This novel began its life as a flashback. It was intended to be the introduction to the next novel in the DeChance Chronicles, but when I started to write it, it took on a life of its own. As my friends Trish and Rob MacGregor would say, I was a victim of synchronicity. Nothing went as expected.
What I ended up with was a blend of several stories I have always intended to write, and a few I discovered along the way. The ending of the novel still segues into the next book – and thus – I call this a tie-in novel to The DeChance Chronicles – but it’s a story all its own – a story of poetry and magic, ravens and The Great Dismal Swamp. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.
Rather than include a lot of dedications, I’ll just thank those responsible here. First, foremost, and always, my love and thanks to Patricia Lee Macomber who was with me every inspiration of the way and helped edit and prod it into shape when I was done. She has helped me bring my writing to new levels. To my kids, who have shared my adventures here near The Great Dismal Swamp and put up with my constant babbling.
A special thanks to the amazing kinetic art of Lisa Snellings, who signed on to help create the AMAZING sculpture that was photographed for the cover, perfectly capturing what I wanted and needed for this book.
Finally – thanks to Edgar Allan Poe – for the stories, and the poetry, and for making me wonder about his lost Lenore for so long that I had to discover the story for myself.
From somewhere near The Great Dismal Swamp
David Niall Wilson
The Great Dismal swamp stretches miles and miles back from the long, man-made ditch known as the Intercoastal Waterway. The original idea was that the swamp would be logged, and then drained a section at a time to clear the land. While the logging was a great success, the draining of that ancient, primeval place was far more difficult than anyone had imagined. Engineers and investors gave up, and took to shipping lumber up and down the length of the New World via the waterway, passing all manner of barges, sailboats, and passengers from Florida across the Virginia border.
In 1829, directly on the border of North Carolina and Virginia, The Lake Drummond Hotel was built. This hotel was unique, resting half in one state, and half in the other, with a tavern in the very center. It lay only a short distance from the banks of the waterway, and not far from the shoreline of Lake Drummond, which was already famous in local legend.
The lake is a dark, mystical place. The poet Thomas Moore wrote a ballad about the ghost of a young Indian maiden who died near Lake Drummond, just before her wedding, and how her lover came to the lake, looking for her in vain. Her ghost is still said to haunt the swamp, appearing now and then, paddling a canoe, or walking out into the water.
There is a tree there so closely shaped like a deer that legend has it a witch was fleeing pursuit and turned herself into a deer for greater speed. When she found herself trapped by the lake, she transformed a second time – into a tree. This transformation trapped her and she remained by the side of the lake, her deer form captured in the warped cypress forever.
The Lake Drummond Hotel stood from 1829 until about 1840. It was famous for advertising itself as a place appropriate for drinking, dueling, trysts, and a wide-variety of shady deals. The marriage laws in North Carolina were a lot more lenient than those of Virginia. A duel, held across the state lines, one duelist on either side, presented difficulties for those prosecuting from either side of the line. Along with this, traffic up and down the waterway brought those fleeing, and those chasing, across multiple state lines.
Famous people found their way in and out of the Lake Drummond Hotel. Edgar Allan Poe almost certainly wrote his poem, “The Lake,” about Lake Drummond. He traveled through after his somewhat storied military career came to an end, and before his writing really brought him the beginnings of the small fame and fortune he achieved during his lifetime.
story has roots in reality. Lake
Drummond, and the hotel, spawned thousands.
This is only one.
The room was low-ceilinged and deep. Smoke wafted from table to table, cigars, pipes, and the pungent aroma of scented candles. Laughter floated out from the bar, separated by a low half-wall from a small dining area, where the bartender regaled the crowd with a particularly bawdy story. In the corners, more private conversations took place, and at the rear, facing the Intercoastal Waterway beyond, the door stood open to the night, letting the slightly cooler air of evening in and the sound and smoke free.
