“I hear your breathing. You awake? Maybe not. Maybe you are and you can’t speak. Break your teeth? Lose your tongue, friend? Aye, I say friend. If I’m not alone in this darkness, then anyone here’s got to be a friend. You can call me friend too, if you ever find your voice. People stuck in these dark places, especially the brave, we got to stick together. Was that a sigh? I’ll take it as an oath of friendship and I’ll swear the same on this reeking pit. So longer we’re down here, alive, I’ll call you friend.
“Now if I might confide in you, friend, if we’re to die, I’d like to tell what happened to me. I swear, I’d never have gone down that hole if I knew. That thing—she wants us in this darkness. You don’t have to tell me differently. I know you aren’t down here seeking buried treasure. She dwells in the darkness. She put me here. I doubt you just fell down some farmer’s well and found your way to me.
“But let me tell mine first. It was three nights ago that Merry Mary burst into the tavern and spoiled a good evening. Are you local, friend? If not, I’ll tell you, Merry Mary has been whoring these parts since before I was born. Half of us got half-brothers from her, I hear. Some time ago, all that whoring bred a madness in her, so when she bursts in and says her husband-to-be came crawling out of a hole in the ground and dragged some cow into the dark, we all laughed. Can you blame me? Any of us? James O’Creery, he says, who does she think would wed her this week, and we laughed again.
“You’re wondering how she spoiled it, giving us all something to laugh over. I’ll tell you. First she starts telling us this old tale about a lass and a lad who were about to be wed when a fire took the house where the men were teaching this lad to be a man. She lost father, brothers, betrothed. House. Home. Had to turn to whoring. Yes, it was Merry Mary, and if you know women, friend, then you don’t need me to say that this little story put the tavern lasses out of the mood for dancing and anything else akin to joy.
“So James says to Mary, how would you recognize that lad after all these years and all these men, and Mary tells him that the lad’s not aged a day. James laughs again. That was the last laugh the woman could stomach, I’d say, because the next moment her nails are dug into James’s face, and the rest of us, we’re pulling her off. Mess of blood and skin and shrieking. A fine night pissed away. They locked up Merry Mary for the night. They wouldn’t keep her any longer. Bad for business to lock up your whores.
“And to top it off, she was telling the truth.
“Next night, we’re helping Saltwater Dan clean up the place. If you’re no local, I’ll tell you, he runs that tavern and knows everyone’s business. He tells me that morning a man came in begging for water. When he gets it and swallows a mouthful, he says to Dan that he’d just seen the devil crawl up from a hole in the earth and drag a mare into the dark. So Dan asks the man what sins the horse committed that the devil had to come up himself to collect it, and I’m sure he asked that with a laugh. The man looks Dan in the eye, sober as any man can be, and says the devil was after the rider, who barely got away. He’d known since his last war that his soul belonged to the devil, but never thought he’d see that villain coming.
“I was about to ask Dan what happened to the man when Old Jacob staggers in, his arms scratched to hell, his clothes in tatters. He’s a regular, seen Merry Mary come in the night before. I asked him if he’d tried having a go at her in her state, but he starts weeping. Keeps saying bear, bear, bear. When we finally got him calmed down and put some liquid courage in his belly, he tells us what happened. That was the moment it came real, that we knew some wrong thing was happening in our village.
“Old Jacob had been driving a wagon of two oxen, his daughter sitting beside him, when a bear came out of a hole and snatched the girl away. If you’re not a local, I’ll tell you, Old Jacob’s got this fear of bears. Not like you’re staring one down and you think you might hear the angels soon. No, just the thought of them freezes him up like spit on a winter night, ever since he was lost in the woods as a lad and one little bear didn’t take kindly to his presence. The man didn’t go near the woods again. Always thought that bear would be waiting for him.
