This short story is selected as Story of the Month January’2016 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
It was ten minutes past midnight. The storm had intensified.
A barrage of grey drops of water plummeted from the hard iron sky, breaking upon the earth with a loud roar. A strong wind buffeted the rain all around, blowing it over the black-clad figures of the two men lying in wait. They stood on a wet grass field, surrounded on all sides by small houses with dark-curtained windows. The metal gate, set in a tumbledown railing was a few paces behind them. Beyond rose a dark stony mass – the uppermost headstones of Sorrowstone’s old cemetery.
The taller of the two men produced a watch from an inside pocket and grated – “This is hopeless, Moby.” He said, addressing his thickset companion. “It’s nearly a quarter past twelve. If Pod was going to show, we’d have seen something by now.”
Moby grunted. His keen ears had picked up a scrabbling noise from way off across the graveyard. He craned his neck and peered out into the dark. “This might be him. Be ready, Buck.”
— 2 weeks ago —
Pod walked into the big common room of the Cruel Pezzen with his usual limping gait. The inn’s patrons were motley and the din suggested that the house was nearly full. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the meager light that penetrated the thick haze of smoke issuing from the log-fire and made his way inside.
Trump the barman was standing near the fire trying to charm a group of girls with his jokes, as was his wont. Seated on the benches were familiar bucolic faces of Sorrowstone. Two hitherto unknown men huddled together in the shadows cast by the rough-hewn stone wall caught his attention. They looked haggard and weather-beaten; their boots covered with caked mud that spoke of long days of travel.
It was near this pair that Pod took up a seat. He ordered a mug of good strong beer. The two strangers were engaged in animated conversation. A high-pitched excited voice wafted over to him – “So it is true then. I asked the barman here. He’s called Trump – a slow fellow, with more beer inside his head than brains. The shudder he gave when I mentioned Claythorne was genuine enough to confirm our hunch.”
The strangers were talking about Claythorne! Heart beating faster, Pod drew his chair closer subtly, so as to avoid the attention of the stranger who sat facing him.
A deep, brooding voice answered – “All this talk of a guarding spirit – did you enquire about the veracity of that rumour?”
“No Moby. But tell me honest, do you believe such drivel for yourself? An old wives’ tale, I tell you.”
“I do not, Buck.” The reply came late – as if the man had ruminated for a while before speaking. “But Branson P. Claythorne, the Duke of Emstrong was a cruel man, often believed to have resorted to the darkest of magic to subject his people to brutal atrocities.”
“Magic or not, he wasn’t the darling of his folks. No wonder they rebelled.” The high-pitched voice asserted.
“Yes,” His companion replied in a voice so low that Pod had to lean in closer. He strained his ears to catch the words – “With the brewing firestorm of a large-scale insurrection looming over his head, he had murdered his own wife to save her the dishonor of getting raped and killed by an angry mob. He took his own life shortly thereafter.”
“That’s the point, Moby.” The man called Buck exclaimed. “They are all dead. All we need now is to find the location of the graves. And the lost Claythorne treasure is ours!”
Moby scratched his beard and was about to give Buck a piece of his mind, when he noticed that a strange-looking man, sitting in the shadows near the wall had his head cocked towards them, listening intently. “Oi. Over there!” He shouted. His companion turned to look. “You in the brown cloak, what are you doing eavesdropping here?”
The man’s eyes, when they met his own, were venomous. A sudden chill ran down his spine. He beckoned him over to their table. As the stranger drew near, he could make out a shaggy head of red hair necked with grey, and in a pale thin face a pair of intense black eyes. An old scar ran from beneath his right eye, through his nose, and all the way up to his left jaw. He looked so ancient that his frail frame gave Moby some confidence. “Who are you?”, he asked, in a level voice.
“I’m Pod, the local butcher,” he said simply, his words a low growl. “I am pleased to meet you, Mister Moby, if I’m not wrong?”
“You’re not,” he said stiffly, feeling extremely uncomfortable under the stare of those keen eyes. “Why were you spying on our conversation?”
“I have no interest in who you are or where you are from. All I care is that you were talking about the Duke of Emstrong. As you must very well know, the Claythorne jewels are desired by many, but sought by few. For even 200 years after the people rose in rebellion against their ruler, they remain well-guarded.”
An icy hand had slipped around Moby’s heart. He was finding it hard to speak. Even his younger companion seemed to have lost his usual confidence when he blurted out – “You mean the spirit that guards the treasure? Is it true then?”
“Aye, it is” nodded Pod as he took a rickety chair and sat himself down. “The Duke cast an enduring spell on his jewels. He had buried the corpse of his wife and cast a spell of concealment over the area to shield her grave from the eyes of the villagers. To save his cadaver from being mutilated and robbed by the apoplectic mob, he erected his own grave round his living body. In his dying moments, Emstrong locked his own spirit inside the diamond of the dead Duchess’s silver pendant. It now has such power that any man even planning to purloin the lost treasure and claim it for his own meets with a gruesome death. All his life, the Duke had guarded them, and in death, his spirit does so still.
