Printed from WriteWords -


by  DerekH

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004
Word Count: 2310
Summary: This is the prologue and first chapter of my first attempt at writing a book. Now revised. All feedback more than welcome...



High on a haunted hill, in the boughs of a twisted tree, the white owl blinked awake. Turning his head fully around, he blinked again, hooted his most deathly hoot, and sat as still as old stone, watching in disbelief. Through arcs and swirls of wizened limbs, far from the edge of the forest and out beyond the open fields, bathed in cold blue moonlight, he alone saw them go; a hundred maybe more, skipping through the gloom. Their tiny coats like so many dancing Christmas lanterns, the children of Vloekenville left the fields and wound their way along the grey mountain path. Up and up they danced, hand in hand to a silent tune, high into the candyfloss mist and across the castle bridge. The owl hooted his alarm once more, but nobody heard.

Chapter one - A desperate row

“You are all too kind,” cried the Mayor “too kind, too kind. Very well, if you insist, I shall say just a few words but then I really must be off. Ah, if only I had a little more time to spend with you, the people that really matter, but…his Majesty is in dire need of my help, trouble in the eastern trading posts that simply will not wait and, as his Majesty always says, who else is such an authority and can maintain a cool head in these most complicated matters. But I digress, I have just one more thing to say to you, my people… my peop…err… my…what the Devil?”

The Mayor had been somewhat taken aback and greatly offended by what he considered to be a very rude interruption. Some fool, or so the Mayor had judged, was rapping at the doors to the great hall, hammering as though the king himself demanded entry. Of course the crowd’s attention instantly shifted to the doors, and this infuriated the Mayor most of all.

“Guardsmen, send this joker packing, whoever he is, now! Guards! GUARDS!”

But the guardsman on his left began laughing; laughing and pointing; pointing at the Mayor without so much as an ounce of respect. And the guard to the Mayor’s right had sat on the floor and was struggling to control his own laughter, which was slightly muffled due to his mouth being stuffed full of candy apple. A sweat formed on the Mayor’s forehead, he looked sharply from left to right, at first in anger but then again in disbelief. A pike-man, over by the great doors, dropped his pike and fell to his knees in a fit of uncontrollable giggles, and seeing this, it wasn’t long before the crowd were joining in with the contagious fun; all laughing, laughing until they were rolling, rolling from their seats and writhing on the floor. And the hammering, it wouldn’t stop hammering. The Mayor’s ears were ringing. And he couldn’t stop the ringing; or the hammering. And he couldn’t understand it. Not any of it.

“Stop it!” he wailed, “Cease this instant! I will not have this… I will not tolerate…I… I… Iyeee… Iyaarrgh!” The Mayor sprang out of bed like a cuckoo from a clock.

He rubbed his eyes and tried to make some sense of his surroundings. The only crowd now were the two rag dolls at the foot of the bed, their sewn on smiles mingled with the laughing faces that had still not faded from his waking mind. He scratched his head, trying to work it out, shuffled across the bedroom floor and lit a candle on the mantle above the open fireplace. Looking in the dusty old mirror he breathed a sigh of relief at his own, weathered and worn out, reflection. The room behind his reflection looked somehow different in the mirror, it seemed so empty. The dolls still grinned at him and his head was thumping, but the dreadful laughing had stopped, thank heavens.

“Just another dream,” he mumbled “Oh my head! This speech will be the death of me…the death…hahum… slippers?…where the?...”

The Mayor wandered around the room, his bare feet padding on the wooden boards, trying to find his slippers. His head still thumped and, when his ageing brain finally awoke, a dreadful realisation occurred to him. The dream had stopped but the hammering hadn’t. It had started again. RAP! RAP! RAP! rapping at the front door. And voices, shrill voices, not laughing this time but chanting and shouting. The mayor almost jumped out of his nightshirt.

Again, RAP! RAP! RAP! RAP!

The mayor made straight for the window and teased back a corner of the red velvet curtain. As he twitched the curtain the noise became more frantic, too many competing voices assaulting his ears. He could barely distinguish one from another.

“We know you can hear us” one voice shouted above the others.

“We’re not goin’ ‘ome!” seemed to be a sentiment shared by all.

“Smoke him out!” was the common chant, the undercurrent that lifted the individual assaults up to his window.

But worse than the noise, what the mayor saw through the gap in the curtains made him tremble all over. He dare not draw them back further in case things looked worse still. What he did see, was a furious and rabid looking mob, assembled on the cobbled street, right outside his front door. Their pitchforks and scythes gleamed in the flaming torchlight, casting haunting shadows across a hundred leathery faces. Eyes all red and bulging from their weary, sunken sockets; with deep lined brows glistening, the villagers were here on serious business.

The mayor had no choice but to see to them. He drew back the curtain and, opening the carved window shutter, he leaned out to address them.

“How dare you?” the Mayor declared in his most officious voice “How the devil dare you disturb my sleep. You will leave this instant or my guards will…”

“How dare we?” a tall young farmer stepped forward “Disturb your sleep,” his voice began to tremble. “How can you s-s-sleep this n-night? How will we ever sleep again? How, H…” His voice cracked into a sob and the rest of the crowd simmered down.

The Mayor, not normally one for compassion, couldn’t help but listen as the young man struggled to find words through his tears.

“They’re all gone! Every one!,” the farmer continued with a shocked expression, as though the saying of it had brought back that moment of horrific realisation, “We warned you before… but you didn’t listen, and now, now is too late, too late for warnings, “They’re gone…GONE!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa…be calm,” the Mayor replied, “Slow down young man. What is gone? The sheep, cows? I’ll not tolerate cattle thieves! You can be sure of that. It will be dealt with tomorrow, now go ho…”

“THE CHILDREN,” came a frustrated voice from the back of the crowd “The children are gone you fat oaf of a Mayor.”

