The Path Beneath the Trees

As a Christmas and Friday 13th gift to my readers, I wrote this very short, seasonal tale. A Victorian-themed, vaguely dreadpunk, Penny Dreadful kind of offering set in a cold, dark wintery night in the northern hemisphere…


“M’lady, if it pleases you, your carriage awaits.” The manor doors were flung wide open to expose the evening air. A cruel wind whistled an angry tune and a flurry of snow danced in the courtyard. Lady Emily set the novel she was reading aside and pursed her lips.

“Oh, Philip, it doesn’t bloody please me at all, but needs must I suppose.”

She was a striking woman in her early forties, bestowed with handsome features; hazel eyes, a tight jaw, plump lips and a matching bosom. Since her late husband, Lord Edmund Sellick, had passed away in tragic circumstances — a hunting accident — she had found herself the subject of many social invites and dinner dates. Almost always from older men her husband had previously known. She was not often enamoured by their company, but the free food and wine were always welcome.

Edmund had been irresponsible with money, frequently spending well outside his means. She had sold as many of their assets that she could and had done her best to make ends meet. Yet despite all her ingenuity and frugality, it was her femininity that earned her a wage — of sorts. She could stomach the pawing and salacious comments if it meant she could keep the manor.

She rose from her seat and smoothed her long skirts, brushing off whispers of grey ash from the log fire that had settled in her lap. She swung her thick, woollen cloak around her shoulders and secured it with a silver brooch. A family heirloom given to her as a wedding present by her mother. A Celtic symbol. A wolf’s head encircled by three woven spirals. She straightened her back, lifted her chin, and tucked an errant brown curl behind her ear.

“All right then,” she said, pulling on a pair of deerskin gloves. “Let’s get this blasted seasonal obligation over with.”

Philip nodded and followed her to the doorway. Outside, the blizzard snapped its icy jaws and nipped her as she walked. She covered her face with her hands to avoid the sting. She didn’t wait for Philip to open the carriage for her — following protocol had never been her strong point. She bundled inside and slammed the door, then slid the side window open.

“Come on, Philip. We have a Christmas supper to attend. As much as I despise the man, the Prime Minister will be most vexed if I am absent.” She pulled the cloak a little tighter around her, shivering in the cold. “Besides, he does at least put on a decent spread. Perhaps I can smuggle out a leg of ham? We could both eat quite well for a week.”

Philip climbed onto the carriage step and swung himself into the driver’s seat. He paused to light the wicks of the oil lamps clamped to the sides of the carriage. A layer of snow was already starting to settle on the brim of his hat as he got comfortable and took the reins. The horse snickered and shook its mane, stamping impatiently on the frozen cobbles.

“Through the woods, m’lady?” Philip called out to her, his voice carrying on the wind. Emily sighed.

“It is a quicker route, I suppose. How are the reports?”

“Nothing since Friday, m’lady.” She pulled at her lip absentmindedly. Thinking.

“Do it. The trees will offer some protection from this wretched weather if nothing else.” Philip nodded, and urged the horse to start walking on. Its hooves skittered briefly on the slippery stones, finding better purchase as they left the courtyard and took the path amongst the trees. The snow was not quite as deep here, yet what had fallen had settled and was undisturbed. Horse and cart crunched their way through the cold.

Lady Emily was right. The trees did offer some comfort – the leaves of the evergreens a ballast against the storm. But the moonlight strained to reach between the branches, and the woods wrapped around them like a heavy blanket. The light from the lamps did very little to pierce the gloom. The carriage wheels grumbled as white flakes smothered their tracks?A sudden noise up ahead in the undergrowth spooked the horse. It pulled up short and stamped at the ground. It shook its neck and kicked its back legs, straining at the leather tack that tethered it to the carriage and snorting plumes of hot air from its nose. Philip held tight to the reins, wary that the beast may try to bolt. Emily stuck her head through the open carriage window and peered outside.

“What’s the matter, Philip? Why have we stopped?”

“M’lady, I do not wish to alarm you, but I fear there may be trouble up ahead.”

“Ruffians, Philip?”

“Very likely, m’lady.”

