It was cold out there in the dark and mud but inside, old John Knock felt warm. It was the first he had felt this sensation in some time, let alone any real emotion whatsoever. His forge was where he plied both his trade and his passion and he embraced the heat that blazed forth from the cast iron furnace. It was here that he made his living and presented his wares for the villagers of Leedensville, both works of metallic, sculpted art and more practical iron and steel instruments suited for every day life.
On this chilly January night, he worked his hammer against the long sheath of iron, supported against a heavy anvil. Sweat dripped from his furrowed brow but he felt confident on the task at hand and felt joyful to work with his hands once more. He had taken a leave of absence after having grown sloppy in the weeks prior but his interest resumed when Sherriff Slater had dropped by to announce the construction of a new jail cell. It would be a powerfully made block set to hold not only the town drunk but any killer, crook or ne-er do well that would dare accost the town. And it would need ten strong, 8 foot long bars of hardened metal to do its job. It was a solid work order and he was compelled to help the good of community. It was what Sarah would have wanted.
He stood back, a bead of sweat dripping off of his hooked nose. He beheld the bar, the fifth and exact halfway point of the order. It was sturdy, solid. Good, honest work. He decided he would call it a night. He was ahead of schedule and figured he could finish the work tomorrow. He had several other projects lined up including shoeing Mr. Lancaster’s horse and hoops to secure the Drunken Boar’s impending shipment of whiskey barrels. Plenty to keep him busy and occupied. He wiped his face off with a thing rag and extinguished the forge. The darkness and hiss of steam that issued forth was his own personal sign of a day’s work completed. He left his shop through the back door and walked the ten steps to his front door, directly behind the blacksmith shop. Before he left, he afforded a glance toward a small, steel bauble on a high shelf. It was a lacquered silver, a simple yet elegant comb with a marigold (Sarah’s favorite flower) delicately carved into it. He kept it there at all times and he always made sure to offer one wistful gaze towards the totem on his way out for the night.
His home was simple, one room to hold everything he needed. There was a cabinet in the corner (handmade, of course), a brick hewn chimney (it had already been there when he was gifted the house by Mayor Barnes, generous payment for helping to smith a plow blade for the newly developed corn fields on the west side of town), a table and chairs (one of which was gathering dust), currently unlit lantern and a medium sized bed, room enough for two people. He surveyed his surroundings with an accepting sigh as he began to undress. The bed had only occupied one for some time and the last time Sarah had lain upon the thin mattress, it had been her death bed.
His body still carried the blackened vestiges of the day’s work but it didn’t matter to him. He would wash the bed sheet later. For now, he was exhausted and he craved rest. John Knock sunk into the mattress and moved over to the furthest side against the wall. The moon cast a sliver of silver upon the vacant spot and he found he could not tear his weary eyes from up. He sat up with a grunt and approached the single window, pulling a shroud of patchy blanket across, securing it in place on the wall with a nail of his own design. Darkness enveloped the room as he returned to his too-large bed and drifted away into the cold of the night.
He awakened sometime later to the black. He rolled over to face the window and realized what had stirred him from a dreamless sleep. It was quiet in his home. It was this uneasy stillness that had pulled him awake. Silence, pure and thick, an all enveloping presence in the lonely room. The crickets and frogs that normally serenaded him from the mud pit outside were curiously absent and he blinked warily as his eyes gradually shifted to embrace the dark.
She lay next to him in bed, facing away and that was when John Knock knew he was dreaming. Sarah’s dark form shifted beneath the sheet and his heart leaped in a wild combination of emotions. It was a cruel dream and he lay quiet and still, savoring the musky scent of her dark hair, not wanting to awaken from her presence. It wasn’t fair.
He took a chance and reached out to her. As his rough, well worked hand touched her slumbering figure, she vanished beneath the sheet. It billowed lightly into the air for just a moment and settled into a flat plateau of cloth, seemingly stretching into eternity before him.
“Please, God,” John Knock whispered.
A voice whistled in his ear, there in the dark chill. There were no words, just a breathy whistle of cold breath and he sat up. He scanned the room, reached back to where she had been lying just moments before. He was wide wake now, he had to be. The world outside exploded into activity. The wildlife sung their sweet, primal song and John Knock accepted it as a sign that all was well and normal here in his little shack. He lay back down and closed his eyes, not noticing the silver glinting on the wooden floor. He turned away from the window and the empty side of the bed, facing the bare wall and embracing the open expanse beyond.
The next morning began with pain, as it often did, but this time more so than usual. John Knock grimaced, sitting up on the edge of the bed and pulled at his bare foot as he fumbled about for the source of the sharp pain. His hands grasped a long, thin object and he withdrew the small assailant. He held it up, squinting against the sunlight that peeked beyond the makeshift curtain. A shard of silver metal danced about in his grasp, speckled in red. He frowned; he had no idea where the shard had come from. It was a treacherous world out there though and for all he knew, he could have easily brought in a loose piece from one of the prison bars.
John dressed, exited his home and walked around to the back side of the small building. The soft bubbling sounded his destination before he saw it. Beyond the confines of his domicile, a small flat of mud existed. It churned gently as if on its own accord. He could not recall a time that the pitch of grey, black and brown earth had not been present. Beyond the mud flat, the forest began and stretched several miles off before terminating at the Atlantic. It was wild land, a stretch of woods that lurked in the whispered tales of drunkards at the Boar and nervous school children. He didn’t want to take his chances and thus his journey ended directly at the patch of bubbling ground into which he cast the piercing shard with nary a second glance.
