Six bits of broken sticks
taken from the apple tree
where they tried to hang
Six bits of old rough wood
taken where the lightning struck
and cut the tree in two.
It’s not quite a ruin but it could be soon, as relentless rain and cold winds try to penetrate and crack the dark, lichen covered granite. Its faded slate roof shows grey and blue in the morning light, just a few loose and crooked tiles, but it’s still intact. It sits alone at the back of a steep bracken field, under a broken rocky crag, which rises to the skyline, black with cloud and cut with the occasional burst of light from the hidden sun. From the top of the crag, you can see wild ocean waves crashing on the shore far away and never know that a dark chapel lies a hundred feet below.
Rachel meandered through the fields, thigh deep in browned ferns and wet grass, towards her secret place. It was always wet here, even in midsummer. Three crab apple trees, which may have been part of an orchard once, all gnarled, twisted and laden with fruit, grew behind the chapel sheltered from the harshest storms. Amongst them was an old broken tree, black, cracked and fossilized with time.
She had lifted her dress above her knees to prevent it from getting wet, and Robert looked on from behind as he followed, enjoying the brief view when the sun momentarily broke through clouds making her dress almost transparent.
‘I can see right through your dress when the sun shines.’
‘God, don’t you ever think about anything else?’ She said, smiling.
Robert wanted to say no, but didn’t, as he gazed up to the gloomy, dank looking building about a hundred yards in front.
‘What? No it’s not – imagine what a great house it would make.’
But Robert didn’t care; he had one thing only on his mind.
‘Is it dry in there?’
Rachel smiled to herself, knowing his intentions. She had felt his eyes on her as she lifted the dress to wade through the undergrowth, her bare legs gently brushing against the wet foliage. She liked the feeling of power it gave her, the feeling that she herself had planted the seed of want in him, and like most men, he would now be unsatisfied until he had had her. But for now, he would have to wait.
She stopped in front of the old building and dropped her dress back down, smoothing it around her thighs whilst she waited for Rob to catch her up. Their breath was heavy from the exertion of the climb and they stood together for a moment as their chests settled and their pulses slowed. The heavy dark clouds that had followed them all morning broke open, suddenly letting through shafts of sunlight, which bounced off the wet granite, causing them to both instinctively shield their eyes against the brightness.
‘Come on Rob, check it out.’
She unbolted the old rusted wrought iron gate and swung it open whilst looking behind her to see Rob hanging back.
‘What’s up? Come on…’
‘I don’t know Rache, I know you’ve been trying to get me up here for ages, but I just feel a bit uneasy…’
‘Fuck’s sake! What are you going on about? This place is amazing…I’ve been coming up here for years and never felt anything weird. Come on, you’ll see for yourself once we’re in…you’re going to love it.’
Rob hesitantly followed her onto the weedy gravel path. Now he just felt annoyed – with her and with himself. He was pissed off he’d let himself get talked into coming all the way up here just because she knew how to push his buttons. He had heard the stories about this place, like everyone else brought up in the area, and had no desire to be there. He also knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of getting laid now, which was the only reason he’d agreed to come. He had noticed the shift in her as they had approached the chapel through the field. She had taken on an almost childlike persona, messing about, giggling, teasing him a little, but the way she never shut up about the place, spilling over with her enthusiastic plans, told him sex was the furthest thing from her mind right now.
Rob stopped and watched her, slightly ahead of him, pulling tendrils of brambles away from the old oak door to the side of the building and stamping them down with her feet. He noticed a little window right by him and peered through a small section of the stained glass. The dense cobalt blue in the glass made it difficult to focus his eyes and see beyond his own reflection, but slowly he made out another window positioned on the far wall and beyond that to what looked like an ancient apple tree sitting on the hillside, worn and scarred by the elements. Dark shadows flickered across his vision and the cawing of crows sent a tremor through his cold and tense body.
It felt like fear.
He shook it off, reluctantly following Rachel in through the door. The dank air inside felt thick and his breath got caught in his throat making him stumble. His body suddenly felt very heavy and he was dragged down to the old stone floor. Looking up, he saw the vast and tattered vaulted ceiling and Rachel looking down at him smiling, saying something he could not hear or understand. He felt he was underwater and the sounds were muted somehow. He was confused and began to panic. He desperately tried to get up but nothing happened. Something sat heavy on his chest. He felt a sense of dread but also shame as he realised he was helpless and there she was, watching him, holding out her hand to him. He caught hold of himself then and mustered enough concentration to extend his arm off the floor so she could take his hand and haul him up to his feet. He could hear again and heard her voice, amplified:
‘What happened to you?’
‘I must have just tripped.’
He was shaking now.
‘What’s the matter?’
Her easygoing smile was now replaced by a look of concern.
He instinctively wanted to get out of there but felt fixed to the floor and now a terrible fear started to grip him. His mouth was dry and he could feel sweat building on his brow.
Rachel was again saying something which he couldn’t hear, and in that moment, between pleading for this strange thing to stop and running for the door, he grabbed her round the waist and kissed her hard – just to feel something normal, just to get back to something he understood. He pushed her up against the wall and tried to get his hand up her dress to pull at her knickers but she quickly fought herself free and roughly pushed him from her. He staggered back ashamed, and looked down to the floor.
‘What’s wrong with you Rob?’
Now he was angry. He glared at her.
‘What’s wrong with you? Why the hell did you bring me to this damned place if not for sex…’
The words stuck in his throat. Rachel was standing with her back to the open oak door, and he was facing towards it.
‘Christ Rob, you look like you’ve seen a ghost – what the hell is wrong?’
But he didn’t say a word, just stared towards the open door making Rachel urgently turn around and gasp.
And there he stood, watching them; an old bent man with wizened lined features, a rough face that had spent a lifetime outdoors and a grey whisker beard to match. His hair was long, thick and matted under an old black felt hat and he wore something like a dark sacking dress all rough with holes hanging down to frayed ends well below his knees and above his rough and dirty bare feet. But it was the bundle of twigs and sticks he had strapped to his back that really made him out of place and time.
‘What the fuck are you looking at?’
The old man was somehow a prop for Rob to return to normality.
‘Piss off or I’ll deck you.’
Rachel held his arm but Rob pulled free and headed straight for the old man by the door who didn’t move an inch.
Rob lunged hard at him trying to prove his manhood that had just taken such a knock, but he only found some empty air. Rob swung around in panic and saw the man inside the Chapel on the far side and Rachel staring too, her mouth wide open and aghast.
Rob was already half outside the door and the world outside pulled him through; he turned and ran as fast as he could, back towards the town far below.
He stumbled and fell through the field stopping only to retch. He gripped onto the old wooden post by the stile at the far end of the field to steady himself and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand trying to catch his breath. Still gasping and bent over, he felt clammy and drew his forearm across his forehead wiping away the cold sweat, which had beaded there. As he straightened up, it slowly dawned on him there was no sign of Rachel. Where the hell was she?
He looked again, quickly zoning his vision into all visible points around the chapel. He couldn’t see her.
His belly churned and he felt the sickness rising in him again but he ignored it and cast his eyes desperately about. Had she got away? Was she still in there? Where the fuck was the old bloke? He stood on the tips of his toes, straining to see any movement at all but could see nothing.
He sighed and took a deep breath. Hands on his hips, he bent slowly forward and then bent back, tipping his head as far as it would go. The tightness in the muscles around his neck stretched and snapped. Then he straightened up and purposefully strode back towards the chapel knowing he had to go back to find her.
He heard her calling.
‘Rachel?’ he shouted.
‘Where are you?’
He broke into a run now…
‘Rachel! ….. Rachel!’
He saw her, bent over on her knees, her dress pulled up around her waist.
He raced towards her.
‘Rachel! What’s happened? Rachel?’
She turned her face to him, smiling. She held the fabric of her dress out as it hung heavy with the weight of crab apples, which she continued to pick up from the ground.
‘Give us a hand Rob, will you? I’m going to drop them as soon as I try to stand up.’
‘Are you ok?’
‘Yes, fine. Where did you get to?’
Rob suddenly felt rather stupid for running away. He quickly processed what had just happened in the chapel. He realised that he may perhaps have overreacted, that he was sick and wasn’t seeing things straight.
‘You took off when that old bloke appeared….you should have heard what he had to say…’
‘Ur…I came over a bit funny… felt faint and a bit sick. I needed some air. Why? Who is he?’
Rob cast his eye about.
‘Has he gone? I didn’t mean to have a go – what did he say?’
Rob held his hand out towards her for her to grasp.
She faced him now,
‘Six bits of broken sticks….’
‘What? But that’s just an old wives tale – shit, did he really say that?’
‘And then he just vanished, I meant went…oh, I don’t know.’
‘How did he do that, go from the door to the other side of the chapel in a flash – did you see it?’
They were walking out of the field and onto the stony path that led down through the woods to the back of town. Rachel carrying her treasure carefully in her gathered dress.
‘You didn’t feel well.’
They were walking in silence, both pondering what had just happened when she mumbled under her breath:
‘But yes. Yes, I did.’
They arrived on the outskirts of town, neither having said another word. Rob looked at Rachel, both hands still holding up her heavy dress. He could have kissed her there and then and she wouldn’t have been able do a thing about it – no way would she let the apples fall, after having just carried them half way down a mountainside. Then the moment shifted and he realised he had simply lost the urge.
He laughed at this, making Rachel ask:
‘All that hocus-pocus – bah – let’s call it a day.’
‘Will you still be coming round tonight?’
She looked down at the apples and lifted her eyes to meet his.
‘I’ll bake you a pie…’
Rob relented a little,
‘I’ll be round.’
He grinned and left her standing, looking at him as he headed home.
Crab apples are the oldest apple trees. It is said that if you throw the pips into the fire and they explode then your love is true. Rachel was mulling this over as she took the apple pie out of the oven and then boiled the leftover apples to make into puree to put into her morning yogurt. She picked up a discarded pip and walked into the sitting room where she opened the front of the wood burner and, after placing the pip carefully onto the poker’s end, watched it fizz, swell and turn to black.
‘Old wives’ tales,’ she muttered under her breath and slammed the door hard shut.
She was onto her second bowl of yogurt and puree when Rob knocked at the back door – she was bored and couldn’t resist sampling her chapel fruit. She had been looking forward to his visit and had felt a little guilty for not delivering the goods high up on the hill. She had kind of made herself in the mood but as soon as the door knocked, felt that switch turn off.
‘How are you feeling Rob? Better?’ Rachel asked, as she opened the door and stood aside to let him in.
‘Better than this morning, I can tell you! Whatever it was, it passed quick enough. I’m feeling on top form now.’ He winked and grinned but Rachel looked away and changed the subject.
‘Rob, I’ve been thinking…what do you think that old bloke meant this morning? You know – reciting that poem.’
‘Everyone knows that poem, it’s in the church records and don’t mean a thing – just a stupid old man from fuck knows where, but I’d rather you didn’t go up there anymore.’
‘Ah Rob, you know how long I’ve wanted to make that place my home. It’s been empty for as long as I can remember. It’s crying out for someone to live in it, keeping it dry and warm and from falling down. I’m the only person who goes up there – everyone around here knows that. No one else would be interested, they’re all just superstitious and too ready to believe all the bullshit stories about the place…like you do too.’
Rob’s face fell. Once again, he lost any urge he might have mustered on the walk over to Rachel’s cottage.
‘Listen, Rache, I don’t know. I have no idea what to believe. But I do know that until you get over your fascination with the chapel, you and I are going nowhere. I hate that place, always have, it’s dark and creepy and too isolated up there on the hill. I get a bad feeling up there and just don’t understand why you won’t leave it alone. I didn’t want to say anything but people are beginning to talk. Even tonight in the corner shop I overheard someone saying they’d seen you coming down off the hill with those crab apples – up to no good they said, making more of your potions, they said…’
‘For Fuck’s sake Rob, I’m not a fucking witch, I’m a homeopath – people around here are just ignorant.’
‘Well, regardless, I’m sick of it and do you know what?’ He paused for a moment and contemplated what he was about to say.
‘After what happened today – you’re on your own.’
She looked confused,
‘Are you saying you don’t want to see me anymore?’
Rob didn’t even need to think about it.
‘Yes,’ he said simply before turning around to head for the door where he let himself out. He shut the door behind him, without even the slightest glance back.
Rachel stood still in total disbelief. Just moments before she had been putting pips in the fire to determine if he was her one true love and now he was gone – no discussion, just gone. The pips had spoken true.
It took a moment or two for her to gather herself but the smell of burning caught her attention and she turned back into the little kitchen where she quickly realised her second batch of apple puree was still bubbling away on the stove, almost boiled dry and beginning to burn the bottom of the pan. She snatched it off the heat, set it down by the sink and stirred it with her wooden spoon. It looked ok, but still, she could have cried.
‘Sod him,’ she figured. ‘I won’t even worry about it. He was only ever interested in getting me into bed anyway and I need someone who’s going to step up and take risks with me and plan adventures and really take care of me.’
Her thoughts wandered back to the chapel and she rested her elbows on the work surface, absent-mindedly scooping up the puree straight from the pan with the wooden spoon, blowing on it gently to cool it enough to take into her mouth.
Moments later, she was scraping the remnants from the sides of the pan. Having eaten the lot, she was beginning to feel a little queasy.
Feeling disgusted with herself, she flung the pan into the sink and hurried into the front room to stoke the fire and throw in another log from the basket.
On standing up, she felt faint and grabbed onto the mantelpiece to steady herself. Her head began to spin and she turned to judge the distance to the couch knowing she would have to make it there in one swift movement or she would come down heavy on the floor or worse, on the old slate hearth. She propelled herself across the room, her legs gave way beneath her and she stumbled forward to collapse face down into the soft cushions where she passed out.
She could see it clear as day but it was night and a fire burned bright, illuminating the scene with eerie shadows darting here and there. The women jeered and cackled, high and intoxicated from the potions of henbane and mandrake they were swilling down from the small flagons that they enthusiastically passed around. Nothing now was going to stop them from what they had come to do.
