They could of course take the road that led to Maysbrook, the one that went around the woods. It was safer. It was lighter. It offered a nice rest-stop at The Three Ducks where they were told the innkeeper was very welcoming and the ale was very good. It avoided the woods most of all.
But it also meant an extra two days added to their journey, longer still if the innkeeper was as hospitable as they’d been led to believe. This was time they could ill afford. The weather had already begun to turn, and the days were getting darker. It wasn’t as safe on the roads as it had been. Highwayman and robbers lurked at every thicket. And the conditions for travel were getting worse by the hour. The rain that had begun to drip an hour ago had now begun to pelt their heads, soaking them through and bringing a cloud of grumbling to their little group.
There were four of them all together making the journey. Agatha had watched Bill leave their little village two months ago. They had parted over practical reasons, but her heart ached and heaved in his absence. He would send word of course, and word he indeed sent. He’d known a man who worked a farm near Padbay, and who was always on the lookout for workers. Times being what they were, his own work had dried up in the little village of Stout. He set off to find new prospects and send for his family later. Agatha was relieved when the letter arrived asking for them all to join him. The work was there in profusion, and the farm dwellings were twice as big as they were used to he’d said. This was a good change for them, and a scratch of light in a darkening world. With haste, Agatha put her affairs in order, and she and her children packed what they needed and set off to join their father.
“I’ve heard about these woods.” Jacob said. He was the older of the two boys, and in the absence of their father, took the role of leader. But he was unsure of himself at the age of fourteen, still finding out things in his way in the changing times. He wasn’t meek, just cautious and quiet.
“But it cuts off two days travel, we have to take the wooded road. Look, it’s posted...” Anne said, pointing over to a rather old looking wooden signpost. “…so there must be a route through there.” Anne was brave and assertive. She herself believed she was in the wrong body. Her fifteen-year-old frame had betrayed her she felt, getting in the way of her desire to run, dig, climb and generally be active. She had begun to tie down her breasts which were growing at a rate that had begun to frighten her. She was more like her father than Jacob, she could lead them through this journey to the safety of their new home, and she knew it.
Agatha sighed, clutching closer to John who shivered under the blanket she held over them both. He was only six and did not speak. They knew he had the ability to. When he was younger, he would cause such a raucous. But something had happened to him. Something they all never spoke about. Since then, he would only whimper, no words came from his mouth anymore.
He clutched hold of his mother as they stood at the crossroads. The looming woods before them actually looked inviting, a canopy of protection from the rainfall. Wildflowers grew all along the boundary and disappeared into the trees, beckoning them with their bright faces. Jacob picked up the poles for the cart he’d been pulling, his hands slippery on the watery wood.
“Well, if you think it is best then, I suppose we take the wooded road. But I think a nice warm stop at the inn would do us all some good.” He said, searching in vain for agreeable reply from his mother.
Agatha looked both ways. The road that took them to Maysbrook was long, she could see it now sweep away down into the valley that was hurriedly vanishing in the mist. She herself had not heard anything about these woods. Most of the time they were little more than traveller’s tales. Things to use as commodity in exchange for a bite to eat on as they passed on through. She didn’t believe in anything superstitious. God had died for her a long time ago, and she knew the evils of the world were all man’s doing anyway.
“Anne’s right, time is more important than comfort. I’m sorry Jacob. Besides, the quicker we get there, the quicker I can whip up one of my stews and get us all feeling better about our new home.” She said, hugging John who squeezed her hand a little and smiled.
“Come on then, let’s get going.” Anne said, heaving her own cart forward, the mud spraying from the wheels up her grey dress which only yesterday had been snow white.
It was warmer in the woods, which surprised them. The light that had evaded them in the storm seemed to dance now through the trees. Illuminating the greens and the colour of nature. This was not an evil place. This was a place of rebirth, of growth. John looked at the small flowers which dusted their path, violets and merry-bells seemed to sway to an invisible breeze.
