IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY…
Luke was so excruciatingly, so mind-numbingly, so thumb-twiddlingly bored that he felt the urge to bite right through his hand-held games console, the latest and greatest Gaympalm III and hurl the remnants through the nearest of the single-glazed windows.
Even his big brother, Josh, who was always the model grandchild, was showing signs of cracking and had resorted to gnawing his own wrists. They’d been sitting in their grandparents’ parlour, shallow breathing the musty smell of ‘olds’ mixed with stale pipe-tobacco, for almost three hours. Their eyes had glazed over and Josh was starting to dribble on to his lapels.
They’d already had the highly exhilarating lunch of cucumber and tuna sandwiches and had sat through several riveting discussions; these consisted of Grandma telling Mum all about the state of Mrs Brown-from-down-the-road’s knee, the postcard from the vicar who was on his holiday, the price of cheese today, Mrs Dodderingham and her latest nasty fall, and the quality of meat from the local butcher’s… oh, and of course, Grandma’s surprise at how much both the children had grown.
Several times Luke had risked embarrassing his mother, offending both his grandparents and underestimating their hearing by whimpering that he needed to go home to charge his gadget. However, Josh managed to break out of his reverie every time to silence him – usually through the medium of a knuckle to the shoulder.
Grandpa had tried his best to keep them amused by regaling them with a few heroic war tales. However, he kept falling asleep during the first few minutes of exposition, forgot what he was talking about and started the same story over again.
Things were getting strenuous: Josh had already grown weary of mechanically poking his little brother in the temple and Mum was sick of telling them to ‘go out and play, read a book, or draw or something’. But Luke wanted nothing more than to be at home, or round Toby’s house playing Kill, Shoot, Explosion IV on Gaymbox.
Luke often thought Josh was almost as boring as their grandparents; as Josh was the firstborn, he’d taken it upon himself to be a complete killjoy and steer his little brother away from anything even remotely risky and fun. However, in this instance, Luke could have crowned him King of Siblings when he proposed that perhaps Luke and he should go out for a walk in the forest just outside the village.
Grandma immediately sat bolt upright and said it wasn’t a good idea and fixed Josh with a steely glare, the likes of which he’d never seen before. She added, ‘They’re not safe in the woods by themselves.’
‘They’ll be fine, Mum’, said their mother. ‘Boys, just be careful and be back before it gets dark. Luke, listen to your brother. Show me that you can both be responsible.’
Grandma gave them one last glare and warned them to stick to the dirt track and not to wander astray if they knew what was good for them. ‘There are ghosts in them woods. Don’t go getting lost or we’ll have to send your granddad out lookin’ for you and he’ll be very upset and angry with you.’
Both boys looked at harmless old Grandpa, his head back, mouth open, fast asleep in his favourite armchair, ample nasal hair protruding and vibrating to his snores.
‘We will!’, the beaming cherubs chorused.
‘Make sure you stick to the path like your grandma says!’
Luke wasn’t all that fond of being outside but saw it as a welcome escape from the smelly old person’s home. A much needed breath of fresh air.
On the way out of the quiet, remote, rural village, chat turned to how boring the place was and how come old people have always been old? They both declared a solemn oath that neither would ever turn into an old person. It wasn’t like they contributed to anything, anyway. They didn’t make toys, sweets or computer games, so what was the point? Apart from at Christmas and for birthdays, of course…
Once in the lush, green forest Luke quickly became bored of following the refreshing, sunlit trail and decided to wander off into the shadows for an adventure. Josh reminded him of Grandma’s stern warning and decided it was probably time to be heading back.
‘What are you on about?’ exclaimed Luke. ‘There’s a whole untouched world out there waiting to be explored!’ And with that he bounded off into the undergrowth.
Josh wavered a little and looked nervously back up the track they’d just come down. He huffed a sigh of frustration and ran after his little brother through the dense foliage.
A couple of deer, several squirrels, a near-catastrophic fall into a dirty-looking river and several thousand nettle stings later, the boys started to consider themselves a little bit lost. Furthermore it was starting to get dark. They’d just sat down on a fallen tree to consider their situation and options when a strange sound caught their ears. It was like otherworldly singing at two different pitches resonating around the forest.
‘Has to be people’, ventured Luke. ‘Let’s hide.’
‘Hmmm, no’, said Josh, stroking his chin. ‘If they’re people, we can ask them how to get out of the forest. Stands to reason. Plus, why should we hide, we haven’t broken anything yet?’
‘What about that hornet’s nest?’
‘Hmmm, good point.’