The chapel stood as it does now, not much different but it looked dark and sinister, and on a huge old crab apple tree, right where she had picked the apples from the ground just that afternoon, a rope was slung with a hangman’s noose beckoning for a neck. Sure enough, this hideous crowd of filthy witches had a victim and dragged a bound man to the spot.
‘Hang him high – squeeze his neck and spill his blood.’
They squealed and roared excitedly as the noose pulled tight as a dozen of them pulled him from the ground. Laughter spread throughout the crowd. They wanted blood but their joy was short, for a huge crack of thunder rolled across the sky, and without warning, a massive flash suddenly cracked the tree in two. The rope was seared, snapping immediately, and, as the man fell and hit the ground, the witches panicked and began to scatter – running, howling down the mountainside.
She moved closer to the burning tree. The young man’s terrified face seemed to recognise her, as Rachel quickly loosened and pulled the noose from around his neck, but before she could fully slacken the ropes around his arms, he had grabbed her wrist with his bony, weathered fingers and seethed between clenched teeth:
‘Six bits of broken sticks…’
Then the man grew old before her very eyes.
A cold wind came and blew away the scene, and there the chapel stood, alone as it does now. The tree was still smouldering, and the crows, perched high above the crag, were neatly lined up, staring out across the scene and right into Rachel’s eyes.
Rachel woke from the dream feeling disorientated and upset. The room span as she tried to stand and she fell right back down again, vomiting a putrid green across the slate hearth. Again and again she retched, and when she finally stopped, she sobbed until blackness beckoned and she lost consciousness.
The morning was clear and calm. A warm haze hung over the valley and the grass was still damp with dew. Rachel made her way up the hill and through the field, anxious to get up to the chapel as early as possible. Her plan was to kick about up there in the hope of seeing the old man again. Her body felt charged with the expectation of seeing him, which spurred her on. She had so many questions and felt sure he would make himself visible to her if only she laid herself open to it. It was as if her whole life had led her to this moment. She had tried to bring Rob into it with her, but now saw what a mistake that was. This was to be her experience and hers alone. Ever since discovering the abandoned chapel as a little girl, Rachel had been inexplicably drawn to it and was reluctant to share her secret place with anyone. Even at the age of seven or eight, she had gone up there alone and had enjoyed feeling the crunch of the gravel under her shoes and putting her little hands up to the big cold stones to feel the chill of them. Often she had gone in and just sat in the old pews gazing up to the broken alter or tipping back her head to watch the pigeons fly around in the rafters until her head spun. As a teenager, she would make her way up there to sulk after a row with her parents or to lie in the long grass under the crab apple trees looking up through the wizened branches to the forever-shifting sky beyond, her head full of thoughts of one boy or another.
Now, as a young woman with all the usual desires, feeling the need to begin to build a life with a man, she felt she was being thwarted, prevented somehow. Rob was the only person she had ever taken to the chapel. She wasn’t stupid, she had seen exactly what had happened the day before and knew she had made a huge error in taking him up there, feeling sure he had been truly warned off. The old man would never have appeared unless it was to get Rob the hell out of there. Rachel knew she had to make amends and placate the chapel’s energy, or the old man, or whoever and whatever was upset with her. More than that, she was curious. The visions she had had through her sickness last night had seemed real to her, like omens almost, as if they were trying to tell her something. They had somehow felt urgent.
She quickly came to the edge of the field and crossed over the track and through the old iron gate. As she stepped onto the gravel path, a long, loud, pained scream came violently to her ears through the still air. Rachel stopped, rooted to the spot, terrified. She felt the blood drain from her body and didn’t dare to move or make a sound as her eyes darted about searching for where the noise had come from.
Then nothing, only the soft sounds of the subtle breeze against the ferns. Then she saw him, the old man, bent over behind the trees towards the side of the chapel, picking something up. Throwing off any doubt she may have had, she made a beeline straight for him. It seemed to take her an age, even without the chore of having to lift a dress like some proper kind of lady. She smiled at that thought.
He was still bent over as she neared him, both hands close to the ground fiddling with something, snapping something that she couldn’t quite make out. What she did see was the very black and burnt tree trunk, kind of split in two, directly behind the old man. She remembered the tree had always been there, but now, after her dream, it took on a different significance and stood out from everything else around. Before it had been just a small, withered trunk, waiting to rot and finally disappear into the ever-encroaching ferns. Now it was in high focus, important and relevant.
She was close to him, and as she looked, she knew – it was definitely the man from her dream, although he was much older now. Having confirmed this to herself, she slowly exhaled her breath, relieved that her suppositions were correct.
He turned to her as she approached and fixed his gaze right on her, seething between his teeth – ‘Shhh.’
She could smell him, a musty smell mixed with charcoal that she didn’t like. She took a step back. His eyes were deep-set and had that wild look of a wild animal etched within. On his neck, she recognised the scars of the hangman’s noose.
He indicated to the chapel with a slight gesture of his head and upper body – ‘They’ll hear you.’
Rachel could barely understand his soft, thick and strange accent.
‘Who?’ She said, turning to have a look and seeing only the dark grey of granite blocks.
Then the scream came again, the blood curdling screams of torment…some tortured soul from the other side of midnight’s strike.
Her throat felt tight and she made some funny kind of coughing noise that she knew was way too loud. Then she heard some mumbling, the sound getting louder until it became a chant, a frenzied urgency coming from the chapel. Not one, but many voices turning what felt like a magic spell. It was deafening and she clasped her hands to her ears and shut her eyes. But the old man was pulling at her jumper and she dropped her hands only to see and feel him putting something in them. Before she had time to look, he shouted hard over the chanting:
Rachel turned and began to move, but something stopped her. No. This wasn’t why she had come here. She needed to know what was going on. She stopped and turned back towards the old man, but he was gone. Yet the lingering scorched smell of him still sat acrid in her throat. She looked down at her hands to see them tightly grasping some twigs. Rachel stared at them for a moment not immediately seeing what they were, all the while aware of the fevered chanting coming from the chapel. She unfurled her grasp to look at them stretched out across her palms. Just a bunch of broken twigs, but then Rachel felt a heat radiating out from them and they twitched and began jumping about in her hands. She instinctively threw them to the floor. Standing back in horror, she watched them come alive in the grass, jumping, fizzing and throwing off sparks. Rachel couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. She looked about – was there a fire they had been pulled from? She glanced over to the old, blackened broken tree. It was smouldering as if it had been burning for a very long time. Rachel looked back at the twigs, but they lay still now. She watched to see what would happen next…but there was nothing.
She turned to the chapel and shook her head to gather her thoughts as the noise grew slightly louder and more insistent. There was no doubt Rachel was frightened, but she wasn’t afraid of the chapel itself; as strange as it seemed, she knew she was in a good place and whatever was going on was an invasion of it.
It felt as though she was standing in a metaphysical tunnel, out of context with the real world, alongside it but running separately. The sounds she could hear were otherworldly, muted but cacophonous. So much so, that Rachel put her hands up to her ears again, simply to think.
She decided that she had to get close enough to the chapel in order to see what was going on, but was fearful of being discovered.
Remembering the little side window, the stained glass one closest to the entrance gate, handy if she needed to make her escape, she made her way back around the building, keeping one eye on the old oak door as she passed it, afraid it might open and she would be seen. She crept up to the window despite there being no need for quiet – there was no way she would be heard over the frenetic incantations seeping through the very stones of the building.
Hesitantly, Rachel peered through the cobalt blue glass. It took a moment for her to adjust her eyesight, but then into view came the most horrible sight. All at once she saw everything all together, just as she had in her dream, but the terrible chanting wasn’t coming from the chapel… no, the scene was being played out through the far window, outside on the rise, beyond the chapel by the ancient apple tree. The tree she had just been standing by with the old man – the tree from which the bits of broken burning sticks had come, which the old man had just forced into her hands. A chill coursed through her bones. In the dream, what had the old man said to her? She frantically searched back through her mind to find the words, all the time watching the witches jeering and heckling over the chanting, which played like a subliminal sound-track in Rachel’s ears.
Then it came to her….sticks, six bits of broken sticks! And, as if determined by her sudden realisation, a huge crack of thunder rolled across the sky, and then came the great flash of lightening, striking the ancient tree and cracking it in two. Rachel stood back and gasped. As she watched the assembled crowd disperse, she saw them evaporate as they ran, and all around her strange energies screeched past, ghastly high pitched screams and wails violating her sensibilities, stirring up currents of chilled air, which blew through her very being.
Then, the young man stood up slowly and, as he did so, he aged to an old man, becoming stooped, bent and wizened, and in her ears echoed his words,
‘…six bits of broken sticks…’
Just before he seethed those words, the worst bit of all was seeing herself in that other dimension untie the ropes and help him to his feet.
Crows flew up from the crag behind the chapel, squawking, disturbed and menacingly restless against the gloomy sky. Distracted and perturbed by them, Rachel glared up at this mob of mocking birds, and in that moment the spell or whatever she had experienced, was gone, broken.
Only witches like crows, she thought.
It was with some trepidation and a big gulp of air that she cautiously went back to the field behind the building.
All was quiet and still. The tree was there, old and as before, just a stump still showing black from the lightning strike. How could that be? The man, young or old, was simply gone. A low wind blew through the ferns, hissing across the field until it touched her face, and then, like everything else in this strange place – nothing – it just disappeared. She looked down and saw the six bits of broken sticks, now harmless and lying on the ground. Picking them up, she half expected some magic to reignite in the palm of her hand, but no, there was nothing now, only some old, damp and charcoaled black sticks making her hands dirty.
It was very late autumn but she wasn’t dressed for it at all. Shuddering and suddenly feeling cold, knowing she still wasn’t right from the trials and torments of the night before, she called it a day, a very strange day and headed down, sticks firmly gripped in numbing hands.
It was still morning, much to Rachel’s surprise. Feeling famished, cold and at a total loss as to what to do next, she headed to the only café in town.
It wasn’t until she had devoured a full breakfast and a huge piece of coffee cake that she warmed up and felt herself again. She didn’t think of what had just occurred – thinking about things like that was a fool’s game and it would get her nowhere. She just stared blankly around. As she sat there, she saw what she had been missing for the last forty-five minutes: the stares and mumbles of idle gossip directed her way. The room suddenly seemed menacing, vicious almost, and she felt the glare of something she really didn’t like. Rob was there with some mates and a pretty girl, but they looked away when she caught their eyes, as if she was to be avoided at all costs.
Then she saw something else – six small dirty black sticks she must have absent-mindedly laid out on the table. The tablecloth was wet and smudged with black. Yes, they must now have cause to think she was well and truly off the wall.
She quickly gathered up the sticks and went to the counter to pay. The waitress couldn’t have done her job any faster if she tried.
She thought she would be safe from judgment out on the street, but people stared at her as she hurried away.
She didn’t want to go home and face cleaning up the apple puke. What could she do now?
A quiet place, that’s all she wanted, someplace else to try to hatch a useful plan. She soon found herself standing in front of the church; a quiet place indeed, and always empty unless it was a Sunday service. But today was Saturday, and she headed on inside.
These timeless places of cold air, whose musty smell refuses to let go of all that’s old, suited Rachel very well just then, and she sat down amongst the pews. But she felt restless and fidgety, couldn’t think and found herself wandering to the back and through an open door to find the vicar praying by himself in a small and ancient room. He felt her presence without having to look up, and when he did, he knew it was the girl – she had finally come. With a terrible sense of foreboding, he quickly got up and walked right past Rachel to shut the door so they were alone.
He didn’t say a thing, just stood high, long and lean waiting for the inevitable. It had been a wait, which had spanned seven hundred years or more. He was ready like all those that went before, but, with a feeling of dread, the realization dawned on him that the task in hand had fallen to him.
He didn’t move as Rachel described recent events, showing no emotion at her tale. She did not hold back, even describing the green delights of puree vomit sprayed across the cottage floor.
When she finally stopped pouring out her story, he turned and reached for an old dark book and laid it on the floor.
Rachel looked down at the ancient manuscript and looked back to the vicar.
‘Rachel you must read it. I hope it might bring you the answers you are looking for…’
The vicar’s eyes smiled kindly but also held a deep and hidden tension.
She knelt down on the cold stone floor and looked over the old dusty book. Tracing her fingers slowly over the embossed leather bound cover and feeling hesitant, she looked back towards the vicar for some semblance of encouragement.
He smiled knowingly.
‘Rachel, I know this may feel far beyond your understanding but please don’t think you are alone in this. More people are aware of these circumstances than you might think. It was made known to me that your visit might come in my lifetime. I was just a young curate when I took on this parish and I want you to know I have been waiting and wondering if it would be me you would come to.’
He tried to radiate warmth and confidence but couldn’t hide his trepidation.
‘I didn’t know it would be quite so soon though…’
He laughed nervously.
Rachel allowed herself a smile. His face turned serious now.
‘I’m not sure I will be able to actually help you in any way other than give you the information you will need in order to fulfill what I believe to be predestined for you.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘I wouldn’t expect you to, but take a look at the pages I have marked and perhaps you might begin to…’
He didn’t finish, for Rachel had turned her eyes back to the old book and carefully lifted the first few heavy pages. She lifted and turned some more until she came to where the vicar had placed a laminated bookmark. which sat there between the old browning pages looking modern and out of place with its beaded tassels and a picture of the Holy land.
She averted her eyes from what appeared to be a rooftop scene of Jerusalem on the bookmark, to see the words jump out at her off the page.
‘Six bits of broken sticks…’
It was the poem! She glanced up at the vicar, shocked.
‘But I always thought this poem was some local myth…. something made up by kids, like the bogeyman. People used to say that it was written somewhere in the parish records, but to see it actually written down…’
She looked back at the words on the page,
‘….this is incredible!’
‘Carry on reading,’ the vicar said.
