Our Halloween Flash Fiction event stories are starting off today with a story from Nancy Northcott, set in the world of her historical fantasy trilogy from Falstaff Books, The Boar King’s Honor. Nancy was inspired by this image, for her story…
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The Ghost Trap by Nancy Northcott
A Short Story Set in the Boar King’s Honor Universe
December 21, 1890
A few hundred years before, Lenore Grayson would’ve been hanged as a witch. Now folk merely deemed her eccentric. Hiding her magical Gifts behind her skill with herbs let her earn a living and not depend on her cousin Edwin, the Earl of Havelock.
Walking home through the evening gloom, she ignored the cold wind from the sea and the crashing of the surf against the rocky cliff. Winter in Northumberland was always cold and always dark early. What mattered more was that she’d sold all her soaps, candles, and herbal potions in town. With the money from the sale, the beef and fish she’d bartered for, and the money she’d already set by, she could manage until spring. Without having to go to Edwin.
Her fifty-three-year old cousin was always kind, always worried about her living alone. But he respected her enough to let her be. They got on well. If only he would stop reminding her she was, at twenty-five, becoming rather old to be marriageable and would cease trying to find her suitors. He tended to recommend men like himself, upright but stodgy and a little patronizing, and not Gifted. Not for her, that is to say.
Another gust of wind caught the edge of her cloak, blowing the hood back and sending loose strands of blonde hair into her eyes. Lenore shoved her hair back and pulled the hood up. Her raven friend, Horatio, was probably already snugly ensconced in the cottage. Made of stone with a slate roof, its one room made for a cozy home. Not much longer until she could be warm.
Over the sound of the sea came a faint auk! auk! laced with urgency. Was Horatio in trouble? The sound came again. She stopped, trying to place it.
Horatio swooped out of the gloom and circled her, croaking anxiously.
“What’s wrong?” Lenore asked.
He circled her again, flew toward the forest to the west, and circled back. Then he did it again.
The third time, Lenore followed him.
The forest path was narrow and overgrown. No one used it regularly. She gathered chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns there, but the only other features of interest were the standing stones. Tall, rough, and moss-covered, they’d become a local symbol of the old ways, mostly forgotten by the villagers. Tonight, at the winter solstice, the power infused in the ground from centuries of ritual would be stronger. Some Gifted liked to replenish their stores of magic by visiting standing stones at the solstice, but Lenore had never seen the need.
Through the trees came a faint, grey glow. Lenore slowed, but Horatio’s auk!auk! and fluttering wings drew her on.
In the center of the ring stood a man with his head back and his arms outstretched. Power swirling around him in a haze about five feet across kept her from seeing him clearly.
Lenore froze. She’d never seen such a thing before. “Horatio, come back!”
The raven circled her but continued fluttering his wings.
“Help me,” the man called. “Help—” The words choked off in a gurgle, and he shuddered.
He must’ve tried to draw on the circle’s power, but what could cause this? The haze surrounding him had the same feeling as the one ghost she had ever seen, a murdered girl in Masham. But how could this be ghostly power? Contrary to legend, most souls passed on when they died. Those who didn’t supposedly could manifest only to their descendants.
This could be dangerous, but Horatio clearly wanted her to help. She would trust his judgment but move with care.
Lenore quickly reviewed what she knew of magic places. Nothing seemed to apply to this, but one form of magic ought to work anywhere.
“Horatio, fetch my bag of salt.” Carrying the one-pound bag would tax him, but he didn’t have to bring it far.
The raven darted away. Aside from the glow among the stones, the forest was fully dark now. Luckily, she could use witchlight to find her way out.
Pacing around the circle, she studied the trap inside it. The ghostly aura didn’t seem to extend to the stones. Opening her magical senses, she stepped to the edge of the circle. Nothing triggered her magical perceptions.
Horatio returned and dropped the bag of salt at her feet. He then perched on a tree limb and cawed anxiously.
Magic required bare hands, so Lenore tugged off her kid gloves and tucked them into her basket. Keeping an eye on the trapped man, she opened the bag. Then she braced herself and stepped into the circle. One wary step after another brought her within two feet of the swirling energy. It definitely had the feel of a ghost but was too strong for only one. What had this man done?
They could discuss that later. Trailing salt, Lenore paced off a circle around him. When she closed the circle, the bag was almost empty. She closed it and tossed it out of the circle.
Kneeling, she held her hand over the salt. “Fruit of the sea, bind this place. Ward against all ghostly trace.” The circle glowed. Power rose from it, meeting in a dome above the trapped man. “Life alone within you remain, the dead begone to whence they came.”
The glow brightened. A deafening shriek burst from the eddying energy. Leaving its victim, who collapsed, it resolved into eight vaguely human shapes. They slammed into the ward. Their fury stabbed through the magic and into her bones. Lenore touched a finger tip to the salt circle, feeding in magic to sustain it, as the ghosts hurled themselves against it. But each surge was weaker than the last. The spell was working!
