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Friday 8 October 2021

Not After Midnight

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

     The cackle of children was the only sound to break the chill, autumn night. No breeze stirred but what was whipped up when they jumped or ran, and the fog shied back from the gusts of their breath. Nothing and no one roamed the roads they followed, nor the fields they crossed. There was only the village far ahead of them, and the troupers' caravan far behind.
     Yet they peered into bushes, high up into trees, and around behind notice posts anyway, searching for anything older human eyes might not be able to see.
     They always turned up empty.
     But they walked on, undiscouraged, until the road passed over a river running thick with the recent rains, where there was still certainly enough room beneath the bridge for a troll to hide. But it must have been out hunting for other nosy children that night, because it was nowhere at all to be seen. Again.
     The constant lack of any kind of sighting was beginning to grate. Why call it 'The Troll Bridge' if there was no troll?
     But, when a deep, mournful creak rolled through the air like the snore of some huge, sluggish beast, all six of the children came to a secretly hopeful stop and peered up along the river.
     The old mill stood out along the waterside, a dark silhouette, glowing in the fog while the full moon hung behind it. It was a deathly sight, forbidding; the place itself was like a phantom.
     The creak groaned again as they stared.
     The youngest boy slid up closer to the others, his eyes just as wide as the moon as he peered up over the top of the bridge wall. "W-why does it make that noise?"
     "The storyteller might know," an older girl replied, her own eyes far narrower. "We could go back to the caravan and ask him."
     "We don't need to ask him."
     Her sceptical gaze flicked towards another boy, who regarded the scene with confidence.
     "And why not?"
     "Because," he turned her a smug grin, "I know what it is."
     Other various degrees of doubt tumbled onto him.
     "It's the ghost of a troubadour, who broke his neck when he was trying to get away out the window when the miller caught him with his daughter. And now his ghost is stuck in there, tuning his screechy strings, getting ready to serenade her so she'll fall in love with him and run away from her stupid father."
     All eyes turned back out across the river - except for one boy, who adamantly shook his head. "Yer wrong and stupid, Tam. It weren't no troubledor, it were a witch. She cast 'er spells and tried to take the whole village as slaves, but they caught 'er before she could finish, and tied 'er to the water wheel, and she starved and drowned. It's true, me da' told me!"
     "And this time, you're wrong and stupid, Rhys."
     Rhys's cheeks flushed bright red even as he scowled towards the oldest girl. They burned brighter as he watched her lean against the drystone. "I bet you don't know what it is, Mandy. Yer stupider than I am."
     Mandy fired him a scowl of her own. "I do know, actually. It's just the wheel creaking. It's old and makes lots of noise, especially when the river's this high. Some nights it spins faster and gets louder. And some nights it spins even faster, until it's screaming into the moon, spun by the ghosts of the river's drowned dead."
     The children all fell silent and watched the distant wheel turn slowly in the darkness.
     Then a black mass of crows suddenly erupted from a tree a short ways up the river, and all the children jumped and squeaked.
     A long moment later, when their hearts had stopped hammering and the youngest had stopped crying, the final girl spoke up, her voice careful, considered, and her eyes as sober as stone. "You're all half-right," she said, immediately drawing their attention. "There was a witch, and murder, and the dead turn the wheel.
     "The millers owed a witch for lifting a sickness off of them, but they couldn't afford to repay her. They wouldn't admit that, though, so they saved what they could, setting aside a little of their earnings every week, and the witch was patient. It was all fine - until the village found out about it. They thought that, because they were alive by the witch's magic, they were still under her spell, and she was using them to poison the grain and kill or enslave the entire village. So the village killed them before they could."
     "How awful!" The youngest boy gasped, and the girl simply nodded her head.
     "But they were good, honest people, so even in death they're still trying to repay the witch and feed the village that murdered them. That's what the creak is."
     "That's so sad," Mandy sniffed. "Should we go and talk to them? Tell them to stop?"
     "Many have tried. Everyone who has have fallen ill with the same sickness the witch cured them of."
     "Oh... Then can't the witch just help them pass on?"
     The girl shook her head, her eyes glassy and burdened as she watched the wheel turn. "She can't. And she feels guilty, so her ghost haunts the mill, protecting them while they work. No one who goes in there ever survives..."
     Silence closed in around them as though the night itself had swelled, and suddenly the lone, woeful creak didn't seem so frightening anymore.
     Tam was the first to stir, drawing his eyes to the sky. The rest stared at him in outrage when he dared to break the stillness with a whisper. "I have to go. It's nearly midnight and my mum will flip her lid if I'm any later."
     "Ours too," the youngest girl said, taking the youngest boy's hand.
     "I'll walk back with you," Mandy declared, at which Rhys immediately decided to follow. Soon, all six children were walking back along the road, steeped in their thoughts, until they reached the boundary of their village.
     "Not going in, Rin?" Tam frowned as the girl with burdened eyes took a bucket from beside her front door and started back towards the fields.
     "No, I promised my dad I'd milk the cow for the morning time."
     "Oh, okay. G'night."
     Rin left the village behind her and dashed out to find her family's meagre cattle, sleeping in the fields. She slowed as she neared, and looked back around through the darkness.
     No one was following her.
     She knelt beside one of them and pulled the knife from her boot, hushing and soothing the startled creature as she let the blood from its neck. Once the bucket was a quarter-filled, she smeared mud over the wound, whispered another apology, then ran off towards the river.


     The ghostly fog had dispersed. The mill stood now as just another black, crumbling shape in the night.
     Rin crept towards its old, wooden door, knocked three times, then once with her foot, then twice more with her knuckles, and entered.
     Moonlight seeped in from the cracks in the derelict ceiling, dust drifted like snow in the beams, and mice darted between her footsteps. The rattle of the bucket's handle was the only sound to be noticed, but she could hear the rasp in the shadows if she listened for it.
     She stopped beside the grind stone just as a sharp and ragged sound broke through the innate silence. Then the rasping grew. The floating motes of dust undulated on the air.
     And a face appeared from the darkness.
     A face with sinking, misaligned eye sockets, a split bottom jaw cocked to the left, and a skull that was larger on one side than the other; a head set upon a long neck above bony shoulders, one disproportionately smaller, that mantled a broken rib cage, several of which were split outwards.
     There was nothing else beneath it.
     It peered down at Rin, and Rin smiled back.
     "I'm sorry I'm late," she said, extending the bucket, and watched the long, broken, bony hand reach out to take it. Then hesitate, as it always did. It gave in when she rattled it.
     "You don't need to keep coming here," the wraith told her in a distant, shattered voice. "It's not safe. And I'm happy alone."
     "Of course you are."
     She watched the wraith vanish, then reappear on the far side of the mill, floating as if it sat in a chair. She followed after him. "Sure you don't want to pass on?"
     The wraith nodded. "I'm content here for now, thank you."
     "I'll always ask."
     "I know. But not after midnight."
     "Never after midnight." She sat down beside him and waited patiently for that single stroke of the dark, when he would recount another of his lost and ancient memories.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock


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