The rains of Autumn had finally stopped. But the clouds hung heavy on the horizon, a foreboding premonition of the travellers arrival.
The village folk dreaded and were enthralled by the thought of them. Known as gleemen, wandering minstrels, who hid themselves behind masks grotesque and frightening. Every October, they came, the discordant music announcing them, the sound carrying across the fields. Even while their coming was feared, the villagers revelled in their novelty, it was a distraction from the tedium of long days and hard work.
Every village did its best to welcome them, in the hope that their dark games would be played elsewhere. That they would be satisfied to entertain and move along. The best food and drink, the most comfortable homes offered as barter against their appetites. Sometimes that’s not all that was offered.
If they weren’t convinced that they were properly welcomed, it was said the songs would turn to dirges and no one was safe. Some said they carried the plague, which had all but died out in the previous century. That they had developed an immunity to it, but had the ability to pass it on to whomever they chose.
For years now, since my mother had died, my father had disguised me as a boy. Raised me to hide, for fear that they would turn those soulless eyes on me. I told him I wasn’t afraid, that they were merely men, who preyed upon ignorance and fear to rule the countryside with their modern variation on the ancient roman circus. But he insisted I stay like this, arguing that there is no greater evil than the darkness in man’s corrupted heart.
They always came at night. All afternoon, we heard the music, we knew they were coming, the sound of the flutes rang in the blood, grating the space between the ears, making one think they were on the verge of going insane. The desire for them to show themselves, for wanting it to be over, coupled with wondering what new distractions they had acquired over the year could feel like agony.
At dusk, I could make out the first shapes on the horizon. I strained my eyes in the gathering darkness, trying to make out how many there were, how they were attired. The torches the outer walkers carried cast a menacing glow on the company as they marched in time with the music.
I felt the quaver start in my knees, legs shaking, my pulse begin to race as they drew near. From my vantage point in a yew tree, mouth dry, eyes wide, I realized they were dressed as the dead.
Bones painted onto their clothes, faces masked with dead dark eye sockets and malevolent rictus smiles, they came ever closer, their voices low, melodic, terrifying. Some held implements I recognized, some that I didn’t, all carrying the promise of pain.
Sometimes I imagined what they might do if they found me here, on the outskirts of the village, far from safety. I imagined their hands on me, the light in those dead eyes when they discovered the rounded curves below my disguise. How it would feel to have the clothes torn from me, to be held, my delicate skin scraped with the fine edge a knife, cutting my breasts free from the confines of the fabric that bound them tight.
For years now, unbeknownst to my father, I had been educating myself. I knew that there were women who crept into the shadows during the shows, to offer themselves as tribute to these dark creatures. I wondered if they were prompted by village elders or if they sought out something more than their own men were capable of.
Sometimes I would follow them, hear the sound of tearing, of hard contact with soft flesh, of screams that should have frozen the blood in my veins. The sounds of animalistic pleasure coming to me on the still cool early spring breeze.
While it was true that for years I had been hiding, it was not in the way that my father thought.
I dreamt of all sorts of dark and horrific pleasures being made manifest in the shadows beyond the village, of sinister appetites sated. My own growing stronger every year.
I licked my dry lips and hoped this would be the year I got to taste.