An excerpt from ‘Foxfires’…
The moon finally peeked from behind the clouds as the dogs trotted on across the dark, windswept moorland, scattering powdery snow with their tails. The pilot (perhaps called ‘Jack’, but he wasn’t entirely sure) limped along, looking up every so often and cursing the white disc above him. His memory had deserted him, he was frozen to the core, rigid with pain, and beholden to the silent, dour giant of a man beside him. The crash would never have happened on a clear night. He would have made it to wherever the hell he was meant to be.
“Where am I?” he asked Alf.
“Black Hill,” Alf replied.
The name meant nothing to Jack.
“And what’s the day?” he said, and then: “No, never mind the day. What year is it?”
Alf’s rumbling laugh made the dogs suddenly cower, and their ears flatten. Jack wondered if it was an unfamiliar sound to them.
“It’s the same year as it’s been all year.”
“And what’s happening in the world?”
Alf was silent as they lumbered another few paces. Jack thought he might not have heard the question. He was about to repeat it, but then he didn’t have to.
“You ask a lot of questions.”
Jack was surprised by his gruff comment. A man who remembered nothing surely had a need for answers. He pushed all the other questions to the back of his mind and concentrated instead on keeping up with Alf and his dogs. With every hobble he was becoming more and more exhausted. His armpit was aching where the makeshift crutch dug into it. His ankle throbbed to the point of torture. He couldn’t resist one more question. Just one small, necessary one.
“How far now?”
“A quarter mile. Maybe less. Maybe more.”
“Could I have crashed anywhere more remote?” Jack muttered under his breath.
Then there were no more words. Just two men, two dogs and a bitter, frozen landscape that stretched on and on.
Just when Jack had given up believing they would ever get there, he glanced up to see a distant dark patch atop a small rise. The rectangular shape of it was too uniform to be a rocky outcrop. It had to be the farm. As if on a cue, Alf seemed to become anxious. His thick eyebrows sunk closer to his eyes, and he slowed and called his dogs to heel. They crept back with their tails between their legs.
“Now then, Jack. We must rely on my girls for a while now or we’ll be taken by the bogs.”
“Bogs?” said Jack. It was all he could manage.
“Aye. There is a deadly network of them surrounding the farm. One wrong step and you’re bog food. Rat and Weasel know where the danger lies. If we follow them, we’ll be safe.”
Jack stopped. A stench was invading his nostrils through the clean smell of the perfect snow. The putrid stench of stagnant water mixed with the sweetness of peat. The foreboding he felt was overwhelming. He suddenly didn’t want to go any further. Man-eating marshes, a dark farm in the middle of nowhere and a gruff farmer didn’t help much to ease his worries.
“I don’t know if I can…”
Alf came back to him. “You can and you will. You have no choice.”
Then he turned and walked away. Jack stared after him. If he didn’t follow Alf and his dogs, he would die. Either out here in the cold or struggling in a bog.
“Wait!” he called out.
“Come on then. Quick as you can,” Alf called back impatiently, his voice already fading as the distance grew.
Jack practised his swear words under his breath as the crutch dug into his armpit once more. He tried to memorise the twists and turns that Alf was taking ahead of him. He tried to keep up as best he could, limping through the deep snow. But the effort was costing him dearly and every hurried step sapped the last of his strength.
“Things will look better in the morning,” Jack assured himself, as if saying it out loud might make it come true. “The sun will shine and everything will be beautiful.”
He sighed heavily. “And maybe I’ll remember who I am.”
The farmhouse didn’t seem to be getting much closer and didn’t seem any more welcoming either. There were no lights, and the only signs of life were two thin plumes of smoke trailing up into the star-filled sky and garlanding the moon.
Jack paused again to catch his breath, leaning against the crutch and straightening his leg as best he could. His thigh was stiff and aching from having to keep his ankle off the ground for so long. Alf moved further away, but Jack didn’t care anymore. Alf would just have to come back for him.
A flicker to the right caught his eye. He turned, thinking it to be some kind of animal – a sheep maybe – but it wasn’t. As he watched, a mist began to form yards from where he stood. It materialised, seeping up from the ground, and rose up in a thin column out of the marshland. When it was about Jack’s height it twisted around, thickening and contorting into….
“Jack! Don’t look!”
…The indistinct shape of a man. A tortured man with hollow eyes and a gaping mouth that seemed to be open in mid-scream. The mist turned again and an arm emerged from its side with a hooked hand at the end as it reached out for…
In a whirl of snow and a frenzy of snapping teeth, one of the dogs ploughed through the column of mist and scattered it, plunging into a bog that was invisible under the snow. Jack was left staring at fading wisps where once the shape of a man had stood.
Alf lumbered over, panting with the effort. With a huge hand he reached down and grabbed for his dog’s collar as she started to thrash about in the bog.
“Come on, Weasel. Don’t struggle, girl,” he urged her with a growl.
Yet she couldn’t help but struggle. And the more she struggled the deeper she sank.
“Hold onto me!” Alf commanded Jack. “Catch hold of my belt!”
Jack was startled into obeying. He hooked an arm under Alf’s coat and found his belt, grasping it tightly. Alf leaned over and hauled Weasel out with two hands. The bog gave a loud sucking noise as it released her and Alf threw her to the safe ground behind him. He fixed Jack with a scowl.
“When I say don’t look, I mean don’t look.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Morley. But it was…”
“I know what it was. I live here. You don’t need to tell me,” Alf snarled. “I’m beginning to think you’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said again, weakly. “Really I am.”
Alf nudged at Weasel with his foot. She was lying, glistening with bog water, on the ground, but at his touch she jumped up and bared her teeth at him. He aimed his foot harder at her ribs and she yelped and ran off. Jack winced.
“No gratitude,” Alf said.
“Nothing to be grateful for,” came a female voice that Alf didn’t seem to hear.
Jack’s head spun. Was it Weasel who had spoken? Then he remembered the comment he heard just before the dogs attacked him back at the crash site: ‘I can smell his fear. He stinks of it.’ That hadn’t been Alf, of course. And if it hadn’t been Alf…
“We haven’t got all day,” Alf reminded him, fragmenting his bizarre thoughts.
I don’t want to go with you, Jack thought. I really don’t.
‘FOXFIRES’ (book number 4) is a historical fantasy centred around an ancient curse, set on Yorkshire moorland close to where I grew up, and was a lot of fun to write. The book won a Complete MS Assessment from the New Zealand Society of Authors, and is currently in assessment now. (Aug 2020).
If you enjoyed this wee snippet, read more about Foxfires by clicking on the button below!
Hei konā mai,
Photo credit: Emanuele-Dellepiane (via Unsplash)