This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

October 31, 2010

The Thirteenth Tree.

Much of this is written from life, and all the locations are accurately described. Fred and Wendy existed, as did the two lines of trees in the churchyard.

It was first published by Arkham Tales in May, 2009.

Approximate reading time: 30-35 minutes.

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...what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

This melancholy reflection is made by no ordinary mortal, but a Prince of Denmark - tortured by grief and the need for vengeance, teetering on the edge of insanity and musing on the state of death.

But what of the dreams of more mundane folk? The factory worker living in Birmingham with only the form of his local football team to concern him, the stockbroker settled comfortably in the Home Counties, or, in my case, the freelance photographer living in a quiet spot on the Northumberland coast with few real cares apart from the insecurity of never being sure that the next commission will come in soon enough to pay the rent?

And what are dreams anyway? Philosophers, mystics and scientists have been offering various explanations for as long as there have been philosophers, mystics and scientists. Are they merely part of some cerebral activity to be explained away as electrical impulses in the synapses? Maybe that is the mechanical explanation, but what drives the mechanics? As you go deeper into what proves to be a very deep question, you have to wrestle with the capricious and elusive workings of psychology. And then, deeper still, you are faced with the final question: what is reality? At that point you reach the edge of a continental shelf, and before you lies an abyss of unfathomable depth in which logic, as it is usually perceived, has little or no place.

My dreams, at least those I remember, are like everybody else’s: vague, disjointed, full of contradictions and distortions – usually explainable as the reworking of things that have happened to me in real life. But one dream was very different. That one was clear and logical, and seemed to be a viewing of events happening in real time. And what I learned the following day confirmed that either the most unbelievable coincidence had occurred, or that dreams can be much more than mere synaptic flashes.

* * *

It happened three years ago when I was that freelance photographer living in a quiet spot on the Northumberland coast at a place called Dryburgh Bay. I had rented an old farmhouse that had become vacant when the tenant farmer, finding it increasingly difficult to eke out a meagre living from the poor land behind the dunes, had decided to retire. The land had been leased to another farmer in the vicinity, the outbuildings were up for sale, and the previous occupant had moved out to live with one of his daughters in the city.

Although Northumberland is in England, I had felt from the outset that there was nothing “English” about the landscape – at least, not English as I understood the term. I came from the Midlands shires where the land is a fertile patchwork of well-manicured fields, dotted here and there by tidy black and white dairy cows. This landscape was very different.

The poor soil made the grass dull and lifeless, sparse tufts of marram struggled to colonise the sand dunes, and the cows were a strange, straggly bunch of all sizes and colours that looked as though every genetic misfit of their kind had been brought together in one place. Even the light had a piercing clarity that made the starkness seem all the more stark.

I had moved there in late March, and during my first night in the house had been woken in the early hours by a cacophonous din. It had been the sound of the roof slates clattering loudly in a gusting easterly gale coming off the North Sea. The following morning I had looked out of the window and felt a profound sense of being in a foreign country.

The front of the house faced south and overlooked a narrow lane, beyond which was a dull, green-brown vista comprising poor grassland and marshy areas with pools occupied by waterfowl. It was the same to the north behind the house. To the east was the cold North Sea, fringed by sand dunes that rose to the height of a house in places, protecting the wetland behind them from the high spring tides. The lane ran west for about a mile up a shallow hill to a village called Waddington where it joined the main coast road.

The village was something like the civilisation I was used to. It had trees, cottages, a pub, an old church and a post office. I used to walk there several times a week to post my mail and gaze at the familiar plants in the cottage gardens.

It took me several months to get used to living there, but I did eventually find an uneasy peace with the place and came to respect its wild and unkempt air. Freelance photography can be an irregular and insecure occupation and I would sometimes go without work for weeks at a time. I used the empty days to discover this new and unfamiliar landscape on foot, sometimes walking on the dunes to watch the seabirds dive for fish, sometimes following the slow meanderings of the waterfowl on the pools, and sometimes marvelling at the shifting levels of the beach and the ever-changing colours of the sea - from electric blue on a calm spring morning to near-black when the onshore wind blew and the eastern sky took on the slate grey of an approaching storm.

I found an old ruin too, standing alone on the rough scrubland behind the house. I learned that it had belonged to the Knights Hospitallers during the Middle Ages, and was now quiet and empty apart from the occasional owl standing proudly on top of the stark masonry, hooting mournfully.

My walks up the hill to the village were different; they were sojourns into a more comfortable world. On one of my first visits I took a stroll around the church. It was a simple structure with no transepts, chancel or lych gate like those found in the village churches of the midland and southern shires. It had no tower to speak of, just a simple open bell cote so typical of Northumberland. The heavily weather-worn stone in parts of the structure attested to its age, and the pattern of the older windows was early gothic.

I went inside, but found it simple and unspectacular. I came back out and read some of the gravestones. What stories they had to tell. Whole families wiped out in the space of a few months, siblings dying many years apart but always at more or less the same age, two men who appeared to have been brothers, but who had the same Christian name and died within a year of each other. It was fascinating stuff that kept me engrossed for an hour or more.

But the really interesting feature lay on the eastern edge of the churchyard. It was an open, airy spot and almost constantly bleak. It overlooked the poor farmland running down to the sea and caught the force of the cold, damp easterlies that kept us living mortals needing several layers of clothing even in the warmer summer spells.

Running along the unfenced fringe of the church’s land were twelve poplar trees. They were arranged in what amounted to a perfectly straight line and were equally spaced, apart from a gap in the middle between the sixth and seventh. There the gap was twice that between the other trees, as though a thirteenth should have occupied the space. What struck me as odd was the fact that nothing grew in the vacant spot; no grass, no weeds, nothing; there was only barren brown earth. During my years as a landscape photographer I had visited and photographed many churches and churchyards, and had never seen such an arrangement of trees before. I was intrigued and gave some thought to possible explanations.

The most obvious was suggested by Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper – twelve disciples sitting on one side of the table with Jesus in the middle. Presumably, some devout soul had planted twelve trees to represent the apostles and left a full space in the middle to represent the risen Christ. I was happy enough with that and thought no more about it until I met the vicar a couple of weeks later.

It was a sunny day in late spring. For once, a southerly wind was keeping the onshore breeze at bay and it was unusually warm down by the coast. I needed to send some mail and so I took a stroll to the village post office. As I made my way home I walked past the entrance to the churchyard. I saw a man in a clerical collar walking down the path towards the gate, and thought it would be interesting to find out whether there was a known history of the planting of the poplars.

He seemed an approachable sort and I stood aside as he unlatched the gate and came out. He smiled at me in that welcoming way that you have a right to expect of vicars. I introduced myself and came straight to the point of my interest. He told me that there was no official record of when they had been planted or who had been responsible, but the presumption was that the trees represented the twelve apostles and the gap the risen Christ. That was the view held by the local diocese. I was pleased to have guessed right. He seemed to hesitate slightly, and then said

“There is another explanation and that one is in writing. But it’s highly fanciful and not something the Church likes to dwell on.”

He looked uncertain for a moment and then continued.

“Oh, why not? I’ve been dying to tell this story ever since I read it when I first came here five years ago, and you’re the first person who’s ever expressed an interest.”

As we stood there on that warm, late spring day he told me of a document contained within the parish records. The story it told was fantastical enough to make it safe to relate, he said. No one would believe it in this rational age. As far as I remember the exact procession of his words, this is what he told me.

“Back in 1693 the vicar of this parish was a man with the delightful name of the Reverend Jeremiah Jellicoe - his grave is round by the south wall, but the inscription’s all but worn away now.