Pod’s harsh voice dropped to a whisper – “After all these years, it is still said to bear the countenance, the cruelty and the cunning of its person.”
As the conversation drew on, the clenching agonies of a dread closed in upon Moby. His companion had something else entirely to say – “All claptrap, in my opinion!” Buck’s high-pitched voice had regained its self-possessed note as he continued. “If that were any true, we would have been dead ages ago – so meticulously have we worked out things to the very last detail.” Turning to Moby, he finished – “Do not let an absurd rumour trouble you, comrade.”
Pod seemed to grow pensive as he said slowly, “It has been more than fifty years, but it feels like only yesterday when I had led my own friends on a quest to find the lost Claythorne jewels. A quest that culminated in their deaths.”
The icy hand around Moby’s heart had tightened its grip in the last few minutes. The red-haired stranger went on – “Reckless we were, blinded by the vitality of our youth. Turning deaf ears to the curse our mothers had been warning us of even before we were weaned, we had set out to dig up old graves. Little did we know that we were in truth, digging our own.”
Pod paused for breath, his mind a whirl of old memories. He could see their faces now, young and innocent, begging for mercy. With a deep sigh, he carried on – “We ransacked the old libraries in the hope of finding the graves of the Duke and his wife. Took us a long time to ascertain its location, it did! Even more tedious were the hours of research we had to put in to find the incantation that would help break the spell of concealment that had been put over the graves to shield them from public eye.
“Needless to say, our joy was boundless when we finally walked into the old cemetery, and there in front of us, hidden from view by an age-old charm were the two Claythorne graves.”
From the way the two pairs of eyes regarded him, Pod could tell a great expectancy and unease had stolen across the company. In the heat of the crackling log-fire, the sides of his face were swathed in sweat. He shook his head, as if in remorse, “In spite of all the research we had done, the fact that there was another spell on those tombs escaped our notice: A spell to incinerate any living soul who got within ten feet of the Duke and his wife’s resting places.”
A stunned silence greeted his words. “On the propitious day we had chosen, all of us were in excellent spirits. I was so blinded by avarice, that when we proceeded to rush in, I hit my head on an overhanging branch of a Yew tree and got knocked out for a good few seconds. When I regained consciousness, I was all alone, the smell of death in the air. The burnt bodies of my friends seemed to mock me, making the existence of a second protective spell clear, reminding me how foolish we had been to disregard a magic that was more than two centuries old.”
His voice was morose now, weighed down by a long-suppressed grief. “I was devastated, but I could not grieve my loss. The magnitude of the disaster was so great that ordinary responses were inadequate. We were just a bunch of arrogant young bastards, too cock-sure of our abilities against the protective magic of a savage Duke that had endured 200 long years.
“You see, Misters Moby and Buck , for a long while, all our energies and emotions had helped to forge the plan of the great robbery we’d all hoped it would be, but in a single night, as if by a raging torrent, it had all been swept away.
“I made the mistake of craving those jewels once. I still rue that foolhardy act of mine. If I could go back and change one thing about the past, trust me, I would go back to that day and stop our group from embarking on so fruitless an adventure.”
After Pod had finished his tale, the atmosphere in the room had relaxed somewhat, but undercurrents of confusion still swirled. The old man’s words hung in the air; their implication clear. The spell was supposed to kill any living soul that ventured near the graves, and in this, Moby began to see a faint glimmer of hope. True, they weren’t aware of any counter-spell that would save their skins, but what if they used a guinea pig – someone to go in ahead of them towards the graves and take the full brunt of the incineration spell? Just as his friends’ deaths had saved Pod’s life, would it be too much to hope that a goat’s or a dog’s could save theirs?
He cleared his throat and proposed the same to the emaciated old man sitting across the table. Buck nodded his approval, as if the same thought had occurred to him. A small crooked smile flickered across the stranger’s scarred face, only to be replaced by a deep frown a moment later.
“I had worked that out, several years ago, but never dared to try the theft one more time,” Pod mused, flicking a stray strand of dirty red hair out of his eyes. “What with the last failed attempt having sapped me of all my energies, I doubted I had it in me to perform the counter-spell that would lift the concealment charm off the graves.”
Moby glanced at Buck. A look of affirmation passed between them. The latter spoke at length – “Say Pod, if we split the treasure three-ways once we have it, would you work with us? Help us out in this task that looks hopeless, but upon introspection, isn’t quite so?”
Scowling, he mulled it over. In spite of the chatter all around, Moby could almost hear the innards of his brain straining beneath that untidy mop of red hair. When he finally spoke, his voice was hard with an undertone of bitterness – “If I have failed to make it clear as yet, this is a suicidal mission. For the life of me, I am never going near that cursed graveyard again. I can show you the location if you like, even teach you how to work the counter-spell, but mark my words – you will not succeed.”
Buck slammed a fist on the table, making its spindly legs quiver. A few of the uniformed guards turned in their direction, but his voice was so low that Moby could barely hear him – “That’s it, old man. You know very well we will carry on with or without your help. I am making you an offer – think it through before answering: you show us the location of the grave, teach us how to work the appropriate spell, and you walk off with a share of the treasure. With that, you owe us a solemn promise that you will keep your mouth shut lest someone comes sniffing for answers. Breathe a word about this to anyone and I swear I will kill you with my own hands. What do you have to say to that?”
