CHAPTER 15-THE BLACK DOG
Have you ever lived on a road?
I don’t mean living on a street, tramping through a city, listless and purposeless. I mean a road, single and alone. Imagine that your whole world is the grey stretching out before you into the nothing of the horizon, and the long grey tail of the road stretching behind you into a horizon of it’s own. There is grey scrub land on either side, perhaps a bush or two. There is the sound of your own breath, and the breath of your companion at our side. The weight of your bundle on your back. And there is nothing else.
The first few days had been awful. Isabella was certain that as soon as Thomas had recovered he would be on their trail like a stout tracking two exhausted rabbits across a plain of rock, without enough earth to scrape a burrow. So she had driven Marie on and on, they had walked for days, nights, no rest, no sleep.
She’d be on the road forever. A swarm of blisters buzzed angrily on the soles of her feet. The sun laughed on her brow like a lunatic. Bordeaux. Mariana de Babilu. They were myths, children’s stories to keep her happy. There was nothing but the road. She’d be on the road forever.
And if you have ever lived on a road, you will no it is only a matter of time before a terrible rage begins to creep over you. And you hate the road ahead of you, and the road behind you, and your bundle which bites into your shoulder like a vampire, and the cruel sun. And you wish it was all burning. And the rage grows and grows like a sore, and soon it will look for any excuse for release.
“Why do you keep combing your hair?” Isabella asked shortly as they squatted by the side of the road, taking a rest. She didn’t wait for her to answer.
“You’re caked with mud. You smell terrible. You look like someone rolled you in manure. And you’re worried about your hair?”
Marie growled in her throat. They had been sniping at each other all day.
“Did I ask you to come along?”
“Then shut up. If I want to come my hair I’ll comb my hair. Then at least one of us won’t look like a giant cat got sick on her head.”
Isabella’s hand shot to her head automatically. Her hair was coarse and matted, and Marie knew she was sensitive about it.
They fumed in silence for a minute, Isabella viciously chewing a hunk of stale bread she had rationed.
“Yes, well…” Isabella began “You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me.”
“Oh you’re right.” said Marie sweet as arsenic “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I wouldn’t be here if you and your brother hadn’t tried to kill me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be here if your father wasn’t a murdering scumbag.” Isabella hissed.
In all fairness to Marie, Isabella, who had had to fight for most of her life, never even saw the punch coming. Marie sent her flying with a single sock, and then she stood weeping in pain and shaking her fist in the cold night air, having just learned that it is almost as painful to punch someone as to be punched.
Isabella lost no time. She had sprang to her feet in a second and had grabbed Marie by a hank of curly red hair.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Hair! Hair! Hair! Hair!”
She then proceeded to ram Marie’s head into a nearby fence post. Marie lashed out with a foot and caught her in the kidneys. Isabella gasped in pain and stumbled back while Marie leant against a fence post, breathing like a dragon and trying to stop the world spinning so fast. She turned to face Isabella, who was dancing a strange hoppy dance, tipping from foot to foot, her small fists raised over her face, swivelling them threateningly.
“Come on!” said Isabella “Come on!”
She was expecting a fistfight. She was not expecting Marie to scream and leap at her throat like a starving weasel. Which was unfortunate, as that is exactly what Marie did.
“Get off me!”
“No! I’m going to kill you!”
They struggled in the dust for a few seconds. She was stronger than she looked, Isabella noted grimly.
Hours later they were still on the road, bruised, bloodied and exhausted.
On and on they walked, the horizon receding away from them like a carrot on a string, always, eternally out of reach.
Then Marie, half mad through exhaustion, had mumbled that she couldn’t go on without taking a break, just for five minutes. Isabella had agreed that they would rest, for five minutes only, and then they had slept in a ditch for a whole day.
Luke looked at his tiny daughter, and his great bearded face smiled kindly in the firelight.
“What kind of a story, Marie?”
“A scary story.” She breathed “The scariest story in the world!”
Luke looked at her in mock horror.
“Well, there is one story but…no, I could never tell you that one.”
“Never mind. Once upon a time there was a pony…”
“No! No, I want to hear the scary one!”
“But I can’t tell you that one!”
“No, no, no…”
“Why not what?”
“Why won’t you tell me the story?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, this pony was called Snuggles, and he lived…”
“Because…because…it’s just… so…SCARY!”
