No Rest for the Wiccan
She sees it written on their faces and feels it spiralling through her. She bounces as the cartwheels creak on their axles as they turn on the narrow, rocky path. “Where are we going?” she asks, but the women don’t hear her over the shouting. She tries to ignore the jeering crowd gathered along the road. Their hatred rings in her ears and she wonders what she did to deserve it. An apple core strikes her temple, and she gasps in pain. Suddenly the cart stops. “Get down,” comes a man’s voice as he pulls her from the cart. He points to an imposing wooden stage encircled by the crowd. “Up there.”
A cold shiver runs up her spine. It’s not a stage, she realises, it’s a gallows.
And then the coarse rope is around her neck, itching and scratching her skin. The other women are beside her, lined up like ducks in a row. They want us all to die together, she realises.
One of the women speaks to her with tears in her eyes. “Never forget who you are.”
A tall, slender man speaks to the angry crowd, imploring them with odd biblical phrases such as “Thou shalt” and “Thou mayst.” He repeats a single word as he points his staff at her and the other condemned women: “Witch.”
Then the stool disappears beneath her feet and she is falling.
* * *
Bec sat up with a gasp, clutching her neck. Her heart was racing and her pyjamas were damp with sweat. The nightmare was already fading, leaving only the bitter aftertaste of fear. She squinted at the small digital clock on her bedside table. Nearly four thirty in the morning. She yawned and stretched, scratching the sleep from her eyes. Jake was waiting at the foot of her bed.
“Let’s run to the woods,” she told him, rubbing the space between his ears and the back of his head. He looked up at her expectantly. “I need to get my head straight.”
Jake wagged his tail in agreement, then headed downstairs. His short legs suggested there was some terrier in him, possibly a Jack Russell crossed with a Beagle. He was an energetic dog who could run all day and still be eager to go again.
Bec swung her legs out of bed and hurriedly dressed before following him. She tiptoed across the polished wood floors to avoid waking her grandmother. Jake impatiently scratched at the front door while Bec finished tying her shoelaces.
“Chill, Jake,” she told him as she consulted the weather app on her phone.
Being so near the coast, the weather in Manningtree was notoriously variable, even in the summer months. Sure enough, the forecast looked ominous.
Bec swore and then looked at Jake. “We need to be fast today – there’s a storm coming.”
It didn't take long for Bec and Jake to reach the outskirts of the town. At such an early hour, the small town’s ancient streets were empty, just the way Bec liked them. She preferred running before dawn to beat the traffic and the crowds – running was her time and she didn’t want to share it with anyone else. Bec slowed only once, as she passed her grandmother’s General Store. Not far from there, the High Street narrowed and turned sharp left in the direction of the river. As she approached the turn, Bec’s nostrils filled with the smell of fresh, salty air carried by a light easterly breeze. The Stour river met the open sea at Harwich seventeen miles away. The picturesque path along the river towards Mistley was called The Walls and it was one of Bec's favourite places, especially at sunset when the majestic white swans and colourful sailing barges meandered downstream. The river looked different in the darkness before dawn, especially under the light of a bright full moon. The tide was out and everything was calm and peaceful. In the moonlight, the sand banks were dark islands floating in a sea of shimmering water. A small flock of waterfowl glided on the water, settling on one of the larger banks. They seemed to sense that a new dawn was about to break.
The images from Bec’s nightmare had almost faded completely. The dreams had started several weeks earlier, right in the middle of her final exams. What is wrong with me? she wondered. Am I going crazy? She wondered whether the stress of exams and finishing secondary school had brought them on. Running seemed to be the only thing that helped to clear her head. Fortunately, her exams were now behind her and school was nearly over. She was agonisingly close to achieving the independence she craved. A few more weeks, she reminded herself.
As Bec and Jake entered the Mistley woods, the air felt humid and damp and she suspected that the rain couldn't be far away. The first rays of morning sunlight beamed through the canopy, filtered through the leaves and branches, creating a rich interplay between the shadows and the light. It was a stunning picture – Bec looked at Jake to share the moment but his attention was elsewhere. He stood perfectly still with his ears and tail upright in a familiar pose. He sensed something and was now preoccupied with the noises he heard in the bushes. With a sudden movement, Jake bolted into the woods and away from the running path.
“Damn it, Jake!” said Bec, as she lost sight of his scruffy tail in the dense undergrowth. “Why do you have to chase every bloody hare?”
She yelled his name, but he didn't respond. He was on a crusade and there was no diverting him. With a sigh of frustration, Bec left the path to retrieve him and entered the woods, running in the dark with only the vaguest sense of direction. She pushed through the scrub, detouring around dense patches of blackberry bushes and tripping on fallen branches. As the vegetation scraped her bare arms and legs, she raised her hands to her face to protect her eyes.
“Jake!” she called as loud as she could. “Here, boy!”
Just as her frustration peaked, Bec heard a familiar bark and realised Jake was close. He's cornered some poor creature. It must be scared out of its mind. She followed the sound of the barking until she came upon a clearing.
