A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation
Rain pounded the earth around the yard. It flowed along pathways of gravel and cobblestones until it found drains. It came down hard on the trees and shrubs. There was a threatening rumble and, occasionally, somebody hurried through the rain, trying not to splash the water too much. Inside, however, the rain was reduced to a repetitive dull thudding, and the faintest sounds of running water; inside it was warm and cosy. Anna awoke and stared at the blackness. She shifted on the pillow. Why had she woken up? She brought a hand up to her eyes – too dark to see. What had woken her up; the thunder? It shouldn’t have. In fact, she couldn’t recall going to bed.
Anna lay still and tried to remember.
The cloud had been rolling in all morning. Black and ominous, it just floated there, resting over the town. Throughout the day those who had business outdoors were doing their best to conclude it quickly and politely as possible. Anna’s mother was worried about her going out, but needed her to buy bread and cheese from the market. Anna’s mother would have gone herself but had to look after her baby brother. Even the marketplace was subdued; when she had got there the man at the baker’s counter had been brisk, as if he really wanted to be somewhere else. The mysterious dark mood had even affected the travelling entertainers. Their stalls had been set up, but they were nowhere to be seen.
The cheesemonger was no different, and he would normally be kindly disposed toward Anna and her friends. Today he wouldn’t even hold a conversation with her. She had asked why the rush, but he merely mumbled something about the weather and moved onto the next customer. She had then noticed her friend, sheltering under the oak tree in the centre of the market square, eating some ham and bread. “Bea!” she waved and ran over. “How are you?”
Bea was a long time friend of Anna’s, but because her father moved with the wagons from all over the district, she rarely saw her for more than a few days a month. “I’m fine,” she said, “but father is in a strange mood. He told me not to leave the marketplace.”
“Not even with me? That’s unfair! What’s going on? Everyone I’ve spoken to today is acting very oddly!” Anna took the sliced ham Bea offered her, and went on, “Even my mother wants me back as soon as possible. I should probably get back; I may already be in trouble.”
“That’s alright, I understand.” Bea looked sympathetic. “It would have been nice to watch the entertainers for a while, though.”
“They’re not there; they haven’t come out of their caravans.”
“I know! Old Gammer Hillard said that Gretchen was going to be joining her older brother’s act. But when I asked Mr. Hillard he just pointed at the cloud and said ‘Ubel Wolke’, and ‘Er kommt’ and I have no idea what that means!”
The rain began, ending their conversation. Bea’s father had shouted for her to help him pack up his wood carvings, so they had gone their separate ways, Anna, realising she’d been gone longer than was expected of her, was certain she was in for a hiding when she got home, as her father was very strict about tardiness.
Anna recalled wrapping her basket of shopping up safe and dry. She remembered noticing the people around her scurrying for their homes as the rain began to fall harder, the shutters banging shut all round her as people closed themselves away in defence against the weather. The crowd, already thinning, withdrew further, until Anna was the only person in the main street.
The only sounds had been that of the rain and her heartbeat. She remembered thinking “Home is only two streets away; I’ll make it there faster if I run.” Her feet had slammed onto the cobbles as she pounded up the main street, nearly losing the contents of the basket at the turn.
Halfway up Orchard Lane, Anna had tripped on a stray cobblestone. Orchard Lane was notorious for its poor maintenance, being so close to the stable yard. She should’ve been more careful, especially in the rain. The basket had bounced a few yards away and had come to rest in a puddle. She’d tried to reach it but she’d twisted her ankle and banged her knee.
Lying in the dark, Anna had a sudden chill at the memory. How she had curled herself up, grasping her leg and sobbed to herself; not only was she going to get into trouble for being late home, she had lost the bread, and the cheese would be ruined by now. She was cold and wet and scared. Out of nowhere, she remembered how her father had once complained to the town council about the state of Orchard Street when he had injured himself. She must only have been seven at the time; she’d received a clip round the ear for laughing at him. He was a very serious man.
Anna shook her head and tried to focus. Whilst she had been on the ground a voice had spoken to her, “Oh, you poor dear,” it had said, in silky tones. “Look at you, all wet stuck out in the cold. It’s not good for you to be out in this weather.” A gloved hand patted her shoulder and Anna had felt the rain cease directly over her small curled up form. She recalled opening her eyes and seeing the blurred image of a proffered handkerchief. Sitting up, she had taken it, wiping her face before handing it back.
“There, now. What’s a pretty young lady like yourself doing out here?” The voice had sounded smooth, calming.
“I was on my way home from the market, Sir.” Her voice had sounded shaky, small.
“Of course you were.” His voice had been deep, rich, and confident.
“I tripped over a cobblestone.” She had sounded pathetic.
“I see. Why don’t you try standing up, hmm? You’ll catch your death if you stay where you are”.