Rachel continued. The text was written in an ancient font but it was easy to decipher, as she was so familiar with the poem. She read it aloud as it was written…
‘Six bits of broken sticks
taken from the apple tree
where they tried to hang
Six bits of old rough wood
taken where the lightning struck
and cut the tree in two…’
Looking back at the vicar, she said gravely,
‘I have the six bits of broken sticks. He broke them up and placed them in my hands right up by the smouldering lightening tree….but I still don’t understand…’
She thrust her hand into a jean pocket and quickly pulled out the black bits one by one and dropped them on the open pages of the book.
The vicar’s face went ashen.
He looked down hard at them and then urgently around the room. He was worried.
But Rachel hadn’t noticed, she was already back on the pages reading more but the words made no sense to her at all – were they from another language perhaps or just spelt oddly?
‘I can’t read it….’
They both froze as a piercing howl suddenly screeched through the vestry. It was deafening. They stared at each other, horrified. The heavy old door aggressively opened and banged shut again, bringing dust and broken pieces of plaster falling down from the whitewashed walls and causing the thick curtains to blow about madly as a terrible haunting high-pitched moan filled the room. Rachel dived over to the vicar, burying her face in his cassock, and he put his arms around her tight to protect her from the demonic onslaught. She clung to him as the noises intensified and echoed around the little room, whipping the pages of the ancient book into a frenzy. The vicar took the crucifix, which hung around his neck between his fingers, put it to his lips and began to pray feverishly,
‘Lord Jesus…be with us…protect us….we are your children…blessed are the meek….keep us safe…’
The crazed, fiendish noises reverberated around the room and then, through the terrible din, came a sinister collective of voices chanting slowly and purposefully. The vicar continued to pray, asserting his authority in the house of God, whilst Rachel kept her eyes tight shut, afraid of what she might see if she were to open them. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the chanting faded out and the air stilled. Feeling encouraged by the vicars incessant prayers, Rachel pried open her eyelids a fraction to find the yellow eyes of a huge black crow staring straight back at her from its perch on the curtain rail, above the old wooden vestry door.
Rachel instinctively broke away from the vicar and again crouched over the book trying hard to grasp and make sense of anything she could. She looked up at the crow, which just stared back and then to the sticks, which were now glowing red and moving, almost jumping off the pages and making the book smoulder before it burst into flames.
An almighty wind rushed through the vestry blowing anything not secured down into a whirlwind, forcing Rachel and the vicar to crouch down low to the floor so as not to be lifted up or flung against a wall.
Then it stopped and a calm silence returned. The crow was gone and the book was just a pile of black cinders – nothing left at all.
‘Tell me what it said!’
Rachel was beside herself, screaming at the vicar.
There was some relief on his face, as if it was now over for him, and anymore of this devil-work would not be his concern.
‘I don’t know what it said, it was in another language, but I’ll tell you what was passed on to me …’
He paused and took a deep breath.
‘The chapel has stood for seven hundred years or more. It was built sometime during the 13th century, but before that, something else was there…a meeting place, used by witches. The locals were afraid as it became obvious the coven was getting larger and more powerful and their misdoings were being directed on not only local people but also reaching out far and beyond the vicinity, bringing misfortune onto people many miles away. It was thought by the church that by building a chapel at the witches meeting place God, in his goodness, would overpower their evil and the coven would disband or move away.’
This all made sense to Rachel as it was clear the witches in her visions were angry and vengeful.
‘The old man though? Who is he and what’s his relevance?’
The vicar continued:
‘When the chapel was first built, a sexton was appointed to take care of the building, he was a local woodsman, and newly married. His name was William. He and his wife had a baby and it is said that the baby was taken. Witches were known for bleeding infants and children and he confronted them, convinced they had taken his child. No one can be sure, but it is believed that they cursed him to spend eternity in some God forbidden hell realm and then tried to hang him…he was saved though at the last minute – I think you know the rest.’
‘No I don’t – what are the six bits of broken sticks?’
He took another deep breath.
‘The sexton’s wife was a herbalist, perhaps even a sorcerer. It is thought that in her distress at losing her baby and with her husband cursed and about to be sent to the darkness, she desperately tried to expand and use her knowledge to free him from the curse and exorcise the chapel. Whatever happened next is not known, but it is clear that something went wrong as the result of her spell. It only managed to lock the witches and her husband into some kind of eternal bond in a dimension that now exists only in the chapel.’
‘But it can’t be….the lightning freed him.’
‘No, his wife freed him with her magic, and he gave you the sticks before he disappeared into…’
‘That place you can see – I’ve been told that they are all locked in there together, trapped, and imprisoned.’
‘But the sticks – I still don’t understand…’
Rachel felt confused.
‘None of it makes sense.’
‘Rachel, do you not see? The six broken sticks are from the spell that William’s wife cast to break the curse. She took them from the biggest tree knowing they would hang him there.’
‘Oh! The poem – it’s a spell. But why me – why did he give them to me?’
Only now could he drop the bombshell, only now did it seem right to tell her.
He paused…hesitant to continue, ‘Rachel, look here in this book…’
He opened a very old parish register and turned to a page near the front, handed it to her and watched her closely as she proceeded to take in the words written there.
Rachel instantly recognized it as a marriage record. She read it aloud:
‘1223, William Roberts marries…’
Rachel stopped and looked back up to the vicar, alarmed.
‘Rachel Ellis?’ She exclaimed. ‘He marries Rachel Ellis? William? Is he the old man – the sexton?’
The vicar was nodding,
‘And Rachel? She has my name…is this the link?’
‘Rachel I don’t think you quite understand…’
He put his hand out and placed it gently on her shoulder.
‘Rachel, this isn’t a link….you are Rachel Ellis.’
Rachel stared at him in disbelief…
‘What? Are you mad? I’m me, I’m here in this time…what are you saying? That I’m over seven hundred years old and that the old man is my husband? You’re off your head…how can that be? I was born here, I was a baby and a little girl and I grew up…that makes no sense…’
‘Rachel, it’s true, you were born and you grew up into the young woman you are today, but within you is Rachel Ellis. Her spirit resides in you, do you understand? She is a part of you and as William’s wife it is down to you to rectify the spell and break the witches curse.’
Rachel looked at him open mouthed, not quite able to digest what it was he was telling her. She stumbled a little under the weight of it all, at which point the vicar opened and held the door ajar to indicate the part he had to play in this was over.
‘I have told you everything. I can’t help you any further.’
Rachel looked at him astounded but knew in her heart the vicar would be true to his word. He had given her the information it had been his duty to impart, and now he would wash his hands of her. As she turned to leave the vestry, she coldly asked:
‘And where’s your God in all of this?’
Instead of giving an answer, he took a brush and pan and swept up the ashes of the burnt book and sticks from the old stone floor. Rachel waited for a reply, impatiently staring, as he fastidiously made sure he got every grey cinder in the pan. He pondered for a moment, looked around, on seeing what he needed, grabbed a small urn, and carefully filled it with the ash. Only then did he answer, hurriedly, as he briskly walked her to the church entrance down the aisle.
‘This is not God’s work. You are on your own now and nothing can stop what you have unleashed up on that cursed hill.’
As the low glare of the November sun flooded her eyes making her squint, she protested:
But he wasn’t listening anymore as the door closed firmly shut behind her.
‘Damn you vicar.’
Looking up the mountainside, she held the warm small urn tightly in her hands.
What had he said? My husband’s been locked up for seven hundred years with those witches, waiting for me to turn up again! This is so stupid. What the fuck do I do now? I wish I had never eaten those bloody cursed apples.
Her thoughts were confused as she wandered home, washed out, dragging her heels until she made it to her bedroom and sank down into a deep and empty sleep.
The dream came quickly, short and startlingly clear.
She appeared at the chapel; it was dark and the tree smouldered, cracking loud as bits of trunk exploded, showering orange and red sparks around. The young sexton sat smiling at Rachel. He was sitting at the base of the split trunk amongst the shower of fizzing sparks. Crows were everywhere, hopping and cawing, while looking right at her. One landed on her shoulder and she flinched and brushed it off but others were at her feet pecking. She stepped back as he pointed at her chest, saying:
‘The crows will fly
As you lie entwined
In midnight’s love sublime’
She woke in a cold sweat.
God damn it, she had had enough of this riddle – better to go back to where she was before and leave all this mumbo jumbo behind; Rob was right, although she was loathe to admit it. It had been just a chapel she had wanted to buy and restore, that was all – not the dark stuff that was now invading and ruining every aspect of her life. No, she would get her life back to normal as soon as possible.
There was a thud on the door. Rachel jumped up and off the bed feeling apprehensive. With some trepidation, she went downstairs and slowly opened the kitchen door.
It was night and she realised that she had slept for some hours. She could see the moon shining full and bright over the hills in the distance, showing between the racing, dark clouds. Before her stood Rob, cocky as always, smiling as if nothing had happened and itching to get in.
‘I’ve been thinking….’
But Rachel didn’t want a long conversation about her sanity and behavior, and blurted out:
‘I’m sorry Rob…I was stupid – will you take me back?’
‘Sure, forget it ever happened. No weird stuff though, I can’t handle it and my mates just laugh ‘coz you’re such a spooky crank!’
He laughed briefly as he walked through the kitchen towards the lounge carrying a six-pack of beer, but stopped short when he saw the small open urn full of ash on the kitchen counter. Rob looked down and peered in.
‘Oh…it’s…just, um – ash from the stove.’
Rob said nothing, just stared at Rachel who quickly added:
‘For the garden, you idiot.’
Relieved, he stepped into the lounge but immediately stopped again, exclaiming and pointing with disgust at the oodles of green puree curdling on the hearth and carpet:
‘And what the hell is that? Jesus Rachel!’
‘Oh, crab apples – I was such an idiot – let’s go to bed.’
Rachel knew it was easy to fob him off like that, especially when he only had one thing on his mind.
She followed his urge.
They drank, laughed, had sex, drank some more, had more sex and now lay entwined half asleep, listening to the gentle wind brushing the trees outside the bedroom window.
Suddenly the wind changed and became a strange noise, humming and reverberating, almost growling at the bedroom window.
‘What the fuck is that?’
Rob shot up and looked out of the window.
‘Nothing, it’s just trees swaying with the wind.’
‘No, it wasn’t – didn’t you hear it?’
‘It’s just the wind Rob.’
Rachel knew damned well that it wasn’t just the wind but something much more sinister. Maybe it would go away if she just ignored it.
She pulled him down to kiss him softly. He was soon on her, making love and she whispering all those things that seem to make it matter. Rachel tried so very hard, faking her moans and cries in an effort to shut out the sounds, which subtly vibrated through the house.
Soon all they could hear was the sound of a whole flock of birds flapping inside the room – only sounds, not a bird in sight.
Rob jumped out of bed and switched on the light.
‘Fuck’s sake Rachel, what the hell have you unleashed up there in that God forsaken place?’
‘Nothing! It’s just birds…um migrating.’
‘It’s late autumn!’
They were shouting above the din.
Then there was nothing and silence reigned down once again.
‘See Rob – just birds.’
‘Yeah well, you can’t blame me for being jumpy after that thing with the old man – can you?’
They stood naked looking straight at one another and both burst into laughter.
‘Jesus – that spooked the hell out of me…’
Rob stopped as the kitchen door banged and shook the house.
They both went white and Rachel tried to calm the moment.
‘Maybe I didn’t shut it when you came in – I’ll have a look.’
She went down, across the lounge and to the kitchen where the door was shut. She hit the light switch and stared at the chipped white paint of the wooden door.
Rob shouted from above:
‘What is it?’
‘Only the wind I think.’
She opened the door.
The moon was hidden in the clouds and only the dim kitchen light illuminated the old sexton. Rachel gasped and tried to hide her nakedness by crossing her legs and throwing her arms over her breasts.
It was in a brief moment when the moon broke briefly through the clouds that she saw them – a score of crows flying towards the kitchen door and heading straight towards her. Before she had a chance to slam it shut, the sexton pointed at her chest.
Then they were on her, pecking at her, flying in the house and forcing Rachel to retreat to the lounge where she collapsed onto the couch. She tried to scream but nothing came out, and just when she thought she would go insane with all the crows cawing, screeching and pecking at her, it stopped and everything became still.
Rob had pulled on a pair of jeans and now stood in the middle of the lounge looking down at her, innocently enquiring,
‘What was it?’
He hadn’t seen or a heard a thing and was looking into the kitchen at the open door.
‘You alright – the door’s still open?’
He went and shut it, turning the key in the lock.
Rachel shouted after him:
‘Yeah, just the wind – thought I’d clean the puke up.’
But something wasn’t right at all. Her chest was buzzing and she could feel something almost like a flapping deep inside.
Then it was gone.
Together they cleaned the hearth and carpet, Rob constantly making jokes about witches and curses as Rachel pretended to laugh. Just act normal she kept telling herself.
When they had finished and had flopped on to the couch, Rachel, still naked, thought that this might just be ok now. Whatever had happened had settled down and all was going to be ok.
However, as Rob caressed her, arousing her sexual feelings, she heard a murmur, felt a stirring, not hers but a score of witches who had been locked up for seven hundred years or more. She felt their yearnings, their wants, their anger, and she was on him, overpowering him and without regard, took all that she could get.
The pent up frustrations of a horde of powerful witches and her own desire was all that mattered now. She heard her name called once:
‘Rachel – for Fuck’s sake.’
But that was all. Later she wondered how her screaming and shaking hadn’t shaken the house down as she lay panting on the floor with no regard for Rob who lay motionless on the couch above.
She awoke cold and shivering the next morning and instinctively went to light a fire. As she opened the burner door, she finally noticed Rob lying on the couch, white and ashen, his lifeless eyes staring out in abject horror, reflecting the terror of his last moments.
Those witches, those bitches had fucked the life out of him and she had let them, enjoyed it just like them. Oh God, what the fuck was she going to do now?
Rachel cried for Rob and for herself and for the curse that now lay deep inside.
Looking over at Rob, trousers still around his ankles, lying on his back with his pathetic lifeless head turned towards her, she screamed out as loudly as she could:
‘Leave me alone.’
A murmur came back at her, something gentle that she could not understand.
