When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed So low for long, they never right themselves: You may see their trunks arching in the woods Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm I should prefer to have some boy bend them As he went out and in to fetch the cows— Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, Whose only play was what he found himself, Summer or winter, and could play alone. One by one he subdued his father’s trees By riding them down over and over again Until he took the stiffness out of them, And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer. He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon And so not carrying the tree away Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise To the top branches, climbing carefully With the same pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim. Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be. It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
The next morning arrived. Grey clouds sat stubbornly overhead. Only a few of the castle’s defenders had slept, the rest had endured an uneasy journey from the previous day. Without much talk, people breakfasted and went to their positions. It would happen on this day, they were sure.
By mid afternoon, an uneasy hush had swept across the castle and its grounds. A faint humming rolled towards them. Those on watch, girded themselves for whatever new plague would emerge. It was growing in volume, rolling like drums from beyond the grounds.
At exactly two fifty-seven, and Chris would remember this moment for the rest of his life, the drums stopped. Seconds later, a stag stepped out of cover and nervously sniffed the air. It picked up the smell of humans coming from the stones to its left, but chose to move towards them. Taking two tentative steps onto the melting snow, it waited again, then broke into a gallop.
From behind it came the gathering storm of hooves, each now in full flow. Wave upon wave raced across the lawns and then down the precipice and with practiced ease, raced down paths that no human could have followed. Then they were gone, a swathe of trodden slush the only sign that they had been there at all. Nature was in full flight before the Piper’s creatures.
At seven minutes past three, the giant showed itself.
“So that’s it then?” Lucy asked.
“Yes, that’s our man,” answered Chris.
A small group of them had gathered in the muniment tower to watch the gathering of the Leathers.
“He doesn’t look human,” she added.
“Technically he’s not, Lucy,” Mr. Dale took the opportunity of speaking, his rational tones playing against any panic that may have surfaced. “It’s like a mummy. From the look of what he is wearing,” they could see from there that he was dressed in an old cloth draped over his torso, “he was a member of a monastic order, probably a penitent. I would say that he ceased being human a number of centuries ago.”
“Whatever it is, it is certainly scary,” murmured Judith.
“That would be The Piper’s intention. Battles can be won before they are fought. It is fear that destroys armies and makes them run. Remember that the Piper is the heir of Pan and Pan caused panic in his victims before he struck.”
The news of the giant monk spread quickly. Panic had been intended and its seeds were sown.
Amongst the audience was one Craig Dawkins, a young man who was well aware of what the monk was. Unlike the others, he felt a surge of enthusiasm. At last, he had the means to escape and get some very valuable cargo back to Flowers. He sat on the end of his bed and wondered just what would be given to him if he were to help capture the Andrews’ clan. His first step was make his escape, a thing easier thought than done in this place of heightened tension.
Since the events in the forest, his head had cleared. Dawkins was a rationalist. Whatever happened there had died there. He could not help them and wouldn’t wish to. One for one and one for onemeant putting yourself first. He had always been a survivor. As such, he recognised no bonds of loyalty, friendship or love, he was an island that only traded with others. On his own, he had to think and act quickly. The first problem that he had to solve was how to get out of his locked room.
Now he watched the leathers from his window, their dark forms filling him with certainty. Soon, he would be free. He listened to the confusion around him, the nervous voices, hurried feet, and the unmistakable hiss of panic. His secret smile was there again, the last time he had worn it was when his marksmanship had brought down the boy who had failed him. His contentment was twofold, first there were the Leathers who had been sent to save him and then there was his own deception, a masterstroke. They had fallen for it, had carried him childlike from the car, had tucked him up and cared for him. Now they would rue their kindness and he would ensure that. Outside the room came footsteps.
In all the confusion, they had almost forgotten about Dawkins. They had kept his room locked ‘just in case’, but visited him regularly with food and water. His normal carer was Mrs. Sanderson, the woman who had done so much to care for the children when they first fled the city. Now, the present crisis had taken her off with the other children again and nobody had spared a thought for their guest apart from Lucy.
