Northlay Falls

Chapter One

Nobody comes to Northlay Falls. Nobody leaves Northlay Falls. Nobody looks into the lake. That is just how it is. We are born here. We live here. We die here, of boredom, or natural causes, whichever comes first.

Seven generations of my family have wasted away here, and it’s the same for everyone else I know. Nobody really knows how our ancestors got here, and nobody really cares, we’re just trapped here. It is what it is.

It’s the ideal tourist destination, with great views, pubs, a lake to swim in, and all the picturesque cottages a tumblr blogger or budding influencer dreams of photographing, but nobody ever comes here.

Nobody goes to University. Nobody moves for work. We don’t get tourists. We don’t get Royal visits. We don’t get campaign knocks from the Prime Minister. Our member of parliament has never actually come to the village. He was parachuted in, and he won the seat, but he’s never set foot in this place. Nobody from the outside has. I don’t blame them. It’s like time stopped and then restarted, but we got stuck. Everyone went on without us.

Nobody comes in. Nobody leaves. Nobody looks into the lake. I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, it just gets to me. Nobody comes in. Nobody leaves. Nobody looks into the lake. I watch the rest of the world, coming and going, living their lives online or in the newspapers (sent across on boats, like all other supplies from the outside), but I’m trapped, and I never knew why, not until today.

There’s a farm, but everything grows bad. Old Mr Hithe has never been able to charm anything from the soil, so we rely on the boats bringing stuff over on the lake.

They say that the farm drove him a little mad. He knew how to plant and sow. He knew how to care for animals, but it just never worked out. The soil would scowl up at him, refusing to let anything but weeds leave its earthy embrace, and the animals would go off into the night, every single night, in a neat little line towards the lake. Sometimes, he’d be able to stop a few of them, but they’d just try again the next night, and the next, until eventually, they were all drowned.

Nobody ever knew why. Nobody has the energy to ask anymore. The animals would die, the soil would keep the crops captive, and crazy old Mr Hithe would run around the village every morning, screaming about a monster in the lake. Everyone pretends they can’t hear him, but I know now that he’s telling the truth.

The same happened to his father, and his grandfather before him. The Hithes have always been farmers, just incredibly unlucky ones.

Crazy old Mr Hithe was the last of his line. The lake saw to that. After he ran out of animals, his daughter went walking, then his wife, and finally his son. I saw him, out of the window, sobbing and pleading with them, doing his best to drag them back to the farm house, but off they went, to the lake, doomed to wash up on the shore the next morning, or, what was left of them, anyway.

Sometimes, I think crazy old Mr Hithe isn’t crazy, he is just aware, in a way that most of us can’t handle.

I haven’t even told you about the lake. There’s a lake on the far north side of the village, past the forest. People will go into the forest, and they’ll go as far as the shore, if they’re very brave, but only the bravest will go near the lake, and nobody will look directly into it.

The lake is the only way out, I’m sure of it. The sailors on the boats that bring our supplies aren’t from here. We order stuff from across the way. There’s another village on the other side, and after that, a town, and I guess, the rest of the world. The sailors come from that town. They never look down, they just keep their eyes on the cargo, or each other, never looking at the water. They know what happens if they look at the water. We all do.

Looking at the water is certain death. Nobody is sure how, because only a few have ever seen it, and they’re long gone, but it’s certain death, and it certainly isn’t pretty, or so I’ve been told, in terrified whispers.

There are things that everyone knows but pretends to be clueless about. I suppose for those on the outside, the things are less troublesome, but we all have our secrets.

Looking at the water is death. That is our secret. There’s something in there, but whatever is down there let’s the boats pass. The sailors go back and forth every few days, unharmed, and if I could just get on one of those boats, I’d be free.

I’ve tried every other way. It didn’t take me long, because there really was only one other way I could think of. There’s no trucks or cars to sneak out on, so I tried walking. That sounds simple, but it really wasn’t.

When I said that nobody leaves, I didn’t mean that people like it so much they never leave. I mean that nobody has left, because they can’t. There were rumours about people disappearing after trying to cross through the forest onto the road, and considering how often that happens without people wandering towards freedom, people have been put off from trying.

We decided we knew better. As night fell, I snuck out of the house with my brother. He had just turned eighteen, and didn’t want to follow my father down the traditional path of marrying a girl from the village and popping out babies, in between shifts at the pub.

