Carol Of The Bells

There are still places, as yet, untouched by the modern world. Where words still possess the ability to cast spells. Such places hold ancient magic, long forgotten by society. Myths and legends pass as they ever have, from grandfathers to grandchildren, the old to the young and spill through the quiet nights of close friends. Such places remember to wind their paths around fairy rings, rather than straying through them. Where salt and iron guard every doorway, warding off all manner of un-human things.

These dwellings, still steeped in ancient magic held a fascination for Catherine. They called to her in the pause between inhalations. For as long as she could remember she had been a collector of stories. As a child she had been obsessed with Grimm’s and Aesop, from there, she had progressed to Tolkien. Whilst other children had wanted to be princesses or pop stars, she wanted to be an elf, a witch or a bard.

As she grew older she was consumed with a passion for writing, wanting nothing more than to spin the tales which had always given her so much pleasure. After several failed attempts she had given up on writing a book and moved sideward into publishing. Even if her name wasn’t on the front cover she still could bring new stories to the world, but it never fully satisfied her. Some part of her yearned for more, searched for the tantalising threads of a story-line within the whispers of the ancient past.

Croes-y-Bryn first came to her attention as a teenager, leafing through pages, discovering the article folded away in the back of her father’s bible. A man had disappeared, without a trace, on the eve of the solstice. Who was this man, how had her father known him? The mystery of it all intrigued her, her father was suspiciously tight-lipped. What cemented it in her memory, though, was the journalist’s rather jocular comment about the locals’ conviction of a supernatural cause.  

For some time Catherine had forgotten about the village, the man who had disappeared and even the article that she had found. It was only by chance, whilst staying in a small B&B on the outskirts of Wales, that she picked up a local newspaper. Four pages in, in small text was an article about a churchyard which evoked memories of the open fireplace and rug of her parent’s home.

The article itself seemed nondescript, a fluff piece about local superstition and graveyard bells which allegedly rang once a year without fail, just before the winter solstice. It was only when she’d read the name of the village several times, it occurred to her where she’d seen it before. Fascinated, she jotted the name of the village in her notebook, to remind her to search for it later.

The article that she had found related to the last in a string of disappearances, dating back over decades. Catherine combed through the archives, piecing together names, profiles and circumstances. There seemed to only be two connections Croes-y-Bryn and the winter solstice. At first she wondered if there might have been a serial killer involved, but the length of time between disappearances surpassed a human lifespan. Even two generations would struggle to be responsible for the disappearances, which as far as she could tell, dated back to at least to the early 1800s.

In total over 20 people had disappeared over the course of 150 years, though how many more went unreported, she could not tell. Ever since the 1960s it seemed that the county council had locked the graveyard after nightfall. It seemed strange to her that no one had pieced together the disappearances, that she might be the first to connect them all. Despite her misgivings she had no time to concentrate on peoples unknown, she had a book releasing by a new author that needed her full attention.

Croes-y-Bryn weighed upon her mind. In quiet moments between signings and press engagements she thought about it. Who were the people, why had they disappeared? It was a thread which demanded to be tugged. What would remain once it had been untangled from the weave? At times she would give those who had vanished, lavish backgrounds. The maid who had run away after a salacious tryst. A man who had lost his fortune, who had slipped into the night rather than face his debtors. The young boy who had fallen into a river and been swept away, never to surface again. How grief might make those left behind turn to supernatural causes.

Snow adorned the streets of Croes-y-Bryn by the time Catherine was able to clear any time in her diary. Every breath was sharp, each step a careful curl of her feet. The horizon was smattered with tiny twinkling lights, threaded around the bare branches of the oak trees which lined the avenue. It seemed surreal that she was finally there, surrounded by low, quaint cottages which seemed unchanged for centuries. The only shop served as a post office, a hardware store and everything else in between. Even cars were prevented from entering the narrow cobbled streets, so she had walked the ½ a mile in to the village.

The B&B where she was staying was every Grandmother’s house she had ever visited. It was stuffed with knickknacks collected over a long life, delicately arranged on doilies. With every movement at breakfast she’d worried that she was going to launch one of several china accoutrements that decked her table, which had been set for four. She’d had a nagging suspicion that she might be the only visitor, but breakfast further confirmed this.