The smoke prevented the illumination from a series of gaslights and lanterns from cutting the gloom properly. Smiles gleamed from shadows and the glint of silver and gunmetal winked like stars. It was a rough crowd, into their drinks and stories, plans and schemes.
Along the back wall, facing a window that looked out over the waterway and the Great Dismal Swamp beyond, a lone figure sat with her back to the room. Her hair was long and light brown, braided back and falling over her shoulder to the center of her back. She was tall and slender with smooth, tanned skin. She was dressed for travel, in a long, floor length dress that covered her legs, while allowing ease of motion. The crowd swirled around her, but none paid her any attention.
She paid no attention to anything but the window. Her gaze was fixed on the point where an intricate pattern of branches and leaves crossed the face of the moon.
There was a sheaf of paper on the table, and she held a bit of chalk loosely between the thumb and index finger of her right hand. She formed the trees, the long strong lines of the trees, the fine mesh of branches and mist. Her fingers moved quickly, etching outlines and shading onto her sketch with practiced ease.
A serving girl wandered over to glance down at the work in progress. She stared at the paper intently, and then glanced up at the window, and the night beyond. She reached down and plucked the empty wine glass from the table.
“What are they?” she asked.
The woman glanced up. Her expression was startled, as if she’d been drawn back from some other place, or out of a trance. She followed the serving girl’s gaze to the paper.
Among the branches, formed of limbs and leaves, mist and reflected light, faces gazed out, some at the tavern, some at the swamp, others down along the waterway. They mixed so subtly with the trees themselves that if you were not looking carefully, they seemed to disappear.
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “Not yet. Spirits, I suppose. Trapped. Tangled.”
“You are a crazy woman,” the girl said. There was no conviction in her words. She continued to stare at the sketch. Then, very suddenly, she stepped back. She stumbled, and nearly dropped her tray.
The woman glanced up at her sharply.
“That…face.” The girl stepped back to the table very slowly, and pointed to the center of the snarl of branches. The tip of her finger brushed along the lines of a square-jawed face. The eyes were dark and the expression was a scowl close to rage.
“I’ve seen him before,” she said. “Last year. He…he was shot.”
“Can you tell me?”
The girl shook her head. “Not now. I have to work. If I stand here longer there will be trouble. Later? I must serve until the tavern closes, a few hours…”
The artist held out her hand.
“My Name is Eleanor, Eleanor MacReady, but friends call me Lenore. I’ll be here, finishing this drawing, until you close. I know that it will be late, but I am something of a night person. Can we talk then? Maybe in my room?”
The girl nodded. She glanced down at the drawing again and stepped back. Then she stumbled off into the crowded tavern and disappeared. Lenore stared after her for a long moment, brow furrowed, then turned back to the window. The moon had shifted, and the image she’d been drawing was lost. It didn’t matter. The faces were locked in her mind, and she turned her attention to her wine glass, and to the paper. The basic design was complete, but there was a lot of shading and detail work remaining. She had to get the faces just right – exactly as she remembered them. Then the real work would begin.
Even as she worked, her mind drifted out toward the swamp, and toward her true destination. She didn’t know the exact location of the tree, but she knew it was there, and she knew that she would find it. She didn’t always see things in her dreams, but when she did, the visions were always true.
A breeze blew in through the open window, and she shivered.
The face she was working on was that of an older man. He had a sharp, beak of a nose and deep-set shadowed eyes. The expression on his face might have been surprise, or dismay. His hair was formed of strands of gray cloud blended with small twigs and wisps of fog as she carefully entered the details.
There were others. She’d counted five in all, just in that one glimpse of the swamp. She thought she could probably sit right here, at this window, and work for years without capturing them all. How many lives lay buried in the peat moss and murky water? How many had died, or been killed beside the long stretch of the Intercoastal Waterway? She tilted her head and listened. The breeze seemed to carry voices from far away, the sound of firing guns, the screams of the lost and dying.