“During the autumn of that year there was a bad storm which lasted several days and the church roof suffered some damage. The Reverend Jellicoe called in the workmen to effect the necessary repairs and went up into the roof space to assess the damage for himself. Among the dust and rubble littering the floor he found an old leather pouch which contained a folded document written in Latin. The good Reverend was a Latin scholar, as all the clergy were in those days, and he had no difficulty translating it.

“What he read must have put the wind up him a bit. It wasn’t only the common herd who were more superstitious in those days; the clergy were ready to see goblins and demons in every dark corner too. Apparently he gave the document to the bishop but made an English translation first, and that’s the version that’s contained in the parish records.

“The document had been written by a priest called Hugh de Ferrer in 1284. At that time the building was actually the chapel to a manor house which stood nearby and Hugh was the chaplain. The narrative begins in the year 1282.

“The church also served the local parish in a general capacity and, one Sunday evening, Hugh was in the confessional - it was Catholic then, of course - when a man stepped in and confessed to having provided the local lord, a powerful baron called Sir Guy de Menton, with his six-year-old son to use in a sacrificial ritual. Apparently there had been a few disappearances among the children of the locality stretching back several years and they had been put down to the wild animals that roamed these parts in those days. The peasant’s confession told a different tale.

“It seems that Sir Guy was a Templar Knight and the leader of a thirteen-strong group of like-minded knights from the county who were deeply engaged in hermetic practices, some of which involved the ritual sacrifice of young children. I’m not claiming this to be right, you understand; this is what the document said. According to the peasant, this was where the children had been disappearing to.”

I had to interrupt at that point. I had always thought of the Templar Knights as paragons of virtue, wearers of the red cross, the embodiment of medieval chivalry. My childhood veneration for the gallant knights of Old England had never fully left me and I was inclined to scoff at some silly story that claimed they worshipped the devil and murdered children.

“Well, don’t write the story off just yet,” said the vicar. “I’m not what you would call an authority on the Templars, but I know there are some suspicions regarding the true nature and purpose of their organisation. They were formed during the twelfth century, ostensibly to defend pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It’s true that their device was the red cross and that they had a reputation as tough and worthy warriors, and I dare say most of them were probably devout, God-fearing Christians. But there is a belief that their function as defenders of the faithful was, or at least came to be, a cover for something darker. Some believe they were a front for a secret society which more than merely dabbled in the black arts. The same belief surrounds the Masons, who claimed a connection with Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Some modern writers have suggested that there was a link between the Templars and the Masons.

“At some point, early in the fourteenth century I think, one of the French kings – Philip the second or third – had the Templars disbanded. Slaughtered some of them, tortured many more and confiscated their lands and wealth. There is some mystery over the true reason for such a brutal purge and there are many who claim that it wasn’t just about the politics of wealth and power. There are plenty of books on the subject. Anyway, back to the story.

“Poor old Hugh was at a loss to know how to handle this astonishing confession. He had no reason to disbelieve the man’s story. Lying in a confessional was beyond the bounds of credibility in those days, and why would anyone want to make up such a story? He also had no reason to think that the man was insane. Furthermore, the confessional was sacrosanct so he couldn’t tell anybody about it. And who would he tell anyway? The authorities? Sir Guy was the authority in these parts.

“He considered seeking the advice of the bishop, but he knew that the bishop was a strong supporter of the Templars and feared for his position and even his life. According to the document, he agonised over his predicament for a whole week before deciding on a highly unconventional course of action.

“There was a hermit living in a cave, a little way up the coast at Warkworth. He had, apparently, a somewhat ambivalent reputation; some said he was a holy man, while others believed him to be a pagan magician. Stories of his magical prowess were common in the county, but his actions were said to be generally benevolent and he was left in peace by both the peasants and the local gentry. Hugh decided that he would be worth a try. Being a poor man, the hermit wasn’t likely to be in with the Templars and his magic just might be real - and powerful enough deal with the problem. Direct confrontation obviously wasn’t an option and Hugh was desperate.

“So Hugh paid him a visit. Not that easy in those days, of course. The roads were far from safe even for a priest, and Warkworth must have been a full day’s round trip on horseback. And he had to go alone as the whole business needed to be kept secret. To make matters worse, the cave was on the other side of the river from the road and the weather was particularly bad, so Hugh had some difficulty persuading the ferryman in the nearby cottage to row him across.

“He records the interview briefly, saying that he felt an increasing sense that ‘beings or forces from another realm’ were close by – he could almost feel their breath on his face, he says. Whether they were benevolent, diabolical or merely disinterested he was in no position to tell. He felt severely unnerved by the atmosphere, and the darkness didn’t help. There was no light in the cave except what little came in from the narrow entrance. All he could see of the hermit was a shadowy figure seated in the corner and wearing some form of long, hooded garment like those worn by monks. He also says that he never saw the man’s face; he kept it turned away from Hugh’s gaze the whole time and it would probably have been too dark to see very much anyway.

“To protect the sanctity of the confessional, Hugh told him the story in general terms, and the hermit – Hugh never names him – agreed to help. He told Hugh that he would need something personal from each of the knights and, to help him achieve this, he gave the priest a potion of herbs which was to be poured into their vat of wine. This would knock them out for several hours and it would be safe to cut a few wisps of hair from each man. He said that he would arrive to do the deed when he judged the time to be right.

“As the chaplain, Hugh had free access to the house and had little trouble in doing as he had been instructed. He kept the fragments of hair safe, fearful all the time that he was acting in a manner seriously unbecoming of a good Christian priest.

“Two weeks later there was a knock at his door late at night. Hugh says that the sight of the hermit in the doorway, lit this time by a single candle, unnerved him somewhat. He describes him as being unusually tall with wild, unkempt hair and a deadness in his eyes reminiscent of a corpse. The hermit said very little, just explained that it had been necessary to come late so as not to be seen in the vicinity. He demanded a promise from Hugh that he would not disclose his involvement during his lifetime and asked for the hair fragments, which Hugh gave him. Then he turned and walked away into the darkness.

“Hugh didn’t know what to expect and admits to having severe misgivings at the prospect of expecting anything at all. He was, after all, a younger son of a genteel family himself, and admits to feeling uncomfortable at the thought of entering some dark conspiracy with a wild cave-dweller against people who were, in effect, his own kind.

“Anyway, life in the village went on as normal until a month later. Hugh says that this was significant as the moon had been dark on the night of the hermit’s visit and it was dark again on the night that Sir Guy had some sort of a seizure. The doctor was sent for, and Hugh was called in to administer the last rites as the doctor thought he might die. He didn’t. He made a complete physical recovery within days, but was never the same again mentally. He was listless and pale, all his old aggressive energy had drained away, and he had no will to do anything except wander restlessly around the house and sleep fitfully for up to twelve hours a day.

“Then the visits started. Some of Hugh’s parishioners were employed as retainers at the house and they told him that the visitors included the King’s men, Lord Percy, and some of the friends and family of Sir Guy’s twelve companions, none of whom had been seen for several weeks. Sir Guy stared emptily into the fire during all the questioning and denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of his erstwhile friends. The investigation eventually petered out and Sir Guy continued to live a reclusive existence in the manor house.

“Hugh was both intrigued and disturbed by the disappearances and predictably laid the explanation at the feet of the hermit. Although his sensibilities as a man of God made him reluctant to discover that he had been instrumental in the workings of some magical art, his curiosity persuaded him to make the arduous journey to Warkworth again to question his collaborator.

