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The Constable ordered everyone, except himself and the man who had found the body, away from the forest. The corpse was brought out eventually on a trolley, securely strapped under a tarpaulin. The villagers had lined the streets to watch it pass, as though they were taking part in a state funeral. No one was in any doubts as to what had happened. The Thing had struck under their very noses, and in full daylight too. Suddenly there was no sanctuary anywhere.
The trolley was wheeled into the little cottage hospital, which also doubled as a morgue, and the doors were locked behind it.
"I'm banking on you to try and distract everyone tonight", the Constable said to the landlord, standing in the courtyard of the inn "Give them the best show they've ever had. Strip yourself if necessary, at least it'll give them a laugh, or serve up mushroom omelettes or something. But try to keep them distracted from what's happened here today".
"You ask the impossible", said the landlord "How can I keep them distracted from this? Tell me, what are you giving out as cause of death this time?"
"Getting a bit repetitious that one isn't it? I seem the recall the past nine victims have all had heart failure, according to you".
"It's not so improbable. An eye-witness who was closest when the victim collapsed said that the unfortunate fellow cried out that he had pains in his chest just before he died. Very possibly the shock of seeing the Thing brought on a fatal heart-attack".
"How convenient for you all then".
"At least it wasn't Lonts", said Hillyard.
"No. Apparently it was the little toad-faced fella who spoke to us", said Kieran "The bloke who found him is still in shock. I don't know whether it's because of finding the little fella, or the realisation that the Thing must have been near him at the same time as well.. He must have the luck of the devil not to have seen it too".
"I cannot believe either of you could have been so stupid!" Adam exclaimed, pausing in the middle of his restless pacing of the bedchamber.
"Oh give it a rest Adam", said Kieran.
"No I will not give it a rest! That corpse on a trolley could have been either of you two".
"We had to do something", said Hillyard "Lonts was missing, there was a search-party being organised, so we thought joining in was the decent thing to do. After all, Lonts was my responsibility".
"No he wasn't actually", said Adam "You'd barely known him twenty-four hours! Lonts wasn't anyone's responsibility".
"Well someone had to care for him then!" said Hillyard, before storming through the communicating door into his own room. He could then be heard bolting it firmly behind him.
"He's going to take it hard", said Kieran "After what happened to Stombal and all. And you harping on about it won't help. It makes ME shiver when I think what we were close to out there. No one's going to feel safe in this village at any time now. Not now she's appeared in daylight".
"What is this Thing anyway?" asked Joby.
"Oh clever, it's all very clever", Kieran poured himself a strong coffee from the pot that had been brought up earlier "I don't know who's controlling it all, the landlord wouldn't tell me that, although it's obviously got something to do with the notorious Winter Palace. But whoever it is they're working to a pattern, and I'm only just starting to see it emerge".
"From what I can gather they're doing what the monks did at the abbey", said Adam "They're conjuring up primeval elementals to help control things for them".
"Ah", said Kieran "But the monks were desperate amateurs compared to this lot. They didn't fully appreciate what they were dabbling with. Whereas this lot, and I assume they're something to do with the Ministry, know exactly what they're doing. They create monsters and demons to protect their own interests. The creature in the woods is to stop anyone getting close to the Winter Palace uninvited".
"We already know that", said Joby, impatiently "But what is it?"
"I was thinking after I'd overheard the conversation last night", Kieran sat down at the end of the big bed "It all ties in with ancient legend. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, trying to remember everything I've heard on this subject. Now take the giant worms for example. Such creatures are mentioned in the Koran. They were elementals of the lakes and marshes. We had 'em in our time too, believe it or not. The Loch Ness monster being the most famous. One of the least publicised facts about loveable Nessie was that many witnesses claimed to have felt not just fear on seeing it, but revulsion and extreme tiredness as well".
"Almost exactly the same words the woman at the Loud House used", said Adam "She said that was how we'd know we'd encountered the force for evil".
"Exactly! But these monsters aren't the force for evil itself. They are merely the tools of it, as Angel is used by it, and possibly wee Lonts as well. Tools used to cause as much damage as possible, usually in the form of extreme deformities or outright carnage".
"The big question is why?" said Adam "What on earth does it want? We're all on borrowed time now anyway".
"But what is the creature in the woods?" Joby said, persistently "Somebody tell me, before I go out of me mind!"
"A Gorgon", said Kieran, simply "A hideous woman, so hideous in fact that one look from her can turn you into stone. She's from Ancient Greek mythology. Medusa. The woman with the snake's heads sprouting out of her hair".
