Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Dead Nights

The innkeeper was cleaning beer mugs as he looked at the darkness through the window. Outside, the snowstorm showed no trace of abating.

The door opened suddenly, letting wind and snow howl into the room. The torches tilted for a while before lighting the tall, horned and hairy monster that burst into the inn.

- Are you already here? -asked the inn owner. - You don't fear a thing, do you?

Covered by a cloak, a stranger looked up from a dark corner beside the fireplace.

The monster walked on its feet and carried a huge club in its claws. It growled affirmatively while it shook the snow off of its fur.

- No, we are not letting bad weather disturb our mission -the monster said as it brought its claws behind its head-. There is no excuse for not carrying on our duty on the Twelve Nights.

The monster lifted the heavy horned mask and let the head of a youngster appear. He would be some eighteen years old and tall and burly. The stranger smoked slowly from his pipe as the youngster put the dreadful mask on a table and the innkeeper served him a pint.

- I used to have a mask like yours when I was younger -the stranger said, putting down the hood of his cloak. The pale light coming from the fireplace lit the face of an old man. Grey were his hair and his beard, and his eyes shone in an odd way. The youngster, curious, approached the old man.

- Long, long ago I used to be the best-known Schiachpercht in the shire where I lived. I would not have been afraid of a snowstorm like this. -The old man had a very deep voice, as if it came from the very bowels of the earth. -To scare away the evil spirits hanging around on the Dead Nights is too important a job.

- ¿Dead Nights? ¿Do you mean the Twelve Nights? -the youngster asked.

- Indeed, -the old man sat up- the twelve nights remaining after twelve lunar months to complete a solar year. The nights when the goddess Berchta runs around the mountains, when darkness covers everything, when the line between living and dead is so fragile that one hardly can tell the difference. And that's why we have to put on fearsome masks to scare evil away, for on these nights they fly around our towns.

- Yes -the youngster nodded proudly-, and I am the one Schiachpercht that always runs after evil spirits the farthest, even deep into the woods. I am the only one. The others have no guts.

The innkeeper rolled up his eyes, used to his braggings.

- The border between braveness and stupidity is quite difficult to tell -the old man replied with an undecipherable smile. -You ought to respect the woods. Some of the beings that dwell there are not easy to scare away, even with a mask like yours.

The old man closed his eyes and let the smoke from his pipe slowly out of his mouth. The youngster remained silent as the old man began to tell his story.

- There is an old tale where I come from, telling the story of a Schiachpercht who, like you or like me, used to go out with his mask on the Dead Nights. He, too, had no fear when chasing evil spirits deep into the woods.

The old man took a deep breath before going on.

- It is said that in the middle a snowstorm night he went alone into the woods and found a lake of dark waters he had never heard of. He was there ambushed by wood goblins who awoke with their cries and laughs an old and powerful evil spirit that slept in the water. In order to save his life, the young man sealed a pact with the spirit, turning into a lycanthrope, a werewolf...

- I don't believe in werewolves! -laughed the youngster. The old man looked at him with fiery eyes, irritated at the interruption.

- The villagers, worried for the missing young man, parted to search for him. On the second night, his mask was found, broken and covered with blood. On returning to the village with the mask, they were hunt down by a creature of the night, from whose fierce attack only one man was able to escape. Badly wounded, he made it into the village to explain, briefly before exhaling his last breath, that the horror the group found walked on its feet as a human but it turned into a wolf to attack them. That two-legged creature wore the clothes of the missing young man.

- It's a good story to scare children, but werewolves don't exist -the youngster insisted.

- The biggest triumph of the Devil is to make us doubt his existence -the old man replied.

- Nonsense -the youngster drank up his pint. -I still have a lot to do tonight. It's been nice to meet you, but I cannot stay for any longer here with your tales. The woods are waiting for me -the youngster said. He threw a coin over the counter and put his mask on again.

- Good hunt, young Schiachpercht -the old man smiled.

- You too, stranger -the youngster replied, his voice distorted behind the mask.

An icy wind blew again into the room as the youngster walked out. It did not snow any more. The old man stayed for a while beside the fire. As he finished his pint, he wrapped himself with his cloak, bid farewell to the innkeeper and walked out the room.

The innkeeper shook his head and continued cleaning beer mugs. As he looked around the room, he realized that the old man had forgotten his pipe on the table. With a sighing, he picked it and went outside to see if he could still catch him.

The old man's cloak laid empty on the virgin snow, the full moon illuminating it briefly between the clouds. The sceptic innkeeper looked around and he thought he saw the dark silhouette of a wolf, running into the darkness of the woods.

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