Agatha was glad to take off the blanket that she had held over her. She wrung it out and watched the brown water seep away onto the dirt track. The path seemed well used, snaking in and out of the trees to reveal different vistas as they turned each bend. The carts the children pulled were much easier on the dry track, and this lifted their spirits and they all became more at ease. Agatha remembered a song from her youth, and suddenly began to sing, which made the others laugh before joining in the song which was a stranger to them.
Sing little songbird, chorus and ring.
Sing when your happy, sing like a king.
The skies are open, the skies are dark.
Sing like the nightingale.
Sing like the lark.
Let the flowers hear you, deep in the wood.
For you don’t sing, as oft’ as you should.
Oh little songbird, let me hear your song.
Sing out each morning, for soon you’ll be gone.
They walked on in good spirits, but because the sun was hidden from them, both by the trees and the clouds, they quickly lost track of time. They came to a small clearing and Anne decided they should rest and have something to eat. They sat in a circle around a stump which stuck out of the ground like a cut finger. John found his way onto the old tree and sat above them like a king, which made Agatha chuckle. They dove into the bread and fruits they had brought, and John shared around his precious jug of milk; the only item he carried with him. It had a spout shaped like a bird’s beak, and he was very taken with it. They had been tired and miserable before entering the woods, but after their peaceful walk through the trees, and with their nourishment, they were all now content.
“I don’t know what the bother was about this wood you know.” Jacob said, wiping away a milk moustache with the back of his hand. He handed the jug back to John, who grasped it with both of his small hands.
“I told you, nothing but idle chatter. It’s probably talk from the villages who miss out on all the passing trade. I’m glad we came through this way. And look how pretty everything is.” Anne said. And indeed it was. An illuminating hue rose out of the thicket of the wood making the soft green grass around them glow. Butterflies could be seen dancing off in the distance, and the sweet smell of the wildflowers tickled their noses.
“Well, it’s good that this will save us some time. We might even get to Padbay by lunch time tomorrow now.” Agatha said, popping a blueberry into her mouth.
It was then that they heard it.
John was the first to turn his head, glancing up one of the tracks that led out of the clearing. It sounded like a song, drifting over on the breeze.
“Do you hear that?” Jacob said, scouring the trees for the source of his curiosity.
“Shhh.” Anne said quickly, trying to figure out what was happening. She got to her feet quickly, ready to act if need be. As they looked around now they noticed that there were many trails leading off from the clearing. They could see the main trackway they had come down, but the smaller paths seemed to lead off in many directions.
They heard it then, clearer.
‘Oh little songbird, let me hear your song.
Sing out each morning, for soon you’ll be gone.’
“That sounds like a child singing.” Jacob said, getting to his feet now like Anne. And indeed, the voice was small and childlike. It came through the leaves and seemed to lift from the floor of the clearing. It had no direction, it suddenly seemed to swirl around them like smoke. It was soothing and warm, like a lullaby before bedtime.
They then saw the bushes begin to quiver. Dead leaves floated to the ground, onto which stepped a small child, emerging from the wood. Agatha gasped, maternal flashes in her mind of stricken families and abandoned children. But the child did not seem in distress. Her clothes were clean and looked well kept, and her hair was adorned with ribbons. She was no older than eight, and she wore a friendly smile that clutched the song tightly in her small milky teeth.
“Look!” Jacob said, pointing towards the girl, though they had all seen her. She stood still on the edge of the clearing, singing the tune that Agatha and the rest of them had sung earlier that day.
‘Sing like the nightingale.
Sing like the lark.’
It was Anne who noticed it. Her suspicious eyes had quickly found their way to the child’s hand. In her grip was a small dead goldfinch, her thumb and finger wrapped around its neck.
“Mother, her hand.” Anne said, and they all looked. The child continued to sing, the song turning eerie now in the strange ethereal tune that she sung in.