Instead of lingering under her host’s watchful eyes she decided to explore the village as soon as was deemed polite. The sun had barely cleared the horizon, throwing weak light into the hollows of houses, shadows creeping from the corners of her eyes. Shades sprung from the narrow, twisting spaces between dwellings. Unease started to brew in her abdomen. There was a prickle of eyes upon the nape of her neck, vision swinging right and left but not connecting with any other being. Even in a small village the bustle of Christmas ought to have been taking hold but it seemed to barely have touched the residents of Croes-y-Bryn.

Trying to escape her discomfort she set off at a brisk pace, heading ever upwards through silent streets. As she walked she rationalised her experience, almost having convinced herself that she merely felt unnerved by her host’s scrutiny at the B&B, rather than the veracity of any other perceived threat.  A simple cast-iron gate beckoned her gaze up to a small, stone church that was perhaps held together more by faith than by cement. Beyond it stretched out a graveyard that receded beyond her field of vision.

A tug of curiosity brought her hand to the latch, letting it guide her into the small wooden porch. Just as she was about to try the cast bronze handle, a voice pierced her consciousness.

“Hello there?”

The man, was not what Catherine expected in a vicar, though the dog collar tucked into his shirt was evidence of his profession. Still, he could be no more than 30, with short mousey brown hair and warm eyes. As a bright smile crinkled the skin around his eyes she felt the last of her unease dissipate.

“Ahh, sorry…” It occurred to her to feel guilty; after all she had been creeping around his church, like a thief. Caught in the act, she quickly retracted her hand from the door handle. “I was just curious to see if the church was open…” A timid motion indicated the handle by way of explanation.

“You were drawn here?” It seemed more like a statement than a question, were it not for the faint lilt upwards at the end. As she tried to work out whether it was his accent or a statement of fact, she felt a niggling desire to withhold the truth. What would he think of her if he knew she had been drawn to his home by a centuries old mystery, then chased up the hill by unfounded fear?

“I saw the church from the road and it seemed very peaceful.”

Perhaps, the one trait he shared with other members of the clergy, was that he seemed shrewd enough to see falsehood. Whether he believed her or not, he still smiled pleasantly and took a huge iron key from his belt.

“Well we don’t usually open this early on a Friday but seeing as you’re already here, might as well show you around.”

Inside the church was decidedly less bare than the stonework would have suggested. Every wall was covered with hand stitched banners, proclaiming the light and love of Jesus Christ. Long wooden pews were polished to a glossy hue and cushions were placed evenly along their length. In the back corner stood an organ, pipes stretching up to the ceiling. The old plaque that seemed ubiquitous with all churches showed psalm 28 as the last reading. For a moment Catherine wondered whether there was just one supplier for every church and if so, who, specialised in making such things.

“I often find lost souls are drawn here, stay as long as you need. Just be sure to drop the key through my letterbox when you’re done, I’m only next door.”

Whilst Catherine wasn’t sure whether, she was what constituted as “a lost soul,” she felt that she had been drawn to the church by some thread of fate. Taking the offer gratefully she nodded and thanked the vicar for his hospitality. After some exploration she sunk down onto a pew and looked up at the small stained glass window, admiring the colours that shimmered on the floor below. The iconry was not familiar, but it was possible to admire the beauty of a thing without understanding it entirely.

As the light rippled, her consciousness drifted, finding herself entranced. It was unclear how much time had passed when she finally returned to her senses, the church swimming back into focus. The tell-tale stiffness in her limbs suggested that she had been sitting in the same position for longer than an hour, at very least.

Emerging from the gloom of the church into the sunlight dazzled her, squinting as she tried to make sense of her vicinity. Ancient tombstones, worn down to nubs flanked her, beyond them the dark shapes of mausoleums were bordered by the protective stone walls. Thoughts still a little fuzzy, she started wandering aimlessly between the tombstones, reading those that were still legible.

As the ground started to slope down the grass grew thicker, almost wild, tangling round her shins. The graves seemed more decayed, as though less care had been taken over their preservation. Perhaps, it was just that the graves were older, no longer attended by relatives. Wrapping her scarf tighter she carefully picked her way towards the furthest graves, wanting to know what time period they represented. Each exhalation was misted, hands trying to stir warmth back into her arms with swift rubs. By the time she’d almost reached her intended destination a rich tenor called out from behind her, making her jump out of her skin.

