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.