I understood him completely. There are six pubs in this village, because that’s all we can do. Eat, exist and binge drink. It takes the edge off, I guess. Most people here aren’t smart, but they’re not dumb either. They know that they are trapped. They know that this is a strange place. They know that their lives aren’t normal. They know that every month, someone goes missing and we just don’t talk about it. I suppose the drinking is how people cope with the boredom, and the pain. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.

Ray was smart. He was the best at school by far, and he longed to go outside, to study. He could have gone somewhere like Oxford, but he was trapped, just like me, and just like me, he was sick of it.

We headed towards the south border. There wasn’t a wall to keep us in, or even a fence. Just a cheerful, weathered sign past the trees, that welcomed visitors who never came, and the scary stories we’d heard since before we could talk. We stood, hand in hand by the sign as the wind whipped around us.

Nobody leaves. I keep saying it, because it’s true. Nobody left that night either. I was afraid, but Ray was too excited at the thought of freedom to be afraid. He let go of my hand and took a step past the sign. The night was still and we both breathed a sigh of relief as he reached a hand back towards me.

And then, he was gone. It all happened so quickly, like the frantic flashes of a nightmare. Huge, dark wings descended from the trees as my brother yelped, almost drowned out by a deafening roar that seemed to surround us.

I stared up, awestruck as the creature took to the sky, my brother’s struggling body clenched between its huge jaws. It’s wings seemed endless as it circled above me, my brother’s screams faded as I saw the creature’s blood red eyes staring back at me. It didn’t speak (I suppose it couldn’t, with its mouth full), but the cold, scarlet stare told me to stay inside the bounds of the village, or else.

Frozen in place, my eyes streaming with tears, I watched the creature carry Ray, dripping with blood as the life left him, across the village, towards the lake.

I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. I stood there for a few moments until the creature was out of sight, and then I just wandered the village until dawn.

I suppose I was in shock. I had briefly considered going to the lake, to try and find Ray, but I guess, like him, I was smart. We’d all heard the stories about the lake, and I’d seen his lifeless body, carried away in the mouth of whatever that thing was, so there was no reason, other than sentimentality to go looking for something I would never find.

I saw crazy old Mr Hithe by my Father’s pub, and he looked at me, with this incredibly sane clarity. He knew, and now, so did I. I nodded to him and carried on, walking mindlessly, like one of his sheep, or one of his children, heading to the lake, despite my earlier arguments with myself over it, but I never quite made it there.

My fiancé (his words, not mine) found me and took me back to my parents. That’s perhaps the worst thing about this shithole. Nobody comes in, so we’re all bullied and forced into arranged marriages if we can’t make it happen organically, for the sake of continuing the population. I’d honestly rather let it die out, than fuck a man, especially one as loathsome as Richard Burgess, but unfortunately for me, I won’t have a choice once my sixteenth birthday comes. I don’t have much time left. Ray had his reasons for wanting to get out, but that was mine.

My parents bundled me into the house and pushed Richard back out the door, and for a few seconds, we all just stood in silence.

“Something took Ray.” I had tried to speak but it was barely a whisper. There was more silence, and I could feel tears again. “It had wings and these red eyes and…”

My father pressed a hand to my lips.

“Well, I should go and open up.” He said with a sigh. I gaped at him, astounded as he grabbed his coat. It was like he hadn’t listened. One of his children was missing, probably dead, and it didn’t seem to phase him, at all.

“Didn’t you hear me?” I cried, rushing across the room and grabbing him by the collar. “That thing took Ray!”

“People will be wanting their drinks.” He muttered. “It’s a sunny day.” He pulled away from me. “Got to get the people their drinks.”

Without another word, he kissed my mother on the cheek and headed out the front door.

“He dined early this month.” My mother whispered, disappearing towards the kitchen. I could swear that I saw tears in her eyes, but I knew that she wouldn’t say anymore.

I stood, motionless and full of emotion that I couldn’t express. My brother was dead, and nobody seemed to care. His own parents acted as if it was another day. I couldn’t understand then, but I do now, and the things I have learned will change the world, if I can ever escape into it.

I’m going to get out, and I’m going to show you all the secrets that they’ve been hiding.

Nobody comes in. Nobody leaves. Nobody looks into the lake, but I will.

Chapter Two

My mother didn’t say a word all day after that ominous mumble.

“He dined early this month.”

I followed her into the kitchen and watched her as she began washing the breakfast dishes, pouring the porridge she had made for Ray and I in the bin, just carrying on as if her son was just sleeping in, instead of dead.

I tried to speak to her a few times, but my questions couldn’t break through her catatonia, so I gave up, grabbing my own coat and heading towards the lake.

