Dullahan

This is now for NaNoWriMo (over a year after I first started it hahaha)
I'm rewriting what little I've done so far and then continuing more over the month so here we go.
Cover is made solely by me.


A promise is made between Fae, and a short number of years later it is time to repay the deed.

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2. A Tragedy

The sun was warm and bright that day, filtering through the sparse canopy above and bathing the three of them in green-tinted light. A gentle breeze floated through the leaves, bringing the first hints of autumn.

They lay on a thick bed of red and yellow leaves, made from the first leaves that fell from the trees. They had spent a while gathering as many as they could, before choosing the perfect spot from which they could stare through the trees and up at the clouds that peeked between them.

They were quiet, for a time, as all three watched intently.

“Eldred-!” A hand shot into the air, finger waving in the air in an attempt to point at one of the many clouds. It belonged to the smallest of the three. “-Look at that one! It’s so big!” His hand steadied, and his companions saw the cloud being so enthusiastically pointed out to him. The second boy grinned, gazing up at the cloud, which towered above them in great plumes of white. Lengths of it spiralled up like the turrets of a giant castle, reaching high into the blue expanse around it. The girl to the boy’s right pulled a face, squinting at it.

“Maybe it’ll cover the sun,” she said, lifting a hand to shield her pale eyes. “Everything will go cold.”

The small boy’s hand fell, dropping to his side with the sound of leaves crumbling beneath it. His smile faded, and he turned his head to look at the girl. “Well… I guess,” he muttered, looking back toward the sky castle. “But the wind’s going in the wrong direction, isn’t it?”

The trio fell into silence, watching the clouds with renewed interest. It didn't last long.

“So what should we do now?” Eldred asked, sitting up.

The girl sat up as well, and shrugged. “Shouldn’t we be going back now?”

Last came the smaller boy, who let out a long, disappointed sigh. “We went home early yesterday, can’t we stay out for longer?”

“My mum doesn’t like it when we get back late,” the third said quietly, gaze dropping to the ground. “She gets worried- ‘specially when we go into the forest.”

“Yeah but your mum’s weird,” the small boy said, pushing himself to his feet, “’s ‘cause you don’t have a dad.” He brushed the leaf fragments from his trousers, turning back to his friends.

Eldred cast him a glare, scowling. “I do have a dad! He’s just on very important business and can’t come home.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “He’s in the army, duh.”

The girl stood up beside the smaller boy, looking down at the third, frowning. “But my mum said-”

“My dad said that your dad left when you were just a baby,” the boy interrupted, nodding to himself. “He says he ran away.”

“That’s not true, Siarl! My dad wouldn’t-”

Somewhere to their right, somewhere in the darkness of the trees, a branch snapped. A flock of crows rose from the limbs like a wave, swarming into the sky in a black cloud. Each screeched a different note, and the air was filled with the sound of dark wings beating the air as the birds rushed to leave. The trio froze, Eldred twisting himself around where he sat to try and see.

“It’s just a de-” Siarl started, his voice painfully loud in the newfound silence.

“Sh,” the girl whispered harshly, eyes wide.

“I-I think we should go home,” Eldred muttered, his voice as low as it could possibly be for a seven-year-old. The others nodded their agreement, starting to back away slowly. Eldred staggered to his feet as quietly as he could, wincing at the sound of the leaves crackling beneath him.

Siarl and the girl were already a couple of feet away, hanging back for their friend.

Something moved just beyond their field of vision, something too big to be a deer. They all froze in place, and the cloud castle moved in front of the sun. A shadow was cast over the forest, what little light that had been reaching the ground stopped, and everything started to go cold. Eldred shuddered, and the trio started to shuffle backwards, not daring to take their eyes from the place where the sound had come from. Siarl let out a quiet whimper, and a deep growl rose from the bushes before them, long and menacing. They wasted no more time, turning on their heels and running from the woods.

