The Winter House: SEPTEMBER

Dim red light filtered through the branches of elm trees and the overhanging of willows, brown leaves curled at their bases and scattered across the cobbled street. In London, it would be September, smoke curdling from red brick chimneys and the smell of sweet meats drifting in from Camden and Covent Garden.

In the trading village of Farlas, the season was likewise autumnal. The leaves of summer had turned inward and fallen and the horse-chestnut trees, once heavy with conkers were now barren. Loud Ghost appreciated the change in environment, not because he had grown weary of the sites and sounds of London but rather because, beneath the shadow of those ancient elms that lined the dirt path leading toward the small village, the young boy felt a sense of nostalgia that was not present in day-to-day London life.

Trudging wearily up the dirt path and towards the silent village, the great lake to his left still home to the graceful Su Shuang before it froze over and the birds took flight in search of warmer climates, he felt once more at peace.

The sun rose higher on the horizon, slowly creeping upwards above rooftops of thatch and slate and eventually, Loud Ghost, the shambling, lolloping figure of the Howling Pope at his side, reached the end of the path and passed beneath the arch of the village’s open gates.

The two travellers had fallen in together when Loud Ghost had been comparatively young, he, the abandoned charge of a distant monarch and the other a physical manifestation of religious intolerance and the restless ghosts of a brood of seething cats.

They had been inseparable since the day Loud Ghost had been installed in the ramshackle house on the formerly named Grub Street, adventuring first into the city and then further afield, out into the realms of the Mononoke.

For three years now, Loud Ghost, the Howling Pope and several others had returned each winter from their various homes to the village of Farlas. Between them, a tradition had been founded, a gathering of the lost in the onset of winter months amongst the awakening village.

Unlike other villages, Farlas remained inactive during the summer months, its streets dulled by warmth and silenced by sunlight. It was only in winter that life returned to the village once more, the Mononoke of distant city-states arriving in make-shift tents and tumble-down houses to trade and barter with human settlers from the surrounding settlements.

Loud Ghost and his friends were the only semi-human residents in the street, making the long trek from London at the end of summer to winter amongst the curious tribes of mages, merchants and knights, exchanging stories with settlers of both races.

He glanced again at the great lake and the magnificent birds resting upon it. Another month or more and the water would be still save for the tents pitched upon it and the movement of traders and players of lecteur de tarot.

The boy smiled quietly to himself, reaching the door of his home and fishing in his pockets for the old iron key. With difficulty, he untangled it from the string he had tied it to the year before, slipped it into the lock and turned the blade away from him.

The door clicked but still did not open and the Howling Pope mewled with apprehension.

“Looks like we’re the first here this year,” Loud Ghost murmured, taking a thin playing card from his belt and wedging it in a gap in the door.

With a single motion, he yanked the card downwards, breaking the magical seal on the house and sending the old wooden door flying backwards and into the wall. Dust clouds billowed up from the impact and the stale scent of a home unlived in rose swiftly up to greet them.

Coughing loudly, Loud Ghost turned away and covered his mouth.

“I think,” he said, between fits of coughing, “that we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

The Howling Pope mewled softly, the shapes of myriad cat spirits moving all at once beneath its robes.

Playfully, Loud Ghost straightened up and smiled, looking up at his taller travelling companion.

“How about we simply close this door, pop across the road to that tavern there that I notice is already open for business and wait for one of the others to arrive and begin cleaning?”

The Pope purred in hasty agreement and, with a smile, Loud Ghost quickly pulled the door shut and sealed up the entrance once more.

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