The opening chapter of young adult fantasy novel, Darklands by Emma Woodcock.
30 years ago…
Catherine ran through tall grasses, the dry stems whispering past her bare legs. She scrambled over a low, fallen-down wall, thick with foxgloves, then followed the ridge down towards the trees.
On the hilltop behind her, enclosed in the ring of ancient stones, Ellie cupped plump, pink fingers over her sunglasses and counted. It was too hot, and she was too old for hide and seek. She watched the brilliant sunlight melt around her fingers, and thought of the romance novel she’d borrowed from the adult section of the library. She would far rather be lying in the garden with a cold drink and her book.
One last game, she told herself. And then she’d go home. Her sister would just have to entertain herself.
At the edge of the trees, Catherine ducked beneath a broken fence, its single rope of barbed wire slack and unthreatening. On the ground lay a tattered wooden board, its once thick red lettering, PRIVATE – KEEP OUT, barely legible. She pushed through a bank of pungent ferns and carried on running, her sandaled feet thumping hollowly on the dry earth. She left the faint path behind, plunging through carpets of bluebells, past pale, papery birch trunks. The sunlight grew muted and greenish, filtered through new spring leaves.
Catherine ran until she reached a clearing where an ancient oak squatted, bulbous and hollow. She rested against the gnarled tree for a moment. The air was drowsy with the scent of hawthorn blossom. She crouched down and crawled inside the musty trunk, wriggling round til her back pressed up against the rough, dry wood. Her breath was loud in the tight, warm space. She drew up her knees as far as she could, scuffing aside the litter of dead leaves.
Her eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior of the tree. She watched spiders idling in their thick webs, a millipede questing blindly against her tan leather sandal. Ellie would never find her, she was quite certain. Her sister was almost 16, more interested in boys and lipstick and fashion magazines than rummaging around with dirt and creepy crawlies. Catherine smiled to herself, and gently upended a flat stone. She watched as a scurry of woodlice fled to a safer home, spurring them on with an encouraging stick. She idly wondered how long she should wait before quitting her hiding place and claiming victory.
The last of the woodlice disappeared amongst the tree’s lumpen roots, and Catherine cast about for something else to amuse herself with. Taking a broken twig she reached above her head and began to gather cobwebs around it like candy floss. The spiders scattered, and showers of dust and dead leaves rained down into her upturned face.
She heard the soft, grass-muffled footfall from outside the tree, but was too late to hold back the dry cough that tickled her throat. Recovering, she clamped her hands over her mouth, still as stone, ears strained for a further sound. There was none for a moment, as though outside Ellie also stood still, waiting. Then, another footfall, light and delicate. She was near. Catherine held her breath, ignoring the tickle of a spider web across her shoulder.
So close it sounded as though it came from the dark interior of the tree above her, “I hear you.” Hoarse and cracked, and soft as wind soughing through dry leaves, it was not Ellie’s voice.
The blood beat heavy behind Catherine’s ears, seeming to shake the tree above and the ground beneath her. There was a sound like little bubbles popping. A sudden pressure behind her eyes made her wince with pain, doubling over and burying her face in her knees. Go away! I’m not here, she thought as fiercely as she could.
As quickly as it came, the pressure lifted. Catherine cautiously raised her head, looking out through the split tree trunk at the still, empty clearing. Stray drifts of blossom fell gently to earth. A lone cuckoo called further off amongst the trees. She kneaded her forehead, dizzy and disoriented.
There was a soft, low sigh, and a dark figure filled the bright slash of sunlit woods. It crouched, leaning forward, reaching out a hand towards her. Catherine had an impression of long, ratty hair, ragged clothes, large blunt fingers. She lunged forward, bowling the figure over, and ran, her ears still ringing from a scream she didn’t recognise as her own.
Stumbling across the clearing, Catherine pelted into the ranks of ghostly pale birches. She ran headlong through stands of nettles, stumbled on fallen branches, regained her feet and pushed on, never daring to look back for the ragged stranger.
Reaching the low wall at the edge of the trees, Catherine climbed and jumped. She hardly noticed the barbed wire catch at her ankle, but fell awkwardly, twisting round to gaze up at the serene blue sky and bobbing lime green leaves.
