When I raised my head and opened my eyes I cringed in fear at the horror I beheld. The dancers no longer breathed: they were all, every last one of them, corpses.
Unable - or too frightened - to escape from Helega's hold, I danced amongst them, the long dead, the newly buried, the hideous and the pretty, the festering and the putrefied, as they dragged across the floor in macabre time to the musicians' dictates.
In abject cowardice I buried my head again into Helega's neck.
And when courage returned and I looked once more, the dancers lived, human once again.
We danced, Helega and myself, we danced until I no longer knew sensation in my legs. I gave myself up completely to the whirl and the wonder of the music and buried my head in the soft curls of her hair at her neck. Eyes closed, feeling only her fingers on my back, smelling only her skin's alluring perfume, I spun around that room in an eternal dance, as if time itself had stopped to watch us.
Oh, those visions, that such as those could be inflicted upon my eyes!
Oh, those visions, that could so brutally violate my paradise...
Helega and I danced but my heart and mind remained unsettled. So soon afterwards I stood at the inn's open door gulping the cool air (yes, with the return of some of my composure I again located the door!) then I splashed water over my face in the kitchen.
Yet when I danced again with Helega I could no longer think along logical lines. Worse, I began doubting that I saw things as they were.
The soft smell of her hair perhaps also drugged me; her touch, soft but firm, offered unspoken promises and her closeness swiftly betrayed my morality.
Holding the pewter tankard in two hands, I spilled as I drank, foamy ale dripping off my fingers and down my chin.
"Are you unwell?"
My friend had rushed to my side.
I smiled sheepishly.
"Not at all," I replied, strength and composure rapidly returning alongside a feeling of foolishness. "Perhaps the heat had became a little too much. But I feel much recovered now, thank you."
The sweat on my forehead was cooling. As was the ale, inside and out.
Helega, standing all this time beside me, said:
"Come, we dance, but slowly."
So dance, but slowly, we did.
As the music slowed, so did the dancing. Couples moved away to the edges of the room, leaving only a few hardy pairs in motion. It seemed a long time before my eyes cleared but eventually they found my friend, and there he stood, beside his pretty young dancing companion. Her hands gestured as she spoke to him - they were normal, human, living hands!
I bowed my head and sighed with relief. The ale was much stronger than I had supposed, but nevertheless I needed more: my mouth had dried and, candidly, I needed the drink to stop the trembling.
The fiddler paced the room until he stood in front of me, facing me directly. His bow moved ever faster, his fingers tripping in a frantic blur along the strings. My vision distorted and the room swayed as faster and faster the music spun me. Breathless, I needed fresh air but couldn't locate the doorway, cold sweat pricked my forehead and my heart hammered in my chest. I felt drunk and staggered as I arose, but suddenly Helega appeared at my side and held me steady.
Then, turning away from me, the fiddler slowed his playing... and I breathed again.
Concern flashed over his face when he spotted my look; but the next instant he was gone, lost in the crowd of dancers, hidden by the smoke, almost - could it be possible? - made invisible by the thick weave of the music itself as it thrummed and reeled through the smoky room.
I shiver even now to recount what I saw.
His back towards me. Her arms entwining him.
But her hands! Her long fingers, slim and white, hideously altered. And in their place, wasted appendages, skinless and fleshless, nothing but pale sinew and dull bone clutching tightly to his shirt!
They whirled as they danced, his back towards me, her hands tightly clutching his shirt; then her back faced me, his hands resting on her hips, his fingers moving as if they themselves orchestrated the quickening tempo of the music's cadence and rhythm. Now they danced close by, the next moment more distant; now shrouded in smoke, now - oh, that next moment shook me to the core! and I stared, disbelieving, as its image burned itself painfully into my soul!
But instantly they turned again, and I saw his smiling face enraptured by the whirl and gaiety of the night.
Drawn back to watching my friend and his new dancing partner, I wondered at his intentions. Not an hour before, he had appeared intoxicated with Helega, and she with him, but now I questioned that. The room was filling with thick smoke, the music was infectious and the ale potent. He was, I recalled, ready to experience everything this night would offer, and, as her lips meandered along his neck and jawline, moving as if whispering, his eyes took on that glazed look of someone who was lost to the moment.
My dearest hope was that regret would not follow.
All around me was movement, music and motion. I felt giddy even when I sat, clutching my ale, watching its myriad bubbles dance their own way to the surface. I looked up. My friend was with a dark haired young girl, she could have been no more than seventeen or eighteen, and they danced close together, swaying slowly. He smiled at me when he spotted me and I returned his smile before looking quickly around for Helega. She was watching the musicians, her body swaying tantalisingly with the music, and she appeared unconcerned that my friend was dancing with another.