She was sweeping the corridors and rooms making sure that nobody was left behind. Many of the small children read the signs immediately and the memories of the past came back. Mr. Dale and Mrs. Sanderson had collected them together and calmed them. After moving to the muniment room, a headcount revealed that at least one child was missing. Lucy volunteered to check the rooms.
Whilst Dawkins listened with his ear to the oak door, Lucy’s voice was entering rooms and enquiring if there was anybody there. Her progress brought her closer and Dawkins clasped the metal fork he had been fed with. As her steps moved towards him, he folded back against the stone wall just as the handle began to turn.
Lucy was a little puzzled. This door was locked. She searched for the answer before noticing the key that rested on the top of a small cabinet. She picked it up, inserted it into the heavy mechanism and turned it. When she pushed open the door, she found an empty room awaited her.
“Why lock it?” she asked herself.
Two steps in and she had the answer.
When Dawkins saw that it was a girl who had entered his trap, he was both surprised and delighted. She would be easy to take down. He watched her careful steps, allowing her the access that a spider would give to a fly. His instinct was to strike, to bring pain and blood, to watch with amused interest, but he knew that she would be more useful as a hostage. His silent steps, unfettered by shoes gave him the advantage he required. With her back to him, she presented an easy prey.
As the mechanisms of Lucy’s mind were falling into place, Lucy simultaneously felt the cold touch of metal upon her exposed throat and heard the chilling words,
“If you move or scream or do anything that I don’t like, I’ll ram this fork as far into your throat as I can. It will hurt like hell. Do you understand?”
Beginning to tremble slightly, Lucy nodded her understanding.
“Now you are going to show me how to get out of here without anybody seeing us. Move.”
Chris knew that Michael was not the same. Physically, he was bigger. He was obviously stronger. That run along the passageway and up the stairs was not something his older brother could have done before. And he did it without breaking sweat or having to catch breath.
Lucy had not said anything as yet, but she had spent her time considering his brother. On the surface, she had been friendly, but beneath, she was unsure. In the short time he had known her, he had begun to measure her reactions to people and situations. His mother also appeared nervous around her son.
“It is a concern,” the voice coming from the stairwell said. “I noticed something from the first moment I set eyes upon you,” said Mr. Dale. “I have seen this before and have since persuaded myself that I did not.”
Chris was confused yet Michael looked on resignedly.
“In my previous role as a man of the cloth, I worked in India. India is suffused with the spiritual and their holy men are granted a status very rarely enjoyed by other mortals.
In that country, especially away from the main towns and cities, people’s lives are governed by a profound belief in the worlds that exist alongside our own. Spirits are to be found in everything from a beetle to a bull.
One day, I had the wife of a local farmer come to me for help. They were members of my church, attended every Sunday, but were also believers in Krishna. I was never absolute in my demands upon the church’s flock. I had this belief that most roads eventually led to God or, in some cases to his nemesis. Her husband had been bitten by a snake and was struggling for his life when a strange happening befell their youngest son. The child started to speak in an old language that nobody in the village understood, we found out later that it was Sanskrit, and the child lay with his father doing battle with the demon within for three days. When I was called, the father had made a miraculous recovery but the child was dreadfully unwell. It was as if he had sucked all the poison out of his father and was now suffering the consequences.
The thing that I noticed above everything else was the vague blue light, an ethereal aura, that encased the child. I saw that with you, Michael.”
“What happened to the boy?” asked Chris.
“I’m afraid he died. I tried everything to save him. Just before he went I read him the last rites, my belief was still stout back then, and he opened his eyes, looked straight into my soul and spoke in English. That was the first time I had heard that. He said that the Piper was awake and then he passed away.”
“What’s that got to do with us?”
“You know what it has to do with us. You’ve seen your brother in that other form. You saw what I saw.
We are living in the time of judgement. I denied it to myself for so long, but now it is inevitable. These are the revelations that are in the Bible and there will be battles. You two are as much our weapons as anything we have found in the armoury.”
Outside a blast of winter rain peppered the windows and roof. In the hills to the north, the rain was falling with more vigour, melting snow and ice and swelling the streams that fed the rivers that flowed out of them.