Mr Hithe was still wandering the village, wailing out his warnings to ignorant ears, and as I walked past the same old people, who carried on, just like my mother, he caught up with me.

“You saw it too, didn’t you.” I nodded as we walked briskly in the direction of the swaying trees up ahead. “And it took your brother.” I nodded again, grateful that someone else seemed to understand what was happening. “I’m sorry, Ivy.” We were approaching the forest, and I fell into his arms, sobbing as he held me to his shoulder and waited for the storm of my grief to pass. “They do believe you, they just don’t want to rock the boat.”

That was the moment I had my epiphany about the boats. I suddenly remembered the many times I’d seen them coming and going across the lake. All the kids would go and watch them in the summer, always staring at the boats, early in the morning, never looking at the lake.

We didn’t have much else to do.

“We could get help on the boats.” I whispered, looking up at him. “If we get across, we can find somebody to help us.” He nodded, wiping the tears from my eyes.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” He asked, glancing around to be sure nobody would hear us. “This is a big risk.”

We both knew the stakes, but we had both lost too much to be deterred.

That night, I didn’t get much sleep, but the few hours I did get were filled with visions of the beast. It’s bright, soulless eyes, sharp teeth and long, leathery wings followed me through restless nightmares.

The next morning, I snuck out, just as the sun was rising, meeting him at the farmhouse. We trekked up towards the lake in silence, until we reached the forest, and I couldn’t resist asking the question that had plagued my mind since I’d seen the creature.

“What is that thing?” Mr Hithe stopped in his tracks, leaning up against a tree and sighing deeply.

“My father told me about how this place came to be.” He said, solemnly. “It used to be free, back when my great grandfather farmed here, but things just stopped growing.” The wind whistled and ruffled the leaves of the trees as he continued. “Livestock started to disappear and the people began to starve.” I sat on a tree stump beside him as he continued. “Nobody could understand why, but they sent a group of young men out to try and find help in one of the neighbouring villages.” He sighed again. “But before they made it out of the forest, they met a man, who promised to fix all their problems.”

“What did he say?” I asked, struck by the rising fear across his face.

“He said that if the people stayed in the village and fed him, he would keep make sure they were never went hungry again.” He motioned for us to continue walking, and I stood, rushing to keep up with his long strides. “It was a trap, of course, but they agreed, because they were hungry and ready to believe anything.”

“Who was he?” I asked as we went deeper into the forest, falling back into darkness as we walked where the sun could not reach.

“He was that thing you saw in…” Mr Hithe suddenly fell silent, grabbing me close and raising a finger to his lips. The wind whipped against the trees, and I could hear a loud, piercing shriek above us. “He appeared as a man to trick them.” Mr Hithe whispered as I looked up at the trees. “My great grandfather was convinced that the beast destroyed the land and took the animals, so that people would have no choice but to make a deal with that particular devil.”

Through a gap in the leaves, I saw the creature, seeming to circle the forest. His eyes, huge, shining like rubies as his wings flexed and flapped, shaking the trees with their force.

“But why here?” I shook in Mr Hithe’s arms as I asked the question. I needed to know how things had ended up this way, but it terrified me. The creature shrieked from high above again. I’d heard it so many times, but we had always been told so many cover stories. It was birds, or it was leaky pipes. None of them made sense, when I thought about it, but we had no choice to believe.

“Nobody ever knew why he came here.” Mr Hithe muttered, after a little hesitation. “I think he just wanted a place to toy with, and we were remote enough that we couldn’t get help and stop him.”

“Until now.” I whispered, hopefully, watching the beast get further away as his growls and snarls faded into the wind.

“Yes.” He replied, with a slight smile. “Until now.”

There was a deafening crash up ahead, and I clutched Mr Hithe’s hand tightly, hiding behind him as the ground shook.

“He’s just going into the lake to rest.” He mumbled, taking another few, slow steps. “The boat will be here soon.” Again, I’d heard those crashes before, but we were always told that it was an accident at a far away factory, or rock slides, and we just believed it, because there was nothing else to do.

We made our way through the forest until we reached the clearing by the lake. I was about to step forward when he grabbed my shoulders and stopped me.

“Slow down.” I nodded, mirroring him as he crouched behind one of the many bushes that surrounded the shore. “The search party didn’t tell the rest of the village what they’d signed up for.” He said, with another weary sigh. “By the time he took the first sacrifice, it was too late to stop him.” I nodded, not taking my eyes off the still, silent lake. “Desperate people will do very stupid things.”