“The hermit refused to tell him anything, other than to state that he had done what he’d needed to do: separated the acolytes from their fountainhead and made sure that it would stay that way. As long as Sir Guy and the twelve knights were kept apart there would be no further trouble. That’s what the priest had wanted, and that’s what he had got. No further explanation was needed.

“And that’s what Hugh had to be content with. The knights were never seen again and there were no more incidents of children disappearing.”

As the vicar paused momentarily, I asked him where the twelve trees came into the story.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the interesting bit, and it’s what prompted Hugh to write the whole thing down for posterity.

“Two years later, in the spring of 1284, Hugh looked out of his window one morning to see Sir Guy walking up and down in an agitated manner along the eastern edge of the churchyard. He says that the old man had his hands clasped in front of his chest and appeared to be talking to something on the ground. At first he assumed the old knight’s behaviour to be nothing more than the latest manifestation of his disturbed mental state, but was interested enough to look for himself after the lord had retired back into the house.

“He was surprised to find two lines of strong young saplings growing up out of the rough grass. The two groups of six saplings formed a perfectly straight line but there was a patch of barren earth between them where a thirteenth would have completed the set. He looked over at the house and saw Sir Guy staring back at him with a look of hatred that made his blood run cold. It was the first sign of anything other than apathy that he had seen in the old man’s face since the day of the seizure. He felt sure that Sir Guy now knew what had happened to his friends, and that the look betrayed a hatred for Hugh and a consuming desire for revenge. The following day Sir Guy collapsed and died.

“The rest is a matter of historical record. Sir Guy had never married so he had no heirs. Lord Percy claimed the estate but never did anything about the land and buildings and, as was common in these parts, they fell into decay and the locals helped themselves to the masonry for use as building material. The foundations are still there I suppose but, to my knowledge, the site has never been considered important enough to be worth excavating.

“Anyway, Hugh wrote everything down and hid the account in the roof space, expecting, no doubt, that it would eventually be found long after he and the hermit were dead and buried. And that’s what happened.”

I asked whether Hugh had confined himself to a straightforward narrative, or whether he had offered any logical explanation for these events

“Not really,” said the vicar. “The whole thing reads like the work of a man shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders through the whole account. He does say at the end, however, that he prays to God that no tree shall grow in the spot during his lifetime, so he must have believed that there was a connection between the twelve trees and the missing knights.”

It was a fascinating tale, told with enthusiasm and a fine recollection for detail by a skilled story teller. But, of course, I didn’t take it seriously. I thanked the vicar for his time, exchanged a few pleasantries, and made my way home down the winding, treeless lane that ran to the sea. I took my usual evening stroll along the dunes, had dinner, and spent the evening trying to find something worth watching on the television. I gave up and spent the rest of the night before going to bed musing light-heartedly on the vicar’s tale of medieval magic and skulduggery. I half expected to dream about Hugh, Sir Guy and the wild hermit that night, but I didn’t. That was to come another night, a good six months later.

Why that night? I don’t know. Was it some sort of anniversary? Were the planets in the same configuration as they had been on that day in 1284 when the trees had, apparently, magically appeared in the churchyard? I had been to Warkworth by then and seen a cave on the far side of the river from the path that runs upstream from the castle. I had discovered that it was still called The Hermitage, and wondered whether it was where Hugh had conducted the fateful interview. But I hadn’t been near the place in months. So why that night? Whatever the reason, I had the most vivid and realistic dream of my life. At least, that’s what the sceptic would believe it to be, although I’m sure that it was something of rather more substance. Whatever it was, the memory of it now is as strong as ever and it is causing me to face an agonising decision, the like of which I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

It was late in the year. Christmas was in the air and I had watched an adaptation of an MR James ghost story on the television. Perhaps that’s why the dream came that night. I’m clutching at straws. This dream wasn’t the usual fitful, disjointed affair populated by gypsy children, haunted ash trees and runic curses. This one was rational, sharp as a razor and very frightening. This is what I “dreamed.”

I was standing in the field just a dozen or so yards downhill from the two groups of poplar trees. I saw that the moon was full and every detail of the scene was clearly visible. I had a strong sense of really being there, in real time. I was aware of having gone to bed as usual and felt surprised at suddenly finding myself in a frosty landscape, hearing the wind in the trees and feeling its cold breath on my body.

I felt confused. My gaze wandered restlessly along the line of the twelve trees. I felt a sense of expectation without knowing why. Suddenly they started to glow. “Glow” isn’t quite the right word, but I don’t really know what is. They took on a sort of luminescence which caused me to blink several times, attempting to clear what I assumed was some visual aberration.

The trunk of each tree cracked and opened, and out of each one stepped a figure - a female figure, naked and hairless apart from long, dark cranial hair blowing listlessly in the light breeze. Their bodies were pure white, as though they had never seen the light of the sun. Each was slightly different than the others, but alike enough that they might have been sisters – rather like twelve examples of the same species of tree. I remembered Orpheus’ first meeting with his beloved Euridyce and how her beauty had led him to follow her to the very depths of Hades. Was that what I was seeing, the tree nymphs of classical legend?

They started to walk in my direction, but their gaze was directed beyond me. I turned and saw a man walking up the hill. I didn’t recognise him, but it was apparent that he was aware of the women. He came to within a few yards of me, and yet was obviously unaware of my presence. He only had eyes for these naked beauties who were forming a tight circle around him.

The man was young – no more than thirty in my estimation - and dressed in modern clothes. He had a shotgun in his hand, which might explain why he was in the field and not in the lane on the other side of the hedge. Perhaps he was a farmer’s son, out shooting rabbits. I had no idea. I’d never seen him before.

But I saw him now. I saw the look in his eyes, a mixture of amazement and expectation as the women surrounded him. One of them moved in close and pulled him gently to his knees. He looked around at the others and smirked childishly. He was clearly enthralled and in no condition to see anything beyond their naked bodies full of erotic promise. The woman removed his coat, his sweater, and his shirt. I stared in amazement until a movement caught my eye and I swung around to look again in the direction of the poplars. Twelve very different figures were striding purposefully towards us.

I recognised them from countless pictures I had seen in books: medieval knights in mail and surcoats, each with a bold red cross on the chest. They looked tough and imposing as they marched, twelve abreast, down the shallow slope. As they drew closer I saw their faces, lined and weather-worn, with the ravening look of wild animals in their eyes. Those eyes were terrible: hard, cruel, devoid of humanity - the eyes of a pack of wild dogs closing for the kill.

I felt gripped with fear, but fascinated at the same time. I could see them as clearly as I see my own hand now, but I was still struggling to decide whether it was a dream or not. Could they see me? The thought sent a shock of panic down my spine. My question was soon answered. As they passed close by, the nearest turned and looked directly at me. He said nothing but his intense stare made words unnecessary. “Keep out of this,” it said. “Don’t interfere.” The instruction was redundant. I was held rigid; there was no question of interfering.

As the men approached the poor wretch on his knees, the forms of the women became indistinct until they were mere wisps of vapour which floated swiftly back to the trees. Having watched their retirement, I turned back towards the half-naked man still kneeling on the frosty grass. His eyes carried a different sort of expectancy now; they held a level of terror that most of us thankfully never have to experience.

Two of the knights moved swiftly and took hold of his arms. A third placed one dark, leathery hand over his mouth and the other at the back of his neck, stifling the man’s pitiful protestations. I looked at the shotgun that lay on the grass where he had dropped it. It was too late to hope that it might be used in his defence. He was held firmly by three men to whom brutality was obviously second nature. I was certain that it would have been useless anyway.