 

A split second after they had started their flight, whatever was in the bushes started to follow, crashing through the leaves and undergrowth, trampling brambles the children swerved to avoid, smashing young trees that they darted between. They ran homeward as fast as they could, painfully aware of whatever it was behind them. Aware that it was gaining on them at an alarming rate, kicking up a storm of dead and decaying leaves behind it.

Eldred stumbled, his foot snared by one of the roots poking from the ground. He fell to the ground, scrambling to get up again. His had disappeared from sight by the time he was up and running, leaving only the sound of their hurried footsteps in their wake. The young boy felt fear start to rise in his stomach, crawling up his throat as he scampered forward. He stole a glance behind him, seeing little more than a hulking mass of creature barrelling toward him.

He switched direction, taking a sharp turn at the small brook in an attempt to lose, or at least confuse, the creature. The sound of his friends was getting ever more distant. He started to swing right- back toward the forest’s edge, back toward safety- when he heard growls from that direction, in addition to the snarls from the beast behind him. His heart sank, and in his seven-year-old mind, something clicked; He was going to die.
All it took was a second stumble, a misplaced foot, and his chance was gone. He fell forward, carried by the momentum of his own legs, and smacked his head on the tree before him.

Heat rose in a wave, his vision swaying in a way it shouldn’t. His head spun, and he was barley able to turn to see the creature that had chased him finally catch up, its companion not far behind. Eldred’s mind was swimming, thoughts swirling around in a warm mess. It crept closer, realising its prey was wounded, until he could feel its hot, sticky breath on his face. He shuddered, trying to push himself away, trying desperately to get away, only for his hands to slip on the smooth roots either side of him.

After a few seconds he found something to grip, and pushed himself toward the forest’s edge. His hands slipped again, and he landed heavily on his back. The second creature was above him, its snout filled with dozens of pointed teeth, saliva dripping from its jaws. A shriek escaped his lips, and he tried to push it away, holding his hands up over his face.

Something in the air above him cracked, and he felt the air shift to make way for it. The creatures surrounding him shied away with snarls, baring their teeth at something just out of his fuzzy vision. Eldred turned his head to follow their gaze, just able to make out blurred figure standing only a few steps away. He didn’t stop to think about how the figure got there, and he was calling out before he could stop himself; “Help me, please help me-”

The figure raised an arm, the pale whip held in its gloved hands flicking through the air once more, cracking against the leaves beside the terrified boy. The creatures scrambled back, one of them hissing in pain, showing a gash just above what he assumed was its eye.

Eldred started trying to push himself away again, unsure which he should be more scared of- the armoured figure, or the monsters. Said monsters had backed away considerably, placing a large distance from themselves and the boy for now.

The figure took a step forward, heavy boot making surprisingly little sound on the dry leaves. Eldred winced. It took more steps toward him- Eldred too scared to move at first- before changing direction slightly and heading toward the creatures. It flicked its whip again which, upon closer inspection, was covered with sharpened spines at regular intervals.

Eldred regained himself, limbs unfreezing, and twisted himself around, pushing himself to his knees and pulling his feet under him. The amour-clad figure payed him no heed, now in between him and the monsters, as he started to run in the direction he thought the edge of the forest was. In his rush to escape, he’d become disoriented.

Behind him he heard something wet hit the ground heavily, and sounds not dissimilar to those of his mother cutting vegetables for dinner. He tried his best not to linger on them, focusing on avoiding trees and roots. He had no desire to stick around. He knew all too well when his imagination was playing tricks on him, and when it was not.

***

After what seemed like an eternity, the sky seemed to brighten. The cloud castle drifted away from the sun, allowing its fading rays to reach the ground once more. Eldred broke from the forest, pushing through another clump of brambles and ferns, stumbling out into the grass of the field. His breath was short and ragged, coming in small bursts. His heart pounded against his chest, thundering away as though it were trying to leave his ribcage.

The boy took a deep breath, looking over his shoulder back at the hole he had just made. His shirt was covered in small tears and rips, scratches covered his arms and face. His trousers were muddied, and his feet were black with dirt.