She worked a woman’s features into a knotted joint in one of the tree’s branches. The face was proud. Her lip curled down slightly at the edge, not so much in a frown, as in determination. Purpose. From the strong cheekbones and distinctive lines of the woman’s nose, Lenore sensed she’d been an Indian. How had she come here, soul trapped fluttering up through the sticky fingers of the ancient trees?
Around her, the sounds of revelry, arguments of drunken, belligerent men, clink of glasses, full and empty, and the sound of a lone guitar in a far corner surrounded her. She felt cut off – isolated in some odd way from everyone, and everything but the paper beneath her fingers. Now and then she paused, reached out for her glass, and sipped her wine.
No one troubled her and that in and of itself, was odd. A woman – an attractive woman – alone in a place like the Halfway House was an oddity. She should have been a target. She was not. A few men glanced her way, but something about her – the way she bent over her work, the intensity of her focus – kept them away. She worked steadily, and one by one, the others drifted out the doors, some to rooms, others to wander about with bottles and thoughts of their own. Eventually, there were only a few small groups, talking quietly, the bartender, and the girl.
There was nothing more she could do. She had drawn an eerily accurate recreation of the trees over the waterway, and of the five faces she’d found trapped in their branches. She sensed things about them but knew little. She did not need to know. She knew that she had to set them free, to allow them to move on to the next level. Something had bound them – some power, or some part of themselves they were unwilling to release. They did not belong, and though she knew that most of the world either ignored, or did not sense these things at all – she did. All those trapped, helpless beings weighed on her spirit like stones. She was fine until she saw them, but once that happened, she was bound to set them free. It was her gift – her curse? Sometimes the two were too closely aligned to be differentiated.
She rose, drained the last of the wine in her cup, and gathered her pencils. She tucked the drawing into the pocket of a leather portfolio, careful not to smudge it. Soon, it would not matter, but until she’d had a chance to finish her work, it was crucial that nothing be disturbed.
The girl, who had been busy wiping the spilled remnants of ale, wine, and the night from the various tables and the surface of the bar, wandered slowly over.
“I’m in the corner room,” Lenore said, smiling. “The one farthest in on the Carolina side.”
The girl nodded. She glanced over at the bartender, then turned back.
“I will come as soon as I can.” She glanced down at the portfolio. “You have finished?”
Lenore nodded, but only slightly. “I have finished the basic drawing, yes.”
“He was a bad man,” the girl said. “A very bad man. I have never seen him there – in the trees – before tonight. I don’t like that he watches.”
“After tonight, he will not,” Lenore said, reaching to lay her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “But I’d love to know who he is – who he was. I seldom know the faces I’ve drawn. You saw him – in my drawing, and in the trees. Most see nothing but branches.”
“I will come soon,” the girl said, turning and hurrying back toward the bar.
Lenore watched her go, frowned slightly, and then turned. She had to exit through the front door and follow a long porch along the side of the building where it turned from the saloon in the center to a line of rooms on the Carolina side. There were similar rooms on the Virginia side, but her business was in the swamp, and the corner room gave her a better view of what lay beyond.
As she made her way to her room, she heard the steady drum of hooves. She stopped, and turned. A carriage had come into view, winding in from the main road that stretched between the states. It was dark, pulled by a pair of even darker horses. She stood still and watched as it came to a halt. Something moved far above, and she glanced up in time to see a dark shape flash across the pale face of the moon. A bird? At night?
She glanced back to the carriage to see it pulling away into the night. A single figure stood, his bag in one hand. He glanced her way, nodded, and then turned toward the main door of the saloon. He was thin, with dark hair and eyes. It was hard to make his features out in the darkness, but somehow she saw into those eyes. They were filled with an odd, melancholy sadness. As he passed inside, it seemed as if his shadow remained, just for a moment, outlined in silvery light. Then it was gone.