The dance seemed to last forever, or so my tiring legs were telling me, but eventually the music stopped and the musicians took a break. Not all the musicians required a break, though. One of the fiddlers, a dashingly handsome young man, seemed oblivious to everything going on around him, and he carried on playing. It was a jig, one I didn't recognise: possibly more Breton than Irish or Scottish, perhaps. He seemed indefatigable and his fingers played on whilst the energetic danced and those needing a rest, like myself, tapped their feet or their hands to its infectious rhythm.
Helega reappeared as the music began and my eyes were drawn from the multitude of all the other graceful, beautiful dancers to her. I watched her as she took my friend's hand and led him into the middle of the room. She was entrancing, and I was pleased for him for she appeared as taken with him as he was with her.
Then a lady perhaps twice my age, perhaps older, requested a dance. For a moment I considered politely refusing, but that would not do, not on this night of merriment. We danced whilst the music weaved around us.
Close to midnight, the landlord opened the curtains and pushed the door ajar.
"It will get warm here," he explained, "it's good, yes, cooler air."
And with that he lifted two tables, one in each hand, and placed them one atop the other at one side of the room. With this impressive show of dextrous strength he prepared the room for dancing.
At this, the room began to fill and a group of musicians set themselves up in one corner: I saw two fiddles and a guitar being tuned while someone else uncovered a piano I hadn't noticed until then.
In all honesty I would have much preferred to sleep that night, not dance, especially after so much fine food and ale, but my friend insisted and mine host was more than hospitable in letting us wash and refresh ourselves in the inn's kitchen. How could I refuse, especially after Helega had reappeared and shyly taken my comrades hands and asked him if he would care to dance with her?
I had thought that this night would see the parting of our ways and this pretty scene all but confirmed it.
Yet, not in the way I had first supposed.
The bread was good, the stew better, and the ale surpassed them both.
I paid the landlord and enquired after rooms.
"We have no spare rooms, but you are welcome here to bed by the fire if you wish. Though little sleep may be had tonight, I fear."
He laughed heartily at the look of consternation on our faces.
"Forgive me, no, no, there's nothing to be concerned about. It is that tonight is the night of the dance."
"A dance!" my friends face lit up. I could tell what he was thinking.
Or rather who he was thinking about.
We had taken our seats at the table nearest the fire and it was not long before Helega carried in a vast tray of chunky stew, two loaves of different bread and two more beers.
"Please, gentlemen, enjoy. And if there's anything else you want..." she walked slowly away without finishing the sentence.
Ah poor boy, he was smitten! As she stood beside our table his smile never left his face and when she turned to go his eyes never left her. Even as she disappeared upstairs, his eyes followed her.
"She wears no ring," I said to him, grinning.
"She's beautiful. Utterly... utterly... beautiful!" my friend said.
She was indeed, if perhaps a little too buxom, for I preferred the darker, elfin look. But I had little experience of the fairer sex, so when my friend said "She's the most beautiful woman I have ever, ever seen" who was I to argue?
Helega was beautiful, I had to agree. I don't like to stereotype, but for me with my limited experience, she was the archetypal Bavarian beauty. Tall, with long blonde hair that fell in ringlets to her ample bosom, and her blue eyes sparkled above her dimpled smile.
At the bar we exchanged handshakes then my friend said
"Two beers, please."
"Ah, so you both English? British, yes?"
We told him we were, and made our introductions. Though heavily accented, he spoke English very well.
"You are most welcome," he said, "May I offer food?"
That was more like it.
"Helega will concoct something for you on this cold night, stew perhaps?" the landlord said, and I turned to see that Helega had suddenly appeared behind us, a sight even more welcome than hot stew and cold beer could ever be.
We ordered whatever it was she suggested.
We were not alone in the room after all. Behind the bar stood a man every inch a landlord. He was tall, with a ruddy complexion, huge sideburns giving him a Dickensian look while his bushy eyebrows curled up in a most Satanic way, a look belied by his cheerful smile and his arms spread wide in welcome. His shirtsleeves, rolled up almost to his shoulders, revealed the muscular arms of a man used to dealing with full casks of ale as easily as with loaves of bread.
He spoke in the local tongue, with opaque words but transparent welcomes.
The room was long and narrow, sparsely furnished but homely. Along the wall opposite us was a plain wooden bar defending casks of fine ale and bowls of fruit and bread. The bar extended along the room to where plain wood stairs led upwards into darkness. On the adjacent wall the fire welcomed us with warmth. The room contained five roughly hewn wooden tables with benches, each bearing a small candle. Two windows on the wall at our side were deep set and shuttered against the night. Sawdust danced patterns on the floor as we closed the door behind us.