Disclaimers: I came up with these women in my own overactive imagination. Sure they resemble all the other über gals, but their words are mine. There might be sex in this story. I’m not sure in which configuration so, if you don’t want to see any, or you are underage, or it’s illegal where you live, or if you are at work….go away 🙂
These characters originated in a previous story called, “Cold” it would help if you read it. Not for the story mind you, just for your own pleasure. You don’t really have to read it to know what is going on in this one though. It would help even more if you wrote me and told me how much you loved my writing.
But in a secluded part of the estate, at the edge of a small wood, two women watched a family of swans gracefully meander across a large man-made lake.
The smaller woman, a blonde, closed her eyes, her head resting on the thigh of the taller woman whose back reclined against a sturdy tree.
Jo smiled down at her lover, watching as she purred in delight when the dark haired woman’s hand tangled in soft blonde hair, her fingernails gently scratching her scalp.
“You going to let your hair grow?” asked Jo, easing the blonde locks out to examine their length.
“Yeah, I think so. I always liked it longer,” said Shelly, her hands wrapped round Jo’s free hand, which rested on her stomach.
“It’s getting blonder,” the tall woman said, letting the strands slip between her fingers.
“I know; if we spend much longer out in this sun, I’ll look like an albino.”
Jo traced a finger across a flushed cheek. “The sun agrees with you,” she said, taking in the healthy tone of her lover’s skin, remembering how pale she’d been when they’d first met in the cold winter months. “You’re looking great, Shell.”
Amused green eyes peered up at her.
“What?” asked Jo.
“You called me Shell. My friend Katy used to call me that.”
Jo was quiet for a long moment, regarding the blonde, her blue eyes twinkling. “You know what it’s like, when you walk along a beach?” She traced a line from Shelly’s eyebrow, down across her cheek to her chin, her finger as soft as a butterfly’s wings on Shelley’s soft skin. “You’re not really looking for anything, but you spot a shell and bend to pick it up.” She bent, nipping at soft lips, which automatically opened and pressed up against her own. She drew back. “So you weren’t looking for this shell, but now you hold it in your hand.” She pushed blonde hair back, tracing fair eyebrows. Green eyes fluttered closed once more. “And the more you look at it, the more you see. And then you realise it’s beautiful. So you put it in your pocket, and treasure it. And you think that maybe it was there just for you to find all along.” She lifted a small hand to her lips, kissing the knuckles. “I’m glad I found you, Shelly.”
The blonde swallowed hard, her first attempt at coherent speech failing. She cleared her throat. “You’re turning into some kind of romantic softy,” she said, her cheeks flushing.
Jo chuckled. “Maybe.” Again she was quiet, gazing down adoringly at her lover. “I have something to show you,” she said eventually.
“You do? What is it?”
She shook her head, dark hair falling about her shoulders. “Come and see.”
Jo pushed at the small woman who was using her thigh as a pillow, and brought them both to their feet. She took the blonde’s hand and pulled her back into the small wood, and onto a well-worn path.
They followed the path in silence, bringing them to the small village, which was part of the Collingford estate and housed many of the estate workers.
She led Shelly along another path, alongside one of the old cottages, and into another small wood beyond.
They were suddenly standing in a clearing, and in the middle of it the most perfect small whitewashed, thatched cottage stood. Behind the cottage was a small driveway, but they viewed the front with its small garden and low wall.
“Oh my God,” Shelly whispered. “It’s beautiful.”
Jo nodded, resting her arm across the small woman’s shoulders. “It is.” She pulled the unresisting body against her own. “And it’s ours if we want it.” She felt a sharp intake of breath in the body leaning against hers, and looked down.
Shelly’s mouth was agape in wonder, eyes just as wide. “Ours?”
Jo rubbed her hand up and down against Shelly’s arm. “If you want. Whatever you want.”
“I thought you wanted to go back to London.” Shelly looked up at her lover, taking in the relaxed profile.
Jo shrugged. “Nothing much there for me now.” She looked down, falling into watery green eyes. “But we’ll go wherever you want.” She sighed. “These past few months here have been the happiest of my life.”
“They’ve been perfect,” said the blonde, turning her attention back to the cottage. “Can we go in?”
“Of course,” said Jo, fumbling in her pocket and urging her lover forward. She gave the small silver key to Shelly, smiling as the smaller woman unlocked the door and pushed it open.
“Oh, look at this,” said the blonde woman, stepping into the small hallway.
“It’s been totally gutted and renovated.” Jo pulled her into the small lounge. “Mother chose all the decorations.”
Shelly turned in a full circle, taking in the tastefully furnished lounge. She sank down into one of the deeply cushioned armchairs. “It’s lovely, very welcoming.”
“I’m so glad you like it. I know how happy you’ve been up here, in Cumbria.” She balanced herself on the thick arm of the chair Shelly was sitting in. She ran her hands through silky blonde hair. “Mother would be happy for us to stay here. She tells me you’ve been taking a real interest in Collingford and its history.”
Shelly nodded. “It’s fascinating” she agreed.
“We were wondering if you’d like to do some guide work.” Jo bit her bottom lip. She knew her lover was somewhat uncomfortable with the present arrangement, living off Jo’s allowance.
Shelly didn’t look up at her but seemed to be thinking about the offer. “Really? Marianna thinks I could do that.”
“Yeah, she says you have a flair for the dramatic, and could probably make a visit to the house quite a show.” She felt the blonde head beneath her hand nod very slightly. “You’d like to do it?”
Shelly smiled up at her. “Yeah, you know, I think I would.”
Jo stood. “Great, I’ll tell her later.”
“Where are you going?” asked the blonde, as Jo started to walk out of the lounge.
“Up to look at the bedroom. You coming?”
Shelly regarded her lover, wondering for the umpteenth time how she’d got so lucky. She got up and took a slow walk to where Jo stood, framed in the doorway. She rose on tiptoes and linked her hands behind the tall woman’s neck. “Is there going to be anything up there I might find interesting?” she asked, nipping at Jo’s bottom lip.
