Thunder shook the night sky. The rain poured down in endless
sheets. With the rain came a biting cold that seemed to gnaw its way through
Carrick Doyle’s cloak. He cursed at the northern Irish winter. His horse clopped
along, up to its ankles in mud, on the road to Slaghtaverty. The trees on
either side were bare of leaves, their twisted silhouettes seeming to reach out
their clawed branches as he rode past. It was pitch dark, but he thought he could
see snatches of movement in the brief moments when the lightning lit up the
The water in the air began to harden, coming down as sleet.
He saw a glow up ahead. A farmhouse, or perhaps an inn; somewhere he could find
shelter from the accursed night. He gave his horse a light kick in the side.
She saw the light and – looking forward to a roof overhead as much as he was –
she picked up the pace, slogging through the mud and sleet toward the light.
Around the next turn, the trees grew more sparse. Carrick could
see the source of the light, a single candle in a window. It looked like a
tavern, with its steep, gabled roof jutting out in the darkness. There was a
stable too; a man met him there and led his horse to a stall. Carrick stayed
long enough to make sure his mount was dried off and bedded down properly
before turning to walk into the inn.
It was nearly as dark inside as out. The fire in the hearth
had burned down low. Dark figures – most of them still wearing their traveling
cloaks – huddled around rough wooden tables. The floorboards creaked underfoot,
while the sleet pelted the windowpanes. With the fire so low, a chill permeated
the tavern. As Carrick enters, he felt eyes turn his way. He couldn’t see the
shadowed faces, but he could sense the suspicion and hostility in the room.
The innkeeper ignored him, though, as he made his way toward
the hearth. Rainwater ran off his cloak in a steady drip, drip, drop
that kept time with the heavy tread of his boots across the groaning
floorboards. He sat down by the hearth, reaching out his hands toward the small
circle of warmth. He could feel the eyes still lingering on him, but no one spoke.
No one moved.
His eyes studied the rough establishment. There was no
decoration of any kind anywhere. The plaster on the walls had faded to a dingy
yellowish-gray, and there were no paintings or tapestries to break up the
monotony. Apart from the fireplace, the single candle in the front window
provided the only light. There weren’t even any mirrors to reflect the dull
Carrick drew in a deep breath. He could smell the burning
logs in the hearth, but there was no smell of food anywhere. The entire place
seemed as dead and inhospitable as the road outside. He looked around again at
the other guests of the inn, and pulled his cloak closer. He wondered if anyone
had noticed that he carried no weapons.
He heard a faint sound of a horse whinnying outside. Moments
later, the door was thrust open. Illuminated by a single, jagged lightning
bolt, a woman stepped across the threshold. Inside the door, she pushed back
her hood and looked around the room with a reasonable measure of trepidation.
Small, delicate fingers plucked at the dripping cloak hung over her shoulders.
As before, no one moved or spoke to greet the new arrival.
Her teeth were already chattering from the cold. Ignoring
the eyes that seemed to hover on her, she made her way to the hearth and stood
next to Carrick. He looked up from his seat, noticing the tension in her
shoulders and the way her teeth were chattering.
“Innkeeper!” he shouted. “Can we get some more wood for the
The innkeeper emerged from behind the bar, a lean, bony man
with deep-set eyes and a strange smile on his face. As he stepped closer, his
eyes seemed to reflect the firelight unnaturally. Carrick felt a chill on the
back of his neck that had nothing to do with the time of year.
“Apologies, good sir,” the innkeeper responded, giving an
exaggerated bow. As the man spoke, Carrick was almost certain he could see a
glimmer of long canine teeth. “I’m afraid our wood has all gotten wet in the
Carrick glared at the innkeeper for a moment before pulling
his eyes away from the man’s unsettling stare and even more disturbing smile. He
turned instead to the new arrival, as the innkeeper shambled away.
“Won’t you sit down?” he offered, moving over to make room
for her on the bench.
She turned to look at him in the low light. Her green eyes
studied his face for a moment, while her hands brushed the rain from her wild
red hair. Then, smiling politely, she nodded and took a seat on the bench.
Most of the other figures in the inn had turned back to
their own business, and a few here and there were carrying on conversations in
hushed tones. After another glance around the room, Carrick decided to break
the silence between himself and his fellow traveler.
“What a wretched night this is,” he said, shaking his head.
He extended his hand. “My name is Carrick Doyle. I’m on my way to
She accepted his hand with a smile. “Yes, it’s definitely a
harsh night,” she agreed. “I’m Imogen Carlin, also on my way to Slaghtaverty.”
Her handshake was firmer than he had expected it to be. And
for the first time, Carrick noticed the dark-handled dirk at her waist. Though
she clearly felt nervous in this rough establishment, Carrick suspected she wasn’t
as harmless as she had first appeared. Yet, something clearly had her spooked.
She noticed him watching her, and realized that her concerns
must have been evident on her face. She chuckled softly, watching the fire
playing in the embers of the hearth.
“A night like this can make you see things,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow in question. What had she seen in the
She shook her head. “Riding along, wind howling, the rain
pouring down… A couple times I thought I saw shadows moving in the trees. It
was dark, but…” Her voice trailed off.
Carrick cast another glance around the room. A few of the
other figures in the tavern were watching them again, with several sneaking
glances their way when they thought Carrick wasn’t looking.
He turned back to Imogen, lowering his voice. “But, what?”
She chuckled again, but her glancing eyes revealed her
unease. “It’s nothing. I just thought I saw eyes, glowing at me through the
Carrick sighed. Yes, it was certainly one of those nights.
Lightning flashed outside the window. Thunder shook the
glass less than a moment later.
Carrick leaned toward Imogen to whisper against the thunder.
“Do you have a looking glass I could borrow?”
She looked up at him in some surprise at the unusual
request. But, without answering, she reached into her travel bag and passed him
a small mirror.
As stealthily as he could, Carrick turned the mirror first
toward the kitchen and serving area. The innkeeper was nowhere to be seen in
the reflection. Carrick angled the glass, turning it toward the tables where
the cloaked figures sat. A low gasp escaped Imogen, but Carrick merely smiled.
In the reflection, they were alone in the inn, save for one
figure in the far corner.