They dragged him roughly up the slope towards the line of poplars. All but one of the other knights rushed to the spot in the centre of the trees and began to scratch away the earth with their bare hands. The remaining knight stood close by and removed a dagger from a scabbard on his belt. The victim was laid on his back, struggling wildly but held firm by his captors. The dagger was plunged it into his chest and dragged downwards to open a cavity. The knight thrust his hand inside and wrenched out a bloody, steaming mass which he looked at triumphantly for a few seconds, before throwing it unceremoniously into the newly-dug hole. The others scraped the earth back into place - and they were gone.

There was silence. The suddenness of their disappearance stunned me. I had been both enraptured and appalled by the scene that had been played out before my eyes. But now there was only an eerie stillness, nothing else - or almost nothing. A body lay contorted on the frosty ground, its head thankfully turned away from me. I dread to think what a look must have been in its dead eyes.

I awoke in my own bed in my own bedroom. Blue sky filled the window, and I rose to look out on a clear day bathing the frosty landscape in wholesome light.

Some dreams we disregard as soon as we wake up. Others persist and nag at us for hours or even days. This one did more than nag. It was too real, and I felt sickened and shaken. At that point, however, I still chose to regard it as just a dream.

I didn’t go out that day, not even for my customary walks on the dunes. The dream hung about me like a heavy weight and my thoughts returned to it repeatedly. I couldn’t shake off the sense that I had really been in that field and really witnessed those horrific scenes. I felt uneasy at the prospect of going through the door. I didn’t exactly expect to see a sword-wielding maniac intent on my destruction, but the sense of horror was still strong enough to keep me erring on the cautious side. By eight o’clock I was feeling restive. It wasn’t like me to stay cooped up in the house all day. I decided to pay a visit to my nearest neighbours, a middle-aged couple who lived in another old farmhouse a quarter of a mile up the lane.

Fred Coulton was a local man who had built up a small building business, and his wife Wendy was an affable sort who came from Newcastle. She liked to regale me with tales of life as a “proper Geordie” when she was a girl. They had befriended me shortly after I had moved in and were more than happy for me to pop around every so often. They liked me to tell them what I had learned about their county from my researches as a photographer, and I needed an occasional break from the emotional austerity of living alone and doing a solitary job.

That night I wanted to tell them about the dream. I felt the need to tell somebody, and they were the only friends I had made during my short spell in the North East. But I hesitated. I hadn’t told them the story of Hugh and the hermit as I had felt that it was somehow confidential, even though the vicar hadn’t expressly said so. To relate the dream would have meant telling the whole story from the beginning and I just wasn’t in the mood for talking at length. I had, however, told them the story of the twelve trees shortly after I had met them, during one of our chats about the oddities of the county. Fred was about to use it to thrust a sharpened lance through my self-imposed wall of silence.

Our conversation wasn’t flowing easily and I’m sure they could tell that my mood was guarded and distant. After one of several uneasy lulls, Fred suddenly took on the air of a man who had thought of something to say to break the clammy silence. He looked at me and said

“Oh, I know what you might find interesting.”

If words can have a power that is verging on the palpable, these were at the top of the league.

“You know that spot in the churchyard that you told us about once, the one between the trees where nothing grows? They found a body there this morning.”

My chest felt as though it had been struck by something heavy. My heart began to thump and the back of my neck turned cold.

“A body?”

“Mmm. Graham Ferrers it was, Arnold’s son; owns the farm down the road behind the dunes. Only twenty eight. The postman saw him lying there when he went to collect the mail from the box. Police were there for a couple of hours, apparently.”

“What did he die of?” I asked foolishly, my sense of shock sidestepping the obvious fact that the cause would probably not be public knowledge yet.

“Don’t know,” said Fred. “Some of the old lads from the village stood around the whole time and said they couldn’t see any marks or blood or anything. They heard one of the coppers say it must have been a heart attack. Can you believe it? Twenty eight! Makes you think you’re living on borrowed time.”

I think Fred expected this revelation to start the conversation moving but it didn’t. Looking back on it now, I feel that I should have been full of questions, pressing him for more information. But the workings of the human brain are often at odds with what you later think they should have been, and the effect of this startling bit of news only made me more guarded. The conversation lapsed again and I went home earlier than usual.

I really didn’t want to go to bed that night. The details of the two dramas were too coincidental for comfort, and the similarity in names hadn’t escaped me. Surely the medieval “de Ferrer” would have evolved into the modern “Ferrers.” Could there be a family connection going back to Hugh? Was the revenge motive part of this sordid picture? I became intensely conscious of the fact that I was a witness – the only witness. But that wouldn’t matter to supernatural beings, would it? Or would it? I didn’t know. My thinking was muddled, unfocused. Fear has that effect. If it did matter to them, I didn’t relish meeting them in another dream.

And so I sat in my armchair, pondering uncomfortably on the meaning of such transparent synchronicity. I drank a lot of Scotch, which had a mercifully numbing effect on my agitation. At about four in the morning I went to bed.

I woke up late with a bit of a headache but a sizeable sense of relief. No nocturnal sojourns - or at least none that I remembered, and that would do. I felt better, more logical. I decided that I probably wasn’t in any danger, that the whole thing might just be an almighty coincidence and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.

For the next few weeks I busied myself with the task of trying to get work from book and magazine publishers. A sharp recession was hitting the publishing industry and my regulars were putting out hardly any new commissions. I wasn’t having much luck and I was beginning to get depressed. I could see the end of my career looming and the dream went very much to the back of my mind.

Then Fred Coulton showed me a local newspaper that carried an article on the coroner’s inquest into the death of Graham Ferrers. Briefly, it said that he had been found at the eastern edge of the churchyard, that he was stripped to the waist, and that a shotgun and some discarded clothing had been found a little way down the hill. His father confirmed that he had gone out that night to try to find and shoot a fox that had been troubling the hen sheds. The cause of death was cardiac arrest caused by an embolism. The obvious conclusion was that he had dropped the gun when the attack occurred - I remember thinking that the use of the word “attack” was unwittingly ironic - and it was assumed that he had struggled up the slope in an attempt to reach the village, but had died before he got there. No explanation was offered as to why he had removed his upper garments, but there was no reason to pursue the matter. The verdict was a formality.

I had to let this go; what else could I do? And I had my business to worry about. Spring, normally the start of my busy period, came and went with only a couple of half-day commissions that paid just about enough for one month’s rent. My capital was draining away. Summer was completely dead and, by the middle of July, I was forced to join the ranks of the unemployed.

Life became tedious. Your activities are pretty limited when you’re living in such a remote spot and dependant entirely on a single person’s benefit. Even putting enough petrol in the car to do the weekly shop is a burden when the nearest town is ten miles away.

I became an expert in shoestring living. Socialising was out of the question and I became totally reliant on Fred and Wendy for company. In the autumn a friend from back home offered me a way out. He had inherited a terraced house on the death of a relative and offered to let me use it for a nominal rent. I didn’t have much choice but to accept and, in early December, I moved back to my home town in the Midlands.

Northumberland soon became a distant memory. My new environment couldn’t have been further from the old. The wild and stark beauty of the east coast was replaced by crumbling red brick, concrete and tarmac. The terraced houses were crammed together in a claustrophobic mass and the whole area was criss-crossed by streets that were too narrow for the lines of cars parked on both sides day and night. They only added to my sense of being closed in and dominated by the inert paraphernalia of urban life. There were no trees in this mortified environment, and the only wild flowers were the weeds that grew out of the gaps between the house walls and the paving slabs. The noise of people, internal combustion engines and hooting horns punctuated the brief silences all day long, and for much of the night as well.