“Oh, most definitely,” said Jo, and unclasped the small hands from behind her neck, before taking one in hers and leading the blonde up the stairs.
It was dark, and Jo woke slowly, unfamiliar with the room she was waking in. The moon shone brightly through the open curtains, casting a silvery light across the bed she and her lover occupied. It had been mid afternoon when they’d fallen onto the bed and it was now close to midnight, but the day most definitely hadn’t been wasted.
But something had woken her, and she lay still trying to discern what it was. She heard the sound of the wind rustling the nearby trees through the open window. She heard the cry of an animal, possibly a fox, somewhere in the woods. And she heard the sound of breathing, laboured breathing. The sound rattled from someone’s throat, creating a rasping sound which filled the room.
She leaned over the woman sharing her bed, turning the sleeping face towards her, studying her carefully and taking in the gentle, even sounds of Shelly’s breathing.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she turned away from the blonde, turning on the light on the small bedside cabinet and sitting up. Blue eyes scanned the room and beyond, through the open doorway and onto the landing. The sound was faint now, as if the person was moving away, maybe down the stairs.
Beside her, Shelly stirred, green eyes blinking against the light of the lamp. “Jo?”
The tall woman eased out of the bed. “Did we lock the door?”
Fair brows knitted in confusion. “What? Why?” She watched Jo bend and pick up her jeans and slip them on, then her tee-shirt. “Jo, where are you going?”
Jo turned back to her. “Stay here,” she said, and then she was gone.
Jo stopped at the top of the stairs, cocking her head to the side and listening, straining to hear against the sound of the wind.
There it was again. She held her breath and listened, her eyes wide against the dark, peering down the stairs.
The sound of a door slamming made her jump, and she grasped at the banister, her bare feet slipping off the top stair.
A scream tore itself from her throat when a hand gripped her arm.
“Jesus, Jo,” said Shelly, taking a step backwards. “What are you doing?”
“There was someone down there,” she said, pushing the blonde back towards the safety of the bedroom.
“A burglar?” she asked, pulling on her clothes.
“I remember locking the doors,” said Jo.
“You did? When?” Shelly was sitting on the bed buttoning up her short sleeved pink shirt.
“Um, after you fell asleep, the first time.”
Shelly chuckled, watching her lover blush. “Oh.”
Jo turned on the lights on the landing, another switch illuminated the hall at the bottom of the stairs.
Shelly was still buttoning the fly on her jeans when she saw the dark head of her lover pass as Jo descended the stairs. “Jo, wait for me,” she called, but she heard the stairs creak as the tall woman made her way down them slowly.
The first thing Jo did was to check the front door, the only one they’d opened when they first arrived. It was securely locked.
She stood in the hallway, and listened again. There was a faint noise, and she followed it until she was in the kitchen. Her right hand fumbled for the light switch, but when she flicked it on, nothing happened. She heard a sound behind her, and turned to see Shelly half way down the stairs. “Stay there,” she hissed.
Shelly froze, and lowered herself to sit on the stairs, holding onto the stair rail with one hand.
The noise, a strange scratching sound, continued, and Jo cautiously moved further into the small kitchen.
The kitchen was still gleaming, all the appliances looking slightly out of place in the low-beamed room, brand new. It was the only part of the cottage that had been significantly altered during the renovation. What used to be a large storeroom, probably for coal or wood, had been used to make the room larger. And it was from this small extension that the noises were coming.
The scratching noise got louder, almost frantic, and Jo took a step back, expecting some sort of animal to suddenly appear through the floor.
Suddenly the room was bathed in light, and Jo spun to see Shelly, her hand still on the light switch. At that same moment the noise stopped, replaced by two sets of fearful breathing.
Jo shook her head, pointing at the switch. “That doesn’t work,” she said, peering at the light switch that had failed to work for her only moments before.
The blonde looked from her to the switch. “Okay,” she said slowly.
Jo brushed past her, turning on every light she could find in the cottage, followed all the way by her lover.
“What was it?” asked Shelly, once Jo had stopped and had switched on the large screen TV, turning up the volume slightly.
“Dunno,” she said, her attention fixed on the screen, but not really seeing it. “Maybe an animal stuck under the floorboards, or something.”
“We’ll get Matt to look at it in the morning.” She walked across to her lover, taking the remote control from her hand and wrapping the larger one around her own. “Let’s go back to bed.”
Blue eyes turned on her and regarded her for long, quiet moments. “I heard something,” Jo whispered.
“Maybe a dream?” the blonde said, leaning down to turn the TV off. She pulled Jo towards the door, reaching to switch the light off as she went. Then she switched off every other light Jo had turned on, and started up the stairs.
Halfway up Jo stopped, peering down into the darkness below.
“There’s nothing there,” Shelly said. “Come on, I’ll help you get to sleep.”
As they reached the bedroom, Shelly reached up to switch the landing light off, but a large hand closed over hers.
“Leave it on,” said Jo, and smiled down at her as she led her into the bedroom.
It could have been no more than an hour or so later that Jo’s eyes snapped open once more.
She listened again, hearing the sounds that had woken her earlier in the night. But this time she quickly realised it was her lover.
Shelly was deeply asleep, on her back, snoring.
Jo smiled, partly out of relief, but mostly with affection. She gently pulled the blonde towards herself, halting the noise immediately.
It was then, as she pulled Shelly into a tighter embrace, that she realised how dark it was.
She peered at the open door of the bedroom, into the darkness beyond.
They had left the landing light on. Hadn’t they?
Jo lay for a long time, knowing that sleep wouldn’t claim her. The breeze gently moved the curtains, rustling the leaves on the trees in the nearby wood.
She didn’t know what it was that compelled her to ease herself from beneath Shelly, the blonde complaining softly in her sleep. But she found herself before the window, pushing aside the curtains.
The woods were bathed in silvery moonlight, and Jo sought out the darkness beneath the old trees, not knowing what she was looking for, but somehow needing to see.