‘And that farmer’s gateway back up the track.’
‘All right, you’ve made your point.’
‘And that gamekeeper’s hut that caught fire?’
‘Shush! That was the badger’s fault.’
‘Maybe they’re pirates or maybe it’s the ghosts! Or outlaws!’ bleated Luke excitedly.
‘I don’t know… I’m not so sure now that it is people. Sounds like trouble.’
Luke bounded off into the forest again and Josh was forced to pursue, muttering under his breath. As they drew closer to the source of the eerie singing, they found themselves at the edge of a clearing where a group of curiously dressed figures had assembled. There was a makeshift stage built in the centre and surrounding it were burning briars and strange-coloured foliage hanging from haunting wicker works of demonic heads and intricate insignia. The strange people, women and men, all wore ornate silks and satins in reds, blacks and golds, their hoods and robes flowing in the twilight breeze. The only parts of flesh the boys could make out were their wrists, which were almost completely covered in bizarre ornate Gothic jewellery – all skulls, daggers and snakes.
Apart from a few busy organisers, the rest of the acolytes were huddled together, kneeling in front of the stage, rocking and emitting a strange song, staccato chants with bass mumblings all in a foreign tongue. One of the officials was in charge of a vile chalice that was being handed methodically around the throng. The brim was running with a familiar red.
Both boys felt like they had been showered with ice-cold water, their eyes bulging, fixed on the proceedings of the elaborate spectacle.
‘Ok, time to report back to Mum, I think,’ whispered Josh decidedly. ‘Off we go. Let’s leave the nice people to their freaky parties. I thought Mum and Dad’s were mad!’
‘No way, this is cool. Let’s see what happens, it’s like in one of those movies, like Indiana or something.’
‘Well, not the most recent one, obviously, because that was pants’, Josh offered.
‘Agreed, but you know what I mean. There’s gonna be some bloodletting and pretty girls to be sacrificed. And a cock to be slaughtered.’
‘I’m so telling Mum you just said that.’
‘Nah you won’t, otherwise I’ll tell her what happened between you and Katy Marham at school the other day.’
Josh blushed ever so slightly. ‘Anyway, enough chit-chat, let’s get out of here.’
‘Nah, look, there’s the hapless victim now.’
The boys edged closer as an anxious but pretty, raven-haired girl dressed in a flowing, white gown was led out on to the centre of the stage. The strange song increased in fervour…
The head of the cult emerged from the back of the stage. As he brandished a cruel, embellished knife and a bloodied skull the din upped a notch. His blue satin robes billowed in the night sky. He struck a pose and started to address the crowd.
The boys craned their heads to listen. Poor Luke couldn’t make head nor tail of it, despite it being in English.
‘What’s a virgin, Josh?’
‘It’s like a… er, it’s like… never mind. Don’t ask questions.’
‘Is it like saying someone’s girly?’
‘In your case, yes. They are trying to raise a daemon with the blood of… er… that teenager.’
Josh strained his hearing to make out the fevered words. ‘Er, apparently they don’t kill the sacrifice, but they’ll take a little blood to invoke the power of a big daemony thing who will claim the virg… er… poor girl’s soul or possess it, or something.’
The strange wicker statues and glyphs surrounding the stage started to emanate dark, twinkling blue light. It radiated in an orb in the centre of the stage. Silver sparkles highlighted a form moving around inside. The disturbing chanting reached fever pitch and some of the acolytes were flailing their arms around, gibbering intensely.
‘It’s probably just some play or something. Let’s go.’ Josh grabbed his brother’s arm but Luke wrestled it free.
‘Come on Luke, I’m going home and I can’t leave you here alone. It’s almost dark; everyone will be worried for us. Come on or I’ll break your Gaympalm.’ Josh waved the little plastic box, taunting him.
‘How’d you get that? Thieving gipsy, give that back!’ rasped Luke and they proceeded to wrestle through the foliage. They came to a halt when a light blinked ominously on the console. The gadget suddenly sprung to life in all its familiar, ear-pummelling, eye-glaring and fit-inducing glory. The boys traded horrified looks. ‘Oops!’, they chimed.
A second later they were being dragged roughly through the undergrowth by two strong, hooded, grunting men with bad body odour. They were brought before the throng of people, some of which were gibbering, frothy piles on the floor by now. The leader ordered them tied up next to the girl.
Luke hadn’t felt this close to losing bladder control since the time he got caught in science lesson about to fill a test tube up with pee after drinking seven cans of cola during lunch.
