A Tale from Dark Woods
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A story for Halloween
A Tale from Dark Woods
It was on the darkest of nights in October that we got together. We had been gathering like this for years now, an annual affair blighted of late from a number of attendees passing away in odd circumstances. I had taken out an ad in the personals of the Herald & Post ten years ago; an appeal for anyone wanting to tell strange tales that had afflicted them to meet up and share experiences. That first get together had been at The Bear, a pub on The Drapery, Northampton. After that, the delegation agreed for future stories to be recounted in a rural setting. It was felt that the solitude of the wild would enhance the drama. The first year had seen twelve of us turn up for the inaugural meeting. Nowadays, we numbered just six.
Salcey Forest was the starkest of locations. Whilst a roaring, spitting fire chewing up kindling would give some illumination to the surroundings, the snapping of twigs and the hooting of owls brought its own supernatural feel. We had ventured here in our cars, parking at one of the forest gates then walking into one of the many copses. This had become our convention, our safety valve, our release. Each of us would carry a camp chair, a sleeping bag along with provisions, the most important of which was alcohol.
Like Scouts at a Jamboree, we sat there, our faces reflected in the amber glow of the fire. I must admit to feeling differently about this year. More apprehensive, perhaps. There had been a steady decline in our numbers. Maybe this was fuelling my current paranoia. I poured more scotch into the plastic cup of my flask and sipped appreciatively. It was the grog that kept out the cold. Looking out at the other members in the gloom it was noticeable that they were all women, huddled in coats and scarves. I was the last remaining man with the trend of attendees passing away limited to males.
To add to the foreboding, tonight was a full moon. I looked up at the night sky to see only clouds strung out across the horizon. The wind was blowing, amplifying the sounds of the night. I’m sure a wolf howling could be heard….even though wolves had been extinct from the wild in England for centuries. I checked my mobile phone, noting the time as 22:03. The Witching Hour would be with us soon enough but, for now, someone needed to start. Everyone seemed to be staring at me. It was a claustrophobic amalgam of faces that were telepathically imploring me to tell my tale. At least, that’s how it seemed. I nodded, accepting responsibility.
I rubbed my hands together, summoning warmth into them. Closing my eyes, my mind cast back to a rainy night in September. It was chilly for the time of year and I had been drinking in town with a friend. I found myself heading towards the taxi rank just to the side of “All Saints Church”, behind it a square of green lawns, wooden benches and war memorials. A road ran around the square with shops and bars on every side. A small queue waited for cabs, the busiest time a couple of hours away yet. In the blink of an eye, the atmosphere turned febrile. Making a loud din came a group of half a dozen delinquents approaching from the Market Square, all wearing animal heads. One was a deer, another a fox, yet another was a bear. It was like something from a remote Scottish Island at April Fools. I half expected to see Christopher Lee ushering me into a Wicker Man. Instinctively, I knew they were coming for me. Don’t ask me why; I just had a sense of dread.
They were shouting and screaming blue murder, in their hands they held a cornucopia of devilish instruments. A machete, a sickle, long knives and short. Passers-by looked at them with consternation and fear, skirting their path to avoid the macabre mob. Some people ran in the opposite direction. As I stood staring, the distance between us was closing. They were taking no notice of anyone else and, as they neared, weapons were brandished ready to inflict carnage.
I turned around and headed for the church, covering ground quickly with long strides, bounding up concrete steps to the open, wooden front entrance. With no time to admire the ornate, granite colonnades that guard the narthex of the church, once inside I ran hell for leather down the central aisle flanked on both sides by pews. In front of me was the pulpit. Crystal chandeliers dangled above as I furiously scanned for a place to either flee to or hide in. To the left, there was an arched doorway so I decided to try it for ingress. Behind me, the raucous noise of the pursuing throng resonated, their language a cacophony of cursing and swearing.
Turning the metal handle, in front of me was a small, square opening that revealed a set of steps leading down into the earth. There was no time to speculate. Entering the inky darkness, I pulled the wooden, hatch shut above my head. In my panic, I had the forethought to latch the door locked that led to these stairs in the hope that it would slow those chasing. It smelled of damp as I took my lighter from my pocket and flicked it into flame. The walls were stone like the steps, grey and cold. I shone the light I could muster but could only see a long passageway that trailed away into darkness. The scratching sound of scurrying, tiny feet made think of rats. It was coming from up ahead. I decided to forge on, more worried about the rabble behind rather than any rodents.