The figure emerged slowly, and Jo pushed the small window open, feeling the breeze cold on her face, her hair momentarily blowing across her eyes, blocking her view.
The moonlight fell upon the hunched figure, which shuffled from the cover of the trees, and the white face rose towards the woman looking from the window.
Jo’s hands gripped the sill as she took in the sight before her. The face was as white as bone, twisted and deformed, the huge bulbous forehead covered by thin, dark hair. Set within the skeletal features, sunken black eyes met hers, and the twisted, misshapen mouth opened in a silent scream.
Jo was frozen, peering down at the figure, which pulled the hood of some sort of long cloak around its hideous form, turned, and slowly disappeared back into the darkness of the woods.
A touch on her shoulder startled her, and she spun, causing Shelly to fall backwards onto the bed. “Oh Jesus, I’m sorry,” she said, walking forwards and enveloping the confused looking blonde.
“Jo, why are you shaking?” asked her lover, burying her face in Jo’s stomach and winding her arms around the slim waist.
Jo debated sharing her experience with her lover.
The dark haired woman sighed. “I just saw something.”
“Where?” Shelly pulled the tall woman until she was sitting next to her, both of them cast in the gentle light from the landing.
“Outside, in the woods.”
Shelly stood, pushing aside the curtain and peering out. “Like what?” she asked, without turning around.
Jo ran her fingers through her hair, absently looking out of the bedroom door at the landing beyond and the light that shone there. “It was a person, deformed in some way. It was looking at me.” She bowed her head, shaking it slightly.
Shelly turned away from the window. “Jo, I think your imagination is working overtime.”
“I wish,” she said. “I saw that, Shelly. And I heard those noises earlier. Something’s here with us.”
Jo looked awful. She’d slept only in fits and starts through the remainder of the night, every night sound from the old cottage and the nearby woods propelling her instantly into wakefulness.
Her lover, however, slept on, oblivious to Jo’s discomfort.
Taking a wistful glance at the peacefully slumbering blonde, she eased out of bed and padded across the landing to the bathroom.
In the gentle sunlight that filtered through the small windows the cottage had lost its eerieness from the night before, and Jo once again felt comfortable walking through what she hoped would be her new home.
Finishing up in the bathroom, she descended the stairs, stopping by the kitchen to fill and turn on the electric kettle.
She was still naked when she returned to the bedroom, set down the two mugs of steaming tea on the bedside cabinet, and slid back beneath the covers.
Shelly hadn’t moved, and for a long moment Jo just lay there watching her lover sleep, taking in the gentle beauty of the blonde. She held her breath as green eyes fluttered open and fastened on her, and the smaller woman’s face broke into a dazzling smile.
“Good way to wake up,” Shelly said huskily. Then the smile faded and she sat up. “Jo? You look awful.”
Jo turned onto her back, looking up at the ceiling. “I didn’t sleep very well.”
Shelly spotted the two mugs, and, knowing they both took their tea the same way, she snagged one. Then she leaned back against the headboard, sipping it, and giving her friend what she seemed to need, time to gather her thoughts.
“You think it was a ghost?” Shelly asked finally.
“I don’t know.” Jo lay her forearm across her eyes. “I know I saw something, and earlier I heard something.”
“So we find out what it was,” Shelly said simply. “Drink your tea.”
An hour later, Jo and Shelly stood at the bottom of their garden, peering into the woods, which, despite the fact that it was late morning, were still dark.
Shelly looked up at the tense profile of her lover and reached across, taking Jo’s hand.
“This is beautiful,” she said, as they made their way slowly into the depths of the wood. The sunlight forced its way through the dense foliage and caused them to be cast in speckled light. “Did you play here as a child?”
“Not this part. Woods surround the whole estate. Some of the estate workers’ kids and I used to play in the woods closer to the house. We never came across here though.”
“Look!” exclaimed Shelly, pulling back on the taller woman’s hand.
Jo’s head snapped up, her heart pounding. “What?”
“Squirrels!” she said, watching the small red creatures scurrying from branch to branch. She looked back at Jo, whose face was strangely pale. “Sorry.”
Jo smiled down at her, then back up at the squirrels, noticing the skies beyond the trees darkening.
“Looks like a storm brewing,” muttered Shelly.
“We need one,” said the tall woman. “It may cool things down a little.”
The shorter woman looked around anxiously. “We shouldn’t be here in a thunder storm.”
“No, come on.” Jo took her lover’s hand, and they turned to make their way back.
But suddenly everything looked unfamiliar. “Where’s the path?” Jo said to herself, her eyes scanning the woodland floor. They hadn’t been walking that long, but had become entranced with the beauty of the woodland and the creatures that dwelt there.
The wind picked up, rustling the very tops of the trees, causing a shower of leaves to swirl around their heads. Small pieces of debris stung their skin, and Jo pulled Shelly closer.
She looked around, trying to find the path out of the woods, and caught a glimpse of something moving beyond the closest trees.
Then she heard it, even above the sounds of the wind and the swirling branches. Breathing; laboured and ragged as before.
Beside her Shelly shivered. “What is that?” she asked, shouting above the noise of the wind.
“You can hear that?”
The blonde nodded, pressing closer to her lover. “Sounds like someone with a really bad cold.”
“Come on,” Jo said grimly, and started walking away from where she had seen the movement, not wanting to share that revelation with Shelly.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she heard the sound behind her. But she didn’t stop, nor did she turn around. The breathing became even more distressed, filling their senses, seeming to get into their very minds. Then it stopped for a brief moment, and was replaced by incomprehensible muttering.
Jo fixed her eyes on the ground, pulling her shivering lover with her. They fled the woods as the sounds of the muffled voice grew louder.
They stumbled into bright sunlight, the air still, the sky clear.
Both turned to see a few leaves fluttering to the woodland floor. And beyond, in the darkest part of the wood, they saw a figure turn away from them and melt into the depths of it.