"More like something out of ancient Hammer horror", said Joby, unimpressed "Wasn't there one about some woman possessed by a gorgon? She walked in a forest too".
"I'm only telling you that these faceless bastards we're up against are getting their ideas from ancient mythology", said Kieran "Someone's been reading up on their classics. The fact remains that all these creatures, including Angel, are being controlled by one source. You destroy that one source, who I believe is the Devil, and every freak, vampire and monster in this land would suddenly cease to exist".
"And you're the one who's going to do it?" said Joby.
"It looks that way. And I'm increasingly beginning to dislike it's sense of humour", said Kieran "It's got a horrid line in irony. Just think about it. All women have been eliminated long since. We're living in a dying world of men only. So what does the Devil do to keep the Marlsblad villagers in line? It creates a woman. Oh yes. But one that is completely unapproachable, let alone untouchable. No man even dare get the merest glimpse of her face, if he does he dies a horrible death. Oh, very sick humour indeed".
"No I don't believe it", Adam protested "Look, the reality of Angel I can accept. He destroys people by tearing them to pieces. Physical fact. But how can a single look at a woman's face, however unsightly she may be, turn anyone into garden furniture?"
"I don't know how it works", said Kieran "I just know that it does. Perhaps it's all to do with the power of suggestion, I don't know. But it is happening. If you were to go into the morgue now, you wouldn't find a new corpse in there, you'd find a drawer full of masonry".
"You never saw the victim after he'd died, so how do you know?" Adam argued.
"I overheard them talking as they brought the body out of the woods. They were saying as how his transformation had been remarkably quick compared to some. It has been know, apparently, for the metamorphosis to take several hours with some victims. I overheard them saying it for Christ's sake! And look around you, look at this whole wretched village. The lack of ground-floor windows for one thing. Built that way because no one wants to run the risk of catching a glimpse of her through the glass!"
"And they thought they were safe during the day", said Joby "Remember when we arrived? It looked the normal winding-down of a normal day. Everyone had gone about their business, but darkness was coming ..."
"And they didn't want to be caught outside if they could help it", said Kieran "It's not only vampires who flourish in the dark it seems. Up until now the powers-that-be were happy with the Gorgon just guarding the woods at night. Presumably they came to some kind of deal, so that the villagers could go about their business during the day. The night-time threat was enough to keep everyone cowed. No one was likely to wander off in search of the Winter Palace, in case they got lost in the forest as darkness approached. But something's gone wrong now. She's appeared in daylight for the first time, so what the hell do the poor bastards do now?"
The "poor bastards" were predictably panic-stricken. The entire population of the village had squeezed into the main bar and were verbally abusing the Constable, as though several years of frustration and anger had been spilled out overnight. From the doorway the landlord watched apprehensively, surrounded by a troupe of powdered and primped eunuchs, all dressed up but with no show to do.
"The landlord has kindly agreed that everyone can stay here tonight", the Constable struggled to make himself heard above the din "We don't want anyone wandering the village alone".
"Oh yea, and what happens tomorrow then?" shouted a burly man in a vest "And the day after that, and the day after that? We can't hide in here forever. But how do we know that as soon as we open those main doors we won't come face-to-face with her, eh?"
"I will try and contact the Winter Palace tonight. Get them to dissolve the creature".
"And what if they can't?" someone else piped up "We're well and truly fucked then aren't we!"
"There is always a solution", said the Constable "She can only kill with one glance at a time".
"Is that meant to be reassuring?" the one in the vest cried in disbelief.
"What I am trying to say is that if it comes to a confrontational situation there is safety in numbers. This creature hasn't got eyes in the back of its head, it should be possible for someone to take it by surprise and behead it somehow. But that can only happen if we all confront it together".
"Which means some of us get sacrificed?"
"I regret that there is no perfect solution".
The landlord braced himself for a riot after this remark, but surprisingly it had a subduing effect. There was simply no arguing with the harsh realities of fate.
Fortunately the landlord kept his food stores well-stocked at all times, and was able to bombard the anxious villagers with a huge supper, working on the sound principle that men are always mollified by a well-filled stomach. Some of the comments he heard as he circulated with the bread basket were decidedly worrying though.
"This whole village should have been burnt to the ground years ago", said the local doctor, a venerable-looking old man with a white goatee beard "It's little short of a pest-hole".
"Thank you Doctor, but talk like that won't help", the landlord scolded, forgetting his lifelong golden rule that hosts should never comment on their guests' opinions.
"Oh do forgive me", said the doctor, snidely "But I have seen rather too many chalk-white bodies these last few years to retain a sunny disposition".
"If you feel like that you should never have taken over the Marlsblad practice".