In the distance, I could see the water starting to ripple, as the sound of the boat’s engine travelled, faintly towards us. There were a pile of boxes and crates filled with empty bottles by the edge of the forest, waiting to be picked up by the boat men. It turns out, our captor is big on recycling.

“There’s something you should know Ivy…” He whispered, turning to me, with a solemn stare. “The search party… one of them was your great, great grandfather.” My heart sank. I’d always been bitter about being trapped in that place, but knowing that it was partly my family’s fault made it sting just a little bit more. “And the boatmen are more familiar than you think.”

The boat was approaching the shore, loud and clear before us, the crew with their eyes fixed on the cargo that crowded the deck.

As they stepped off the boat and began unloading boxes onto the bank, Mr Hithe motioned for me to stay quiet, and crept, slowly towards the sailor closest to us.

He pulled the man by his neck into the bush, covering his mouth with a hand, throwing him to the ground and pressing his weight against his body. The man struggled, trying his best to scream but coming up short.

“Willard, meet your great, great Grandaughter, Ivy.” I stared in shock, as the captured sailor wriggled and fought back against Mr Hithe. It seemed so impossible, but I lived in a village ruled by a winged demon, so perhaps it was a little naive to believe that anything could be impossible. “And that pile of bones on the bank is your great, great grandson Ray.” There was a sting in my chest at the mention of my brother. All he was now was bones, and that’s all he’d ever be.

“But he’d be dead…” I whispered, unable to stop my curious stares at the man, who I had to admit, had a striking resemblance to my Father.

“The search party was granted eternal life in exchange for agreeing to the monthly sacrifice.” I looked down at the man, my ancestor, in disgust, unable to fight back the forming tears as I thought of my brother. “They just didn’t know that the beast tricked them into an eternal life of servitude.” For these traitors to live forever, while my brother lay, without rest, without life, as a pile of bones at the bank was an injustice that I couldn’t accept.

“You have to help us onto one of the boats.” I spat at him, watching him continue to struggle against Mr Hithe’s grasp. “You owe us that at least.” He shook his head, scratching at Mr Hithe’s hand, until he finally managed to free his mouth.

“I’m sorry. I can’t.” He cried, breathlessly.

“Why not?” Mr Hithe aimed a kick at Willard’s ribs as he spoke. “It’s not like they can kill you.”

“Yeah!” I kicked him too, consumed by rage and grief as I remembered that all that remained of my brother was a pile of bones, a few feet away. “You’re immortal, what’s the worst they can do to you?”

“Okay!” Willard groaned, clutching his hands to his body and trying to back away from his. “I’ll help!” Blood was pouring from his nose as he struggled to his feet. “Meet me back here in three days, just the girl.”

He didn’t fear death, but I’ve thought about our meeting, and I think that Willard fears his guilty conscience getting any heavier. As he cleaned himself up, and returned the the crowd of sailors, he didn’t say a word, but he collected up the bones of my Brother, placing them in one of the empty boxes, and returned to the bush we were hiding in, laying them solemnly at my feet.

“Don’t drink from the pubs.” He said, quietly before he turned to leave. “It’s all tainted.” After that, he was gone, running back to the boat, leaving us with many questions and no answers.

We watched the boat creep away from the shore and off into the lake, and then we headed back to the village.

It was difficult to act normal, knowing all that I had come to know, but it was important, if I was ever going to free us all from the beast.

I had dinner, in silence, did my homework in silence, and went to bed in silence, but I barely slept, my mind, racing with thoughts of what would happen when I next saw Willard, and if I’d ever escape the village of the damned.

It was all up to me.

Chapter Three

The next two days were a blur. I counted down the seconds until Wednesday, when Willard and I were scheduled to meet, but as is always the case in Northlay Falls, it was never going to be that simple.

The beast returned on Sunday night, while we were sleeping. My mother’s scream woke me early the next morning. I unlocked my bedroom door and ran through the house, following her voice to the front lawn, where my mother was knelt in the grass.

“Mum, what’s going on?” My father walked past her in silence, walking towards the pub without looking back, and I ran to her side. “Mum?” I fell back in shock as I reached her.

It was Richard, or what was left of him. His head and a few fingers were strewn on the lawn, blood splattered across the grass and flowers as my mother reached across to me and grabbed my hand.

“What would you like for breakfast?” She brushed the tears from her eyes and walked towards the house. Once again, carrying on as if everything was normal. It wasn’t a surprise to me anymore.

I never loved Richard, but I wept at his side, running my fingers across his soft face as he stared up, with glassy, long gone eyes. My fiancé (his words, not mine) was dead, and I had a sinking feeling that I was to blame.