Lenore shook her head, turned, and hurried to the door to her room. She fumbled the key from her jacket pocket, jammed it into the lock, and hurried inside. She had no idea why the sight of the man had unnerved her, but it had. And the bird. If she’d woken from a dream, she’d have believed she was meant to set him free…but she was very, very awake, and though her fingers itched to draw – to put his image on paper and tuck it away somewhere safe, she knew she could not. Not now – not yet. There was not much time before dawn, and she still had work to finish – and a story to hear. The stranger, if she ever returned to him, would have to wait.
She lit the oil lamp on the single table in her small room, opened the portfolio, and laid the drawing on the flat surface. There was a small stand nearby, and another bottle of wine rested there. She had two glasses, but had not known at the time why she’d asked for them. Another vision? She poured one for herself, and replaced the cork.
Moments later, there was a soft rap on the door. When she opened it, the girl stood outside, shifting nervously from one foot to the other and looking up and down the long porch as if fearing to be seen.
“Come in,” Lenore said.
The girl did so, and Lenore closed the door behind them.
“What shall I call you?” she asked, trying to set the girl at ease. Something had her spooked and it would simply not do to have the girl bolt without spilling her story.
“Anita,” the girl said shyly, glancing at Lenore. “I am Anita.”
“I’m glad to meet you,” Lenore said, “and very curious to hear what you have to say about the man you saw in the trees. I see them all the time, you know. In trees, bushes, sometimes in the water or a stone. It’s not very often that I meet another who is aware of them – even less often that I have a chance to hear their stories.”
“It is not a good story,” Anita said. “He was a very bad man.”
Lenore smiled again. “He’s not a man any longer, dear, so there is nothing to fear in the telling. Would you like a glass of wine?”
The girl nodded. Lenore poured a second glass from her bottle and handed it over.
“Sit down,” she said. “I still have work to do, and I can work as you talk. It will relax me.”
“I will tell you,” Anita said, perching lightly on the corner of the bed, “but it will not relax you.”
“Then it will keep me awake,” Lenore said, seating herself at her desk. “You see, I don’t just see those who are trapped, I have to undo whatever it is that has them trapped. I won’t be finished until I’ve freed them all.”
The girl glanced sharply over, nearly spilling her drink.
“Maybe…maybe it is best if this one stays.”
Lenore pulled out her pencils, and a gum eraser.
“We’ll leave him for now,” she said. “There are four others, and I can only work on one at a time. Tell me your story.”
Anita took a sip of her wine, and nodded. “His name is Abraham Thigpen. He died about a year ago but I remember it like today…”
listened, and worked, rearranging branches, shifting the wood slightly, picking
the strong woman’s face to release from the pattern first. Anita’s voice droned in the background – and
she faded into the story, letting it draw her back across the years as she
carefully disassembled her drawing, working the faces free.
The carriage pulled away, heading back to the main road and on into the plantations of southern Virginia. Edgar watched it for a moment, wishing he were continuing on, and then turned toward the main door of the Halfway House. He’d written ahead for a room, but had not been in Raleigh long enough to wait for a reply. Besides, the Lake Drummond Hotel was not the sort of place that catered to amenities such as reservations. You could let them know you were coming, but there was literally no way of knowing what you’d walk into when you arrived.
The tavern was nearly empty when he stepped inside. There was a young boy sweeping the floor, and behind the bar, an older man with well-combed gray hair and a silver mustache who was placing dried and polished glasses on the shelves. The man turned as Edgar entered.
“We’re closed, I’m afraid,” he said.
“I’m here for a room?” Edgar said. He stepped forward. “I wrote ahead. I’m hoping you aren’t full, as I need to remain for several days, if possible.”
The bartender dropped his towel on the bar and smiled.
“Ah,” he said. “Mr. Poe. We were expecting you, but I thought you’d arrive tomorrow in the day. We held a room for you, the last empty room available. I was beginning to regret not renting it.”
Edgar let out a breath. “Thank you for holding it,” he said. “I’m afraid I don’t have any way to leave, so I took something of a chance.”
