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This is fiction but is loosely based on a real ghost story based around a house in College Street in York.
'And so even though nobody's actually seen anything, that's why many of us still keep out of that clearing,' finished the young man with a roll of the eyes that highlighted just how obviously he didn't want to be counted amongst that number.
His name was Leaping Deer and he was as tall and graceful as such an image would suggest. At fifteen he was nearly seven feet tall and towered over little Dawtrina, who had a few years on him but who was only an inch over five feet in stature.
In fact every single one of the children who sat around the camp fire were both younger and taller than Daw, a fact that she took in stride given that she was thoroughly used to looking up at most people anyway. She merely had to deal with the ongoing fact that 'most' had now become 'all', unless you included kids under ten who really shouldn't have been competition in the height stakes anyway.
Daw was still with the red skinned people whom she had saved from a dragon. Given the sheer craziness and dynamic nature of some of her earlier exploits in life, she still found it amusing that this time round she hadn't really had to do anything at all. Just being in the right place at the right time with just a little bit of useful knowledge had given her the opportunity to end five years of torment, reverse the fortunes of a once proud tribe and unite victim with tormentor in one single stroke. Every time she found a giggle at the inanity of it all, she stifled it automatically with the knowledge of what one single misunderstanding had cost her new found friends. However funny to her the end solution had been, the initial problem was certainly no laughing matter.
Daw had enjoyed the last year immensely. Her first impressions were hardly substantial: she'd come upon a woman clad in animal skins and tied to a tree as a willing sacrifice to a vengeful dragon. After freeing Half Moon and clearing up the misunderstanding that led to her offering, she had returned with her to her home village which was in a sorry state of affairs. Five years of being bled dry by a competing and highly opportunistic tribe had taken a very heavy toll.
However the past year had wrought massive change. Subservient no longer, thanks to a strong sense of anger and a pair of strange but highly efficient dragons, the tribe was well on the way to recovery. All they needed now was time for people like Leaping Deer and the rest of the next generation to grow to adulthood and the healing could really begin. They were good people and the lifting of their collective burden had brought them very much back to life. They also had a strong respect for her and her constant companions, Kitten the wild eyed cat and Petal her dragon, and Daw felt in her bones that it wasn't just because of what she had done for them but for who she was.
'What about you, Daw?' asked one of the young girls seated nearby, bringing her back out of her thoughts. 'Do you have ghost stories where you come from?'
Daw nodded and stroked Kitten who was curled up between her feet. The crowd of youngsters sitting around the fire kept quite and gazed intently at her. Even after a year They were all still fascinated at this girl, who to them was incredibly small but who had the same fire that they had, and who moreover had not just been unafraid of the dragon who had tormented their tribe but who had one of her own to boot.
Daw looked up at her dragon and Petal looked back down at her. The creature was curled up right behind Daw but even though she was small for a dragon she still towered over her companion even when lying down. She nuzzled her jaw against Daw's head and soothed her. Petal knew well which ghost story Daw was about to tell.
'Yes, we have ghost stories,' said Daw, 'and plenty of them. But more than that, I can tell you one of my own. I've seen a ghost and the ghost saw me too.'
The congregation of children let out a collective gasp. For all that their legends were full of ghosts, human and animal both, none of them had actually seen one. To them, they were just great stories and great legends.
'From what I found out later, the story goes back a couple of hundred years,' began Daw and everyone listened.
'I lived in an old city, you see. I can't really imagine a thousand years, but it's been around for longer than that, growing and changing, and a lot of the buildings are at least partly that old. Many of them were empty and because I had no family and no real friends but Kitten back then, I used to play in them. And it was in one of those that it happened.'
Daw paused, thinking back, and one brave soul chirped up, 'What happened?'
'I heard it first,' said Daw. 'It started out like something strange and unrecognisable but soon it became clear. It was a girl crying.'
'Someone else had gone in to play too?' asked the same brave soul.
Daw smiled at him. 'That's what I thought too. What else could I think? It was coming from upstairs so I went to see what was wrong. Now this was a small house, connected on both sides to other houses but there were no doors or connecting passages or anything like that. It was just an empty house that nobody used.
'So, I went upstairs. There was just one staircase that rose up just inside the front door, or what passed for one by then, and that was the only way to get up to the top floor. I'd been up there before, many times, so I knew how everything looked. There was only one room at the top of the stairs, one big room and there was a big window too that looked out on the street. I used to go up there to watch people because it was so high up and I could see so far.
