Rhys Hughes was born in Wales but has lived in many different countries and currently lives in India. He began writing at an early age and his first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published more than fifty other books and his work has been translated into ten languages. He recently completed an ambitious project that involved writing exactly 1,000 linked short stories. He is currently working on a novel and several new collections of prose and verse.


by Rhys Hughes


The stories were legends or maybe myths. Rhodri Jones realized he didn’t know the difference between the two forms as they left behind the tiny hamlet of Abergwesyn and turned westward at the junction.

No sensible man traveled that way after sunset, not even for a dare, the men back at the inn had said. But then they laughed in winking firelight so he wasn’t sure how seriously to take their words, or how seriously to regard his own dismissal of their warnings. For here he was, on that route.

The Abergwesyn Pass Road was infamously empty after dark, and he was impatient to reach Tregaron at the far end. The emptiness of the landscape was tangible and this struck Rhodri as a peculiar paradox: absence as a compressing force, nullity as irritant.

As the carriage clattered along the dark road, Rhodri tensed when he spied the isolated house on the ridge through the grimy window. His pane of glass was thick, more opaque than it should be, and splattered with mud, and the view was severely restricted, especially as there was only one light shining from the house itself. But even if there were no lights at all, he would be aware of its presence, a malformed shadow on the sloping penumbra of the hill, a blot of old sanctuary on the lonely route, the only house in the region, the remotest home of the least populated county in Wales, a stark mass.

He knew them, those tales, and he doubted their veracity with his mind but not his bones or nerves. Fear gripped him anyway, fear that couldn’t be shrugged or laughed away, no matter how rational he reminded himself he was, the businessman with an expansionist agenda, controller of workers, factory owner, his shrugs turning into convulsions or shudders, his laughter into hysterical chatter. There were no more villages on this route, no farms, not even a shepherd’s hut, no shrines, not even a bothy for the rare mountain walker.

He thought back to what he had overheard the innkeeper tell the carriage driver: “There are ghosts on that road.”

“Mayhap there are,” came the answer, then the driver added, “but we shall outrace them,” and that was the longest single speech he had given since Rhodri first hired him. Changes were afoot, but that foot was damaged, the near future that was this night limping towards distant dawn. The sun still on the other side of the world, the thickness of the entire planet between Rhodri and courage, that warming of the blood that gives a man confidence to mock spectres and dismiss supernatural events as if they are workers.

And as if reading his mind, a full moon rose over a low ridge in a part of the sky without clouds, turning, with the astonishing ease of a conjuror, the grimy window into a yellow panel, a mottled one at that.

Rhodri blinked, wiped his cheeks under his bleary eyes with a sleeve and rapped on the ceiling. “When it’s safe to go faster, kindly go faster,” he called. The visibility must be vastly improved and there was no good reason why the driver shouldn’t urge the horses to a faster trot. But whether the driver listened and heeded, it was hard to say.

He groaned as the first drops of rain, bulbous, prismatic in the moonlight, struck the window and rolled down it. Then the moonlight faded, as the clouds covered the night sky entirely.

Two ghosts were the number most frequently quoted by the myth sayers or legend barkers or whatever they might be termed. A few insisted that more were on the loose, three, four, even a dozen.

But Wales was rife with horrid entities of the imagination, the skeleton on the sloping cottage roof, the big black hound of the big black lakes, the ghouls at the crossroads. Rhodri was safe from the latter, for there were no crossroads on the Abergwesyn Pass Road, an undulating stone serpent with no turnoffs.

The carriage rolled like thunder. Barely seen hills rose and fell, gently but insidiously, on both sides. Rain pelted. The driver would be crouching in his flimsy seat, hunching the cloak higher with a jerk of his shoulders, hat slunk low over his brow, fingers curling around the reins in order to keep the tips dry.

No thunder yet, but unsurprising if it came soon, stupendous in the grubby gloom. And then a flash of jagged light, later the flash flood gushing along the valley’s gutter, the sweeping away. Rhodri gnashed his teeth. This was ghost weather.

But the hours passed and the rain remained without becoming a storm. No danger to life obtruded into his journey. Not yet. His confidence returned with grudging reluctance and he began tentatively to entertain the notion that ghosts didn’t exist. There was comfort and unease in this idea, the comfort stemming from a reduced chance of being spooked on the journey, the unease originating in the stark fact that if catastrophe happened for some other reason, landslide or lightning strike, and he died, he wouldn’t still exist in spirit form to float over a boldly useful world like a dandelion seed. He loved life so much, Rhodri did, that he would be satisfied with any form of existence.

His hand rapped on the ceiling a third time, his voice barked the question: “How far have we come? How far now to go?”