Emily grunted and disappeared. Moments later she stepped out of the carriage.

“M’lady?” Philip began, confused.

“Quiet now. It’s all in hand.” She moved to the front of the carriage and placed an open palm on the horse’s shoulder, shushing it and stroking it gently. She stared into the blackness and raised her voice. “Out with you! Come on. What are you waiting for?” The trees rustled. The wind blustered. “Come out!” She demanded. “Right now!”

A shape stepped out from the shadows. It moved slowly, deliberately, one arm outstretched and holding a pistol. Emily laughed.

“Look, Philip, it’s a highwayman. How delightful! How quaint!”

Philip chuckled awkwardly in reply. Emily turned to the stranger, one hand on her hip.

“Well then, Mister Highwayman, what can we do for you?”

The man laughed nastily and cleared his throat.

“You know what, missy. Your money and your jewels. Give them to me.”

“I think not. Besides, what makes you think I have any of either?”

“You’re in a fancy carriage, ain’t ya? Only rich people have a fancy carriage.”

Emily scoffed.

“A bold assumption, Mister Highwayman. However, a sadly misinformed one. And besides, even if I were to have such items, you surely would not be party to them. Now – kindly, bugger off.”

“You what?”

“You heard me. Bugger off. I have a Christmas party to attend and I’m already late.”

The man stepped a little closer and shook his weapon.

“I’d watch your mouth, lady, if I were you. I’ve got a pistol right here.”

“So you have. And?”

“I’ll shoot you! I’ll shoot the both of yous!”

“Well, yes, I suppose you could, but it wouldn’t do you much good. Not unless your little pistol is loaded with silver bullets?”

“What?”

“Silver bullets. It’s the only thing that can kill me, you see. Oh, and Philip here.” Philip tapped two fingers to his hat and nodded. “So, are you?”

The robber floundered. “Silver bullets?”

“Yes.”

“That’s for… in’t that for werewolves or some’at?”

“Yes.”

“You’re bloody kidding me!”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Are you sure you want to take the risk? Look up, Mister Highwayman, tell me what you see.”

Instinctively, the man looked up. Through the woven, wind-wrought branches flickered a faint, silver light. A broad moon pinned to a black sky.

“You see it?”

The highwayman gasped. “Full moon?”

Emily grinned and flashed her teeth. “Indeed. By my reckoning you have, oh… maybe two or three minutes before we rip your thieving throat out and tear you limb from ragged limb. How does that sound?”

She took a single step towards him. The man turned quickly, and broke into a run, skidding and sliding in the snow. Emily put a cupped hand to her lips and called out to his retreating form.

“And a Merry Christmas to you, you lily-livered scoundrel!” The branches shook as he disappeared into the woods. She chuckled and patted the horse’s flank then strolled back to the carriage. Philip coughed as she passed him. She looked up.

“Werewolves, m’lady?” She gave a half-smile. “Wherever did you get that idea?”

“Full credit to Mister Alexandre Dumas and his wonderful imagination, Philip. Never doubt the value of a damned good book.”

Emily eased herself back into the carriage and closed the door. Philip tugged at the reins and the horse moved on. She settled back into the cushions breathing as slowly and as deeply as she could. She explored her teeth with the tip of her tongue. Ran her hands down the length of her arms. The moon had been welcoming this evening. It had been rather difficult to resist. Her incisors had grown a little, she noticed, along with some stray hairs on her wrists.

It was nothing too terrible; she was still in control. She wondered if one day she would have to tell Philip the truth. How her drunken, violent and adulterous late husband had really met his end. Foolish bastard. He hadn’t realised what kind of family he’d married into. After she’d uncovered his despicable plan to dispose of her, and replace her with his mistress, it was indeed a hunting accident that had claimed his life. Except she had been the hunter, and he the prey.

Philip was a good man. He had stayed with her, not simply in his role as a steward and coachman, but as a trusted and loyal friend. But even good men had their limits.

She closed her eyes and felt the carriage sway as it rumbled onwards through the dark.


This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. No reproduction may be made, by any means, unless a licence has been obtained from the author or publisher. ©️ Tabatha Wood 2019