Welcome to the Brain to Books Cyber Convention Story Hop. My contribution to this literary excursion through the blogosphere is a small paranormal tale called, The Highwayman…
by A. F. Stewart
Sorley hefted the fat purse he lifted off the poor fool asking for directions. The hapless man hailed him at the crossroads, and never felt Sorley’s nimble fingers deprive of his money. Nor did he suspect Sorley’s generous help steered him down the wrong road.
“Serves the Sassenach right. With any luck he’ll end in a bog.” Sorley chuckled. “His coin will do me more good at any rate.”
He tucked the money purse into his coat pocket and started back down the road towards home, whistling his mother’s favourite tune. As he strolled, he smiled at thought of spending his ill-gotten gains.
Maybe I’ll buy Caitriona those hair ribbons she admired. Or Mairi some of those sweets she enjoys. Or a new coat for myself.
Lost in his dreams of gifts and grandeur, he almost missed the sound drifting from the river. Past the bend in the road came a quiet song, a soft and somber lilt, flowing from the water’s edge. Sorley turned his head.
The sight he beheld caused him to stay his travels and stare. On the sandy riverbank, a smallish old woman—dressed in a sea green cloak—squatted, her gnarled fingers hard at work doing her washing. The air around her seemed to tremble and shimmer as if bewitched. Sorley responded in kind with an agitated shiver, though no wind blew and the day was warm. He moved off the road, closer to the river.
The old woman twisted her head and gaped at him, her face a withered reflection of age and decay. Another shiver chased up Sorley’s spine.
“Come to gawk at an old crone, have you?”
“Just curious, old woman.” Her dark, piercing eyes made him uncomfortable, so he looked away, glancing at her laundry. The mess of gray, stained cloth did not put his mind at ease, but he blustered past his disquiet. “But I’d give it up if I were you. That cloth of yours has seen better days. You’ll need more than a good scrub to clean it.”
“That it has, and you’re right. Its day is coming soon.” She smiled, a crooked grin of missing teeth.
Sorley shook his head. His mind seemed improbably mesmerized. “You’re an odd old thing, aren’t you?”
“That I am, full of strange ways.” She shifted her stance, crouching on one knee and hunching her shoulders. “But I have things to say, and you should listen to me.”
“And why is that?” Sorley smiled, now highly amused at her impudence. “What ancient wisdom to you have to offer?”
“Just one small pearl.” She chuckled. “We can’t escape our fate, young man.”
“That’s it?” Disappointment crossed Sorley’s face. “A bit of superstitious nonsense. I was hoping for better, old woman, than tired and useless banality. Fate is for fools. There’s nothing controlling my destiny. I make my own way.”
The old woman stuck out her tongue, and then giggled. “So sure of yourself, you are. Would it surprise you that I agreed? Our actions do determine our fate. Yet…” She smiled another gapped-toothed grin. “We each walk the same path.”
“More nonsense wrapped in daft riddles.” Irritation crept into his tone, with the thought she mocked him. His attention flickered back to the road. “As delightful as this chat has been, I haven’t the time. Good luck with your washing and your drivel, old woman. I’m off.”
“Farewell, Sorley. We’ll meet again soon.”
Sorley sniffed and gave a shrug, dismissing the old woman as he walked on. Only a mile or so down the road did her use of his given name sink into his head. He stopped, and stared back over his shoulder.
“I didn’t tell her my name. I know I didn’t. How did she know?”
His skin prickled, and unease crept into his thoughts, but he pushed the whole encounter into the back recesses of his memory. He continued towards home.
Nevertheless, the encounter still bothered him. Two nights later, in a seedy tavern, he spoke of it to three friends, Alan, Rab and Graham, as they sat around the card table
“The other day I saw something odd on the way home.” Sorley casually threw the remark, and his move, into the game.
Alan smirked and played his turn. “Do tell.”
“There was a daft old woman down by the river, washing clothes. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“Oh.” Rab glanced up from his hesitation over the cards. “Oh my. I hope it wasn’t the Washer at the Ford.”
“The what?” Sorley frowned.
“It’s some legend, isn’t it?” Alan’s voice interrupted. “See the old woman, and someone you know will die.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that.” Graham chimed in, “But I thought the person who saw her was the one to die.”
“It’s both actually,” Rab corrected, “She’s a harbinger of death, but who will die only time will tell.”
“Nonsense. She a figment of foolishness. Silly superstition.” Sorley dismissed his friends, but his earlier unease prickled under his skin. “Things like that don’t exist. It’s all just the prattle of fools.”
“You’re probably right, all this talk is a bit silly.” Alan chuckled. “Perhaps someone was playing a prank.” He threw down a card, a grin plastered on his face. “Still, it might be best to avoid cuckolding any husbands for a bit. To be on the safe side.” His trio of friends roared in laughter and Sorley scowled at them.
“If you’re done amusing yourselves at my expense, can we get back to the game?”
And with that, the group spun their attention back to the cards, the conversation fading into ale and the wee hours.
On the precipice of dusk, Sorley crouched in the woods at the edge of the road, awaiting the carriage of a well-heeled landowner. He heard the rumble of the wheels, and saw the dust in the distance. With one last adjustment to his mask, he raised his pistols and stepped out into the road.
“Halt!” Sorley shouted the command with the roar of a beast, grinning wickedly. He aimed both pistols at the approaching carriage.
The driver, faced with the choice of stopping or running Sorley down, chose to stop. Then he snatched a gun from the adjacent seat. Sorley didn’t hesitate, firing a shot into the man’s chest. The driver slumped, his weapon clattering usually onto the floorboards.
Sorley dashed forward, his heart pumping, and hopped onto the carriage to check on his victim. Satisfied he was dead, Sorley jumped to the ground, still facing the coach. Then came the click of the carriage door opening.
Sorley whirled at the shout, his remaining weapon raised. He saw the flash of the other man’s pistol, and felt an agony pierce his abdomen. He stumbled, staring at the spreading stain on his shirt, the crimson colour darkly illuminated by the last rays of the sun. Pain screamed through his body as he collapsed onto the ground, his head slumped at an angle, his fingers dropping his useless guns.
Gasping raw and laboured, his blood pooling in the dirt, he saw the old woman standing by the side of the road.
“I told you young man. You can’t escape your fate. Death comes for us all.”
Sorley breathed his last to the soft echoes of a tender, wailing lament.
All the stories in the Hop can be found here: The Story Hop
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