Crows On Poles

Beginning to get the message.

Michael had been navigating using the road map they always carried in the boot of the car. Occasionally, ‘the mother’ would shout out contradictory directions and always, Michael followed hers. They were getting closer and the closer they got, the heavier their forebodings became. They had not seen any signs of the leathers for some miles but had seen some huge gatherings of crows and ravens. They blotted in the air, a warning of something past or yet to come.

When they reached a small T junction, Mother and son were amazed to see the fresh tyre tracks lining the surface. A sign told them that the village of  Hepley was just one and a half miles away whilst the one pointing to the right indicated that Ravenshead was another ten. 

“I have a feeling,” Laura said, “I have the strangest feeling that the people who were in that car are now in danger.”

“I do too mum. Look over there.”

Laura followed her son’s finger and saw a huge swarm of large black birds circling and falling to the earth. They had found something. Laura swung Brian’s wheel to the right knowing that it could be a costly mistake. 

They travelled on for maybe a mile and then found the place where the car had left the road, Manic skid marks led to the gaping wound in a wall. Some of the stones were marked with paint that had been scraped off and the ground showed evidence of the crash with shards of glass, body trimming and part of a bumper testimony to the event. Brian was eased to a halt.

“Looks like they crashed through there. By the size of the tracks, it was a big vehicle,” surmised Michael.

Laura nodded without saying anything. She was more interested in the other tracks that emerged from the stand of trees to her left and disappeared through the gap in the wall. She counted about twelve pairs, but she could not be sure. There was a muttered, “No,” from ‘the mother’.

“Have you seen the footprints Michael?”

Michael had just noticed them and recognised what they were.

“Looks like our friends ran into some of the leathers. Be careful.”

Michael did not need to be told to be careful as he was already out of the car, walking over towards where the strangers vehicle had smashed through the wall. When he got there, he peered down the sharp slope, through the trees where a path had been bulldozed by the vehicle that was lying jammed between the banks of a stream whose waters were rushing in through the open doors and above the level of the seats. From here, he could see that the driver’s seat was empty, the door flung open, hanging askew from only one hinge.

“There’s a car down there but there doesn’t seem to be anybody in it. I’m going to check. Mum, keep a look out for anything suspicious.”

For Laura, it was all suspicious but she knew what he meant. She climbed out of the car leaving the keys engaged in the ignition. There was no sound coming from the nearby trees, no birdsong or anything, and this was more unnerving than the obvious signs of leathers, for Laura could see numerous rooks and crows sitting on the branches of the trees from which the things must have emerged.

Michael descended the slope quickly using broken trunks and branches for support. He slipped couple of times but was able to correct this with the aid of the surrounding foliage. When he reached the banks of the stream that was flowing at a furious rate, he understood fully what had occurred. He stepped in the icy flow and stepped carefully towards the open driver’s door. Once there, he noticed the marks left behind by a copious outpouring of blood. With this amount of blood loss, he could not imagine anybody surviving for long, especially not in these conditions.

The passenger door to the front and rear were hanging open too. Scattered on the back seats were sleeping bags, rucksacks and food. Whoever was in this vehicle left in a hurry, leaving behind all those things that were essential for short-term survival. Michael was sure that at least one of the travellers had not survived the initial accident whist the others, well anything might have happened to them.

“Michael,” it was his mother calling from above, “are you alright down there? Have you found anyone?”

“No. Just a car and there’s nobody in it.”

“Come back up then, I don’t like this.”

Michael did not like it either. Touching the car had been like touching a freshly dug grave. He started back up the slope, this time using the branches even more to aid his ascent.

“Let’s get going,” he said when he was back in the car. “Turn the car around and head back the way we came. I think some of them have already arrived and they’ve started the job a little earlier than planned. Laura drove on a little way to a wider stretch of the road and did a 180 degree turn. As they drove slowly past the scene of the accident, Laura internalised a prayer for the people who had been in the car. 

They moved with a little more speed than was wise. Anyway, there were definite signs of a thaw arriving. Run-off water was growing in volume and beginning to wash away some of the snow. There was a suggestion of sunshine from the east that brought some relief to their artic states.