Nobody said anything about it, and I knew that they wouldn’t, but it still shocked me. I found Mr Hithe, giving his usual warnings outside my father’s pub, and I stood with him, telling him what I’d seen in my garden that morning. He believed that the beast was sending a message, and as we parted, he repeated Willard’s warning about the drinks.

I nodded and hoped, perhaps naively, that things would get better.

They didn’t, of course. I’ve never been that lucky. The next day, Mr Hithe was waiting for me in the garden. The beast had left him intact, for the most part, but had claimed one of his legs.

I closed the blood soaked front door and hid in the house all day. I felt like a coward, but I didn’t know what else to do. I just counted down the hours until Wednesday morning, so that I could meet with Willard, get on the boat and get out of Northlay Falls. Mr Hithe was gone, and I was all alone. It was my fault. So much death, in such a short time, and all of it traced back to me, but nobody said a word. Nobody cried. Nobody thought about it too deeply, or they’d go mad.

A loud crash woke me at about three AM on Wednesday. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I was grateful to be pulled from the horrifying nightmares that plagued me as I slept.

I knew that the beast must have been hunting, and dreaded the offering he would leave in the garden.

There was light outside my window, which seemed odd for the time of day, and as I rubbed my eyes and leant up against the window sill, I saw a crowd gathering outside of the house.

There were candles and lanterns in the hands of the villagers, and I could see their mouths moving, almost in unison.

It was one of the strangest sights I’d ever seen, outside of the obvious. I opened my window, to try and get a closer look, or to see if I could hear some part of their conversation, and as the sounds became clear, a chill ran down my spine.

“The girl must die.” It wasn’t one voice, or even a few, it was a chorus of chants, monotone and emotionless. “The girl must die.” Every single person who was crowding our house was saying it, over and over, all at once. I was the girl, and they seemed ready to sacrifice me.

Willard and Mr Hithe were right. The drinks sent over by the beast were tainted. The beast was controlling them, somehow, seeping into our every day lives and bewitching us, or at least those of us that chose to drink from his nectar. That was almost everyone, of course. After all, there was nothing for anyone to do in that place but drink, so the people were helpless to his spell.

“Ivy?” I snapped the window shut, rushing towards my door and turning the lock as fast as I could. “Ivy, what did you do?“ My father’s voice on the other side of the door had a nervousness that was oddly reassuring. There was some kind of feeling as he spoke, which was more than could be said for the baying mob outside. “Ivy, I need you to open the door.” I stared at the lock, not knowing what to do. “Did you make him angry?” My father tried the door, fruitlessly fiddling with the handle for a few seconds as he spoke.

“Who?” My voice was a weak, mousy whisper.

“The beast.” Just as Mr Hithe said, the people had an awareness, they just didn’t want to anger him, and as I took another quick glance out of the window, I understood why.

“He took Ray, Daddy.” I leant up against the door, tears in my eyes as the pressure of everything I had seen caught up with me. “I just wanted to get away…” I ran my fingers across the lock, wondering what to do, unable to think clearly with the constant chaos all around me.

“Just open the door and I can help you.” He said softly, barely audible over the deafening crowd outside.

It’s easy to say that you’re a grown up, especially when you live in Northlay Falls, where girlhood ends as soon a man decides to make a wife out of you, which seems to happen sooner every year, but in that moment, I had never felt more like a helpless child. I was in too deep. I had made a mess that I had no chance of fixing.

The beast approached, with his army of spellbound subordinates, and it seemed that everything was so hopeless, so for once, after so much time, trying to be independent, I just needed my dad to hold my hand and tell me that everything would be alright.

“It’s all going to be alright Ivy.” I slowly pulled the lock back and opened the door. He pulled me into a hug, and the second that he did, I knew it was all over.

“You’re not my Dad…” I sobbed. Just like the sailors, like every fool in that village, the beast had tricked me. His claws dug deep into my shoulders and I saw my real father, down the hallway, stood amongst the crowd that advanced towards us. His eyes glazed over like the rest of them, the horrific calls for my sacrifice escaping his lips, just like everybody else.

Willard was there too, standing just in front of my father, giving me an apologetic stare as he broke from the pack and mouthed a single word to me.

“Sorry.”

In the end, I got out of Northlay Falls, but I will never truly escape. I can write our story but nobody will ever read it, and I’ll spend the rest of my life on this boat, with Willard and the rest of those traitors. Back and forth, back and forth across the lake. Always so close to freedom, but never quite able to taste it.

It’s like I said. Nobody leaves Northlay Falls.