Lucy looked up at me. The unease in her eyes changed abruptly to horror when she felt bony fingers draw blood from the soft skin of her cheek and saw lumps of suppurating flesh fall from my eyeless, grinning skull.
When I pulled her closer, her terrified screams filled the night, but they were inaudible beneath the weft and weave of the fiddles and the strident shrieking of the dancing cadavers who, with eyeless and fleshless malice, watched us.
"Dance," I said to her, her soft lips bursting bloody under the crushing force of my kiss,
"Dance with me. Forever."
"I have brought my wife, Lucy, to the dance," I explained.
"There is to be a dance?" Lucy looked uneasily around, the inn's charm corrupted by her growing foreboding.
The landlord guffawed again, his mouth agape, his red cheeks burning as he laughed loud and heartily. Tears fell from below those wild eyebrows and he wiped his face with his huge hands.
"It is good, yes, she will enjoy, I think," he laughed uproariously.
The room was suddenly full.
The music suddenly began.
Before my dear Lucy could say another word, I took her in my arms and we danced.
My eyes adjusted quickly.
There was someone here - of course there was. I had expected the room to be empty, but realised it was a foolish expectation. Behind the bar he stood, huge and welcoming with a cheery smile and his still-Satanic eyebrows raised high above glinting eyes.
"Welcome, again," he boomed.
Lucy smiled demurely.
I laughed and closed the inn door behind me. How good it was to watch the sawdust on the floor dance in the draught once more.
"Such a delightful place," Lucy commented as I shook the landlord's hand and musicians entered the room.
She knocked at the open door, perhaps more out of politeness than expectation.
I feared to pass over that threshold, but she stepped in as carefree as if she entered her own home.
My mind full of memories, my spirit replete with fear, I took a step forward. Blood thundered in my ears, my heart burst in my chest.
"How beautiful!" I heard Lucy exclaim.
And I followed her in, to see the familiar long bar, the rough hewn tables along the length of the room and the roaring red flames of a wood fire at the far wall.
Something sounded in the forest, distant or close by I was uncertain. Noises in the night deceive, do they not?
Suddenly Lucy released my hand and walked into the clearing, heading for the inn.
"No!" I shouted, or would have if she hadn't turned to me with her most alluring smile.
"Come!" she said "A few minutes only, dearest."
And I ran to her side and took her hand.
I knew that look in her eyes. Indomitable. Unwavering. Call it what you will, the beautiful glimmering of her eyes shone for me as she led me towards the yellow light.
I turned to Lucy, smiling.
Here was no dancing, here was no music, here there were no dead. Just a homely old inn set within ancient forest. My relief filled me with euphoria and I gathered Lucy to me and kissed her passionately.
"Now you and I have seen it," I said at length. "Let us return to the warmth of our hotel."
She turned with me, turned our backs to the inn. But her head still looked behind, towards that welcoming building.
I feigned reluctance when she said "Could we not perhaps look within? I am thirsty and hungry."
The trees thinned unexpectedly... and there was the clearing, beneath twinkling starlight. And there, almost ethereal in a liquid silver moonlight, the inn, its door, its ever-open door ajar, and a welcoming yellow light beckoning in the darkness.
I froze. I could go no further for the sight had hit me like a punch in the solar plexus and awoken something timid within me.
"Calm yourself, dearest. It is but an inn!"
Lucy's words comforted but little, for I was filled with dark, threatening thoughts. But mere moments later, I realised with relief that I heard no music played.
All for her.
She so desperately wanted to see the inn. So desperately wanted to free me from the tyranny of my memories. And even though at every step my pace slowed, I would do this for her. Perhaps for myself, too, who knows: but most assuredly, given her excited eyes and the thrilled grip of her hand on mine, for her.
Every step that took us further and further from our hotel filled me with greater and greater reluctance. In my mind I told Lucy we should turn back; I told myself to keep going.
Until there, before us...
We stepped out into the night air. A few clouds smeared the star jewelled sky and beneath it the only sounds came from the wind through the trees, else something unseen rustling the undergrowth.
We left the light of the hotel far behind as we walked into the forest. Somehow, I know not how, but I was certain of my way. Paths wound this way and that but at every fork I chose the correct one. Lucy's smile beside me gave me comfort, her glittering, excited eyes filled me with joy.
I was doing this for her, I told myself.
Before I knew what was happening, Lucy stood beside me with my overcoat, and she handed it to me with "It will be chilly, no doubt."
She had donned her coat and wrapped a scarf about her neck even before I'd reluctantly finished buttoning my own coat.
"Come," she said. "We will see the inn, then return. Perhaps then these... ghosts from your past will no longer haunt you."
Thus I understood Lucy's reasoning.