And the terse answer: “Less than halfway, but going well.”

“Fine, that’s good.”

Suddenly the carriage braked to a hideous halt, Rhodri thrown forward, forehead the pestle in a brougham wall mortar. He yowled, rubbed furiously at his brow, his shock greater than his anger, and shouted: “What happened?”

But his own mind answered the question with a brace of options. A fallen tree across the road, a boulder, a broken spoke on a wheel, a flooded sinkhole, a rogue bull, a maddened horse, a mudslide.

The driver called back: “Men ahead, flagging us down.”

Rhodri’s eyes bulged, even though there was no one to see this protrusion, and he felt a great fear. “Men, did you say?”

“I said so, yes.”

“Drive past them! Avoid them!”

But no, the men had guns, curiously outdated muskets. Though the rain was easing up, the eaves of their quaint tricorne hats dripped ponderously, a troubling anachronism. Rhodri pressed his face against the pane, rotated his eyes to complete the angle that would give him a view of the roadblock, saw outlines and damp shadows. Men in old-fashioned uniforms.

“Soldiers? Militia, but why here, at this time?”

Ghosts on the road.

The words tickled rather than burned his brain.

On the road, ghosts.

And the driver said, “They are coming. They walk to talk.”

But Rhodri had a scowl on his face, desperately churning over his objections, selecting the best one to use in the confrontation. I am a man of business, I am traveling a public highway, I must be in Tregaron before the dawn, I have paid for the brougham, my friends are influential. The driver whipped through the thoughts galloping in his head with a leathery tongue.

“Two of them.”

So the men who predicted there were two ghosts were right, thought Rhodri in resignation. He trembled only a little. He thought, The men who said there were more were wrong. Here’s the proof.

A face appeared on the other side of the pane. It was gruff, weathered but smiling, yet the smile was professional and bleak. The soldier seemed equally ready for politeness or violence. He said, “The road is closed. You must turn back.”

“I can’t hear you!”

“Unlock the door, in that case.”

“I refuse to do so.”

“Then you can hear me. But to hear me even more clearly simply open the window. A request, not a threat.”

In the pause that followed, when Rhodri made no effort to do anything, the soldier added, “Not yet a threat.”

Rhodri swivelled the frame that held the pane until the fresh air and moldy breath of the solder wafted over his face. Ghosts on the road, yes, semi-tangible and surely unaware they were dead. Kept going by the ignorance of their expiry, a pair of soldier spectres, musketeered, rotten but courteous within limits, rictus mouthed, hollow eyed, having stepped straight out of the legend or the myth, a pair of tattered ghosts on the road.

The verbose one, obviously less mangled than his fellow, spoke again, his sodden clothes gleaming sourly.

“There has been an accident. Fatal.”

“Are you certain?”

“I’m afraid so. It’s not possible for you to continue. Turn back. Our orders are clear. Return to Abergwesyn.”

Rhodri pondered. He had no intention of resisting but he wanted to ponder. A small thing to desire. He shrugged in order to delay the moment of defeat, to enjoy the few seconds remaining of the illusion that he would reach Tregaron in time. He should have taken the longer but safer route, the coast road. He should have done many things. He said, “Accident,” to himself as if he wanted to solve an age-old problem in philosophy.

He felt he understood this situation. The accident that had claimed the lives of these two soldiers, had changed them from mortals to immortals, converted them into ghosts, the same way that fire transforms houses into smoke.

“You billow and belch,” Rhodri said sadly.

“Pardon me?”

“Nothing, nothing, just daydreaming.”

“It’s night now.”

There was no escaping the inevitable will of these men. The soldier could summon his companion at any moment. Together they would drag Rhodri out of the carriage and beat him with their musket stocks, or even blast his skull into a tumble of fragments, bone dice speckled with blood for pips, double six. Would the driver come to his aid? Unlikely.

And who could blame him, alone up there on the jouncing seat, chilled and damp, poorly paid, treated with disrespect by pompous passengers, less a human being than just a part of the transportation system, a lever in a machine, armed with a whip, yes, but that alone, inadequate, laughable. If I was him, I wouldn’t stir an inch, Rhodri decided, and I would close my eyes, wait for the incident to pass, then return home, sleep deeply.

“The road is closed. There was an accident, as I have already told you, and I won’t be informing you again.”

“Fatal, you claimed,” said Rhodri, nodding.

“Turn back or else—”

Rhodri squirmed on his seat. The eyes of the soldier, deep set, tiny points of light at the end of a tunnel, became yellowish, feverish as they expanded. Were they moving forwards out of his sockets?

