“A village living in the shadow of a castle. Once a year one villager receives an invitation to the castle and a spectral carriage pulled by nothing comes to collect them a day later. They are never seen or heard from again. If someone declines the invitation they are found dead in their bed. The protagonist has received their invitation.”
The above is a writing prompt that was offered this past Friday on one of the writer’s boards that I’m a member of. The following is my response to it. Hope you enjoy 🙂
Ciaran sat, hunched over his knees as he waited by the curb of Aughnahilla’s cobbled main street. He could feel the gaze of the passersby, looking on in a palpable sympathy but saying nothing. Let them look. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t done the same innumerable times himself, to whatever sorry sack had received that year’s invitation.
This year, it was him. He stared at the card in his hand and sighed. He’d done that a lot over the last twenty four hours — staring, sighing.
There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the card. By itself, anyway. It was simple, little more than a square of rough paper sporting his name, written in red so deep that it approached black. Fitting, that. He read aloud from the card, as if hoping that the words in his ears would be a different name than his own.
But they weren’t. He sighed again. No, the card itself was simple, plain, unassuming. And yet, it meant the end of the world to him.
He lifted his eyes and cast them northward. There a mountain rose, providing something of a windbreak from the autumn cold fronts moving in. At the summit sat the castle, Dunamase.
Ciaran looked away, and his eyes fell upon a familiar face. Old Lady Murphy, the owner of the curio shop. She was out and about, running her errands, doing so on the far side of the street so as to not disturb Ciaran as he awaited Coiste Bodhar. Or perhaps, so she wouldn’t receive a card of her own. In either case, he would’ve welcomed the company — even hers — as it might help him to forget that tonight was his last.
Once a year, every year, since before his grandfather’s grandfather was born, an invitation was sent out from Dunamase, bearing the name of that year’s guest. They had but a day to get their affairs in order. The next evening, as the sun set, the banshee would wail her dreadful song from the parapets of Dunamase, and Coiste Bodhar would begin its trek from the castle walls to the home of the invited.
Ciaran had actually watched the approach of Coiste Bodhar with his brother Donal one year — two stupid lads with nothing better to do than to peek through the hedges at some luckless soul as they went to their fate. No horse pulled the black coach, nor did any driver steer it. Nevertheless, the monstrous conveyance found its guest — Seamus O’Malley, that year — and the coach door swung open of its own accord.
No rider had ever come back from their invitation. None had ever returned from their ride in Coiste Bodhar. None were ever heard from again. So some, like poor Seamus, simply refused to ride.
He, like any who refused, was found dead the next morning.
A low cry echoed down the mountainside from Dunamase, jerking Ciaran from his thoughts. The banshee. He cast his eyes across the street, and for a moment, Old Lady Murphy’s gaze met his. Her lips formed a tight line, and her eyes twinkled as the dying day reflected against her unshed tears. She lifted her right hand, as if to wave. Instead she crossed herself, warding against evil, and turned toward home with nary a word.
As soon as it had started, the wailing stopped, replaced by the distinct rumble of old wood and rusty metal. Coiste Bodhar had begun its run.
Ciaran watched the highroad leading to Dunamase for a long time before the coach came into view, its black mass rolling with no steed to pull it. His stomach churned as the black carriage disappeared behind a copse of trees, only to reappear a moment later. Barn, building, haystack — the approach of Coiste Bodhar was broken in his view, vanishing and reappearing, as if to taunt him.
Finally, it reached the bottom of the hill and entered the long stretch of road that led from the base of the mountain straight into Aughnahilla. Straight to Ciaran.
Swallowing hard, Ciaran stood and brushed the dust from his trousers. The black coach seemed deafening in his ears as it drew near, and yet, it was muted, far away, as if it were coming for somebody else. It wasn’t until Coiste Bodhar stopped in front of him, its door creaking open without the touch of any human hand, that it became real for him. The time had come.
“Ciaran O’Neill,” came a dry whisper from within. “Submit ye to the summons?”
“Aye,” Ciaran rasped, not sure until that very moment that he actually would. Numbly, he shuffled forward, climbing into the velvet lined interior. The smell of mildew filled his nostrils as he settled upon the dusty cushions. There was no sensation of movement as the door swung shut behind him and the coach rumbled forward. Coiste Bodhar could’ve been standing still for all that Ciaran felt.
In fact, Ciaran felt nothing at all — no movement, no cushions, no heat or cold. His shirt and trousers didn’t touch his skin. The wind of their passage didn’t lick his cheek. A soft lethargy stole over Ciaran as his body went totally numb. Was this what death felt like? Was he…?
“Retrieval successful, Captain,” a voice said at the very edge of Ciaran’s awareness. An angel, perhaps? A demon? The world around him faded from view, going as black as the coach itself.
…only to be replaced by a sterile, white light. Ciaran opened his eyes blearily to a cold, metallic room filled with blinking lights and mechanical sounds.
“He’s awake,” came the voice again. “Ciaran? Ciaran, can you hear me?”
Ciaran turned his head — he was laying down — he turned his head toward the voice. He blinked a few times, hard, and his vision sharpened. “Moira?”
The tall brunette — how did he know her name? — beamed at him. “Hey, sleepy head. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
“Living?” he asked, confused. “Sure’n I thought meself a goner, when I saw Coiste Bodhar…”
“Sure’n? Coach de Bauer? What in the… Ahhh,” she said as realization dawned. “The program.”
Moira straightened, adopting a business stance at his bedside. “Your name is Ciaran O’Neill. You’ve been in suspended animation for a hundred and forty three years. You’re on board the Colony Ship Dunamase, named aft–”
“After a ruined castle in Ireland,” Ciaran finished for her. It was all coming back to him — the ship, the mission to colonize the Trappist 1 star system. “I dreamt that I was there, in a village at its base,” he said, noting absently that his Irish accent had already faded.
“That was the sleep program, occupying your mind while we travelled. It was designed to make your mind think it was awake, and the world you were experiencing was real. Unfortunately…” She pursed her lips and nodded across the room. Ciaran followed her eyes, and found cadres of medical staff at various beds in the bay, pumping airbags and doing compressions on their respective patients.
One of them was Seamus O’Malley. Even from this distance, Ciaran could see the skin bluing, against his doctors’ best efforts.
“Unfortunately,” Moira continued, “the program was a little too effective.”