“We warned you about the Count,” added another, as the crowd whipped themselves back into a frenzied state, “We warned you, and what did you do… Nothing! And now they’re gone. This is your fault!”

“Get down from your fancy window box. Our children are gone!”

“Drag ‘im down!”

“Burn ‘im down, more like!”

“Burn ‘im down,” began the new chant, now much louder than before. “Burn ‘im down, burn ‘im down…”

The crowd pushed forward, pitchforks rattling. The Mayor had been caught off guard.

“Children gone?” he thought, “The Count?”

The mayor understood what was going on here. The townsfolk had petitioned him for years to send troops to the old castle and arrest the elderly count that lived there. They believed the old folk tales about the count, and feared for their children, but the Mayor had done nothing, in truth he feared that his troops would not return.

He looked down at his round belly and wrestled his thumbs together. He considered his options, stroked his grey moustache and, looking up again, he addressed the crowd once more.

“Hear this!” he stated with authority “At first light, my guards will be ordered to search the forest. And, if any man returns without a child in hand he will have me to answer to!” He ended with his forefinger high in the air, and a very pleased and noble look about his face.

At that moment the first torch hit the window shutter. Sparks flew across the Mayor’s face, singeing his grey curls. More followed, bouncing off the sill. The mayor recoiled, and slammed the shutters together, shaking like a leaf. But the riot didn’t stop. The shutters flinched and split under the attack.

“Under siege!” the mayor exclaimed to himself “Oil, I need boiling oil… you old fool, no time for boiling confounded…Hah!, better still!...” He reached under the bed, searching franticly for the bedpan.

“Stay in your fancy house and we’ll melt your fat,” one villager insisted.

The Mayor paid no heed.

“You’ll help us now or we’ll string you up from the oak tree!” bellowed another.

The Mayor had heard these threats before. He paused for a moment and pondered whether the oak tree would hold his weight. In his minds eye, the branch snapped, and he saw himself strolling away through a very defeated looking lynch mob. He was still enjoying this distraction when an old man’s voice, not loud or excited, but very distinct, cut sharply through the rabble.

“You might spare us your ear a while longer, if it were yer own two spoiled brats that were gone.”

The Mayor stopped, with one arm still under the bed, and rested his head on the mattress. A glaze covered his eyes, doubt crossed his mind, and terror shook his soul. He bolted out of his bedroom and bounded across the candlelit landing. Stopping for a second outside his children’s bedroom door, he took one deep breath, turned the knob, and stepped inside.

The world slowed to a halt, a gust of ice cold air from the open window told him that this was no dream. Tears rolled down his face and up his nose, he fell to his knees. The small wooden beds were empty, the window shutters clattered, and the red curtains blew into the room, billowing and cracking like a blazing fire. The Mayor found a second wind, dashed for the open window and thrust half his body out into the starlit night.

“VALENTINA!” he wailed “CARMINA!” he cried; over and over until he could do nothing but sob,“ My beautiful twins, my little prince-ess-ses…” He slid back into the room, un-dug his finger nails from the sill, and slowly, as though in sleepwalk, paced back to his own room. He opened his window once more.

“They’re gone,” he spoke softly “Gone.”

The crowd fell silent. A cloud moved across the grinning moon, and the rain began. A shrill wind sailed over the heads of the mob, extinguishing every torch before it rushed up to the Mayor’s dazed and confused face, slapping him back to reality.

An old man, dressed as though he had expected a storm to howl through the night, pushed slowly past the drenched shirtsleeves of the others, until he stood directly below the mayor’s window. Turning up the front of his hat, he first lit his long pipe, and then in the same slow, calm, tobacco soaked voice that had grabbed the mayor’s attention earlier, he delivered these words.

“Gone the same way as our own, no doubt; gone where, if truth be told, none of us dare go. Not even to save our own kin”

These words caused some whispered mumbling through the crowd.

“Aye, not a one of you! Nor I, shamed as I am,” returned the old man, “Less any man here wants to step forward now?”

The other villagers turned their heads to their toes.

The old man continued, “The Castle has haunted our dreams for too long. The old tales tell of a night same as this and I am old enough to remember what many have tried to forget,” he paused to draw on his pipe, “Aye, this has happened before, and it will happen yet again. The children are drawn to that dreaded place. No one has seen so much as a glimpse of the count since I was a child, but I’ll wager he still dwells there, not one day older.
Only the little ones can hear the sound that rolls down the haunted mountain. I know because I heard it, once, so many years ago; cheering and laughing, pipe organs and drums, a carnival it was; a carnival and no mistake. Ah that scent, the air was filled with it; hot sugar, so sweet,” he stopped for a moment, as though tasting the air, “we must bring our children back; and put an end to him, Count Sichliar!”

The sound of this name caused an audible ripple of terror throughout the crowd, and those nearest the old man, backed away.

The Mayor lifted his head from his hands, “But what can we do? What can I do? My own guards are so afraid to set a foot near the mountain; they would rather face execution in the Kings court than go there! And maybe that will be their fate, but that won’t help us. No one can help us!”

Far away on the horizon, lightening struck the haunted mountain. The old castle now a giant silhouette, its jagged towers seemed to grow taller and lean out over the terrified crowd. The villagers cowered and ducked, covering their heads. Only the old man seemed un-moved.

“There is one who can,” the old man replied, “Though I know not how to find him.”

“I will find him,” the Mayor blurted out frantically, “Who is this hero?”

“His name is Foyste,” said the old man, “Hugo Foyste.”