Ghosts on the Moor
"C'mon, Shane." Shane's friend Ash beckoned and led him across the farmyard.
It was dusk. The sky was indigo, tinged with red. Their shadows were long as they ran across the farmyard.
It came as no surprise to Shane that Ash was leading him to the stables.
"Thunder!" She called to one of the horses and made a funny crooning noise as Thunder leaned over the wooden stable door and nuzzled her shoulder. Shane was a little nervous of the horses, but he'd brought a sugar lump for her to give to Thunder. As a milkmaid, Ash couldn't afford sugar of her own.
She grinned as she accepted it, her blue eyes sparkling. "Aw, thanks. You're so kind."
Shane watched dispassionately as Ash kissed the horse's muzzle and cooed at him. "Some days I just wanna saddle you an' ride away. Yes I do. Why can't I look after the horses?"
"You'd ride away and leave me?" said Shane, suppressing a smirk.
She pulled a face, scrunching her freckled nose. "Noo. I'd take you. But your dad needs you on the farm."
"No, he doesn't. In fact, Cedric's the one who's going to take over the farm. It's because I'm not good at anything, or so I'm told."
Ash gave a start and bared her teeth. "What? Who said that?"
"Cedric said that."
Ash shrugged. "Then he's an idiot. You're good at stuff. You're the best friend I ever had."
Shane was sometimes uncomfortable with praise, and shifted on his feet.
Ash gripped his wrist in her small hand. "C'mon. Let's go for a run on the moor. Bet ya can't catch me."
The friends ran across the undulating terrain of Barrowmoor, named so after all the ancient tumuli that dotted the landscape. The moon climbed steadily in the sky as night lay claim to the land. The moon began to rise.
Shane grabbed Ash around the waist. "Gotcha!"
She giggled and struggled free. As they ran, a crossroads came into view, as did the gibbet tht stood before it at the top of a steep escarpment on the moors. The wind was picking up now as it blew in across the black gulf of the Diamond Sea to the east. It batted at the mouldering body hanging from the end of the hangman's noose. Shane shuddered he didn't want to think about it. Standing close by the gibbet, her shawl pulled tight around her shoulders against the wind, her ragged dress billowing in the sea breeze, there stood a tall woman. She was making a low moaning sound. Shane wondered uncomfortably if she had known the gibbet-body in life. Her hair was long and red, like Ash's. It seemed to glow in the dark. Wait… Could Shane see a flickering aura around her body?
Ash started forwards. "Are you alright, Ma'am?"
Without turning round, the woman suddenly addressed them. "I used to laugh at the gibbet. 'E said the Road Wardens would never catch 'im, but they did. Hanged him too, for what 'e did, but 'e's not laughing now, is 'e?"
Ash blinked. "Sorry?"
The woman burst into hysterical, cackling laughter and then spun round to face them. Shane felt a chill to his stomach and Ash gave a little cry. The woman was the livid grey-green hue of decay and half of her face was eaten away. It was then that Shane noticed lengths of seaweed knotted in her hair.
"But I couldn't go on without 'im, could I?" The hideous apparition drifted towards them over the heather, wet sand dripping from her clothes, crabs crawling from the fleshless spaces between her ribs and saltwater dribbling from between her fish-eaten lips with every sentence she spoke. "Drowned myself, so that we'd both go over into the next world together, so that we'd never part," she giggled. "Well I got my wish. We've never been apart since." She pointed at the skeleton swinging from the gibbet. Giving voice to a blood-curdling hysterical scream, she launched herself at them broken fingernails outstretched.
Shane found himself rooted to the spot, his heart hammering in his chest.
"Shane, c'mon!" Ash tugged at his arm, then picked up a stick and swiped at the spectre as she lunged. It simply passed through her as though she was a shadow.
The wind began to blow hard. With a bubbling cry like she was screaming through a throat full of seawater, the ghost streaked towards them through the tempestuous air. "You're not laughing at me, are you?" the insane phantom demanded. "I laughed at the gibbet. Look where it got me!"
"Get away!" screamed Ash, stepping in front of Shane as the ghost slashed at them with claw like nails filled with dark sand.
At that moment, the clouds parted and moonlight shone down illuminating them in a silvery glow. A scrawny woman swathed in a grey robe now stood nearby. She was another lurid vision on this weird night. A shock of wild, white hair streamed around her head, and her skin was bright yellowish-green! Shane had heard of the witch of Wraith Wood. Was this her?
"Go, now!" cried the green skinned crone in a warbling voice.
The ghost turned away from Shane and Ash and lunged at the witch. "You're laughing at me, aintcha?" she screamed.
"I warned you," said the witch. She made a complicated gesture with her green fingers in the air and began to chant in a faintly eerie, discordant way. The wind blew more fiercely, blasting Shane in the face, but it seemed the ghost could feel it too now. It was tugging at her kelp streaked hair and insubstantial form, until with a sigh, she dissolved into mist. The wind died down.
"Oh, thank you, thank you!" said Ash, running up to the old witch to hug her.
"Ash!" cautioned Shane. He wanted to tell her the ugly green woman was not to be trusted, but how to put that without invoking a witch's wrath?
The witch stood there impassively as Ash put her arms around her. "Yer shouldn't be out 'ere, love," she said. "There're ghosts on these moors. Be off with yer. Both of yer. Go. Now."