“Oh my God,” Shelly whispered. “I have never been so scared.” She looked up at the surprise she saw in the face above her. “Yeah, even that night in the snow, at Joss’s.”
“Well, at least I know I’m not seeing things.” She squeezed the blonde’s shoulders. “You saw it too, right?”
“I saw something.” She shook her head. “But that sound, what was that?”
Jo pushed a shaking hand through her hair. “I don’t know. I thought it was trying to speak.”
“It sounded like it. Like trying to talk through something, like it was gagged or something.”
“Damn,” said Jo on a shaky breath. She closed her eyes, and pulled Shelly around so she could just hold on to her for a moment and compose herself.
“We have to find out what it is. It was in the cottage,” said Shelly, into the fabric of Jo’s shirt.
Jo was very still, remembering that it had been in the room with her the night before.
Shelly looked up, resting her chin on Jo’s chest. “I’m not having some damn ghost chasing me out of my house.” She gave her lover a weak smile.
“I know who we can ask,” said Jo.
“Yeah,” she said, ducking her head and kissing the tip of her lover’s nose. “Old Lil”
As usual Old Lil was sitting on her rocking chair in the small garden at the front of her house.
“Good morning, Lil,” said Jo, pushing aside the small gate that led into the garden.
The old woman turned grey eyes on the two young women, but didn’t halt her rocking. Her hair was silver, but her cheeks had a healthy rosy blush to them.
“Lady Joanna,” she said, as Jo sat on one of the small chairs, gesturing to Shelly to pull up another.
“You remember me?” asked Jo, smiling at the tiny old woman.
“I could never forget you, young lady. You were always into something. Getting all the poor children into trouble with their parents.” She turned ancient eyes on the blonde.
“Forgive me, Lil. This is my… friend, Shelly.”
The old woman extended a frail, bony hand to the blonde. “It’s a pleasure, dear.”
“It’s good to meet you.”
“Lil has been with my family for many years, Shelly. Her family has worked for mine for generations.” She took the old woman’s hand. “Now she’s like a part of the family.” Cupping Lil’s hand in her own she squeezed it gently. “I hear you got your telegraph from the Queen.”
“That was three years ago now, dear.”
Jo smiled at Shelly’s look of disbelief. “You’re one hundred and three years old?” the blonde asked, her eyes wide.
“I am. I’ve seen many children be born and grow in this estate.” She patted Jo’s hand. “Your hands are shaking, dear.”
Jo ducked her head, studying their linked hands. “Lil, we’ve just moved into the old cottage, down by the woods.”
“The old gamekeeper’s cottage?” asked Lil.
“No, I thought the cottage at the end of the village was the gamekeeper’s”
“It is now, but it used to be the one down in the woods. That cottage has been empty for many years now.”
“Do you know why?”
The old woman shook her head. “No family planning in those days dear. He and his wife moved out when they had their seventh child. No one has used it since, and it fell into disrepair. I hear Lady Collingford has had it rebuilt. The thatch was overgrown with vine, and the walls crumbling.”
“She’s given it to us,” said Jo.
“Us?” The old eyes turned towards Shelly.
Jo looked from her lover to the old woman. “Yes, Shelly and I are, um, going to, well, stay there a while.” Jo cleared her throat and began to pull away from the old woman. But, for a frail old girl, she had a surprisingly strong grip.
“I’m an old woman, Joanna. I’ve seen many things. I’m just glad that these days, you can live as you please.”
Dark eyebrows disappeared behind ebony hair.
“Don’t look so shocked,” Lil chuckled. She turned towards Shelly. “Come here, dear. Let me look at you.”
Shelly stood and lifted her chair, moving it closer to the woman.
“That’s better. I don’t see so well these days.”
Shelly squirmed under the close scrutiny, but the elderly woman smiled. “She’s a wild one, dear. I hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for.”
Shelly blushed, having found out for herself just how wild Jo could be. “Yes, I know. But she’s also the most kind and caring person I’ve ever met. She saved my life.”
Lil didn’t look at all surprised by Shelly’s admission. “You’re right, dear. I have some stories I could tell you about her when she was a child.” She looked at Jo, who was horror stricken. “But we’ll save those for another day, I think.” She took a deep breath. “Now tell me what is troubling you.”
Jo told her the story of their night in the cottage, and their foray into the woods. All through the telling Lil’s face grew darker, as realisation of what it was that was causing the strange happenings slid into place.
“You know what it is,” said Jo. It was not a question.
Lil sighed deeply. “My mother was the Midwife to the family before me, and her mother before her. Your great grandfather married a young woman from a good family. She became pregnant quickly and bore him a daughter. Unfortunately she died after giving birth. Bled to death. The child was deformed. When Lord Collingford saw the child, he ordered it killed and told my grandmother to say that the child been still born. She, however, had spent her life bringing life into the world, and what he asked her to do was against everything she believed in. So she bundled the child up and took her to the gamekeeper, whose wife had just lost a child of her own. They raised the girl, but as she grew her deformities grew worse. Today we would know what to call the disease, but in those days it only caused fear and suspicion. So they locked her up, only allowing her out in the night-time to walk in the woods.”
Jo shook her head. “Do you know how she was deformed?”
“Some sort of bone disease. Some of her bones grew much quicker than others. Apparently her head was terribly misshapen. That’s what killed her in the end. She couldn’t talk, had difficulty breathing, could only eat soft food.”
“Why don’t we know about her?” asked Jo.
“My grandmother would have lost her job, and her home. Some of the estate workers knew about Sarah, but they kept quiet.” She sighed again. “She was seventeen when she died. My mother was a young girl when the poor girl died, and she told me the story. We need to remember Sarah, and the pain she endured in her short life”
“My God,” breathed Shelly. “So young.”
“It was a blessing in the end.”
“So, do you think it’s her I’m seeing and hearing?”
“Most probably,” said the old woman.
“But why now?” asked Shelly. “She must have been dead over a hundred years. Have there been any other reports of this happening?”