He lowered himself to the ground, legs shaking uncontrollably. Around the slight bend of the tree line, he heard voices-

“-around here… right?”

“… got lost?”

Unable to catch his breath, he simply waited, brushing the worst of the mud from his trousers. After a few moments, the small forms of his friends came into sight.

One of them- the smallest- pointed suddenly, and called out. “Eldred!”

The girl, almost jumping out of her skin at Siarl’s sudden outburst, looked around blankly for a moment, before catching sight of her friend. The two hurried over.

“What happened, Eldred? You’re all scratched up- did you see the things chasing us? Me’n May thought it’d caught you- he’d you escape?” Siarl said, asking every question he had almost simultaneously. The small boy stuck out a hand to his friend.

Eldred, still panting, shook his head. A troubled look took residence on his face, and he looked off toward the distant village. “It doesn’t matter,” he muttered, taking the offered hand and pulling himself up. “I should go home.” He started to walk down the hill, leaving May and Siarl to stand there, watching him.

Siarl frowned, raising a hand and opening his mouth as though to call. May reached out and put a hand on his arm, shaking her head. “We can ask him about it tomorrow, right?”

He turned slightly to face May, his brow furrowed. “I guess,” he answered after a long sigh. He turned toward the eastern side of the village, marching off toward his own home.

May lingered atop the hill for a few moments, looking down at the village below, before she followed on after Siarl.

***

By the time Eldred had reached his home, the sky was littered with dark storm clouds. They had built up steadily over the deep blue, obscuring the sun with a much darker tone. As he walked, he glanced back toward the woods now and then, trying to fight the feeling that he was being watched, that those creatures- whatever they were- were about to leap from the trees and start hurtling toward him. Or, even worse, the figure would stride forth and find him.

So far nothing had followed him, and he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. Not yet, at least.

He reached the low garden wall, hopping over it and landing in one of the empty flower beds that covered their small garden. It could hardly be called a garden, really- it was just a small plot of land directly outside their house. From the spring onwards it usually held plants of some description, but harvest had been and gone now, and so the land lay empty. He skirted the dirt square, closing the last few steps to the back door of the home he had known his entire life.

The upper half of the thick wooden door was open, swinging out wards and opening a window into the kitchen- the perfect height for him to peer inside.

The small room was empty, but the signs of life were there. Fire crackled underneath the stove’s ring, and atop it stood a small pot. A broom had been propped up in the corner beside the door leading into the main room, left there mid-clean as something more urgent piqued the attention of his mother. The small table’s chairs were askew, pulled away from their regular resting place and laden with neatly folded cloth. On the table itself sat the iron, cold and waiting to be put away.

He took a deep breath, standing on his tip toes as he bent over the door. It was always tricky opening it from the outside, as the bolts that held it in place were at the bottom of the inside- just too far from him to reach. He fumbled with the bolt, wobbling slightly, before he finally caught it and lifted it.

The door swung open, and he slid off, walking around it and heading inside. At last his thoughts calmed. He was at home; he was safe. Nothing to reach him here. He pulled the door closed behind him, dropping the bolt with well practised silence. He pattered over the flagstones, bare feet barely making a sound on the cool stone, and headed toward the door to the next room. He and his mother lived in a fairly small house- nothing but the essentials. It had a simple four rooms, and that was enough for them.

He reached the door, and lifted the latch as quietly as he could, wincing at the sound of the metal scraping against the wood, and let the door open itself. Eldred stuck close to the walls as he entered the room, reaching the end of the short hallway between the house’s main room and the kitchen. He peered around the corner, and found his mother. She sat in one of the chairs before the fire, stitching up a hole in one of her dresses with her back to him. Orange flames crackled behind the grate, nestled in a small bed of wood. It was the only source of light in the room, so she was huddled close in order to see her work.

Eldred took a step forward, forgetting his attempts to be quiet. The floorboard beneath his unfortunately placed foot let out a loud creak that filled the silence. His mother turned her head, looking at him. He could feel her eyes scouring every inch of his face and clothes.

