It wasn’t very dark, and the weather could hardly be described as stormy. Still, the late Vibril weather of a riverside town could be chill, and this night it was downright raw. The wind seemed to blow through to the bone, and passing strangers held themselves bundled up beneath their cloaks and coats. Andrew’s hat nearly flew off in the wind as he stepped into the Lazy Madame. He regretted that he had shaved his beard, as the cold wind whipped at his face until his complexion was ruddy.
The heady smell of burning tallow mixed with that of the soup drifting in from the kitchen. It was enough to make Andrew even drowsier than he already felt at the end of this long day. The tavern’s only customers were four individuals seated near the back, not the usual crowd to which Kenneth’s business was accustomed. All four patrons took their warmth from the fireplace that popped and hissed with the sounds of fresh wood burning.
Andrew stepped up to the bar, and sat at a stool. He nodded a greeting to Sandy as she brought drinks to the other guests, and smiled at Kenneth. “How ’bout some mead on this chill even?”
“Coming right up, sir,” Kenneth said, smiling and winking to his favorite customer. “How’s business?”
“Still working the docks, for now. It’s a long day, and the lifting I do has a tithe all its own.” Andrew placed his left hand at the base of his spine and arched his back. “Still, can’t complain about the money.” Andrew waved over to the small crowd of customers. “Speaking of business, what’s with yours, tonight. Scant pickings, isn’t it?”
Just then, Sandy returned to the bar. “Night of Souls,” she said. “Everyone’s home with their families.”
Andrew chuckled. “Come on, Pumpkin, we’re not kids anymore. Don’t try to scare me with wild tales. It’s just a slow evening.” Andrew lifted his mead to his lips to drink, but Sandy stopped him.
“It’s no joke, Slick. Night of Souls is real.”
“You really believe all that? Pfah! I thought you had a better head on you than that.”
“Don’t be laughing at my daughter, Andrew,” Kenneth interjected. “I raised her right and sound, and it’s no joke. These few customers are here tonight to keep each other company, and us, since we’ve no place to go when the bar closes. We tell each other tales all night to keep ourselves awake, and to remember the horrors that the dead can visit upon the living on nights like this. And, of course, to chase away the spirits at the dawn.”
“You’re chasing away spirits, all right,” Andrew said. “Staying up late nights drinking mead, you’ll have to chase them away to recover!”
Sandy exchanged looks with Kenneth, and then returned to the table of customers. Kenneth looked at Andrew. “Listen here, lad. Why else would these people be here? George Kilgreen, a sergeant of the town guard, has no family. Same with Smitty, the blacksmith. Old Kabula, the widow. Tom McFarley. None of us has much of a family. And on the Night of Souls, no one should be alone.”
Andrew stared back at him. “You can’t really expect me to still believe all that, can you?”
Kenneth spoke up, including the rest of the tavern in his conversation. “Then let me tell you a story,” he said. The rest of the patrons looked back at him. Several turned their chairs to face the bar. “It won’t be the last you’ll hear, this night, nor the most gruesome. You don’t have to believe it, just listen to it. Because it was on a night like this, that it happened, and right here in Port Sevlyn, about twenty years back. The wind off the river was bitter, blowing the dead leaves through the streets. The skies were overcast, blocking what little warmth the sun provides this time of year. Old Man McCauley — you know the old McCauley house up on the north hill? — he came walking in, looking like he’d been through a banshee drag …”
The short old man stooped through the doorway, glancing quickly to his left and right. When he reached the bar, he raised his head only just enough to be heard above the low howl of the constantly blowing wind outside.
“Give me something to warm my bones, Kenny.” When he took his hat off, his face — usually the ruddy color of health — was pale and drawn. The lines on his face were like hand-carved grooves in the Duke’s chair.
“Stevene’s blood!” I exclaimed. “What’s happened to you? You look like a banshee’s gone and dragged you all the way down from your house on the hill.” I reached under the bar for a mug and a bottle of mead. “This one’s on the house.”
