THE HOUSE OF ERLAND
The Mid-Run Valley in the Year 1040 of Human Recorded Time (HRT)
Almon looked back at just the right moment to see his father fall off his horse. He saw Erland tumbling hard in a billowing cloud of dust. With rising panic in his chest, Almon leaped off his horse and ran back to help him. Fearing the worst for taking too long, he finally slid on his knees, reaching his father.
Erland sat in the field, dazed and dusty, repeatedly mumbling, “I am ready to die.”
He patted the dust from his father’s body, searching him for broken bones. “Did you break anything?”
“Leave me alone. Let me die here.”
“Listen to me, listen. You are not going to die.” Almon reached his arms under Erland’s and dragged him out of the sun, and into the shade of a nearby white oak.
Being pulled away, he exclaimed, “What are you doing?”
“You fell off your horse.”
“Did I?” Erland asked matter-of-factly. “I don’t remember that.”
“You’re delirious. I think you hit your head.”
Erland hacked uncontrollably, coughing up blood. It pooled in his hand. Both men saw it, and they shared a look of concern. Almon dragged him the rest of the way into the shade and propped his father up against the trunk of the large tree. He pulled out his canteen and gave him a drink of warm metallic water. Erland could only drink a small amount before bursting out coughing again.
“Are your ribs broken?”
“They're sore,” Erland said, feeling his sides. “No, I don’t think so.”
“You gave me quite the scare.” Almon continued to inspect him, trying to catch his breath.
“What happened to my horse?” Erland asked, starting to regain his senses. All three of them were nearby, grazing on tall grass as if nothing had happened. They were not Almon’s primary concern at the moment.
“Let’s just rest here a while,” Almon said as a cool breeze passed through the shade. He turned on his back and slid down the trunk, coming to rest beside his father. Beads of sweat formed on his face. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, then looked their situation over.
“Well, it’s getting hotter, and yet, here we are.”
“How far are we from home?” Erland said, coughing.
“Haverhill is over eighty miles away.”
“You’re upset with me, aren’t you?”
“I just don’t understand you,” Almon said, rubbing his face. “If you were sick, you should have called off this trip.”
“I wanted things to be normal.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. Why don’t you admit it? You knew you were dying before we left Haverhill. You got me out here with you so that you could die in the Mid-Run Valley knowing I would take care of you.”
Erland did not object. He did not say it, but there was no other place for him to die than in the Mid-Run Valley and no other person he would want to be with more than Almon. He looked at his son and considered him.
All the Plum-Kilmer men were tall and athletically built, and Almon was no exception. He possessed the same dark reddish hair like his father, although Erland’s hair was shorter, grayer with age, and his beard was more tightly cropped than his son’s.
“It was this time last year Mother died.” Almon looked at Erland resting beside him. He noticed how frail his father had become. It darkened his face and took the edge out of his voice. “Is she here with us?”
“Johanna,” he said fondly. Erland laid his head back and rested, remembering her. “No, not in that way. Only in memory.”
But that was not entirely true.
He had visited her crypt below the House of Erland the day before they left. He could still remember the acidic, corrosive smell of being underground. The flame from his candle bathed the tomb in a warm glow. There, flush to the stone floor, lay the crypt of Johnna Plum-Kilmer.
He could feel her energy there, more so than anywhere else in the House of Erland. Although the dusty chamber did not immediately reveal any sign of her lingering spirit, that was about to change. He could feel a growing apprehension, the oppressive heaviness in the air, that made him aware that he was not alone. The feeling made his spine tingle in a chill.
Then, appearing from the shadow, within the darkened corner, Johanna’s brown eyes, her pale face, slowly emerged into his soft candlelight.
“Johanna, my darling,” Erland whispered to the spirit. He extended his hand and took a step closer to her. Johanna’s pale hand moved to take his; yet, she stopped short.
Someone is near, she said in a hollow voice. Almon is coming.
Suddenly, Erland’s candle flame flickered, causing shadows to dance eerily across his face. He looked at it, then glanced upward, across the ceiling. Now sensing the disruption for himself, he withdrew his hand and delicately closed it, the space between them growing ever apart.
“We were so close,” he whispered.
Movement stirred the flow of air in the crypt, followed by a loud bang from above; it was the metal door at the top of the stairs leading to the tombs. Erland’s eyes turned briefly to the side, then back at Johanna as he heard heavy steps coming down toward them.
He worries about you, Johanna said. He suspects the truth.
“Then we will wait, but soon, and we will be reunited again,” Erland promised her, extending his palm in a motionless wave. Without a further word, Johanna’s spirit slowly retreated into the shadows. Then her spirit was gone.
Erland wondered silently to himself. Where does she go?
All will be revealed, the fading voice of Johanna answered, reading his thoughts.
Just then, Almon appeared at the bottom of the stairs and opened the crypt portcullis with the slight creak of metal against metal.
“I thought I would find you here,” he said, entering the tomb.
Erland walked into the darkened corner, where Johanna had previously emerged, longing to absorb any of the lingering energy that remained of her. Slowly, he turned and acknowledged his son.