My only contact with Northumberland was the occasional phone call from Fred and Wendy. I was glad when they rang. If they didn’t ring me for a couple of months I would ring them, even though I couldn’t really afford to.

All the time they were speaking I would strain to listen for noises in the background, hoping I would pick up the rumble and hiss of the waves at high tide, or the infamous wind coming off the sea, or maybe catch the hoot of an owl somewhere close outside their window. They kept me in touch with a world that was open and airy and populated by the children of nature, living and dying by the cycles of the seasons. I really was glad of their calls - until yesterday. Now I wish they had let me go and forgotten that they had ever known me.

Yesterday I had a phone call from Fred. I was glad to hear from him as usual, until he told me his latest piece of news.

He thought I might be interested to know that there was a tree growing in the churchyard, in that bare spot between the two lines of poplars close to where Arnold Ferrers’ lad was found dead. We talked about it when I lived there, remember? I shuddered slightly. The nightmare was back, alive and kicking.

“I suppose,” he said with that gentle, Northumbrian lilt that makes everything sound so matter-of-fact, “somebody’s planted it in memory of Graham. His parents probably.”

Perhaps they had. Or perhaps there’s a more disturbing explanation known only to me, the only witness. A game of revenge and resurrection played at some propitious moment by the souls of a dark alliance kept in enforced separation for seven hundred years. Fountainhead and acolytes reunited; the distant descendant of their tormentor being sacrificed to reverse the act of his forefather. Do I really believe that? I’m afraid I do. I had the “dream.” Only I know what it was like to be there that night.

So what do I do about it? Make the trip to Northumberland and cut the sapling off at ground level? I’ve seen the men responsible for its genesis and I shudder at the thought of meeting them again. Maybe I’m wrong and somebody has planted it there, in memoriam, in which case I would be nothing more than a common vandal.

But I don’t think I am wrong, so how do I reconcile my firmly held belief with the prospect of taking no action? How would I live with myself if one of the village children disappeared?

The fact that my belief could be totally fanciful should make it easy for me to take the soft option and ignore the whole thing. I’m not made that way. I’m cursed with a strong sense of personal responsibility. The same objection applies to the other obvious option – sit back and hope the vicar will do the job.

I’ve been sitting here all day wondering how the evil energy contained within thirteen trees could translate itself into physical action. I don’t see how it could; but I’m not an expert in such matters, so I can’t be sure. Whatever the mechanics of the matter, the fact is established and cannot be ignored: the twelve trees have now been joined by a thirteenth.

The arguments go back and forth, back and forth, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock ticking me down to one form of doom or another. Which do I take, the devil or the deep blue sea? The decision needs to be made now. The power might not be unleashed until the thirteenth tree is fully-grown, but the bigger it gets the more impracticable it will be to do anything about it.

In the meantime I have felt it necessary to spend a few hours setting all this down for the record. If I do decide to back up my convictions with some courage, I’ll need to move quickly before my resolve cools. There won’t be time for writing then.

If something untoward should happen to me during the attempt, my story will be of no interest to the police or the pathologist and will be quite inadmissible in a coroner’s court. But at least my friends will, if they feel so inclined, be able to interpret the circumstances of my misfortune in a more informed light. They might even feel moved to complete the job on my behalf. In all conscience, it is something I could not ask of them.

October 15, 2010

Whitesytch Wood.

Whitesytch Wood exists. The characters and dog also existed. The curious incidents happened as described, as did the walk at midnight on All Hallows Eve. The rest is fiction. Probably.

It was first published in Encounters Magazine in July this year.

Approximate reading time: 25-30 minutes.

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Gregory Jordan loved woods. He always had. He’d been brought up on a suburban housing estate placed at the furthest edge of the city environs. The fence at the end of his long back garden had been the very boundary of civilised suburbia, and beyond it had lain the impenetrable depths of a wild and ancient wood.

And what a fabulous wood it had been: rich, mysterious and compelling. The trees were massive, with all-enveloping crowns and gnarled old trunks that had folds and grooves and strange protuberances standing out in gruesome relief. Some of the shapes looked like faces. Most of them were ugly, and some of them looked unfriendly. He’d regarded them often with a mixture of suspicion and fascination, but they hadn’t bothered him. He’d known well enough that the trees couldn’t move, so neither could the faces.

There were a couple of footpaths running through it, and Gregory occasionally took one of them as a short cut to school. They were the only means of making progress in this dark and dappled world. Either side of them the woodland floor was a dense mass of undergrowth that prevented movement by anything other than the small animals he knew must live there.

On one occasion he’d found the entrance to a small tunnel that burrowed through the densely packed brambles. He had crawled in to investigate. Being a small boy, he’d managed to squeeze himself along it, assuming that it must have been made by a badger or a fox. He had come to a point where it branched into two forks, and his way had been blocked by a dead rat lying at the junction. The incessant rippling of its skin had told Gregory that it was full of maggots performing their natural role by gorging themselves on what was left of the defunct rodent. He’d found both options open to him repulsive. Neither crawling over it nor moving it out of the way appealed to the sensitive child and he had retreated backwards with some difficulty.

But that was a minor incident. The wood had provided the perfect playground for an imaginative young boy, enabling him to don the mantle of noble knight, dashing outlaw or fearless jungle fighter with great authority and realism. And that wasn’t all. He’d felt the peace of the place too and, beyond that, the harmony of nature and a sense that the wood had a life that was somehow greater in its whole than the sum of its parts. The faces on the trees might not offer any physical threat, but he was sure they watched him. And he only went into the wood during the day. He never presumed to enter it after dark. Never.

Sadly, Gregory had been granted only a few years to enjoy his sylvan idyll. His family had moved closer to the centre of the city when he was eleven and his arboreal playground had been replaced by crowded housing, an old slag heap and a disused railway line. The wood soon passed into history, put fondly away in the box of treasured childhood memories along with innocence, untrammelled joy and a belief in Father Christmas.

* * *

It was nearly twenty years later when he moved with his wife and dog to a quiet village in the English countryside. The community was friendly and functional, and the surrounding landscape typical of the English Midlands: gently rolling, pastoral farmland with patchwork fields grazed by herds of Friesian milkers. There were plenty of walks and several empty meadows where his dog could run unimpeded. And there was a narrow stream meandering along the bottom of a shallow valley where he could wile away the odd summer evening in a setting of blissful tranquillity.

But it was finding Whitesytch Wood that pleased him most. It was the first time since he’d moved house at the age of eleven that he’d been blessed with a wood on the doorstep. In fact, it wasn’t quite that close. It was about a mile away down a rarely used lane that ran off the top end of the village. But that was close enough. The walk only added to the pleasure of going there.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite up to the standard of his legendary wildwood either. There were plenty of massive stumps testifying to the pedigree of the place, but the trees that stood there now were mostly young conifers. The undergrowth had been largely cleared and access to all parts was easy. It was obvious that the owner had felled the old standards and replaced them with fast-growing varieties to make a quicker profit. Gregory didn’t like that. He knew it was one of the ways in which nature was being unduly exploited for commercial gain. But at least it was a wood, and that was better than nothing.

Em loved it too. Em was Gregory’s young border collie dog. Like all of her breed, she was intelligent, inquisitive and brimful of seemingly boundless energy. She never stopped moving except when she was asleep or waiting to be fed. The sparse undergrowth in Whitesytch Wood suited her perfectly. She could explore the myriad scents and chase startled rabbits to her heart’s content. She never caught any, which pleased Gregory, but neither did she tire of the innocent enjoyment she got from trying. No doubt the chase was the main thing anyway, and it gave Gregory great delight to see her bright-eyed, active and happy.