As I poured the drink, I remember staring at the old man, wondering what could have made him look so different in such a short time. McCauley just sat there, watching the mead fill his mug. When I placed it in front of the old man, he drank it down in one quaff. “More, then. I’ve brought plenty of money with me, and I’ll not leave until I’ve spent it all.” He reached into his pockets and produced several coins, mostly minted pieces of silver, and spilled them onto the bar top. “Something’s coming after me, this night. And I want to be dead drunk when it gets me.”
I poured more mead, and McCauley lifted the glass to his lips again. “It’s the Night of Souls, Mr. McCauley. There’s a lot of old spirits out there, tonight. Stick around with us. We’ll keep vigil with you the whole night.” I wanted to reassure him that he was safe with us, you see.
The old man looked at me standing behind the bar. I had less than a score summers in me. “There’s nothing can be done about this one, boy. I owe him. I’m going to let him take me, but not before I’ve had my fill.” He pushed his glass back toward me, and I began filling the glass again.
“You know my wife and I, we wanted children. The first three, they didn’t live. Healers told us my wife wouldn’t probably survive a fourth birthing, but some spiteful demon cursed her insides again, and she was in labor for two days. Never heard such screaming from a woman. In the end, everyone heard how the child died in the birthing. Martha, thankfully, was spared.”
I nodded, silently respectful of the old man’s loss, and filled his cup another time. It was well past sunset, and most of the customers had gone home to be with their families for the Night of Souls. I didn’t have any family to speak of, but the man who owned the Lazy Madame, Linus Tabbernathy, usually spent it with me. Linus was cooking the evening meal in the kitchen, but would join me and the night’s guests: residents of the town who didn’t have friends or family to share the evening, but knew better than to spend it alone.
“But the truth is,” he continued, “the demon-child didn’t die in the birthing. He lived. And I was ashamed of his surviving. I hated him for living, when the other children had died. He wasn’t a child I could be proud of. He was twisted and deformed, obviously possessed by some evil spirit. Constantly crying, and complaining. We hid the child in the basement. We didn’t want the townsfolk to know that he’d lived. I wanted to kill it from the start, but Martha said no. It was her child — the only one that lived — and nothing could convince her to spare us. I should have killed it. Instead, we hid it in the cellar, where its crying wouldn’t be heard by passers-by.”
He finished another drink. By this time, the color had returned to his cheeks, or perhaps it was the glow of the lamplight reflecting off his pale skin. I couldn’t be certain, but the old man seemed to be improving. Perhaps a bit off his main beam, from what he was saying. The last time the midwife had gone to the McCauley’s was almost ten years earlier. To have hidden a child in the darkness for so long … it seemed inhuman.
“For years, we kept the demon-boy hidden. When he was six, we moved him into the attic. Needed to have some sunlight after all, didn’t he? Well, he didn’t walk so good. I told you he was deformed? His legs had almost no muscle on them at all. His right arm ended at the wrist, with no hand to speak of. His eyes were narrow slits, and his skin was almost snow white. My wife kept nagging me, saying we needed to help the boy, but it was no use. I knew he was beyond our help. What could we do for a demon? But she nagged me. She kept at me until I couldn’t sleep at night.
“Finally, to make her happy, I decided to help the lad. My son. Humph!” He sipped slowly out of his mug as he thought about it. “I suppose I was a little mad, at that time. But the boy had no right hand, and his left was twisted and almost useless. So, late one night, I got an idea. I snuck up to his room and took him out back, to my forge. I told him to shush, not that he understood a word I was saying. That I was going to give him a new hand. One that would be more useful than what he’d been born with. I fired up the forge and got it nice and hot.”
He looked in my direction, but wasn’t focusing on me. “Then I heated a hook from an old oar lock, the type that you nail into the side of the boat. When it was good and hot, I strapped the boy’s arm to the anvil and pounded the hook into his wrist.”
I was in shock. “You … pounded …”
“You have to understand,” McCauley said, “I needed to do something. Anything had to be better than what he had! He screamed like a banshee, and I tried to shut him up, but he wouldn’t stop crying. So I hit him, just once, in the back of the head, and he flopped over the anvil like a sack.” He cursed himself as he took another drink. “Would that I’d killed the demon right there. But I only wanted to shut him up.”