“How scary is it?”
“What’s the scariest thing you can think of?”
“Scarier than that!”
Marie gave a little involuntary whimper.
“Tell me.” She said.
Luke waited, dragging the pause out like the old pro he was.
“Oh alright.” He said.
And she curled up on the carpet, and watched the fire dance, and her father began his tale.
Her eyes slowly opened. For a second her mind was blank.
Then she remembered.
Her father was dead and the fire had long gone out.
She rolled over groggily, brushing dust and twigs off her back. It was night, and there was a great full moon hanging in the sky like a pearl on a cushion of black velvet. On the earth, all was silver. Every mote of dust, every hunk and hank and tussle of the rocky, grassy, dusty, chewed tortured road was precious and beautiful. But as she stood on two feet, and faced the moon (see her red hair glinting) she could see, below the white face, on the horizon, growing like mould on the rim, great purple clouds, angry as bruises, huge as cities, ominous as avalanches. And she felt the thunder in her bones and the first tentative, shy kisses of rain on her forehead.
“There’s someone on the road.” Said Isabella simply. There was a kind of numb horror in her voice. As if they were already dead.
Marie spun around and looked at where Isabella was facing.
She peered into the distance, checking every inch of the road which lay coiled behind them like a python, stretching back into the horizon, darting between shadows and moonlight. And then she saw it, a tiny figure, a little fly of a figure, a mile away at least, doggedly tramping it’s way down the road. It was far too dark to make out any detail at that distance. There was nothing to be alarmed about. It was just another traveller on the road.
“It’s him.” Said Isabella.
“It’s not him.”
“It is, you know.”
No. It couldn’t be. But if it was…
Two girls, tired, short legs, middle of nowhere, no shelter, no one to run to for help, no one at all, all on their own…
Young man, in his prime, long legs, look how far he’s covered already, catch up with them soon enough and then…
No, no, no. It was someone else. Just another traveller on the road. He’d pass them by and say “Bon soir” and then off he’d go, whistling to himself, heading for the next horizon, leaving them behind without another thought. Yes, yes, it was someone else.
“Let’s go.” she said. And there was a quiver in her voice.
“Now.” Luke began. “There was once a man…”
“Old or young?”
“Young. A young man. And this young man’s father had died.”
“Yes, it’s very sad. And this young man…”
“Was that the scary part?”
“No. You don’t get off that easily. Now this young man…”
“How did he die?”
“It’s not important.”
“No, how did he die?”
“A bear killed him.”
“It ate him?”
“Yes. Be quiet, now. So, this young man had to provide for his family, for his mother and his three sisters.”
“What were their names?”
“Ehhh…Marie, Olivia and Sylvie.”
“No. I don’t Olivia and Sylvie to be in the story.”
“I thought they were your friends?”
“What was the mother’s name?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Clare.”
“No. I don’t want Mama to be in the story either.”
Now this took Luke by surprise.
“Why not, petite?”
“I don’t know. It makes it harder to see it in my head. I can’t see her.”
“Alright. Her name was Anne. And it happened that the son couldn’t find work in the village, and he knew that he would have to go to the big town, to find money for his mother and his sisters.”
“Is this the scary bit?”
“No. I’ll tell you when we reach the scary bit. Now, Anne was a very wise woman, and she knew that the road her son would have to travel was very dangerous. And she told him this: “When walking that road at night, you might hear the owl hooting in the trees. Do not turn your head to look. When walking that road at night, you might hear a man singing, but you must not listen. But most importantly, if you hear a hound baying…””
“Then why didn’t you say barking?”
“Because. “And no matter how loud the barking gets, you must never turn around.”” And she kissed him goodbye, and he set off, little knowing the horrors that were about to beset him.”
“That were going to happen to him.”
The clouds were making their play, sweeping across the tranquil realm of the night sky, a great army leaving only shadow in their wake, and the further they spread the closer they came to the great shining moon.
Don’t turn around, she thought to herself. Don’t turn around.
He was behind them, slowly closing the moonlit mile. Her throat felt tight, as if his hand had never left it, as if the cold blade was still pressed to her jugular.
“Why does he hate me so much?” She asked Isabella, and her voice was tiny in the great silver wasteland, a little white moth in the black night.
