Runner-Up in our Ghost Story Competition: Aisling Phillips
Once again, thank you to those readers who entered our Ghost Story Competition. We are delighted to announce Aisling Phillips as our runner-up with her story The Winter Cat and will be putting a £10 book token in the post.
The Winter Cat by Aisling Phillips
Emma shivered as she noted that the snow outside now had a sheen on it that would crunch underfoot in the morning. Her eyes trailed up towards the frozen pond, thinking about what Henry had told them all downstairs earlier. Her brother-in-law seemed to have a penchant for telling unusual tales, particularly regarding the supernatural, although she had a feeling he was making this one up.
What had woken her? She wasn’t a light sleeper by any means, yet something had penetrated her dreams enough to make her leave the comfort of her bed and get up to investigate. But investigate what?
The house stood out in the hamlet, pinkish-grey against the green and brown of the leafless trees that looked black in the darkness, a gothic mansion that had fallen somewhat into disrepair over the years and eventually been taken over by Henry’s family in the 1990s. It was just the sort of house that was expected to have a few ghosts in it. Even so, the story Henry had conjured up that evening was a strange one.
It had started with her father’s comment that this must be quite an old house, probably from the Victorian era, and Henry, seeking, as usual, a reason to show off his knowledge about everything in the universe, had replied that the De Winter family had once lived there. The De Winters were well known for setting up the De Winter Park Zoo, home of the rare black rhinos, the Tibetan snow leopards and the northern hairy-nosed wombat. Lord De Winter had been one of those famous Victorian eccentrics who had loved animals and kept a whole menagerie in his grounds. Apparently, his daughter Victoria had tamed a snow leopard cub and it had become her pet, staying by her side day and night.
“The place went to rack and ruin, of course, after Hugo died,” Henry went on, referring to the last of the De Winter line, Victoria’s younger brother. “Strange how he died, only a month after his sister fell through the frozen pond and got hypothermia. Makes you wonder if he had anything to do with that after all Victoria was the favourite child.”
“What was strange about his death?” Emma had prodded him.
“His face was scratched like he’d been attacked before he fell from the tower.”
“Perhaps the snow leopard attacked him.”
“Oh no. You see, Victoria’s pet died only a couple of days before she did.” Henry frowned. “Curious, it just dropped dead, apparently, almost like… well, almost like it had been poisoned or something.”
Henry looked up as the floorboards above them creaked. “Oh, this place makes noises like that all the time. Perhaps she’s still wandering the place like she used to back then.”
Feeling too tired to think about it anymore, Emma stepped back from the window only to hear a low sound, like a rumble, a deep rumble like someone mining underground or a train running past. She turned, fumbling for the lamp, and switched it on. The room was empty. Frowning, because the rumbling hadn’t ceased, she stepped cautiously towards the door, and looked out into the corridor. The floorboards were creaking again with a light tread like someone was walking ahead of her, yet there was no one in sight. Compelled to find out what was going on, Emma hurried softly after whoever it was, following the sounds to the steps that led up to the tower room. She hesitated on the bottom step and the rumbling momentarily ceased. In her mind, she envisioned whoever or whatever it was turning its head to see if she was coming, waiting for her.
Something, she realised, wanted her to follow it up to the top of the tower. Somehow she managed to mount the stairs and open the door. As she did so, the quiet little room at the top suddenly erupted into activity as in front of her a giant spotted white cat materialised and leapt at a man standing by the window, yowling and clawing. The man cried out, blood running from the wounds the snow leopard was inflicting before toppling out of the window, thrown off balance by the attack. Both figures fell out of view and Emma raced to the window, her heart racing as she tried to process what had just happened. She looked down and realised that only the man lay dead in the snow below. The leopard was gone. She closed her eyes. The rumbling… the rumbling had been purring…
“Emma! Emma, wake up, you sleepyhead! You’ll miss breakfast!”
She blinked, and her sister’s face swam into view. Lacey grinned at her. “You were so deeply asleep I thought I’d have to drag you out of bed!”
Emma smiled, relieved to be back in her room. “Had a strange dream, that’s all.”
“Mm, something strange is going on in this place.”
“What do you mean?”
Lacey crossed over to the door and pulled it open. Emma stared and then threw the blankets off her, her heart racing wildly as the memory of the dream came back to her. All across the carpet was a long trail of giant, wet, snow-filled paw prints…