John briefly reviewed the day’s order before he set to work on the barrel hoops. The blast of heat from the forge was a welcomed reminder of more prosperous days and he was eager to regain his footing. He gazed out through his open air shop and into the town plaza beyond. Across the plaza, the church sat at the apex, a stately steeple of glistening white. He and Sarah had wed there not three years prior, their thoughts of raising a family having been held off by fruitless attempts. He was alone but he had felt better than he had in some time. The town was abuzz with romping children and the brisk pace of the townsfolk setting off to a bright new day. The air held a familiar chill but the cloudless sky reflected rays of light warmth off of the mud strewn cobblestones.
His thoughts were interrupted by the approach of a plump, official looking gentleman in a grey overcoat. His wide brimmed hat belied a thick handlebar mustache, once a proud chestnut and now succumbing to a pallor of age. John had barely picked up his hammer when the man arrived. He set down the instrument, pulled off his leather gloves and grasped the man’s hand firmly.
Sheriff Thomas Slater was a man held in high regard in the community but he was not a sociable individual. He kept to himself in his sizable home on the outskirts of town, venturing out to patrol the town and not then swiftly returning home, offering not even a cursory glance at anyone he passed in streets unless they were up to no good. It was a sudden change in demeanor that had caught many off guard. His usual genial presence at Sunday service had stopped abruptly as had his occasional nightcaps at the Boar. It was an abrupt shift that had cast slanderous whispers about town.
“Sheriff, good morning,” John greeted him with a smile. He shook the man’s rugged hand and gestured to his spacious shop. “What brings you to my shop today?”
“Good morning, Mr. Knock,” the sheriff replied with a nod of his balding head. “Haven’t seen the forge fired up in some time. Glad to see you’re back on your feet.”
John swallowed hard and tried to conceal his emotion. “Best I can determine, sir, sometimes it’s best to try and move on. The flames, they make me feel like things are back to the way they once wear. As most as they can possibly be, at the very least.”
The sheriff nodded again. “Good timing too, I should think. This isn’t quite a social call, Mr. Knock. I have a small request for you.”
He produced a folded piece of paper from his pocket and passed it to John. He unfolded it and furrowed his bushy, dark brow at the schematics presented therein. Slater had sketched a design for a most unusual looking knife, a hunting knife by the size and shape of the blade. He had gone to lengths to indicate the exact size of the instrument, the type of metal that should be used and even the type of leather he’d prefer for the handle. The design even described some ornamental aspects, curlicues and hashmarks embedded on the blade that John didn’t quite recognize.
John sighed and handed the paper back to the sheriff. “I’d be glad to sir, but I’d have to request a few modifications to your design. I can make it to the specifications but I’m afraid I don’t have much experience in leather work, nor would I be very skilled at inscribing those…designs on the blade. Would you accept something more…practical and less ornamental?”
The sheriff gazed back at him with a hard stare that forced an uncomfortable shift in John’s stance. He abruptly broke into a meaty grin and handed the paper right back to the blacksmith.
“I’m sure you could cook something up, my friend. Do your best to get those little words on there, won’t you? It would mean a lot to Elizabeth. It’s a gift to her, see.”
John arched an eyebrow but elected to not cast judgment on the man. He couldn’t imagine what woman in Leedensville would want such a gift, but perhaps there was more to their relationship than he care to knew or question. John relented and accepted the schematic. “I’ll get on it as soon as I complete my current project. I’ll have it delivered within a week.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Knock, but I’m also afraid this has to take top priority. Her birthday is in just four short days and, damn it all to hell, I waited until now to get this order in. It could do well to have the town sheriff on your side, Mr. Knock, and I’m sure I could compensate you handsomely in some other aspect.”
John knew exactly what the portly sheriff was talking about. He took the schematic and set it on a work counter near the back, far from the heat and flame. He returned and held out a hand in a gentleman’s agreement. “I’ll see what I can do, sir. Your lovely wife will not be wanting on her special day.”
“I knew I could count on you,” the sheriff replied with a grin. He ignored the outstretched hand and pulled a small fist sized fruit from his pocket. It was a grotesque purplish-blue in hue and the man bit into it with a wet crunch. Knock tried to suppress a grimace; instead smiled awkwardly and nodded back towards the lawman.
“You have a good day, Sheriff,” John called as the lawman sauntered away. His reply was a lifted hand, gestured from the sheriff’s broad back. John arched an eyebrow again at the odd encounter and turned back to the thin sheet of cooling metal on the anvil before him. He’d complete at least one of the barrel hoops before he took another glance at the knife request. He could afford a little time at least.
There was an old well located in the cemetery behind the church. It was made roughly from patchwork granite hauled in from a quarry somewhere north, but the children of the town were allowed to decorate and festoon it with wildflowers to brighten up the appearance. Now, as John Knock stood over the bucket and washed up after a hard day’s work, he noticed that most of the flowers had wilted. There was one however, that caught his eye. A gorgeous sprig of yellow, dainty and yet hardy was tucked into a gap between two stones. He withdrew it, clutched the marigold for a moment and walked a bit south towards the woods, dripping wet all the while. A chill swept through the winter night but he didn’t feel it. He was focused on his destination and his task at hand, as he often was when there was something that needed to be done.
Her grave sat near the edge of the property, a simple granite headstone, no doubt carved from the same lot that had built the well. John Knock kneeled down and place the yellow wildflower on Sarah’s grave, whispering words unheard to everyone but himself and the quiet spirits at rest all around him. The flower was like her in so many ways: a fighter to the end, yellow like her hair and a bright bloom to cast away harsh surroundings. A light in the dark in the purest sense; a light since snuffed out from this world yet ever brighter within the warmth that he still felt. The church bells suddenly tolled, cutting through the cold and quiet. He turned towards the stately white steeple, thought hard for a moment and then turned from her grave, allowing his weathered hand to rest upon it for just a moment more.
