With every step I took, with every gasping breath that razored my throat, with every blurred realisation that safety was still so very far away, my willpower drained from me. With every moan or sob I heard come out of my desperate mouth, the urge to give up filled me just that little bit more.
I willed death to take me quickly, even as my legs fought through the turgid treacle of the night air.
The peace of surrender to this horror suddenly became so appealing I almost threw myself to the floor and waited for them to take me.
Oh how I ran! If I could but reach the forest perhaps I would be safe, and my legs pounded harder and harder, but the trees' shelter receded rather than neared. The frequent sounds of decaying flesh slapping the earth revealed more than just Helega sought me. Guttural cries scabbed the air: death scrabbled after me in a melee of stench and rotting carcasses.
I almost tripped once, then once again, but somehow regained my balance. My muscles hurt as if they were being torn from me, my chest burned with fire and my vision blurred with tears and fear.
I wanted to run into that tavern, tear my friend from the clutch of his decaying partner, pull him out into the night and away from danger. But as he spun around I witnessed the cadaver's fingers pierce his back and blood spurt out in crimson arcs; and as he turned again I saw the smile still fixed to his face and his eyes white and huge, the pupils retreated into his head in devilish ecstasy.
There was the faintest touch against my back, a skeletal finger perhaps, a reaching grip that failed.
And I ran.
I heard behind me the irregular flap-flap-flap of approaching feet. Helega sought me!
His smiling face revealed his innocence, his ignorance - while I stood nearby, feeling myself ignorant of all innocence.
Yes, his face showed that his joy was unbridled. Though he danced with a corpse, her disfigured body and clumsy movement betraying some fatal accident, he laughed gaily. Though those around him danced in various states of decomposition, he was oblivious to their monstrous existence.
He was oblivious, too, to the blood pouring from the tattered flesh of his unclad feet as they continued pounding the floor.
I had no need to look far. He danced closest to the door, and danced as if mocking my fears. Oh, his purity and ignorance, the poor fellow! His eyes sparkled and shone in his joy and innocence. He was in ecstasy as he whirled, whispering to his grotesque partner, laughing often, loud and long; and he danced as if there was nothing else to live for but dancing in this long, neverending night.
Then, when he spied me, he gestured with his head to "Join in!" but the stench of decay and putrefaction fingered my throat and I vomited.
I refused to believe what my eyes saw. That gone was her ample frame, her long blonde hair, those astonishingly beautiful blue eyes. That in their place were rotting rags thrown over a griddle of bone and rotting flesh, hair hanging in sparse clumps from a skull that bore more maggots than skin, that her eyeless sockets turned this way and that in wretched, devilish, sightlessness. Skeletal fingers sought me, flailing blindly in the air.
I turned and ran, somehow finding myself at the doorway of the tavern, fearfully seeking my friend, terrified of what my eyes would show me.
I don't recall in any detail what happened then. I know the presence of Death turns a man's thoughts to family and God and love; Heaven knows I had walked enough with Death in its many guises to know this, and to understand that it's not Death but the manner of Death which truly terrifies.
So perhaps it was the thought of God which empowered me. Perhaps it was God Himself, I cannot say. All I know is that despite the agonies of tearing flesh at my neck, I somehow broke free of her grip and pushed her from me.
And still the music spun, whirled, dived and eddied, faster, always faster, until I heard her speak.
Her skull was still pressed against mine when its jaw moved and her words rasped harshly, hellish and guttural:
"Dance. With me. Dance with me forever."
Her breath as it passed over my face felt like rough cloth, rough cloth with a stench of rotting flesh so strong I tasted it and retched.
"Dance with me. Forever."
And in that moment, everything became silence.
I knew then I feared not only for my life. I feared also for my God-given soul.
But little sound escaped me. Hard, cold fingers pierced the back of my neck pulling my head onto her. Her passion intense, frenzied and relentless, she forced her gaping muzzle hard against mine, but hers were no soft, warm lips. I felt the press of cold bone, her teeth and jaw crushing and cutting into my lips as pain stabbed through me. I couldn't pull my head away, her grip on my neck was irresistible and even amidst numbing horror I knew the searing pain of her fleshless fingers ripping my flesh and muscle as blood streamed down my neck.
My eyes shot open! What I saw was so unbelievable that for long moments I did nothing. My hands still held something tightly against my body, my tongue still sought hers in the cavernous space between her jaws, but her eyes! Our heads still pressed close in our embrace, I saw that those blue portals to her soul were no more! Her empty sockets held only the blackened endings of nerves and veins, and rags of rotting skin which hung from the lips of those eyeless craters. In her fleshless mouth, my tongue still sought hers, even as I screamed.