Winded, she climbed slowly to her feet, searching through the pale trunks and rich undergrowth. No dark figure pursued her. Not taking her eyes from the shadowed woods, she backed up the hillside towards the stone circle. The sunshine lay slick and heavy on her skin.
“ELLIE!” she yelled as loudly as she could.
There was no answer but birdsong and the lazy chirring of insects. Catherine called again, down towards the close-packed houses of Blackbrook, towards the trees, the moors, and away across the fields. She thought of Ellie alone in the woods, searching for her, unaware of the shadowy stranger. Should she go back? Call for help? Her skin prickled to think of stepping back under the gently rustling shade of the birches. She called again, and her throat felt raw and ragged.
A gentle breeze whispered past her ears. The sweat cooled on her forehead. She could see their house from there, down on the edge of town. It all looked so normal and safe and reliable. Catherine began to wonder if perhaps she had overreacted. She’d seen a tramp in the woods. He was probably just looking for somewhere to crash out. She probably scared him more than he scared her – bowling past him like that. Ellie must have got bored when she couldn’t find Catherine, and gone home.
She tried not to think about the quiet, insistent way the man said, I hear you. It didn’t mean anything. Everyone knew tramps were crazy. Otherwise they’d live in houses and have jobs. Catherine hurried down the hillside towards home, telling herself that when she got there she would find Ellie already sitting on the sofa, eating the cake mum had promised to make.
But when she reached home Ellie was not there, and mum had not seen her. Mum said Ellie would be over at one of her friends’ houses, and she’d turn up in good time. She told Catherine not to be silly, and gave her a thick slice of chocolate cake, rich with walnuts and dried fruit, still steaming from the oven. But all Catherine could taste was cobwebs and musty leaves.
Mum phoned round Ellie’s friends. None of them had seen her. “I’d better go and find her,” she told Catherine. “Stay here. Listen for the phone. You can guarantee she’ll call as soon as I’m out of the house.” A boy, she decided. There’s probably a boy we don’t know about. But she paused at the cupboard under the stairs and took up an old walking stick, testing its weight in her hand.
It was an hour before she returned. “Did she call?” she asked, and Catherine shook her head. Mum’s face seemed to fold in on itself then. Her lips grew tight and pale. She made Catherine tell again everything that had happened, especially about the tramp. Dad got home from work, and he and mum spoke quietly in the kitchen, the door closed behind them.
Dad’s face was stony as he pulled on his boots and went out to the hill and the stones and the woods to look again. Mum sat quietly for a moment chewing at her lips. Then she picked up the phone and called the police.
When dad came back, hoarse and red-faced from shouting, the police were already there. A kind lady officer listened carefully as Catherine told her about the hollow tree and the tramp. “Sounds like you’ve had a fright,” she told Catherine. To mum, she said, “I’m sure your daughter will turn up. Nine times out of ten, they’re over at a friend’s house, completely oblivious of the worry they’re causing.”
Catherine wondered about the one time out of ten when that didn’t happen. Gran came over and sat with her while mum and dad and Mr Watson from next door, and Mr and Mrs Brough from other next door and the police officers went out again to search for Ellie.
“I’ll give that girl what for!” promised mum, her face pale and blotchy. “How can she be so thoughtless?”
It was dark when they returned, and Catherine had been asleep on the sofa, snuggled up to gran’s side. Mum hugged Catherine and she and dad both told her how much they loved her. They told her to go to bed and everything would be alright.
“Where’s Ellie?” Catherine asked. “Did you find her?”
A photo of Ellie dad had taken on their holiday to Cornwall the year before was sent to the local papers and the TV station and made into posters and put up all around town.
The police found the tramp asleep in woodland some miles away. He resisted being taken in for questioning, lashing out wildly at anyone who touched him. Things looked bad for him when he was found to be wearing Ellie’s sunglasses – until they were taken from him, revealing a blind and mutilated face. Horrified by the ragged scars where his eyes should have been, the police asked the man what had happened to him. He told them nothing, and was eventually sent to a psychiatric hospital. He removed himself the same night, preferring to sleep rough and scavenge for food. It was remarkable how well he was able to move around, all the while muttering to himself, in little pops and whistles.
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