"When I took over the Marlsblad practice forty years ago", said the doctor, gripping the edge of the table in anger "I was under the impression that I would be working for the Ministry. I thought it would be routine work, tending to the health of miners, fur traders and research scientists. But that wasn't the case. I found vampires had taken over the asylum, and the Ministry would not, or could not, do anything about it. Suddenly instead of fractured bones, pneumonia and frostbite, I found I was dealing with severe cases of anaemia. Corpses kept turning up all over the place with increasing regularity. These corpses were bloodless, or horribly mutilated, or even worse, gorgonised! I stayed out of a sense of duty, and because I kept hoping things would change. But they never have. And I'm too old now to believe in a Vanquisher of Evil pausing here on his way to destroying the vampires. This village is cursed, and you know it!"
"I find your talk irresponsible. If I didn't know better I'd swear you were going senile".
"If I am, then I welcome it. If the whole world is crazy then there is no point in trying to stay sane oneself".
Adam was dismayed to find Rooly sitting in his alcove when he came down. The prostitute looked smug and knowingly aware of something. Adam's feelings of loathing towards him were intensified.
"Where are your little friends Adam?" Rooly slurred, in a thick voice.
"They'll be down shortly, so I suggest that you move".
"Not so fast", Rooly patted the deep crimson velvet "Sit with me. I have something to say that you may find of great interest".
"Spill it", Adam snapped "And make it quick".
"No doubt you dismiss me as a hopeless drug-addict", said Rooly "But sometimes when I'm out of it, thoughts of startling perception come into my head. This is not so surprising. Many men have found this to be the case. Some poets have written their best work whilst under the influence of opium or cocaine".
"You are not a poet Rooly", said Adam, wearily "Merely a rather pathetic old whore. Now tell me what is this great point you're taking so long to get to".
"Your cute little friend is the Vanquisher of Evil".
"I know that!"
"His arrival has been predicted for years, to occur at the end of the fourth millennium. And here we are, in the closing weeks of the fourth millennium, and he's here".
"What's your grief Rooly?"
"Can you imagine what it would be like if I was to suddenly climb up on one of these tables, and tell the whole room that the Gorgon could be defeated by your cute little friend?"
"Nothing would happen Rooly, because they're not going to risk having him destroyed, not when he could eventually destroy the Devil".
"Ah, but some of this crowd are sceptical of him. They're non-believers and that sort were always more vulnerable to panic, because they never believe they will be saved. They are scared and desperate. They wouldn't hesitate to grab your cute little friend and throw him out into the night. They'd leave him to deal with the Gorgon himself. I could whip them up into that kind of frenzy. I would be the lighted match igniting the tinder-box".
"You believe me then?"
"Yes, I believe you'd be capable of that Rooly. I know the kind of person you are. So what do you want for your silence?"
"I want to travel with you when you move on".
"It doesn't look at the moment as though we're going anywhere".
"You will be, I know. And when you leave this place I want to come with you".
"I want to be out of Marlsblad".
"There was nothing to stop you leaving before".
"Yes there was. I never had the courage to leave on my own. If you take me with you when you leave, and I don't care if you are going to the Winter Palace, then I promise I won't say a word about your cute little friend".
"It's a deal", said Adam, wearily.
"And I'll make you care for me somehow, you'll see".
"Rooly, you must be bombed out if you believe that!"
Rooly filled up a glass with wine, and pushed it towards Adam.
"Let's have a drink together, on our new deal".
Adam stared back at him shrewdly.
"You get to be a good judge of character in my game", said Rooly "I could see no other reason why a man like you should so studiously avoid contact with alcohol".
"And you expect me to like you?" Adam spat.
"I know you don't now, so I have to get some power over you somehow. When the day comes that you love me I won't need to pull such tricks".
"You have a most bizarre attitude to life", Adam rose to his feet "You have your deal. And if you welsh on it in any way, if any harm comes at all to Patsy, I will tear your head from your shoulders. Do I make myself clear?"
"Still no answer", Jem called from the landlord's office, which also acted as the village's communication post.
He had been tapping messages into the computer for hours. The office was a wooden lean-to tacked onto the end of the building. It was windowless, and Jem felt cold and vulnerable. His fingers kept stiffening, as though they were gorgonising all by themselves. Occasionally he fancied he heard something brushing against the outside wall. He reasoned with himself that it was probably the wind blowing snow against the structure, but he felt less and less reassured as the evening went on.
"Nothing at all?" the landlord paused in the doorway, looking a comforting presence in his large white apron.