That was why it seemed so unaccountable when she stopped on the track one day and stared dead ahead. She never did that and he peered hard in the same direction, curious to know what could be holding her interest. He could see nothing moving and nothing out place.

She was in front of him at the time and he walked past her, assuming it would break her mysterious reverie and rouse her to frenetic activity again. It didn’t. She continued to stand stock still and he walked on.

The track ran in a straight line and slightly downhill for about a hundred yards, before making a sharp right turn. That was the direction she was looking in, but still he could see nothing. He called to her when he was half way down but she offered no response. And yet it seemed that she was not refusing him, rather that she was oblivious to his presence.

Gregory found her behaviour inexplicable, but continued to walk down the track to see how long it would take her to follow him. He arrived at the bend and looked back. She was still standing in the same place, rigid as a piebald statue, and Gregory found her unaccustomed stillness so strange as to verge on the unnerving. She’d never done anything like that before.

And then he had a sudden thought, or maybe “impression” would be the right word. For that’s what it was, an inner sense that there was something close by that his dog could see but he couldn’t. He was standing on the apex of the bend and there was a grassy area between the track and a bank of shrubs. He suddenly felt that the mystery lay there and sensed that, if he walked onto the grass, it would disturb whatever was holding Em’s attention and release her.

He tried it and it worked. The moment he set foot onto the small, green space, Em came to life again. She trotted towards him as though there had been no break in her activity, stopping to sniff unconcernedly at little points of interest along the way. Whatever spell had been holding her captive, it was gone now.

Gregory was intrigued and looked around. The air was still and there was no sound other than the occasional trilling of birds hidden among the foliage. There was nothing visible to explain his dog’s strange behaviour, and none of his physical senses betrayed anything out of the ordinary. Em’s extraordinary diversion from the norm would have to remain a mystery.

The episode was only the first of several odd little incidents that happened during his frequent forays to Whitesytch Wood. On one occasion he saw a tree branch swing suddenly and unaccountably through ninety degrees, gradually coming to rest in its rightful position. It seemed as though it had been held at right angles and then released. But what could have held it? When he investigated he found that the branch was too high to be reached by even a very tall man, and there was nothing close to the tree that could have been responsible.

Another time he saw a small cloud of smoke, or mist maybe, drift suddenly across the path in front of him. There was no steady stream as there would have been had a fire been lit somewhere, just a single, small cloud that appeared and was gone in a couple of seconds. And he often felt that he was being watched, and even followed, by something undefined but large and invisible.

Fortunately, Gregory wasn’t a nervous type and his odd encounters with the unexplained did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for trips to the wood with his canine companion. He never felt threatened in any way. Not, that is, until he broke his childhood rule and went into the wood at night. And he only did that at the behest of a young friend who did not share his inner conviction that other forms of reality lie beyond the surface of the natural world.

The house next door to his was owned by a widow of around sixty. Dorothy Watkin was a simple and irrepressibly affable soul who liked nothing better than to be useful. Generous to a fault, she was the sort who would cook meals for tramps and give them clothing from her late husband’s wardrobe.

She had three grown up sons. The two older ones had families of their own and lived some miles away in the nearby town. The youngest, Mark, was unmarried and lived at home.

Mark was in his early twenties. He was highly intelligent and had gained a bachelor’s degree through the Open University. But he’d never lived anywhere other than in the village, and what he’d inherited of his mother’s affability sat naturally with a generally unsophisticated view of the world. He loved mysteries, and made an enthusiastic audience for Gregory’s tales of strange happenings in Whitesytch Wood.

One afternoon in early October, as the two of them sauntered down the darkening lane and sniffed the first hints of wood smoke, Mark made a suggestion. He’d always loved Halloween, he said. Why didn’t they go into the wood at midnight on 31st October?

Gregory agreed immediately, simply to avoid the embarrassment of seeming foolish or timid. But a small voice called out to his conscious mind from somewhere deep inside. He knew that it was the voice of his childhood instinct and chose to ignore it. He hadn’t yet recognised that children can sometimes understand the more subtle aspects of reality better than adults can, and that their natural intuition gets blocked by the process of growing up. Gregory was thirty years old, and at that age a man is expected to behave like an adult. So what harm could it do to indulge Mark’s wish to visit Whitesytch Wood at the witching hour of All Hallows Eve?

The agreement made, the matter wasn’t raised again until lunchtime on the fateful Saturday. Mark came around and reminded his neighbour of their arrangement. Gregory hadn’t forgotten it and said that he would call at eleven thirty to give them plenty of time to be in the wood before the clock struck twelve.

He felt uneasy at the prospect of entering a wood at night. He’d always felt that woods had two spirits: the daytime one that was generally benevolent, and its wilder, more unpredictable brother who took over when darkness fell. Trees always seemed different at night, even the ones that stood alone. The thought of being surrounded by hundreds of them, imbued with a dark spirit that might be less than friendly, was uncomfortable. He shrugged it off as we all would. He knew, as we all do, that the fear of nocturnal woods stems from nothing more than a primitive race memory. Woods used to hold real, physical terrors at night and our genes have never forgotten it. The scientific age says so. There was no threat; it would just be a bit of fun.

Gregory knocked on his neighbour’s door shortly before 11.30. Mark opened it and stepped out. Both men were well prepared for their adventure, suitably wrapped in warm clothing and sensibly shod in strong boots. And they had both thought to bring a torch. The night was cold, crisp and clear, but they realised that there would be little light penetrating the canopy of even a young conifer wood. Gregory had decided not to bring Em along, even though his wife had suggested it and the dog had looked distinctly put out at being left behind. His sense of disquiet encouraged him to err on the side of caution. Whilst there was the slightest possibility of risk, he didn’t want Em to be subjected to it.

They walked quickly out of the village and turned along Whitesytch Lane, engaging in trivial conversation through steaming breath. Mark remarked on the coldness of the night and the likelihood of frost before dawn. And then he asked, in his engagingly childlike way,

“Do you think we’ll see anything?”

“Doubt it,” replied Gregory.

“Hope we do.”

“What do you expect to see?”

“Dunno. Ghosties, ghoulies and four-leggedy beasties!”

Mark’s choice of phrase was trite and predictable, and Gregory replied in similar vein.

“How about witches in black cloaks going in and out of a mysterious house that wasn’t there yesterday and won’t be there again tomorrow?”

“Yeah, that’ll do.”

They fell silent again until they reached the entrance to the wood. Gregory shone his torch at his watch. It was thirteen minutes to twelve.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“C’mon then.”

They stepped over the shallow gully that marked the threshold and entered the darkness of Whitesytch Wood, their two torches lighting up the track ahead of them.

Gregory expected to feel apprehensive, but he didn’t. He felt nothing at all - no sense of menace, no irrational fears and no sense of any presence, threatening or otherwise. He was disappointed. A small tingle of fear can be quite enjoyable as long as it stays within manageable proportions. That was what they were there for. What sort of an adventure would it be if there wasn’t the slightest hint of anything to set their nerves on edge?

He listened for the hoot of an owl or the scrabbling of some small animal going about its business. Nothing. The only sounds were those made by their boots snapping the dry twigs that lay on the path. There wasn’t even a breeze to persuade the branches to whisper behind their backs.

When they reached the bend in the track which had been the object of Em’s mysterious attention back in the summer, they stopped for a few moments and shone their torches in all directions. Nothing there either. No feelings, nothing to see, nothing to kindle any sense of mystery. The only impression gathering weight in Gregory’s mind was that he had been mistaken. Nocturnal woods were just daytime woods with the lights turned off. Any notion of dual spirits, menace and parallel dimensions seemed preposterous. He suggested as much when he said,

“Bit boring really, isn’t it?”