Recovering his composure, Shane took Ash by the hand and pulled her away.
"Did you see?" Gabbled Ash as they made their way back across the moors. "She jus' blew that ghost away." Her eyes were shining.
"Great, Ash," said Shane. "You better be careful around witches. It's not right – It doesn't seem right that anyone should have that much power."
"Aw. I'd look after you if she scares you," said Ash squeezing his hand.
"Oh right, you're a match for a witch," said Shane. "You're a real spitfire."
Ash giggled and flicked a strand of her fiery hair away from a face. "Don't cha know it?"
On the edge of the farm, they came to a crumbling, ramshackle cottage with a sagging thatched roof. This was where Ash lived with her mother. The walls of the cottage were made of interlocking slabs of rock, round with age. Ash heaved the wooden door open and they stepped inside.
"Ma?" Ash lit one of the smoky home made candles on the little table and it cast a flickering light onto the cottage's one room. Her mother, Elm was resting by the fireplace. The fire was out, but the embers still glimmered red.
Elm's eyelid's flickered. "Smuttie, where've you been?"
Smuttie… Shane thought it a weird nickname for her to give her daughter.
Elm opened her eyes and saw them both. "Good evening, darlins," she said, "so nice of you to drop in, Shane."
"Oh, oh, Ma," chattered Ash, "we saw this lady on the moor, only she wasn't really a lady, cos she was a ghost, and she went 'ahhhh'" Ash tried to mimic the ghost's wailing, but did so quite poorly. "An' I was going to bash her up if she threatened Shane…"
"Ye gods, sounds like you've had some wild times," said Elm with a small smile.
"Ma'am…" said Shane. "There is something wrong. Evil is afoot on the moors. We saw the witch-"
Elm sat up. "Mistress Toadfoot? From Wraith Wood?"
"You know her?" Ash grinned, showing off the gap between her front teeth. Her cheeks were flushed pink with excitement. "She's astonishin', she did this thing where she made the wind blow an' an'..."
Shane butted in. "Ghosts. Witchcraft. Both are at work," he said gravely. "We saw a ghost, sure as I'm standing here."
Elm turned a little pale and her eyes widened. "Darlings! If ghosts walk Granat now, I don't want either of you runnin' around the moors at night. You think of your ma, Shane. How'd she feel?"
"Well, um… I don't know," said Shane. "She'd probably scold me."
"Huh? What d'you mean you dunno?" asked Ash, gazing at him with wide blue eyes. "She'd be worried about losing you, obviously. I would be."
"If there're ghosts, summat's wrong," said Elm. "But there's been summat wrong since Lady Isolde left Wintershold and left things with Unthank."
Lady Isolde Ladogan had gone crusading against Death Cultists and left her castle and fiefdom in the care of Chamberlain Unthank. Elm certainly showed great faith in Isolde, attributing everything that went wrong to her departure.
"I'd better be going," said Shane with a sigh.
"No, don't go," said Ash, grabbing his arm with both her freckly little hands. "It's still dangerous, if that there ghost's about. Stay."
The broth Elm had heated over the fire was still warm. When they had eaten, Ash leaned against him on the straw stuffed sofa and he fell asleep with one of his arms in her grasp.
The next day, Ash milked the cows and then did a job she really liked – bottle feeding the baby animals. First a lamb, then a piglet. That evening she hurried over the meadows and fields to tell Shane about it. The shadows were lengthening as she ran, her feet skimming over the ground.
Shane had finished helping with the harvest and was snacking on bread and water.
"Shane! Shane!" called Ash, running up to him. "I got to feed a piglet, an' when I cuddled it, it wriggled," she giggled. "I wanna baby piglet."
He patted her arm. "I'm sure you do," he said with a small smile, his hazel eyes sparkling. His cheeks were flushed with the exercise of the day.
He'd been sweating she could tell, but the smell of his sweat was exciting rather than offensive. His curly hair was all messed up. She reached up and ran her fingers through it and grinned at him.
"Here, I have something for you," he said, taking a little carved wooden horse out of his pocket.
Ash squealed in delight as she took it. "For me! Oh, thank you, thank you!" She hugged him then held the horse up in both hands. If only she had the money or talent to buy or carve a present like this for Shane. "I'll call him… Horace," she decided.
Shane waved at someone across the field behind Ash. "Chad! Me 'ansum!" said Shane, slipping into the Wintershold dialect.
Ash felt her heart leap and whirled round. Chad! The stunning new farm hand visiting from the New World. He was so amazing, strong tanned legs, his whole body fit and athletic, hair gold like the corn they harvested, and that wonderful accent that made Ash crazy…
The way he talked…!
Shane and Chad slapped their hands together in some form of greeting that was probably normal in the New World.
"Ash," Chad gave her a nod. "How's it going?"
Ash squeaked and felt her face grow hot. Why couldn't she string two words together when Chad was around? She gazed at him, at his freckled nose and cheeks, his dark blue eyes and the strong line of his jaw…
At that moment a gruff, coarse voice yelled out: "Oi! Yokels! Dunderheads!"
The three of them turned to see two unkempt burly men, clad in what appeared to be rusting chain mail with skull emblems, carrying short stabbing spears. The one who had shouted spoke. "Chamberlain Unthank sent us to deal wiv yer…"