The church doors opened with a creak that pierced the otherwise peaceful silence. John Knock gazed about the small building. The outside was an impressive feat of architecture, the finest and most expensive building in Leedensville but it was belied by a simple interior. A windowless, brick square of a chamber, ten rows of wooden pews situated side by side in symmetrical rows. A simple altar at the front with a small wooden pulpit and a six foot cross forged out of pure iron. Oh, John Knock remembered that cross. He remembered it and the seared skin and smoke that had come from crafting it, quite ironic that he had endured Hell to bring about Heaven. As such, as gratitude for his efforts, Pastor Collins had always welcomed John’s occasional wanderings into the house of worship. They had been fewer and far between since Sarah’s death but on certain nights, much like tonight, he found himself drawn to the building.
The pastor himself emerged from a side door, the entrance to a spiral staircase that lead upwards towards the mighty church bells. The elderly man smiled and gestured to John with open arms as he stood uneasily amongt the pews. “Mr. John Knock, come to return to the fold. Be it forever grateful that you’ve chosen to embrace his light.”
“Just for tonight, perhaps, reverend,” Knock said with a nervous lick of his lips.
Collins nodded in an understanding fashion and gestured to the closest wooden bench. “Sit, won’t you brother?”
“I’ll stand, if its all the same.”
“I hope you won’t think me crass then if I accept my own invitation,” the pastor said as he sat down wearily. “These old bones wear down a bit more easily than I’d like them to.”
John nodded and reached out, caressing the jagged edge of one of the pews. Not the best craftsmanship, but then he wasn’t skilled in woodworking either. Metal was his trade and would remain so. He cast his eyes back at the cross and blinked as a glint of lantern light reflected off the metal.
“The whole village is forever grateful for your efforts, John,” Collins said. “As is the good Lord, I hope you’ll never forget that. Have you forgotten that, John?”
“I don’t know,” John replied quickly.
Collins knew when to take a step back. “When you are ready, friend. When you are ready, all are welcome in his grace. I trust you know that she is with him, standing at his right hand side and always watching you with the love that I felt when I first married the two of you.”
“I know, reverend.”
“I’ve seen the flames appear in your shop again,” Collins said, nodding in approval. “That’s good. It’s good to return to what makes you feel like yourself.”
John nodded as well. “It does feel good. I feel…more confident. I know that some of my work after I first lost her had grown…sloppy. I felt embarrassed when Mrs. Harper reported her husband’s saw broke on just the third stroke. But I feel good, I feel like I can…do great things.”
“Just mind, John, that you remain respectful and not succumb to the sin of pride. I know you endured a horrible heartbreak and such a tragedy can lead a man down a dark path, the crooked and narrow that can be difficult to find a way back from. Just keep an eye on the light. Sarah will guide you to where you need to go.”
“I appreciate that, reverend. I think I’ll be heading off now,” he said, tearing his eyes from the cross. He didn’t want the reverend to see the tears in his eye.
“Are you sure you won’t stay and pray?”
“Not right now, father.”
“Very well,” Collins said with a respectful tone. “You’re always welcome here, brother John. I hope you’ll remember that. Now if I may, I’d like to accept my own invitation once again.”
“Of course, father.”
“And John, one small request? If you see sheriff Slater, please invite him back into the fold as well. I dare say I haven’t seen him quite some time and his absence has worried me.
That night was a quiet evening for the mentally and physically beleaguered John Knock. Upon returning to his modest home, he wtihdrew a small parcel of wax paper from his cupboard, a small tin cup and pail of water, gathered a leather bound book and lit his solitary lantern. Within five minutes he was seated at his table, feasting on his last morsel of salted rabbit meat (he decided he would go hunting the next day to replenish his stock) and reading from the book. He had always held an interest in the unusual and the book was a curious tome. “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” had been Sarah’s last gift to him and he had only just recently picked it back up, just as he had done so with his hammer and forge. He enjoyed reading about the scientist in the book, crafting something fascinating from something unexpected, much as he likened how he plied his own trade, although on an admittedly much smaller scale. He thought the more violent aspects of the story might have frightened her thus was his appreciating even greater for her having brought the book into their home. It was his only book although he was strongly considering making an effort to withdraw his Bible from the well behind the church.
He had reached a moment upon which the creature, made flesh from the unliving, demands a bride of his own from the doctor. Imagine, what an interesting concept. He set the book down then, with a sudden start. Something wasn’t sitting right in his mouth. He had salted the meat perfectly and it hadn’t yet turned rancid so what was –
John coughed once and then a second time, explosively expelling his dinner onto the table. The lantern blew out upon the impact, thrusting the small room into sudden, uncomfortable darkness. John gagged and tasted a salty, peppery taste in his mouth. He fumbled for the lantern and cried out, a garbled groan among a gamut of liquid issuing forth. Something had stabbed him in the dark, a piercing blaze of cold and fire impossibly at the same time. In spite of the pain, he managed to light the wick in the lantern and inspect the unexpectedly violent scene on his small table.
A chewed lump of meat sat there, embedded with shards of glinting silver. He touched his lips and the hand came back red. With caution, he inspected the meat and frowned at the small parcels and chips of silvery metal embedded within. It had been akin to biting into a shot glass and John Knock couldn’t hazard a guess as to how it had ended up in his meal. He wiped the red away and spat out one final shard. The candle in the lantern snuffed out then, with a force too strong to have been caused by his own exhalation.
John stood up with a start, knocking over his chair. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it in the dark and stumbled away even as the choking sensation welled in his throat. The shape flitted with him and followed him as he staggered out the door into the pitch black night, coughing and sputtering. It whisked past him as he spat a large obstruction, rushing past his weathered teeth and plummeting wetly onto the bare ground. He heard it talk; it wasn’t her. She wouldn’t have hurt him this way. It spoke as it glided past, a midnight bird riding the cold winds of the wild.