She sobbed some more, desperately trying not to look at him and see the damage she had done.
If only she had listened to him, he would still be alive and things would be just sweet and normal, but no, she had to ruin everything by following some dream that soon became a curse, to its bitter damning end.
She waited until evening. It had been an uneventful day, almost calm in fact. She had had no visitors and the murmurs or things inside her had not revealed themselves. For some inexplicable reason she now felt no remorse for Rob’s demise – just some kind of pity that he was no longer around. It all seemed to mean nothing now and it slowly dawned on her what she must do.
Around midnight she tried to lift Rob off the couch. He was too heavy and she dropped him back down the foot or so she had raised him. He was getting stiff now like a proper corpse.
‘I need some help here.’
She felt all humanity leave her as she cried out to the things inside, and again tried to pull Rob up. This time however, she easily threw him across her shoulder as if he were a feather.
Rachel laughed aloud:
‘That’s more like it.’
With some sense of control, she opened the back door and purposefully strode to her car in the gravel drive. The night was dark and the moon well and truly hidden, and with the nearest neighbour some 300 yards away, she felt safe as she offloaded Rob into the boot. He landed with a thud and she slammed the trunk back down.
The quarry lay on the other side of the big hill that sheltered the chapel and the drive went without incident. There was not a car on the road and she confidently pulled into a siding and cut the lights. The quarry was no more than a hundred feet or so in the darkness ahead.
Rachel pulled the body from the boot and once again threw him over her shoulder and edged her way forward until the track ran out and the quarry opened up before her. Below her was a big, dark drop.
Without a second thought, she let Rob fall and heard scraping against rock before the heavy thud as his body stopped at the quarry floor. The moon shone now and she peered over the edge to see him showing pale and eerie against the dark slate far below.
That wouldn’t do at all. What had she been thinking? He was now on view to anyone who walked this spot, and there were many from the village that came up here. He needed to be covered up.
‘Damn it,’ she muttered under her breath.
Murmurs started, just in her head at first, and then all around her. They gained volume and intensity until loose rock started falling, ending with a huge crack and a rumbling below. She peered over the edge again.
Rob was gone, buried under tons of slate.
‘Oh Rob, I’m so very sorry.’
But, in the pit of her being, she knew she didn’t really care at all.
Rachel was suddenly overcome with tiredness. Her body felt heavy as she dragged herself back to the car, and with a huge effort got herself home.
It then came to her, she felt normal, dog tired but normal as though nothing had happened – no remorse, no fear and no strange noises – just nothing.
She made a fire and warmed herself close to the open door of the burner, soon falling into a deep sleep. No dreams came and the strange sounds stayed away, but she woke suddenly needing the bathroom.
Sitting dozily on the loo looking at her reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall, Rachel spoke:
‘Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the…’
She paused and let out a laugh as she changed the verse:
‘…witchiest of them all?’
Her faced changed before her in the reflection. Rachel gasped with horror. Her mouth went dry as a succession of hideous faces, creatures and monsters started to appear. Some wailed, some made her shake with their pure evil and she wondered if that was fire and smoke coming from her mouth and nostrils.
The stench was awful.
Her stomach churned. She thought she was about to vomit and shot up towards the basin but fell flat on her face as her knickers twisted about her feet.
She sobbed and all went quiet once again.
It was mid afternoon when she finally woke, still lying on the bathroom floor.
Rachel didn’t know what to do but one thing was sure – she needed to move, get out of the house, anything just to feel normal.
She dressed quickly and with a lot of nervousness looked into the mirror once again. Nothing – in fact, she looked great – absolutely radiant. Her long dark hair was shining and her hazel eyes burned bright.
Understanding, that if she now stayed calm and didn’t ask stupid questions, the witches might stay dormant and not bother her. She headed out. The sun was low in the sky and with the wind still, it was a pleasant walk to the high street.
She didn’t know if eating was a good idea but soon found herself in the café having another huge meal. She’d get fat at this rate, she thought, and looked about to see if anyone was looking at her strangely. All seemed ok, but just then Rob’s mother walked in and came straight over to her.
Rachel’s heart sank.
Oh God, what do I tell her?
‘Seen Rob, Rachel? He was meant to come over this morning?’
She hesitated, knowing that hesitation was bad, and quickly blurted out:
‘He left early this morning to see a friend about some work.’
Rob’s Mum eyed her suspiciously and simply nodded before leaving.
What if they find the body? Now Rachel felt bad, guilty and all confused again. Then the murmurs started.
No, no – stop it!
She had to get out of there.
Fumbling with the cash to pay, feeling embarrassed and self-conscious once again, she knocked her plate on the floor. It landed with a crack and broke in two.
Now people were looking, now they were talking, now she appeared like the old Rachel from the other day again.
She quickly fled before something bad might happen.
Trying to quieten the noises inside, trying not to let them get the better of her, she headed round the corner and stood before the church, looking down the path guarded on either side by two enormous yew trees, towards the large oak doors of the main entrance.
The vicar stood in front of them staring hard at her. Rachel wasted no time. She walked right up to him and stood below the step, demanding:
‘What the hell has happened to me?’
‘You have no business here anymore – you must go.’
The murmurs increased and a chant began.
‘Not until you bloody well tell me.’
But the words were not hers and she heard a strange language come from her mouth.
The vicar turned ashen. He started mumbling prayers, turned his back on her and went to open the door, but Rachel was up on the step and violently banged the door shut again whilst consciously aware of the strange sounds she was spouting.
The vicar dropped to his knees.
‘You’re possessed by those…’
But he couldn’t say the word and Rachel felt herself get angry. She let out a scream but nothing came out, and then she realised that the oak door was scorched and smoking. The flames had come straight out of her.
She covered her mouth in horror.
The vicar was praying frantically, attempting to cast the witches out. She knew it wouldn’t work and felt furious at him. She had only wanted his advice.
The next thing she knew his cassock had caught alight. He desperately tried to ease the flames, flapping and patting his uniform whilst muttering, ‘Oh, Oh my.’
Serves him right, she thought. Then, in an instance, she felt sorry for him and with a big gasp of air from her mouth, she blew the flames out so hard that he banged against the door.
Although the flames were out, he kept on hysterically patting whilst looking up in terror at the monsters he saw hovering and focusing right on him, ready to do their worst, and through the horror of his vision he saw Rachel angrily looking down on him, hands on hip waiting for an answer. He cried out:
‘Make them go away.’
‘The witches – please…’
‘You can see them! What do they look like?’ She demanded like an excited child.
He was begging now.
He clasped his hands over his head imploringly.
She didn’t really know what to do next, but angrily stamped her feet one after the other, not only at the witches but also at him and the damned predicament she found herself in.
He rose shakily.
‘What? Have they gone? What did you see – how many?’
Seeing she was impatient, he hastily replied:
‘Many terrible beings, tortured souls – evil, but I see you can control them.’
‘Can I? How?’
‘You just did by stamping your feet.’
As Rachel changed from feeling defiant to perplexed, he went on:
‘They’re with you now and I can’t do a thing to help you – look after them, that’s all they want.’
‘Sing them a lullaby – send them to therapy – you’re having a laugh aren’t you?’ She replied, frustrated by his advice.
‘Isn’t there a prayer or something, I mean it was only last night that I, no we, I mean they, fucked Rob to…’
She stopped mid-sentenced as she realised what she was confessing and clasped her hand over her mouth once again.
‘Look,’ she demanded, backtracking, ‘you’re the only one who can help me.’
‘Rachel, do you not understand? You surely know that they possess you.’
She knew that alright, and out of sheer frustration, she opened and banged the heavy oak door several times whilst cursing out loud.
Thunder rolled over the town and the sky went dark.
‘No Rachel – please don’t.’
Then the rain came, hard and heavy. Defeated, she turned and walked away leaving the vicar soaking on the stone steps behind her.
‘Six sticks…..remember the sticks…’ he called out after her, his voice muffled by the noise of the downpour.
Rachel couldn’t think anymore. At a total loss about what to do, where to go, or how to feel, she headed up the lane by the church towards the woods and footpaths that meandered up the hills and through the fields to the old chapel. Where else could she go, she asked herself. It was as if it had all run out for her and she was left with some curse that would never ever leave her alone, and what about those sticks? It all felt too much and she shook her head to clear her thoughts.
She wanted to cry but was far too defiant to let a tear drop. And where had those damned witches gone now – to ground no doubt, silent and hiding in the depths – what ghoulish cowards they must be.
With these thoughts and feelings she entered the wood, purposely striding to the only place she had ever gone to when the world seemed too much to bear. Here she sought solace.
The path was steep and rocky and on reaching the fields, Rachel marveled at her slow and relaxed breathing. Maybe there was something good in all this after all? That thought was short lived as a wailing reverberated through her body. Fear gripped her, not hers but that of others. The witches were scared shitless. ‘Good!’ She said aloud, and took a step into the field where the old dark chapel came clearly into view. She suddenly felt nauseous and heard the mumblings of discontent and sensed, no knew, that once again trouble was rumbling inside of her.
Nearly a thousand years locked in some hellish time warp linked to the old chapel. No way were they ever going back there.
Rachel took another step and doubled over with the fear and sickness. She knew it wasn’t hers but it was in her all the same. She was panicking but calm at the same time because she now understood that the chapel was off limits. Demoralized, she turned and walked with difficulty back down towards the wood.
She felt very alone with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Rob was gone and the vicar didn’t want to know.
Stuck between the inaccessible chapel before her and her defunct life in the town below, Rachel suddenly burst into tears. It just wasn’t fair at all, and she threw herself down onto the wet ground and sobbed. This was her spot on the rocky mountainside where she decided to give it up, lie down and just die. She shut her eyes and rolled her body to face the ground, resting her head in her arms.
Then the talking started. She didn’t understand the language at first with everyone talking at once, but she got the sense of what they were trying to say – home, go home; home is where the heart is…
Home – what’s there, except loneliness and the bad memory of Rob? She protested. Home, she heard again. Damn you, I don’t want to go home – there is no home anymore! Over and over, she heard their incessant cries.
Rachel found herself getting up, irritated and pissed off by the incessant pestering. Then silence returned, just that usual nothing that she was getting used to.
She turned towards the dark woods and started walking.
Rachel had been sitting for a long time by the fire, devoid of thought and with very little sense of her place in the world. Just sitting and staring into the fire was all she had the will to do. She had played the mirror game for a while, watching the monsters manifest but that had all got boring, there were too many of them and it all seemed pointless, and besides, they had now become familiar and didn’t even scare her anymore.
What had been the point of returning home? None that she could think of, maybe it was the warmth. Do witches feel the cold?
Night had fallen some time before. It was one of those bright, full moon nights where the occasional high white cloud was blown fast across the inky sky. However, down on the ground there was not even a hint of a breeze, the stillness only broken by the crackling of logs burning in the wood stove.
Rachel dozed, lulled by the warmth and sounds of the fire. She saw the orange sparks of the burning tree, and smelt the wood smoke. It soothed her, but then she felt its heat close, very close, and she shot up as a burning ember scorched her forearm. She had left the wood burner door open and shards were being spat out onto the hearth. She slammed the door shut and patted her arm where the dead ember sat.
The kitchen door banged hard – one loud reverberating sound that rattled anything loose in the house. Then nothing, just the sounds of the fire and her thumping heart. Rachel waited, but still nothing, not even a murmuring inside.
So what now? Another flock of crows and the sexton’s finger pointing at her chest again – another ride on this spooky merry go round?
She felt weary, fed up and defiantly marched over to the back door and pulled it wide open. The night was chilly and sparkles of frost twinkled on the grass.
There was no one there, but as Rachel went to shut the door to keep the chill out, she caught sight of him standing there.
‘Rob! Where the hell did you come from?’
It couldn’t be him, could it? He was buried under a ton of black Welsh slate and besides he had already been dead well before then.
But there he stood, naked and with his jeans still around his ankles looking vacant and deathly pale, desperately trying to say something.
‘Rob you must be freezing, come in…’
Then, under the clear moonlight, she saw him as he really was; his head was partly crushed, dried blood was everywhere, one arm was totally bent and twisted and his whole body just a proper mess. Was that a bone poking out and, oh God, his eyes…this just couldn’t be for real.
‘Rob, say something,’ she cried in desperation.
However, he just continued to stare, moving his distorted mouth in silence.
‘Please Rob, you’re frightening me.’
She didn’t know if it was fear, the biting chilly night or both, but Rachel was shaking now, almost uncontrollably.
Something propelled her forward and she grabbed Rob’s arms and roughly pulled him into the kitchen where she then shoved him into the front room right by the fire. She had felt and heard something pull and snap as she had yanked his arms to get him into the house.
He half collapsed on to the floor next to the hearth as if he had recognized some comfortable resting place. But there was nothing comfortable or resting about him as he sat all twisted and mangled, looking up at Rachel. She could barely look at him and now started feeling sick. Before she could ponder going to the bathroom some sounds finally came from Rob’s contorted mouth, half whispered, half breathed but she could just make it out:
‘I ate the apples Rob – you know that.’
A gurgling moan came from deep within him, which she just made out:
‘Now I’ll die.’
‘You’re already dead – what happened?’
Rachel immediately wished she hadn’t said that – maybe he didn’t know he was dead.
The same sound came again:
As Rob wept and moaned, the shudders made his wounds ooze a dry cake like substance that stank, making Rachel cover her nose and mouth and take a step back.
He was decomposing fast and the fire wasn’t helping.
‘Speak to me Rob – tell me what to do.’
Rachel was almost beside herself. She didn’t know how to help, especially as he was quickly becoming a rotting corpse right in front of her. Her thoughts were confused. What the hell would she do with his body this time? Maybe feed it to the farmer’s pigs just across the field from her cottage – they would surely eat the lot – wouldn’t they?
What was she thinking? She had to do something.
Then she remembered the apple pie still in the oven.
Rachel raced to the kitchen and pulled the door open. Yes, it was there!
