«Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 1 THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden Mist. Mist it ...»
Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 1
THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY
A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden
Mist it was, insubstantial and barely seen. The mist rose above a
mound of weedy, winter-blighted grass, hesitating beside the iron-
barred fence. Inside lay the kirkyard proper, hallowed ground where
headstones bore mute testimony that this one or that had once lived, once loved...once died… Mist it was. Wispy-white in the light of the silver crescent Moon, incorporeal as smoke. Feeble, drifting Awareness awakened. The Awareness struggled to survive, to grow stronger, to Know.
What am I? How and why did I come here?
The mist moved, in response to a barely sensed need. It flowed onto a ribbon of moon-washed road, gaining strength, coherence, identity...
I am...I...was. Was. Dead now, but was...I must...
Unknown. Despite the cold, brutal wind that assaulted it, the mist thickened, steadied. Now it had Substance.
It? No, not “it.” She had substance.
Knowing her sex brought a moment of pride, and included a vision of herself. A woman, wearing a rust-colored dress, white apron. Long black hair, wound with a red ribbon...a ribbon tied in a love-knot as crimson as blood.
Memory supplied a face. Large, coal-dark eyes, strong jaw. There was beauty, yes, tempered and honed by strength, and by love...
The cold ribbon of road led her, drifting over frozen slush bearing the marks of hooves and wagon wheels, to a town. She knew, somehow, that she should know it. Here, a baker's shop, closed and still, about which the aroma of bread still clung. There, a tavern that serviced the garrison that topped the hill.
Baker. Tavern. I know these things. I. Know.
The building by the tavern drew her. No sign, only a candle guttering in a hanging globe of red glass. Memory supplied distaste for what transpired within, but she found herself at the window, experiencing a moment's distress as her fingers went through the solid pane. Peering inside, she found that, despite the whorls in the thick, greenish glass, she could see and hear clearly.
The sounds of laughter drifted out, interspersed with drunken singing, accompanied by off-key music from a fife and a pennywhistle. Women dressed in chemises and robes, their breasts spilling free from their bodices, their hair hanging lank, laughed shrilly as they sat in the laps of men who had discarded their uniform jackets and weapons, and sometimes even their breeches.
Why? she wondered. Why here? Yet, disgusted as she was, she could not move.
Then she saw him. A man sat in the corner by the fire. Hate flowed into her, hot as the flames. She wasn't sure how, but she knew him.
He had iron-colored hair, tied back with a ribbon, and pale, thin features. A flush of hectic color stained his cheekbones, and his eyes glittered feverishly. A woman clad only in a scanty chemise brought him a pewter mug, laughing as she handed it to him. Fear and loathing washed through the observer at the window. Why? Why him? What is he
-- or was he -- to me?
The blowsy woman giggled as the man guzzled. "Thirsty tonight, ain't we, Captain?" The man nodded and shivered, pulling his red coat with its shining buttons and fringed epaulets close. "Sure you wouldn't like a nip of something warmer?" she cooed, cupping her barely-covered breasts.
The officer guffawed, but the laugh turned into a wheeze. He coughed, burying his face in a handkerchief. The whore backed away from him, eyes wide. When he took the white linen away from his lips, it was spattered with red.
The watcher's full lips curved in a cruel smile. If I could drink, brave Captain, I'd drink to your death. May it be long and painful and but a taste of the Hell you are bound for!
She did not know why her curse was merited, but she had no doubt that it was, and richly so. Turning away from the tavern, she headed up the street, misty feet barely touching the cobblestones. A soldier on his way back to the garrison staggered into her, then through her, without ever seeing her, leaving her saddened, but not really surprised. She’d realized quite some time ago that she was a ghost.
Barely glancing at the surrounding buildings, she drifted on, drawn by her unknown goal. A large, half-timbered structure loomed before her in the moonlight. She slowed, stopped, and gazed up at the creaking sign.
The Black Mare. Beneath the words, a black horse pranced on the whitewashed wood. She blinked, confused. No, that was wrong, it wasn't The Black Mare, the name of the inn, was...was...it was… The White Swan.
