The silence of the night was broken as the screams rang out. A wailing that woke the valley. And Martin followed Gwen out into the road as the figure came up the road, her shawl loose around her throat, her eyes streaming red and raw.
“He’s dead!” she cried. “Don’t you listen to me? He’s dead, he’s dead, they’re all dead.” And the folk of Ankhor ran to stop her mouth, catching up to her as she staggered into their arms, weeping inconsolably.
“Rebecca.” Gwen explained to Martin. “Theodore’s sweetheart. There was talk of marriage but he wouldn’t be saying no vows now. Can’t be marrying someone who can’t be taking care of you.”
But the tears that soaked the shawls of the women who half led, half dragged Rebecca over to the nearest house were not for lost marriage celebrations, they were for a lost man. And Martin stared helplessly as the certainty that he had tried to embrace slipped away from him as the cold moon burned the top of Rebecca’s head and the stars were faint and chilled in the darkness.
And the distant stars matched the eyes of those who watched the procession of silent women and their single hysterical charge wind its way through the front door of the nearest house. There was no compassion, only irritation that their sleep was being interrupted.
“Foolish girl.” Gwen complained. “Making so much fuss over a little injury. “It’s not like he’s gone nowhere. She can still see the man every day if she did wish. Though I’d be thinking after this performance Patricia won’t be letting that girl see her brother any time soon. Not ‘till she calms down a little anyroad”
Martin could feel them now. The dead were all around him, the wailing carried on through the night in his dreams, the darkness closed in, unilluminated by that cold, unearthly moon. The sky was heavy, the air was trembling.
And the people looked on, unflinching as the dead filled the valley from side to side, and the valley folk laughed and played with the skulls and spoke with the corpses and Martin joined them, dancing in that unending cemetery of open graves.
And the dead walked, and they were known as the living. And the living did not die but walked on without end, without rest, unburied, unlamented, unmourned, un-alive but not yet dead, nor ever would they be. And Martin screamed.
Martin jerked awake to Gwen standing over him, stern-faced and badly woken from her own dreamless sleep.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” She yelled out. “We’ve all been woken once tonight already and now you’ll wake us again! You’ll be good for nothing in the morning and I’ll be not much better.”
Martin stared aghast at her, her face a living skull. He swallowed desperately at the bile rising. “I…I’m sorry.” He managed desperately. But her expression did not change for she saw Martin’s face.
“What’s the matter with you?” she demanded. “You’ve looked terrible the last two mornings and I hear you tossing and turning all night. I thought you were comfortable here.”
Martin tried to speak and couldn’t, for the truth was too heavy to bear. But it weighed upon him, that great, ponderous piled-up mass. It strained at his lips, and prised open his teeth, until finally, he could not hold it back any longer.
The dam broke and his eyes streamed with tears. He tried to speak but the words came out as a sobbing wail. He could not speak the words, “they’re dead”, because it was too much to stand. The words touched something inside him that went beyond the corpses littering the Valley.
But finally they spilled from his mouth along with the flood of tears, “They’re dead!” He wailed finally. “They’re all dead.”
“No they’re not!” Gwen almost screamed back at him, her face set like a concrete dam across her own deluge. “They’re not dead, they’re still here.” And there was desperation in her voice as she spoke. The same desperation Martin remembered from Hypnos, the words an attempt at convincing herself more than him. Gwen believed because she made herself believe, the consequences to her psyche too great for such a reversal. But Martin could not hold back the words any longer.
Though denial offered comfort that kind of comfort could not last. He needed to let it out, he needed to speak of it. He needed to speak of them. And more, he needed to know why, why were they dead. What did it mean.
He wanted to believe as much as Gwen, he so much wanted to believe they were not dead, yet he could not. He had seen them die. He had seen their bodies, he had seen the change as their lives left them and he recognised something fundamental had left, had disappeared from sight. And it had broken him then. And it broke him down now and his sobs turned to screams, violent, unbridled, unhinged screams.
And he was up out of bed, still dressed from when he was woken before. And Gwen backed off from him, fear in her eyes as she saw what lay down the road he was trying to force her down. And she fell to her knees, and maybe she let herself see the truth for a moment, or maybe she just reinforced that wall of stone that held it back. Martin did not stay to ask, he did not stay to argue. He fled the room out into the road, leaving Gwen to her own answers, and whatever comfort they brought her.
The sun broke out against the eastern sky. The rays of light spilling over the lip of the valley, and racing across the valley floor. The light caught the corpses and showed up the shadows of the dead laying thickly across that space between the jagged mountains ranged above them all.
The valley was sheltered from the exposed moor, protected from that terrible wind that Martin had felt with dreadful clarity. It was hidden from the truth that was so obvious yet denied so often. Death is inevitable, death is for ever, life always ends, barely before it begins. And the violence of Martin’s emotions frightened him and as he fled, he fled from them as well. The deluge within him did not stop, the storm did not abate. The tears made him feel no better, and the admittance of death did not comfort his scared and scoured soul.
And so he fled that suddenly illuminated valley. He fled Ankhor; the Valley no longer an anchor but loose and whipping wildly across his mind. The Valley no longer the House of Life to him but a House of the Dead.
He tried to shut his eyes tight again to the corpses strung out in that great and horrible parade before the eyes of all. But he could not. However they were prepared and dressed and preserved by their families, their grinning faces no longer smiled, their cheery greetings no longer sounded and never would again.
Martin wept as he ran and folk came out of their homes to watch in shock as he fled down the valley road, his eyes fixed on his feet and the road before them, shut tight against the truth he could no longer deny or ignore.
Tears ran down his harrowed cheeks and the dead fell away before him as he left both the valley and the barren moors behind him and ran blindly out from Ankhor, and came out onto the plains of Acheron.