I pondered as to why I was being chased. I couldn’t recall offending anyone recently; well certainly not enough to engender a fate such as this. The only incident that was relatable was a paid reading with a gypsy. It was at a fair and she had a tent; called herself Madam Rosalie. Having crossed her palm with silver, amongst other predictions, she did portent that I would reap a whirlwind for mocking spirits. I assumed she meant spirits of the after-life as opposed to anything in a bottle of Smirnoff. I hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. Maybe fortune tellers are for real after all.
There had long been rumours about tunnels under Northampton. I understood that they had all been blocked up for health and safety reasons. Had this one been missed? Was it some sort of priest hole? The ones used by Catholic priests to avoid persecution at the time of Elizabeth I. Either way, I could only go forward as to go back would be to face the lunatics from the Market Square. It seemed surreal that they had come for me. By now, they may have turned and chosen a new target. Equally, the police could have arrived and arrested them. I couldn’t risk going back so I shuffled on, bending over as I walked as the tunnel wasn’t high enough to cater for my height. I thanked the Gods that my lighter had fuel.
It was cold and dank in the cavern. Dressed for the time of year in a lamb’s wool jumper, black trousers and casual shoes, the latter was coping with the slick of water that ran down the centre of the tunnel floor. I struggled on for what seemed an eternity but was, in reality, minutes. Turning a corner, there was a gust of air in contrast to the stale atmosphere of the passageway. I held a flame to the roof and noticed a thin line of light emanating from above. It was another trapdoor. I hoped it would open and allow me to escape this subterranean nightmare. It did.
Emerging, I was in a corridor. I could see portraits hanging from the walls. To my left was a large, double door made of oak. A man dressed in a dark tunic with large, white lapels, black hose with knee-high leather boots and a wide-brimmed hat appeared and looked in my direction.
“Ye be late.” He declared, taking me by the crook of the elbow and leading me into the room he had come from. It was a packed courtroom. It was recognisable as Sessions House on George Row, a judicial building dating from 1664 where the last case heard was in 1987. These days it was a tourist information centre. Clearly, not tonight! At the end sat a judge, bedecked in large wig and sitting in a grand, wooden chair with a carved emblem above it. The rows of wooden benches were full of people, all staring at me. He took me to the dock, raised higher than the rest of the room. I found myself peering out at a panorama of court officials, spectators and accused waiting to stand trial. In front of me, sat a scribe perched at a writing desk with a quill pen and pot of ink. A man dressed similar to the one who had collected me was now standing directly in front of me.
“Be thee Alan Paxton from the village of Towcester? Speak clearly for the court.” I had no idea who Alan Paxton was but with the whole night turning into the most surreal of affairs, I decided to play along and confirmed that I was. It was a bizarre thing to do on reflection. It was as though I no longer had control over my actions.
“And willst thou testify in front of these good people that you didst, on the night of October 31st in the year of our Lord 1612, that the women accused of witchcraft….” He pointed to a couple of women dressed in rags seated at one of the front benches.
“…..didst reveal themselves to have the mark of the Devil on their skin?”
There was an audible intake of breath, all eyes now staring at the old crones. My mind was racing. What on earth was I doing here? Perhaps this was a dream; if it was a dream it was astoundingly lucid. I closed my eyes and wished hard that I was somewhere else. When I opened them again, I was still in the courtroom. What to say? Do I just go along with this further or call a halt to proceedings? The problem was that I had foolishly confirmed myself as someone else entirely. Perhaps if I did not give the confirmation being sought, I would end up being punished myself.
“I honestly….can’t remember.” I opted to plead ignorance.
The interrogator glared back at me, his eyes wide open. He had clearly expected a different answer.
