I couldn’t be prouder to call Windydown Vale home. I mean, sure, we’ve got the Ghoul, and that’s upsetting to some. So are the bog adders, eye leeches, mirror mud, rat plague, groundbriar, choker vines, and sinkholes. All have claimed their fair share of folk, and we’ll own that. But credit where it’s due: Not a soul in the Vale has ever been trampled to death by a terrified horse.
Course, it’s early still.
* * *
The morning mist is just slithering in from the swamps, and I’m already arms-full, fixing to topple over in a heap of turnips, fresh-plucked chickens, and bottles of fancy wine. The inn’s close, but that doesn’t mean much when there’s an army of tradefolk ’tween me and our front porch. Their carts line the Long Walk, hung with everything from strings of garlic to sheets of silk. Like a flock of preening peacocks, they caw at anyone who gets close, including me.
“Boy! Need a pan for that chicken? Cast iron! Pre-oiled in pig fat and mutton tallow!”
“Copper! Hey, Copper, lad! Tell your pa we’ve got new quilts! All sizes, hand knit! Corners won’t fray no matter how many times you tuck ’em!”
“Wards! Amulets! Talismans! Only fools venture into the swamps without Ghoul protection!”
I pull up, dodging a wheelbarrow full of salted fish as its owner hustles past. Peering over the mound of Mother’s groceries, I spot Granny Erskine, who’s reaching up to rattle a rusty horseshoe at anyone close. In the middle of the shoe is a bird’s skull, tethered by bits of brightly colored yarn. Don’t know how well it drives off evil, but its power against customers seems clear.
“Granny,” I call. “Hey! Didn’t we—”
“Copper! Tell these people! Ghoul’ll get ’em for sure without an amulet!”
I juggle my parcels until I can see her square. She’s tiny, with a whiskery chin and whispery hair. I lean down to eye level. “Mayors yelled at you yet today, Granny?” I ask.
She spits into the mud behind her, then hangs the horseshoe carefully from one of the hooks that line her stall. There are dozens more of the cobbled totems, not one alike, save that they all resemble the less cozy parts of a rat’s nest. A stiff breeze sets her knickknackery to spinning, and Granny pulls a quilt around her shoulders—one of the same red-and-green ones for sale farther up the Walk. “Reeves ’n’ his lot got nothin’ to say to me that I want to hear,” she grumbles.
“Listen to me, then?” I plead. “You know you can’t be selling these…”
“Genuine enchantments against all threats, magic and mystic?”
“But the Ghoul! Folk need protection!” she cries, words aimed at everyone but me.
“And that’s a noble cause,” I offer. “But there ain’t a lick your bird bones and old horsecloppers are gonna do to save folks from the mud. Or anything else, for that matter. We start sending tradefolk out there thinkin’ they’re protected, we’re gonna lose more of ’em than the Ghoul ever took.”
She sniffles, sucking softly on the inside of her cheek. Then she starts closing up shop.
“Thank you, Granny.”
“For you, Copper. Not for no one else. Gonna be a hard day, what with this storm comin’. Was fixin’ to get a little dry wood, maybe build a fire to keep my—”
My sigh cuts her off. She smiles, revealing eight evenly spaced and equally yellow teeth. I navigate a bottle of wine to my other arm, freeing a few fingers to dip into the pouch at my belt. I wrangle out a couple coins, at which Granny clicks her tongue.
“Er … my eyes, Copper. Gettin’ hard for me to see which coins’re which these days. Mightn’t you have a slug or two of the sweet stuff?”
I stare her down. She gives me more of that gappy grin. Hiding beneath the jinglin’ money in my pouch are two pea-sized lumps of gold. I dig them free and drop them into Granny Erskine’s cupped palms. Catching my eye, she brings one to her lips, clacking the nugget against the gnarliest of her teeth. I grumble, and she cackles.
“Just foolin’ with you, boy. Everyone knows Inskeep gold is good. Always has been.”
