“And you didn’t see anything fishy?” Jane asked Wendy Litton, the old woman who lived in the wonky little cottage, just down the hill from Jane’s house. Jane had caught Wendy unawares; she was weeding the flower beds in her meticulously cared for garden and Jane had snatched the opportunity to interrogate her. Jane’s family had remained infuriatingly tight lipped in regards to the mystery that was unfolding in the village right at that very moment. She guessed their father had sworn all her brothers to secrecy about the matter.
“No, I don’t think so. What do you mean by fishy exactly?” Wendy wheezed, as she shifted her attention to a different flower bed. She apologized for wheezing so much, her knees weren’t what they used to be.
“In particular, you didn’t see a ghostly face in one of the windows?”
“Oh no, I didn’t see anything like that. They seemed very nice, quite quiet but they were ever so grateful to us because Vern and I took them a few boxes of eggs, we can’t eat them as fast as they’re laying these days.” And then Wendy got distracted and went off into a long rambling anecdote about her chickens which Jane decided not to listen to.
“But if you’re so curious,” Wendy said after a while, “why don’t you go down and introduce yourself? I’m sure you’d be very welcome.”
“I can’t,” Jane huffed. “I’ve been forbidden.”
“That’s a shame. They’re ever so pleasant. We’re all saying so. Everyone in the village has had a chance to pop in now.”
“Oh!” Jane howled in anger. Why did everybody else get to meet them first? Why had nobody else been forbidden from visiting?
“Afternoon, Nora! I think I’ve got something that belongs to you,” Wendy clucked, like one of her brooding hens.
Jane’s mother, Nora, had silently appeared over her shoulder as she had a habit of doing whenever Jane was up to something she ought not to be doing.
“Hello, Wendy. I apologise for my daughter. Has she been annoying you again?”
“No, not at all.”
“I assume you’re just being polite so I’ll apologise all the same. Jane, lunch is ready,” Nora said brusquely.
“But Mrs Litton says I can have lunch here. She’s made a cake and she’s telling me all about her chickens. They can’t eat them as fast as they are laying them!” Jane smiled casually.
“Jane, enough please. Sorry, Wendy. I’d like to say it won’t happen again but knowing her, it probably will.”
“Oh Nora, it’s no bother. Honestly. Goodbye, Jane!” Wendy shouted as Jane trotted back up the path, following in her mother’s wake. “And good luck,” Wendy finished under her breath.
Nora had not started out motherhood as a particularly strict parent. Her three boys had grown up quite happily with free reign over the land around them. The result of which had produced three strong, robust, vibrant young men. And Jane had started out much the same; Nora did not feel she needed to raise a girl any differently from a boy. Besides, they were a family of workers, farmers, it was all hands on land and Jane’s would be just as useful as any man’s. But recent whispers that were growing louder all the time, recent worries, recent upsetting events had forced Nora and Frank to feel differently about their only daughter. Jane, being the way she was, was a danger to herself.
“This is agony,” Jane moaned, crossing her arms over her chest as they walked uncompanionably back to the house.
“Jane, your father did not forbid you from going to the village or from seeing your friends. You have put this sentence upon your own head,” her mother said patiently.
“Yes, but if I go to the village I know exactly where I shall end up. And he has forbidden me from going there.”
“Then you've made a wise decision, have you not?” Nora smiled a self satisfied smile, as she pushed open their old creaking wooden gate and allowed Jane to storm past.
The whole building was usually alive with noise and arguments; however, on a beautiful day such as this, the men were lost to the land. They ploughed and picked and pruned and sheered until their hearts were content, coming home dog tired and delighted with themselves. Ordinarily Jane would have joined them but not today. Today she was investigating.
The house in which they lived was older than time. Every few months there would be something different falling off it. It was built on a slope so playing games of marbles was out of the question. The roof leaked and her dad had said a worrying thing about something called ‘subsidence.’ Some days it felt like the only thing holding it together was the thick ivy and wisteria that trailed clumsily around the building like a thick, knotted rope. The family would never pretend that they were rich in belongings and worldly goods but nor would they ever pretend that they were not proud of what they did have.
Jane allowed herself to be coaxed into the kitchen by the promise of fresh bread. The windows were thrown open in an attempt to let some air into the low, little room. The herbs and spices that her mother grew with her green fingers hung in wreaths and bags from the ceiling and were releasing a strong, pungent perfume into the air, making Jane feel instantly punch drunk from the scent.