If this sudden outburst had startled Pod, he was doing a good job of not showing his discomfiture. When he answered, his voice was truculent, resentful – “I accept your offer, O ignorant strangers from a far-off land. Meet me tonight at the gates of Sorrowstone’s old cemetery and I will show you whatever that needs to be done. It might be painful, but you have to be cavalier with it.”
With that, he got up, groaning a little because of his aching joints. Without a backward glance, Pod limped off towards the wooden double doors of the inn.
The two men were eager to learn and quick to grasp the nuances of the advanced dodging techniques he taught them. The concealment charm had been very potent when it was cast, but so many years down the line, its effect had all but worn off, making it seem like a half-hearted effort by a novice magician. It could be warded off properly by a few carefully whispered words of an incantation. Together, the three of them pored over old manuscripts and after two weeks of labour, they were finally able to lift the charm off.
The two cursed graves, as they slowly came into view, looked like any other in the cemetery – the headstones were carved of stone, old and worn at the edges. The larger of the two, obviously belonging to the Duke, carried an inscription they couldn’t make out from afar. Even from the distance, they didn’t look imposing, let alone magical. It took considerable effort to stop young Buck from stomping over right then and start digging – there was still the incineration charm to take care of.
Pod had stolen a few farm animals from the village and set them loose in the vicinity, but however close the livestock came to the graves, no alarm was set off. Finally, after an especially long exhausting trial, he was overcome by frustration and ventured closer.
He could tell the men were watching him proceed with bated breath, probably half hoping he would die, so they could walk over his body and look for the treasure themselves. For a while, it seemed almost as if their wishes had been granted, when suddenly a burst of flames came rushing over his head. Pod ducked, fell to the ground and lay still for several seconds.
Those infernal flames of yore that had burned his friends to their deaths were now reduced to nothing more than a rush of heat and pale yellow fire that could not even singe his red hair.
Exhaling, he got up and waved to his acquaintances. “Friends, the charm does not hold its charge now – the fire has all but burnt itself out. It will be done. Meet me here at midnight, and we will carry out what we had been yearning to do for so long.”
Pod’s exulting laughter rang on in the ears of the two strangers long after he had left.
— A few hours later —
The wind had died away, but the rain still came streaming down. The water hung about in the air like a thick mist, obscuring their vision, hiding whatever was approaching from view. The two men stood still, waiting for Pod to show himself. Time trickled on.
It was half-past twelve, and there was still no sign of their friend. Buck was getting restless, casting fidgety glances over his shoulder every few minutes. Moby made a decision – “We do not know what has become of our friend,” he said, the trepidation in the pit of his stomach becoming a cold, hard knot of fear. “It’s no good waiting for him anymore. The incineration charm has worn off, as has the concealment. The graves and the treasure they house are ours, Buck. Let us make haste and get it over with.”
Buck nodded. They trudged ahead as fast as they could, over patches of grass, and through thick drifts of fallen leaves. All about them the rain pattered and trickled. They did not talk, but kept glancing back in the darkness, hoping that their friend would turn up. True, they had formulated this brave plan on their own, but with his constant help over the past few days, Pod had become more than just an ally.
The two cursed headstones slowly came into view. The smaller one had no inscription, which was odd, but the larger one more than made up for it. With an intricate hand, three words had been carved onto the cold stone – “Branson Podrick Claythorne.” Below the name was a single, ominous line – “In Death as in Life, his Spirit guards his Treasure.”
Shaking off their fear, Buck and Moby took out their shovels. With quivering hands, they started removing the layers of sand and dirt accumulated over the years. The rain drummed on all around them, but the night’s chill couldn’t stop small beads of perspiration from forming on their brows. The men worked for almost an hour when Buck’s shovel struck something hard. Carefully, they used their hands to remove the last layer of soil and reveal the wooden coffin underneath.
With great awe, they beheld the ornate wooden lid of the Duke of Emstrong’s coffin. It was more than 200 years old, but by some miracle (or was it magic?) the wood had not rotted or been eaten away by termites.
Drenched to the bone and shivering though he was, the flush of victory in Buck’s cheeks was unmistakable. Without wasting a second, he inserted the blunt edge of his old knife and tried to pry the door open.
With a great heave, Buck pulled the lid of the coffin away, revealing the body within. Suddenly, unaccountably, Moby’s heart was beating fast.
The cadaver rested on satin pillows – its head was towards them, its bony hands resting quietly on its chest. The sealed condition of the crypt had ensured its flesh had not rotted entirely through, instead it had shrunk about the skeleton, so that the lower jaw was drawn upward by the tightening skin, giving it the permanent expression of unbridled fury. Moby noticed that the dead man still had a mop of dirty red hair necked with grey. With dead black eyes, the corpse of Branson Podrick Claythorne looked up at them.
Mouth agape in horror, Moby remembered that their friend was called Pod.