Stephens moods gradually became worse over the next few months, through the autumn and winter he had become distant from Mary, and had begun making strange requests, or rather, demands of her. He would ask her to say certain things when they were in bed making love, which she rarely had a choice about anymore, he would ask if she was pregnant with his son after they had finished, becoming distressed and upset when she couldn’t tell him. Mary spent hours sitting on the cold cabin floor, cradling her husband as he cried madly, then she’d have to curl up in a corner as he became angry and accused her of lying and making up stories when she asked why he had cried, quite often ending with him throwing pots and pans around the tiny cabin.
Then, one night in mid-winter, while the lord of the manor was away in London, Stephen had left the cabin late, very late, in order to inspect the house and grounds and make sure no one was helping themselves to any of the lords possessions. Although Stephen going over to the house so late was not unheard of, what was, was the fact that he did not come home, not the next day, or the next, or the following morning, nor did their dog, a black Labrador named Daisy, who was heavily pregnant. Mary knew that Daisy would stay with Stephen no matter what, but still she should have at least seen the dog by now, playing in the long field or woods leading to the manor.
Mary had decided the night before that If Stephen had not returned by the following morning, she would take him an early supper and investigate what was going on. So, when eight O’clock arrived and the sun had fully set, when she had filled a lidded pot with a hot rabbit stew and wrapped up half a rustic loaf of bread in a hank-a-chief, lit an oil lamp and pulled a thick woollen shawl over her thin white dress, Mary opened the cabin door, and stepped out, into the night.
It was bleak out, bitterly cold and rain fell in great drenching sheets, hammering down on the ground so loudly it deafened Mary. She held her lamp up in front of her face, but it made no difference against the winter night. The field the cabin was set upon, which lead all the way to the woods bordering the manor house, was long. There was a small, narrow foot path, which Mary knew like the back of her hand, but the wind kept taking her hair and throwing it in her face, forcing her to stop and rearrange it, more than once she managed to wrongly convince herself that she had turned herself around, having to kneel down and hold the lamp against the path to double check her own footprints in the mud.
Eventually, almost taking twice the time it would have normally taken, Mary reached the part of the path where the tall oak trees of the woods began. If the field had been dark, then the woods were jet black, no light at all, not even the tiny trace of moonlight escaping the overcast above could penetrate the tree tops. Mary held the lamp out as far as she could reach, the light bouncing off the tree trunks revealing a little more of the path. As she moved through the trees, the rain fell harder and harder, the wind almost too strong to move against, as Mary tried to force her hair back out of her face, she missed a tree root breaking through the loose soil below, and catching her foot, fell hard and landed on her face.
Mary lifted her head, dazed and in pain, the first thing that came to her, as her head cleared of shock, was the mud in her nose, stopping her from breathing, then her body re-registered the downpour on her back, getting harder and colder by the second, then last and finally, she realised her right hand, stretched out in front of her, was oddly, very warm. It had landed in something very warm and sticky, at first she expected to find she had dropped it in animal droppings of some sort. The lamp had mercifully not gone out when she had dropped it, and she reached out, taking hold of it and shinning its light onto her hand, it was covered in a thick, black-red liquid, she rubbed it between her fingers, then, felt a scream rising in her throat, it was blood.
Mary stood up, unable to take her shocked, wide eyes off the blood, holding the scream down, swallowing hard with anxiety, she turned the light back to the path, searching for the source of the blood. Her lamp light showed the gravel path stained with blood, it ran like a small stream from near the end of the path, and her. Mary was shaking from head to toe, partly the cold wind and partly pure dread of what she may find a head. Mary was nearing the end of the path and could already see a dark mass laying at the base of one of the last few trees, the stream of blood running from it.
The closer Mary got to the mass, the more terrified she was, now near tears and praying her husband was perhaps on his way home, that he would appear round the corner from the house at any moment, ready to cuddle and her and take her back to their little cabin, but he did not come, instead, Mary took the last few feet to the mass as slowly as she could, then, closing her eyes, she said a quiet prayer to herself, then opened her eyes, lowered the lamp....and screamed.
Daisy the Labrador had been sliced open from chin to anus, her stomach had been turned inside out, intestines and organs lay spread out on the ground, and next to her head, her unborn puppies had been lined up in single file. Mary cupped her hand to her mouth but could stop the bile rising, vomit burst from her lips and covered the ground. She dropped to her knees, crying and trying to swallow at the same time, making breathing very difficult, who would do this to a dog? This was not the work or a wild animal, someone had purposely killed their beloved Daisy and her pups, she had to find Stephen and tell him there was a madman in the woods.