With a choked sob, she fell, crumpling into the snow without marring its virgin drifts, or feeling the cold. Sobbing, incorporeal tears pouring down transparent cheeks, she remembered...remembered the inn, remembered...
Father. Jamie. Bess.
She was Bess, the landlord's daughter, and she had stood at that window to watch her beloved Jamie come riding, riding up to the old inn door.
He'd promised to come to her, the dashing highwayman, with his pistol butts gleaming in the liquid moonlight, though hell should bar the way.
And hell had come, in the form of King George's soldiers, and--and-Oh, merciful God," she wept, now remembering what had happened on that night, the iron hardness of a muzzle pressing the warm flesh of her breast. Now she knew why she not been allowed to rest in hallowed ground.
# "Are you certain you can't go on?" Lieutenant Robert Larrimer asked his wife.
Anna, pale, rubbed her swollen belly and nodded, just as the carriage gave a particularly savage lurch. "I'm sorry, my love, but the jouncing..." she bit her lip, then, and gasped. "Oh! A cramp, Robert!" "Birth pangs?" he demanded, frightened. Anna was more than a month from her time.
"I don't think so. But I must stop! Please, Robert!" He nodded, and leaned out to shout to the coachman to head for the village that lay a few miles away. He had hoped to avoid the place.
Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 2 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 3 They had neither relatives nor friends in the vicinity, and that meant they must stop at a public lodging-place.
There was only one inn in that little northern town -- and that place held only bitter memory for him. He gazed anxiously at Anna, who sat braced against the bumps, one hand pressed to her belly, the other grasping the locket with both their pictures that she wore strung on a crimson ribbon. Larrimer's heart swelled with love. They had been wed barely a year. He would rather be tormented by memories than see her suffer, or risk their child.
Anna knew nothing of the...incident, in fact had wed him after his transfer to another unit had been granted. He didn't want her to find out. Perhaps no one will recognize me...
Larrimer licked lips suddenly gone dry, and shivered despite the cape he wore over his red coat with its bright buttons.
# Dawn came, and cockcrow. Bess expected to vanish -- wasn't that what happened to ghosts at sunrise? – but she remained.
Her memories had returned, but she still had no idea why she was here, what she must do. Her control over her movements and form was better, now, and she could see herself, even feel herself. She watched the inn, saw a slatternly girl come out to empty slops, and a brawny middle-aged cook bustling about. Tasks that she herself had done, when alive. But where was her father? Drifting, she entered the inn and glided through the rooms, familiar, yes, but strangely altered, and not for the better. Dust lay in the corners of the furniture, and dirt and cobwebs had invaded every corner. The floor appeared not to have been swept for a fortnight or more. Bess tried to pick up her old broom from its corner, but, of course, her misty hands could not grasp a solid object.
She drifted past the room where she had died, and, after a single hasty glance, averted her eyes. A dark stain still married the floorboards before the window.
In her father's room, a man slept in the bed. Not her father. Bess stared in horror at the white face, the closed eyes that mercifully hid the dark, mad gaze of Tim Alcott, the ostler.
Tim was master of the inn now? How could that be? Tim was half-mad and simple, as stupid and dull as a beast, and nigh as dumb as one. In all the times he'd trailed about after her in life, gazing at her with smoldering eyes, Bess had only heard Tim mutter a few garbled monosyllables.
As Bess watched, Tim stirred, rolled over, groaned, then sat up and scratched. “Damned bedbugs!” he snarled. “I’ll beat that lazy slut silly for this! I TOLD her to change these sheets!” Bess gasped silently. He can speak! Sweet Jesu, how can this be? Whirling, she retreated down the hallway and raced out of the inn.
Determined to leave this place that brought only pain, she headed for the street. But she could not leave, she discovered. Some unseen force tethered her to the grounds of the inn. Bess flung herself forward, only to rebound, unable to take another step. She moaned, longing for the peace of her un-consecrated grave.
Back in the courtyard, Bess "sat" upon the mounting block, gazing at her surroundings, utterly bewildered. Why was she held here? Who had summoned her? What was she supposed to do?
Memories...memories filled her, though she tried to push them away.