“Finally,” she said to herself. Her ankle throbbed with needles of pain. She must have brushed past a nettle bush in the darkness. At least it would soon pass. Looking up from the clearing, she saw the black silhouette of a massive oak tree against the dawning sky. Twisted and gnarled, the tree’s branches sprawled in every direction, like huge, outstretched arms ready to embrace everything within its reach. Old Knobbley, the ancient oak tree. Bec hadn't recognised it at first; she’d lost track of her location as she stumbled through the woods.
Jake’s loud barking made her jump. He was more excited than before, suggesting his target was close. Bec gingerly felt around the base of the tree, half expecting a petrified rabbit to jump out at any point. She inched closer and squinted, finding it difficult to adjust her eyes to the darkness.
“Where are you, boy?” she asked, vainly searching with her hands. It was then, as she crouched on her hands and knees in the dirt, that she felt the first drops of moisture on her face. Damn it, she thought, attempting to wipe the droplet from her cheek. However, when her fingertips touched the liquid, she realised instantly it felt wrong. It was too thick, too sticky to be water.
Bec furrowed her brow. “What the –?,” she said out loud. It's not rain, she decided, it’s something else.
She looked upwards into the tree canopy and strained her eyes to adjust to the low light. There was something up there all right, she was sure of it. She walked around the back of the tree, recalling the climbing path she took as a child. She jumped, straining to pull her body up to the lowest branch of the ancient tree. From higher up, it would be easier to see. She looked up, searching in the darkness. There was definitely something there. But what?
As her eyes adjusted, the realisation hit Bec with the power of the dawning light. Obscured in the shadows above were bodies hanging by their necks. They dangled lifelessly from the old tree like macabre Christmas ornaments. Bec counted three figures in total – apparently all of them female. She stared at them and froze, paralysed by the fear mounting inside her. And that was when she noticed it – something barely perceptible in the blackness – the hand of one the girls was moving.
My God, realised Bec, she’s still alive.
Bec swallowed hard. “Hold on,” she called out in an uncertain voice, “I’m coming.”
Half-closing her eyes, Bec edged along the ancient limb, pausing after each step. The branch swayed and creaked, but it held her weight. She stopped an arm’s length from the girl and squinted in the darkness. Again, she saw the girl’s hand twitch. Bec felt a surge of relief – there was still a chance to save her. But how would she free her? With no knife to cut the rope, Bec would have to swing the girl to the nearest branch to remove the noose. It wouldn’t be an easy manoeuvre from that height. She reached out and snagged the girl’s clothing with her fingers, pulling the body towards her. Suddenly, a large black crow raised its head from behind the body. As it stared at Bec with piercing brown eyes, she noticed the open, bloody wounds on the girl’s forearm. The creature squawked and flared its wings, causing Bec to recoil and lose her balance. She instinctively reached out to hold onto something, grasping the arm of the dead girl and spinning her around until they came face to face. The girl’s lifeless pale-blue eyes were turned upwards towards the heavens and her sad little mouth gaped open. Bec let out a scream and jumped backwards, her feet missing the branch completely. She fell to the ground with a loud thud, the wind knocked from her. For a moment, she just laid flat on her back on the soft earth, relieved that she wasn’t dead. The only sound she heard was her own heavy breathing. Jake rushed to her and pressed his cold, wet nose on her cheek. She rubbed the soft space behind his ears.
Suddenly, there was a cracking noise, the sound of a stick breaking under a heavy foot. Jake’s ears pricked up and his stance became rigid. A single thought penetrated Bec’s mind.
I’m not alone.
She stopped breathing and felt her pulse race. Her heart thumped inside her chest, every beat as loud as a bass drum. Run! screamed the voice in her head. Run! Fast!
She dragged herself off the ground and broke into a full sprint. Her feet barely touched the ground as she ran – Jake followed, but he struggled to keep pace. “Hurry up!” she screamed, but he was already several metres behind her. His short legs covered less distance and he had little sense of the danger they faced. If she didn’t act quickly, he would be lost to her. Still running, Bec looked over her shoulder to see if they were being followed. “Damn it!” she said as she skidded to a halt and scooped up Jake in her arms.
She heard heavy steps behind her and worried he would catch up, rueing the loss of precious seconds. Tucking Jake under her arm, she put her head down and accelerated to an all-out sprint. Every muscle fibre in her legs strained and her mouth felt bone dry. She ran through the thick undergrowth, tripping on twigs and fallen branches, weaving through the labyrinth of ancient oak trees. Ahead, she saw a chest-high blackberry bush blocking her path and she realised there was no time to go around it. She leapt through it, shielding Jake with her arms, as the thorns slashed her bare arms and legs. She glanced at her thigh and saw blood oozing from the scraped skin. She ignored the pain.
Bec didn't stop running until she reached the front door of her house. She dropped Jake and collapsed at the porch step panting, completely out of breath. Her body trembling, she sat on the step and hung her head between her legs. The sweat poured from her forehead like a fountain. She vomited in the garden bed, her head spinning from the gruesome images in her head.
There was a sudden flash as a bolt of lightning lit up the morning sky. Black clouds had amassed overhead, obscuring the morning sun. As Bec stared at the darkened sky, she felt the first drops of rain on her skin and was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of fear and foreboding.
She opened the front door and went inside to call the police.