“Eldred!” she cried, hurriedly standing up. The dress fell to the floor, forgotten as she swiftly crossed the room. He winced as she roughly took his face into her hands, turning it from side to side as she examined the scratches. “What happened? Your clothes?” she asked, releasing his jaw and putting her hands on his shoulders. She was kneeling before him, looking him directly in the eye with worry. Behind her the fire crackled away, wood snapping occasionally.

“… We were playing,” he started, looking down at his feet, “and I tripped and fell into some brambles.”

He didn’t have to look back up to know that his mother was frowning, her head tilted ever so slightly to one side. His lie hadn’t worked; she didn’t believe him. He tensed, preparing himself for her maternal fury.

Instead, the weight from his shoulders was lifted as his mother withdrew her hands and straightened. He looked up at her as she was turning away- unable to make out the expression on her face as her hair fell over one eye.
“Would you go and fetch some water for dinner, Eldred?” she asked quietly, not moving.

The boy nodded hurriedly, not wanting to waste his chance to escape his potential punishment. He returned to the kitchen, retrieving the water jug from the counter. Before he left, he returned to the door, peering back into the main room. His mother still hadn’t moved, and was staring into the fire.

A frown passed across his face, before he turned and left through the back door.

The water pump their small family of two used was a few streets away. The entire village only had a couple of pumps, with especially few toward the farthest edges, where houses started to become few and far between. He took the fastest path he knew- through the back garden, cutting across the fields toward the back of the house. The sun was beginning to set, and the storm clouds that had obscured the sky were ready to release their burdens.

Eldred hurried across the fields, glancing toward the woods every now and then just to be sure. It wasn’t too far, at least.

The water pump itself was off to one side of the street, accompanied by a crude sink made of stone. The houses surrounding it belonged to some of the more well off members of the village, and so the quality of the street itself was better than that of the one their own home rested on. He placed the jug carefully beneath the spout for the pump, and lifted the handle.

It took a minute for the jug to fill, the water trickling out rather slowly. A light drizzle started to fall from the clouds, the sky growing ever darker. Eldred noted the light emerging from most of the houses along the road, as its inhabitants lit a few candles to help prolong their working hours.

When the jug was filled, he released the lever, lifting the ceramic container with both hands this time. Water splashed within, only just short of the rim.

Eldred started to make his way back, pace considerably slowed due to the burden he now had to carry, deciding to stick more to the main roads. The fields were often filled with small holes that he was prone to getting his feet caught in on his best days, even more so when he was carrying something.

***

As the boy neared his home, the light drizzle had increased until it was heavy rain, droplets the size of coins falling in bouts. He hunched over the jug, using himself to stop the water inside from getting contaminated. By this time, the sun had set- with only a dull glow at the very edge of the horizon to suggest otherwise.

He rounded the corner, noticing immediately something was amiss. He was still a yards from their front door, but from here he could see that it was wide open, rain splashing into the porch. He frowned, quickening his pace as much as the heavy jug would allow. He got closer, and was finally able to hear voices over the roar of the raindrops hitting the road.

The voices he heard were nearing on shouts- angry and vicious in tone. He hurried over, setting the jug down beside the low wall bordering their home, no longer concerned with its purity. He heard the distinct sound of his mother, finally close enough to make out the sounds of words.

“.. Prove nothing,” his mother cried, her words seeping with venom.

He reached the bottom of the path to their front door, finally able to see the backs of the men currently in a heated conversation with his mother. He could see at least three through the small window the door frame gave him.

“We’ve tolerated you this long, Talaith,” one of then grumbled, taking a step forward. Eldred stopped just before he reached the door, trying to find his mother in the small crowd that had assembled within the main room.
“You and the boy,” another corrected, the words punctuated with hatred.

His mother spoke again- she was at the back of the room, near the kitchen’s door. “We’ve done nothing to you,” she answered, “We’ve kept to ourselves.” She took a step forward, entering Eldred’s line of sight, arms outstretched. She scanned the men’s faces, her own expression hurt.