The following morning, a member of one of the scouting parties saw the first line of leathers on the horizon and the alarm went up.
“We were just driving along, the car was handling the roads easily enough, Ian was driving. I was sitting in the back with Sue. Then they came from nowhere. They were all around us, coming out of the trees.
I think Ian thought they were human because he swerved to avoid them. When he did, he lost control and that was when we hit the wall. We went straight through it and then down the slope towards the stream. We’d been travelling slowly but our momentum took us down the slope quickly. We were hitting trees and stuff, bouncing from one to the other. We were getting thrown around a bit in the back because we had not bothered putting out seat belts on. When we came to a stop, we had straddled the stream, bank to bank, and that’s when we saw them.”
Each of his sentences carried a note of dread that was transferred to congregation around him. Each word built on the one before to create a deeper realisation of what they could be facing.
“We knew we had to get out. There were child-locks on the back doors and Ian was slumped over the steering wheel. Blood was everywhere, coming from his head, I think he was dead. Louise was panicking. I’ve never seen her like that before. She had the baby in her arms, it was a surprise that she hadn’t dropped it in the crash, but she was out of the door. Sue was screaming, she was puling at the handle, begging Louise to let her out. For a moment I thought that Louse was going to leave us there. She had that look about her, survival and all that. At the last moment, she undid the door and Sue managed to get out. I’d climbed over the front seat and was in the stream. Those things were almost onto us. I just ran.”
“What about Sue?” somebody asked.
“I thought she was alright, I thought she could run…” hesitation precipitated confession. “I left her. She was on her knees in the stream and I left her. They were there at the other side of the car and I left her.”
Jason started to sob heavily, the recognition of his sins now standing before him. Heaving his way through the pain, the faces of some of the others showing reproach, he was lost at the lacerated point of his original decision. It was replaying itself on a loop, his hand reaching out and then puling away, Sue there in the water, the dark figures splashing madly towards him. This could be his purgatorial landscape, forever.
Laura, seeing his struggle, touched his arm. It was only the lightest of touches, one that was meant to remind another that they were not alone, a touch that suggested that others had travelled on that path. Still down there in his own depths, Jason felt the pull of the woman and started to climb towards it..
“I just ran. I ran. Louise had got to the other bank and she was starting to make her way up the hill. Those things were right behind us and we had the baby. I heard screams, screams that came from Sue but I didn’t look back. We ran.”
The room was quietly waiting for the rest of his narrative.
“We managed to get to the top of the first hill. Well, almost to the top. Louise was carrying Tom, the baby, and she was tired. No she was exhausted. She fell in the snow. I was in front of her when I heard her shouting for me to come back. The things were only about thirty yards away. I wanted to run some more but I looked in her eyes and I heard the baby cry.
I shouldn’t have left Sue there for them to get her. I turned back and tried to lift her. All she said was that I should take the baby. She pleaded me to take Tom and save him. I said I could help them both, but we knew I couldn’t. They were closing in and I got Tom. I just ran and ran thinking that my lungs would burst, that I’d have a heart attack or something. I must have been running for a while, up and down those hills with those things always behind me. Eventually, I reached the top of another hill. I fell most of the way down and then these people showed up. They saved me.”
Nobody spoke. A solid silence had been thrown across the gathering in the library, each individual having been transported to that cold landscape where only demons kept one company. Jason sat motionless with the hand of Laura still upon him. Most people were doing everything they could to avoid making eye contact with anyone else.
“There but for the grace of God go I, “ uttered Mr. Dale.
Addressing the library, Graham said, “Well, I think that this may have changed our plans somewhat. In the light of this I think we ought to open up the debate. Out there are hundreds, possibly even more, of these things. I hate to say the word Zombie, but that seems to fit.”
“We call them Leathers. We fought one and he was certainly not one of the ‘recently dead’. I don’t think they go in for whole scale cannibalism or can infect anyone they bite, but they are dead. The one that we came in contact with was all hide and nothing else. It was as if he had been dry frozen or something. He was strong, not super strong, but strong like it would have been if it had still been alive. We burnt ours. It didn’t like that, but I have a feeling that it was not fully finished with.