“Can’t be twelve o’clock yet though,” replied his companion.

Gregory looked at his watch again.

“No. Seven minutes to go.”

Mark remained enthusiastic and suggested they go further. They turned the bend and walked along a flat, straight section, passing the tree whose branch had swung so mysteriously. There was no movement there now and they soon reached another bend where the track turned left to continue its progress down a short incline. That required a little care in the dark, but they managed it safely enough. They were now at the lowest part of the wood and Mark suggested they wait there until midnight. There were still two minutes to go and Gregory agreed.

And so they waited in silence for a full five minutes. By the end of it Gregory was bored and wanted to go home. He looked at his watch again.

“Three minutes past,” he said. “Looks like we’re out of luck.”

Mark reluctantly agreed and they decided to call it a night.

They made their way back up the slope, turned the corner and retraced their steps along the cross section. They both mumbled that the whole exercise had been a bit pointless and Mark was clearly disappointed. He wasn’t the type to get bored easily. Gregory was. He just wanted to get home to a hot drink and bed. He ignored the grassy patch when they reached the second bend and turned left to walk the final two or three hundred yards.

And that was when he felt the sudden thud of apprehension hit his stomach and spread rapidly to engulf his body in goose bumps.

He stopped and shone the torch around. There was nothing to see and no sound to disturb the stillness of the night.

“What?” asked Mark.

“Don’t know,” answered Gregory. “I suddenly felt something.”

“What, something touched you?”

“No, no - not physically. Just a feeling, inside, like we’re not alone.”

“Oh, c’mon Greg, you’re just trying to spook me, aren’t you? Good try, mate.”

“I’m not actually, no. I really felt something, very strongly.”

“Let’s hang on then, see if anything happens.”

Mark’s enthusiasm was irrepressible, but he hadn’t felt what Gregory had.

“I don’t think we should,” replied his companion. “It doesn’t feel good. Trust me.”

“You serious?”

“Dead right I’m serious. I think I’d rather leave, and I think we should stick together.”

“But we came here to see something – experience something – whatever. We can’t leave now, just when something’s happening.”

Gregory had been looking about him during the conversation. He was having second thoughts about woods at night. The lack of any physical sound or movement had not dimmed the sense of menace that was gripping him, or eased the prickling sensation on his skin. If anything, they were getting stronger. He turned to his friend and thought for a second.

“OK, let’s put it this way,” he said. “I don’t like this and I’m not staying here. You can if you want. But I don’t fancy walking the rest of the way on my own and I don’t think you should be alone either.”

Although Mark had felt nothing himself, something of Gregory’s genuine concern was starting to communicate itself to him. He began to feel apprehensive too, and his show of reluctance was not entirely genuine as he muttered his agreement.

They turned to walk on, and then looked around when they heard a noise behind them. They shone their torches at the empty path and the trees standing still and inscrutable around them.

“What did that sound like to you?” asked Gregory.

“Like somebody breathing out – only louder,” replied Mark.

Gregory agreed and they stood in silence for several seconds. There was no repetition.

“Probably a gust of wind,” he suggested, even though he didn’t believe it.

Hearing the mysterious noise had removed all traces of Mark’s earlier enthusiasm. There was something fundamentally immature about him. He was the sort who rushed into adventures easily and rushed back out again as soon as they became difficult. His apprehension was already beginning to grow into the first stirrings of panic.

“Let’s run,” he said as they turned to continue their walk towards the perimeter.

“No,” replied the more controlled Gregory. “It’s getting foggy and I don’t fancy falling. We can speed up a bit though.”

All the time they’d been speaking, Gregory had felt the goose bumps getting stronger. And the mist that was now thickening around them seemed to be a part of it, whatever “it” was. As they walked on with quickened stride, the sensation began to change. It wasn’t just on the outside any more. It was seeping inside him, carried there perhaps by the damp air that he was taking in with every shortened breath. And something of the first glimmer of understanding was coming with it, though it was still vague.

He began to sense that some channel was being opened, some line of communication between him and something hideous. Oddly, it didn’t feel malevolent; but it did feel destructive. He had an image of a big cat stalking its prey. The predator feels no hatred for the hapless object of its lethal intent, merely hunger that nature dictates must be sated.

“At this pace we should be out in a minute or two at most,” he said.

But panic was beginning to grow in Gregory too, and he was struggling to suppress it. He knew that panic destroys logic and dissipates the vital energy of will. The twin forces needed to work together if the two men were to avoid being trapped and caught by something that was capable of doing them great harm. Exactly what, he didn’t yet know; but the situation was beginning to feel that serious.

Mark was younger than him, and taller. His pace was quicker and longer. Gregory was concerned that he was getting ahead and might break into a trot.

“Don’t run,” he said. “Whatever you do, you mustn’t fall.”

Mark eased his pace slightly and allowed Gregory to catch up.

“OK,” he said. “But I don’t like this Greg. Won’t be long though, eh?”

The older man could see that his young companion was beginning to crack. The transition from easy enthusiasm to cold terror had been remarkably rapid. Gregory realised that whatever was gripping his own consciousness had got inside Mark too; and he realised that the excitable young man lacked the strength to resist it. If they were to escape their fate, the means of doing so would be down to him.

They hurried on in silence and Gregory tried to concentrate on anything that would close down the channel that was filling his mind and body. He didn’t want to see what it was about to show him. He didn’t want to know. He just wanted to be out of the wood.

On and on they went and Gregory began to suspect that rather more than two minutes had elapsed. Mark was aware of it too.

“How long have we been walking?” he asked.

His voice was beginning to tremble and carried the tone of someone on the verge of hysteria.

“Don’t know. Seems a long time, doesn’t it? Probably just an illusion. Keep going.”

By now Gregory was trembling too. He told himself it was just the cold getting to him. He knew it wasn’t. He felt hot. He knew that it was some horrible influence at work. He fought back the urge to turn around, lie down and give in. Gregory wasn’t the sort to give in, but he’d never felt anything as strong or insidious as this before.

They carried on walking. Mark began to blubber and mumble incoherently. Still the track went on endlessly. The few feet they could see through the mist showed no sign of the gully that would signal the exit from the nightmare. And the view seemed to be getting shorter as the mist continued to thicken

And then Gregory heard a dog bark. He grabbed Mark’s arm and stopped.

“Listen,” he said.

Mark was sniffing and shaking like a frightened child. There it was again. Definitely a dog’s bark, and it sounded like Em. But how could that be? She was at least a mile away and shut in the house. Some instinct made him shine the torch at the ground. There was the gully. They were at the edge of the wood. Mark saw it too and they looked at each other briefly. They moved to step across it – and froze. Neither of them was able to take the one step that would make them safe.

Gregory had known the same feeling before. He had a fear of heights and had experienced that strange phenomenon in which it’s possible to climb so far up a ladder and then be quite unable to go any further. This was the same. No matter how hard he pushed himself, his legs simply wouldn’t make the necessary movement. He tried going back a little and taking a run at it. It didn’t work. As soon as he got close, the strength seeped from his legs and he came to a halt.

