The Last Hope

Safe and Sound

The castle was built for both attack and defence. Its commanding view of the surrounding countryside gave it a great advantage for seeing the enemy whilst providing a platform from which counterattacks could be launched.

Facing to the south and east, lay the moat and to the north and west the castle was perched upon the most imposing of rock precipices that few would dare to climb. Below the rocky outcrop, separating the fortress from the town, was a river which snaked into the grounds from the west and curved round the northern walls before swinging east and then north back towards the source of its flow. Again, nature had been thoughtful enough to provide another line of defence. In other times, the castle could be said to be a complete fortress.

It had been the curiosity of the young ones that had discovered the armoury and it was also their adventurous nature which provided the group with a working knowledge of its internal layout. The various tourist maps of the castle had given them a basic compass, but it was the energy and need to explore that made their knowledge so impressive. While the adults had been busy with the celebrations on the first night, the kids had been off, working in groups, opening doors, venturing down stairwells and hallways; even descending into the lower places that used to be the dungeons. In the space of twenty four hours, they had a complex understanding of the place. And, they had found the armoury.

Since escaping the school they had grown. They were, to all intents, twenty first century children who had had the twenty first century stripped away from them. In essence, they had been picked up by the scruff of their necks and thrown back almost three centuries to a pre-industrial age. They were not only children but integral members of a self-sufficient community and they were contented creatures of this new age.

Zack, although not the eldest, was a leader of sorts. He was tough and brave in a way that allowed him to enjoy an occasional spurt of recklessness. His foray into the deep halls of the castle was the adventure that resulted in the discovery of the golden fleece. He was also a bright lad. All in all, there were now thirty three youngsters, a number having deserted the group during the days whilst leaving the city. Nobody ever mentioned these, dreading to think about the fate that they had decided upon.

“It’s in here, Mr. Hunter,” Zack had not had sufficient contact with the old man to use his first name.

Double doors surmounted by a silver plaque proclaiming the word, ‘Armoury’ opened up to his touch. Graham, a child once more, walked into the room, struggling with the possibility that he would be allowed to handle such weapons. Moving along the glass cases and cabinets, he saw sabres, cutlasses, claymores and even a scimitar (brought back from a crusade). His eyes were wide with glee and expectation. Zack watched with an imperceptible shake of his head, adults were often as childish as children.

“Its okay, they’re open, Sir.”

Carefully placing his hand on the unlocked casing, Graham eased it open and reached inside to place his hand on the hilt of the scimitar. Fingers forming a soft glove, he lifted it from its restraints.

“A scimitar, Zack. I can’t believe that I am holding one. It’s fabulous. When I was a boy, I dreamt of owning one of these things. Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”

Zack did indeed think that it was a thing of considerable beauty.

“Yes. I think it is wonderful.”

“It was the sword of the Moors. You can still see it on the flags of Arab countries.”

“I know, Sir. We did that in History with you in Year 7.”

“Yes, Zach. I had forgotten that you were in my class back then. And here we are now.” He paused for a while to consider what had gone. “We have work to do, don’t we?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Zack, you know the castle as well as anybody.”

“Better.”

“Good, then I want you to show me all that you know. I want shortcuts, hidden passages, I want to see places where we can run to if it gets bad, I want a way out if it gets really bad. Do you understand?”

“Of course. It’s like Lord of the Rings isn’t it?”

“You’ve got it Zack, but I think that Orks have a nicer disposition.”

They were sharing the joke when Chris spoke. He and his brother had made their way to the armoury using one of the other boys, Lewis, as a guide.

“Is it alright if we join you?”

“The more the merrier,” chuckled Graham through heightened spirits.   

Christmas Memories

Lovely, dark and deep.

Lucy’s Diary 22ndDecember 

Will everyday be like these? I sometimes wonder if we are meant to be living through or just suffering them.

Last night would have constituted one of the best of my life. ‘David’ who still likes to be known as Chris. I can’t help calling him David and it’s becoming a bit embarrassing. Anyway, last night was one of the first normal nights that the world has possibly seen since The Purge and Graham led a celebration for our deliverance. More importantly, Chris kissed me for the first time.

I know that it has been coming, right from the start the signs were evident, but it would have been magnificent if he had not seen ‘The Giant’, as he is now commonly known, snooping around in the grounds. That put a stop to the kissing and started that look again, the look that becomes increasingly unsettled and suspicious, the look he had been wearing when we first met. There is part of me that likes ‘the look’, it’s deeply handsome and mysterious, but then there is another part of me that feels uncomfortable when its appears. There is a story behind that look and I don’t think I want to ever know about it. The result of that was that David kept awake that night, all night, believing that I was asleep. He kept a watch for the thing that he had seen. As soon as it was first light, he was ready and out, I watched him from the window as he covered the area where he thought the thing had been. He found something alright, footprints, made by bare feet, and he followed them out of the grounds before turning back. I was fully dressed at this point, about to follow him.

When he returned to our room, the one in which we made a solemn promise not to share a bed, he told me all about what he had found and we went to Graham and Judith’s room to spread the glad tidings. Graham and Judith are good people and they are also good at meetings. I think they like meetings as a way of bringing about a democracy. Even in these times, they have held onto their principles and one of these must be to be completely upfront with all of the group around them. I think ‘upfront’ should be rationed out so that people don’t get it into their heads that ‘upfront’ means that they have the right to do exactly what they want to do. Louise, the woman with the baby, who wanted to execute Will, obviously thought that ‘upfront’ meant that she had a right to scaremonger and convince some of those closest to her that leaving was their only sensible option.

Graham, Judith and Mr. Dale, managed to quieten any mutiny and we were just drawing up plans against a possible attack when a car horn was sounded. Knowing that Louise’s group had taken a four by four, we thought that it must be them returning, but, at a sprint, Chris was up and running for the main entrance. Most people were too surprised to react as quickly and it took us some time to get to where he had headed. By the time we had gotten there a woman, who I had never seen before, was standing just inside the main doorway and she was holding a child in her arms, the baby that belonged to Louise. People were confused and some became a little angry, one woman who knew Louise well snatched the baby from the other woman’s arms and another asked viciously where she taken the baby from. Fortunately, before things could get any worse, Graham came to the front of the group, looked at the woman, called her Mrs. Andrews, and hugged her.

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Chris’ mother.”

There were a few embarrassed apologies after that but I was busy seeing where Chris had gone. At that moment, Jason, a grey cloud covering him, came inside. Behind him came another woman and two children who were obviously brother and sister. The woman was being led along by the boy and she had the appearance of one of those people who have been confined to an institution for a long, long period. A little after that came Chris, helping to support a boy who was draped between him and another stranger. The stranger I had seen before, just when Will had fired that bullet at Chris’s head way back in the school woods. I remember thinking that he looked like Chris, but darker. That’s when I saw the Labrador and the cat (that had an ear missing). They just sat there on the top step watching the people who were gathering around the new arrivals. There was a strange wisdom about them that seemed more human than animal. All in all, this little group was another ingredient all together.

The questions were coming in waves and Jason started to look more and more like a man who could not face what had happened. Tears were in the backs of his eyes and the now familiar haunted look sat upon him. When he sat down to tell his story, we understood why.

Charles Manson, David Cassidy, the dying mouse, and me.

Re-writing The Past

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.

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Since that day, I have vowed never to touch one of those instruments of death ever again.

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.