The morning light shone weakly through the curtains as Martin woke from a dream that faded quickly but not quick enough. And he kept his eyes wide open for five minutes, staring sightlessly at the ceiling, too scared even to blink.
Then he remembered where he was and saw the plain white plaster of the walls, the beams across the ceiling, the simple woollen rug over the floorboards. A chest of drawers by his bed with a candlestick beside it, the candle burned down to a nub overnight. It was morning and he was in Ankhor. The Valley whose name, he was beginning to realise, was appropriate on both levels. He smiled at his own subconscious, amused by the pun cobbled together from another scrap of memory.
The visions were gone and though the valley had dead people even here, here the skulls wore hats and the corpses wore coats and had names and held up welcoming signs and drank convivial pints with the newcomers. And they were not dead.
And the dream was over and the headlights were gone, the screams were over, the car was not here, it was far away, a small place at the back of his memory, far from mind, far from Ankhor, far from Acheron. And they were not dead.
If he could believe it, then that made it true. If he could deny death its power then perhaps – perhaps he could step out from under its shadow; perhaps he could live again. The Egyptians had made it work for millennia. Could he not take a lesson from them? His brain had thrown up this ancient concept from the depths of his psyche, and dressed it in the imaginary comforts of a homely valley community. Was that not enough?
So Martin breathed deeply of the fresh air washed into the valley by the morning sun. And his mind cleared and he rose and washed and dressed and went downstairs to the Inn.
The smell of bacon frying greeted Martin as he descended. Though the sun hadn’t broken over the low hills to the east and the mouth of the valley Gwen was awake and had washed and dressed Grandfather Gregory. She had sat him in his customary position and given him a pint of the ale he loved, though these days he did not drink as much as he used to. She called a greeting to Martin as he came into the kitchen.
“Morning there. I let you have a lie-in this morning as it’s your first day but from now on you’ll wake with the cockcrow like the rest of us. Some of the miners don’t be having wives and do pop in here for their morning vittals. I’m used to serving them myself but now you’re around you can be doing so and I can be getting on with the buying of the food from early market.
“And the sawdust needs changing,” she went on, “and the weather be getting colder and there’s a mountain of logs behind the house.” Martin blinked at the list of chores, but she was not finished. “I used to hire a fellow to cut them for me but now you’re here that’ll be your job. No folk round here would be foolish enough to be facing the winter without a fair mountain-sized woodpile a-stacked behind their house.”
Martin took this barrage of information bleary-eyed and Gwen dropped a couple of thick rashers of bacon on his plate and a hunk of bread.
“And you’ll be finishing that right sharp now you hear. You’ve got a day’s labour ahead of you. The woodpile’s to be cut and finished this afternoon after the lunchtime rush. But in the main this morning I need you feeding the pigs and sweeping the yard and changing the sawdust in here.
“Oh, and there’s a couple of barrels need changing. I’ll be down the market for there’s a right few things I be needing and I rarely have a chance for a proper shop, grandfather not being much use at minding the place these days.” Gwen pulled her apron off and hung it on a peg. She pulled her coat around her shoulders as she picked up her shopping bag.
“Now, you hear me, you know what needs doing now?” she fixed him with an inquisitive eye.
“Aye, I surely do.” Martin answered quickly.
“Very well now. Mind you it be done when I get back.” And with that she left.
Martin bit off another hunk of bread and swallowed it alongside the bacon. He was surprised to find he was eager to be working, to be doing something simple, something useful. He finished off the breakfast and left the Inn to the yard at the back of the house. The hungry squeals of the pigs greeted him as he lugged their feed in a big pail over to their pen.
The morning passed in no time at all, the pigs rushing for their breakfast in a flurried bumping mess of pink backs and snorting snouts, their bright little eyes eager for the food. The heavy branches and trunks were dragged from the stack at the side of the woodshed and the axe slammed satisfyingly into their lengths. Wood split and fell away to make small flammable logs which were stacked in the growing pile in the woodshed. Sawdust was swept and fresh was laid, the sweet scent filling the inn’s interior and crunching underfoot. The barrels were rolled away outside and fresh ones dragged step by step up from the cellar to be laid behind the bar.
When Gwen arrived back Martin was sweeping the yard. She nodded at him, a smile on her face as she saw his hard work and she turned to the kitchens; busy herself, to fill the Inn with the rich aromas of fresh-cooked rabbit and goat. There was scarcely time to finish the food before the Inn began to fill, Theodore and his companions the first through the door again with a cry of welcome for Gwen and a hearty greeting for Martin and they sat and talked as Martin served the room with bowls of stew and flagons of brimming ale.
And the afternoon passed with Martin pulling the fresh shirt Gwen had given him over his head and laying it on a log beside him as he worked. Sweating even in the high altitude his meagre arms strained again and again, rising and falling as his plain strength was pitted against the thick trunks that had been delivered to Gwen’s house.
It took most of the afternoon and by the end the sweat was running in his eyes, his fingers were burning where the flesh had rubbed against the axe handle, his arms were limply hanging by his side, dull throbs in every inch, his chest was heaving. But he was happy.
He sat by the bar and drank a tall pint of cold foaming beer from the cellar and bit off chunks of bread and lard for his dinner, wiping the bread in a thick broth of rabbit and gravy. As he ate he realised how starving he was. Gwen let him go to bed early rather than working alongside her as she served the evening crowds.