No words: a shrill cry. It rose and fell with the wind and sounded for all the world like a panicked horse. The cry carried past on the wind, following the black shroud as it passed beyond the wall of his home, past the churning mud pit beyond and into the pitch of the Eastern Woods. John Knock watched as it vanished, his eyes focusing on nothing and everything. He spat again and pulled another match from his pocket. Under the flickering light, a wet lump of grey and black writhed on the ground, shards of silver embedded in it and gesturing forth as the shape undulated and shifted as though it were a living thing, one born from his own body.
Impossible, evil and demonic. This shouldn’t and couldn’t be and John Knock fled back inside even as the throbbing metal speckled mass ceased its shifting movements and lie there, still and black in the endless night. So too was the rest of Mr. Knock’s night as he collapsed into his bed, oblivious to whatever had assailed him in his warm yet dark hearth.
As it has always been and likely always will be, strange things tend to happen in the dead of night when potential prying eyes have succumbed to the allure of restful sleep. So to on this night, something stirred juts outside the front door of John Knock’s door. The spherical pile of bile, grime, gore and metal that had just emerged from the gullet of the unwitting host stirred and extended a pitch black, wet tendril. Eldritch locomotion took hold as it pulled itself along the dirt, inching further along the side of the domicile, rolling and writhing. The refuse found its destination behind the shack, rolled forth once more and plopped itself into the roiling mud. There it submerged beneath the waste and spread itself thin into the pit, submerging and intertwining with the Earth, the land and everything primal that lurked beneath.
There was no reason to not have left his home the next day. After the night’s events, he was happy to be out in the biting cold of the morning. John had woken, blinking with inadequate sleep, lips and mustache gummed together with blood and black. He had swished his mouth out with his water jug, the item never having left the table. The only part of the previous night that had been disturbed was the removal of the lump of metal imbued meat which now dwelt at the bottom of the mud pit. It was where John currently stood, gazing down at the bubbling patch, each spock and spurt of wet earth eliciting an involuntary grimace.
He turned away and cradled his rifle, a weapon having gone unused since his last hunting trip some two weeks prior. It was the only thing he used the gun for and he didn’t regret not having sprang for it the night prior. He knew it wouldn’t have done much good against the Mare (as he had personally dubbed the black shape that shrieked like a horse). He stood facing the Eastern Woods and a shudder passed through him. The forest that stretched outwards to the ocean was rich with game. There wasn’t much in the way of dangerous predators, no bears or cougars or wolves to be found. But there was something else beyond the trees, something that coasted through the dying birch and the leaf soaked forest floor. John Knock didn’t know what it was but he could feel the evil that blew on the light breeze, sweeping through the woods on a decadent yet deadly miasma. He could smell it and it smelled sweet.
He took one step into the woods, not noticing the arcane insignia inscribed on the bark of one tree that happened to face his home and the mud pit. Despite having passed them, he was not oblivious to the presence in the forest and yet he knew he needed to eat and couldn’t survive simply on bread. He whispered a soft and half-hearted prayed and crossed the boundaries into the woods.
Pastor Jeremiah Collins stepped outside for a bit of fresh air. He had spent a bulk of the afternoon polishing the candlesticks that lined the chapel walls. It was hard work at his advanced age but he wanted to keep the Lord’s house looking pristine. Perhaps he’d look into hiring a helped hand soon. He figured it was at least worth considering. He took in a gulp of chilly January air and looked out across the courtyard. He recognized two of the local women, chatting among themselves and he raised a hand in greeting. They returned his gesture with kind nods. Leedensville was a small town and yes, sin lurked here and there like a stubborn mold but he felt positive about the overall feel of the locale.
His eyes turned towards Mr. Knock’s shop across the courtyard. He knew the man to have irregular hours and on this day, the large barn sized doors were shut and sealed. Yet it didn’t seem to prevent a racket from piercing the otherwise peaceful morning. Pastor Collins squinted towards the shop as a din of clanging metal and scattering debris echoed across the cobblestones. Surely someone had broken into the shop and was pilfering the good man’s tools of the trade. He should contact Sheriff Slater at once. But then, more likely it was just Knock himself busying himself and not wanting to pay heed to the hustle and bustle of the day. The poor man, but Collins was grateful he seemed to be showing an interest in returning to the flock. God be with him.
A chill suddenly blew stronger than the rest that had permeated this day. It was cold but the sun shone brightly, an image that curiously unnerved the good pastor. He clutched his robes around his midsection and shuddered. Something wasn’t right. He afforded one more glance around the courtyard and retreated inwards, seeking the solace of the warmth within the church.
John Knock emerged from the woods, freshly slain rabbit slung from his belt. It had been a meager hunt, he’d only managed one kill which would only last a few days if he rationed it. He’d likely have to resort to bread and water for sustenance as he didn’t know if he could bring himself to return to the woods. As he approached his property, he thought about the only other game he had spotted this day, small whitetail doe. But he had not been able to secure the kill, something else had gotten to it.
He had found it lying in a leaf strewn clearing, tawny fur blending in with the brown of the dead leaves crunching beneath. Its throat had been slit, cleanly and neatly with a precision belying that of a natural predator. Its belly was slit open, still streaming entrails spilling into the refuse which indicated to him that it was a fresh kill. It unnerved him, made him caution every sound and peep echoing from beyond the birch.
He had seen something else in the woods as he had peered up from the deer (he didn’t dare touch it, let alone consume it). As he gazed through the grey, pitted trunks, he could make out what appeared to be a small shack. It was ramshackle in appearance, hastily constructed by pallets of bark and lashings of an odd black fiber. But then… he carefully passed beyond the closest tree and encountered naught but stretching woodland. He had turned away warily, affording one last glance over his shoulder. His peek was rewarded with the small shack appearing once more, but this time the simple wooden door was wide open, inviting a curious onlooker into the dark confines beyond.