Finally, the glow died away. So did the sense of presence. Exhausted, she called the magic back to her. The salt was only salt again. She would come back tomorrow to sweep up as much as she could. Tonight, she was too tired, and there was still the man crumpled in the circle to see to.
She pushed herself up, only to have her knees give way. The rescue had taken more of her power than she’d realized. She had to help, though, and there were no other Gifted living nearby. Crawling toward the man, she mustered what power she could.
Seen without a concealing haze, he had tousled, brown hair, rugged features, and a strong chin. His brown tweed overcoat, shoes, and gloves were well made but not in the first mode of fashion. He looked faintly familiar, which likely meant he was Gifted.
Lenore touched his wrist. His pulse was weak. Faltering. The hum of his life energy flickered. Had they killed him?
How much power could she spare? Regardless, she had to help.
She set a ball of blue witchlight up to hover over them. Then she tugged off his glove and laced her fingers through his. When she tried to feed him power, an answering gurgle of it teased her palm. He was definitely Gifted. That should make this easier.
Horatio dropped out of the tree and settled beside her. His auk! seemed to hold a warning.
“You pulled me into this,” she reminded him. She was committed now, and letting this man die would be wrong.
While she fed power into his hand, she kept her fingers on his pulse. It slowly steadied. The hum of his life energy grew stronger.
Just a bit more.
His eyes opened, bewildered and a deep, warm gray in the dim light. “What…?”
“You’re safe now,” she said, releasing his hand. The edges of her vision were black. “Don’t try to stand just yet.”
“You saved me.” He pushed himself up to sit—so like a man to assert himself—but swayed. Instead of lying down, he leaned forward, crossed his arms on his raised knees, and laid his head on his arms.
“Yes, I did, so please take this slowly and don’t waste my work.” Now black spots danced across her sight.
Edwin would’ve reprimanded her about courtesy. This man merely flashed a charming grin. Offering his right hand, he said, “Yes, madam, and thank you. Oliver Pendleton at your service.”
“Lenore Grayson.” Reaching for his hand, she rose to her knees. The movement made the world go black, and Lenore passed out.
Oliver managed to catch Miss Grayson without tumbling over himself, though it was a near thing. The raven at her side croaked at him and eyed him with definite warning.
“I won’t hurt her,” Oliver told it, even though talking to a bird felt silly. “I owe her.”
He sat holding her while his energy returned. At last, he felt he might be able to stand, but what would he do about her? They should both—all, counting the bird, who had definite presence—find shelter from the cold wind.
Still feeling like an idiot, he asked the bird, “Have you shelter nearby?”
Auk! The bird hopped and soared up to a branch.
Oliver hauled himself to his feet. Moving carefully, he hoisted Lenore and her basket into his arms. She was not pretty but rather a classical beauty with refined features, fair hair a bit disheveled around her face, and a full mouth. She looked dainty, even delicate, but what she had just done was anything but. The woman possessed a core of steel.
He quenched her witchlight and set a ball of his own above them. “Lead on,” he told the bird.
Warm. Everything was warm. And golden light came through her slitted eyelids. Lenore sighed and turned toward the light. Her gaze met Mr. Pendleton’s. He sat in her rocking chair by the hearth with Horatio perched on the back.
She jerked up in bed. Her bed, with her favorite blanket over her. But how had she come here? Had he carried her?
“What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to make certain you suffered no ill effects.” He rose and bowed. “If you’re feeling well, I’ll be on my way.”
“To where? What were you doing in the circle?”
“To Havelock Court. My father, the earl’s man of business, sent me to go over the year-end accounts. I visited the circle because I’ve ancestors from this area and had been told I might commune with them in a ring of standing stones at the winter solstice.” He grimaced. “I hope those beings were not my kin. They were bloody—that is, extremely malicious. I thank you again.”
“You’re welcome.” He was staying with Edwin? And Edwin hadn’t flung her at his head? For once, she regretted that. “Do you think whoever sent you there meant it as a trap?”
“I hope not. I’ll make it my business to find out.” He turned toward the door but hesitated. “Miss Grayson, if you’ll pardon me for enquiring, are you the earl’s cousin?”
“I am. Why?”
“He speaks very highly of you.”
Then he was matchmaking. He rarely spoke of her otherwise. A surprising flicker of pleasure lifted her heart.
“I hope I may see you again before I leave,” Mr. Pendleton continued.
“I would like that.” Lenore shifted the blanket aside, but he raised a hand to stop her.
“No need to see me out,” he assured her, smiling, “when the door is just here. Good night.”
He left, and Lenore padded to the hearth to put the kettle on. A slight smile curved her lips. For once, she didn’t mind Edwin’s matchmaking. Oliver Pendleton had potential.
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