Chapter Twenty Four
Felix was woken by a man’s voice shouting about how late it was. The room was dark, which was strange. Felix never got up when it was still dark. Then he remembered where he was.
The young man, Groombridge, threw the white fur blanket off Felix’s bed. “Get up,” he snarled.
Smart crossed the room and begged Felix to do as he was told. He found out why shortly afterwards. Groombridge dragged Felix out of bed and let him drop onto the floor.
“We’ll all get punished, little boy,” he shouted. “I won’t tell you again. Do what I say or Mr Culpin will hear about it. Get yourself sorted. The bathroom is through there. We eat in two minutes.”
Unused to the early start, Felix almost missed breakfast. He had not had anything to get changed into for bed and his coat was covered in bits of white fur. There was no time for a shower.
The others ate their bowls of porridge quickly and in silence. Mr Culpin sat in a chair at the end of the wooden bench and watched them. Like yesterday, he wore a thick, checked shirt. The others all wore plain, khaki coloured clothes, even Smart.
Felix resisted the temptation to lift a spoonful of porridge and watch it slop back into the bowl. He ate as much of it as he could bring himself to and then finished it because of the worried glance Smart gave him when she saw him put down his spoon.
Straight after they had finished eating, Mr Culpin led Felix out into the icy black woods. He could feel his fear building again and his legs started to shake.
The old Woodcutter put his hand on Felix’s shoulder and guided him round to a door at the back of the cabin. He opened it without needing a key and the boy went in without needing to be told. The high windows on either side of the room allowed Felix to see all it contained; a couple of old plastic chairs stacked on top of one another like the ones in the classrooms at school, a hand basin and some wooden shelves bolted to the floor.
Mr Culpin lifted up a chair with one hand and placed it in the middle of the room, scraping it on the concrete floor. Felix sat down. His legs shook even more.
Mr Culpin went over to the shelves. Felix was too frightened to look round. The Woodcutter approached the boy’s chair from behind.
“Keep still,” the old man ordered. “Stop shaking. This will be much worse if you don’t stop moving.”
Felix looked hopelessly at the door. He knew Mr Culpin would be quick enough to catch him if he tried to escape. He felt the man’s hand on the back of his head and braced himself. Mr Culpin paused. They could hear the others talking elsewhere in the cabin.
Mr Culpin sighed and turned on the clippers.
When Felix’s head was completely smooth, they went back to the front door. The curly lengths of cut hair stuck in the collar of Felix’s coat were uncomfortable and he desperately wanted to take it off and shake it out. He tried not to scratch the back of his neck too much while Mr Culpin was watching. To his surprise, the old Woodcutter reached out and tugged his coat off for him, wiping as much black hair as he could onto the grassy ground.
“There you go. You’re really one of us now. Your dad won’t recognise you. Let’s go inside,” he said, not looking Felix in the eye.
So, he would see his dad again. That was some comfort, although Felix was not sure how angry he was with his father. But anger was unlikely to do any good.
Felix was surprised to see that the almost grown-up kidnap victims were not actually doing much in the main part of the cabin. Groombridge and the two other young men were cleaning their tranquiliser guns and chatting. Smart was leafing through a book. Hardly worth getting up in the dark for.
“Right, time to get ready,” Mr Culpin ordered, and the cleaning, chatting and reading stopped. “Sit down, Felix.”
Smart shuffled over on the long wooden bench by the table and Felix sat beside her.
Mr Culpin looked round the room at the three young men, Smart and his newest recruit. “You all know what we have to do. This is what we have been waiting for. Now is the time for questions. Groombridge, take over.” Mr Culpin waited for the young man with the prominent ears to stand in the middle of the room, then left.
Groombridge looked at Smart, Felix and the others expectantly. “Any questions, then?” he asked.
“What’s going on? When can I see my dad?” Felix asked.
“Do you still want to? Even though he wanted you to stay here?” asked Smart.
