food, but it was gone almost at once and he looked down on the strange marks on the paper, marks that meant nothing.
Page after page revealed nothing but regular rows of dots and lines. No evil came to strike him, not explanations to account for the visions. He looked up, weary of the empty pages. All was dim and silent. He sighed, closed the great book and idly took up another smaller one and opened it to see the roaring monster from his dreams. His breath rushed out in a surprised gasp that rustled and echoed round the carved corners like a confirmatory whisper. It was a sign.
He clutched at the pages, careless of their fragility, looking greedily at the pictures; other people, dressed strangely, but people like himself, male and female, and many, many roaring monsters, not roaring now, but he had heard them in the dream.
He looked away into his mind and when he looked back at the page she was there, the woman of the dream. He bent close, huge eyes peering at the faint images. It was her, he was sure, but she was older, much older. She sat with others on a platform behind a man, a young man, clear of eye and fair of brow – and he looked so much like her.
Ethundrel’s finger moved from the man's face to her face. She looked so proud. She gazed adoringly at the man who was not looking at her but out, out at Ethundrel with an air of great knowledge. Ethundrel immediately remembered how his mother had used to stroke his hair back, long ago. She used to whisper words of love. This man was the woman’s son.
Ethundrel stood back, shocked. The dream was not a dream. What did this mean? He turned more pages. The man was in all the pictures. His importance dominated everyone. There were many men subdued to him. There were bigger and stronger monsters.
The pictures blurred and faded. Things were adding up in Ethundrel's mind. The room reeled about him. All the years he had spent alone, for what purpose? The time he had spent watching from the tower without ever seeing another human had seemed pointless – but now?
This dream – this vision – a message – perhaps the reason that he alone had been spared. He had thought it a punishment of some sort to suffer the endless loneliness but with a sudden exaltation he realised there was a link, some sort of channel from him to her. The book came to an end but he knew it was only a beginning and he knew what came next. The importance of his own continued existence crumbled before the sudden belief that if he concentrated really hard, if he could only show her, maybe the book would never be written.
Allie came out of the supermarket, mentally counting the ingredients for her chicken casserole, reminding herself to get back to the office by two, when he was there in her mind and she froze on the pavement.
He looked straight at her across the dim mist in the treetops and she thought she must be dreaming again, but the weight of the shopping in her bag and the noise of the traffic all around rooted her in reality. Fear raced through her at this daylight invasion. His great eyes seemed to search blindly for her and she softened as she saw despair hiding there. He was trying to tell her something.
She remembered Portia Vane's advice to listen, re-assured herself that he meant her no harm. Fear receded as pictures began to unreel in her mind. It was as if she could see his thoughts, his world. Her surroundings faded as she looked in horror at the burning, dangerous sun, the stunted sickly plants, the deadly stillness of the landscape. She felt his anguish at the silence, the loneliness and her heart welled to help him, all fear forgotten.
He took her down the steps, through the echoing building. His memories came wordlessly, with all the sorrow of past struggles and future hopelessness, then he opened the book and she sensed his dread of the brazen cross that hung above him, felt the woolly dust tickle her nostrils, took the shock as she looked at the pictures of herself, one of Rick, lined and wrinkled beside the young man who shone so fair and zealous. There were tears now in the great round eyes, and the dwarfish hands pulled down the cowl so that she could see the bald, scabby head in all its ugliness.
'What do you want from me?' She threw the words into the pool of images, for a second shattering the pleading from those haunting eyes, then all at once she understood and her hand flew to her stomach.
'My baby! He wants my baby!' She turned in panic, trying to avoid the kaleidoscope of pictures that crowded grimly, pressing on her brain, her body. She tottered away. She must escape, save her child. 'You were wrong', she thought viciously at Portia Vane.
'Get away!' she hissed at the horrid figure that was at once pathetic and terrifying. She began to run, heard a blaring noise and looked up in surprise to see the monster face of a great red bus rearing and roaring over her.
At the top of the tower, stones crumbled and fell. Ethundrel howled in horror and triumph as the world began to waver.
Ethundrel opens his eyes to scintillating sunshine, parakeets chatter in the bushes outside his window. The metropolis gleams in the distance, insubstantial in the heat haze that hovers over it yet the city is solid, its life is his life. His heart beats daily to its rhythms, in his work, in his familiar haunts, the theatres, restaurants, the coffee shops.
But today is different, his sister Caladriel's wedding day. Today everything is brighter, sweeter, more beautiful than ever, despite, or perhaps because of, the dark stain that lurks at the edge of his mind, an elusive memory of a woman, some strange dream.
But here she comes, his sister in her wedding finery and the other, wrapped in her dim cloud, is banished from his thoughts as he gasps at Caladriel's beauty.
At first there is only the emptiness in her belly. The room is white but Allie's thoughts are the red of blood, the black of death. Rick comes in pale as the grey of his suit, a bunch of freesias bright in his hand.
'Darling,' he says, then his voice breaks and she wants to comfort him but she can only curl inwards like the lost baby, protecting herself and she suddenly remembers the awful staring eyes, the scarred terrifying face and her cry is something not quite human. She can’t remember who he was or why he wanted to hurt her and she looks fearfully round the room but he's not there, he is no longer in her mind and she is alone. She wants to tell Rick but he has left the room with the doctor and she knows he will not believe her. They will think she is mad and want to keep her here when all she wants is to go home. She can hear Rick and the doctor talking outside the door, hears the doctor telling Rick, 'no real damage….my advice is to wait a little while…try for another baby.'
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