‘The mother’ was mumbling again, speaking words and half words that nobody understood. Regardless of the words being so foreign to the ears of Michael and his mother, her children seemed to understand what she was saying. They, Rachel and Joshua, were holding her as she mumbled in something that was not English.

“She wants you to stop the car,” translated Rachel. “She says there are some people in great danger.”

Laura eased back on the accelerator and changed gears rather than braking. Brian pulled safely to a stop. Everything was still. Then some more mumblings.

“She says they are coming over the hill,” added Rachel pointing to a slope on their right. 

Their heads swung around and surveyed the pristine covering of snow seconds before a head, caught the morning sun, showed itself.

No double-take was necessary as Michael and Laura sprang from Brian’s warm interior. Michael was quickly over the roadside wall and striding up the hill. His mother was behind him, unable to keep up, yet still scouring the hilltop for signs of leathers. She was not to be disappointed. Some forty yards behind the first figure was a pack of leathers moving in the relentless manner, loping strides eating up the ground, that they were to become accustomed to.

“Michael, there are leathers. Take care.”

This was the second time she had urged caution and he was not about to ignore it. He looked up the hillside and noted that the first figure stumbling down the hill was carrying something, a bundle wrapped up in their arms. It was obviously heavy because the strain of it was evident even from this distance. Then the figure tripped, fell face forward and dropped the bundle so that it skidded in front of them, sliding along the snow on its own.

The Leathers proceeded without breaking stride, their progress cutting the space between them and their prey. Michael broke into a sprint that surprised him. He reached the bundle just before the figure had raised itself to its feet. The tiniest cry escaped the bundle, a cry that could only belong to a baby or small child. He knelt and picked it up only to have it knocked from his grasp by the person who had been carrying it. The bundle fell on the soft snow once more and Michael had the air punched out of him. He went down as if hit by a train.

The impact must have been forceful as it also took the breath away from the assailant as well. Valuable seconds rolled by with Michael and his attacker on the ground. For the first time, Michael was able to see firmly into the eyes of the other and he saw naked fear.

“It’s okay, we’ve come to help.”

Gasping for breath, the other nodded as best he could. Michael thought he seemed on the edge of collapse.

“I’ll carry the baby. You just run.”

The footsteps were almost upon them as they raised themselves to their feet and then into a semblance of a run. Laura had reached them and was able to offer support to the person who had been carrying the child. 

When they eventually reached the safety of Brian, they pushed the fugitive into the back, a space rapidly created by the mother and her children. Michael sat in the front with the baby and Laura pressed down firmly on the accelerator. As they pulled away, Michael noticed that the group of leathers were having some trouble surmounting the wall.

A Cold Embrace

Baptism

The car was wedged between the banks with the stream reaching the door sills.

When they came to a final rest, they were facing back up the slope down which they had unintentionally travelled. Ian was slumped over the wheel, a deep cut to his temple letting blood at an unhealthy rate. Sue and Jason had not been wearing seat belts and they had been thrown around significantly, causing minor cuts and bruises, but also bringing about a concussion in Sue that was just on the verge of announcing itself. Louise had held on to Tom and neither of them had sustained anything more than shock. She could see dark shapes inching their ways towards them. She had been here before and she knew what to do.

She quickly unbuckled herself and was opened the door. She grasped Tom, intent on never letting him go, and planted a foot in the stream. The brutal waters flowed in through her boots washing away any residue of fuzzy thinking. In the back, she heard the thick voice of Sue, swimming through the first stages of concussion, but still aware of the danger they were in.

She was struggled with the door handle, wondering why it would not open; the previous owner of the car had been a father of three small children and used child locks. The more Sue struggled, the greater the pressure mounted in her head. A hammer was being swung.

Jason pulled at the handle before deciding to take the rooute that Louise had taken. Outside, in the cold, rising waters, Louise ppulled hard on the passenger door and Sue was free. Her face was painted with a ghoulish grin of gratitude and she almost fell out.

“What about Ian?” asked Jason seeing the motionless form of the driver slumped at the steering wheel. But Louise had crossed the short distance to the other bank and was climbing up the other side. Sue was attempting to do the same, but her steps where heavy and unsure and more than once she stumbled forward onto her hands and knees. Through the driver’s side window, Jason was left in no doubt about the his plight so he followed the others.

