They’d been walking through the mountains for days. A ragged band, hungry and ill-clad, running from the nameless evil that had destroyed their homes what seemed weeks ago. Hoping to find safety, food and comfort they had persevered, ever keeping a watchful eye to their rear. They all had the unsettling feeling they were being followed. They remained positive, surely they would find sanctuary before long. Two days ago they’d spotted the soaring towers of the castle they were now nearing yet reaching it had been hard. Now the castle loomed above shrouded in mist, its reflection mirrored in the flooded approach road. Even though no guards were visible, they advanced with caution. There were four of them, two male, two female. They scanned the walls for signs of life, there was no one to be seen, the place seemed deserted.
Their leader, Bran, cried out, ‘Hello the castle!’ they listened but there was no response. Reaching the gate they found it to be unfastened. They entered the courtyard with caution, holding their weapons at the ready yet hoping to hear greetings of welcome. The castle seemed empty but given its size it would take time to confirm that impression. Urgency led them to seek out the kitchens, they’d not eaten for a day and a half and even then only sparsely. They found the main kitchen, empty of life yet full of food. They set about a simple feast of cold meats, bread and cheese, washed down by small beer. Revived, they continued their search of the castle but there were no people to be found, reassuringly there were no bodies either. It took days to search the castle from top to bottom but the mystery remained, where had the inhabitants of the castle gone?
Having recovered from their initial ragged state they were now well-fed, rested, and properly clothed. They pondered what to do next. They chose to search the adjacent village and surrounding farms for people, surely someone must be out there?
The village was as deserted as the castle. No one, not man, woman, or child, was to be found. The inns appeared abandoned with unfinished meals and drinks set out on the tables. As though the customers had walked out in the middle of their meals. They split up to search in more depth and found the same story repeated in the homes they entered. Food laid out ready to eat, meals hardly touched, drinks left unfinished.
As they went from farm to farm the story remained the same, a complete absence of inhabitants and the same unfinished meals. Curiously, livestock remained, it was just the people that were absent. What sort of an invading force would clear the region of people yet leave valuable provisions behind? There were no signs of struggle and none of the usual destruction associated with conflict. It was as if the population had just upped and left, leaving all their possessions behind. If that was the case where had they gone?
They returned to the castle to consider their options and ponder the situation. Should they stay or should they go? But where would they go to? If they stayed what would happen to them? Would they too disappear? Then there was the question of the food and the animals. While the food that they’d been eating in the castle was largely processed to last, the meals they’d found left uneaten should have shown signs of decay, but did not. Similarly the animals they’d seen seemed to be surviving unnaturally well without human care. What was going on?
There was one last place that they’d not searched, the old chapel on the hillside above the village.
They were unprepared for what they found there. As the opened the chapel doors the stench was overpowering. The chapel had been turned into a charnel house but instead of a store of disinterred bones, these were fresh. Unlike the food they’d seen the decay was obvious, as was the presence of flies and maggots.
‘I see you’ve found the remains from my once plenteous storehouse. It’s been a lean winter. I’d hoped for more in the way of replenishment by now but you four will have to do… for now.’ A voice boomed out behind them and they turned to see an ogre blocking the doorway. The ogre advanced into the chapel, licking its lips as it surveyed its next meal.
‘Why are these remains decaying while the food in the village remains fresh?’ Asked Bran, as he fumbled at his weapon.
‘The old religion of the chapel prevents my magic from working here.’ Replied the ogre.
Realisation spread. The others, also reaching for their swords, moved to surround the ogre, One of them edged behind, ready to close the doors, ready to trap the ogre inside.
Surrounded, the ogre realised his mistake. Without his magic he was at the mercy of the humans. And, as the doors clanged shut, four swords rained blows about his now vulnerable body.
The monster dealt with, they retired to the castle. Now their castle. It was a time to rebuild, a time to invite other refugees to share in their good fortune. Two would stay behind to look after the animals and clear up the now decaying foodstuff, while two would leave to spread the word of a new beginning to the surrounding countryside.
Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink June 27th writing prompt competition