My lips brushed her neck as we danced and even more was I intoxicated by her closeness. Her lips found mine again, and I bit gently on them. Her murmur of delight was unmistakeable and encouraging and her hips, pushing forward, pressed against mine. My tongue sought its way between her yielding lips - but no tongue responded.
Once more, against the back of my neck that horrific sensation of hard, cold fingers. Her mouth, too, suddenly felt icy, and as I squeezed her to me, my hands pushed the fabric of her clothes through what should have been her body.
I glanced conspicuously toward the door: my meaning, I hoped, would be unmistakeable. It was hot in the inn, and crowded. More than anything I wanted to be alone with her, I yearned to dance in the open, to feel the soft sensual gentleness of the rain fall upon us. I longed to hold her beneath the eternal sky, beneath the life-giving rain, to be one with her beside the fertile forest.
Her shy but excited smile assured me she understood, and we made our way outside where our eyes continued their embrace and our bodies continued our dance.
My eyes closed again and I allowed myself, perhaps even willed myself, to be overcome by Helega's closeness and her perfume and the slow movement of her body pressed against mine.
And yet! Her fingers, once so soft and warm on my face, suddenly felt cold and hard on the back of my neck!
It was a passing sensation, merely. Feeling tender and warm again, I reasoned what I felt was either her fingernails or I had misjudged by own senses. My eyes flickered open. Her enthralling smile reassured me, and I sank again into our comforting bond of togetherness.
What a feeling! How to explain my feelings in that moment? No, I cannot. Every word, every string of adjectives my mind conjures fails to do justice to my feelings at that time. It was something akin to knowing that a whole new universe of love and beauty had exploded within me, exploded and continued to grow, a vast everywhere, an everything of bliss and joy.
I stood feeling this and the sensation of her hands in mine, seeing only her long lashes like gentle bars holding captive my heart within her blue eyes.
Around us, unnoticed, gentle rain fell.
I rose to my feet and helped her up. Throughout, our eyes never left each other and I swam in the blue promise of I-know-not-what that coursed through their rare and azure beauty.
"Come," she said to me after a while, "Let us dance. Or - ?" perhaps she noted a flicker of fear in my eyes at the thought of returning to the other dancers, a fear I quickly mastered - "perhaps not dance, but return to the warmth. You must not become deathly cold again, no?"
Her smile and her concern filled my heart, almost to bursting.
The taste of her lips was nectar, their softness compelling me to respond to them. It seemed an eternity lying there, my head in her lap, her lips warm on mine. A sensuous heat spread quickly through my body and the tide of my fear gradually subsided. Her tongue sought mine for a brief instant before drawing away and she shyly raised her head. Our eyes, though, remained held together in a deep embrace.
"I am sorry," she said quietly, blushing. "I should not have - "
Perhaps she should not have. But I felt safe with her. Protected. And Wanted.
Through the door, into cooler air outside, and my legs gave way. Helega could no longer hold me up, and I crumpled to the floor.
A voice inside my head whispered "Breathe deeply, slowly..." but it was useless. Exacerbated by the cold sweat that shrouded me, I lay on the ground, trembling fiercely.
Helega knelt beside me and cradled my head in her lap.
"Please be calm, you are safe," I heard her say "You are soon well, yes, better soon, I believe."
Her voice was soft, her accent gentle and attractive.
Then she leaned over me. And kissed me.
But that was fear of death, a fear I knew well.
This was different. I had seen the dead dance, dear God! watched them hold each other and move together in time with the infernal, unceasing music - so the fear I felt was not fear of the known.
Helega held me tightly as we wound our way through the dancers towards the door. Some looked at me in surprise, some in concern, but all looked at me with human, living faces.
And their talking and the music filled the room and swirled like water.
And, drowning, I gasped for air.
I am not ashamed to admit that I was afraid.
I know fear, I understand fear.
I've faced fear, I have fought it many times and each and every time I've prevailed.
I have stood shoulder to shoulder with other men who, in churning silence, fought their own battles with fear.
I've stood alongside them beside the trench ladder waiting for the whistle to advance while bullets whirred overhead and the surrounding earth exploded with furious shells. We all knew those sounds could be the last we heard, but we stood together.
And, together, we wrestled our fears into submission.
They danced and laughed together, healthy, exuberant and vivacious, and I could only fear for my own sanity. Why were these disturbances of vision happening to me? What drug induced them? The food or the ale? The smoke in the room? Too many questions, too many! The sooner this night was over, the better.
Helega, of course, witnessed my discomfort and she held me tighter, telling me as she led me back outside that whatever is wrong it would soon pass.
I was unconvinced.
The fear in my stomach screamed that it could never pass.
Something was terribly, terribly wrong.