“This one, it didn’t wait. It reached onto the wagon and swept his little girl into its claws. We all thought by the look of him that Jacob was damn lucky to get away after scraping with that beast. But that wasn’t it. You see, friend, the bear never touched him. It couldn’t. He wouldn’t let it. He was so scared that he shrank back when it came at the wagon. He let his daughter be taken. All those scratches on his arms and rips in his clothes were his own doing as he sat outside that hole, trying to muster the courage to save his girl. There was no doing. Not by him.
“Us, on the other hand, well, we were rightly mustered. You might think she was dead by the time Old Jacob got to us and you might be right, but you wouldn’t have said it then. You don’t have to be local to know the way men get, the right and wrong battling inside them tips to the side of right, long enough for him to care. By God, we were set to save Jacob’s girl from whatever lurked in that hole, be it bear or devil or old Merry Mary’s man.
“Now, I’d swear on my mother’s grave that I left the tavern with the others and walked to that damned crack in the ground, and I’d weep for my mother’s soul a moment later, because I was sitting there like I hadn’t moved. Where was my rightness? I’d say it was hiding and my wickedness had eyes for sweet and pretty Prim. All the young red-blooded men wanted her, but all of them were gone now and I had her to myself that night, laughing and dancing and drinking. You never saw so sweet a table dance as hers, all swirling hair and hands and legs a blur. You’d know if you were local.
“I’d like to say it was the grandest night of my life, and it was until the next day came. Then I learned what went on in that hole.
“They were one at a time, at first. Men who couldn’t say where they’d been all night. Men who couldn’t say anything. Then the rest came in a crowd, and friend, I’ll never forget their eyes. Dead eyes, fearful eyes, eyes that wouldn’t open. These were men changed. I couldn’t be happy for my night with Prim when they’d all seen such horrors. None of them went to work that day and only Saltwater Dan was at the tavern that night. I could’ve courted Prim again and no one would’ve got in my way. Maybe I should have. But, no. I had to know.
“We spent a good hour chattering about nothing before we got to the meat of what I wanted to hear, and when we got there—that wasn’t the face of Saltwater Dan. That was the face of a dying man. Still, I got to know. So I ask him what went on. He tells me they climbed down the hole, into a tunnel, and it split a dozen ways. They stuck together, those men, and made sure to memorize their way as they went farther and deeper. Then Dan saw it. The sea itself, leaking into the cave, filling its tunnels. He told me it wasn’t the sea he sailed in his sailing days, no. This was the dark sea, the sea beneath the sea, that held all the horrors of an old world. He’d always feared it. Always, he said.
“But that wasn’t the worst of it. That old sea had him panicked, while other men were screaming over all kinds of things—serpents, spiders, flames, dead lovers, dead parents, the devil, angels, Death itself, cold earth.
“Dan leans close, like he doesn’t want no one else to hear, and says there’s no bear in that hole. No devil. Not Mary’s man. It’s not anything it looks like. It’s whatever stills your heart, you hear? And he took my arm and said, not fear. And I believed him, even when he started weeping. Especially when he started weeping. Dan’s never been a coward. He’s been a man of iron since before I was born. Fought the English once when we were at war and three more times when we weren’t. I believed that something down there had slithered its way into his heart and broken his mettle. I was right to believe that.
“That rightness that took the other men stuck with me this time. That was just last night, but I can hardly remember what it feels like to be brave. To have hope. To be stupid enough to take a torch, a dagger, a sword, and a musket, and follow the other men’s tracks to that hole. A hole—that’s a nice way to put it. More like a stab in the earth, the kind of slit you got to crawl into.
“Well, friend, I crawled. I slid in my weapons and I slid myself in after. The tunnels were like Dan said, splitting themselves like my old nan’s hair, but I saw the men’s tracks by torchlight. Saw them treading one way and scrabbling back, kicking over most of the first set. I got the feeling it didn’t matter which path I took. Whatever was down there owned its underworld and owned what it pulled down. But it didn’t own me, I said then. I followed the trail I had.