Louise was at the top of the slope when she heard Sue scream. The first scream was one brought on by shock, the ones that followed were different. Louise did not look back even as she heard something clambering up the bank behind her. He arms were aching from the exertion needed to hold the child, but she kept climbing. 

Before her was a hillside rising away, its flanks covered in virgin snow, untrodden. Then something crept upon her from behind.

“Wait for me!” 

The first thing she saw was her own daughter, arms outstretched at the end of a long day, welcoming mummy. The second thing she saw was Jason and behind him their pursuers.

Into The Arms Of Death

An embrace to remember.

Thye had made a break for it and stole the keys to a vehicle. Now they were out on the open road travelling at a steady speed. Louise sat in the front, holding Sam the toddler she claimed as her own and Ian drove. Ian never mentioned the past, he just seemed to be getting along with the present. In the back sat Sue, a mousy haired woman in her early forties and Jason, red hair pulled back into a pony tail and toped off with a red bandana. Neither of them spoke much as the winter landscape ran alongside.

They were escaping once more, convincing themselves that it was the new threat that was driving them from the group. Louise had always known when to run, how to avoid the perils of The Purge and how to survive. She was at work when it happened. There was a big explosion, people were thinking it was a bomb and then the first of the alarms sounded. Everybody made for their phones. 

The next day had been wiped from her mind. She’d done a cleansing job, brushed away those things that were going to be painful for her. She never returned home to see if her husband had somehow made it through the city and she had never got as far as the nursery in which her young daughter was waiting. Instead, she ran and hid, ran and hid until she reached the edges of the city.

At some point, she had stopped hiding in the dark and had ventured into an empty house. No sounds, no signs of life, she felt safe enough to spend the night in a bed. 

The house stood in its own space on the edge of a field. Dusk was creeping along, a cold mist settling on the grass. Behind her, the city continued to explode, plumes of smoke running upwards before billowing out like deadly toadstools. The city was shrouded and awaiting its last rites.

Stepping on a stair, almost halfway up, she surprised herself with the reaction a creak had brought about. She froze, waited, expected a quick rush of death, but there was nothing, just the night. And then, the sound of a baby crying.

Louise found him in a small bedroom, hidden in a recess behind a heavy pine wardrobe. He was soiled and scared, but most of all he was hungry. Louise held him close, ignoring the whiff, squeezed him tightly as if he were her own and had finally found some food that he would eat. She was still a good mother.

Ian’s concentration was locked on the road immediately ahead, so when a mass of people jumped out from stand of trees that were growing on the blindside of a tight bend, his reaction was to avoid them. He could have counted at least six heavy thumps as each of the bodies collided with the vehicle. The back end of the car swung out. He lost control as it smashed through the barrier and went hurling down a steep slope. Nobody had the chance to scream as they descended an embankment and landed in a rapidly flowing stream.

Shock swept over them. Then things got worse.

Bad Man Cometh

For Christmas.

‘The mother’ shifted uncomfortably and a low moan escaped her.

“Yes, that’s what your dad became. He wasn’t always like that.”

The conduit had opened and the boy was released from his silence.

“Was it the bad man who did this? Was it he one with the sweet songs?”

A little perturbed, Michael decided to press the younger boy.

“Have you seen the bad man?”

“Oh yes. He comes in my sleep. He tells me that he has a place where all children can be. He says that there it is good. No bossy grown ups, no worries. He tells me that we will be happy there, me and Rachel. Rachel is my sister.”

The boy nodded to the girl who was still snuggled in her mothers arms, a hand clasped around her head and over her ears as a form of protection.

“He asked me to promise that I would not tell anybody.”

“But you’re telling me.”

“I wouldn’t promise. I don’t like him.”

“What’s your name?”

“Josh. Mum calls me Joshua. Everybody else just calls me Josh.”

“I’m …”

“You are Michael and that is Laura and she is your mum.”

The boy had obviously been paying attention to their conversations.

“You have a brother called Christopher and another called Pete.”