“My guess is it’s Jo’s presence that’s brought her out,” said Lil. “She was shunned by the family, and now Jo is the first person with her ancestor’s blood in her veins to set foot in that cottage for many years.”
“So what does she want?” asked Jo.
“You’ll have to find that out. If you want peace, Jo, you need to put her at peace.”
Jo peered into the darkness of the wood. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she reached back, hoping for the warmth of a hand to surround her own but feeling none.
Something was missing, something important. She looked around, but saw nothing except the lights coming from the cottage.
It was getting dark; the sun had slipped below the trees, and the twilight made the shadows of the wood deepen.
But the need to venture onwards, into the darkness, overwhelmed her, and she took a step forward, stumbling across a root.
“You deserve nothing.”
Jo stopped dead upon hearing the raspy voice. But she knew who it was. She didn’t feel any surprise upon hearing it and searched the shadows for its source.
“Why?” asked Jo, closing her eyes against the pain blossoming in her skull.
“You took everything from me.”
“Not me,” insisted Jo. “I am not the one to answer your accusations.”
“I will have your joy, Joanna.” The voice faded, and Jo was left alone in the darkness. She ventured further into the woods. The half-light was making shapes out of nothing, making shadows appear to manifest themselves in a cloak of blackness that blanketed the wood.
Ahead of her was a mound in the woodland floor. Covered by leaves and debris from the branches above, it demanded her attention. Helplessly, she found herself drawn to it, until she was standing just a few feet from it.
The leafy surface shifted, pushing upwards lightly before settling again.
Jo started at the movement, taking a step back, but moved forward again, squinting in the half-light.
Again the mound moved, this time in a more deliberate and sustained motion. The leaves were pushed upwards, and through them appeared a white bulbous mass, and then two eyes, the colour of coal. The eyes fixed upon her, unblinking.
The rest of the face appeared from beneath the ground, leaves and soil falling from the twisted mouth which opened in outrage.
Jo managed to tear her eyes away from the hideous apparition as a withered arm pulled itself from the ground, and began to push the twisted body up from its earthly confines.
Jo turned away from the scene, stumbling across an exposed root. She threw her hands ahead of her, to break her fall.
She flailed helplessly. A feeling of weightlessness, then a sharp pain to her shoulder. The pain woke her, and she found herself on all fours on the floor of the lounge between the sofa and the TV.
“Damn,” she whispered, pushing shaking fingers through her hair. She hauled herself up onto the sofa and peered groggily around the room. “Shelly?”
She called her lover’s name a few times, easing herself off the sofa and making her way through the cottage.
It was almost dark, and she turned on lights as she went. The last thing she remembered was lying on the sofa, her head in Shelly’s lap, the blonde playing with her hair as sleep claimed her.
After talking to Old Lil, they’d made their way to the small church in the grounds of Collingford and gone through the records. They found the record of Sarah’s birth, and, right next to it, her death on the same day. Her mother’s death was also recorded that day. And a mere three months later, the marriage of her father to his second wife.
Shelly’s face had screwed up on seeing that. “He didn’t waste any time,” she’d said, closing the book in disgust.
Shelly had pulled her lover out of the church, and they walked across the small graveyard. She gestured at the ancient headstones. “Would they be buried here?”
Jo shook her head. “No, they’d be in the mausoleum, over there.” She pointed towards a large structure at the edge of the church grounds. “All of my family end up there.”
“Can we get inside it?” Shelly had asked.
“I suppose so,” Jo cast a puzzled look at her lover. “Why would you want to?”
“Just a theory I have.”
Jo had looked at her for a long moment, wondering if it was tempting fate to enter a place she should only be going in feet first.
“What’s up?” asked the blonde, seeing her companion’s reluctance.
“It gives me the creeps in there, that’s all.”
“Well, we don’t….”
Jo shook her head. “That’s ok. I’ll just go see Father Henry.” And she left Shelly standing among the headstones.
A short while later, the heavy oak doors were being opened, and the vicar moved ahead of them, pushing aside a heavy curtain and switching on the lights. “Your father had lights put in. Makes it a little easier, not having to light all the candles.” He smiled at the two young women. “Call me when you’re finished.”
Jo and Shelly had stood for a long moment, before going past the small altar and opening the door that led below. There they found small plaques on the walls naming those who lay in the damp, dark place.
“Here’s Catherine.” Jo had said, running her finger across the engraved name of Sarah’s mother.
Shelly wound her arm around her lover’s, peering at the stone plaque. “Where’s Sarah?”
Jo was quiet for a long moment, only the sound of dripping water breaking the peace. “She’s not here.” She closed her eyes. “He didn’t even put her name on her mother’s plaque. He didn’t care where she was.”
Jo had been exhausted by the time they’d got back to the cottage. And hadn’t resisted when Shelly pulled her to the couch and made her lie down, cradling the dark head in her lap.
So Jo stood in the lounge, hearing nothing now but the gentle rain that was hitting the windows of the cottage. Her dream had unsettled her, and she hugged herself as a shiver skittered down her spine.
She made her way to the door, pulling it open and staring out into the growing darkness. She tilted her head, looking up at the encroaching clouds. A storm was brewing.
“Shelly,” she called, hoping the blonde would appear out of the gloom, but hearing nothing but the increasing wind and the creaking of the tallest branches on the trees.
Slamming the door behind her, she started running towards the small collection of cottages, ignoring the sting of the first raindrops on her skin.
By the time she’d reached Lil’s cottage, it was raining hard, the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance.
The old woman looked shocked to see Jo standing there, and pulled her in out of the rain.
“Jo, where’s your coat?” she said, pulling her towards the lounge.
“Is Shelly here?” she asked, ignoring the woman’s question but taking the small towel that was thrust into her hands.
“Shelly? No.” Lil sat back down in her favourite chair.
“Okay, sorry to bother you,” Jo said, handing Lil her towel, and making her way back out of the cottage.
“Jo, wait.” Lil pulled herself up from the chair. She shuffled across to an antique chest of drawers, reaching into a cupboard beneath and pulling out a large flashlight. “You might need this.”
