The Wayward Traveler
by Craig Waltman
What is it in a name? It matters not anymore. For now upon an All Hallows Eve, was it a year or a lifetime ago, when I meandered as a lost and wayward traveler into a town I know not where. As a cloud, as a dark albatross circling my sorrows, I felt a dread reckoning in the air, and my only comfort was the lonely echo of my footsteps, as I trudged ever onward, into the swirling darkness, as black as the gaze of a raven's eye it was, and did so ache my bones in its chilly mist.
But then, before that dastard daemon of despair could restrain my heart, did a small inn shone as a cheerful beacon in the night, now summoning my troubled soul within its inviting warmth... as surely a mother's protecting arms nestled in her deep embrace it was to me... nothing could have been more welcoming at the time.
Once inside my refuge with its sturdy, buff door drawn secure, I again found my courage renewed... now renewed, I found more than any spirits could ever do, but was not the inn's atmosphere most oppressive unto me, as it reeked with the foulest stench of mortal fear, indeed, a fear most intolerable, and if stench had its counterpart with sound, then it was the sound of ridiculing laughter within the ears of the despised.
In truth, it was a fear I sensed which could have raised the rafters themselves from the very walls, which upheld them strong upon its carnivorous, nocturnal wings rising upon the wisps of the eventide. Then after a moment of awkward silence I inquired of the lone innkeeper and said, “Was this not, indeed, the road to Fair Aberdeen Square?” and in his sullen affirmation he gestured with but a nod of his grey chin.
But even still I beheld in his eyes as some unspeakable horror, that was somehow strangely familiar, but I could not to spare my life place my finger upon it. It was as if some foggy dream indefinable from its dark conception. And now unto me I sensed in his demeanor, it was as if he contained a terrible secret buried deeply within the tomb of his frail heart... by which no means he could ever reveal... or so it seemed.
Then as we refreshed ourselves over our frothing tankards breaming full with hot cider, did I press him further and soon he confessed, the old man as one would confess to an inquisitor as under pain of very death itself and told, "That every year upon this unholiest of nights a demon beast lurks these parts, to pay he recompense upon the living, to have his pound of grievous flesh!"
But was the old man's raving unto me as an unhallowed truth, which I soon banished from the farthest reaches of my mind. For one's deceit is as conjurer's ruse, its glint is soon obscured as by vapor, more vapor and surly old men's concoctions it was... I would place no stock in his telling... now should such a thing make me boorish one might ask, and ask you may and I would say not, not a bonnie lad as I born of Scottish blood.
Now, the curse of fear and its dreadful prison I would play no part of, nor fool, nor jester for that matter, and then without explanation, my mood shifted in its dark axis... was I churned in the tumult of its mysterious excitement, its sinister mirth as I began to wildly laugh him to scorn for reasons I know not why. For now I'm quite sure he thought me as a madman in my lunacy. Then in the abatement of my mockery of him, when, alas, I regained my composure, I reassured him that I was surely not... mad that is, and that only dwelled they monsters in mirrors, and that never any harm should ever befall us. But, indeed, I sensed the mantle of the old man's heart was sorely broken, and thus sullied in its betrayal, and tried though as I might, I could not reconcile myself with him.
Was he not inconsolable, on account, of my meanness towards him, as I then pleaded for his forgiveness, but only wallowed he in his tears as all of my clever words were considered and found lacking... had I not the power to persuade, he would not be beguiled by any comfort or flattery, and I having to make Fair Aberdeen before first light, did I most sorrowfully bid my leave of him, as we parted with not so much a spoken word... not even a fair thee well or until we meet again... a corpse I pondered would been more garrulous then he, and, therefore, I could not blame him for my rude sport.
Oh, now to be free from that abysmal place... to be plunged yet again into the blackened plentitude of the night, its endless sea so vast.
Where are you cruel horrors, which await to fall upon my soul as to devour my flesh without remorse? But be yea mere smoke and shadows and shadows can never harm thee. As yet again I embrace the darkness, as its cold became as warmth to my bones. Oh, in its solitude did soon my heart's contentment become as the cleverest of parodies. As, alas, in the distance, with the town far behind me, I heard the constable's cry, and did not his words run me through as cold as steel. “Murder, murder!" was his charge... that the poor innkeeper had died a most violent death.
Did not his bloody wail bestir my heart with terror, and as all the dreadful while like shores of sand, harsh deserts of darkness poured through the sieve of all my wearied senses, with my eyes scrutinizing every grain, my ears straining to listen... sifting through every particle with all my facilities as I nervously ever so quickened my step.
Oh fortune, why do you not favor the doomed? Providence, you have dealt with me most wickedly. For now I treaded upon a road I could not turn aside. For whatever demon it was, it was now stalking pray anew. Was I to be fresh meat for its grinder? I felt now if I should scream or die; it was as if the very road was at my throat, as I heard now its ghastly footsteps approaching... was not the very air perfumed with the poor innkeeper's slain blood.
Oh, sun of tomorrow are you to be forbidden to me... shall I be cut off without hope? My strength quivers as a leaf in the wind, my legs tremble with fear. This trail of nerves I cannot endure for what I cannot see. The blackness devours me as my heart pounds within my skull, my strength pours out with every breathe, my arms shivers with weakness as I felt my life passing away upon the dark wooded acres... lost as a vapor was I through a broken windowpane carried upon the wind of strife.
All my vigor had forsaken me... no tender friendship, only vengeance was to be my lot. Was this how it was all to end, as all the hollowness of my pride fled from me as I sought to flee from it? Oh, amorous affection shall I not feel thee again, shall only enmity be my sole passion when death, alas, over takes me? For all my love and hate I prayed for an angel of mercy to turn from my unkindness and enfold me in his guarded wings of protection... were these to be my last thoughts, I pondered as I ran through the rustling, whispering pines, its arbor branches which garland the narrow road... it all seemed to claw at me now.
Did I run and run with blazing lungs alight as flaming bellows... until alas, I thought my chest should spew forth my thrashing heart, as surely as a baking coal upon the morning frost... with the creature's withering breathe hot upon my collar, the nape of my feverish neck... its awful howl did smite my ears until they flowed as bloody red.
Then, alas, in my exhaustion with my strength consumed... with all my burning limbs hanging upon my weary frame as a crucible of fiery iron, should I then unto this most gruesome fate reside myself. For could not the pain of this creature be any worse I pondered, as I halted and then turned to embrace my foe, in my death's oh, so sweet release. But then most strangely was there no monster to be observed... as I then realized, I was standing in a slick of pooling blood thickening around my naked feet... should I find myself amidst a still throbbing, gruesome mound of butchered flesh, gnawed and splintered bones with clothes but blooded rags. Was this the hinder footsteps I heard of my foe, or just another passerby I wondered to myself?
Then came to remembrance like a festering scab upon the wounded scar of my memory, and through its gangrenous taint the truth seeped forth and thus revealed its putrid stain for my eyes alone to see... as, henceforth, was stirred within me, the grizzly recollection of the infinite fear I beheld in the poor, old man's eyes. If now I'd seen it once, I'd beheld it a thousand times.
Was my life but a veil, a costume, and what lurked below was of the vilest material, and there shall be no consolation in death, but only the torment of unending privations and hunger, in what was to be this my bounded limbo without absolution.
Now forgetfulness shall be my only comfort, for I am numbered among the lost and wayward travelers caught betwixt the commons of this world and the next. For it was I who was the demon beast... accursed and without love... all that I am now is but hate... So Beware Yea All, upon the next All Hallows Eve... for I yet again will have my pound of grievous flesh.