Soon she was back next to Rob trying not to gag on his stench, offering him the bowl of pie and a spoon. His eyes showed some life and with a slight futile upward movement of his arm it was clear to Rachel she would have to spoon-feed him.
But his mouth didn’t work and Rachel stepped back and viewed Rob with the spoon sticking out of his broken mouth. No way was he going to be able to get a morsel down.
She knew what she had to do and eased the spoon back out and dropped the bloody mess into the bowl of apple pie.
Working quickly, she loaded the food blender with the whole pie and set it spinning. A rummage through the cupboards found a funnel and in the shed in the back yard she grabbed a small piece of hose and was soon back in the front room ready to try to save her friend from the darkness that fast approached.
Rob had fallen down and his eyes were now glazed and lifeless.
God the place stunk.
She placed the blender and things on the floor and pushed him back up into a sitting position, wedging him up with the back of a chair.
It was a grim moment forcing the hose down into his stomach as she first heard and then felt the ripping and tearing of his rigor mortis flesh.
No response from Rob. Was he dead – well, second dead?
Rachel fixed the funnel to the hose and was about to pour the blended pie into it when she realised it was way too thick – no way would the pie go down.
After another hasty trip to the kitchen, where she added water and turned the blender on again, Rachel poured the thick, green liquid into the funnel, down the hose and into whatever was still alive deep inside of Rob.
The lot went down and Rachel pulled the hose back up and out. What more could she do? That’s what he wanted, wasn’t it – the apples? As she sat there with his lifeless body, she wasn’t so sure.
Rob fell forward and thudded on the floor.
Well, at least I tried, she thought. A brief moment of silence before the wind blew, hissing outside, and the murmurings started, her murmurings it now seemed, increasing until it became a chant filling up the room and house, and then nothing, silence yet again.
A gurgle came from Rob, his body convulsed and a mighty retch shot apple and disgusting red lumps of flesh across the floor. Rob moaned and retched again. The smell was unbearable and Rachel opened a window to let in the hissing wind before going to the bathroom to splash her face with icy water. Slightly relieved she looked into the mirror. Yes, there they were, alive and dancing in the reflection.
So, what now witches? What happens now?
Her body tingled, drawing her back to the front room where she found Rob, still a proper mess, but sitting up and examining his wrecked body.
‘Rachel, what happened? Look at me – what will I tell my mum?’
‘Rob – is that really you? What happened?’
‘I don’t know – we were cleaning up your apple puke and the next thing I knew it was pitch black and that old bloke from the chapel was pulling me out of the rocks at the quarry speaking complete gibberish.’
‘Nothing much, I remember shuffling across the fields with him, down the mountain by the crags, past the chapel and then the back way through the pig farm to here.’
‘Nothing else? What about the old bloke?’
Rob shrugged, looked at himself and then to her imploringly.
‘Rachel, what’s happened to me? I look like I should be dead.’
This time she refrained from saying that he actually was dead.
‘What about the old bloke Rob?’ She insisted.
‘He just disappeared. Said a bunch of stuff in some weird language and then…I felt a buzzing in my chest and then I was here – I think…’
‘I can taste apple.’
He looked at the puke on the floor.
‘Is that my apple puree? What are those red lumps?’
‘You ate some pie Rob. I…um…put beetroot in the pie – you know what I’m like.’
She hated lying, but could hardly speak the truth in his condition.
‘I’m tired, can you help me to bed?’
Rachel loathed to touch him – after all a piece of him might just break off. However, she wanted to help – she owed him that much at least.
‘I’ll get you a blanket – you just rest by the fire tonight.’
Rachel’s sleep was deep. She went to a dark place, safe like an impenetrable fortress where she first sensed, then felt and finally saw the witches – transparent, hovering and morphing before her. Not things she would actually be able to describe in waking life, something more subtle, vibrating – a vibrating energy that made her tingle. They were communicating with her now in a way that wasn’t familiar. She shuddered with the realization of their meaning and woke up. Immediately they were gone; she heard and felt nothing more. She knew now that the witches were ancient, as old as the rocks that made the chapel and mountains. What about what they had told her?
She didn’t know whether to be excited or horrified at what they had said. And Rob, was he dead or still alive somehow downstairs?
With a feeling of urgency and expectation, Rachel pulled the covers aside and jumped out of bed. Scantily dressed she felt the cold and hurriedly went downstairs into the front room where the warmth of the burning embers greeted her. Rob was stoking it with wood.
He stood up to greet her, jeans now around his waist, beaming a huge smile and looking right as rain – not a mark on him.
‘What happened to you? You’re all, uh, well, um…’
‘Apples Rache, magic apples – thank God you saved the pie.’
They stood staring at each other, Rachel dumfounded and shocked and Rob cock sure and full of himself.
‘What do you think?’ He gestured.
He twirled to show his new mended self.
Rachel was lost, didn’t know what to think or say at that moment.
‘Imagine what I can do with this!’
Rob looked down at his slim and muscular naked torso and back up at Rachel with an unhinged sense of pride.
‘I feel great!’
Rachel thought – he’s the same old Rob alright, only a thousand times worse this time.
‘Don’t you think of anything else?’
He paused and then added:
‘Neither do you. You and those mad old hags killed me, fucked me to death – I remember everything now – it was terrible, like vampires slowly sucking the very life out of me.’
‘No I didn’t, it was them Rob – not me,’ she protested.
‘Liar! They couldn’t have done it without you. He told me.’
‘Who told you?’
Rob’s smile vanished.
‘Him, I don’t know – him – he’s here now talking to me – well kind of talking – I don’t understand a bleeding’ word, but he’s talking alright.’
‘Who’s talking Rob?’
‘Him! The old bloke from the chapel, he’s here now…’
Rob pointed to his chest with both hands.
‘He’s a real prude – but I can handle that, it’s my body, not his. Wow, I feel great!’
Rob’s smile returned as he upped and left, shirtless and shoeless, picking up Rachel’s car keys from the kitchen counter on the way out. She heard the car start and the wheels spin as he quickly drove away on the icy gravel track.
Oh my God – the poor sexton, my poor William! What a shock and insult it must be, being locked up in Rob’s over-sexed body, with his crude and simple mind. How could she have been ‘in love’ with him?
Rachel found herself laughing, cackling almost but quickly stopped herself. Damn, it would be so easy to become one of them. She had to get a grip. Despondent, she sat down on the carpet next to the fire, confused and in a place she couldn’t understand.
There seemed no way back now.
Even Rob, with all his hatred of anything even hinting at the supernatural, was now involved, possessed by William. How could that have happened? Surely, there must have been some mistake.
There was only one place she could go now, only one voice that might make sense – why hadn’t she thought of it before?
With no car, it was quite a hike to her grandmother’s cottage on the other side of town some way past the church along the river.
The murmurs and voices had remained silent and Rachel half wondered if they had gone for good until she saw her grandmother dressed in her fur coat and hat waiting impatiently on the lawn outside her closed front door. She hung onto a small shoulder bag with one hand.
This did not bode well.
‘You always were a bit slow Rachel, and late…’
Rachel said nothing; she knew her grandmother never said a word more than needed or wasted her breath on anything superfluous.
Without another word, she grabbed Rachel’s arm and pulled her up the road with some urgency.
‘Why didn’t you come sooner?’
‘What – what do you mean gran?’
‘Stop your pretence, the vicar told me everything.’
‘And of poor Rob’s demise – how could you do such a terrible thing?’
‘Oh, it wasn’t me gran…it was, um, them – please believe me.’
How did the hell did the vicar know about that, Rachel wondered.
‘Them! You, them, it’s all the same now – don’t you see?’
She suddenly stopped and took a good look at her granddaughter.
‘Oh yes, I can see them clearly now, hovering and morphing – like a soft halo or a subtle rainbow.’
‘See them! Can everyone see them?’
‘Those who can see them are very rare indeed, and you’d better watch out for those who do.’
‘Not more riddles,’ she finally protested. ‘Spell it out gran!’
‘What are they like Rachel?’ Her grandmother continued, ignoring her request.
‘Really scary at first…but now I quite like them.’
Her grandmother scoffed:
‘Yes, you would say that – that’s why they waited so long – only you, this Rachel Ellis likes them – to me they are abhorrent.’
‘Why me gran – just tell me why!’
Rachel stamped her foot hard.
‘Oh Rachel, don’t…you have no idea of the power you hold.’
The sky had already darkened and a strong breeze flew through the trees along the riverbank, a stone’s throw away.
‘Only you, the little girl who took off up to the chapel for no reason whatsoever, whenever she could. All the other Rachel Ellises, including your mother and me, dreaded that place – we never set foot near it. I knew it would be you that would one day unleash something on that hill – the vicar knew it too, although he feigns ignorance and memory loss these days.’
They were walking again but no longer talking. Rachel full of questions and confusion as her grandmother pulled her towards the church. She could see the vicar standing outside the closed oak doors looking ashen and forlorn.
‘He looks terrible.’
‘And so he should after the dressing down I gave him – he didn’t tell you even half the truth when you went to visit him.’
They passed him without a word as Rachel’s grandmother practically dragged her to the far side of the churchyard where it edged the riverbank. Here the ground was weedy and overgrown. Right in the corner, where they could go no further, stood an old towering weathered stone statue commanding a fine view across the whole graveyard. Behind this, Rachel’s grandmother showed her a small slate gravestone covered in yellow lichen, out of view and well hidden.
Rachel stared dumbfounded at the deeply carved letters.
‘Have you never wondered why all the first born girls in our family are called Rachel Ellis, no matter what their fathers’ names are?’
Rachel couldn’t speak. She knew the witches were there, silent, hiding and waiting deep within her. But waiting for what?
‘Every Rachel Ellis and every vicar at this church keeps this stone in good repair to pass onto the next generation. As your mother is no longer with us I ought to pass the care to you…but…’
She seemed lost for words and looked from the stone to Rachel and back again.
Rachel already felt spooked and now started shaking.
‘You’re scaring me gran – stop it.’
Rachel then felt them move, rise up, a terrifying power, which she herself could throw into the world.
‘Tell me!’ She pleaded.
The ground shook, a tremor beneath their feet, which quickly ceased the moment the vicar spoke his soft words.
‘I’m so sorry Rachel…’ he started.
Her grandmother curtly cut in:
‘And so you should be – your cowardice has lost us time and may very well have courted disaster.’
‘I’ve had enough of you two! Tell me what’s going on,’ Rachel demanded, ‘Or I’ll unleash them without measure.’
The vicar and her grandmother looked at each other gravely, knowingly.
The vicar spoke first:
‘In the 13th Century there wasn’t much difference between the church and magic. In fact, many sorcerers joined the church to find shelter from persecution. Powerful and ambitious people, who could command the elements with their strange magic.’
He paused to glance up at the dark crags, under which the chapel sat hidden from view.
‘What you call The Witches are not ordinary witches, are not part of the world of magic, sorcery or even the Devil – they are something else completely – forgive me, but I know not what.’
He paused again to find the courage to continue.
‘They resided up in the old slate quarries and caused havoc with anyone that went near the place – the place where the chapel now stands. People could not take stone to build their houses or gather firewood from the forests that once covered these hills. If some poor foolish soul did venture there, they either disappeared, went mad or worse – they spread fear and illness amongst the village until the church burnt them at the stake. Nothing could placate the place, no prayers, no exorcism, no magic spells – even the cattle and sheep became possessed, attacking farmers and blowing flames. The church and the sorcerers knew that some great power lived up there and they badly wanted it for themselves. If they couldn’t have it, they wanted it gone, destroyed and banished for good.
The vicar looked at Mrs. Ellis, who continued:
‘The cowardly church and a group of evil sorcerers hatched a deviously clever plan – a trick really. They found William, a simple and pious man and convinced him to build a chapel under the guise of turning the place holy. He had been the only person able to collect firewood up there and for some reason the witches never bothered him. He always maintained he could see them, constantly watching, as if waiting for something. Of course, the church had no interest in the chapel or William whatsoever.’
Rachel was gripped by the story, her mouth agape and eyes wide open.
The vicar found his courage and said:
‘The church stole Rachel and William’s baby.’
He felt relief – he had finally been able to say it – he had truly dreaded this moment.
‘They told William the baby had been taken by the witches for bloodletting and, as a holy man, William needed to confront the witches and threaten them with eternal damnation. At the same time, one of the most powerful sorcerers went as close as he dared to the chapel and warned the witches that William planned to exorcise them and cast them out – and as a holy man with special powers, he would surely succeed. Only hanging him by the neck from the big apple tree would save them…’
The vicar said he had hardly believed the story himself, had wondered if it was all a dream, pure hocus-pocus, but no, he had now seen them for himself, flying in and out of Rachel as she stamped her foot on the church steps. He continued:
‘Finally the sorcerers told Rachel Ellis of the witches plan to hang her husband and that the only thing that would possibly save him was a magic spell she had to recite just before the noose pulled tight.
The sorcerers knew that this most powerful spell of theirs could only work if recited by a loved one. Except it was not a spell to save William but a spell to cast the witches out. What happened to William they did not care. They were sure that their plan could not fail and would finally succeed in tricking and banishing the witches…’
The vicar turned to Rachel’s grandmother:
‘Please Mrs. Ellis, the rest is about your family, it is for you to tell.’
‘Rachel, all I know is that Rachel Ellis did as she was asked, reciting the spell as the noose went tight…but, for reasons no one knows, she had collected six pieces of broken sticks from the apple tree and added the six bits of broken sticks poem to the end of the sorcerers’ spell. William found the sticks in his hand as Rachel took the noose off. What her spell did we don’t really know but the witches did disappear along with William. The sorcerers witnessed everything – it was all recorded in their book, which turned to ash in the church the other day. But no one could ever go to the chapel again, they still can’t without feeling sick or terrified, and the sorcerers knew they were still there, locked away somehow, but far from gone.’
‘What’s this got to do with me?’
Her Grandmother continued:
‘The church told Rachel that her baby was dead and her husband banished to hell and, in her heartbreak and despair, she threw herself off the top of the crag with her beloved dog and she landed on the burnt apple tree. It’s said that the dog survived. They brought her body here…’
Rachel’s grandmother pointed to the slate headstone.