Jo took the flashlight, turning it on and momentarily blinding herself when she checked it was working.
Lil took the younger woman’s hand. “Remember, Joanna, she wants peace.”
Jo opened her mouth to question the old woman, but was hustled out of the cottage into the now heavy rain.
But as with most summer storms, even in the rain and in the darkness that had fallen swiftly, it was still comfortably warm.
She found herself at the edge of the woods, the strong beam of the flashlight picking out the twisted trees and exposed roots.
“Shelly!” she called, and ducked as she heard a crackle of lightning overhead, followed almost immediately by a rumble of thunder.
She looked up at the treetops, swaying in the gathering wind.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she moved further into the woods, her fear for her lover overcoming the fear of the dream that seemed to be coming true with each step she took.
The beam of her flashlight fell upon a mound on the leaf-strewn ground.
Pushing rain-slicked hair away from her face, she moved closer, her eyes never leaving the pile of leaves, waiting for the horrific apparition to appear again.
When the leaves did move, she almost screamed in fear, until she realised that the hand that was emerging from the pile was not covered in the wasted, bone white skin she had seen in her dream, but healthy, albeit pale flesh of the living.
Throwing the flashlight to the ground she dropped to her knees, scrabbling at the leaves and soil, finding the living body of her lover struggling for air below the leafy blanket.
“Shelly!” she cried, pulling the gasping woman from the mound of leaves, earth and small branches. She pulled the blonde into her arms, crushing her against her chest as the smaller woman coughed and trembled violently.
Jo held her lover away from her, reaching across to grab the flashlight. “What happened?” she asked, wiping at the dirty face with a shaking hand.
Shelly looked around her, trying to comprehend what had brought her to this dark, scary place. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I was with you, and then I was here.”
Both women flinched as the wood was illuminated by a jagged streak of lightning. “Come on,” said Jo, easing herself and Shelly to their feet. “We need to get out of here.”
Jo turned to lead them out of the woods, but she was called back by the blonde. “I’m stuck,” said Shelly simply.
“What?” Jo peered back at Shelly, who was still standing on the remains of the mound of leaves. She looked down at the smaller woman’s foot, which appeared to be caught between two large stones that had been hidden before by the debris from the trees.
Another violent gust of wind sent another torrent of rain and debris down upon them, and both lifted their arms to protect their heads from the small missiles.
Jo started to walk back towards the trapped woman, when the ground beneath Shelly’s feet started to shift, and the blonde began to slip below the leaf-strewn surface.
The tall woman threw herself at her lover, just managing to get her hand around a smaller one, as Shelly scrabbled at the dirt, trying to get a purchase to stop her fall.
The rain didn’t help, however, and as Shelly’s hand slipped from Jo’s, the dark-haired woman caught a final glimpse of her lover’s terrified face, illuminated by a lightning flash as the blonde disappeared into the darkness.
Jo knelt at the edge of the crack in the ground, for that was all it was. She reached for the flashlight and shone it down into the darkness, hearing the sound of small stones dropping into what sounded like water. “Shelly!” she called, her voice ringing through some sort of cavernous space.
“I’m alright,” came the reply.
Jo rested her head against one of the large stones briefly, swallowing the bile that rose in her throat.
Shelly’s head suddenly appeared again, causing Jo to topple backwards, sitting down
with a thump on the damp ground.
“There are steps here,” she said. “Look.”
Jo crawled forward, shining the flashlight into the hole.
Sure enough, there were a number of roughly hewn steps leading down to a square, damp tunnel.
“Give me the light,” said Shelly, reaching up with her hand. She crouched back down, disappearing from view again.
“What do you see?” asked Jo.
“It goes back some way. Come on.”
Jo peered down into the hole, watching as her lover illuminated the steps for her. She hesitated briefly before lowering herself into the damp, moss-covered space. When she finally joined Shelly she found the smaller woman shining the flashlight deep into a tunnel.
Jo placed a gentle hand on her friend’s shoulder. “What is this place?”
“I think it’s a fogou,” Shelly said, illuminating a number of long, wide shelves cut into the rock.
“A voodoo?” Jo said, looking at Shelly incredulously.
Shelly turned, shining the light on her partner. “No, fogou, or that’s what we called them in Cornwall. A stone-age tomb.”
Jo took the flashlight from her. “Well, I don’t really care what it’s called. I want to get out of here.”
Shelley reached out for her lover. “Wait, Jo. I saw something back there.”
Jo smiled a slightly manic smile. “Don’t care.”
Shelly took the flashlight back and shone the beam further into the man-made cave. “There,” she said, picking out a flash of white in the unforgiving light.
Jo knew what it was before she took a few faltering steps towards the end of the cave, her feet splashing in the inch or so of water that seeped down the walls.
“It’s Sarah,” whispered Shelly, taking Jo’s hand as they viewed the mortal remains of her long dead ancestor.
“How could they leave her here?” asked Shelly, reaching for her lover’s hand, needing to feel the warmth in the cold, damp darkness.
Both women winced as the harsh light picked out the misshapen bones, coming to rest on the skull, which seemed hugely out of proportion with the rest of the slight frame.
Shelly looked up at the angular profile of her lover. “We need to take her out of here.”
Jo nodded. “We’ll talk to Father Henry. We have to do this properly.” She started to pull the blonde away from the terrible vision, and realised that the water that was gathering around their feet was getting deeper. “Jesus,” whispered Jo, shining the beam of light on the floor, and then to the mossy stone walls.
Water was running down them, bringing with it earth, which was quickly turning to mud.
One of the larger stones, which formed part of the wall started to shift, a large root of some nearby tree pushing through.
“It’s collapsing!” screamed Shelly, pulling on Jo’s hand.
They struggled towards the entrance, looking in horror at the amount of water gushing through their means of escape.
“My prison is your prison.”
Jo spun around, knowing whom the raspy voice belonged to. Behind her she could hear the water rushing in through the entrance to the fogou. She stepped between Shelly and the vision that appeared before them.