She sat on top of the scrubbed wooden table, as her mother stood at the sink, washing little tomatoes and then throwing them into a big blue bowl. She stood there, humming a low tune and tapping her bare feet on the flagstones and Jane almost forgot to be angry at Nora for interrupting her whilst she was doing detecting. Her mother was a truly glorious creature, despite the fact that her hair was graying and her eyes had funny little lines beside them now whenever she smiled. She was a ferocious woman and didn’t care one jot about herself. Her whole life and all of her energy got poured straight into her children and her husband. Her job was to be there to make them thrive. It was a testament therefore to Nora, that her family seemed to burst forth with life at their seams.
But right now, Jane had a job to do; she reminded herself of that important fact and got back to the mission at hand.
“But, what I don't understand is why I have to stay away. I haven't done anything wrong,” she said indignantly.
Her mother laughed, a tinkling sound swirling through the heavy air like a breeze. “I don't know any more than you do. Your father just thinks it best that you don't go disturbing anybody for a while. And what he says goes, I’m afraid. Unfortunately for you, he was just like you when he was a child. He is determined you will learn from his mistakes.”
“It's just not fair,” she whined.
“I think you’ll find that fair is an unusual concept, my dear,” Nora said, looking over her shoulder thoughtfully at her daughter. “I wonder…maybe it’s time after all.”
This last statement seemed to make sense only to her mother; Jane was left to ponder it alone, no further explanation being offered.
“Well, I knew it wouldn't be quiet for long,” Nora muttered to herself. It was several moments later though, that faint laughter and shouts of merriment drifted in through the open window. Nora did not need to hear the boys to know where they were. It was part of her particular magic.
“I've never known anyone clumsier than you, Oliver. I'm never letting you near those cows again,” Peter laughed as he bounded in through the door. Peter, the eldest of the children, was not so much a brother to Jane; he acted more like a father. He would carry her to bed when she fell asleep in the grass and wipe her wounds when she fell over and tell her off for asking too many questions. He was her idol. If she could be like anyone in the whole world, she wished she could be as fantastical as her biggest big brother. She loved him as much as it was possible for one person to love another and he loved her exactly the same in return.
Following him into the room was Oliver, who was twelve and who looked a similar age to that boy that smiled. Currently, Jane noted, he looked as though he had been rolled out like a slab of dough, tall and gangly and not entirely in control of all his extremities. Their father followed, ruffling Oliver's hair, good naturedly.
“Oliver has been making merry with the milk we spent all morning collecting,” he explained. “I only spilled a little bit,” Oliver retorted.
“If you call two whole buckets a little bit,” Peter laughed, sitting himself before Jane at the table and slapping her legs gently to get her to move over.
Tim followed behind them all. He was always the last to come in, always the quietest and always the one who knew best. He was uncannily wise at his great old age of nineteen; a mystery to most people but Jane liked that about him because you had to ask a complicated person more questions than a straight forward person.
Tim’s entrance completed the lineup of Shepherd children. Each of them was born with a tiny birthmark on their right knee in the shape of the moon, they had identical noses and each possessed a violently different shock of hair. Peter was blonde, Tim’s hair was the colour of soot, Oliver’s hair burned brighter than a bonfire and Jane’s was brown and muddy like the bark of a tree. Together they made up a funny little mismatched circus.
Once the four men had bombarded the tiny kitchen there was very little room to maneuver, all available space being taken over by limbs and feet.
“Jane, get off the table, you're getting grass everywhere,” said Peter, as he shooed her away once and for all.
Ruffled, at being ejected from her seat she followed her feet back outside into the garden, scattering the small gathering of chickens that had sensed lunchtime was afoot.
“Jane, come and eat something!” her mother called after her.
“I’m not hungry thank you,” Jane replied before breaking into a light jog down the garden path.
“What’s she done now?” Jane heard her father ask as the jog became a pelt.
“Leave Wendy alone! And not into the woods! I mean it!” added her mother.
