Winter remembered death well. How it took to her like a charming suitor, resplendent in his black suit and tie—haunting eyes and all. The memory held shape in the dunes that formed of snow, in the bite of frost on cheeks, in the mournful paw prints wandering through barren forests. Death came in winter. So did the dead.
But no one at the party was thinking about death or the dead. Why would they? They were all very much alive and well—for the most part.
No one in the shining hall, with the sparkling fur tree, the smell of frosted cakes and lush fruit pies and rich wine, and the floating music from a string quartette, could imagine anything but being joyful and drunk on their fortune and wellbeing. Fore isn’t that what this time of year is all about?
There was dancing. So much dancing. It was almost surprising, given the amount of food and drink being consumed by the guests. It truly was a wonder how anyone could move—or stay upright—but move they did.
Oh, how they twinkled and sparked in their Christmasy best; like pieces of wrapping paper blown by the wind. How could any of them think go anything except the wonder of the lights and merriment around them?
Outside the towering windows of the grand hall, snow was falling like cotton balls. The air was still and quiet, in the way it only can be when it’s snowing. The world seemed to glow under the brief light of the moon as it managed to peek through a sliver in the clouds. A silent raven flew across the inky sky as the clouds covered the shining crescent and snuffed out the glow. The raven let out one mournful croak before moving on.
It was indeed the darkest night of the year and the raven was not the most ominous creature about.
But, who would know when the intoxicating aroma of balsam and cinnamon and citrus swirled in the air and filled the hall like decorations. Like glittering tinsel, they clung to every surface.
Amongst the wonderful smells, the dancers kept dancing as if it was the one night of the year for it and the revelers kept reveling. All perfectly unaware of anything besides the fantastical party. As long as there was music, food, and lots of drink there was nothing at all to worry them.
In a quiet corner, where no one had been for at least ten minutes and which would remain empty for at least ten minutes more, a securely fastened branch of greenery fluttered in a nonexistent breeze. In fact, it looked just about ready to come off its hooks, but a blink later it was still again. Not one person noticed the unnatural movement.
If someone had observed the movement, they might’ve also perceived the shadowy figure drifting along the fringes of the merrymaking. Though, as soon as anyone could have beheld the figure, it was gone. Flickering in and out of existence like a firefly in the darkness. But the golden shimmering of scarlet and silver blinded the party-goers to just about everything but their own cheer.
Now, old houses such as this one are apt to be full of hauntings and paranormal happenings, but this one seemed fouler than most.
What made it fouler, I cannot tell. Maybe it was the fleeting sense of dread that suddenly filled the hearts of the dancers. Maybe it was black wax from an unknown candle dripped on brand new linens. Maybe it was the melancholic howl of some faraway hound—marking the commencement of a wild hunt; spirits abound and beasts chasing.
The hunters gathered amongst the winter dunes, prepared for their prey which lay in wait unwittingly. Their laughter and boasting were lost on the wind, only to be heard by those quiet enough to hear. Fortunately, no one was near enough or quiet enough.
The wind now began to howl with the dogs, beating unheard against the window of that old house—an unheeded warning. A desperate wail like the cry of a banshee.
But the party went on.
Above the house, a barn owl—white as the snow—took flight like a ghost, crying one last time before the last sparkling lights in the night were swallowed by darkness. Its unseen wings beat on, away from it all.
In the great hall, with the twinkling candles and overflowing array of sweets and treats, the clock struck one but the dancers kept dancing. Around them, the candles began to flicker out one by one, as if blown out by an unseen breath. The light in the hall dimmed, but laughter and merriment echoed throughout until the last light flickered and was extinguished.
The dancing stopped. The music stopped. The laughter stopped. Along with the chatting and snacking and singing. It all stopped.
Like it had never been there at all.
A handful of churchgoers, having just finished a midnight mass to celebrate the day, bracing themselves against the mid-winter wind with scarves and wool, tromped through the snow past the old house with its darkened windows. Their playful joking quieted as they went by, not wanting to disturb or even look at the house—sleeping as it always did, somewhat restlessly.
“I don’t like going past that place even in the daylight,” one whispered to the other.
“When we were coming out, I swear I could hear music in the distance.”
They both shivered and hurried on.
And above the clouds broke, letting the moon shine once again through to the silvery world below. The house stood, keeping solemn watch, empty and alone. Whatever had walked there had passed on into the silent night.