6 min read

Chapter 10: Ghost Stories

A newcomer to town knows a story that might help Saffron
An image of a bonfire is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 10: Ghost Stories"

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The town was bustling. Saffron had to weave her way carefully through the crowds celebrating the Harvest Festival. Bear perched on her shoulder; he was always wary of large gatherings where careless feet might step on a tail or a paw.

Along the edges of the town square were booths selling mulled wine and hot cakes and skewers of meat and vegetables. At the centre was the bonfire, surrounded by townsfolk who were talking, eating, and dancing by turns. Amongst it all, children ran about playing their own games.

Many people greeted her as she passed, but few stopped to chat. She nodded and waved and said hello as appropriate until she saw a familiar and welcome face.

“There you are, Saffron, dear,” Meg greeted her with a smile and a hug. “Feeling better, are you?”

“Yes, I’m fine now.” She’d had to call on Meg the day after her accidental poisoning, and she’d been so rough around the edges that Meg had asked what was wrong, and she hadn’t been able to bring herself to lie about it. “And how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Old and stiff but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Anything I can look at?”

“No, dear, that’s alright.” Meg waved away her concern, but Saffron made a mental note to drop off some ointment later. “There’s someone here I think you should meet.”

“Oh?” Saffron was wary. When she’d first moved to town, Meg had constantly been introducing her to other young single people in the village with significant hints about settling down. She thought she’d met them all at this point, but maybe Meg had missed someone in the first round.

“There’s a new woman who just moved to town. Renting a room from Mrs. Fisher. From what I hear she’s got some wild stories to tell.”

Saffron raised an eyebrow. “What kind of stories?”

“I haven’t heard them myself, but rumour is she’s quite macabre. If anyone can answer the questions you’ve been asking, I thought it just might be her.”

So far, no one had responded to Saffron’s posters. She hadn’t gotten an answer from the land registry either. Other than Professor Burton’s cryptic reply to her letter, she was still as much in the dark as she’d been when she first found the house.

“Where is she?” Saffron asked.

“You’ll find her over near the bonfire somewhere. She’s supposed to be telling spooky stories for the kids. Who knows, you just might hear something of interest.”

“Thank you, Meg. I’ll have to track her down later.”

Meg waved a hand at her. “Go on, then. I can see you just about dancing out of your skin with curiosity. You don’t need to stay here and keep an old woman company.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m fine, love. Henry will be here soon. You go on.”

“I’ll come back to see you later.”

“Of course. But Saffron?” She turned back to look at her friend. “Whatever it is you’re getting into, do be careful.”

She met Meg’s eyes and nodded seriously. “I will.”

The bonfire was surrounded by a tight ring of folks warming cold fingers and rosy cheeks. At a safe distance from any wayward sparks, a few hay bales were arranged to make a seating area. A woman with long dark hair perched on one of them, her hands moving to emphasize each word as she spoke.

“And as he went down the stairs… tap… tap… tap… He found himself face to face with the GHOST!” Her audience of children shrieked and giggled at the last word before becoming attentive again.

Saffron studied the woman as she listened to the end of the ghost story. Her voice was warm and smooth. She was a skilled storyteller, keeping the children attentive and entertained as she finished out the tale.

The children clapped and cheered at the end and begged her for another.

“Alright, alright. What shall it be this time?”

“Tell us about the vampire!”

“The one about the monster!”

“Tell us about the witches!”

Saffron tried not to be offended by that last suggestion. She threw out a suggestion of her own.

“Do you know any stories about the forest?”

The little group fell silent as her adult voice cut through the childish excitement. The storyteller looked up at her, seeming to notice her standing at the back of her little crowd for the first time. Her glance flicked over Saffron, taking her measure, before she nodded slowly.

“Aye,” she said, “I know a story of the forest. It’s not one we tell often, but when else if not tonight?” She shook herself a bit, as though lost in her own reverie. And then she began.

“Long ago, when the village that stood here was much smaller and poorer than the beautiful town we have now, more people lived out in the woods. The forest was dotted with the cabins of huntsmen and loggers, all of whom made their meager living by the bounties of the woods.

“But at the very centre of the forest was a different sort of house. It was no mere cabin or cottage. It was a grand and glorious house. Three stories, its own beautiful garden, and every inch of it was carved and painted and made beautiful by the people who had built it.

“The house belonged to a grand family who had once been rich. They lived in the middle of the forest not because they were poor, but because they loved it. They were often seen out walking in the woods and talking to the trees. Some said the family were fae themselves.

“For a time, all was well. The family lived happily in their beautiful house. The woods were lovely and the family cultivated all the most beautiful and fruitful plants there in the heart of the woods. All the woodland creatures who came to eat there flourished.

“But one day something dark began to grow in that house. A seed of anger and hate grew in the heart of their only son, and it poisoned all that it touched. The young man became violent and mean. He drove the rest of his family away, leaving him alone in the big empty house. The house itself began to crumble, rotting away from the inside. Even the forest itself was tainted, and the poison began to spread and spread.

“The young man was forever changed. The poison in his heart spread out through his body, turning him into something else. Something new and wicked. His fingers hardened and curled into great claws. His back hunched and grew until he walked on all fours. His jaws grew large and his teeth grew sharp. His mind was clouded in poison and he lost all reason.

“The man became a beast, and he was left alone with nothing but his rage and sorrow. Some say that he haunts these woods still, stealing out to drag away injured animals and unattended children.”

There were a few little squeaks and squeals at that, but they weren’t the delightfully frightened shrieks that the ghost story had drawn. The woman’s voice had grown low and serious.

“Let this be a warning: do not go into the heart of the forest. Do not seek the poison that lays there. And keep your heart pure and light, lest ye become a beast yourselves.”

The children shifted uncomfortably on their hay bales in silence as her voice fell silent. There were no giggles or demands for more this time. First one and then another made an excuse to go partake in the other delights of the Festival, until only Saffron and the storyteller were left.

She picked her way between the bales to approach the other woman. “Who were they?”

The storyteller shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just a story.”

Saffron bit her lip, considering, then admitted the truth. “No. I’ve seen it. The house. The beast. The poison. That part, at least, is true. So who were they?”

“I don’t know, Saffron Tash. But you’d do well to heed my warning too: do not go into the heart of the forest.”

“I don’t have a choice. The poison is spreading. It will take everything if no one stops it.”

“Then I wish you well.” The woman stood and brushed her palms off on her thighs. “Good evening.”

“Wait!” Saffron called after her as she started to walk into the crowd. “What’s your name?”

“Bella,” the woman answered without looking back. “A pleasure to meet you.”

Saffron watched after her until she was gone. Bear pressed his head against her cheek, drawing her out of her thoughts.

“Alright, boy. Let’s go find some hot cider, shall we?” The encounter had left her unsettled. She hoped a hot drink and comforting spices would bring her back to herself.

Bear meowed his agreement and curled himself around her shoulders, offering his warmth and protection, guarding her from whatever lay in the dark as the Festival swirled on around them.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.