The flashlight was held limply in Jo’s hand, its beam illuminating the water-covered floor. But a shroud of light surrounded apparition, which approached them.
“Sarah,” Jo said, her voice trembling.
Behind her she heard Shelly whimper, and turned to see the blonde holding her head in agony.
“What? What is it?” she asked, dropping the flashlight and holding the girl by the shoulders.
“My pain,” rasped Sarah, though Jo wasn’t sure if the words had been spoken aloud. They echoed about her head, and she closed her eyes against the pain the words produced.
“She doesn’t deserve this,” said Jo, turning slowly to face the apparition.
The ghostly form approached, reaching a hand towards her.
Jo could see her plainly now. She could see the folds of blanched skin, which covered her face, except for her forehead, against which the skin seemed taut and marble like. The eyes were black, one slightly closed beneath a bulbous brow. But below the eyes the skin was loose, hanging in folds across her cheeks. Her mouth was little more than a dark gash, twisted and trembling. One side of her body appeared immobile, and she shuffled towards the two terrified women, dragging her useless leg as she moved.
Jo felt Shelly clasp onto her arm, and she reached back, pulling the blonde closer behind her.
“Start moving back towards the entrance,” Jo said, pushing back against her lover.
As they moved backwards, part of the wall collapsed inwards, more water gushing into the small space.
Jo turned and pushed the blonde forcefully towards the end of the fogou, the flashlight lost in the muddy waters.
Shelly smashed into the wall, her head bouncing back off the hard rock. She felt Jo’s hands pushing her upwards, up the ancient stone steps. They were being pelted now, water and debris falling in through their means of escape.
Jo glanced behind her, the ghostly form was moving towards them. Then a horrifying scream filled the ancient tomb, battering the terrified women’s senses, causing their efforts to escape the dark place to become clumsy.
Shelly wiped at her face, the water plastering her hair to her skin, stinging her eyes. She reached up and managed to get her hand around a root, and pulled hard, feeling Jo below her propelling her towards the surface.
Jo looked up, seeing her lover scramble from the fogou. She turned back towards the screaming figure.
The screaming stopped, replaced once more by the ragged breathing she had first heard in the cottage.
Her heart hammering in her chest, she took a step towards the terrifying apparition.
“I know you have anger, Sarah. I know you hate my family. But I have found peace, and I’ve found love. You can have that too.” She ignored the feeling of despair and hatred that poured from the ghostly being, and swallowed down the bile that rose from her stomach. She leaned back against the wall, feeling the cold water running across her shoulders. “Let us help you, Sarah.”
She felt breath on her face, and closed her eyes against the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. Something touched her face, tracing a line from her cheek to her chin. She clenched her teeth, fighting the urge to scream, as the cold touch lingered on her face. Then it was gone, and only the sound of her own heart thundered in her ears. Beyond that she heard water dripping from the roof of the tomb, the sound echoing through the emptiness.
Taking a deep breath, she turned her back on the darkness, and lifted her foot to begin the short climb out of the tomb. She expected any moment to be dragged back down into the darkness, into the place that echoed only of hatred and death.
She found Shelly slumped against the trunk of a tree. The rain seemed to be stopping, only the water that had collected in the branches and on the leaves finding its way to the woodland floor.
“Hey,” she said, kneeling on the damp ground. She put a hand beneath her lover’s chin, ducking her head to see into the face she adored.
A trickle of blood, black in the darkness snaked down across Shelly’s face.
“Shelly?” she asked, relieved when green eyes fluttered open.
“Ouch,” winced Shelly, putting a shaking hand to her head. “I hit my head on the rock.”
“Looks like it. Can you stand?”
Shelly allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. She leaned forward into the waiting arms of her lover, letting herself be held for long moments.
“We can’t leave her there,” she whispered into the damp cloth that covered Jo’s chest.
“I know, but she has to want us to help her.” Jo said, starting to walk out of the woods, but never relinquishing her hold on Shelly.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it began, the sky was now clear, the moon bright. As they walked towards their cottage a figure shuffled out of the gloom towards them.
“Lil?” said Jo, peering into the darkness.
“I was coming to find you,” she limped towards them, leaning heavily on her walking stick. “Oh, my goodness, Shelly. Whatever have you done?” She lifted a withered hand towards the small woman’s face.
“I just bashed my head, Lil. Nothing a band aid and a stiff drink won’t cure.” Shelly’s smile was weak, however, and she allowed herself to be led to the cottage, the old woman following.
Once inside, Jo sat Shelly on a chair in the kitchen and ran up to the bathroom where there was a first aid kit. Her mother was nothing if not organised. She knew how disorganised her daughter was, and tried to think of everything for her. So the cottage was well equipped for every eventuality.
Lil was shuffling around the kitchen, filling the kettle and finding cups.
“Your mother certainly made a good job of this place,” Lil said, pulling out a chair, and sinking gratefully into it.
“Yes, she did,” said Jo, absently, parting damp blonde hair to better see the cut on Shelly’s head. “Well,” she let out a relieved breath. “You wouldn’t believe such a tiny cut would produce so much blood.”
Jo ducked her head and kissed the blonde’s nose. “I think you may live,” she smiled down at her lover, pressing a piece of cotton wool with a disinfectant solution on it.
Shelly hissed at the sharp pain, closing her eyes tightly. “Are there any paracetamol in there?”
Sure.” She pushed the box towards Lil. “Can you find them for her, Lil?”
The old woman pulled out a small box with the pain pills in, and handed Shelly a couple, then stood to make the tea.
“You found her?” Lil asked, her back to the pair.
“She’s in the fogou,” Shelly replied.
Lil turned from her task. “Fogou?”
Jo lifted the piece of cotton wool from Shelly’s head, and peered at the cut, which seemed to have stopped bleeding. “A stone age tomb.”