The Dark Woods. They were not to step foot in The Dark Woods. This was one of the only rules that the parents had ever imposed upon the children. They were raised on fearsome ghost stories that had occurred in those woods. Monsters and people of terrible disposition conducted their business in those woods. They were immense, impassable, you would be lost forever in those woods, one deviation off the path would be signing your own death certificate. And yet…it was always such a temptation. The woods ran directly along the path, all it would take was one step to the side and she would be immersed in the thick undergrowth. They beckoned to her, the lustrous trees offering solace from the sun. Birds sang and waters trickled, singing out adventures and excellent tree climbing. Why would they build a house so close to the woods if it was full of danger? Surely, after her embarrassment at Wendy’s house some rebellion was called for. But her courage faltered and she did not do the single side step it would take to enter the forest and instead continued to the top of the hill where there was a fence that she liked to sit on because it was good for thinking.
From her perch she had a miraculous view of the whole village. It was directly below her in perfect miniature, if she squinted and held her palm flat, it looked as if she held the whole thing on her hand.
He is down there somewhere, she thought to herself. Surely a week had been long enough. Surely she wouldn't be breaking any rules if she went and knocked on their door now and yet she couldn't find it in herself to break the pact she had made. There was no need to force her father to use ‘the look’ again. Nothing was worth that.
On the other hand…perhaps he was worth it. She was sure they would be great friends if she ever got the chance to meet him and talk to him and tell him about her ideas and her plans for a rather spectacular tree house. But then, Jane did not even know his name. She was being silly; she couldn’t trust a stranger with her big plans.
The wind picked up and was whipping about her as she sat on the highest point around for miles. It blew her hair into her eyes and mouth. It made the pollen dance and whizz about, forcing her to sneeze. She growled, frustrated that her favourite spot had offered her so little solace.
But upon jumping down from the fence she noticed something of significant interest.
“Ah! Detecting!” she whispered.
It was a figure, far below her walking up the path from the village. It was small and moving hesitantly. Whoever it was had dark hair. The gait and stance was unfamiliar. It was not someone that she knew.
Jane had been raised, as had everybody else in the village, to sound the alarm when a stranger was lurking. Strangers, they were told, were not to be trusted, so she knew that she should be screaming bloody murder but she found her jaw had rather inconveniently seized itself shut. She simply watched as the figure grew larger and larger, creeping ever closer towards her.
Then she watched in horror as the person ducked into the trees lining the path, the trees that marked the entrance of The Dark Woods. Whoever it was definitely wasn’t local because they clearly hadn’t heard of the monstrosities that lived within those trees. Even after a few minutes they did not reemerge, screaming from the depths. Perhaps they had already been swallowed up by the terrors within.
It was then that she made a very rash decision. She raced back down the track and followed them into woods. The undergrowth whispered excitedly in her frantic wake, so rarely was the air disturbed here. She pushed onwards into a thicker part of the wood, feeling sure that this was the right thing to do. It was cool beneath the trees and suddenly so quiet. Birds did not trespass this deep, woodland creatures did not dare to pass through. Even though logic told Jane that there must be a branch of the river nearby she couldn’t hear it. Her flabbergasted heart was the overriding noise in this scene.
She was being reckless. This little girl was no match for this stranger, especially if this stranger turned out to be who she suspected it might be and who she suspected it might be was a Crooked and if it was a Crooked then she was in very serious trouble indeed. She knew all this and yet... she did not turn back. The thought to do so did not even occur to her.
A few moments later she reached a small clearing, a place where the trees had been cut down for one purpose or another which was a curious thing because nobody was allowed into The Dark Woods and yet somebody must have been in there to cut the trees down.
She allowed herself a cursory glance around for anything that might look like a clue and in doing so, felt an odd sensation. It was almost as though she had been there before, almost as though she had known she was heading towards that place all along and in the instant that she had looked away, the stranger made his move. He was suddenly and silently standing before her.
Jane did not scream because she wouldn't be scared that easily. If she were to die she would do so with grace and dignity, not crying for her life or begging for mercy. She stared the stranger hard in the face, preparing herself for the end, only to see that boy looking back at her. With eyes that were the colour of turbulent sky. And dark curls that lined his tired face. He was pale; the same colour as the patches of her skin which never got to see the sunlight. In the week since she had not seen him, he had bathed and found some clean clothes. However, he still looked worn and underfed. A week would not fix those problems.
“What's your name?” Jane began, soon finding her voice through the shock.