The second one we ran into was a more recent one. His skin hadn’t turned to leather, but he was one of them,” Laura looked anxiously towards where Michael was standing with the mother and children but he had taken them and left the room. “Michael, my son, killed him by blowing up the house we’d been staying in. It was a massive explosion and that, most definitely, finished him off.”
“Do you think that other things could kill them?” asked Judith.
“They move around in daylight, they are not afraid of water, they have obvious strength, perhaps not superhuman but something. We haven’t tried silver bullets or crosses or holy water or garlic or wooden stakes. Just the fire so far.”
Everybody was listening intently to this modern day ghost story.
“So they are still made of skin and bone,” asked Keith Rains, “and if they are then we have a chance. I’ve seen a fair share of horror movies and there’s always ways of killing the evil dead things. What would they do if we managed to chop off their heads or legs? If they are skin and bone, leather and bone, then we have chance.”
“And we are in a castle. There are suits of armour all around,” added another enthusiastically.
“And there’s an armoury,” Zack Borthwick, a twelve year old from St. Agnes suggested, “with loads of swords and stuff. We could use them.”
“That’s a great idea,” Graham said seizing upon it, “we need to sort out some defences, get armed, make sure we know all the castle’s strengths and weaknesses. We need places to defend and places to fall back to. At the moment, we hold the advantage, this s a castle after all and the have to try to get in. Fortunately for us, these castles were built with an eye to both attack and defence. We could hold out here indefinitely. All we have to do is get ourselves organised.”
There was a flicker of understanding in the eyes of Dawkins. He had spent his incarceration listening to all that had been said. He was not just looking for his opportunity to get away from these people, but was looking for an advantage, something that he could take back with him and a tribute that could serve him well.
“How long have we got?” enquired Mr. Dale looking at Laura. His reply came from another place.
“I think that we have another day before they get here. Some may already be here watching us and working out our weaknesses, but the main body of them will take at least another day.” Heads turned towards Michael’s impassive delivery.
“Thank you Michael. In that case, haste shall govern our preparations,” the history teacher replied to his once pupil.
As part of a generation that grew up within twenty-years of the end of the Second World War, I was always keen on weapons. Any decent human being would assume that the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan ought to have persuaded me of the error of our human ways, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
A fascination for Spitfires consumed me and drove me into playing parachute games (obviously I did not have enough true belief in my aeronautical abilities). From there, my friends and I moved into the realms of Japs and Commandos. The Japs had been depicted as a race of people totally devoid of human empathy. They captured our brave soldiers and made them into slaves on the railway of death. The problem with our game was that all of us wanted to be commandos. Subtle selection strategies were required in order to have an even contest; in which the commandos always won.
The game involved an awful lot of running and hiding, finding and shooting, being found and escaping. It was just like the real thing that we had seen on countless films. We used sticks for guns and sticks for long Samurai swords.
Quite often, the battle would devolve into a medieval melee of hitting each other as hard as we could with said sticks. There was the Chinese Strangulation which was a way of subduing captives. This was an extremely effective method of inflicting the best type of pain; the slow-burn oxygen deficiency method. That way, you knew who had won. The second form of torture was the Indian Wrist-Burn. This involved placing your hands on your enemy’s wrist and then quickly rotating them in opposite directions. It had the exquisite inbuilt reminder of its execution with the angry red mark that refused to shift for days.
Those were the days of innocence, before we moved onto imitation plastic rifles, botched affairs that only vaguely looked like the real thing, but with our ‘dak, a dak, dak!’ it was enough to convince us of their potency. Hand-grenades were invisible and exploded exactly where you wanted them to. All you had to do was to make a big boom sound, cover your ears and then throw yourself to the ground. If only all wars were so simple.
Things started to get more complicated from the moment that we started to grow up. One of our mates had an air-rifle bought as a Christmas present. He spent all that holiday practising on sparrows and robins. He even shot the cat. Our friend always seemed to be the one who got things first. He had one of the best bikes, he had golf clubs, he had a number of cricket bats, he had ridiculously bright blue eyes, he had a level of freedom that we longed for, he was a talented sportsman, and he shot Robins. He had everything that made him a top friend.