He was breathing hard and the power that had invaded the core of his being was getting stronger by the second. Mark started to cry openly and sank to his knees, asking in a hopeless tone what the hell was going on. Gregory forced himself to think. But logical thought was becoming impossible, replaced by incoherent mental ramblings that produced nothing but a sense of helplessness

He felt himself weakening as the power continued to strengthen its grip. He couldn’t resist it any longer. He knew it was what was holding them there, blocking the passage of will from their brains to their legs. He felt like a fly in a spider’s web, waiting to be eaten. The power, it seemed, was in full control. Struggle was pointless. Some dreadful fate awaited them. There was nothing else.

But the power had a weakness of its own. In opening the channel to make its attack, it also allowed its own intentions to become evident. As Gregory let go of resistance, he began to understand what was happening. He knew that the spirit of the wood was weak itself, weak from lack of nourishment. He knew that it wanted to take from them their very essence - their vitality, their will and their energy, all those things that make the living truly alive. He knew that if they couldn’t get across the perimeter they would die, or at least be reduced to pale, pointless shadows of their former selves. But he also saw the limit of their attacker’s control over them.

He reached down and shook Mark by the shoulders.

“Get up,” he said urgently. “Come on. Get up. Now.”

Mark had reached that point where he felt too weak to get up, but he was also too weak to disobey a command. He climbed slowly to his feet.

“Take your coat off,” ordered Gregory.

“Why?”

“Don’t argue, just do it.”

Mark began to do as he was told. Gregory was already holding his own coat and grabbed Mark’s as soon as both arms were out of their sleeves. He tied one sleeve of his own to one of Mark’s with a firm reef knot. Then he gave one end of the makeshift rope to his friend and barked another order.

“Walk backwards across the gully.”

“I can’t.”

“Try.”

Mark tried and stopped inches from it.

“Told you, I can’t”

“Is that as far as you can go?”

“Yes.”

Mark looked enquiringly into Gregory’s eyes.

“OK,” said Gregory. ”Whatever you do, don’t let go of the coat. Do you understand?”

Mark continued to look at him, helpless and uncomprehending. He said nothing.

“Do you understand? Grip the coat firmly. Don’t let it go.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Push you over the threshold. Don’t let go of the coat.”

A look of hope entered Mark’s eyes. He nodded. Gregory pushed him and he fell backwards into the mist. Gregory peered hard and shone the torch at where he assumed his companion had fallen. He could see nothing except the white vapour swirling in the beam of light. He shouted.

“Now, pull me across.”

Nothing happened for several seconds. Gregory became anxious. He shouted again, gripping the sleeve of his coat and pulling it gently to make sure that the other end was still held. Suddenly he lurched forward from the strength of an almighty tug and fell heavily next to his companion. They were both on the other side of the gully. He lay there for a few seconds, an immense sense of relief filling his mind. He expected to feel triumphant, but he didn’t.

Mark sat up and looked around. He didn’t feel frightened any more. Shaken and astonished, stunned even, but not actually frightened. Suddenly, there was nothing to be frightened of. His spirits were returning as quickly as they had faded. He spoke first.

“How did you know what to do?”

Gregory turned over onto his back and looked at the stars. There was no sign of mist. The air was as clear as it had been on the way out.

“I read its mind, for want of a better way of putting it. I knew what it was doing to us, so I knew how to get over it.”

Mark’s juvenile sense of excitement was back in full flow and he wanted to know everything. What had it been doing to them? And what was “it” anyway? Gregory felt weary but explained it as well as he could.

“It got into that part of our brain that generates fear. It knew that fear makes you mentally weak – more easily manipulated. By the time we got to the edge of the wood – even in those short couple of minutes – we’d developed massive amounts of fear; and that fear had generated a desperate need: the need to get out of the wood. Somehow, it turned that need into illusion - several illusions actually.

“First, there was the optical illusion that the path was never ending. We couldn’t see the gully that was in front of us all the time. Then there was the physical illusion that we were still walking when we weren’t. We must have been standing on the edge of the wood for about ten minutes. It was bloody lucky that we heard the dog bark. That one simple, beautiful little sound reconnected us with the outside world so that we could see where we were.

“But then there was the really clever bit: the mental illusion. It made us believe, somewhere in our subconscious minds, that the edge of the wood was an impenetrable barrier. If somebody told you to run into a brick wall your brain wouldn’t let you do it. Your muscles would refuse to move before you got there. That’s why we couldn’t step over the gully. We believed that we would just be kicking a brick wall. I knew I couldn’t get over that one, even though I was aware of it; the illusion was too strong.

“Then I realised something. My brain might not let me walk into a wall, but it wouldn’t stop me pushing someone else into it. That was the way out: me to push, you to pull. And I thought we’d better have a makeshift rope to be on the safe side. I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach across the barrier and I didn’t know whether you’d still be too much affected to reach across it as well.”

“Brilliant,” said Mark with undisguised admiration. “Bloody brilliant mate. You’re a genius. So what was this ‘it’ that was attacking us?”

“The spirit of the wood – the genus loci in its most literal form. It let us get in, but it wouldn’t let us leave. It wanted our energy, our life force.”

“Bastard!”

“Not really. I felt its hunger. The real bastard is the bloke who cut the trees down and replanted with conifers. He didn’t kill it, you see. He just took all the energy out and replaced it with scraps. And now it’s desperately hungry, hungry for the life it probably had for thousands of years.”

Gregory continued to lie on the edge of the road admiring the stars that he’d thought he might never see again. Mark put his coat on and sat thinking for a while.

“So what would have happened to us if we hadn’t got out?” he asked eventually.

“Don’t know exactly. We’d have been gradually drained over the next few hours probably, the course of the night maybe. I don’t know how long. Then we’d have ended up dead or gibbering morons I suppose.”

“So why hasn’t it happened to anybody else? Other people must have been in there at night, lamping for rabbits and so on.”

“I suppose we picked the right night. Halloween, the time when the veil between this world and others is said to be at its thinnest. It probably wouldn’t happen any other time. Let’s hope nobody goes in there next year, or that the wood is a bit less hungry by then.”

The two men were silent for a while. Mark looked with fascination into the empty darkness of Whitesytch Wood while Gregory continued to watch the stars. He was conscious of a curious paradox: how far our own dimension stretches, and how close can be the others of which we are blithely unaware. He began to feel cold and sat up.

“I think it’s time we went home,” he said.

And so they walked off down the lane, leaving the dark and silent mass of Whitesytch Wood receding in their wake. Mark looked back once. Gregory didn’t.

The lights were on in Gregory’s house when he arrived home. His wife was still up. The first few minutes after opening the front door were spent dealing with a mad flurry of tail wagging, squirming, leaping and licking from a dog who loved him madly. And then he told his wife the story.

Her reaction was mixed. She frowned a few times, said ‘hmm...’ occasionally, and asked whether he and Mark had eaten any wild mushrooms. But she did admit that Em had seemed unusually agitated for a while shortly after midnight, and had barked a couple of times at around twelve fifteen. No description of Gregory’s feelings of gratitude towards his dog need be attempted.

He and Em never did go to Whitesytch Wood again. He felt reasonably confident that the disturbing events of Halloween were not likely to be repeated during the daylight hours, if at all. But he couldn’t be certain. And he remembered the episode on the track that day, when Em had been held rigid by some invisible force. Even if he were in no danger, the same might not hold true for his dog.

And so their rambles became restricted to the lanes and empty fields, as well as the occasional stroll along the bank of the stream. He could see the wood in the distance from some of the higher parts of the landscape and truly wished it well. And he mused often on the tendency in humans to treat nature as something to be exploited for the sake of convenience or commercial expediency. Though no longer a Christian, the words attributed to the crucified Jesus sometimes occurred to him. “Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do”.

He had a feeling that Mother Nature might not be so generous. He had, after all, been given the benefit of personal experience.

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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