Laura stood on the brakes sharply and the car skidded a distance on the frozen surface.

“How do you know about Christopher and Peter?” she demanded.

The boy was not put off by the urgency in Laura’s voice but continued as if he was relating back a day at school.

“I see them all the time. Since the day it all happened, since Dad joined the bad man, Chris and Peter have come to us. The sat with us in the cellar and said it would be alright, that you were coming and that you would save us. The bad man said that it was all lies and that only he could help us, but we didn’t like the bad man. He took our Dad. Now he has got Mum somewhere and he’s not letting her leave.”

Laura, who had known the dark places The Piper could take one, touched the boy’s hand.

“It’s going to be alright. Your mum will come back.”

“Like you did?”

Again the shock of him knowing sent a wave against her fragile barriers that guarded what was left of normality.

“Yes, like I did.”

“They are going to a castle. That’s where the Resistors are. A castle.” 

‘The mother’, the manic stare less unnerving than before, reached out her own hand and closed it upon Laura’s wrist. The white heat of the connection was not lost upon her and the image of her long lost sister flashed upon her mind.

“Christopher is in danger!” then the woman fell back to her previous state. 

Rachel, the young girl started to move. Unhooking herself from her mother’s grip, she sat upright and smiled momentarily it was snatched from her face once more.

“He’s looking at us,” she said pointing to the leather who was staring into the car as if noting each of the faces in turn. It then moved towards them and tried the door handle on Michael’s side and, not being locked, it opened easily. 

The girl let out a peel of horror as the leather lay hold of Michael’s neck before it recoiled, struck by something that sent it reeling across the icy surface and falling flat on its back with an unnatural thump. Michael, his expression impassive, closed the door. His mother, another bolt of the supernatural to deal with, found a smile.

“What happened there?”

“Sometimes they get more than they bargained for. Now let’s get going before he decides he wants some more. Is there a map in here Mum?”

“I think there’s one underneath your seat. It’s probably old but so is this castle.”

The car was moving again, leaving the twitching leather to perform its rendition of Bambi on ice. Michael quickly found the pages he needed remembering the road signs they had passed.

“Castle Stewart. Here it is. It’s near a village called Hepley. I think we need to carry on along this road for another fifteen miles or so. We should reach the National Park and then it’s lots of small country roads. We’ll have to take care.”

With renewed optimism, the group re-launched their journey. Michael and his mother were happy at the thought of finding Chris knowing that they still had much to do to locate Peter. The ice that was protecting ‘the mother’ and her young was starting to melt. Soon all channels could be open.

Dawkins, their unwanted passenger remained still in the boot space. For his fellow passengers, he seemed little more than another spent victim of the evil that was being played out.

However, spent was not the word he would have used to describe the plans he was devising. 

The Dead Of Winter

The one truly overlooked benefit of buying a Volvo was that, as a free introductory gift for a limited period only, every new Volvo estate was sold with a free set of snow chains!

Laura had often wondered what the chains were meant to be used for and had resigned herself to never knowing. Michael, being Michael, knew exactly what they were and how they could help them on this particularly icy morning.

“They’re snow chains Mum. You know, you put them round your tyres and they give you extra grip. That’s why the Swedes can drive so well in winter.”

“What have the Swedes got to do with this?”

Learning something new everyday had become the byword for survival in this new world, but learning about the origins of Volvos and the uses of snow chains was not a lesson his mother expected. However, once they had been fitted, it made driving much less lethal. 

They had packed up their belongings, eaten some provisions and had set off on their journey. The wide expanse of trodden snow was visible in the fields through which the army of leathers had travelled.

For some of the time, they could navigate by simply following the tracks. Laura was reminded of the aerial photographs of the Nazca Valley. As with those lines, so long without explanation, these were being made by creatures lost to comprehension. Perhaps one day would reveal them to be made of matter that was more explicable than seemed the case now.

However, Laura was not looking for understanding; the cold fear that was in her blood told her that nothing could make sense of these times. They had encountered one of them before. Now they were in their hundreds, each one having overcome the ultimate conqueror, death. So how could a handful of survivors begin to defend themselves in battle? Their only option was to run, run very fast and run very far away.

