Ghost Challenge- "Belle"
The snow was thick, and left a layer of humidity over Brandon's clothes. His gloved hand released its iron grip on the rough bark of his walking stick. He tried flexing his fingers to pump some blood through them, but none would come. The wind had been blazing like fire across his face and its sound drowned out all others. The furs he had wrapped around his legs and arms were doing nothing to keep out the cold and were growing wetter by the second.
The choice to leave so late had been a bad one, Brandon decided. He thought longingly to the warm tavern and the roaring fire in the hearth. The innkeeper's voluminous wife had been stirring a mutton stew, with a smell that made his mouth water even in memory. The mead they were serving was frothy and heavy with barley, a warm, potent brew that seeped in the bones. The memory did nothing to warm him.
The light came from over the high peak like a beacon. It was relatively small, but to Brandon it blazed like a star. He judged the distance and the difficult climb quickly, with the certainty of a lifetime spent in the mountains. The mind doubted, but the body was moving on it's own. It knew without a shadow of a doubt that light meant life, and without it he would die frozen. When he reached the sheer rock face he did not pause. The muscles bunched and launched with ease, and his hands knew where to grip the rock and find a solid hold. Instinct guided him, avoiding the frozen patches and loose stones.
Lost in the numbing fog inside his mind, he could not remember where these skills had come from, but climbing felt as natural as breathing to him. It seemed the wall of stone would never end, when finally, at the end of his strength he pulled himself over the top. Brandon gripped the ground like a lifeline, undeterred by the snow seeping into his clothes. After a moment, he stood shakily. The light was much closer now and he could make out a shape. His body moved on its own again, propelling him forward to the welcome sight.
It was a large cabin, clearly a modest inn. As he approached he could smell smoke from a fire and an underlying hint of something delicious. The snow seemed to grow around him, as he pushed forward toward the light, yet his legs cut through it expertly. In no time he found himself at the door of the small place, his hand clenched around the door handle, listening to the pleasant sounds inside.
The warmth wrapped around him like a welcomed lover when he pulled open the door and stepped in. It was a small, round room, yet the fire in the hearth and a few lonely candles were the only lights in the place. It had seemed to so bright to him in the cold night, but now darkness seemed to linger in every corner of the room. No one paid him any mind. Most of the patrons were hunched over their drinks, thick furs and hoods pulled low over their eyes. To Brandon, the place seemed almost infernally hot, but the others did not to seem to share this feeling.
He chose a table near the fire and began unwrapping the wet fur from around his arms and legs. He was assaulted by a prickly feeling, burning like fire across his skin as the warmth seeped into his bones. Brandon had hung his furs near the fire to dry and was warming his hands when the tavern maid came to take his order. His eyes grew wide at the sight of her.
Her face was flushed and her green eyes were wide and alight. A few strands of chestnut hair escaped from the loose braid that hung over her shoulder. They curled around the snowy white skin of her neck and framed her long face. Brandon's eyes immediately darted down to the trademark wenches' cleavage, but found this was a modest maid.
"What'll you have, mister?" She seemed to be anxious to move on to the next patron, but Brandon was still mesmerized by her angelic face. What was such a beauty doing in this wilderness, he wondered, staring into her jade-colored eyes. "'Ello?" Her face tightened into a lovely frown and she snapped her fingers in front of his face. He could not place her foreign sounding accent. "Mister?"
"Hot mead," he hear his mouth answer, but was unsure how he had formed the words. The foggy cold that had filled his mind now became a different kind of haze. Her eyes held him physically, drawing him into her and dulling his senses. The warmth from the fire cocooned him into a hypnotic, comfortable state.
"We got only mulled wine right now. That alright?" Her eyes snapped like coals in the fire with impatience.
"Alright," he echoed, and she gave a firm nod. A sudden dread filled him at the sight of her walking away and the words came out on their own. "And pour yerself a cup, darlin." She stopped and her back straightened. She turned to appraise him, weighing his offer. Her look darted around the room, but no one was paying them any mind.
"I'm not on the menu, you know," she said, and her inflection left no room for debate. She was no slattern. Somehow Brandon felt uplifted by the fact.
"You get a lot of good company up here?" he asked, flashing a wide and winning smile. He saw her waver. Again she took in her surroundings as though appraising them, then she crossed back to him.
"I'll bring you some food, mister. Looks like you need it." Brandon waited. "But as for settin' wicha, well," she smiled a bit, "that's against the rules."
Brandon burst into laughter. "Rules?" She seemed taken aback by his reaction. "And who makes these rules?"
Again she debated answering. "No one made the rules, they just are."
He studied her again, her glowing skin, the warmth that radiated off her, her overwhelming beauty. He would trade his soul to feel her.
"And you always follow these, 'rules', do ya?" She didn't move. "I didn't think so."
Her hand fluttered to brush a strand from her eyes and Brandon's eyes followed the movement with greed.
"Alright," she said finally, a new determination crossing her face. "What's yer game here, mister?"
"I thought I was making that pretty clear."
She looked him up and down again, weighing her options. Brandon fought the urge to shift under her scrutinizing gaze. He could not explain the desperation that filled him at the thought of her refusal. When he felt he could not longer stand the stretching silence she reached a pale hand inside the pocket of her apron.
Her jade-green eyes did not leave his as she placed a key on the table before him. It only took a flicker of a glance for Brandon to see that it was a room key with the number six on it.
"You sure about this, stranger?" a mischievous glint in her eyes sent a shiver down his spine. Strangely it did not feel like arousal. Suddenly he found that he was afraid. His body betrayed him, however and his head nodded. "So be it," she purred, "but you must make me a promise."
His mouth went dry. "What kind of promise?" he asked.
"It don't matter," she said, dismissively, "any promise will do."
His mind scrambled for an answer, finding all of this strange, lost in a misty fog inside his mind. Then above it the answer floated suddenly like a beacon.
"I'll never forget you." He somehow knew he meant it, deep down to his bones.
"They call me, Belle." She gave him one final smirk and took his hand to lead him up the stairs. Her eyes were flashing green fire and the wind was howling outside the small inn.
* * *
Joel's hands were frozen around the reigns, and his entire body had been shivering all the way down the peak. His companion had not spoken the entire trip. Finally Joel could stand the silence no longer.
"Do you know who he was?" Joel barked against the wind, gesturing to the frozen corpse in the back of the wagon. They had found him on their regular trading route. It took Joel's companion a moment to answer.
"Just some mountie lost in the storm, I figure."
"That place we found him at, that's ol' Belle Gunness place, ain't it?"
Joel's companion shivered against the wind. "Yeah, that's her place, alright."
"I heard she killed all her husbands and lovers. Dozens of 'em."
"And her two daughters," his companion added, "burned 'em in their beds."
"Jesus. What happened to her?"
It took a moment for the old man to answer.
"Dead." The wind howled. "Over fifty years ago."
"You do drink, don't you?"
"Of Course! I said I'm a writer, didn't I?"