"I have no desire to return there, Lucy dearest," I said, but her smile told me I was lying; if not to her, then to myself.
Horrified and frightened did I say? Not a bit of it.
I had half-expected to see her pretty face pale and drawn, but her cheeks were flushed and her eyes shone.
"Lucy-?" I began.
"Let's go there. To that inn, I mean!" her words came tumbling out, her eyes begged me, glittering and bright. "Let us go to that tavern, I would so very much like to see it!" Her face wore the most becoming smile, and she added, as if in afterthought, "from a distance at least, my love."
My shock was evident. I felt tongue-tied.
"Do let us have the light on, dearest."
I was pulled from my reverie by Lucy, and immediately I thumbed up the light switch and our room once more was illuminated. This had the effect of changing my mood entirely, and I realised I had allowed myself to fall into some kind of melancholic torpor - the consequence of reliving the events of that night and, perhaps, of being physically so close to the scene.
I gave myself a silent dressing-down and prepared to comfort Lucy who no doubt was horrified and frightened by the story I had just related.
Barely five years ago this place was unrecognisable. Then, I recalled, a rutted cart track divided trees that mobbed close by on either side. The track itself would have been rarely travelled were it not for market days when local peasants took their goods for sale or barter. And now? Now, the track has been replaced by a more passable highway. The trees one side had gone and a sizeable hotel served the purpose of entertaining and resting travellers on their way to and from their destinations.
Time passes and everything changes. And I, for one, was glad of it.
This was a new hotel, built perhaps two years ago and complete with all mod cons as they say these days (although abbreviating seemingly everything as is today's fashion leaves me cold: if it's a modern convenience, then say so. The fact that something is labour saving is enough: do not allow it to promote laziness in speech as well. However...)
I shook my head at my own failings: I constantly marvelled at progress, but now felt left far behind in the wake of progress. Everything had changed so much, and in such a short span of time.
Our hotel room had fallen into darkness. I had been so intent reliving my story for my lovely Lucy and she had been so rapt in her attention to me, that neither of us had thought to light a lamp.
A full moon, low in the sky but dimmed behind a thin veil of cloud, threw a little light into our room which gave everything an eerie glow and cast long, indistinct shadows behind every object.
Rising, I looked around in vain for a lamp.
Lucy laughed and, taking my hand, pointed out: "There's a light switch near the door."
I was woken with a start by movements all around me, the sounds of feet trampling nearby.
You may imagine what I feared!
But I laughed when I knew my error. Forest ponies, merely, watching me, idly curious.
I'd slept, evidently, and now felt recovered and was no longer fevered.
So - was it a dream? The dance, my escape? Even my Highland comrade, a dream?
My reasoning restored, I turned and headed east again.
Fevered dreaming, I concluded.
And yet I never truly believed that, for the wounds on my neck and back were as real as I am now.
Slowly, I stood and looked back into the clearing.
Helega dragged her withered corpse back towards the tavern. Others of her kind, all in various stages of decomposition, staggered also to the inn's ever open doorway.
And there, lost in the moment and the music, lost to the deep arousing kiss he shared, my friend still danced with his corpse partner, his lips pressed lustily against decaying flesh. And as he moved to the dance's hellish rhythm, the flesh of his feet tore and fell away and his blood left a dark and glistening trail over the clearing's moist grass.
Such nightmares have no existence in reality, surely? Still prone, I felt my forehead. As I supposed, a fever burned there; my cheeks too, so hot that the occasional tear I shed dried as I wept them. I watched my hands tremble. Nausea glowered in the pit of my stomach.
That was it, then. A fevered nightmare. The horror of being forced to dance with the dead, of dancing until I, too, died: and then of dancing forever, for all eternity, with no hope of rest or salvation! It was all little more than an anxious mind in fevered sleep.
Some time had passed before I dared move or look back. I knew this only because my breathing had returned to normal. Even so, I lay prone for a long while, waiting for the telltale sounds of the wretched lifeless seeking me through the trees.
Of course, at that moment, in my fevered imagination every sound of the forest became the sound of some monstrous evil approaching. But assuredly my senses were returning; and with them, my reason.
Surely, none of this had happened. Another hallucination, possibly? Of course it couldn't have been anything other than some nightmare. Could it?
I would have thrown myself down, surrendered in abject misery were it not for the sensation I felt on my back.
At first, a scrape, as a fleshless reach barely made contact with me. Next, a firmer touch, colder, the ends of limbs, gripping. My shirt tightened across my chest - but I pulled free! After, the agonied ripping of skin as cold bone slashed hard down my spine.
Somehow my legs responded, finding new strength and, blindly racing, I felt myself bounce off one tree, then another. I tripped and staggered many more times before falling sobbing into sodden undergrowth.