'Anyway, I went up but there was nobody there. And what was really strange was that I could still hear the crying. I looked around everywhere which didn't take long because there wasn't exactly much left to hide behind, but there was nobody. I put my ears up against the walls because there were other houses to each side, remember, but the crying wasn't coming from any of those. It was right there in the room but I was the only person there and it certainly wasn't me! I felt very strange, partly because of the crying and partly because Kitten had stayed downstairs. She's the toughest cat in the world and she didn't come upstairs and I didn't know why, at least not then.'
The one voice brave enough to interrupt interrupted again. 'But you said you saw a ghost. How did you see it if it couldn't be seen?'
'Ah, I'm getting to that, Grey Feather. Have patience! As I said, I was the only person there and yet I could still hear this crying. And eventually it faded away and was gone. And shhh,' she said heading Grey Feather off before he could speak this time, 'I'm getting to that too!
'Well, I went home, or what passed for home, back to the orphanage, and it stayed with me for a while. Over time what felt strangest was that I hadn't felt strange, if you see what I mean. Here was something really bizarre going on and I didn't feel threatened or anything. It was like it was perfectly natural without being perfectly natural at all. So I went back.
'And I went back and I went back and nothing happened at all. Until one day when I finally heard it again. It came just as it did before, starting with a weird sound that couldn't be recognised but turning into the unmistakable sound of a little girl crying. And I was already upstairs this time and I was definitely the only one there. Kitten had run off downstairs. I checked the room to make sure, just as I had done the first time, and I checked the walls to each side and I even went to the window to look out to see if anything was going on out there on the street.
'That's when I felt the chill. It was suddenly really cold so I jumped back just as an instinctive reaction and the chill was gone. It was only there in that one spot by the window. I checked by going in and out of it and it was definitely only in that one place. And I think that my doing that is what made her appear because when I sat back to think about it, facing the window, she appeared in front of me.
'She was a little girl, just like I'd imagined from the sound, but she was thin, incredibly gaunt and thin and she was looking out of the window just like I had always done. Then she started pounding on the glass. I couldn't hear her pounding which was strange because I could still hear her crying but she kept on pounding all the same. Finally she sank back as if she'd run out of energy, turned round and looked directly at me for what felt like a long, long time, and vanished.
'And I never saw her again,' finished Daw.
'But who was she?' asked a little girl who in this tribe was still well over five feet tall. 'Why was she crying?'
'I wondered that too,' said Daw. 'I mentioned it to a few of the children at the orphanage and even asked Matron but nobody told me, either because they didn't want to or they didn't believe or they just didn't know. I have no idea. It was only much later that I found out. An old man I used to visit told me. He had a... well, he had an animal that I used to visit and we talked a lot about all sorts of things. And he told me.
'It was a couple of hundred years ago, like I said. The city was suffering from plague, a disease that ended up wiping out half the city. Early on everyone was scared stiff of catching it and so whenever they found a new case, they sealed them up so that they couldn't pass it on to anyone else. It was passed by contact, you see, and so without any contact it would die out with the people it had infected. That was the thinking anyway.
'This house with the big window was owned by a couple who had a young daughter. At some point, one of the parents came down with plague so the city folks sealed off the house so that they wouldn't be a threat. Plague killed anyone who caught it and if one person in a house had it then everyone else there would have it very soon if they didn't already. And they'd die too. So the house was sealed off. They blocked off the door so nobody could come out and they left the house well alone.
'Sure enough the parents died and quickly too. But what they hadn't counted on was that not everyone who came into contact with plague died, and that they didn't understand. So even when the parents were long dead, the little girl was fine, now an orphan just like me. She had some food in the house so she lived on, healthy and lively, but of course that ran out quickly. And she couldn't get out. She banged on the big window in the big room upstairs but nobody would break open the door. She was stuck there with nobody willing to go in or let her out, nobody willing to find some way to get food in to her or water or anything. They were still scared stiff that she might yet be suffering from plague and she'd pass it on to them.
'So they left her in there to die. Which she did, in the end, in the big room upstairs. And every now and then, years after she died and plague was gone and life could go on again, people could still hear her crying. Sometimes they could even see her banging on the windows, hoping that someone would take pity and let her out. She'd lost her parents but at least she hadn't succumbed to plague. All they had to do was let her out and she'd be fine. But of course nobody ever did and now nobody can.'
There was a collective hush around the camp fire. The giant children of the tribe had told a variety of stories, all of which they'd heard before and all of which had lost their power. Here was a story from somewhere else, a story they hadn't heard before and one that was even more powerful than theirs. And Daw had seen it for herself and this little girl ghost had even looked directly at her. They were stunned, pure and simple, and nobody wanted to follow Daw's story.
For Daw's part, she sat there, quiet, stroking Kitten who wasn't even upset with her for telling how she'd stayed away from the ghost. Petal rested her head down on Daw's shoulders and nuzzled her softly.
And some time later the sun rose.
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