He could smell the salt on the air and knew the ocean was but perhaps a mile away. John had wandered too far. He wanted out of the forest, away from the carcass and away from that accursed shack. Luckily, he didn’t have to go far as the domicile had vanished, leaving not even am imprint on the leaf strewn forest floor.
Thomas Slater lived in one of the more stately houses in Leedensville, a two story domicile of repute and solid stature, much like the man himself. It was set at the beginning of the town’s main thoroughfare, set a little ways off from the street, a gatekeeper of sorts for anyone seeking to visit his town. It was a home much too large for one man, alone, but that was the way it had been for several weeks. On this night, however, he wasn’t alone. He was occupied with his thoughts of the blacksmith and the shoddy craftsmanship he had exhibited in the weeks prior. He was occupied with thoughts of Elizabeth and the absence of her laugh and the warm smell of her famous pumpkin pie. More so though, he was not alone for he was seated at a large oak table, accompanied by a being of pure shadow and filth.
Across the town, one John Knock would know this mysterious figure as The Mare, but Slater would have no way of knowing that. He (and yes, much of the village, especially the schoolchildren) knew of this form as the Salt Witch. A brief sojourn into the woods a week prior, beset by grief and driven near mad with heartache, had proven that her existence was much more than a mere children’s rhyme. She sat there now, across the table in an otherwise empty room, lit by a solitary candle set upon an iron holder (a crafted item that had been delivered from a familiar source). The heart of a freshly slain deer lite on the wood before them, staining the wood with its vital juices.
She was shadow and shade, flitting and forming among the darkness of the room. What little of her that Slater could see betrayed an elongated, bestial snout, a hunched form clad in thin fibrous membranes and reeking of her namesake. Word of God (which seemed to be curiously absent in her presence) spoke that she had crawled from the blackest depths of the ocean where she had learned arcane crafts from the beings of the deep. The salt had clung to her hair and she had learned to hunt the wild game to stay alive before graduating towards more obscure and ethereal game. Such was the ease of locating a bevy of settlers in a new, wild world whom would be desperate to part with their very souls if it meant an easier life on this mortal coil. Or for other prices still, such as the sweet slaking thirst for vengeance at the loss of a loved one.
This was the basis for the meeting and for the progress report delivered to Thomas Slater by his menacing mercenary of the Woods: “The seed hath been planted.” Simple words spoken not from the primal mouth across the table but related directly to the core of Slater’s mind.
He nodded in return and she asked: “Dost thou hast the blade?”
Slater shook his head. “He’ll finish it soon,” he responded. “He’s talented at his craft, it will be a fine piece of work.”
“Not so talented, it would seem, why else would I be here?”
Slater smirked and subconsciously glanced at his arm. The wounds had scarred over, the markings and spirals he had carved upon himself. He had stumbled across her shack in the woods and she had spoken to him much as she was speaking now, telling him exactly how to bring her about to his locale and the deal that they would soon make. Upon this time, Slater felt the slightest pangs of regret, especially after observing the abomination in the shade. Then, the scent of nutmeg struck his pocked nose and he forgot all his misgivings as he knew it was a scent he would never again detect from Elizabeth’s kitchen, nor the warmth of her body.
Slater stood up and turned away from the blasphemous being. He could feel its eyes, wherever the hell they were on that nightmare form, boring into the back of his skull.
“We shall finish it,” the hoarse voice whispered. A gnarled hand reach from the undulating black, tipped with a silvery animal hoof that glinted in the candlelight. It scooped the deer heart back towards it before the organ disappeared into the shadows. The sound that erupted rom the shade was enough to turn the sheriff’s stomach and he felt he could bear no more.
As he began to walk away, sheriff Thomas Slater felt a wisp across the back of his neck and a faint whisper. It sounded like the snort of an impatient horse and it was a sound that made him shudder. Tears sprang to his red rimmed eyes and swiftly began to fall, salted gems not unlike that which crystallized in the shadows of a hungry being from far beyond our own world.
The previous night had been uneventful and for that, John Knock was grateful. His hands were dirty from the work he had performed under the cover of the night, yet his forge was cold. Rather, he had been at work, retrieving something long cast aside. He was prepared to being work for the day but presently, he sat upon the foot of the bed, poring over the still wet pages of his and Sarah’s Bible. It had been a good while that he had seen these words and the scriptures therein brought forth a torrent of mixed emotions.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Comfort was a foreign concept to him. But the book felt good in his hands, despite the fragility of the worn and wet pages. The bottom of the well had also sprung forth mold and he knew he would have to work a little harder to erase the vestiges of neglect. Hard work was certainly the order for the day.
The sunlight glinted off the silver comb high above as John Knock continued to work with his hands and spirit. He was satisfied with his work thus far. The blade that Sheriff Slater had commissioned was coming along nicely. A solid six inches of finely honed wrought iron. While the metal was still soft, John heated up a thick strand of wire and used the hot end to transcribe the weird language into the blade to the best of his ability. It was slow going, words and symbols that escaped his knowledge and he hoped were not blasphemous in nature. Something suddenly alighted upon the blade, a burst of color. John grunted and pulled the wire away. A tiny yellow flower petal had floated down and pressed itself into the still cooling metal. He pulled it away and hoped the tiny fleck of yellow that caught behind would not blemish the finished piece.
A small, musical giggle sounded through the shop. He looked up beneath his heavy set brow and frowned at the appearance of a little girl standing before him, peering over the front counter of his shop. She was a spritely creature, fair skin and hair with delicate brown eyes that sparkled with that youthful exuberance and curiosity that sadly seems to fade with age. She held the remnants of a small yellow wildflower in her hand, the petals all but removed.
“Hello little one,” John said with a cautious smile. He liked children but was uncomfortable with her standing so close to the dangerous heat and metal just beyond the wooden counter. “That’s a pretty flower, where did you get it?” He hoped he would not receive the answer he feared.