On some of our summer holiday excursions, he would take his air-rifle, slung in a purpose-made rifle bag, casually over his shoulder. At any point in our journey, he would swing it off his shoulder, unzip it and take aim at anything that dared to move. We were once walking along a path that ran beside a golf-course. We had been on this route many times before on ventures of golf ball discoveries. The golf balls often got lost in the rough and they were of sufficient value that we heard some other kids had set up a rather profitable little business finding them and then selling them back to the golfers. Sometimes the treasures would disappear mid-play only for them to be strangely reunited sometime later with their true owners, for a small fee. We also prized tees, but nobody thought that they would provide a realistic sell-back option.
It was a lazy afternoon and we were mooching along, dragging through the dog-end hours, kicking pine cones and providing accompanying commentary for the excellence of each strike. I measured a masterful strike and my pine-cone flew straight and long down the path. When it finally rolled to a halt, I provided the commentator’s awe-struck admiration.
“It’s Best! What a goal! What a strike! What a player!”
My arms shot into the air in a triumphant reaching for the skies and I raced off down the shaded path to acclaim my glorious feat. I almost slipped on the badly wounded body of a mouse.
The mouse wasn’t dead, but it was dying. In such an event, we should have done the merciful thing and caved its head in with a brick. There were no bricks to hand. We could have stamped on it head with the heels of our shoes, but none of us wanted to be seen as the heartless perpetrator of such a heinous act. Instead, we turned to our rifle toting friend to provide the humane solution. He, however, never saw himself as one who would administer the coup de grace nor was he one to pass up the opportunity of a real-life kill. He was a sportsman and would execute his task in a manner befitting such a regal profession. He walked up to the soon to be corpse, turned and took thirty strides, checked the direction of the wind, took his rifle out, loaded it, knelt and took aim. We were in awe.
After he missed for the third time, he changed his tactics. He strode forward another five paces, loaded, knelt and was about to take aim when he realised that he had forgotten to double-check the strength and direction of the prevailing wind on that most breathless of afternoons. Satisfied, he took aim and fired.
After another five pellets had missed their target, the rest of us thought to check upon the unfortunate creature. It still lived. Its tiny breaths evident in furry inhales and exhales. I was thinking about the heel of my shoe when my friend angrily strode past me and aimed a final pellet, at point-blank distance, into the belly of the beast. It lived no more.
As kills went, I suppose this counted for something, but there was no commentary this time and no overt display of triumph. We had killed a dying mouse. It had died. It would have died if my perfect kick of the pine-cone had not found it. We had had sport and now we were somewhat ashamed.
Our friend went on to kill many other tiny creatures, specialising in birds that frequented his garden. This went on until he discovered girls. After that, he hung up his trusty weapon for ever.
Sometimes it is good to hang up your guns. For one thing, you look silly when you’re older, toting an air-powered, pellet firing rifle. There is also the problem with killing defenceless little birds, tiny ones with redbreasts. Nobody wants to be seen in any social situation with a bird slaughtering psychopath. At some point, many boys give up their pursuit of prey and bloodlust for everyday distractions like life. But it all came back to me this week when the deaths of Charles Manson and David Cassidy were announced. I am too long in the tooth to cheer about the eventual demise of a cult-leading murderer whilst I am not too old to feel a spot of sadness for David Cassidy, my elder sister’s dream boat and reason for having a bedroom wall. I asked a woman who I work with if she was saddened by the death of David and she told me that she was a Donny Osmond fanatic. I accepted that and was instantly taken back to my last adventure with an airgun.
Some years ago, in a land far away, in a kingdom of grey cold, lived me. Another friend of mine lived around the corner. We were both at Sixth Form and the Punk era was well and truly upon us. So, in a situation like that, what would any decent human being do if they discovered a Jimmy Osmond single in their collection? It was obvious. We decided to put it on trial for crimes against humanity.