Their compass for the journey was ‘the mother’. That is what Laura and Michael knew her as since she was rarely out of the state that inhibited her communication beyond the nods or shakes of her head. However, there  was something that she had been communicating with and this kept the two alert.

Since starting the journey, Laura’s eyes had been firmly rooted to the road ahead. They were travelling at a speed of around twenty miles an hour, not fast but faster than the leathers could travel. Once or twice along the way, they had seen the odd leather emerging from some house or barn, its head tilted as if in a temporary state of confusion. The sound of Brian approaching had no impact upon the things, no recognition or indication giving away any sense that the creatures were aware of anything outside of its prime directive. At one point, Michael asked his mother to slow the car right down so that it moved alongside a particular leather at walking pace.

The leather they had picked was one of the old ones. By the state of his clothes and skin, he could have been anything between forty to fifty years in the making. He had what remained of a wayward beard and was wearing clothes that could have belonged to a scarecrow. Laura thought that if she had seen the thing up close, positioned in the middle of some field, she would not have thought it to be a scarecrow, for giant crows. It walked in the way that the older ones did, a loping stride suggesting that this movement was new or completely forgotten, one foot being placed in front of the other by a force that was not of its own. What was certain was that it had a real sense of where it was going.

‘The mother’ sat with her eyes riveted to the floor. She understood what was out there and did not want to see it. The daughter too looked away. The son, on the other hand, was as intrigued by the strange scarecrow as Michael.

“Is it dead?”

For an instant, Michael was not sure who had spoken or weather it had been just his imagination.

“Is it dead, the man?”

Michael turned around in his seat still trying to keep most of his attention focused on the leather.

“Yes, it’s been dead a long time.”

The boy considered this, his eyes narrowing with concentration.

“Is that what Dad was?”

Big Footed Naked Guy With Bells

No goodwill to all men.

Chris could not wait. As soon as the sky began to lighten, he rushed towards the bedroom into which Graham and Judith had returned. His knocking, so insistent, awoke more than those he had intended to awake. A very tired looking Judith peaked through the gap between door and frame. She had been asleep for no more than four hours.

“Christopher, what is it?”

Chris detected a vague note of annoyance. Judith, he was sure, had a side to her that would very rarely tolerate irrational behaviour from any body. Although he was certainly forever in her good books, he saw a spark if impatience flash past her eyes.

“Judith, is Graham awake?”

“No, he’s still sleeping,” a self piteous groan crept from the bed that told otherwise. “He had a lot to drink last night and now he is suffering. Could you come back later perhaps? When he is better.”

Chris stood and thought for a time before he answered.

“No, I can’t. It’s really important.”

“It’s not about you and Lucy is it?”

“Me and Lucy? No. Why would it be about me and Lucy? It’s about something I saw last night, something on the edge of the lawns.”

“What did you see?” demanded a voice from within the room. “Come in immediately and tell me.”

If drunkenness had sat upon him when first knocked from sleep, it had now been shrugged off. Judith opened the door and allowed the boy to enter. Sitting up in a huge bed, Graham Hunter looked every inch of a man to the manor born. Clothed in complimentary silk pyjamas, bleary eyes and self-standing hair, he was the epitome of an eccentric aristocrat.

“What did you see, Chris?”

Chris took a intake of breath before starting. He told them about the library and how he and Lucy had gone there to talk. At this point he noted the exchange of almost imperceptible looks between the two adults yet continued without bothering to explain. When he reached the point about the figure standing partly hidden by the tree-line, there was a change of mood.

“What type of figure,” asked Judith, “male or female?”

“I think it was male. From where I stood, I think it was pretty well made and tall. I watched it for some time without it noticing me. We had no lights on in the library. Well, we did, but only a little torch and that was placed on the floor. I don’t think it could have been seen from outside. Anyway, I watched this thing and it just stood there watching the castle. I looked away for less than a second to tell Lucy about it, but when she looked, it had gone, completely disappeared. I watched from window of  my room for most of the night just to see if it would return. It never did.”

“It might have been a trick of the light, or an animal,” was Judith’s addition.

“Yes, I thought about that. So, I went outside as soon as it got light. I went to the place I thought I had seen the figure and do you know what? I found some footprints.”