“I pulled it from the well behind the church,” she smiled back. “It was the only one left. Now its all over the town square, so everyone can enjoy it.”
“You didn’t…find it on a gravestone, did you child?”
“No sir, Mother says not to disturb the dead and then they won’t disturb you.”
“Mother is a wise woman, dear one. Tell me though, who are your parents? And where are they?”
“My parents run the feed store over by the farm.”
“Oh you are little Emily O’Connell!” he said with recognition. “Yes, I’ve crossed paths with your parents a few times, fine people indeed. What brings you all the way over here? Do they know you’re on your own?”
“I’ll tell you a secret, mister,” she beckoned him closer mischievously and John Knock decided to play along.
“I’m supposed to be at school right now,” she whispered. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“I’ll make you a deal dear,” he said. “If you be careful and don’t get into any mischief, I won’t tell.”
She nodded in agreement and craned her inquisitive head, poring over his actions beyond the counter. “What are you doing there, sir?’
“Dangerous things, dear,” he answered. “Metalwork. Right now I’m building a gift for Sheriff Slater’s wife.”
Hey eyebrow arched. “The sheriff’s wife? Sir, you’re making a gift for a ghost.”
“What’s that, dear?”
“Last week, I skipped school again,” she whispered. “I was in the woods, looking for skylarks, they sing beautiful songs. But I saw the sheriff out there, he was carrying his wife in his arms and she looked dead to the world!”
“I…see. Did the sheriff see you? Did you ask him anything or speak to him?”
“No sir, he seemed to be in a hurry, I did not want to stop and bother him while he was grieving.”
“That is mighty fine of your, my dear. Very kind. Now then, will you do me a favor in return for my secrecy?”
“Do not mention to the sheriff that I am working on this gift. I suspect it might not be for his wife but perhaps for himself and he did not want to seem selfish. I’d prefer it to be a surprise when my work is complete.”
“I swear sir. On my parent’s grave.”
“Now, Emily, be careful hen you say things like that.”
She nodded. “I will, sorry sir.”
“That’s quite alright.”
“Yes dear?” he asked.
“Will you build me a little metal bird when you finish Mr. Slater’s gift? Please?” she asked with a hopeful whisper.
“Young lady, I’ll build you the most beautiful song bird you ever did see,” he smiled. “Now run along and don’t let the schoolmarm see you.”
She beamed brightly, took one last glance into his shop and rushed off into the square.
Her departure brought a sigh of relief to John Knock followed by a small pit of longing. He knew he would likely never have a child to call his own. That had not been an option with Sarah even before she had passed. As he hammered out a rough edge of the knife, he wondered what the future held for him. He knew he could only go so far in the small town of Leedensville. Perhaps something lie beyond the town square, past the O’Connell corn farm and farther west. Maybe he should take his trade to the new bustling metropolis of New York. It might present new opportunities and new ventures. Who knows what the future held?
The world was a mysterious place, John Knock mused inwardly. He clanged his hammer off the blade again, skirting past the tiny splotch of yellow. You never know what the future might hold, but it is always smart to make the best of it.
An eye for an eye; a soul for a soul.
You bid me forth, it’s time for the both of us to wake up and claim what each is owed.
These voices, rasping and hoarse echoed through the slumbering subconscious of Thomas Slater. He awoke, tears shining again in his great blue eyes and he knew, at that moment, that something both fascinating and terrible was about to unfold. He stumbled out of bed, pulled on his jacket and hat and took off without bothering to lock his door. He returned briefly after and retrieved his gun… just in case.
John Knock was proud of his work. The knife has been completed and now rested, cooling in his shop. It was fine craftsmanship and, whatever use the good sheriff would have for it, he would find it to be very satisfactory. He slept soundly that night, knowing he was in full swing and had fully recovered his skills and workmanship. He slept peacefully and founds his dreams peppered with dots of warmth, gentle yellow light and the scent of wildflowers. Within this delicate dreamscape, the blooms of yellow began to suddenly wilt, fester, blighted with something thick, black and foul. It was a cruel and wicked thing, to have his first happy dream in months stolen from him and he awoke with a start, having felt the blight creeping into his mind.
The shack was dark and humid. John Knock stumbled out of bed and approached the end table, groping blindly in the dark for a water jug. His path was swiftly illuminated, a bloom of flame igniting in the ether upon the end table. The flames danced silently, casting a warmth that actually repulsed him. He quickly picked up the jug, took a swig of water to quench his thirst and cast the rest on spot of flame, plunging the room back into the shade. He reached out and felt the two books that had provided kindle for the flames. One was a holy book, the other provided him entertainment and both were now charred black and crisped into ruin. Impaled in the soft wood between the burnt bible and the novel was the knife he had crafted for Slater. It stood proud, quivering as though eager for human contact and John Knock was compelled to reach out and grab it. The leather he had wound already the hilt was still wet but otherwise it handled well, felt durable and solid in his bare hand. He turned and staggered forwards towards the door, propelled along by unknown means.
John Knock stumbled outside and was greeted with the back door of his shop hanging wide open. He began to enter and pulled back as he was assaulted with a blast of hot, fetid air. It felt sour, thick, rich in rotten meat and salt. He gagged as the scent overtook him and then seemed to brush past as though being carried on a festering wind. It spoke again, the cry of a wild Mare yet this time it called to him in all too human vocalization:
“Ol’ John Knock is a bad man. I killed him on this night, I didst.” A heady chuckle, thick with malice followed and swept past him on the same foul gust.
The sound of beating, wild hooves echoed through the night. His eyes blurred with tears and he stared along the side of the house leading towards the forest’s edge and the mud pit. He clutched the blade and marched along, clutching the side of his shack as though releasing his grip would plunge him headlong into an endless void. For all he knew, it would.