This final thought terrified her even more, the lunatic could be there now, watching her and readying to attack, with this, Mary held the lamp out in front of her again, hitched her long hemmed dress up to her knees, and ran. She slipped and slid in the mud, twice she nearly fell backwards. The manor house loomed a head, Mary looked to all the windows as she ran, but there was no light in any, why wouldn’t Stephen have lit any candles? The front door of the house grew closer and closer, she could now make out the strange face carved into the steel door knocker.
Mary reached the door and slammed the knocker down twice, as hard as her numb, frozen fingers would allow, there was no reply. Again she lifted the huge steel ring and slammed it down onto its rest, two, three times, her hand almost unable to even lift the ring again, but still there was no reply,
“STEPHEN!” she screamed at the door, but the storm was masking all sound, there was no way he would ever hear her. Mary decided the best thing would be to try the rear door, which Stephen usually left unlocked while he was in the house. Re-hitching her dress up, Mary took off again, literally having to grab the corner of the house to stop herself running right by, slipping in the mud. Mary ran around the side of the house, past the horse stables, both upper and lower stable doors shut to stop the rain soaking the animals hey. She reached the next corner and grabbed the wall for support again, she peered around to where the rear door was located and shivered hard as she saw it was wide open, that, was certainly not like Stephen.
A horribly disturbing thought ran through her head, what if the madman was inside, what if he had hurt Stephen and that was why he had not returned home.
“No, that cannot be right” she told herself, “Poor Daisy was killed very recently, her blood was still warm, if anything had happened to Stephen she would have come straight back to the cabin”
Mary walked on, towards the doorway, she was so scared she could barely see straight, her entire body was convulsing with fear and cold and the rain the wind were just getting worse. She stopped in the door way, looking into the house, not a single lamp or candle lit anywhere, the house was bathed in complete black.
“Stephen?” she called into the dark, “Stephen, are you there?” but no answer came.
Mary summoned all the courage she could and crossed the threshold. She stopped and listened for any movement on the old floor boards, but the house was silent,
“Stephen please, are you there?” No answer came, if Stephen was in the house he was either asleep, or, she didn’t want to think about the or. Mary crept through the main hall, passing through the dining room and into the greeting hall, a sudden flash of lightning outside momentarily lit the hall, the paintings the adorned the walls around the main door, up the staircase and across the wall beside her seemed to come to life, the eyes of their subjects all looking down at her madly.
Mary stepped backwards in fright, clutching at her heart with her free hand, the hall fell dark again, hiding the paintings from view, she tried moving forwards again, her feet felt heavy and her legs were so tired from fighting through the mud. Her eyes kept flicking over the places she knew the paintings hung, waiting for another flash of lightning to illuminate them again, her heart was pounding so hard in her chest she thought it would explode.
Mary reached the staircase, she stared up, into the darkness above her,
“Stephen?” her voice was quiet and shaky, she put one trembling foot up, onto the first step, gripping the banister in her hand. Then the next foot, slowly but sure she climbed one step at a time, when she reached the fifth step, Mary heard something, a crash, something heaving falling in the drawing room, back down at the bottom of the stairs, the door had been closed when she’d past. Turning very slowly on the spot, Mary took the banister with her other hand and tried to call out one more time,
“Stephen, is that you?” no answer, just a sound like shifting, like something being dragged through the room, just behind the door, Mary took a step down, then stopped again, listening for the sound, she could still make it out, whatever it was, was getting closer.
Mary took the few steps back down the stairs, then slowly made her way to the closed double doors to the drawing room. She pressed her ear to the wood and waited, the shuffling was still getting closer, she closed her eyes to focus on the sound, then suddenly the door handle of the door she was leaning on shook violently, she screamed and stepped back, then the shaking stopped, the handle rested still and then the door, very slowly and creaking with age, opened.
Mary stared into the dark room, she couldn’t see anyone, then a hand shot out from the dark, very low to ground, then fell limp, with a shudder, Mary realised she knew the sleeve of the jacket, its finely tailored seems and cloth, Mary raced forwards and took the hand, pulling the lord of the manor out, into the hall. He was laying on his back, his face white, his hair, although grey already seemed whiter and his eyes were wide and terrified,
“He...” he tried to speak “he’s insa.....” and then Mary saw it, the long bloodied gash running across his stomach, it was open as Daisy’s had been, the lord had dragged himself, leaving parts of himself behind, across the entire drawing room, just to die in his own hall. Mary stepped away from the body, lifting her blood stained hands to her race, Mary opened her mouth to scream, but a presence behind her froze the scream in her throat, and as she turned around, the very last thing she ever saw, was Stephens insane eyes, menacing wide smile, and the flash of the axe blade in her own lamp light, before he buried it in her skull.