I heft Mother’s groceries and turn toward home. “Stay out of trouble, Granny,” I mutter.
She snorts. “That’s what the amulets are for!”
* * *
The mayors are camped on our porch like usual, rocking in chairs, sipping tea from well-stained cups, and grousing over a game of cards. Together, they have four good eyes, and two of’em belong to Mayor Reeves. No surprise he spots me first.
“Copper? Is that our Copper?” he calls, leaning over the railing and swishing his hand through the fog.
“Yessir!” I shout back.
“Need help with all that nonsense?”
A gangly, top-hatted shape looms behind Reeves. “He means help with the wine!”
That’d be Mayor Parsons. He’s got the squeakiest voice, the cleanest shave, and the least to do among ’em. He used to be our preacher, but he gave it up in an official capacity when the old church sank. Now he sermonizes from our front stoop, glass eye roving over half his flock while the good one judges the other.
“I meant to be charitable, is all,” snaps Reeves.
“Boys, boys … I believe that’s enough. Young Mr. Copper may be the most affable among us, but he has responsibilities,” says a third voice, deep and slow. Mayor Doc Bunder slips his cane ’twixt the other two, resting it crossways along the railing. His limp white hair covers most of what his eye patch doesn’t, but I can still see him wink through the strands. “Granny give you any trouble this morning?”
I shrug, nearly losing a turnip for it. “Same as always.”
Doc Bunder grins, patting his hands along the pockets of a brass-buttoned vest. “Think I’ve got a coin or two; I can reimburse whatever she fleeced you for.”
“No worries,” I respond. “Mother knows; she always weighs down the morning list with a few extra slugs. For the charity of the Vale, she says.”
Doc winces. “Charity indeed.” He sighs. Then he points his cane at my arms. “Sure you don’t need help with that?”
“Thanks,” I declare, “I think I’m good.”
Before I can put a foot on the steps up to the inn, I hear a scream. It’s followed by a half-dozen more, all from the direction I just came. Peering into the gloom, I can make out the gray planks of the Walk for about fifty paces before the mist swallows them. There’s nothing worth wailing about that I can see, so I venture up a bit, hoping to get a better view.
The horse explodes out of the fog a second later.
The animal is mad with fear—that’s plain. And astride the poor creature, slumped forward and getting battered for it, is a girl. She’s tangled in the reins, and even though she’s bouncing about, I can still see her face.
It’s covered in blood.
I’m so startled that I drop everything, turnips and chickens and bottles of wine tumbling off the Walk. Most land in the mud, which begins to claim them in its slow, undeniable way. I start to scuttle up the steps, but Mayor Parsons screeches, “Somebody! Somebody help her!”
I know it’s stupid. Every bone in my body is telling me it’s stupid. But when you’re the errand boy for your mother and father’s inn, a few things happen: You get strong. You get fast. You get affable—whatever that means. And you learn to take orders.
So I try to leap on the horse.
First thing it does is blast the wind out of me. I catch a knee in the gut, and I can’t breathe. But I grab the bridle with my right hand, and my left snarls up in the horse’s mane. For a split second, I think I’ve got it.
Turns out horses don’t work that way.
Like I’m nothing, it drags me. My boots rattle along every plank of the Long Walk, the horse’s sweaty shoulder thumping against my face. I think to jam my feet down, maybe try to grab the reins, but its hooves churn so hard that they’d grind me up like sausage meat if I fell.
So I hold on for dear life.
People along the Walk are shouting, and I’m whisked past before I can hear more than a few words at a time. “My God!” they scream, and “Make way!” and “Save them!” and “Leggo the horse, you idiot!”
And someone says, “The mud!”
I growl through the pain and dare to look over my shoulder. The edge of the Long Walk is right there, and beyond it, the sticky, stinking pools of the mire. Teeth gnashing, I curl my whole body, putting my knees against the horse’s flank. Then I jerk its head as hard as I can.