Ghosts that are physical can perform a number of anatomical feats denied to the living. Who had told him this? Pushed out of the head by the pressure of menace. Two dead men on the ground, ghosts on the road, strange in dress and posture, performing extinct duties, unaware of the passing of time.

Phosphorescent haloes surrounded them as they loomed and Rhodri turned away, closed the window. He rapped on the ceiling, his knuckles smarting.

“Turn around. Return!” Rhodri shouted.

“All the way to Abergwesyn?” There was no objection in the driver’s question. Rhodri nodded, although it was a gesture unseen by the fellow.

“Yes. Tregaron can wait for another day.”

“Another day indeed.” The soldier graced Rhodri’s capitulation with a nod, turned away to resume his position as sentry, his comrade leaning closer to him but saying nothing yet. The brougham was turned with difficulty in the narrow channel, but this driver was highly skilled. He managed the task.

“An accident ahead,” Rhodri said, only to himself.

The rotation was complete.

The driver flicked the reins, the wheels turned, the carriage rumbled. Rhodri crossed himself despite the fact he was agnostic, and every passing minute gave him a deeper sense of relief and this relief was mixed with his frustration that he had been barred from reaching his destination. He had a new destination now, in a direction that was opposite to a meeting with ghosts. It was a paradox but who cares about paradoxes on a road like this?

He had the leisure now to think about the soldiers. Certainly ghosts, eroded and pallid, creaky of movement, faintly luminous, warped in frame and mood, a sickly-sweet odor encasing them, doomed like diminishing echoes to repeat the same irrelevant words, to perform the same meaningless duties, to intimidate the night and warn travelers of the long-ago accident that had claimed their lives on a baleful night such as this one. He had escaped lightly, Rhodri realized, he and his driver.


The soldiers leaned on their rifles and remained silent until the carriage merged into the darkness and was gone. The sound of the wheels was lost amid the dripping of the lessening rain. The soldier who had approached the carriage gasped, sweated, unbuttoned his tunic, allowing all the tension to drain from his body. He showed fear now, the same fear he had suppressed while talking in the sternest tones to Rhodri, his knees trembled and his legs buckled. His friend held him up in a concerned grip and mumbled:

“I don’t think he’s even aware that he is dead.”

“Nor his ghastly driver.”

“That skeleton on top? Holding the reins and grinning! Just a few scraps of greenish flesh left on his cheekbones.”

“I saw it. I nearly retched. A skeleton driver.”

“Ghosts on the road.”

“The accident that claimed them…”

“They aren’t even aware. But they must be kept from Tregaron at all costs. Nobody wants ghosts as guests.”

“They must remain on the move, trundling back and forth and back again, a mobile haunting, futile travelers.”

“On the road forever.”

And they muttered away the remainder of the rainy night, while Rhodri and his driver clattered and bounced in the opposite direction, retracing their journey towards the junction where they would be forced to stop again and turn around.

A ceaseless oscillation from a point just outside Abergwesyn to a point outside Tregaron, a small eternity in no man’s land. And only a solitary house to pass on the way, a never-visited home with a single oil lamp spluttering in the window and a lean man leaning to peer. “There it goes again, that damned carriage!”

His wife grunted, “Dead.”

“Yes, ghosts without purpose. The passenger thinks he is still alive, but I’m not sure what the driver thinks.”

“They roll all night, every night, cursed.”

“Appalling, atrocious.”

“Why don’t they ever fade away?”

The man licked his lips and whispered, “They are a pair of ghosts who travel west until they meet another pair of ghosts. The second pair turn back the first pair and none of the four understand that they were slain half a century ago by a worse ghost. By that thing.”

“The big black hound of the big black lakes?”

“Yes. It emerged one night long ago and ran the length of the road, biting a throat here, a face there. Two soldiers outside Tregaron were killed, the driver of a brougham, his passenger. Then the black hound vanished back into his black lake and that, my dear, was that.”

“Are you sure the hound didn’t destroy more?”

“Who else was there?”

“On this lonely old road? Nobody, no one but us.”

“There’s your answer.”

The man moved away from the window. There was nothing to see out there now, not until the carriage returned, a few hours later.

The memory of the shapeless but powerful black hound loping along the road, changing direction when it saw the house, bursting through the door, launching itself at he and his wife, had been completely erased through the hole in the back of his head, the broken skull with serrated edges like teeth.

“Ghosts on the road,” he declared sadly.

He threw a loving arm around her shoulders and she pressed herself closer into him, feeling no warmth from his body but enjoying the sensation of touch, despite the missing chunk of her chest where her heart should be. Even affection has an echo, a truth much appreciated by ghosts, whether they are from legends, myths or true tales, no matter whether they are on a road or merely in a room of a building standing on the side of it.