"Not a thing. There's nothing wrong with the line either. It's open and working, but they're just not answering. And sometimes I think there is someone there reading the messages, you know how you get a feeling sometimes that there's someone on the other end ... Can I come out now Mister? Only it's giving me the creeps being stuck here".
"Yes of course. You're a good lad for trying. Damn them all!"
"They're all nutters at the Winter Palace, everyone knows that", said Jem "They're probably as scared stiff of this Thing as we are".
Adam went to bed feeling as though he'd been broken on a wheel. He felt sick to his stomach whenever he recalled Rooly's threats about Kieran. He would previously never have believed it was possible that anyone could ever blackmail him.
He went to lock the door behind him but was stalled by Rooly marching in, and demanding a share of the bedroom.
"The floor", said Adam, firmly "And tough shit if you're in a draught".
Rooly crept across the room, and paused at the foot of the bed where Joby and Kieran were sleeping.
"Isn't it reassuring that he's in here with us?" Rooly smirked "And not out there in the cold, with the wolves ... and her".
Adam climbed into his own bed, and turned to face the wall. As he fell asleep he almost found himself wishing Angel would reappear and claim another victim. Rooly would do nicely.
The hammering on the front door was so loud that the landlord believed he could hear the whole structure of the building shake. He scuttled towards it clutching a candle, which guttered in the eerie grey-light. The front door was securely padlocked and bolted on the inside.
"Who is it?" the Constable came into the foyer, tugging his official tunic on over his crumpled shirt.
"In the name of mercy let me in!" came a hysterical cry from outside "I'm outside here all alone. I'm a simple traveller and I'm frightened!"
"He sounds genuine", said the landlord.
"Please!" the simple traveller continued "I won't be any trouble, I just want to get under shelter".
"Is there anyone else out there near you?" asked the Constable.
"No one. Please!"
"Let him in before he wakes the whole inn", said the Constable "I don't want him on my conscience come morning".
He was a young lean man, wearing a tatty overcoat and large hat. When this latter item was removed he was shown to have red-gold hair, long eyelashes and full lips. In spite of these attributes he wasn't attractive. His face had a petulant slant to it that would make most people want to slap it rather than kiss it. He sat by the wood-burning stove with a fur rug around his shoulders, and his hands cupping a hot toddy. All the while he looked around him surreptitiously, like a burglar casing a joint.
"What were you doing out there alone?" asked the Constable.
"Mountain-walking", the young man said "I know what you're going to say, it's the wrong time of year. I've been an idiot, I know. I hadn't realised how soon and how fast the blizzards could come on. I was lucky I got here, you can hardly see a thing out there at the moment".
"Where's all your equipment then?"
"I had to abandon it. I knew I'd never make it here, loaded down with all that lot, so I dumped it in the forest. I'm just so grateful to be here I couldn't care less about it at the moment".
"It never ceases to surprise me how so many people have no respect for the weather", the landlord sighed "Well you'll have to sleep out here in the foyer. I'm way over capacity as it is. I've got the whole village in here tonight".
"You might as well know", said the Constable "If I tell you it might stop you taking further stupid risks. There is a creature at large outside. An elemental with terrifying powers. You were very lucky to get here alive. The whole place is in turmoil. Everyone's scared to go outside until it's dissolved".
The young man clutched his stomach suddenly and winced in pain.
"Are you alright?" asked the landlord.
"A tight feeling", the young man gasped "It's alright, I think it's going now".
Without saying a word the Constable tilted back the stranger's head and scanned his face. He then examined his hands.
"He's fine", he concluded "No sign that he's going through gorgonisation".
"I think he'd have said by now if he'd seen something!" said the landlord, testily.
"It's just a chill in my belly that's all", the stranger protested "I'll be alright when I've had some sleep. I just feel so cold all the time".
"This man's going down with something", said the Constable "Have you no room for him at all upstairs?"
The landlord recalled that there was an empty truckle-bed in the room on the other side of Hillyard's. The Moustachioed One wasn't at all happy at being dragged out of bed an hour before dawn, simply in order to become a room-mate to a young man whom he disliked on sight, and for no particular reason that he could think of either. He also resented the way that the landlord and Constable planted the stranger on the truckle-bed and then walked out, as though resolutely casting him into his care.
The stranger apologised for disturbing his sleep and introduced himself, but the Moustachioed One was in no mood for friendly overtures.
"I tell you", he cried, getting back into his own bed "No one stands a hope of getting a decent night's sleep in this place! I've been trying to ever since I got here, and I haven't managed it yet!"
"I'm just glad to be here at last", said Caln, and pulled the blankets around him. He was already revelling at the thought of the close proximity of all those live bodies.
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