“As I walked down, and every step took me a little lower than the last, I got a sense of what I might see. My old man would be down in that darkness, I knew. He’d made me too scared to stay home, so I took off when I was still a lad. Why do you think I kept the company of Merry Mary, Old Jacob, and Saltwater Dan? Those are all old folk, friend, and you don’t need to be a local to figure that out. All their great deeds and memories were done before I was a wink in my father’s eye. I looked up to them, whores and farmers and sailors turned barmen, like new parents. You could do a lot worse. So it made sense to me that I’d see a lot worse when that thing in the hole wanted me gone.
“Only, it took a while. I felt like I’d been walking half the night before the ground leveled out, and I’d long lost the tracks of my fellows. I was led deep, and when I say led, I don’t mean it came out to show me. I mean it didn’t come out, so I had to press on. If I let go that sense of rightness then, I’d never get it back, and then maybe it wouldn’t drag no horse underground next. Maybe it’d be Prim. Or me. So you see, friend, there really wasn’t much choice.
“Eventually, I did hear a sound, about two corner turns from where I was. I made those turns and you wouldn’t believe what I saw. I tell you now, it was as Dan said. Stilled my heart. Stilled everything. I couldn’t move.
“I saw the tavern. I saw Prim, a barefoot lass turning and dancing on the tavern table, her skirts whirling in the wind. I heard stamping and clapping and a pipe player and a lute. Prim had those eyes on me. You must know the type. The kind a man always wants to see from a woman he’s after.
“This was far worse than showing me my father. It knew it, too. It knew that as much as I feared that memory of the man, I’d strike it down. This? Prim? I was frozen, like Mary had to be frozen. What can we do against the people we love? Dan had known this would happen. He tried to tell me that it wasn’t just fear, but I wouldn’t understand. Too full of drink and manliness and rightness. I had to run so I didn’t have to see her.
“But then as I was turning around, I remembered those other men’s tracks in the dirt and how they all had turned around. And I had one more thought—something so strong that it could pull a horse underground shouldn’t need glamours and tricks. Something so strong should face me like a proper beast if it couldn’t be killed. Unless, of course, it could be killed. No other reason to pose as what we fear, or worse, what we love.
“I turned back and fixed an eye on the thing, dancing and smiling, batting her eyes. Then up went my musket and I pulled the trigger. The ball of lead shot out and sure as my voice is speaking to you now, it popped that thing’s chest open. I swear it on my father’s grave, may he be damned. Damned as I am.
“The moment this Prim-looking thing dropped off the table, the tavern came alive around me. It was a glamour no more, but the real tavern, filled with men, women, serviced by Saltwater Dan. And there was Prim, bleeding out on the floor, drowning in her own blood. Not some thing that looked like Prim. Real Prim. My Prim.
“They thought I was mad or evil. Both, most likely. They stuffed me down here. I thought, when I got into that cave, that I might get stuck down there if I didn’t turn and run. That the thing underground would put me in some pit there, a deep hole within a hole, as full of old horrors as the sea beneath Dan’s sea. Never saw this coming. A dungeon. It’s not fit place for a man, no offense intended.
“Now, friend, because you seem a good friend and not likely to think me evil, you’re probably wondering how such a mistake happened. How’d I end up in that tavern from the underground? Before I thought maybe I went with the men after all. Maybe, while they were seeing snakes and spiders and wicked seas, I was seeing a night with Prim, a day of work, and a night when I pretended to be brave. Maybe the thing that stilled my heart was murdering that sweet and pretty lass.
“But I don’t think that now. No, that man who lost his horse had it right. He was the only one who saw the hole for what it really was—the devil’s house, with the devil inside it. And this devil’s a woman. Only a woman knows to dance so bold as Prim and only the devil would tease a man that way. And she made it so that when I thought I was shooting that she-devil, I was shooting my Prim instead. And so like I said, she’s the same to put me down here as to put you down. Whatever crime you committed is surely the devil’s work as well, whether she tricked you into it or gave nothing more than an encouraging word.
“So that’s my tale, the story of a stupid man and why he’ll never see the sun again. That’s enough on my end. I’ve heard enough of your breathing, friend. If you got a tongue, use it. Tell me, how’d the devil drag you down in the dark?”