Jamie, her Jamie, had stood upon this mounting block. He had tethered Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 3 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 4 his horse over there. Over there, in the shadow of the bayberry bush, he had kissed her, long and sweet. Tears filled her eyes.
Jamie. Oh, my love. I hope you made a clean escape. I hope it was worth it.
Perhaps that was why she was here. She was a suicide, albeit a suicide in a noble cause--to save the life of the man she loved. Perhaps she had to make atonement, or some such?
She wondered what day it was, what year it was, and then she realized, with a jolt, that it was already early afternoon. The light had changed, become robust and golden instead of thin and pale. Time had passed, for her, in the blink of an eye.
Rising from the mounting block, she drifted about the courtyard, then into the stable. As she moved past the horses, it became obvious that, if humans could not see her, the horses could. Their eyes rolled white-rimmed, and they backed away, snorting.
Bess came nearer, talking in low tones, but many animals panicked, rearing and kicking. Others simply stood, sweating and trembling.
"Good boy, good girl," she tried to soothe them, but to no avail. She stood wringing her spectral hands in distress.
"They do not understand. Stupid creatures."
Bess whirled. She found her gaze locked with the large, intelligent brown eyes of a shining black mare who might have been the inspiration for the inn's new name. No, surely not....
"Yes, it was." The mare nodded her head. The "voice" had echoed inside Bess's head, but it was clearly the mare that had "spoken."
Bess shrank back from something so unnatural. A beast, talking?
"How...why...?" "Oh, in your present state, we can all speak with you if we wished.
But they are too afraid. As I said, they’re stupid creatures. Dogs will snarl and whimper, and most cats, save witch familiars, will hiss.
Ravens...they care not if one is spirit or flesh, they view everything without wings as beneath contempt."
Bess laughed, a strained, shocked sound. "Merciful Heaven," she breathed. "Are you a witch then, in the shape of a mare?" The horse nickered, as if laughing itself. "I hardly think a selfrespecting minion of Satan would permit herself to be locked up all day, fed poor hay, and be tended to by the loving kindness of Tim Alcott. No, I am what I seem -- a mare. A living creature, one who pities you, Miss Bess."
"Tim," said Bess, slowly. "He was asleep in Father's bed. He can speak, now. He used to be dumb and simple. How can this be?" She rubbed her arms, feeling a chill not of body.
"Yes, he is now the innkeeper of The Black Mare. As to how he gained his new wit and wagging tongue, I remind you of what they say about those who wager with the Horned One. Great power may be granted -- for the gamble of a soul."
"He wagered with the Evil One? For wits and speech?" Bess gasped, shocked. She’d never thought of Tim as a good man, had always known there was something wrong about him, but to risk one’s immortal soul… "For that…and for the opportunity to become master here at the inn.
Wager he did, and he got what he bargained for -- all except for one thing." The mare snorted, fixing eyes the color of peat upon her.
Bess ran her tongue across her lips, frightened. "And what was that?" She asked reluctantly, already knowing the answer.
"Your own sweet self, Bess. You cheated him out of what he wanted most."
Reproduction prohibited without written consent of the authors. www.accrispin.com · www.christiegolden.com 4 Though Hell Should Bar The Way by A.C. Crispin and Christie Golden 5 Somehow she’d always known. Tim's lust for her had been something she'd tried to ignore, to avoid acknowledging. She'd been too wrapped up in Jamie, and between Jamie and Tim...well, the contrast between them was laughable. Bess drew a deep breath and asked the question that could be put off no longer -- though she dreaded the answer.
"What happened...to my father?" And to Jamie? her mind added, but she could not force herself to ask that, yet. As long as she did not ask, she could hope that Jamie was safe.
The mare took a step toward Bess and attempted to nuzzle her comfortingly. The velvet muzzle passed right through Bess's misty form. "Your father died the same night you did," she said softly inside Bess's head. "Found dead with a knife in his throat. The soldiers always claimed that your highwayman did it, but..." The mare tossed her mane in the equine equivalent of a shrug, and said no more.
Bess closed her eyes. Hasn't there been enough pain and death and suffering? she thought miserably. A memory floated back to her; Tim, listening intently to the captain, then hastening off on some task. It was Tim all along, god rot him.