The Lily Hand and Other Stories

The Lily Hand and Other Stories by Ellis Peters Read Free Book Online

Book: The Lily Hand and Other Stories by Ellis Peters Read Free Book Online
Authors: Ellis Peters
of the forest. And I was afraid. Not of being lost, not of an uncomfortable night in the car, not of anything comprehensible or reasonable, just afraid. Perhaps of the immensity and antiquity of the world outside the tiny shell of the car, and of the insignificance and ephemeral nature of the car and its driver, those intruders from a new world. A world which thought it had displaced the ancient one, a world from which I was now a straggler, and vulnerable.
    I knew it was nonsense, but the knowledge resided in a part of my brain, the reasoning part, which had shrunk into a corner and assumed the defensive. All the rest of my mind moved now irrationally, by instinct, memory, hypersensitive touch.
    I told myself that the rough track on which I found myself was bound to lead somewhere, to a village, or at least a clearing where there would be a house, or to another road which, since I was not conscious of having changed direction in any considerable degree, would surely bring me to Aschaffenburg. So I went on, creeping gingerly along the sodden wheel-ruts as the track grew greener and narrower; but all the intuitive part of my mind, quivering with outspread tentacles like the hair erected on a frightened man’s head, stretched outward into the primeval darkness and fended off terror. The old things, the buried things, came into their own by night and in solitude. How many of the dominant race have vanished, to provide all those legends? Cut off from their kind, astray from their daylight world, like me—
    That was when the car rocked suddenly sideways into a bigger hole than usual and, grind away as I might, I couldn’t get it out again. I got out to try to push it clear, and it did move on to an even keel, but then the engine died on me, and I couldn’t start it again. I was quaking with exhaustion, fever, fury, and fright when I stopped shoving to wipe the rain out of my eyes and peer ahead through the sighing darkness; and somewhere, small and distant between the trees, I saw a glimmer of light, steady light, like the glow from a window.
    I don’t know why it wasn’t immediately reassuring. But I know that it wasn’t. The hair rose on my neck and scalp with foreboding. And yet I went forward towards the light, between the thinning trees.
    The obstinate rational corner in my mind was still functioning. This must be a house, it said, go and ask where you are, and how to get back on the road to Aschaffenburg and Hanau. And I did what it told me to do, though I didn’t believe in its reasoning. I went straight towards the window, for it was certainly a window. There was no clearing to be seen, just a low fence erupting quite suddenly in the streaming gloom, and a bushy, tangled garden, and then the long, low huddle of the house, hardly distinguishable from the surrounding darkness of trees and night.
    Only two storeys, with a verandah all along the upper face and a flight of wooden steps leading up to it from one end. A squat, secret, unwelcoming house, low-browed behind its bushes, unbelievably solitary and sinister. A shaded light in one upper window, and that unshaded one below. I walked up to the fence, and there was a little gate in it, rolling open on a broken hinge. I went through into the garden, among the dripping bushes, and crept closer to the house.
    It was then that a door opened in the dark face, and let out a flood of light into the garden; and in the light, a grotesque little black silhouette stood, a figure I didn’t care to think of as human, though its movements caricatured the motions of man.
    I saw no features, only a shape. There was a huge head, sunken into thick shoulders, a paunchy body that tapered off into skinny little bowed legs. The creature was about three feet high, for it came only half-way up the lighted frame of the door. It stood a moment looking out into the night, and then it went in and shut the door. There wasn’t any doubt about it. I hadn’t

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