Josh hadn’t been this close to losing bladder control since Katy Marham tried to savage him round the back of the bike sheds that one time. And the time after that, too.
The thing in the centre of the light display had now formed a head with cruel, warped horns. A taloned hand was goring at the stage. The ‘sacrifice’ was wailing and a small cut across her right wrist was gently weeping into a stylised glass goblet.
The boys’ eyes darted around the maddened crowd and the edge of the forest, desperate for a reprieve. The man in the blue robes bore down on them, his ornate knife held high, varnished slick with red.
Even with all the horror all around them the boys noticed movement in the shadows over the leader’s right shoulder. A bundle of what appeared to be rags materialised out of the dark edges of the clearing and rolled through the air toward the side of the stage. It sailed right through the daemon apparition. There was the slither of steel being drawn and a flash of blue metal. The ball rolled once when it hit the stage and came to an abrupt halt, balanced perfectly. The entity behind it screeched its contempt then fizzled and smoked out of existence, the power in the wicker extinguished.
Then there were further sounds of steel being drawn. Armed cultists started mounting the stage. The ball of rags unfolded vertically from a crouched position. It was a man, but in a hooded robe of ragged black and grey material. The cultists fell on the isolated figure in centre stage.
The mysterious newcomer squatted again and flew round on the ball of one foot, the other outstretched leg up-ending the first three assailants, who flopped on the floor in a cascade of robes and material.
The next two attackers had an even worse treatment. The first dagger thrust was parried and a knee was applied to the owner’s groin, flooring him instantly. The second assailant had his wrist almost broken by the hooded man’s grip and his jaw very actually broken by a swift decisive upper cut.
Then, all was quiet. The delirious gibbering remnants of the followers had fled. The smoke and embers from the briers crackled and floated into the starry night sky. The dark figure finished freeing the girl from her bonds and turned to the ensnared boys. All they could see was blackness under the hood. The hood nodded a slow and meaningful nod to the two captives.
‘I’m still thinking he’s on our side’, conferred Josh.
Wide-eyed, Luke suddenly screeched, ‘Behind you!’
The mysterious figure spun on the spot and ducked into another squatted combat stance, his head narrowly avoiding being split in half by an ornate sacrificial knife tearing up the night air. The knife half embedded itself in a wicker sculpture near the children. The ragged figure on the stage slowly and purposefully rose to his feet. The head cultist hesitated, his jaw quivering; he then elected to escape to the safety of the dark forest. The stranger unsheathed his own blade of pure metallic blue and returned fire. The beautiful blade flew straight and unnervingly accurately, a whirring blur in the night sky. The cultist chose the wrong moment to turn and check his progress. He was impaled on the nearest tree, the blade buried to the hilt in his chest.
‘Woah, shot!’ roared Luke ecstatically.
‘That was incredible. Who are you?’ rasped Josh.
The ominous figure leaned in to untie their ropes.
‘Do me a favour, boys.’ the hooded mans’ voice cold and flinty, the strange odour of woody smoke on his breath. ‘Next time, do as your bloody grandparents tell you.’ There was a slight musty ozone of lavender and vitamins to his rags. ‘Now get off home, quickly. And this time stay on the beaten track.’
‘Er… Granddad?’ ventured Josh.
‘Erm… Grandma?’ coaxed Luke.
But once the ropes had dropped from the boys’ wrists, the cloaked man gathered up the quivering girl in his arms and disappeared with a single enormous bound into the forest.
‘See?!’ cried Josh. ‘See what happens when you don’t act responsibly and don’t listen to your elders’ advice?! You get into all sorts of trouble and we could have ended up dead.’
The boys walked out of the clearing and headed for the nearest track.
‘True’, admitted Luke. ‘There’s no way I can possibly fault you on that, all things considered.’
‘Good, so… yeah. So, let that be a lesson to you, little brother.’
‘Indeed; however, may I just point out a small observation?’ said Luke, as they stepped out on to a familiar trail.
‘Had I not not listened to our parents’ and grandparents’ advice and trotted off the beaten path… And also, had I not led you on an adventure into the woods and discovered that clearing… and had I not resisted your vain attempts to go home… then none of this would have happened and an innocent young ‘virgin’ would be dead or possessed and strolling around in the woods right now.’
‘Ah…’ replied Josh. ‘Er… yes, well, fair enough. But that’s not the point, though, is it? Come on, let’s get home and charge your Gaympalm. That should keep you out of trouble.’
‘I don’t believe it, look…’ said Luke, showing Josh the console as they neared the edge of the woods. ‘Full battery…!’