“Ah, a Long Barrow, there are two in the grounds I think.” Lil had made the tea in a pot, and she placed it on the table. “I know all the remains they found in there had been removed when they were originally discovered, in the 1700’s. I didn’t know they’d laid her to rest there.” She shook her head sadly and sat once more. She looked up at Jo who was staring at the bloody swab in her hand. “You know what you have to do?”
Jo looked at her and nodded. “She needs to be with her family.” Then she looked at Shelly. “We need to take her out of there.”
They talked late into the night, and decided they would pay a visit to Father Henry the following morning. Shelly’s eyes were drooping shut as the midnight hour approached, and Lil struggled to her feet from her place on the plump armchair.
“You should get that girl to bed,” she said, nodding towards the smaller woman curled up against Jo.
Jo carefully eased herself out from beneath the blonde, replacing her lap with a large pillow.
“I’ll walk you back,” said the tall woman. “I’m sorry, I lost the flashlight.”
Lil patted her hand. “Never mind, dear.” She wound her hand around Jo’s arm, and allowed herself to be led out of the cottage, and along the short walk to her own dwelling.
After she’d seen the old woman safely back to her home, Jo was amazed that she felt no impulsion to rush back to her lover, alone in the cottage. She felt a peace that she hadn’t felt for the last day or so, and looked into the dark woods, illuminated now by a full moon. She saw nothing but the gently swaying trees, and the moon reflecting off the still-damp leaves.
Shelly was where she’d left her, soundly asleep on the sofa. She roused her, and they both made their way to the bedroom, where they fell into bed as soon as they’d shed their clothes, and were asleep almost immediately.
The following morning Jo woke refreshed. Shelly was still asleep, as was usual, clinging on to her like some blonde limpet. She pushed aside soft hair from her lover’s forehead, and examined the bruise, which disappeared into her hairline.
Green eyes fluttered open, and gazed up at her.
“How do you feel?” Jo asked, placing a hand against Shelly’s cheek, and finding it a little warm.
“I feel great,” she replied, smoothing her hand across the soft skin of Jo’s stomach. “So do you,” she added with a mischievous smile.
She put her finger on the tip of the blonde’s nose. “We have a lot to do.”
Shelly closed her eyes, and groaned. “Yes we do.” She sat up and pushed the light-weight quilt aside. “Let’s get it over with.”
An hour later they were speaking with the vicar in Old Lil’s lounge. The grey haired man was shaking his head at the story they were telling him.
“I can add Sarah’s name to the registers, that won’t be a problem.” He looked up from his hands, which were folded in his lap. “There is no question that the remain are that of Sarah?”
“I’ve seen them, Father Henry. There’s no question,” said Jo.
“Then I can see why her spirit has been troubled. She needs to be laid to rest, along with the rest of her family. I will need to speak to your father, and the police will need to be informed, but I don’t think there will be any investigation, once it’s established that the remains are those of your ancestor. I’ll make the calls this afternoon.” He stood, pulling his jacket closed. “If you would like to accompany me to the church, we will see to it that Sarah’s name is added to the register.”
Later that day, Jo and Shelly walked hand in had to the wood, which backed onto their cottage. It seemed to be totally different to the terrifying place they had been the previous evening.
The sun shone through the leaves picking out a carpet of bluebells that now covered the ground after the summer rainstorm. Above them the branches were alive with birdsong and in the distance, between the trunks of the sturdy trees a small family of deer twitched their ears at the women’s approach and then bolted away, deeper into the woods.
“It’s changed,” whispered Shelly, looking up at the trees above her. “It’s beautiful.”
They heard a car pull up behind them, and turned to see Jo’s parents getting out of the vehicle.
They walked towards the older couple and greeted them with hugs and kissed.
“I hear you’ve had an interesting couple of days, dear,” Marianna said to her daughter, watching as her husband almost lifted Shelly off her feet while giving her a hug.
“Interesting is one way to describe it,” said Jo, with a chuckle.
Marianna’s face lost its smile. “We’ve been speaking to Father Henry. Your father is terribly upset.”
Jo looked across at her father, who was talking in hushed tones to Shelly, who was pointing in the direction of the fogou. She watched as her lover took the older man’s hand and started to lead him into the wood, towards the ancient tomb.
Shelly stood beside the gaping hole in the woodland floor. It looked bigger now in daylight, than it had the previous night. She glanced up at the older man’s face, it was etched with sorrow.
“We will make this right, though nothing could ever recompense for what that poor girl suffered.” He looked at the blonde, his eyes bright with newly shed tears.
And so it was over a month later that the family stood in the small church in the grounds of Collingford Manor. The police had determined that the remains were over seventy years old, which meant that the death would not be investigated. The mortal remains of Sarah were placed in a lead lined coffin, and Father Henry carefully chose a passage from Corinthians.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
The coffin was borne by six pall bearers, including Jo’s father and brother to the family crypt, where another small service was conducted before Sarah was placed alongside her mother, her name engraved below.
Jo was pulled Shelly a little closer, but released the shorter woman as she bent and placed a small bouquet of bluebells on the floor of the crypt beneath the plaque that now bore Sarah’s name.
Shelly straightened up, feeling Jo’s arm snake around her shoulders once more.
“Rest in peace, Sarah,” she said quietly.
Jo squeezed the shoulders, and turned them both, taking the small flight of steps that led them out of the crypt and into the light of day.
“I think she’s at peace now,” said Jo, leaning down and kissing the blonde head.
Shelly looked up at her lover. “I know she is.” She closed her eyes. “I can feel it.”
Marianna slipped her arm through Shelly’s and on the other side, Jo’s father encircled his daughter’s shoulders with his arm.
He looked down at his youngest child. “I’m proud of you, Joanna,” he said. “You’ve put right a terrible wrong, inflicted by one of my closest ancestors. Now the family’s good name has been restored.” He smiled. “Even though we knew nothing about this, it’s still a shame on the Collingford name.” He bent and kissed her. “Thank you.”
Jo felt a small hand squeeze her own.
Life was grand.
Continued in Winter’s Thaw