Anna had shifted her weight and struggled upright, the figure aiding her with a hand. She had looked up from the hand she was grasping, seeing the man for the first time. He was wearing expensive-looking black leather gloves, cufflinks and he was dry, in fact so was his suit. She had pulled her hand away in fear, and took a few steps back, into the rain. Anna’s throat was hoarse from crying but she managed “You’re bone dry.”
The man, understanding, looked up. “It’s an umbrella, my dear. It keeps off the worst of the weather.” He gave her an odd, yet sympathetic, look, “May I ask your name?”
Anna then tried to compose herself, “My name is Miss Anna Suder,” and added, “I’m a Watchman’s daughter” by way of indicating that he shouldn’t try anything funny.
“You are a Suder?” The darkly-dressed man smiled, “You have a good pedigree, my dear. Your family has been in these parts for a great many generations. Descended from the legendarily heroic Suderlander, you know? He, who slew the beast of the mountain, fought and killed the four tribal chieftains and married the princess, uniting the land.”
“That’s just a myth, isn’t it?” Anna had said disbelievingly. “Anyway, he wasn’t really called ‘Suderlander’, that’s just a name we give him.”
“A myth is merely a tale that grows in the telling, my dear.” He smiled again. “But, young lady, it is getting dark, and I feel I should walk you home” He held out his hand.
Anna remembered weighing up her options. Out in the street it had seemed the sensible thing to do. Being wet through, the umbrella was a moot point, and this man was creepy but not scary; however, it would be good to have another person present when she got home so that her parents couldn’t get too angry when she arrived. Perhaps this man would be able to calm her parent’s nerves as well. She made her choice: “An escort would be acceptable in the circumstances.” She’d said. Arms linked for support, they had headed onwards, the approaching night closing in behind them, stopping only to retrieve the fallen basket.
Conversationally the man said, “So you like mythology, then?”
“I like good stories, told well.” She said.
“Hah, good answer.” He said.
They walked on for a while, the man humming a tune.
“Where are you from?” asked Anna, “if you don’t mind my asking?”
“The South. I came of age in Greenwald; I was young, I got bored and went adventuring. I went back later, of course, but it had all changed too much, so I left again.” He kicked a stone across the street, “It’s less of a forest now, more a patchwork of farms and woodland, stretching for miles and miles. I suppose it is true what they say, ‘you never can go home’.
‘Not a helpful comment’, Anna had thought, her knuckles tightening on the basket’s handle. Out loud she said, “So… people were certainly acting strangely today, weren’t they?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, “it’s probably because of that storm cloud. You know how people are about the weather.”
“It has to be something more than that. The entertainers didn’t even come out of their caravans!”
“Oh, them,” he chuckled, “They’re probably scared of the ‘Ubel Wolke’.”
“What’s that?” Anna looked scared.
He waved a hand at the sky, “They call it an ‘Evil Cloud’, because it blocks out the sun and supposedly allows vampires to travel during daylight hours.”
Anna glanced at the cloud, “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“Well, it does follow a logical train of thought.” He said. “It means they can be active for longer, and when there are more people around.”
There was more silence as they had turned onto Anna’s home street. Anna could hear the patter of rain on roof-tiles, the gurgle of guttering and the eerie, high-pitched, whistle of wind being forced between the eaves. A thought occurred to her;
“Actually, my parents didn’t tell me many vampire stories,” she said, “except ones about how to ward them off, but everyone gets told those, even little children, though they’re scary.”
The man smiled and said, “It’s no good telling children that monsters don’t exist, you know? Children already know that monsters exist. What’s important is in knowing that monsters can be killed. What’s the story your parents told you?”
“It was about Suderlander defeating the Upir. My mother said that it was a great battle, and that it was the last thing he did in this world; being turned into a vampire himself so that he could fight the vampire on equal footing. They fought through Dunvale, over Dunton Hill, around the Torr before finally falling by the Cave Mount.”
“Ah, yes,” said the man, “it was a good motive; flawed, yes; stupid, yes, but definitely heroic.”
They had reached Anna’s home.
“Um, would you like to come in?” said Anna, “Please? Only, if there is somebody with me, my parents won’t be too upset.”
The man chuckled again. “What would your parents say? You being out so late; and with a strange man?”
“Actually, I think I will come in. I like to keep track of my family.”
Anna spun round to face him. “Family?”
Anna blinked as she remembered. She felt around, her hands brushing against a hard surface. She stretched her legs; wood at her feet.
She extended a hand.
She did the same with her knee.
Not a bed; a box. A long box.
There was a thumping coming from somewhere above, accompanying the muffled rain.
After about ten minutes something struck Anna’s box a couple of times causing an echoing hollow sound.
A somewhat muffled voice said, “You know, my dear, most of us have to dig ourselves out.”