Isabella turned to look at her, her green eyes glowing in the moonlight.
“Don’t you hate him?” she asked simply.
And Marie realised she was right. She hated Thomas, and it was not because he frightened her, not because he had almost killed her so many times, it was because he had killed her father. But then, her father had killed Thomas’. Didn’t he have a right to hate her?
Ah, said a voice in her head, but you’re not trying to kill him.
But if the situation was reversed, she thought, if I was strong and he was weak and helpless, wouldn’t I kill him if I could? Would I?
She did not know. And she suddenly felt absolutely certain that it was Thomas who was behind them. And she felt a terrible urge to look him in the face. She spun around on her heel and faced the silver road behind.
And then the clouds rolled over the moon, and the world was swallowed up in black.
“And as he walked along the road he heard a sound…”
“Was it barking?”
Marie was hugging her knees, her great green eyes as wide as coins, her mouth a little petrified “O”.
“No. It was a sound like this “Whooooo. Whoooooooo.””
“Very good. And the young man forgot his mother’s advice, and turned to look.”
“Oh yes! And do you know what he saw?”
Marie covered her ears.
“Nothing at all. And the young man walked on. But before long, from the shadows he heard someone singing, and he stopped to listen…”
“Why didn’t he listen to Anne? He’s so stupid.”
“Yes. It’s so annoying when children don’t listen to their parents.”
“Then what happened?” Marie asked, oblivious.
“Well, he heard what sounded like an old man singing. And the song went like this:
Well hello young master,
Walking many a mile,
I’m a thin pale old gent,
With a permanent smile,
Come stay with me here,
And all will be well,
We’ll lunch up in Heaven,
And feast down in Hell.”
Marie shuddered as her father mimicked the singer’s creaky old voice.
“And then what happened?” she asked.
“Then.” Said her father “He heard barking in the distance.”
Like moles in daylight, sightless and soft they felt their way through the pitch blackness. The air had suddenly chilled, and Marie knew that soon the storm would break. She yelped as she felt Isabella’s arm grip hers.
“Look over there.” Isabella hissed, and Marie saw what had caught her attention. For the briefest of moments a shaft of moonlight had managed to break free of the stifling black clouds before being suffocated again, but in that second the moonlight had revealed salvation. For there, not three hundred yards in front of them, was an abandoned farmhouse, the windows black as the eyes of a skull and weeping ivy, but still a place to take shelter from the storm. Then came the thunderclap.
The sky turned white…
“Now, the young man knew that he had ignored his mother’s advice twice already, and he would not be so careless again. So he put the barking out of his mind, and walked on. But the barking got louder and louder, and he could hear breathing and growling behind him the distance. He began to whistle and then to sing loudly, trying to drown out the terrible noise which got louder and louder and louder.
He walked on…
He could practically feel breath on his neck,
He walked on…
The barking grew louder still…
He broke into a run, sweat pouring from his brow…
Suddenly the barking was all around him, he couldn’t think with the noise!
And just when he was certain that the beast must be behind him, he could bear no more, and turned around…”
Her father paused.
Marie’s knuckles were white. She was shaking.
“What did he see?” Marie whispered.
Silhouetted against the lightning flash, black as sin, was the Thief’s son.
His beard had grown, so that now he seemed like nothing so much as the ghost of his father, loosed from hell. His teeth were bared, and he snarled like a rabid thing as his eyes fell on Marie. The girls screamed as they saw him, and as if their cries had been a summons, the rain began its assault on the earth.
Marie had not seen rain like it since the morning of her father’s death, and its ferocity was so sudden that Thomas was temporarily blinded, and had to pause for half a second, long enough for Isabella and Marie to turn and race blindly for the ruin, though what good that would do them was anyone’s guess.
“Not this time!” Thomas howled.
Another flash of lighting, enough to show the Thief’s Son the two fleeing figures and the shack they were running to.
Gripping his knife between his teeth he sprinted like a panther, and covered the distance within a few heartbeats. He sprang through the air, and flew clean as a blade through the empty window, and landed in a crouch in the dank darkness of the shack. Another thunder flash. There’s Marie and Isabella cowering in the corner, their faces white as ghosts, their eyes four points of green flashing terror in the white light.
All over now.
He raised the knife and brought it scything down.