“Tom,” the bartender called to the boy with the broom. “Show Mr. Poe to his room – it’s the one right next to the corner, beside Miss MacReady’s quarters. And mind you, don’t make too much noise. The hour is late, and I imagine she’s gone off to sleep.”
“Not that one,” the boy said. He grinned. “She’s up all hours – seen the light from her window on my way home a couple’a times.”
The bartender frowned. “Never you mind that,” the man said. “Do as you’re told. And speaking of home, run off when you’re done. I don’t want you missing an hour’s sleep and playing the slacker come tomorrow.”
“Yessir,” the boy replied. “Come on, Mister.”
He turned on his heel and hurried toward the door, as if afraid he’d be summoned back after all to wash another pile of dirty dishes, or mop the floor a second time. Edgar nodded to the bartender and followed Tom out into the darkness. As he stepped outside he heard the soft rustle of feathers, and he smiled. He did not look up, but instead turned down the porch.
Tom had grabbed a key on his way out of the tavern. He unlocked the door to the room, and then handed it over. “There’s a lantern in there,” he said. “Should be a coal in the fire too, if you poke at it.”
“Thank you, Tom,” Edgar said. “Am I to understand that you live on a farm?”
The boy nodded. “I got four brothers and two sisters, all older. They do most of the farming. Pa hired me on here to do odd jobs and clean up. Said I was always ‘underfoot’.”
“I wonder if you might do me a favor, then,” Edgar said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a copper penny. “I wonder if you might bring me a bit of corn.”
The boy stared at the penny, then glanced up at Edgar as if certain he was talking to a crazy man.
“Corn?” he asked.
“Corn,” Edgar affirmed. “I am partial to birds, you see. I like to feed them, and I find that if I drop a handful of corn outside my window they gather very regularly. Can you do this for me?”
Tom snatched the coin and grinned.
“You bet,” he said.
“I thank you,” Edgar said. The boy turned and hurried off into the night, as though afraid Edgar would ask for the money back.
With a chuckle and glance to the empty sky, Edgar entered his room. He left the door open a crack until he’d located the lantern. He lit it with practiced ease, turning the wick up just slightly to increase the flame’s brightness. Then he returned to the door. He closed it and locked it carefully, then laid his bag on one of the two wooden chairs and pulled it open.
The room had a small chest of drawers along the side wall, and he carefully unpacked and stored his clothing. Next he pulled out the book he was reading, a novella titled Carmen, by Prosper Mérimée, and his worn copy of Children’s and Household Tales – or – Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He set these aside almost without thought and drew forth a thick sheaf of papers bound in a ribbon, his pens, and a small bottle of ink. He glanced at the window. Through the curtains he saw that there was a light. He placed the ink, pens, and paper on the table that rested against the wall beneath the window and pulled the curtain aside curiously.
To the right, along the back of the building and on toward the tavern, only the moonlight shone down to illuminate the trees lining the near side of the Intercoastal Waterway. To the left, however, at the very corner of the building, flickering lamplight danced outside the window of the room adjacent to his.
What had the tavern keeper said? Miss MacReady? And the boy, Tom? “She’s up all hours…”
It seemed that it was true. Edgar smiled. He was no stranger to late nights. He sometimes believed he would be unable to write at all if it were not for the long hours between dusk and dawn, when the world quieted, after a fashion, the light flickered, the paper took on a yellow lamp-light hue, and his imagination wandered. He thought of his desk, and his home – and that brought him to thoughts of his wife, Virginia, and her failing health.
He turned abruptly back to the chair and opened a side-pocket on his bag. He pulled free a large, silver-plated flask and carried it to the table. The wind was picking up outside, blowing in from the south. Trees swayed, and the roaring throaty breath of the storm teased along the walls and through the slats of the roof. It was a proper night for writing, and only the words – and the whiskey – could draw him up and out of the cloud of despair that was his constant traveling companion.
