The young soldier, a traveler from a city near the northern coast of Spain, plodded through the ancient cemetery, searching for the burial place of a long dead relative. The graveyard lay near a line of stony battlements, part of Spain’s defenses against the French during Napoleon’s invasion nearly a century before. As he wandered among the monuments, a morning chill cut through his half-opened woolen jacket. Flinching from the biting cold, his hand squeezed the estate document confirming the internment. A hero, the account proclaimed, of the Spanish in their fight against the French. Continuing his quest, the young man searched each stone and statue, looking for the familiar family coat of arms adorning the monument.
It had been a long and arduous journey, and with each step over the hard rocky ground, the soldier’s calf muscles ached. Stopping near an oak tree, he found rest on a random headstone. It angled slightly from many years of settlement and abuse, but it was sturdy nonetheless. The neatness of the stone’s engraving reminded him of his own boyhood carvings. However, as the soldier began to read aloud the inscribed name, “Armond…” another chill wind came, temporarily distracting his effort. Long dead oak leaves swirled about the gravesite and watching their dance, the soldier felt a stirring within his conciseness. There followed the soft and remarkably elegant voice of a man.
“Winter comes early, does it not?”
It came from behind the gravestone. Bemused, the young man turned to greet the stranger. However, the cemetery was empty, except for the soldier; he was utterly alone.
The voice came again, this time with more clarity.
“Greetings gentle stranger! I was not expecting a visitor on such a bleak autumn morning. It pleases me that you stopped here to rest your bones.” Startled the young man froze in place, listening, but not yet understanding the nature of the voice, nor it’s intention.
“Forgive the ghastly appearance of this stony ground; the years have been less kind to those of us who share the confines of this place. Are you lost, or simply searching for a kin from early times?”
After surveying the ground near the stone, the soldier relaxed his guard and pondered the question. He thought to solicit the voice on the placement of his kin; however, uncertainty overruled the action. After a short reprieve, the voice revealed the unseen persona and its true intention.
“My name is Armond Balosteros. Long have I been interred in this desolate place. Your attention to my fateful story is welcome, so if I may be so bold, please humor me and stay awhile.”
The soldier, weary from his journey and too confused to challenge his own senses, considered the offer. It was obviously a daydream - possibly the effects of a recently emptied flask of brandy. “Perhaps it is just my imagination and the effects of the cold,” he mused. Sitting back in stoic silence against the tilted headstone, he closed his eyes as the storyteller began his tale.
“It was on a mild September morning that my fate was sealed by the length of a hangman’s rope. This severe punishment coincided with a broken friendship, caused by the course of unfortunate historical events. You see, a friend, tainted by life’s reversals, offered his assistance. In the end, betrayal was his game. I entrusted my most cherished possessions to this so-called friend. However, it was not my land, buildings, livestock and earthly staples. They were forfeit to the state. My chief concern was the safeguarding of my children. Their security was to be secured by the preservation of my family’s hidden heirlooms, a sizable stash of coin.
I must now persist in exposing this treachery and how within a few days of judgment, my friend contrived to steal my wealth. As an act of trust, I placed my holdings with a man from the coast named Rodrigo. I myself hailed from Salamanca. Rodrigo and I shared schooling in Madrid, two lads sent into the care of the Jesuits. Our fathers were wealthy landowners, and as part of the privileged class, it was required that we should pass into manhood with the rudiments of discipline and culture. We received all that the church had to offer in the way of Christian salvation. However, after the unfortunate passing of my father, I returned home and took over the management of the estate. Two seasons hence, my mother passed on, dying of consumption, leaving me sole heir of the estate. Alone at the age of twenty-six and longing for companionship, I chose to take a wife.
From all corners, fathers and clergy offered widows and daughters to share my bed in marital bliss. I rejected most candidates as being either amazingly dimwitted or too portly for my liking. Nevertheless, a local commoner, a wistful farm girl named Esmeralda caught my eye. Against the railings of many elitist friends, we married and within a year, a beautiful daughter was born. Three years hence, my son arrived kicking and screaming his way into the world. Unfortunately, his birth was not without complication, which led to a decline in Esmeralda’s health. Not quite thirty, she developed a sickness that left her unable to manage the household. However, she had bore me two fine children and their affection for each other and their mother made me proud.”
The young officer stirred as another gust of wind blew leaves into his face. Now longing to know more, he re-positioned himself and pleaded with the voice, “Do continue sir, whoever you may be. You seem to have captured me in this dream and I am loath to retreat from it.” The voice continued, now more assured of a ready ear from his guest. To be continued.....
Full story published in "Tales of Horror and the Unexplained"