Almon approached, seeing his mother’s face, or at least the likeness of it, chiseled in stone on top of her tomb, embedded flush to the floor. He looked at Erland. “Am I disturbing you?”
“No, come join us.” It was no strange occurrence for Erland to spend quiet time in Johanna’s crypt. In the year since her death, he 1 9 JOE LYON had grown ever more melancholy. His health was failing, too. He had developed a raspy cough that had long been getting worse. The two stood quietly together, sharing a solemn moment to look upon her chiseled face in the stone.
Whispering to keep the reverence, Almon broke the silence. “I’m getting our supplies ready.”
Erland did not seem to hear.
“For our hunt tomorrow?” Almon added.
Erland looked up slowly, a blank expression on his face.
“Are you all right?” Almon asked him.
“Yes, of course. The hunt tomorrow.”
The hunt will be our time, he heard Johanna’s voice say, speaking to his mind again, where only he could hear.
“What’s wrong?” Almon said, Erland’s disengagement made him wonder. “Are you still wanting to go? Are you feeling up to it?”
“We go every year.” Erland looked at him through his lashes.
“Yes, but you’ve been under the weather, haven’t you? We can postpone it. Just until you feel better.”
“I canceled last year; I can’t cancel again.”
“Why, when it’s just you and I?”
Their annual trip had always been a favorite time to the senior Plum-Kilmer. His life revolved around it, the planning, the preparations, but because this hunt would be the first one since Johanna’s death, this time it was extra special.
“Because,” he answered Almon, “the hunt will be our time.”
What a strange reply, Almon thought. But before he could say anything more, Erland blew out the candle, leaving the two of them in utter darkness in the crypt, with only the single torch in the stairwell as the solitary light, and led the way out.
The next day their trip got underway, but it did not start well. Conversation between them seemed forced; it had never been before.
Erland had taken up talking to himself and appeared cold and depressed, more so than usual. They rode out on horseback from the House of Erland, an enormous stone mansion, the largest in all of Haverhill. Their packhorse accompanied them with the supplies they would need and paced alongside Almon. Erland took up the rear and did not speak, deep in his own thoughts; if not for the occasional cough, Almon would have thought he was alone.
“If that cough doesn’t get any better,” Almon warned, “we will need to head back in.”
“Sorry, but no chance,” Erland said between coughs. “I’ll be fine.”
“But what’s the point if you scare away the deer? You know they can hear you a mile away. If you keep it under control, this hunt might not be pointless. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“I’ll try, Almon.” But he could not keep silent. His cough continued as the miles rolled away.
“Stop it!” Almon grumbled.
After his outburst, he shifted in his saddle, annoyed. He knew his father would continue the hunt, even if it killed him. “You’re so loud.”
“I’m sorry, Almon.”
Around the mid-day heat of the second day, they stopped for lunch. Erland did not eat, he did not even try. Instead, he wrapped himself in a blanket, even though the sun was brutally hot. Almon tried to convince him again they should return home. But like before, Erland insisted they continue, telling him he just needed help to mount his horse, and that he would feel better once riding on the trail. Almon suspected he would say as much. Shaking his head, he kept silent, and helped Erland up in the saddle.
But the pair only made it a couple of miles before Erland fell off his horse and could not get back on. Almon saw the riderless horse and his father sitting in a daze in a cloud of dust.
Now here, under the cool shade of the tree, Erland opened his eyes again. He had not realized he had fallen asleep.
“I was dreaming about Johanna,” Erland said, “and that day in the tomb, the day before we left Haverhill for the hunt.” He looked again at his son. Almon returned with a grim look of his own. They held each other’s gaze steady.
“I need to ask you something,” Almon said softly. “Even though we’ve never talked about it before. Is it true? That you speak with the spirits of the dead?”
Even now, Erland seemed reluctant to talk about those specific aspects of his life.
“What does it matter? You understand more than you think. Even more than you want to believe.”
“No, this is not about believing. I just want to understand it.”
Erland furrowed his brow. “Be careful what you say out loud, Almon. Your words betray your emotions, and there are some that will feed upon them; look how it has grayed my hair.”
“Do these spirits feed on depression?’
“Depression is merely a side effect,” Erland said, struggling for breath. “Our family has long suffered from what has come before us. But we bore it in silence. Yet you know every generation has had its ghosts.” “
I am twenty-five years old. Why has no spirit ever appeared to me?”
“You will have to find these things out for yourself, Almon,” Erland said, getting out his words between coughs. “Nothing I say will help you understand it any better, I’m afraid. I am sorry.”
Erland tugged at his ring. “But this, I must pass to you while there is still time.”
He worked the ring off his finger. Almon had never seen it leave his father’s hand before. But here, in the shade of the big oak, Erland handed the ring over to him. “I carried this legacy as far as I can. Now my time is over. You will be our strength. It is your turn to bear it.”