He had finished his drink, but continued trying to drink from the mug, not realizing it was empty. I took it from him, poured more in, and poured a glass for myself, as well.
“The missus, she wasn’t happy with me. Wouldn’t say a word. Things got awful quiet around the house, after that. But I could constantly hear the boy, tapping his hook against the wall in the attic. Day and night. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. And Rinald, the cat that belonged to the missus, always meowing, hating the noise. My wife kept Rinald downstairs, away from the boy. She didn’t trust him, anymore. He had an angry look on his face, all the time. We brought a food tray up to his room, every day, and he ate it. But every once in a while, he wouldn’t eat it — he’d leave us the eaten carcass of some small animal, instead. A rat, a mouse, or even a bird that had the misfortune of finding its way into his room.
“Oh, the lad was evil, and we knew it. I told her again we had to kill him, but the wife wouldn’t let me. As much as she hated the boy, she didn’t want to kill our only child.
“Well, one day, the cat was missing. I told her I would go outside to find it. She said she thought she heard it on the stairs, and went up. I heard the upstairs door open, knew she was going into his room. I told her not to go in, the cat was probably outside. Then I heard a soft scream, and something heavy hit the floor above me. I raced to the stairs, grabbed my cane along the way, and went up to his room.”
My mouth was dry, and I quickly quaffed some of the mead. “What did you see? Was your wife there?” McCauley also took a drink, then met my gaze, again.
“Aye, it was her. And the cat. Rinald was hanging from a rope, skinned and dripping onto the floor. The whole attic smelled of dead animal and urine. And my wife was there, laying on the floor, face down. I went to her, and rolled her over into my arms, and saw her eyes. There was blood and brains seeping out one of the sockets. And when I looked up, there was the bastard. Smiling for the first time in his life, crooked, dirty teeth mocking me, narrow eyes glinting with mirth, and Martha’s eye stuck to his hook. He had enjoyed it. I screamed at him! Asked him why! Of course, he didn’t answer, just laughed at me. Little bastard just kept laughing at me. Laughing at my pain, rejoicing in my punishment. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I hated him. I stood up. I took my cane in both hands, and rapped him on the head with it. And again. I still heard him laughing. I hit him again. And again. And still I heard him laughing. For bells, all I heard was him laughing, and I just kept trying to shut him up.”
I stood with my jaw hanging open. I couldn’t believe what I’d been hearing.
McCauley reached over for the bottle of mead, and poured himself another drink. “I couldn’t stop him from laughing. Realized that all the canes in the world wouldn’t stop him from laughing, that I could keep slamming my cane into his skull, and still he would be laughing.” He drank the mead down, and looked toward the door. “I can hear him, still. Won’t be long, now.”
“McCauley stood up,” Kenneth said to the room. “He was a little unstable from the drink you see, and said he had to get going. I suggested he stay here with us, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Said his wife was expecting him.
“Well, that relieved me to no end. He was playing a joke, you see. On me! Telling me this big story on the Night of Souls. I started to laugh as he walked toward the door, and he turned and looked at me with a wild look. I’ll never forget it: his eyes were wide with surprise and his mouth was twisted into a weird grin. And then he rushed out of the bar.”
Andrew looked around the tavern. Old Kabula and George Kilgreen were nodding in agreement — they’d been there, that night. He sipped his mead, and let Kenneth tell the rest of his tale.
“He wasn’t out the door a few moments when we all heard this hideous laughter … like a little boy’s, but not sweet. Malicious, more like. Then this bone-crunching sound,” Kenneth cracked the knuckles on his left hand, “and then just the wind blowing. Not one of us went out there all night. In the morning, they found his body back on the hill, outside his house, broken and twisted. His wife and child were up in his house, just like he said. Boy had his skull broken in.”
“And?” Andrew asked.
“And, what?” Kenneth replied. “Since then, no one goes up to the McCauley place. And when the wind is blowing on a night like this, you can sometimes hear the laughter.”