And Martin fell into sleep with a hearty sigh and let sleep wash over him, feeling warm and satisfied and worthwhile.
Martin woke with a start, trying to forget the dreams which he’d struggled against, wallowing on his back, his head deep under the surface, fighting to gain his feet, to rise from those black suffocating depths and knowing he never would but then he woke. And the light was shining through the window, the faint wash of sunrise.
And all was quiet but for the sound of Gwen moving about downstairs. He was alone, he was safe. He breathed again and banished the dreams from his tired mind. He was still exhausted from the previous day and he couldn’t move his arms or his upper body without every muscle and sinew protesting desperately.
Martin walked downstairs, struggling with every step. Gwen laughed as she saw him.
“Oh, you town folk be all the same, an honest day’s work and you be falling to pieces. I’ll bet your arms are like stone this morning. Don’t you be fretting none though, some good heavy labour will work that’n off.”
“Can’t I take it easy today?”
“What, and who’ll be finishing that woodpile? There’s still half a tree to be cutting. And the pigs’ll need their feeding and another barrel’s empty. You can’t be sitting about today.
“Tell you what,” she relented, “this afternoon you can be cleaning the upstairs rooms. That’s light work for you. Then you’ll be right as rain tomorrow for mending the fence around the back. Oh, and the roof needs some more thatch on it for the winter. I can’t be having you lying down, not now the weather be turning.”
That afternoon, Martin found the narrow stairs to the third floor. The inn was the biggest building for a long way around, most only had two storeys. Martin climbed the steps and paused for a breath at the top. He looked out through the narrow pane window their at the head of the stairs, seeing the valley laid out before him for the first time through the warped glass pane.
The valley slowly came into focus as Martin made sense of it through the poor lens. It was scattered and most buildings were clustered only in pairs or groups of four or five. The little crowd of shops around the Inn was the closest thing the valley had to a town and of that town’s buildings the Carrion was the biggest by far. Not only was it large it was tall, a storey higher than the rest. The other buildings had two storeys although their occupants only seemed to live on the ground floor. Or at least the occupants that were seen.
Martin moved away from the window at the top of the stairs and looked down the corridor. Doors lined it on either side. A total of twelve small rooms, six on either side and a small window at the end. The walls were whitewashed plaster and scrubbed floorboards. Martin moved forward with his armful of clean sheets and blankets that Gwen had washed that morning. He moved forward to the first room on the left and bent awkwardly to turn the handle and the bare wooden door swung open.
The room was small and neat, laid out almost exactly like his own just below. It had a cupboard and a bed and a small table beside it and apart from that was bare and tidy. On the bed lay Gwen’s sister Jemima. She smiled up at Martin as he approached. She didn’t say anything, not even a word of greeting but Gwen had explained that was just her way. She just lay and stared placidly up at the ceiling.
She’d been in an accident with a horse and cart and it had left her paralysed, he knew. Though how, he could not say, He supposed Gwen had told him. The accident had been thirty years ago and during that time Gwen had cared for her and cleaned her and changed her sheets and brought her food and water every morning just in case she felt hungry and returned to take it away untouched every evening. And she had removed her face when it started to get rotten. And Gwen had polished Jemima’s skull and arranged the little girl’s bones between the sheets to make sure she was comfortable.
“Good afternoon Jemima,” Martin said to her. “I’m Martin. Your sister’s let me move in to work for her. I’ll be helping out about the place for a while.” He smiled at the child in her pretty nightdress. He took the blanket off the bed and folded it neatly and placed it outside the door to be brought downstairs when he’d finished. He gently moved Jemima to the side and removed the sheet she lay on.
She didn’t complain as he fitted the cleanly washed and starched sheet to the mattress and rolled her back. He spent some time arranging her in a comfortable position and put the new blanket over the top of her.
He noticed the untouched food and drink by the side of her bed on the small table. Gwen had told him to leave it there, she would come up to remove it later when it got dark. Martin brought out the broom and swept the floor as he hummed a cheery tune to himself.
Then with a smile and a wave to Jemima he left and closed the door quietly behind himself.
He turned to the next room. It was Verity’s room, Gwen’s aunt. She was a bit of a battleaxe by all accounts. Gwen’s half-disapproving description of her had sounded suspiciously like a description of herself. Martin smiled. It was nice meeting Gwen’s family. Even if they were all rather quiet and reserved. He lifted the clean linen up to his chest again and opened the door.
Martin woke screaming, the eyeless faces staring unceasingly at him, skulls surrounding, corpses littering and dancing, the headlights, the screech of brakes, the crunch of metal, the screams that became his own as Gwen shook him awake to a gloom that was barely day.
“You’re just having a bad dream,” she told him and he calmed as he stared about himself at the simple room and the solidly real figure before him. He wanted comforting, he wanted her to hold him and tell him it was ok. But she didn’t and he couldn’t ask such a thing of his employer, especially one of Gwen’s stolid character.
He woke properly instead and pulled himself together. This was not good enough, he told himself. He had to try harder. They were not dead, he told his dreams. It had not happened. There was nothing to be afraid of.
They were not dead.
It was barely light and the cock was crowing. He rose and joined Gwen in the daily chores and then they served the miners as they came in for bread and cheese before their day’s work.