He lost his grip at the beginning of the mud pit when there was no more wooden wall to grasp onto. The world was dark save for the light of a brilliant three quarter moon overhead. The gaze of the celestial body revealed speckles of silver resting among the bubbling mud. They were gems clasped within a field of filth, crying out with angel winks to be plucked from their decay. Among the tiny shards of silver (no longed red speckled, for these were not embedded in his flesh) he could make out the marigold comb, the last physical vestige of Sarah that remained.
John Knock set aside everything at that moment: all manner of common sense, survival instinct and every prickling of his scalp meant to warn of darker things. All he wanted was the comb. He set the knife down gently on the dusty ground kneeled on his knees. He could see the church steeple from his vantage point and he craved the warmth of the sanctuary as it rose above the bed of grime. John Knock whispered more words unheard as he reached forward into the mud. He had never set foot in the pit before (never having had a reason to do so) and he didn’t know the depth of the bubbling earth. He would come to know very swiftly.
Footsteps behind him, quiet and obscured in the dark of the night. John looked over, caught a glint of silver in the light and felt the flash of fire streak across his upper arm. It reminded him briefly of the burn he had received when crafting the cross but he could pull no further thoughts as a mighty pressure from behind sent him spiraling into the mud. He sank; the depth was greater than he could have anticipated. It grasped at him wetly, sucking and puckering with great gasps of brown and decay as he swiftly sank up to his armpits.
A voice came from above, a portly silhouette cast against the winking silver moon above: “For her.”
John wiped the mud from his eyes, brushed it from his hooked nose and glanced upwards. The lawman, Sheriff Thomas Slater stood above, solid and stoic. The ornamental knife was clutched in one meaty hand, dripping red freshly drawn from the blacksmith. His other hand contained an object that John had not crafted in some time, a horseshoe. This one in particular was shattered in half, tiny splinters of silver metal dotting and clutching at the sheriff’s hands. If he was in (physical) pain, he certainly did not express it.
“John,” the sheriff began,” I’m sorry. I blame you, yes, but I know how it is to lose the woman you love. I’m sorry you lost Sarah but that doesn’t excuse it.”
“What-?” he gasped. He began to sink further in.
“You became sloppy, shoddy. She had planned a picnic that day, you know? I suspect that she had planned a special occasion to tell me that she was with child. I only found out later, after the horse that you had personally shoed threw its shoe and her with it.”
“Is that-? Thomas, I had no idea…I…I take full responsibility,” John gasped. “I’m so sorry, why didn’t you-”
“You would have done the same thing I did, if another man was responsible for the loss of your entire family…your unborn child. I can’t bring the baby back. But I can bring back her. She told me how.”
“Thomas, what have you done?”
Thomas Slater looked at the knife as it continued to drip. He held it aloft, a shard of silver to end all then cast it into the mud pit beside the blacksmith. “Blood to bind, flesh to craft. Fires to forge and metal to graft.”
John Knock opened his mouth to protest again. The mud exploded behind, a torrent of wet earth raining upon him as something emerged from the muck. He could only see a portion of the abomination: thrashing black threads, speckled with hints of brilliant silver. The same metal he had used to build the horseshoes and other metalwork. The same that had appeared in his home and his dinner.
It bellowed in triumph, the cry of a wounded Mare yet inflected with an all too human tonality of satisfaction. It draped over him, a lover’s embrace at once delicate and viciously strong. Hot breath rasped in his ears, a sensation that didn’t make sense to John Knock as he suspected the assailant was anything but living. It pulled him under, blunted, decayed fingers and writhing threads. John’s world vanished into suffocating dark, foul smelling waste and an immense pressure as the mud bore down upon him. He clasped his mouth shut, to prevent the invading waste from sluicing down his throat.
Something scurried through the much, plucked at his clasped mouth, intertwined within his mustache. He felt it win out, his mouth forced open and everything foul and dark in the world flooded in. He kept his eyes closed and reached up through the thick mud, grasping for one last attempt at salvation. John felt hard, thick fingers wrap around his, squeeze for just a moment and fiercely shove him back down, further, further into the depths where nothing existed but the edge of existence and the waste of the world.
Tom Slater fell back at the edge of the mud pit, being careful not to touch the writhing substance. The surface was calming now, after he had pressed John’s grasping hand back into the depths. He panted with effort, clutching at his chest as old, familiar pressure squeezed through. Slater closed his eyes, counted to ten. When he opened them, John Knock was standing before him, fully emerged from the mud and clutching the decorative blade in his waste slicked hand. The blacksmith gazed down at the rasping lawman with a curious look in his dark eyes.
“Knock?” Slater asked, standing back up with some degree of effort.
The blacksmith lifted his hands and waved them about, flexed the fingers and shook the mud from them. It looked as though he was inspecting unfamiliar appendages. The blacksmith smiled then, an eerie grin with malice and yet no emotion whatsoever behind it, impossibly at the same time.
“What happened?” Slater asked, confused. He had called the Witch to strike the blacksmith down, vengeance earned for his lost family. But here he was, standing before him. And yet, not quite…right.
The blacksmith inspected the blade, impossibly still pristine and clean despite having swam in the mud. The blacksmith spoke in a vacant voice: “It smells nice out here, old, corky man.”
“What?” Slater, still perplexed.
“Blood to bind,
flesh to craft.
Fires to forge
and metal to graft.”
The blacksmith lunged forward with the knife, plunging it deep into the belly of the lawman. Sheriff Tom Slater gasped and staggered forward, collapsing into the arms of the man with the knife. The blacksmith shook the blood off of the dirty blade, casting droplets into the filth below. It stepped aside slightly, allowing the body of the sheriff to topple into the mud. It began to sink immediately into the muck, sucked down with a wet and obscene squelch.