Her eyes met his, widening slightly at the sight of him. One of the men noticed, turning before he had the chance to retreat out of sight. He didn’t understand their intentions- not yet, at least- but he knew they weren’t pleasant. The man- who Eldred recognised to be May’s father, a man known as Orwel who always regarded him with cold eyes- raised an arm, yelling to his fellow townsfolk and lunging toward him.

Eldred froze in place, unable to bring himself to move his feet, unable to move his arms, until the man’s own hand closed around his scratched arm. He was dragged into his home- into the one place he had been safe- and thrown to the floor before his mother. Orwel pointed at the boy with meaning, glaring at Eldred’s mother. “This unnatural child, Talaith. He’s been drawing them to our children. He’s putting their lives at risk.”

Talaith shook her head, stepping toward Eldred and pulling him to his feet. “He has done no such thing,” she stated, putting herself between the men and the boy.

“No other could have led them here,” one of the others said, “You know that as well as any of us. More so, even.”

“He would never bring one of them within town borders. Never.” She took a step backwards, taking Eldred’s hand in her own. “What on earth has inspired you to make such ridiculous claims?” The boy shuddered, remembering the creatures from the woods. The figure. His eyes dropped to the floor, his cheeks burning with shame. It was his fault. He caused this.

“The boy knows,” someone said, pointing toward him.

Talaith glanced back at him for a moment, concern flashing across her face for a brief second, before determination replaced it.

Orwel gestured toward the two of them, watching Eldred’s mother intently. “You know what was said when you and that man decided to settle here. The unspoken agreement between you and us.”

She shook her head, eyes narrowing. “I will not let you harm him. Not a single hair.”

Eldred glanced up at his mother, fear settling in deeply, its claws digging into him. He could feel something very bad was going to happen.

“Talaith please- you must see reason,” Orwel said, his tone shifting slightly. “The boy isn’t-”

“I won’t let you,” she said again, hand tightening around Eldred’s.

“We didn’t want to do this,” the man said taking a step forward, effectively reducing the space between them completely. He lunged forward, grabbing Talaith by the shoulder and pulling her away. Eldred was dragged along until his hand slipped from her grasp, leaving him to stumble into Orwel. Eldred yelped, trying to push himself away as the man grabbed his arm roughly.

“It’s all right boy, it will only take a moment,” he said calmly, pulling the child toward the kitchen. The pot on the stove was boiling over, foam seeping from beneath the lid and dripping onto the ring beneath.

Eldred only caught glimpses of his mother as he was pulled away, jerkily wrenched across the floor. She had been restrained by the other men, her arms held tightly as she struggled to free herself. She was calling out to him, screaming over the yells of the townsmen.

“Stop… struggling… you’re only making it harder-” he caught Eldred’s other arm, which had up until this point been hitting the man’s legs in an attempt to get free. “- on yourself.”

Orwel took the iron from the kitchen table, heaving Eldred more or less to his feet, before smacking the boy across the face with the heavy piece of metal.

Eldred’s vision immediately started to go blurry, and his feeble protests died down considerably. Something warm and wet trickled down his cheek. The world started to spin, his vision seeming to turn in circles. Eldred watched through the kitchen doorway, his mind a blur. A feminine hand raked the floorboards as its owner was dragged away from the kitchen. There were shadows surrounding the slender arm, large shadows that dwarfed it completely. Eldred felt as though something bad was happening as he clawed at consciousness. Something very bad was happening.

All of a sudden he was falling, his back hitting the cold flagstones of the kitchen heavily, and he braced himself for the impact of his head, his arms in no position to be of any help. It never came, however, instead being caught inches from contact with the unmoving stone by something equally cold but far more amenable to movement.
He was distantly aware of some figure moving over him- its steps shaking the ground he lay on ever so slightly- and another shape lying just out of his vision on the floor. It continued into the main room, stopping momentarily at the end of the corridor. The boy became distantly aware of screaming, before the darkness swirling menacingly at the edge of his vision closed in, and everything went black.

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