Jane stood, fixed to the carpet, fully aware of what was about to happen. The time had been growing nearer and nearer, she knew that. It was silly of her to think that she could avoid it forever. If she were honest with herself, she was not at all surprised that today was to be the day. She half wondered if she hadn’t seen the date, October 18th, scribbled down on a scrap piece of paper somewhere. Yet, knowing all this, she still could not make herself move. She had no desire to run from them. There was even very little desire to fight. It would be futile. The only thing she felt any pull towards was this man’s bedroom and the only thing she could feel was sadness at the thought that this would be the last time she stood in it.
Jane looked over at the photograph of the Forrester family together. The family that were brutally picked off one by one simply because of who they had happened to be related to. It sparked a remarkable parallel with her own family, victimized because they shared both Evelyn’s and Jane’s blood.
But the bit about the letter that caused Jane the most upset was the part about her brother. About not being able to trust her brother, which was surely the most natural thing to do in the world? What on earth had the boy done? What was he capable of? Jane wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
She waited, for that was all she had the time to do now. And when she had exhausted herself with patience and the sun was drawing, long sprawling shadows along Isaac’s walls, that was when the birds began their call. It sounded exactly as it had on the night of the ambush, a siren. It started quietly and then rose as all the birds got in on the act. It was the sound of panic. But Jane felt only the bitter swell of inevitability. She walked from the room as casually as if she had been called downstairs for dinner. It wasn’t until the bell started to chime from the tower that her stomach dropped.
“Who is ringing the bell?” she gasped, as she jumped down the last few stairs and flung open the front door.
It took Jane several moments to put together the picture that sat before her. The second she had opened the door, the birds stopped their call, their duty being done. Ten chimes were being rung out slowly, precisely. The last echoes of which then died down to leave silence. Ten figures stood before her. There was groaning coming from somewhere, a guttural noise of something in agony but she could not locate the source of the noise. As Jane stepped forward, the ten creatures before took a step backwards, matching her. Move for move.
The voice cut through the hush. It was a voice that she knew, a voice she had met that night by the river. He was sat up on the sill of the bell tower, legs dangling over the side nonchalantly, looking very pleased with himself, revealing a row of ferociously sharp teeth. The monsters before her were clearly under his command and did not move another muscle at his instruction. She couldn’t bring herself to look into their faces; afraid of what she would see waiting for her there. She did not bring her eyes into focus. The creatures remained blurry.
“Hello again,” he said.
“Hello,” Jane replied.
“You haven’t made good on our promise,” he grimaced down.
“I promised you nothing.”
“You didn’t have to promise me anything. Your family’s lives were in the balance. I would have thought your choice was obvious.”
“If you thought I was just going to hand him over willingly, you clearly haven’t been watching me close enough,” Jane cried.
The groaning sound became more fevered, more frightened. Jane tried to find where the noise was coming from but could not spot the sufferer.
“Show her,” The Crooked called down.
Out from behind Evelyn’s statue a Crooked stepped forward, gripping in his immense arms the terrified bird woman. Streams of blood had dribbled like paint down her face. She whimpered with terror.
“What have you done?” Jane cried, darting forwards towards the woman. In response The Crookeds scattered as she approached, terrified to be caught too close to her. The Crooked holding the old woman up dropped her and fled backwards in panic. She fell to the floor with a thud.
Jane took her up in her arms, feeling the fragility of the little old thing and finding that the source of blood was coming from two deep cuts in her scalp.
“Oh,” she whispered.
“Leave me. Go,” the woman tried to say, pushing against Jane’s chest.
“It’s too late for that now,” Jane replied, trying to staunch the blood that continued to trickle through her fingers.
“Is that how you react?” The Crooked was calling to the others now. “Are you so afraid that you would run from her? You have seen her! She is nothing! She is not Evelyn!”
“No. I am not Evelyn!” Jane cried back at them all. They hovered around her, keeping their distance. “But I am the closest thing to her that you will ever know. And I swear, that if she sent you back to where you came from, cowering into your sorry skins, that I will not rest until I have done the same!”
It was not fear that passed over their faces, it was amusement. It appeared the mantel had been raised and they were excited to meet it.
She could see now, each of them worse than the other, they were skeletons with only graying skin holding them together at their seams. They wore rags that draped warily across putrid flesh. They held no weapons. Their weapons were their fingertips.
“You use big words. And you have no idea what the consequences of them are. This is only just beginning. We have no doubt that you will die admirably once the time is right. But all we require right now is your brother. Where is he?”
“He left. He went to find Sophia. I don’t know where he is.”