The blacksmith stood back, gazing around the world in satisfaction. It breathed deep, savoring the scent of salt on the wind, carried forth from the fathoms of sea just a few miles beyond. It smelled like home and it craved the caress of the wind and waves. It had existed for eons prior, leeching forth from life to life, learning the trade of manipulation and a tongue as silver as the metalcraft in its new host’s body.
It held a special relationship with this, the shining glint of the moon, the Lady Luna above that called forth the waves and spread the salt and the primal winds further into the encroachment that the easily corrupted mankind cast forth into it’s world. It had no name, not a childish moniker denoting witchcraft nor a monosyllabic nickname cast upon by the mind of the blacksmith himself.
It was simply…here. Now, born into a new existence and ready to move forth and spread its blight further into the world. It would-
A flash of color in the dark night. Not a glint of silver, that beautiful godly hue. This was a bright flash, the color of the sun, the color of warmth and blooming flowers. A shock of yellow burst forth, silently and brilliant, blooming directly from the arcane blade itself, arcing forth from the pit. The blacksmith threw up its hands awkwardly, covering its new eyes from the burst and stumbled back, sloshing into the mud pit.
The vines erupted next, thin and green yet powerful and determined. Brilliant gold, yellow and orange bloomed at intermittent patches along the vines and further intensified in color as they ensnared the blacksmith, pulling him back into the mud from where he had just emerged. The blacksmith’s eyes darted in confusion and it reached out for the sinking corpse of the sheriff. It’s hands scrabbled for the blade embedded in his stomach but the sucking filth pulled the corpse further beneath the pit, out of its reach.
The blacksmith thrashed upon the surface, not sinking yet entrapped by the writhing gold and green. The squeezed…pressure building and growing exponentially as the being that inhabited the blacksmith felt its very consciousness growing brighter. More lights bloomed in its vision, eyes beholden to ages past and seeing he night sky anew. Silver, powerful sparks and glints pierced the air and grow more powerful until they encompassed everything it knew.
bits of minerals from the depths.
Pulled forth from the tides and cast further than ever before.
It was brilliant and it was all.
John Knock emerged from the waste and promptly vomited. He had done this a lot lately and wanted nothing more than to be healthy again. His waste plummeted into the bubbling mud, a gamut of black bile that writhed and shrieked inhumanely. Streaks of silver bloomed in the mass. He beheld it with a wild wonder for just a moment before the mud pulled the mass down into its depths. The writhing surface of the pit suddenly ceased, still and calm in the dead of the night.
John sat back on his haunches, dripping grime and took a wide sniff to clear out his nostrils. The night smelled…sweet. A delicate scent danced upon a calm wind and he caught sight of a tiny speck of gold dancing through the air. It swept up into the night sky and blew gaily to the back of his shack, heading in the direction of the town square.
John stood up and took a deep breath. Time had passed but he wasn’t aware how much. The moon hovered in the sky, seemingly in the same position as when he had least seen it. He recalled reaching into the mud pit, stretching from the solid ground and attempting to grab…something. And then… he must have fallen in, dragged himself out. He returned to the edge of his home, gripping the wall to steady himself. He gasped and panted and pulled him self along, exertion extended for unknown reasons to his frazzled mind.
He pushed his way past his open door, passing through the open portal to his shop. He didn’t miss the sound of the bubbling pit; the quiet was solace and peace. He stood in the shop and gazed around, looking at the forlorn looking tools, worn instruments and cold forge. Then, in spite of his fatigue, he lit the flames, picked up a sheet of metal and his hammer and set to work.
The dawn was just beginning to break as John Knock finished his final piece of work for the village of Leedensville. The moon had retreated into the infinite gloom and a purple blush of the encroaching sun had just began to break over the woods. The day began to stir as he set his hammer down, wiped his brow of sweat and left the item to cool on the front counter.
The O’Connells passed by, toting a wheelbarrow full of corn. Pastor Collins opened the great doors to the chapel to let the sunbeams in to glint off of the mighty cross within the sanctuary. School children began to prance across the path down the way, headed towards school. John caught the eye of one mischievous looking little girl who smiled in his direction. He smiled back and lifted a weary hand in recognition.
He had made a decision. This town didn’t hold anything for him any longer, only foul memories that currently seemed a distant blur yet he suspected when soon bloom into nightmarish clarity if he remained. And so, John Knock closed his blacksmith shop for the last time. But before he did, he cleaned up and packed as many tools as he could. He left his home as it stood, burnt and tattered books and a cabinet full of salted meat.
He reached for a pair of tongs ,the last item to pack. Two colors bloomed into view: a glint of silver and a spark of gold. Sarah’s hair comb sat there on the counter top, pressed next to a lone marigold petal. He clasped the comb to this heart, feeling its warmth bleed through in a most comforting fashion. He left the petal behind, a single jolt of color in the otherwise dark and empty shop. John Knock tucked the comb into his pocket and pulled the large barn sized doors closed.
He only glanced back once, to leave his final project behind on the exterior counter top. It was cool to the touch and sparkled in the sunlight. He was satisfied, he had done good work with the gift. And thus he left everything behind save for the tiny metal bird, perched upon the woodwork and glinting in the new sun, as it waited for its new owner to claim it.
As John Knock began his walk to the train station outside of town, he left behind all that remained of his old life. The home he had shared with his wife, the church they had married, the shop he had plied his trade and even the tavern he had drunk himself into a stupor following her death. So too did he leave her headstone behind in the church cemetery. But this didn’t bother him. He held a reminder of her in his pocket, a small bauble that jangled musically as he walked along.
If he had removed it from his pocket and held it up to the approaching sun, he would note how beautiful it was to behold, especially having crafted it with his own two hands. A totem of love lost yet never forgotten, one enraptured in gold yet glinting silver here in the dawn of a new life.