“Jimmy Osmond, you have been tried and found guilty of unleashing your ‘Long-haired Lover From Liverpool’ without care or regret as to the damage that you have wreaked. And, as you have since shown no remorse, this court finds you guilty. You are to be taken from here immediately and be shot until you are dead.”
And so it came to pass that the said 45 was taken from the kitchen of a council house overlooking the industrial greyness of West Yorkshire and shot to pieces by two rather judgemental youths with an air rifle.
Since that day, I have vowed never to touch one of those instruments of death ever again.
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.
There was once a wise king that ruled over his people who resided in a vast citadel. The king was feared for his might and admired for his wisdom. And all his subjects revered him.
The citadel had one source of water which was a well in the centre. In the mornings people would gather to pull fresh water from the well and in the evenings they would sit around it in the shade of palm trees. They would chat, share the wisdoms of their king and says thanks for the fact that they lived in such a peaceful place, at such a peaceful time.
But like all good tales, there was darkness waiting beyond the safety of the text.
Somewhere in the wastes, a dark shape was forming and, as the storms began to blow, it moved ever closer to its goal.
With winds and sand battering the walls of the citadel, the citizens took to their homes and locked their doors. Window shutters were bolted into place and the people of this great city settled down to ride out the worst of the tempest. Nobody chose to sit around the sacred well that evening.
During the night, the storm tore at the nerves of the populace and shredded their sleep. Nobody could ever remember such an event as this before. Nothing, not even in the ancient texts, could have matched the ferocity of this night. Eventually however, sleep came and the storm went.
The morning woke with a new day. The clouds of sand had travelled onwards to torment others and the world, though now laden with foreign sand, was returned to itself. The well, well it to had been affected. The last person to leave it the night before had been so afraid of the sandstorm that they did not properly secure its covering and this meant that a considerable quantity of the night’s detritus had become deposited in its confines.
The King shook his head at the state of things and warned his subjects that it would be unwise to drink from the ancient source. He told them that he would send out the city guard to find new sources of water that could be consumed whilst it could be determined if the well was still…well, safe. His people, who had always trusted him, were parched from the night spent surviving the storm and some crept up to the well at the onset of dusk and began to fill their buckets.
“The King thinks that the well is poisoned,” they whispered, “but maybe it is his own wisdom that has grown sick.’
The next morning, a much larger crowd had gathered and the voices were not so whispered.
“The water tastes good. Here, try some. It is the King who is trying to keep us away from it, so that only he can drink from its depths.”
And word spread of his trick and the people, no longer hispeople, talked of ways to replace him.
“Why have a King who no longer thinks like his people?” they asked.
In the cool night breeze whilst waiting for his guards to return, the rumours floated towards the King’s residences and he became fearful of their intent. So, that evening, he set off from his courtyards and walked slowly towards the centre of the citadel in which the well was to be found. As he made his way with a golden goblet in hand, the voices stopped and all eyes followed.
A great crowd had gathered at the well to watch the once mighty king follow the popular intent. They watched as he slowly lowered the bucket into the confines of beneath and raise it so that he could dip his goblet into the golden liquid. Before he managed to get the vessel to his lips, he thought that he noticed the faces of demons surrounding him where once stood his beloved people. Nevertheless, he continued and took a fulsome draught of the well’s secrets.
His eyes were the first things to change. He had seen beasts, but now he too was a beast and the world around him rejoiced. The King was wise once more.
ON THEIR WAY BACK TO THE CITADEL, THE GUARD HEARD STORIES OF A STRANGE WALLED CITY IN WHICH ALL THE INHABITANTS HAD BECOME THINGS OF MADNESS; EVEN THE ONCE WISE KING. IT BROKE THEIR HEARTS NOT TO RETURN TO THE PLACE THEY HAD ONCE CALLED THEIR HOME, BUT THEY RODE ON AND FOUND NEW PLACES TO LIVE.
A TIME WILL COME WHEN THE WHOLE WORLD WILL GO MAD. AND TO ANYONE WHO IS NOT MAD, THEY WILL SAY,