Some horrors are too much to bear, but can Samuel ever outrun the evil that stalks his dreams?
Traveling in a strange valley, Samuel and his family come to a village with a terrible secret that, once uncovered, will haunt him to the ends of the world. As he embarks on a journey that will take him farther than he ever imagined, Samuel doesn’t realize that—through all the losses he must suffer—love waits for him in a place he never dreamed of, and comes in a form he could never have believed possible.
The Gypsy and the Witch was previously published by loveyoudivine Alterotica.
The candles guttered, and Samuel shivered.
There was nothing to do but wait.
He sat down on the pallet, his arms hooked around his knees, and thought of home. Home was the fireside and the steps of his vardo, Hephzibah singing as she combed her hair, or the children playing, running and shrieking in the grass. Home was his father’s smiling face, a story that he’d heard a thousand times, and the presence of people who loved him.
The more he conjured those things in his mind, the colder the room grew. Samuel looked at the candles. Rivulets of molten wax had dripped down both sides of the cylinders, rendering strange, jagged shapes that coated both the candles and the sconce, hanging down in great, shaggy stalactites.
He shook his head and stretched out on the thin bed, the floor hard beneath him. Nothing to do but wait...and wait.
The night wore on, and sleep threatened to overtake him. Samuel tried trick after trick, playing games against himself, counting seconds and trailing back through ancient memories, dipping his fingertips into the past like the rippling reflections on a millpond. Some days, it felt as if there was nothing to him but thoughts... things he’d imagined, things he’d hoped for, snatches of desperate little thrills that had been nothing at the time, but garnered preciousness with the passing of years.
He’d never given much time to the consideration of love.
An odd thing, now he stopped to contemplate it. He supposed it was to do with chance, with always lacking either the opportunity to meet the right kind of man, or the possibility to take things further. Too often, passing through some nameless, faceless town or village, he’d been the first shameful fumble for a boy growing to manhood in solitude, thinking himself the only one in the whole world. Oh, he understood how they felt, how they tortured themselves in their self-imposed purdah, and that first flush of exhilarating, flawless joy they felt when along came Gypsy Sam, with his knowing eye and his many secrets.
He wasn’t proud of it, but Samuel had long ago lost count of the number of boys he’d charmed that way. They were distractions, fleeting fancies... perhaps a few of them had spawned affections that lingered, rekindled when the family passed back by a particular route the following year, but nothing ever lasted.
Nothing ever lasts.
Life is change, Samuel supposed. His father had once told him that.
He tried to fight the shadows and the subtle, welcoming fingers of sleep, but they were beginning to get the better of him. Nothing was coming. There were no devils here. No horrors beyond the shames and regrets of his own head. Perhaps—just maybe—that was all anyone ever had to fear.
That was the last thought Samuel had before his body jerked, the final precursor to slipping into dreams. He gasped, sat up on the dingy pallet, rubbing his eyes. He mustn’t sleep.
The candles were burned to stumps. How long could one night be?
Samuel rose from the pallet and looked around the storeroom. Everything was still there, all the food in its place. It had grown so cold; the chill stone walls seemed to shiver before his eyes. He spotted a narrow piece of wood—flimsy and thin—lying beside one of the crates of salted meat, probably broken off it in transit. Samuel snatched it up and snapped it into four pieces, which he set at each corner of the pillow, standing straight as guardsmen around the place he would lay his head.
He lay down again, pulling up the thin blanket—apparently provided, so kindly, by the Council, to keep warm the sacrifices they sent to their doom—and prepared to wait just a little more. The candles burned themselves out, dying in short, gasping puffs of smoking darkness, leaving behind them nothing but the sharp smell of burnt wick.
All have paid the price of failure.
These people were all mad, Samuel decided. Whatever caused their troubles—thieves, corrupt watchmen, or some other malign thing—it was no djinn in the night. He supposed there would be no danger if he slept. He could grab a few moments’ rest, and no-one would know…
His eyes began to close, but his foresight paid off. Each time sleep came to lull him in its arms, a piece of the broken wood pricked his cheek, and he woke afresh, the shadows tugging at him with their cold, secret weight.
What I’d not give for a fire!
Samuel thought fondly of the wagon and of Hephzibah’s rabbit stew. He sat up, arms locked around his knees, the pallet creaking beneath him and the soft dark kissing his face. Not long until morning, by the feel of it. He could almost see the soft, silvered cast to the light, and wished the dawn would hurry.
Yet, even as he had begun to have these thoughts of salvation, Samuel heard a noise over by the door. He held his breath, listened harder…
Again it came: a quiet, soft scratching in the shadows, the whine of the hinges as the door inched open. Samuel caught his breath, straining every quarter of his senses and not daring to breathe. He could see nothing but the shifting darkness, a block of dark that seemed darker than the rest, where the door slotted among the stones of the wall... and where, now, it let in a narrow chink of pale grey light.
Should he speak? Should he call out, give away his presence?
He held his tongue. Whate—whoever it was, they must already know he was here. And, if not, it would not pay to relinquish his advantage of surprise.
Slowly, so achingly, numbingly slowly, the door opened.
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