“Have you forgotten your dunking, sir? I implore you to tell the truth before God and this court. Let me ask you again: Did the said ladies reveal themselves to you? And on that occasion, was the mark of the Devil apparent? I will add that we have the confessions of Mary and Agnes, both whom floated on the water……just like yourself.” The prosecutor was, by now, red-faced with the effort of making his points. He had mentioned dunking and floating. My mind searched for meaning. It arrived as historical references of accused witches being dunked in rivers. If they floated, they were guilty of witchcraft; if they didn’t, they drowned! I had also been mentioned. It looked like I was on trial as a witch too.
As I opened my mouth to speak not knowing what I was going to say next, an almighty commotion erupted. The women accused of witchcraft had stood up and both were cackling like loons, their eyes like saucers, their hair sprayed in all directions as though electrified. They looked at me, leering in a fashion I can only describe as evil. They pointed in my direction and threw their heads back to look up into the eaves of the roof gables. In the middle of the room appeared a maelstrom of swirling, black-blue cloud. It looked like a celestial whirlpool that was about to consume everything in its path. The whole place became engulfed in chaos, those seated on benches now clamouring for the exit. Bodies crushed together, men pushed women and children out of the way in their desperation to escape.
I stood watching stoically, motionless, frozen with bewilderment. The entire evening’s events had been beyond comprehension but here I was, a witness to an absurd theatrical production of some kind. At least, that’s how my mind tried to make sense of it all. The room cleared leaving me alone with the witches. Even the judge and his entourage had departed. I didn’t think things could get any stranger but did not want to be stranded with these hag-like creatures glaring at me like harpies. They were crouching, stalking, moving towards me slowly. I grasped at the thought that there might be some kind of camaraderie, what with us all on trial. The look of madness in their eyes suggested otherwise. As they got closer, I considered my options, none of which looked good. I closed my eyes and awaited my demise. I expected to feel some kind of horror resulting from an ancient curse or incantation. My mind was all-in now.
When I opened my eyes again, my good friend Roger was shaking my arm gently. He was smiling and saying that I must have had a hard day. It was like someone above was talking, speaking muffled words, whilst being at the bottom of a swimming pool. It was a joy to see his bearded features. We were in the Old Bank pub. It looks like I had drifted off. In my defence, the snug was very comfortable with its frosted glass-surround et al. Gathering my senses, Roger suggested one for the road which I declined. It had just gone 10pm and I had a busy day tomorrow. I took my leave, my friend staying to have that final ale.
Walking towards the taxi-rank, there was the strongest sense of déjà vu. Nearing a stationary cab, I heard yet more, loud, raucous noises. I looked across the street to see a gang of youths shambling along, shouting and screaming. Peering closer, there was no evidence of strange attire. No animal heads or anyone grasping dangerous implements. They were dressed in t-shirts and light jackets and clearly the worse for drink. I breathed a sigh of relief, clambering into the backseat of one of the waiting taxis. I made a point of telling myself to stay awake in public houses and to give fortune-tellers a wide berth from now on.
With the tale finished, I looked up. I had a habit of closing my eyes when telling a story. I glanced around the fire to gauge reaction. Staring back were faces of witches! Some had hooked noses, others prominent, facial moles with hairs hanging from them. All wore witch hats and were grinning. For a moment, I wondered whether this was the reason the males in the group had been dying. Perhaps they had been picked off by this coven of wicked women. I considered my latest options, the most obvious one being to get up and run. Before I could do anything else, there was the loudest, collective cackle and then, as one, they ripped off their masks. It had been a Halloween trick.
I breathed another sigh of relief…
….. just as a group of people approaching…
….swam into view…..
……wearing animal heads.
Image free to use via WikiCommons at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northampton#/media/File:Northampton_Market...
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double whammy at the end.
double whammy at the end. Witchfinders have a way of finding witches that don't float or sink either. But stalk them.
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Lots of twists and turns in
Lots of twists and turns in this marandina - and very well done they are too!
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I don't quite know what to
I don't quite know what to believe now? You've certainly got me dazed and confused now! This is very effective and had me convinced what reality was more than once. A story within a story, within a story. It is very cleverly done and keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat!
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Great creepy story to tell on
Great creepy story to tell on Halloween Paul. Gave me the shivers.
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You are such a wonderful story teller.
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