“I’m not asking you. I’m asking you,” he raised a long withered finger to point at the bird woman. She shook her head violently, sending drops of blood flying through the air.
“I won’t say,” she croaked.
“You will say or else the last surviving members of your family will be murdered. Just as we did to the rest of them. Must any more people die in your name?”
The woman whimpered. That meant Isaac. For some reason unbeknownst to Jane, the woman knew where to find Tim and if she wouldn’t say that meant Isaac would die. Jane quickly weighed up the cost of it all. The Crookeds would not kill Tim, not right now anyway. They just wanted him back. But they would kill Isaac, Henry, Anna, Posy and Albert if she didn’t speak. The decision seemed obvious.
“Tell them,” Jane whispered. “Please tell them.”
“Do it,” she hissed.
“Just do it!”
“I’ll show you,” the woman sighed; her gaze fixed upon Jane, not sure what on earth had possessed the girl this time. If she had a plan, it was certainly unusual. Jane helped the old woman to her feet.
“I don’t understand,” the woman whispered.
“They won’t kill him,” Jane replied.
“You should never bow down to them. It only leads to more bowing.”
“We will take your lead!” The Crooked called down, the glee passing through to his brothers on the ground that jeered and laughed with delight.
“How do you know where he is?” Jane asked, as the woman slowly hobbled across the square.
“Because I put him there,” she replied simply, not bringing her eyes to meet Jane’s.
The journey took an age because of the woman’s physical impairment. The Crookeds, twenty paces behind them, were growing restless at the speed.
“You shouldn’t have beaten her black and blue then, should you?” Jane shouted back over her shoulder.
They were walking to her house. And then they walked past it.
“Where are we going?”
The woman wheezed and did not reply, Jane was all but heaving her up the hill.
“This way,” she said after a while and the odd collection of beings stepped into The Dark Wood. They made their way in silence through the trees.
“Of course, you’ll all recognise this place,” the woman said after a while. They had come to the clearing.
It was the same clearing where Jane had discovered the bodies of Billy and the others, it was the same clearing where she had met Isaac. And today it still had that same odd, worrying feeling about it.
“This was her camp,” The Crooked growled.
“It was what?” Jane asked.
“This was the site that Evelyn first made camp with the children after The Burning. That’s why the trees have been cleared. That’s why you always end up drawn back to this place. It is where it all began,” the woman explained.
“Where’s the boy?” hissed The Crooked, baring his teeth and his wicked soul that he housed.
The woman turned to look at Jane, giving her a look that said she was sorry for what was about to happen. Then, reluctantly she limped across the clearing, back into the trees. They all followed mesmerized, hungry for the truth. She came to a halt, a few metres from the clearing and then with her foot, she kicked at a metal ring lying unnoticeable in the earth.
“Unlatch it and lift it, Jane.”
Jane bent, uncovered the lock next to the loop and then pulled hard, lifting a heavy trapdoor hidden underneath moss and grass to reveal a bunker. The smell of rot and foul air exploded from it.
The old woman looked to The Crookeds, pointed down the hole and said, “He’s down there. Do with him what you will,” before stumbling over to a tree stump and taking root there.
The Crookeds eyed each other eagerly before two of them jumped into the depths below and hauled back out, the limp and bleeding form of her brother. He was barely conscious; he said nothing but looked up at Jane, with eyes full of apology as they chucked him to the floor. Jane ran to attend to her brother and said “How did you get down there?”
“There is clearly some explaining to be done. Let’s start with you,” The Crooked said, gesturing to the woman who patted her knees fretfully and began her part of the story.
She explained how something had been troubling her about Tim from the second he arrived home. She explained the ill feeling she had when he walked in a room. She explained some suspicious things she had witnessed him doing. She described the moment she had the vision of him attempting to leave and then not leaving because he needed Jane to go along with him for some reason. Then she mentioned a vision that had broken the camel’s back, one she could not ignore. She would not say what she had seen; only that it had forced her to stop Tim before he left and took Jane with him. That was when she had hidden him in the hole and forged the note for Jane to find.
“And that cut on his head is the work of a poker,” she said. “Sorry about that.”
The Crooked gave a dark chuckle and said, “This is why we have always been fascinated with you.”
“I’m done running from you,” she spluttered, as some tears she had not wanted to give liberty to escaped.
“Yes. You are,” he replied maliciously.
“No, she must be wrong. It can’t be true. This is my brother. There is nothing suspicious about him. All he wants is to get Sophia back. And that is noble. It’s not treacherous,” Jane said, holding her brother’s head in her lap, smoothing his blood matted hair. “You people might deal in deceit, but we are Hopefuls and that means that we are true. We are true, always.”