“Isaac,” he replied simply, not breaking his gaze from her as much as she was determined not to break hers. Much to Jane's shock and disgust, he did not ask her name in return as was expected in polite conversation. She waited but still he did not ask. So she decided to carry on.
“How old are you?”
So she was wrong. He was not twelve like she had thought because he looked the same age as Oliver. Jane did not like to be wrong, especially concerning something she had thought very hard about for at least a few minutes.
“What on earth are you doing out here in the woods? Don't you know that it isn't safe? We're not meant to wander around on our own,” Jane said indignantly.
“It's much safer here than where I've come from.”
“Where do you come from?”
“From far away. You wouldn't know the place even if I told you.”
“Why have you come here? It’s really not that exciting.”
“We aren't so worried about that. We came because…there isn’t any trouble here. It’s safe.” This mysterious boy was giving her the most unsatisfactory answers. He was going to take some work.
“What kind of trouble?”
‘What kind of trouble do you think?’ he replied with a sarcastic look.
Jane thought about what kind of trouble it might be and found she didn’t like that thought so she stopped thinking it and instead waited for him to say something else. Which he didn’t.
“Are you always this quiet or is this especially for me?” she asked. He laughed then, a sad little laugh full of irony and condescension.
“I don’t have anything to say,” he said, looking down at her with a sort of half smile.
“Then why did you follow me?” Jane asked.
“I think you’ll find…you followed me.”
“Do you know, we've been talking for at least a minute now and you haven't asked a single question about me. Don't you think that's a bit rude? Aren't you the least bit curious? I know I would be,” Jane stormed, marching closer to the boy in an attempt to intimidate him but the proximity only made it clearer how much taller than her he was.
“Not the least bit. No.” Then he smiled once more, turned on his heel and was gone in the darkness of the trees. And that made her just furious.
“Did I really just see you walking out of The Dark Woods?” Peter shouted to her as she steamed back through the garden gate. He was digging up a crop of potatoes in the vegetable garden at the side of the house.
“Yes. Because there was a stranger in there and if he had been a Crooked you all would have died if I hadn’t been there to save your skins!” Jane shouted back. She had fully intended to take her anger out on her own in her bedroom where she was much less likely to offend anyone that didn't deserve to feel her wrath. But, unfortunately for her brother, he had disturbed the monster lurking in her and now she couldn't be blamed for her actions.
“Jane, have you not been forbidden from going in there? It’s for your own good.”
“I know it is! But what I don't know is why I am forbidden. I'm always being told not to go off on my own because it isn't safe or because I could get hurt or because I can't look after myself, which you know isn't true because I'm just as fast as you boys and I’m better at climbing trees and I can get around more quietly than you can. So, why? Tell me why it isn't safe. Because I'm the youngest? Because I'm the smallest? Because I'm a girl? What? I'm dying to know!” Jane hissed. Throughout her rant, Peter had lowered his spade in shock and was now wiping his damp brow nervously.
“One day you'll thank me for not telling you now,” he said sternly. “But if you want to indulge your poor, put upon self, it’s because of all of those reasons why you aren't allowed off on your own. Jane, you are too young to know. You are the last child in our family and you still know how to feel invincible. We are trying to protect that feeling in you for as long as possible. Because once you know the truth you'll never feel invincible again. Trust me.” He picked up the spade, and disappeared around the side of the house, abandoning the little stack of potatoes he had collected.
On a side note and as a matter of sheer coincidence, at the exact same moment that Jane began an unprovoked attack on her unsuspecting brother, far away on the other side of The Kingdom, it started again. The atrocities that had been bubbling up for many years finally started to shake off the dust and lick their ugly lips once more. Ever since the birth of an unusual baby eleven years before, they had just been waiting for the perfect excuse, the right moment to once again draw back their heads and roar with delight. This new battle was the second chapter in The Age of Atrocity. And the solitary reason for its beginning is as simple as the raincloud that started it all in the first place. This time though, it took only one person, a foolish old woman, who carried a mysterious cage of birds about her person, who killed a man who she found lurking in the shadows. Needless to say, The Crookeds are not used to being the ones to die in such situations. They did not take kindly to it. And with that the war began again.
Somewhere, in a small village approximately five hundred miles away, a young girl kicked the heads off dandelion clocks in fury after arguing with her brother, blissfully unaware of the truth that would, one day, come knocking on her door.