Almon looked at the ring in the palm of his hand and knew what it meant. Erland Plum-Kilmer had access to a large family inheritance passed down for generations on his father’s side. It had long been the tradition of the rich to adopt a surname to keep their wealth in their own blood lineage. What the surname Plum-Kilmer meant to the rest of the world was that his family belonged to the original aristocracy, the ruling class, meaning that they were to be handled with respect and privilege. The ring came from the first and original Kilmer, a well-known knight to the realm who served under the first Leopold kingdom two hundred years ago. Crafted in thick, solid gold on its face, rubies and diamonds formed their family crest. Etched along the sides of it were scenes of the hunt, with deer leaping among rivers, trees, and oak leaves. The ring possessed immense value on its own, for the raw materials of gold and precious stones, but as the Plum-Kilmer family crest, it was a priceless heirloom as a piece of history.
“I cannot bear putting this on,” Almon said. “This is your ring.”
“It is your inheritance now; do with it as you will. Where I am going, it will not help me. Death is the great equalizer; it makes paupers of us all.”
Dismayed, Almon put the ring in his shirt pocket for safekeeping.
“I am going to die soon,” Erland said without opening his eyes.
“I know,” Almon said in acknowledgment, reaching to loosen Erland’s collar. “You knew that before we left.”
Suddenly Erland’s eyes widened and fixed in space. His lips trembled but made no sound. Then he arched his back in a spasm.
“No, don’t do this! Please don’t leave me!” Almon said, crying. His voice rose in panic. He lifted his father by the shoulders, embracing him. “Please. Don’t go.”
“It is passing,” he whispered in Almon’s ear.
Then, Erland Plum-Kilmer breathed his last as death finally overwhelmed him.
A long howl of anguish rose in Almon’s throat, knocking the wind out of him. Gently, he rocked his father in his arms, holding him close, struggling against the gravity pulling his lifeless body down.
Eventually, Almon released him to rest on his side in the soft grass. He cried looking at his father, imagining him reviving, expecting to see him move.
Erland remained still.
His thoughts were racing. Daylight would be running out soon, and he was days from home. Whatever he decided, it would not be easy. The sun was too hot to take his father’s body back to the House of Erland, and that would be a two-day journey. But here, the vultures were already circling, and soon other predators would catch wind. At any rate, he knew being taken back to the House of Erland was not what his father genuinely wanted.
Reluctantly, Almon forced himself to make the preparations.
At last, as the sun was going down, Almon stood over a fresh mound of dirt. Underneath it, resting in a shallow grave, lay the remains of Erland Plum-Kilmer.
He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the ring: The Plum-Kilmer family crest. It felt heavy when he slipped it onto his finger. He admired it for a moment, considering what it represented, then looked over at his father’s final resting place. He wondered if a host of spirits might rush in on him after the death of the senior Plum-Kilmer. But he stood there alone, unmolested.
He ran the events of the last two days over in his mind. He immediately had regrets about the things he said, and the way he’d acted. Looking back down at the grave, Almon leaned against his shovel and thought he should say some appropriate words.
“I am now the last Plum-Kilmer that remains, and I am terrified about the future without your strength. I knew we shouldn’t have come out this far. Why wouldn’t you listen?”
That was a bad start, and his words stuck in his throat. Almon reminded himself that staying in Haverhill would not have changed a thing. Erland would be just as dead.
He looked at his dirty boots and tried to start over.
“I’m sorry. This is where you belong,” Almon said, fighting back emotion. He looked up at the remaining daylight and squinted. “You loved the Mid-Run Valley. You always have. You loved our trips. In your heart, you were always the hunter. I want you to know that I always admired you. You were always my hero. You faced death the same way you faced life: You did it on your terms. I really wish I could be more like you. There was nowhere else you would rather be than here, and so now, you will rest here in this valley forever, just as you wanted. Now you can reunite with your darling Johanna in the next life. Today marks the end of your hunt in this world. Now, you can begin your hunt in the next one. Good hunting, Erland PlumKilmer. Until we meet again.”
It was late in the evening, and Almon made camp beside where he buried his father, just to stay nearer to him once more. After a fitful, restless night, in the morning, he gathered as many stones as he could find and laid them on Erland’s grave. He took great care to mark the exact location on his map; this place was sacred ground to him.
He rode out with the morning sun, riding home alone with Erland’s riderless horse. Returning to Haverhill was a colorless journey for Almon. He rode the miles away, numb to a sense of time or direction. Luckily the horses knew their way back, and after what seemed like a blur, he was back at the House of Erland.
The next few days, he walked along the familiar pathways and empty halls of the House of Erland. The stone mansion felt more like a tomb to him now, a monument to his despair. Everywhere he looked, he saw stained glass memories of his mother, his father, and generations of the Plum-Kilmers before him. Memories lingered in every keepsake and they all made him heartsick. Everything was left in their familiar places; Almon did not have the heart to change anything, yet he resolved to spend less time there, in the House of Erland.
It took him some time to realize he was free. He had played the role of the dutiful son for so long he did not realize how much it defined him; now, having that role removed, he did not know what to do. It all happened so quickly. Unprepared for his newfound freedom, he spent his days in mourning over the loss of his normality.
That is precisely when the ghost, at last, made its entrance.