“What type of footprints?” asked Graham.

“Human ones. I followed them for a while and they led all the way out of the grounds. There was a sharp frost last night which meant the surface of the snow turned to think ice. When I walked on it, my weight barely caused a crack, but these footprints were massive, almost twice as big as mine and they must have carried some weight because they sunk deep into the lower layers of snow. I could have carried on following them but I didn’t think it would be the best thing to do. So I came back.”

“Well there’s nobody big enough to fill shoes like that in our group,” mused Graham weighing up the possible solutions.

“It wasn’t wearing shoes. The footprints were of bare feet.”

“So,” Judith submitted, “we have a big footed naked guy prowling around the grounds when everyone has gone to sleep. Did anyone bother to lock the front door?”

Chris smiled ruefully, “I’m afraid not. It was open when I went out this morning.”

Graham was already climbing out of bed; the luxury of a hangover would have to wait.

“But you locked the door on your way back in?”

“I locked every door I could find.”

“That’s my boy. We need to get everybody together as soon as we can. Don’t panic anyone. Just make sure we can have a meeting. I don’t want somebody to wander off outside on their own. Can you and Chris do that for me Judith?”

“Certainly, but it would be best to shower first. I would not wish to be seen by anyone looking like this. Not even a ten foot tall naked guy.”

Lovely Weather For A Sleigh Ride

Together, at last…

The Daimler had been a great idea, its drive was as sure as its ultimate destination. Liam had taken it in a moment of outrageous inspiration. A hearse to cart away his dead self.

After the attempted assassination, with the thrill of the fight still surging through his veins, Liam had an epiphany. This was what he had been born to do. His entire history had brought him to this  point where his skills, his gifts and his passion would make him into a person who would be feared and respected in equal measures. In reality, fear and respect were the same concepts for Liam, but this new thing, this power thing, this mantle of responsibility was weighing his spirits down. Liam Flowers, not yet sixteen yet looking as if approaching thirty, had stopped enjoying life. Life was, after all, concerned with triumph, conquest, in fact the whole gamut that followed the infliction of pain upon other human beings. This was what he had been born for. 

His ankle itched with the flute-shaped birthmark. It was an itch that he now intended to scratch. He wished to scratch it so much that he would draw blood. Some time during his education, his interest had been roused by a topic that was touched upon in religious education. Penitents, blokes who inflicted pain upon themselves in their worship of their god, blood streaming ceaselessly from open wounds, life fluids that leapt the metaphorical chasm between ideas and actions, penitents he admired. They cropped up in many religions and were mainly left alone, curios in a society that had forgotten the true meaning of anything. Liam Flowers, a prophet for this new age, would bury any vestige of his old self. He would go into the wilderness in the same way that Jesus had. Forty days and forty nights, that’s all that he could take. Liam could double that, quadruple it even. Liam was, after all, the chosen one.

As he drove through the city streets, mainly deserted, often littered with the detritus of the madhouse, he felt no regret for what he was doing. The Leatherman, the one that had been the most loyal, was sleeping (if that was what leathers did when they were not walking) in the casket. A grand affair, hewn from the hardest and oldest wood, it provided him with a rather belated bed. This way they could travel as far away from the city as their desires could take them. Although Liam had no definite destination, he wished to find those wastes, now frozen, into which a soul could lose itself and from where it might then find that which could usurp it. After all, why should a soul remain unchanged when everything else around it was able to alter so much?

He was heading north, following an internal star, making his way into the open country where the Resistors had fled. This was also the land into which Hope had disappeared. Hope the schemer, Hope the plotter, Hope who had failed in his attempt to remove him. During his conversations with his would be assassin, Liam had discovered that ‘the children of Hope’ were as numerous as the armies of rats that had swept the world clean. Indeed, many of the rats were his children. They were the result of centuries of experimentation. In other times they would have called it magic, but the ‘good Doctor’ had developed it into a science. And Hope wanted it all.

Some day, they would meet again.

The hearse ran smoothly, its engine not even a hum, the outside noise a mere whisper.

So quiet that it would not disturb the living let alone the dead.