‘… the sorcerers knew she was somehow still around as her body remained warm and her ghostly eyes could not be shut. With great fear they buried her as quickly as possible without a service and marked the grave with no date of death.’
The vicar finished, as he knew he must:
‘It was written in that book that Rachel Ellis would return one day holding six charred bits of broken sticks. The sorcerers left spells to cast her out, but the book has now been burnt, as we both clearly saw and for reasons I can’t explain. Anyway, the church no longer delves in magic. You are safe’
Rachel’s grandmother shot him a virulent look.
‘For Fuck’s sake – what’s it got to do with me?’
Both the vicar and Rachel’s grandmother simultaneously boomed:
‘You are Rachel Ellis!’
‘And so are you gran – so what?’
‘If you hadn’t killed Rob we might know what to do now, but no, your lust knew no bounds.’
‘Piss off the both of you, and anyway, he’s not dead anymore’, she screamed.
Again, they boomed together,
They looked hard at Rachel, expecting an answer. ‘You can go to hell for all I care – if you don’t tell me, I won’t tell you…’ she protested defiantly.
The vicar tried to placate Rachel,
‘We don’t know – it’s like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be put together, except no one knows the pieces anymore – only you…’
His pause was taken up by Rachel’s grandmother:
‘I don’t bloody know – it’s all a riddle – as for Rob – he’s off gallivanting – displaying and probably exercising his new found prowess!’
‘As if he needs anymore,’ Rachel’s grandmother snorted.
‘Why Rob?’ Rachel glanced viciously at the vicar.
‘He was available.’
‘Available! You can say that again!’
Rachel then told the whole story of Rob’s demise and grisly resurrection.
Rachel’s grandmother spoke. She reached out and gently touched Rachel’s arm, but Rachel flinched and drew back.
‘You need to put the pieces together or I feel something terrible will happen. We need to find Rob.’
It didn’t take long driving around in the vicar’s car. They found Rachel’s car nearby parked outside a small cottage. Rachel knew this house and angrily banged on the door.
Rob answered, still shirtless and shoeless beaming a mischievous smile.
Rachel let out a barrage:
‘What the hell are you doing here? Where’s Sally-Ann? You said you wouldn’t see her again. Well?’
‘Oh listen to Miss Purity herself – after what you did to me! Jesus vicar, she and those hideous hags fucked me to death – imagine that!’
However, the vicar couldn’t, and stayed quiet.
‘Stop it you two! Is there anyone else in the house Rob?’
Without further ado, Rachel’s gran shuttled everyone indoors and pushed the door shut behind her.
‘She indicated to the chairs and sofa in the main room. They all quickly sat.
‘Jesus Rachel, why did you have to bring them here?’
‘My gran and the vicar are the only two people who can help us now, so just shut up Rob and stop being rude.’
‘Not them – them!’
Rob pointed, moving his arm around the room.
In the hush that followed, Rachel saw the witches around the edges of the room. She counted at least thirty apparitions – morphing and bobbing.
‘Oh’, she murmured.
She looked at her grandmother and vicar. They both looked wide-eyed and terrified. The vicar had turned slightly green and was mumbling prayers and her grandmother kept looking from apparition to apparition and then back to Rachel.
Three of the apparitions moved towards Rob and hovered close to him, sometimes going right through him, making Rob shudder.
Jeez – these three like me…err…the sexton – it’s disgusting…’
‘Rob, try to focus, tell us what’s going on.’
Rob looked at Rachel’s grandmother and answered:
‘His gibberish is doing my head in – incessant chatting, trying to tell me what to do – even with Sally-Ann’
‘Stop it!’ Rachel screamed.
Rob sat there transfixed, listening, sometimes mumbling to himself before breaking his concentration, with:
‘What the hell.’
He looked at Rachel nervously,
‘What the hell have you got me into? I never asked for this.’
Rob looked at Mrs. Ellis’ severe face and told William’s tale:
‘It’s not like any of you think – even the church and the sorcerers had it all wrong…I, err, I mean William spent eight hundred years with your witches.’
He focused on Rachel for a moment before continuing:
‘Locked up, forced together in what you call the chapel – a space, a vacuum in time. The witches are beings that leaked out of the black slate thousands of years ago during a volcanic eruption. They lived in another dimension, deep inside the earth, but they couldn’t get back again and were soon lost, trapped on earth, tormented and afraid. They didn’t dare move from that spot in case things changed and they could return…home, I guess.’
‘Why couldn’t they get back?’
The vicar had perked up, lost his green pallor and was intently following the story.
‘They needed a crack in time – but it never happened, and with the passing of the years they all went slightly, um…what we would call mad. When the sorcerers came along the witches quickly realised that on earth was a magic that could take them back home. It was simple to keep the sorcerers at bay. But no matter how hard the witches searched and no matter how hard they tried to find and make a spell that might work, they just couldn’t – the more frustrated they got the madder they became, until one day the church and the sorcerers had had enough and decided to banish them. This is what gave the witches a chance. They knew the sorcerers had great power, could banish them, but they could block it with ease – but they didn’t, they just let it play out, except they gave Rachel Ellis…’
Rob looked at Rachel.
‘God, it’s you, isn’t it?’
‘Of course it’s her, you idiot!’ Her grandmother snapped.
‘They gave Rachel Ellis in her dreams a poem to recite. They knew it would end badly for them all, but they had no choice.’
‘So what did the extra spell do?’
Rachel urgently needed to know.
‘Instead of really banishing them, it locked them and William into a time warp bubble inside the chapel with no chance of escape unless the wheel of time brought around another chance – it was a crazy manoeuvre and they had no idea if it would work– that’s how desperate they were.’
‘So what happened?’
‘You happened, Rachel. The witches needed you to come back and do a spell reversal, but more than that, they needed you to eat the apples and place the burnt sticks on the book with all the sorcerers spells.’
Rob paused and said the next thing very slowly,
‘That was their spell – they set the whole thing up – even they can’t believe it worked. Can you imagine how grateful they are to you?’
Rob laughed at Rachel,
‘They’ll never leave you now.’
He turned a little dark as he said the next bit:
‘Except for these ghastly three that is.’
Rob shuddered and tried to shake them off in vain.
‘William made a pact with them, the kind of pact that you can never go back on or even break. Their fate and your fate are linked, joined for good.’
Everyone was staring hard at Rob, waiting for the bombshell.
‘He wanted his life back – you, me – I mean William, and the baby. He would play ball if they would – and for that, a huge compromise was made on both parts. They need William and you, for the next part coming.’
‘And what’s that Robert?’
He ignored Rachel’s grandmother and stared hard at the vicar.
Rachel was so shocked she couldn’t get any words out. It was true then what the witches had told her – their fate was linked, come rain, shine or anything else.
‘What’s the next part – why aren’t the witches helping anymore?’ She blurted out.
‘They can’t help because they don’t work well in this world – they become monsters in an instant, wreck everything around them. They’ve gone to ground for now.’
Rob looked at Rachel and then back to the vicar.
‘We are running out of time – it will all go wrong soon – won’t it vicar?’
After a moment of silence, Rob insisted:
‘Damn you – speak!’
The vicar gazed at all the apparitions making them flutter, and then to Rachel and her grandmother.
‘I feel so terribly ashamed at what they did – the church.’
Rachel’s grandmother tried to ease his tension:
‘That was eight hundred years ago, it wasn’t your fault.’
‘Nevertheless…I’m so sorry Rachel…and you Rob, I…err…mean you William, that the church stole your baby daughter. The burnt book said she was taken to Spain where the church and the sorcerers had a stronghold, a monastic castle, carved into a mountainside…’
The vicar hesitated, trying to find the words,
‘The last entry into the burnt book was in 1402. Whoever wrote it had the same handwriting as the first entry in 1089.’
‘Are you saying that that someone was more than three hundred years old?’
‘No Rachel, I’m saying that they were most probably even older, and my guess is that those demonic sorcerers headed for Spain once the English church no longer tolerated that kind of thing – I’m sure the Inquisition later welcomed them.’
‘What are you saying old man – that they’re still there, holed up and waiting for bloody judgment day!’
That’s Rob speaking – no sign of William there, Rachel thought to herself.
‘Not quite, my guess is that they are somewhere, perhaps with what remains of your daughter, hiding behind an obscure catholic sect, deep inside a mountain.’
The vicar lifted his finger.
‘And they will be almighty powerful now – your fate lies there, and once they know you’re coming – God help you both.’
The vicar crossed himself.
‘Why would I go at all – eh?’
The vicar looked straight into Rachel’s eyes and said:
‘Because William made a pact with the witches – you have no choice but to go there or you will both turn mad and wretched. He wanted his life back – whatever the cost.’
‘Is there more?’
Rachel’s sternness startled the vicar. He knew she was going to squeeze every last drop of information out of him.
‘When this church was finally cleansed of all those evil people and their magic, an oral tradition started about Rachel Ellis. All I know, and all I was told is that the six bits of broken sticks – the ashes in the urn – are somehow the key. I know not more.’
‘So where is this place?’ Rachel’s grandmother pressed.
‘I don’t know, but it was called Castell del Rei – The King’s Castle.’
Again, he lifted his finger:
‘Now heed my warning you two – they’ll do anything to get that power in you Rachel – the witches power, and they – the witches – are vulnerable now, weakening as every day passes as they are not in the chapel – their crack in time is brief and closing – as is yours.’
Rachel had dropped Rob off at home to pick up his passport and a few clothes for their impending trip to Spain. She had had to plead and coax him until he acquiesced and agreed to come along. God, that guy – he would do anything for sex – more sex she meant – what a pair they made – pious William and slapper Rob. They must both be in some sort of hell, locked together and at odds in the same body.
The back door banged once and Rachel felt the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. No, please make this a nice guest and not another horror show.
She held her breath and pulled the door wide open.
‘Rob, you idiot, you’ll catch your death out there dressed like that!’
He was still shoeless and shirtless and carrying a small holdall.
‘And what the hell is that on your back – Jesus Rob!’
‘Oh – I couldn’t help myself – he kind of made me – said you needed kindling to start the fire.’
‘Tell him we use firelighters these days.’
Rob walked through the kitchen and dropped the large bundle of twigs and sticks he had bundled up and strapped to his back onto the slate hearth.
‘Yeah, firelighters are a lot easier – he thinks we are deranged, by the way.’
‘Not surprised with what you get up to!’
‘Point taken – now just stop it.’
Rachel quickly changed the subject.
‘Think I just found the castle – it’s not Spanish but Catalan – Castell del Rei – here it is, it’s in Mallorca.’
They peered at the computer image of a ruined castle perched on top of a sea cliff, perfectly blended into the craggy landscape to make it look invisible.
‘You need a permit to walk anywhere near it and you are not allowed to walk up to it – it’s a black vulture breeding site.’
‘You sure that’s the one?’
‘It’s the only one, although it doesn’t seem to date back that far.’
‘What do they say?’
‘Nothing – and William?’
‘He told me to hurry up, then he bloody asks me to collect a whole bunch of sticks for you – Jeez William, get your priorities right!’
‘The sticks Rob, oh, I almost forgot.’
Rachel rushed to the kitchen and returned with the urn.
‘What are we supposed to do with this?’
Rob just shrugged:
‘We could pretend it’s your mother’s ashes and scatter them in the sea.’
‘That’s mean – but it has given me an idea.’
It had taken quite some persuading for Rob to put on a shirt and a pair of shoes. He felt warm enough without them. Apparently, William hated his modern clothes. In the end, Rachel got her way using simple facts and threats:
‘They won’t let you on the bloody plane looking like that – remember what the vicar said – time is running out!’
With Rob quickly suited and booted they drove towards the airport. They didn’t speak except for one brief time.
‘My three witches don’t like that vicar much.’
‘And mine nearly killed him on the stone church steps – it was like a deep hatred and disrespect.’
‘Well, maybe he was in the Inquisition too!’
‘Oooh, now you’ve got them talking, stirred up – we had better shut up Rob if we want to get there without some huge calamity.’
‘Yeah, bloody Church eh!’
They both burst out in hysterical laughter, easing the pent up tensions.
Rob spent most of the flight in the lavatory throwing up. He looked green, pale and very clammy.
During one of his brief stays in his seat, he tried to make light of it all:
‘William says it’s the Devil’s work – pure sorcery – flying in the sky at night. I mean, we don’t even have broomsticks.’
‘How can he say that after being locked up with them for eight hundred years?’
‘Because he’s human again…I mean, I’m human.’
‘You mean he’s you and you’re him – right?’
‘Jeez, a life of collecting bits of sticks in muddy woods – no thanks Rache.’
And Rob was off again, heading down the aisle hoping he would make it in time.
They awoke to the smell of strong tobacco filtering up from some outside tables below the open window of their hotel room. Was this the smell of Spain, Rachel wondered as she looked down on an early morning smoke and coffee ritual before slamming the window shut.
‘Don’t do that – it’s bleedin’ boiling in here.’
‘No it’s not – you’re just used to the driving winds and rain of Wales.’
Rob stretched and threw the sheet off the bed.
‘It was almost like old times last night…’
He stopped speaking and looked around.
‘Where are we Rache?’
‘You fell asleep in the hire car – the old square in Pollenca – come on, move it – we’ve got a castle to find.’
Picking up the permit from the town hall to access the land around the castle was a simple affair, but they needed more – actual permission to get into the castle. To achieve that, Rachel had an ace up her sleeve.
‘I want to scatter my mother’s ashes in the sea from the castle – it was one of her favourite spots.’
Rachel produced the urn and quickly removed the lid. She practically shoved the contents into the clerk’s face who turned away disgusted, pushing it back to Rachel. Before there could be any reproach, Rachel showed a newspaper cutting of her mother’s obituary.
The plan worked and they hastily left the building with permission to do as they pleased.
‘That was a cunning move.’
‘Actually it was your idea, remember? Anyway, brains can be quite handy sometimes Rob.’