Virginia was always on his mind. Theirs had been a troubled relationship from the beginning, their familial ties, and the girl’s age, but he’d seen something in her – some fragile beauty – that completed him. Now – having filled the hole in his heart, she withered, and he felt the pain like a fist squeezing the light from his world.
If only she’d listen to him. If only the things he knew – the things he could do – could ease her pain. There were curatives – elixirs – potions and charms. He knew he could restore her health, but she would not allow it. Not at what she considered to be the cost of her soul. Not if it meant becoming part and parcel to the powers that swam through the darker recesses of his mind. It was likely that she had trouble deciding if he were evil, or simply mad.
He knew that, despite her wishes, he could save her, but if he did, she would hate him. She would not be happy, and making her happy was all that he craved. Instead, she died, and he drank, and he wrote and he prayed that when all the smoke and dust had cleared that something of worth would remain.
A dark shape dropped through the light from the MacReady woman’s lantern. Edgar walked to the window, glanced out, and actually smiled. He unfastened the sash and lifted the window a crack. The scents of blooming flowers and impending storm wafted in. He lifted the window a bit farther, and with a hop, a large crow landed on the windowsill, then dropped into the room with a thud. It sat glaring at him for a moment, and then, as if satisfied in some way, began to busily and noisily preen its feathers.
“Good evening, Grimm.” Edgar said with a slight, mock bow. “And it is good to see you too. Perhaps I shall groom my mustache while you are busy, as a show of camaraderie?”
The bird glanced up at him, and then continued working over its tail feathers in complete indifference.
Edgar closed the window and took a seat at the table. He arranged his papers carefully, gathering those he’d written the night before on top of a larger stack of blank sheets. He always began by re-reading what he’d just finished. It served as a quick pre-edit, and it dropped him back into the story with a fresh ‘reader’s’ perspective of the work.
“Perhaps,” he said conversationally, “I shall write a story about a bird – a great black one who is too often inattentive. Grave things might happen to such a creature, don’t you think?”
The crow didn’t even bother to glance up at this. Edgar chuckled, and turned to the pages before him. He had meant to write a story of romance and intrigue, but as he read, he saw that – once again – the melancholy that served as his muse had taken over and driven dark spikes between the pages. It was clear that one lover must die at the hand of the other, and that the mystery would depend on the circumstances. The young man in the story was quite mad – as was so often the case – mad and absolutely brilliant. Misunderstood. Lonely.
He opened the flask and took a long pull, letting the fiery warmth of it roll back over his tongue and down through the chilly expanse of his heart. Grimm hopped to the tabletop in a flurry of wings. He turned and glared at Edgar again, looking for all the world as if he would snatch the flask and fly off with it. It was Edgar’s turn to ignore the bird.
“Leave it be, old friend,” Edgar said. “Now is not the time. You are right to disapprove, but I can’t help myself. Rather, knowing the pain that it would bring, I will not help myself.”
Then, opening the small bottle of ink, he dipped the first of his quills and began to write, dropping away into the world of the story as if it might erase the real world entirely. He told himself the protagonist’s pain was not his own, so it was cathartic to pretend that the darkness in his characters’ lives was also not his own, and to drive them deeper and deeper until what he suffered in his silence seemed smaller in comparison.
And there were the visions. As he wrote, his mind stretched. It was the only way he could describe it. He reached out to the world beyond him, linked himself to the minds and dreams of others, plucked out the things that frightened them, and made them his own. His mind blended with that of the crow as well, named Grimm for the fairy tales so well-penned by long-dead brothers. The two had traveled together, albeit in secret, for several years. The old bird lent him strength, sometimes wisdom, and more often than not the necessary inspiration to bring another tale to life.
This time it was different. Something had shifted, or changed. He could not drop into the story he was working on properly. He knew what was happening, knew what he thought must come next. He even had bits and pieces of prose handy that he felt he might make use of in the course of recording that particular vision. He could not write it. It had all disappeared from his mind like a puff of smoke. In its place – all he saw were trees.