With a desperate whinny, the horse veers rightward, hooves splintering the wood at the edge of the Walk. The mud’s waiting for us; the poor horse goes from stride to stuck in a single step. I’m thrown off, and my head clips the edge of the Walk, making me see white with pain. I blink it away.
No time for agony when you’re sinking.
The horse thrashes, legs kicking high as it tries to scramble back to the Walk. A couple men have already fetched ropes, and they sling loops around the horse’s body, getting ready to help it out. It’s clear they can’t see the girl; she’s been hurled another ten feet past me, body barely visible in the mist.
Grimacing away a gurgle of panic, I grab the Walk and pull myself up. I’m already knee-deep, and I can feel the cold of it oozing into my boots, sure as the dread dragging on my heart. As fast as I can, I jam my hands into the mud and feel for my laces. When I’ve got ’em loose enough, I shimmy free; far as mud is concerned, barefoot is the only way out, and even then you only get one burst before your legs start shaking, your arms quit, and you lose the strength to fight. After that, you’ve got a couple minutes left to breathe and think about your mistakes—less if you land facedown.
And the girl?
I’m flinging fistfuls of mud behind me, sort of swimming in the stuff. Someone hollers for more rope. Three different lines get tossed ahead of me. I grab the first one I can, slinging it quick around my waist before I forge onward. By the time I get to the girl, her hair and the back of her dress are the only things left to grab. I guide her head up, and it comes free with a sickly fwupp. A bubble of mud blooms out of her nose.
Means she’s still breathing.
“Reel us in!” I shout, and the rope bites into my waist. It hurts, but with four helpful souls tugging from the Walk, we’re clear of the mud in no time. They’ve gotten the horse out, too, and a couple of stable hands are hard at work calming it. I fall to my back, looking up at the clouds.
Right on cue, it starts to rain.
“Get ’em both inside!” Doc calls. Strong hands lift me by the shoulders. I try to move on my own, but my head is spinning all of a sudden, so I let them sort of drag me along, mud dripping from my feet onto the boards below.
Mr. Greaves, the wagoner’s assistant, scoops up the girl, leaning over her to keep the rain off as best he can. Her head’s turned toward me, eyes closed. It’s nearly impossible to tell how old she is, though she’s about the same height as me and my friend Liza, so I’m guessing she’s our age, or near enough. There’s still too much blood and grime on her face to make out her features, but even tangled and caked as it is, I can tell her hair is fine. It dangles like tree moss, so long it’s sweeping the Walk. Part’s been braided—not simple like my cousins do, but artlike. Citylike. Her limbs bounce oddly as Mr. Greaves carries her, and breath bubbles aside, she looks to be dead.
That just makes it all the more unsettling when she screams.
“Where!” she rages, her whole body twisting and bucking. “Daddy? Where’s my daddy?”
Mr. Greaves has to put her down. She tries to stand, but she doesn’t have the legs for it yet and she crumples, knees hitting the Walk hard. I shake free and creep closer.
“I … I know you’re scared,” I begin, lowering myself to her level. “But this is Windydown Vale. Trust me—safest place in all the mountains. You know that, right?”
She wails and slaps me across the cheek.
So that’s a no, then.
As I’m covering up, lest her other hand possess an opinion on the matter, she bolts … or at least she tries to. After three steps, she swoons. Mr. Greaves catches her before she eats plank, and he holds her arms tight. Still thrashing, she screams, “That demon! That … that ghoul! It attacked us! Took my daddy! Please! Please…”
Slowly, she slumps against Mr. Greaves, the fight leaving her like smoke from a dying fire. I sit back, stupefied. Blood mixes with rain, rolling down my nose and dripping from my chin. I don’t even have the wits to wipe it away.
She says she was attacked. Her father taken by the Ghoul. She seems so sure, and so frightened.
But it’s not possible.
I haven’t haunted in days.
And I am the Ghoul of Windydown Vale.
Text copyright © 2021 by Jake Burt.