“I’m sorry,” Tim whispered up to her.
“Why?” Jane asked.
The Crooked’s had started to titter and smirk amongst themselves at a joke that Jane was not privy to.
“Enough,” the Crooked muttered to his inferiors. Upon which he sank down to his knees and curiously pressed an ear to the ground.
“This is not just a hole in the ground is it? It is the tunnel we have heard the rumours about,” he addressed the question to the woman.
“Yes, there are few that know of it. It is used rarely.”
“Tunnel?” Jane asked.
An unspeakable noise of joy erupted from The Crooked, he leapt up from his knees and turned to his followers.
“It has been found! Let it always be known that it was me who uncovered it after all these years!” he howled up into the air, as a cheer erupted from the others.
“For hundreds of years we have heard whispers of such a thing. A passage that led right into our own prison. And it was through this passage that sometimes, rarely of course, but indeed sometimes people managed to escape us. On several occasions, without us understanding how, people disappeared from under our noses. And now, we know why!” he said gleefully.
“It was built by Evelyn,” the woman began. “It was designed to lead from their encampment straight into the heart of The Crookeds. It was used as a way of spying, keeping everybody safe and of course, breaking free from prison. It is called The Protector’s tunnel. Because again, it is only the Protectors who are told of its existence. It’s one of the secrets passed down. But it has lain forgotten about in recent years. With things getting worse, it felt like too much of a risk to use it.”
“What I am curious about is how we have never discovered it, the end that leads into the prison,” the Crooked replied.
“Evelyn built it. She did not want you to find it and so it would not be found,” she replied.
“Indeed, there is a reason we feared her,” he said. “And just so you are clear, we do not fear you. We are bored of you. But we are not afraid. You are not the woman she was,” he added, spitting at Jane. With that, it appeared he had said all he had come to say and promptly started to round up his team.
“And so, we have what we came for and much more besides. We will be on our way!” he gestured for The Crookeds to lift Tim from the ground. A duty they performed with a brutal snap.
“And we’ll take the tunnel I think. Thank you Evelyn, for this neat little rabbit hole!” he turned once more to Jane. “We wanted to show you how greatly you are failing to save those that you love. You continue to try and you continue to fail.”
Tim’s head lolled onto his chest as he was crushed into the torso of a particularly fearsome creature. He looked nothing like the handsome young man of a few months before. And that was her fault.
“Take me instead,” Jane said.
“We both know that I cannot do that.”
“You don’t want my brother. It’s always just been me that you wanted so take me!”
“Indeed, but as you now know, we cannot touch you.”
“You don’t need to touch me. I will come with you willingly.”
And then it dawned on her, why The Crookeds were so keen to have Tim back, why Jane needed to be there to give him up. He was bait. “That’s what you wanted all along really wasn’t it? You only wanted to use Tim to get me to follow you?”
He gave a light, delicate little nod, “Of course. Knowing that, knowing that you have been deceived; will you change your mind? Will you refuse to follow?”
“No,” she said bravely.
“Of course. And so…we move on!” he roared to the others, who began to leap one by one down the hole in the earth. Until there was just The Crooked, the woman and Jane remaining.
“Leave her behind,” Jane said, hoping above hope that the woman could avoid the nastiness that was about to ensue.
“I don’t think so. I suppose she never told you this. It was because of her that the war rose up again several years ago. She killed one of our spies. We’d been waiting for the right moment, we knew the older you grew the harder you would be to get rid of. And this woman created the perfect catalyst. You have her to thank for your condensed romance. You have her to thank for this mess. So, you see, she comes a close second to you on our wanted list. And the difference between her and you? Nobody has forbidden us to touch her.” And in half a breath The Crooked drew a wicked little knife and the woman was choking in her own blood, wilting into a crumpled heap on the floor. Life poured from the slit in her neck and the birds in the trees turned wild and chaotic. They swarmed in a flock around the woman, battering Jane and The Crooked with their wings, pecking at their skin in a vicious attack. The Crooked jumped down the hole and the woman, now blocked from view by the precious birds that sought to protect her, was a lost cause. Jane followed the creature, knowing there was nothing to be done for her now. I am yet to save a single soul, she thought to herself sadly.
She had always known what they were capable of. But it was the first time she had ever actually seen it happen. She was a fool; she was a fool to believe that she was ever likely to see daylight again. She glanced up one last time at the sky above her, it was a turbulent grey, and there was not a patch of blue to be found anywhere.