“You don’t want to be going down there.”

Almost as though she had been caught doing something wrong, she sheepishly started back in the direction of the vicar. He stood watching her, hands in pockets, half way back towards the church. Catherine wasn’t sure how long he’d been following her, it couldn’t have been long, but that discomforting thought, was at odds with her first impressions of him.

“I was just curious as to…”

“It’s all overgrown; you might trip, best to come away. It’s all this health and safety, you understand.”

Catherine wasn’t sure whether it was legislation or her locale that was more threatening to her health and safety. Dissuaded from her foray into the undergrowth she continued towards the vicar, brushing palms against her woollen raincoat, trying to remove the uneasy sensation that settled in her guts.

“Can you recommend somewhere to eat?”

The tension faded as they ambled together towards the cast-iron gate. Everything suddenly was amiable as he smiled, even opening the gate for her, a gallant gentleman once more.

“The Two-Headed Duck does a great steak pie, or so I heard.”

December 21st found Catherine shinning over the stone wall, knees rubbed raw by the jagged edges. Even at her most limber the 5 foot wall would have been difficult. In the moments before midnight, hoarfrost adorning the tree branches, it took her three attempts to surmount it. Each more frantic, until she finally managed to straddle the slate uncomfortably, the sound of fabric ripping following her dismount.

In the distance the lights shone from the vicar’s abode. They seemed to warm the air, but she was not charmed. Instead she kept a wide berth, skirting close to the nettle drenched edges. As though drawn by some silver thread she did not pause as shoes slipped from her feet, continuing unshod towards the furthest reaches of the graveyard. With each step the world became more opaque, hued in eggshell grey. The distant murmur of tiny bells called her forwards, stepping further from the wall, which was now haloed in moonlight. Mesmerised by the ethereal ambiance, all thought of the outside world seemed to fade from her consciousness.

By the time fronds of vegetation tickled her thighs, the rows of bells had become visible. A regiment of silver rods breaching the weeds that threatened to overwhelm them. Each swayed in time, conducted by some unearthly metronome. The air was still, icy needles escaping her as hazy breath. No wind stirred, instead threads rhythmically jerked, as though tugged from below by the graves’ occupant.

Behind her the fog had drawn in, forming a barrier between her and possible escape. There was only on option – to continue forwards, to tread between the rows of bells. It seemed improper somehow to rest her whole foot upon the earth so she drew up onto her tiptoes and proceeded, a ballerina in the grasp of some force she did not understand.

Catherine had read about werelight before, but now it bathed her, milky pale, ribbons creeping between crumbling gravestones.  There was no obvious source, wild eyes seeking but not finding. Every line of the decaying wings of a fallen angel was picked out in relief. When the ghostly light had replaced the moon, she could not say, and it should have occurred to her to be afraid.  The unearthly chill that seeped into her bones instead brought euphoria, spreading from her belly down to her toes. The sway of hips migrated to her feet, steps swift across frost dewed grass, whisper-light as she wheeled between the last few headstones dancing to the carol of the bells.

As Croes-y-Bryn stirred on December the 22nd and the first light crested the valley, the vicar found the pair of discarded ballet flats. Snatching them with a hiss, he cast his gaze around the graves. Why had she not listened? Now there was work to be done; now the parish had to be protected. With each step he cursed under his breath, until he reached the log fire, burning bright in his grate. Shoes were cast down into the flames, steam curling from fabric first, before they caught and the process of removing evidence could begin.

The proceeds of two collections was enough to buy off Mrs Jones. All traces of a booking disappeared as easily as the shoes had. There was a charm to conducting business in the old way; a paper trail could be erased much more easily than an electronic one. By evening only the smouldering remains in the vicar’s grate told the story of Catherine.

Or so one might have though, but there are still places, as of yet, untouched by the modern world. Such places hold ancient magic, where words pass through people, yearning to be released, to find form as poems or prose. Croes-Y-Bryn would not forget the girl who danced to the carol of the bells, now, perhaps, neither will you.

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