The door was already ajar when I arrived, opened to allow the cloying stench of decay to dissipate. It hadn’t worked. Inside the small room, the air hung heavy and sweet; the masking scent of cloves and the haze of smoke permeated.
I blinked rapidly to clear my vision, and scanned the room silently. Three, no… four silhouettes were visible in the half-light, their eyes awkwardly averted as I made my entrance. They stared at the dusty floor, the heavy grey stone of the walls, the vulnerable flicker of the candle’s flame. Anywhere. Anywhere was better than looking directly at me.
Clinging fearfully to her mother’s stained shift was the wide-eyed wretch who had been sent to fetch me. Barefoot and trembling, she had crept towards the cave where I sheltered, hovering at the boundary of my visibility long enough only to utter the words Evan Jones, before turning and fleeing into the night without a backwards glance.
I advanced into the room slowly, unthreateningly, keeping my gaze firmly fixed on the ground. Evan Jones was raised on a platform of some sort – a grotesque centrepiece on a pedestal. Balanced precariously on his chest was a chunk of roughly hewn bread, and a measure of ale in an earthenware jug. The air in the room vibrated with tension as I reached for the bread. It was stale and dry, but the gnawing ache in my gut reached up and pulled it down gladly. The ale was warm and sour; I drank it straight from the jug in greedy, gasping gulps, fighting a wave of nausea as I did so. I wiped my chin unceremoniously with the back of my hand.
‘For thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.’
It was done. My eyes lingered a little longer on Evan Jones; his hollow eyes, his slack mouth. There was no sign of accident or injury. Disease then? Swift and sudden. It was a kindness, really.
I inclined my head slightly towards his grieving family, then turned to the door. Barely six steps into the crisp night air, I felt something strike me square between the shoulder blades. It hit the ground, then rolled to a stop between my feet. I bent to collect the coin from the dirt, the ale roiling unpleasantly within me. Like the wide-eyed wretch, I did not look back.
In the solitude of my shelter, the voices started the second I lay down to rest. Their whispers were fervent, urgent, insistent. I couldn’t hear Evan Jones yet, but I knew he’d be there before the week was out. Sometimes, I think it took them a while to realise they were dead.
I shivered slightly as the cacophony of whispers intensified, but in truth I had grown used to their constant companionship in the small hours. A theft. An infidelity. Countless untruths. Pride and anger and sloth. Patiently I listened, night after night, as the souls unburdened their guilt and sang me to sleep. A heinous lullaby of misdeeds.