“Oh, well…urm, that is a bit odd. I wonder if she is okay”. Agatha said, rising now and stepping towards the little girl. “Are you alright dear?” She said, and the girl stopped singing. She looked towards Agatha and took a step back.
“You needn’t be afraid; we won’t hurt you. Come, are you hungry, there’s food and milk here.” She said, in her calming motherly tone. Agatha hesitantly went across to the small girl who stood silently there, with her back to the trees. The feeling had changed in the clearing suddenly. It was as if the girl had brought a cold shadow with her. They felt it now, as a little wind whipped around them there by the stump.
Agatha approached her, crouching down to seem less imposing. The girl seemed healthy and devoid of anything that could indicate any recent troubling incident.
“Are you with your family, are they near? Are you lost dear?” Agatha asked, concerned to the suddenly quiet child. She reached out and touched the girl’s small shoulder. The little girl had been silent, but when the hand touched her shoulder, her eyes suddenly rolled backwards, and she flicked her hand four times down at her side. She then launched herself at Agatha, biting at her face like a stray dog would attack a stick.
Anne and Jacob rushed forward, shocked at the swiftness of the girl while their mother howled in agony. Already the crimson rain had begun to splatter the ground as the child’s vicious little teeth had gouged a hole in their mother’s face.
It was then the other’s attacked.
More little children equally well dressed and of the same age slithered out of the trees behind where John was sat on the tree stump. He hadn’t seen them of course. In a state of shock at what was happening to his mother, he was stunned into a frozen statue that the children now; five or six of them, quickly picked him up and spirited him off back into the woods from where they had come.
Anne had been able to deliver a few good kicks to the little girl, who hissed and shrieked before darting back into the bushes behind her. Jacob quickly went to his mother whose face was puffy and gaping, a chunk of flesh having been ripped out of her cheek and bite marks covered her nose and chin. Anne went in pursuit of the girl, charging headstrong into the thicket, an anger and determination fuelling her like never before. The woods changed rapidly now, the sweet flowers and leafy trees made way for a thicket of brambles and scratching twigs. Anne’s flesh was scratched and whipped at by the thorns, opening up sad little smiles on her arms that dribbled a scarlet saliva. She had lost the girl, who had vanished into air, and she would’ve continued on if she hadn’t heard her brother calling her back.
She crashed out into the clearing, witnessing his fresh state of concern.
“John isn’t here, they took him!” Jacob said, pointing over to the tree stump they had moments ago lounged around in merriment. She saw the state of her mother who was pressing a buddle of cloths to her face which had already dyed red. There were tears in her eyes, and she was breathing heavily.
“Stay here, look after mother. I’ll go and find him.” Anne said, and took off into the direction of the stump, jumping clean over it and off into the darkening woods behind.
Returning to his mother, Jacob helped change the cloth she was holding, pressing a new bundle up to her face. It would take a while for the blood to stop oozing out like a stream. But his mother was strong, and she hadn’t slipped into shock yet which was good. He wiped the tears away and tried his best to clean her face. He’d seen the old woman in the village treat open wounds before, packing leaves and moss and sealing it with honey. He was able to find some damp moss near to the clearing, and he administered this to his mother’s wound, sealing it with tree sap which seemed to stop the bleeding. He wrapped a cloth around her face, keeping it compacted. She didn’t flinch or complain, her eyes remained wide throughout, fearful for her absent children.
It seemed like a lifetime, but Anne eventually returned. She looked exhausted and fatigued, sweat and tears equally had stained her clothes, and the blood from her scratches had smeared and dried giving her arms a mottled brown appearance. She came into the clearing, and they could see she had been unsuccessful. In her hands she held the milk bottle with the bird beak rim. She stood at the edge, with the bottle clasped close to her chest. Far off in the distance, beyond the time of that little clearing, they heard the screams that they knew were coming from him. Unable to halt them or save him from whatever horror was befalling him there in the woods. Unable to do anything but cry.