The late autumn breeze rattled the car as they drove through the narrow streets towards the grey crags of the nearby mountains. Once out of town, it was a brief drive along a single-track road to where a green gate marked its end. They parked the car in a layby and followed the track on foot to where a small gorge cut through the sheer rock at the gate.
They pushed the buzzer and a guard appeared to inspect their permits and note their passport numbers. He seemed flummoxed at the extra permission but let them pass without a further word.
They were through, and although Rachel still felt anxious, there was a new underlying feeling of excitement.
Rob felt it too.
‘It’s beautiful here, so unspoilt and…’
‘Timeless Rob – it’s timeless.’
They followed the track, which ran besides the small dry river gorge through an old forest of oak and pine. Up they hiked, grateful for the breeze, towards a grassy plateau surrounded by small steep rocky peaks. The woman at the town hall had told them Castell del Rei lay there, almost invisible amongst the crags. They scoured the ridgelines. It wasn’t the castle they saw first, it was the vultures, huge and black, perched in a long line along the ridge, their silhouettes ominously black against the brilliance of the sky.
‘Give me a crow any day.’
‘Why do I now feel it’s been all too easy to get here?’
‘Is that them, Rache?’
‘They’re waiting for something.’
‘Food probably – us, Jeez, let’s go home.’
Rachel had Rob’s hand and yanked him towards the stony path that led upwards. Now they saw the castle. It was built into the sheer rock and was much smaller than they had imagined. It was a ruin. On the other side they knew was a sheer drop to the sea.
The path took them through some pines. On exiting the trees near the ridge, the vultures had gone.
‘I’m spooked – I can’t even feel William or the three witches – this is bad.’
They stopped and peered down at the huge white breakers violently crashing into the sea cliff below, and then to the castle, a stone’s throw away from where they stood.
‘There’s nothing here – it’s a total ruin, we must have made a mistake – come on.’
Rob tried to pull her back down along the path but she refused to budge.
‘It must be the place – there was no other – we’re done for if it’s not.’
‘And done for if it is.’
‘Let’s just have a peek.’
Rachel edged along the ridge with Rob following reluctantly behind.
He was right – there was nothing there, just a few parapets cut through with an old window opening here and there and many piles of stones. No one would have lived there for centuries. There was certainly no evidence of it having been a church.
Rachel didn’t know what to say to Rob anymore. It was hopeless, there was nothing there except stones and scary vultures which had scarpered at their presence – unlike those pesky crows who had been hell bent on her. But even those crows, the witches, were silent, apparently gone to ground and of no help whatsoever. They were on their own and clueless.
‘Do you think it’s true what the vicar said?’
Rachel broke from her despondency and answered,
‘He said a lot of things, there’s something I don’t trust about him. It’s like we’ve either been sent on a wild goose chase or into the lion’s den – but there is no den.’
Rob was panicking, breathing erratically and playing with his hands.
‘You’re scaring me Rob – stop it, we need to think.’
‘Think! Jesus Rache – duck!’
Rob grabbed Rachel around the waist with both hands and pulled her to the ground.
A huge vulture swept close over them, so close they could see its ghastly eye and beak and smell its pungent odour.
They lay huddled in a small hollow.
‘They’re all coming – God, no.’
Rob pointed up at the entire flock swooping down from a great height, heading straight for them.
It was Rob pulling Rachel by the hand this time. He desperately looked around for cover and not seeing any realised they would have to dash like mad for the pines. It was a long shot, but there was no other choice.
As soon as they started, the ground gave way under their feet and they were falling, crashing and tumbling down until they landed with a thud and a joint moan on damp rock.
‘Ouch – you ok Rache?’
‘I think so.’
They both got to their feet rubbing and nursing their knocks and looked up. The hole was way above them, too far to reach even with Rachel standing on Rob’s shoulders.
The dark shadows of vultures momentarily blotted out the light making Rob state the obvious:
‘Now we’ve done it.’
‘Don’t say that – oh no – look!’
Rachel pointed to the floor. The urn had spilt and the entire contents of ash lay strewn across the floor in a thick, neat line.
‘Why did you have to eat those bloody apples?’
Rob was panicking again and Rachel felt an impending dread.
‘The ashes have gone, let’s just find a way out of here – you were right, I should have listened to you.’
As their eyes adjusted to the light, they could see that they were standing in a chamber carved from solid rock. The walls were rough cut but flat, showing glistening patches of damp here and there. Right by where they stood, was a pile of old broken slabs, and on the wall close by was some old stone masonry cut into the rock suggesting long ago steps had once joined the chamber to the castle above.
‘There must be a way out of here.’
Rob started skirting the wall looking for a door or exit, before exclaiming:
‘We’re trapped, it’s all solid rock.’
He came over to Rachel and pulled her close.
‘It’s over, we’ve dug our own grave and jumped in.’
She pulled roughly away and pointed to a small light on the chamber wall.
‘Just the damp,’ Rob said as he sat down on a large slab to hide his head in his hands.
‘No it’s not – look.’
Rachel was at the wall, picking and gently pulling until a rock came away and the chamber was illuminated by brilliant blue sky.
Rob needed no coaxing and was immediately with her, both of them pushing small slabs of rock outwards until the bricked up window was totally opened.
They yelled with joy, kissed and hugged before peering out down to the huge breakers crashing against the cliff below.
Under the window opening on the sheer limestone cliff was what remained of another stairway. Small stone bricks stuck out of the cliff and stopped about ten feet below beside a black hole, which they reckoned was another window. Above them, the castle parapet was out of reach above a crumbly rocky overhang.
They both moved back into the chamber to ponder their inevitable and dangerous descent down the cliff face.
As they turned away from the sea, they saw something that made them gasp.
Rachel grabbed Rob’s arm.
‘Jesus, what have we fallen into?’
Under the brilliant light of the sky, the walls showed the faded paint of ages, symbols they both recognized as occult, a strange writing that Rachel remembered seeing in the vicar’s old book back home, whose ashes were now strewn across the floor before them.
‘I don’t want to go down there.’
Rachel pointed towards the window, but Rob was not in the mood for dithering – his panic had subsided and he now felt an urgency to move out of the sinister chamber, whatever the risk.
‘Come on, I’ll go first.’
Rob was quickly out of the window, lowering himself onto the first brick, before moving carefully to the next. He didn’t dare look down at the white foam and boiling water smashing into the cliff hundreds of feet below. The constant crash and boom of waves echoed up the cliff face.
Hands and feet, brick to brick…take care Rob…easy does it, until he stood on the small opening before easing himself through the hole and inside. He was on a narrow winding stone stairway cut out of the rock. Above, it ended at a wall, and below, it disappeared into darkness.
‘There’s a staircase – come on.’
For Rachel this was her worst nightmare – climbing down a vertical rock face with a constant wind to tip her off balance. It took a long time, with Rob encouraging her, step-by-step, as loose rock broke free, dropping to the sea far below. Finally, she stood on the stairway, trembling and breathing hard.
They didn’t talk, just held hands as they descended into what must surely be hell itself.
Does hell have a backdoor out?
The darkness faded as they passed more windows, tiny ones that let through just enough light to mark their descent. The lower they got, the louder the sea became, until they stood where the staircase ended. The floor was soaked from violent waves lashing through another small opening.
Rob daringly moved to the light and peered out.
He shoved Rachel into the darkness, as a wave pressed through the opening before being sucked back out again. The noise was deafening. They watched the water drain away through cracks in the floor.
‘The water is about twenty feet below – it’d be suicide jumping into that – nothing but sharp rocks, reefs and huge pounding waves.’
With no choice, they headed into the mountain, following a dark passageway until their path was blocked by a rusty door with a large rusty ring handle. Rob went to try the handle.
‘Oh Rob, no, no.’
But it was too late. He had pulled the door towards them. Musty dry warm air hit them like a sudden wind. There was just enough light to make out another chamber.
They froze at the first growl and at the sound of a chain going tight. There was another growl and again the tensing of a chain.
They could see the dog, massive and black with a huge jaw showing sharp teeth. It didn’t look like any dog they could recognize. Its eyes shone green in the dim light, reflecting sea and sky.
Rachel hung onto Rob, as the dog-like creature snapped its jaws closed before growling again. The chain’s restraining ring on the wall creaked with strain.
‘Oh. It’s going to break.’
The dog pulled again, saliva now dripping from its jaw, and the ring moved, twisting in the wall.
Rob tried to shut the door but it had jammed hard against the floor.
They were soon clambering back up the narrow stairway, both moaning with fear as they heard the ring give way. The dog was free, barking and coming for them.
They had no time to get out onto the cliff face again and continued upwards to where the stairway ended at a blank wall.
The dog was closing, the chain rattling like mad behind it on the stone stairs.
Rachel was screaming at Rob.
He booted the wall and slammed his hands against it in desperate panic.
The dog was almost to the last stairway bend below them, but Rob’s pounding of the wall was not in vain, as the wall moved and a hidden door revolved, allowing them to scurry though into the chamber into which they had first fallen.
Again, the door wouldn’t close, and as soon as Rob saw the dog, he backed off and stood with Rachel under the hole to the sky. She was screaming as the dog leapt through the door and towards them. Frozen with fear, hugging each other with their eyes closed tight, it would be just seconds before they were ripped to pieces and eaten alive.
However, the dog stopped and they opened their eyes. The only noises they could hear were the wind and crashing waves far below and the chattering of their teeth.
The dog looked straight at them. It was huge, its head was as high as Rob’s midriff and its body strong – this was no dog, this was a hound from hell itself.
What was it waiting for?
It had lost none of its menace but was now sniffing and licking the ashes before looking straight at them again growling.
‘Rob! It’s my dog.’
‘That’s no dog.’
Rachel held out her hand but the dog growled again exposing its terrible teeth before licking the ashes again.
‘What have they done to it?’
Her thoughts were quickly overpowered by a sound echoing through the chamber from deep below. Unearthly murmurs and scraping were followed by heavy footsteps on the stairs, slowly coming up towards the chamber.
The dog turned towards the open door and gave a long low growl before licking up some more ash.
‘What have we woken up down there? It sounds like the depths of hell…’
Rob was shaking Rachel wanting an answer and she knew exactly what to do.
‘The ashes, eat the ashes Rob – look, the dog is showing us.’
She prised herself out of Rob’s clutches and went down on her hands and knees, cupping up handfuls of ash and stuffing it in her mouth. She pulled at Rob, who from fear, desperation and want of a better idea joined her. They chewed and munched with great difficulty as their saliva dried up, forcing the dry ash down trying not to retch as another mouthful went in.
The noises from the depths were almost on them but they chose not to focus on that. When the ash was just about gone, the dog howled like a wolf and they both looked up.
The sight was too much to endure and both Rob and Rachel screamed their lungs out. A dark apparition, half man, half dog, dark and evil beyond belief, towered over them.
The world went black and blank.
They awoke simultaneously to find themselves shackled by the wrists and secured to a wall by a chain. The dog sat nearby unrestrained looking as terrifying as it did before.
Lying next to each other on the cold stone floor, they looked around. An eerie greenish glow illuminated the chamber. There were numerous exits and dark passageways cut into the walls. There seemed no source for the greenish light.
‘Was that a sorcerer?’
Rob was whispering but it echoed loudly through the tunnels, his voice coming back to him several times.
‘And the dog?’
‘They must have used it as a guard – it’s half sorcerer now I think.’
‘Great, a schizoid dog is just what we need – I’ve got terrible gut ache from those ashes – fat lot of good it did us.’
Rachel held her guts.
Their whispering echoes had summoned the darkness and the chamber was full of apparitions, abhorrent and morphing like the witches but black and evil.
The pair had gone beyond fear – they were imprisoned and at the mercy of this dark lair.
‘What do they want?’ Rachel looked at Rob for an answer.
‘What’s inside us.’
‘Let’s just give them up and be done with it then.’
‘I’m sure that would mean our instant demise – got any more useful comments – anyway, how the hell would we give them up?’
They stayed silent, but the silence only helped to amplify the wail and cry that came next.
Rachel’s face dropped, and she sat speechless looking at Rob.
She didn’t answer him as the cry came again, only this time Rob recognized it as the familiar cry of a baby.
Rachel burst into tears. Her sobs became uncontrollable, her body shaking as she hung on to Rob with shackled hands. He was perplexed and looked around at the aberrations before him whilst listening to the distinct sounds, which soon became louder and louder, echoing through the room.
Rachel put her hands on her ears and pleaded for them to stop whatever they were doing.
‘It’s our baby Rob.’
She screamed and implored, was beside herself, now violently shaking, her distraught face screwed tight.
‘We don’t have a fucking baby!’
All went silent and Rachel flopped and lay flat, sobbing and holding her belly. Moments later, she vomited sticky grey ash across the stone floor. Rob followed suit and, as they held their guts moaning, the dog nonchalantly trotted over and instantly devoured the lot.
The cries returned, but this time they were screams of pain, horrific sounds that made Rachel shout:
‘I’ll do it – just stop please.’
The cries immediately stopped.
Rachel was still sobbing and did not answer Rob, so he shook her shackled hands, shouting:
‘Do what? Fuck’s sake Rache – do what?’
She softly spoke,
‘Reverse the witches spell – chant their spell.’
Rachel indicated to the apparitions with a slight nod of her head.
‘It’s a trick – don’t do it – they’ll kill us, or worse – lock us up forever, please Rache, don’t do it…please,’ Rob begged.
But the sounds of a spell, a mantra were already being recited, echoing around the chamber over and over again. The sorcerers were agitated, darting about in anticipation as the spell reverberated through the couple until they knew it off by heart.
‘I’m sorry Rob but I have to try and save the baby.’
‘There is no bloody baby!’
As Rachel muttered the first sounds of the spell, the dog retched and delivered putrid ash on the floor where she now sat.
The dog growled. It was mean and very close. Its disgusting breath made Rachel flinch and reel back. She stopped her recitation. But she soon started again, joining in with the endless echoes filling the chamber.
The dog snapped its huge jaws so close to Rachel’s head that it caught her hair and yanked her forward making her fall and crack her head on the stone floor.
The sorcerers moved over the dog making it jump at them, but it only found the air.
The baby howled.
Rob was shaking Rachel who had involuntary started the chant again.
‘No Rache, please, we’re going to die.’
Then it struck him, and perhaps for the first time in his life he had a good idea.
‘The poem Rachel, say the poem – damn you!’
Rob was desperate, but Rachel didn’t stop, she just kept copying the chant.
The dog was rabid now, snapping at the apparitions before leaping at Rachel. Its jaws clasped Rachel’s head and twisted it to the side, forcing her to scream and stop the chant.
‘It wants you to say the poem you stupid cow!’
Six bits of broken sticks
taken from the apple tree
where they tried to hang
Six bits of old rough wood
taken where the lightning struck
and cut the tree in two.
She only said it once and the whole world stopped.
Rob found himself floating. That’s what it seemed as he looked over at Rachel, who was clutching her bloody head with one hand and hanging onto the thick neck of the now placid dog with the other.
The apparitions were still for a moment and then they seemed to solidify, turning into hideous black creatures with luminous eyes. They looked ready to do battle.
From his detached position, Rob wondered how he could defend himself and Rachel.
His answer came quickly. From somewhere deep within, a place that even he didn’t know existed, he heard a rumbling and then they were out. He saw and felt William’s three witches leave his body. They also poured out of Rachel.
They looked like molten rock – pure fury itself – red, bubbling and boiling mad. The chamber shook. Dust and debris fell from the roof.
The chamber was a swirl of chaotic energies making noises like trains rushing through a tunnel.
Their shackles snapped and Rob was quickly on his feet, pulling Rachel up, desperately looking for a way out. He noticed the dog madly barking and running in circles by an open passageway and practically dragged Rachel into the darkness following the growling dog whose green eyes were the only source of light.
Rachel had come to and exclaimed:
‘My baby – where’s my baby?’
‘There is no baby – the witches have gone mental and the place is collapsing – come on!’
He was about to pull her along but the dog had stopped by an alcove, and in the very dim light they saw a metal box casket.
Rachel opened the lid to find a mummified baby, still clothed and wrapped in silk.
As she silently picked up the corpse, it turned to dust in her arms and a cold wind rushed down the passageway making them shiver.
The dog barked and Rob pushed Rachel behind the dog before she could protest, down a long winding passageway until a crack of daylight told him they were safe.
They exited through a small break in the rock, just big enough to squeeze through, finding themselves in a small and heavily vegetated canyon, way below the castle.
They both looked up and saw a large billowing dust cloud rising above the area where they had fallen through the ground. Then they heard the sound of falling rock. As the noise tailed off, Rob and Rachel stood alone, listening to the hissing wind blowing through the pines.
The dog had gone.
‘Did you see how they changed? Looked like red molten rock?’
Rachel didn’t answer. She was pale and forlornly gazed down the gorge at a jumble of rock and thorny vegetation to distract herself.
Rob, still eyed the castle:
‘They’re having a right scrap up there – who do you think’s winning?’
He started picking up small sticks scattered around the gorge floor.
Rachel, on hearing Rob’s movements, instinctively knew what he was up to and turned towards him.
Rob threw the sticks to the ground in disgust.
‘That was sneaky of him.’
‘I think you have your answer.’
Rob turned, as Rachel just had, and looked down the gorge.
No longer fire red fury, but luminescence, morphing and bobbing, the witches were spread out along the top of the edge of the gorge.
‘Where’s my baby – well?’
Rachel turned her grief to anger and stamped her foot hard.
The witches moved, twitched, and moments later were gone.
‘Oh no, they’re back!’
Rob made a strange undulation with his body – he leant back before raising his spine and pushing his head forward.
A cold wind blew up the gorge making Rob shudder.
‘Did you feel that? What the hell happened up there Rache?’
‘They want us to go back.’
‘But I don’t want to go back – I like it here.’
Rachel turned to Rob and vehemently exploded:
‘We’ll die here or go mad, and anyway – it’s not over yet – you must know that…’
‘It’s like I’m two people – one part wants to go swimming in the Med and get my leg over – the other half wants to pick up fucking stupid sticks and return to that dark sinister chapel of yours, of ours – Jesus. And then there’re these three witches…trying to be my friend…’
Rob looked at Rachel imploringly, before adding:
‘Fuck’s sake – can’t you do a reverse apple spell or something and make me normal again?’
Rachel ignored his absurd plea.
‘What can your witches do Rob?’
‘They’re like a boiling cauldron – fuck, how should I know – it’s William they like, not me.’
‘Be friendly to them.’
‘Friendly! I’m just a body, a convenience for them!’
Rachel wondered if that were true – if Rob could be discarded at any moment.
She didn’t want that.
‘You listen to me, all of you – Rob’s my boyfriend – he’s for keeps – get used to it…bloody sort it out or we’re not going anywhere.’
She felt better and sat down on a rock. Jesus, had she really said that? That was rather rash and committing. She felt herself blush and turned away from Rob who had also sat down, totally perplexed.
‘Oh Rache – what have you done?’
She turned back towards him…what had she done? He seemed about to fall forward.
She shook him to wake him from his daze.
He turned to her.
‘Was that a spell? Did you really do that?’
‘Do what – what?’
‘Make them part of me.’
Now I’ve gone and done it Rachel thought – there’s no going back on this one now.
She feigned ignorance.
‘Err…what do you mean?’
‘William’s thoughts are mine, and those three witches…they’re…um…like mine too…oh, I don’t know.’
‘Is that good?’
‘At least I know better than to pick up stupid sticks on a warm Mediterranean island…Jesus, how dumb is that?’
‘William’s just out of time, that’s all…he’s safe with you now.’
Poor William, she thought.
‘I’m confused Rob…we need to get back ASAP’
‘So long as I can get my leg over.’
‘Don’t you think of anything else?’
They picked the car up from the airport and drove home along dark roads in the wind and rain.
The house was freezing cold so Rob went about making a fire.
‘Firelighters William – see? This is how we do it now.’
Rachel smirked at Rob’s antics and went to prepare a meal. They were famished.
Eating in silence, hungrily devouring their food, they kept looking at each other smiling. They didn’t need words until Rob finally blurted out:
‘It’s like a last supper or something – tastes great, eh?’
Rachel didn’t dare tell him what the witches had told her after Rob had been resurrected with apple puree.
They slept soundly that night, both dreaming of a dark place full of molten fire.
On waking, Rob turned to Rachel and was about to speak, but she cut him off and spoke first.
‘Yeah…I dreamt that too…but let’s not dwell on these mysteries – time’s almost run out – come on.’
She pulled him out of bed and ten minutes later, they were parking outside the church.
‘Ooh…this feels spooky.’
‘That’s because it is.’
They found the vicar in the graveyard standing in front of the statue that hid Rachel Ellis’ grave, facing the river.
He turned on hearing footsteps. Standing tall and proud and without emotion, he stated:
‘I’ve done my part – now keep your part as you promised.’
‘What’s he on about?’
‘Shush – listen Rob – I don’t know either – the witches kept this part secret from me.’
‘Oh great…I hope I’m not gonna get buried under a ton of Welsh slate again.’
The vicar almost smirked as Rachel and Rob stood before him in total ignorance.
‘I see they haven’t told you. Don’t worry – shall I explain, or will you?’
It wasn’t Rob or Rachel he addressed, but the things inside them.
Both Rob and Rachel felt disdain and anger, and moments later, a strong wind blew through the graveyard.
Molten red morphed and bobbed around the vicar making him fall to his knees.
‘No, you promised me, you made me do it – I did everything you asked, waiting in this miserable church and place for eight hundred years. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain.’
‘What’s he on about?’
The vicar looked up at them.
‘I don’t know what power you hold – it’s quite extraordinary and also horrific. We would have done anything to get hold of it, harness it – anything, even steal your baby Rachel.’
He paused, seeming nervous and at the total mercy of the witches power.
‘Before our spell was spoken by you, Rachel, all those years ago, they, the witches, paid me a visit.’
‘Who the bleeding hell are you?’
‘Rob, or should I call you William – and you too Rachel, were such naïve fools listening to our lies…’
Rob felt anger and moved fast to assault the vicar, but his witches were faster, and by the time he had grabbed the vicar hard by the shoulders he was already falling to the ground, lifeless.
What remained standing was a dark and hideous apparition, black like coal, half-human, and half animal with luminous green eyes.
‘You’re a sorcerer, just like those in the castle.’
It spoke in a whispering murmur.
‘You two may have been fooled back then, but your friends here, those within you now, could never be fooled – we learned that too late.’
Rachel stamped her foot and the ground shook.
‘No, we had a deal. I kept my part.’
The creature fell to its knees.
‘Kill him, Rachel.’
‘But we had a deal.’
‘You had better start talking fast – none of us seem to care if you live or die right now – you’re well past your sell by date it seems.’
The creature continued where the vicar left off:
‘The witches knew there was a chance the wheel of time could provide a small window for them to return…’
It paused, then continued after Rachel gave a look of no reprieve.
‘…home. They were turning mad and needed to hatch a plan fast. They needed to be suspended in time, locked away until a miracle happened. They used us, yes us – the great sorcerers, the dark that you read about in books and see in films in your modern times. They used our spell to cast them out to their advantage. We thought they had gone until Rachel Ellis was brought down here, still warm, lifeless and staring out with eyes of molten red. We knew they would be back one day and tried to prepare – get ready to steal their power. We took the baby – but – ha, they already had it all worked out. We didn’t stand a chance. I suppose I should consider myself lucky not to be locked up forever, under half a mountain in Spain, with no chance or spell to set me free.’
‘Like your ugly mates?’
‘I betrayed them long ago by staying here in this church – but I had no choice – once the witches came to me, I knew that if they ever returned we would be done for. The only bit I didn’t know was that William, yes you…’
He looked at Rob.
‘…were to hold the witches to ransom and force their hand – they needed him to give the sticks back to you Rachel – it was in their spell. The rest you know.’
‘So how did you know William made a pact?’
Rachel was suspicious.
‘As soon as you ate those apples they manifested to me – you could say that they checked up on me. Where would I have gone? The witches would have found me in a flash – they know this earth better than anyone – I just passed from one vicar to the next – what utter tedium.’
‘So it was your writing in the book that turned to dust.’
‘Of course it was.’
‘And what now?’
The creature looked at Rob.
‘Now? You promised me my freedom, freedom to walk the earth again.’
‘You’ll never get a girlfriend looking like that.’
‘There may be others like me out there, gone to ground, waiting…’
Rachel had had enough of all the talk.
She stamped the ground.
‘Take them home.’
The creature looked up the hill towards the chapel.
‘No William – the centre of the earth. They are the earth itself, the molten fire that dwells deep within – you have no idea of the power you hold…the chapel is the place they leaked out during a violent eruption millions of years ago – yes, they have been here for that long, waiting and waiting to return through that impenetrable barrier that keeps inside and outside separate.’
The creature paused.
‘You have so little time, I suggest you take off now.’
The witches disappeared and once again sat inside the couple. Rob and Rachel gave each other an ominous look and without further ado turned to leave.
Rachel’s grandmother stood right before them.
‘Gran! What are you doing here?’
But her grandmother was in no mood to chat.
‘Have you released him?’
‘Well Rachel…have you?’
Rachel turned to the creature.
‘You mean that thing?’
‘Yes, that thing as you call it.’
‘Every Rachel Ellis except you was the same – just like every vicar. The witches made sure that every angle was covered – release him and keep your part of the bargain.’
The witches deep inside murmured and Rachel said:
Rachel’s grandmother was on the ground next to the vicar – another corpse in this ancient graveyard.
Her shock and grief were short lived, as standing in her grandmother’s place was another dark apparition.
‘You already had a girlfriend you crafty sod.’
But there was no time to lament as the witches murmur forced Rob and Rachel to leave the confusing scene and hike towards the hill.
They were being led, forced at a fast pace under a blackening sky. The wind had got up and thunder cracked in the sky above them. The chapel came into view – it was a gloomy sombre sight under the dark sky. A lightning bolt hit its roof, illuminating the entire crag. They saw crows gathering, flying fast with the turbulent winds.
Rachel pulled Rob by the hand towards the gate and then to the door, which she pushed open. The crows flew inside and Rachel slammed the door shut.
All was quiet, not a sound of the storm outside.
‘Rachel – it’s spooky – I don’t like this.’
Rachel didn’t answer and Rob lost his fear and confusion as the crows turned red, boiling molten red and started pouring through the cracks in the floor until there was nothing left – just a cold stone floor.
‘They’ve gone Rache.’
But it wasn’t true – Rob could still feel them, as could Rachel.
Yes, we’re home, he thought. No firelighters here – better go collect some twigs.
Rob left the chapel. It was a glorious autumn day with a light breeze and racing clouds.
He saw some kids, two boys larking about in the field. He shouted over at them, but they just ignored him. He walked right up to them and started chatting but they just blanked him. Rob felt slightly confused and started to pick up sticks. He came across a tin can and, after picking it up, lobbed it towards the crag above the apple trees. He noticed the burnt tree was no longer burnt, but a huge tree, flowering and in perfect condition. That’s not right, he thought, it’s November.
The can landed with a crash and the boys froze, nervously speaking while looking around.
‘What was that?’
‘My dad says it’s haunted up here…’
Rob stamped his foot and a thunderclap echoed around the crag as the sky went dark.
The two boys were running through the field towards the wood and town below as if they had just seen a ghost.
Rob headed back to the chapel. Inside he saw Rachel stroking the huge dog. It barked once at Rob.
‘It’s ok – he likes you.’
‘Are we ghosts Rachel? Two kids out there couldn’t see me.’
‘No Rob, we’re not ghosts – you always were a bit slow, William.’
She looked straight at him, her eyes molten red, bubbling and swirling.
‘I think I’m pregnant.’
‘Can I still get my leg over?’
‘Don’t you ever think of anything else?’