“Even though he’s on our side? On the Woodcutters’ side?” Groombridge spat the last words out.
“He must have a reason. He’s my dad,” Felix said quietly.
“Of course he has a reason! Were you surprised to see him here, little boy? We’ve got people in more places than you think,” Groombridge said.
“There are more Woodcutters?”
“Don’t call us that. But yes, down the mountain there is one more.”
“Who?” Felix lifted his hand to run it through his hair and was astonished to feel his soft bald head instead. He thought it was weird he could have forgotten something that only happened a few minutes ago. It was as though his hands themselves had a bad memory.
“There were three original Woodcutters, Felix,” Smart said. “Mr Culpin, your father and one other. They all want the same thing.”
“What?” Felix asked again, desperate to understand why his dad would be involved in kidnapping.
The young man called Edgar spoke for the first time. His voice was gruff. “Mr Culpin loves the wolves.”
“Oh,” said Felix simply. He liked wolves, too.
“He wants there to be more wolves, Felix. We all want everyone to be able to change. Your dad wants his pack to be complete. There’s only one thing stopping us. And that‘s why your dad needed you to be here,” Smart said gently.
“And why’s that?” Felix asked, thinking that he might as well since everyone was looking at him anyway, and feeling excited because he was hearing exactly what he wanted to hear. Maybe it was not too late for him. Maybe he would become a Murkle wolf.
Groombridge looked at the others to see if anyone else wanted to explain. When no one spoke, he tutted and said, “Mr Culpin found out about it a long time ago. There is a legend and that legend is true. We are here to help organise things once it’s over and you are here to make sure it goes our way.”
“But what’s the legend? Why can’t we all change?” Felix asked, feeling anxious about the answer now that no one had given it to him.
“Someone is coming. Someone powerful enough to destroy Murkle. If she lives, the legend says she’ll destroy our town. No more wolves,” Mr Culpin said steadily. Felix had not realised he had come back into the room. “Someone who was shown to us right from the beginning. Right from when she was born. She has an important birthday.”
Felix knew all about important birthdays. His was only yesterday and it had turned out very badly, he remembered bitterly. He had had quite enough of birthdays.
“So you know who then?” he asked, feeling less scared of Mr Culpin now that the others were prepared to answer his questions.
“Someone born on Millennium Eve,” said the oldest looking of the young men, Haywood. He looked the most frightening to Felix, with his unshaven face and muscular arms. “We’ve all read ‘The Murkle Truth‘. Goliath Swat‘s book says that the baby born on Millennium night will have the power to decide the fate of Murkle.” He looked around at the others as though to check that he had not said too much.
Felix was hardly sure he had understood properly. “A thirteen year old? You’re all going to battle with a thirteen year old?” he said incredulously.
“Well, she’ll be nearly fourteen by now,” said Mr Culpin, a little defensively.
After they had answered Felix’s questions, Mr Culpin seemed annoyed and distracted and kept muttering, “She might be thirteen but she’s very dangerous. Very, very dangerous. Oh yes.” Felix tried not to catch his eye.
Lunch was not much better than breakfast and neither was their evening meal. Felix did not like salad. At supper, Mr Culpin sat at the head of the table and watched them eating again.
“We need you to bring us Jinger,” he said steadily. He did not look at any one of the group in particular, but with a horrible, cold feeling, Felix realised he meant him. “You might have wondered why none of these children have escaped.” The Woodcutter swept his arm around the table.
Felix could not see any children, but he knew Mr Culpin meant the younger Woodcutters. He nodded.
“We don’t want to,” Smart said quietly. “Once the threat is gone, and Murkle is safe, everyone will be able to change. That’s what the legend says. We want to be here with Mr Culpin then.”
“And the threat is Jinger?” Felix asked, grateful to be able to stop eating his meal.
Mr Culpin rested his elbows on the table. “Yes. You’re free to go now, Felix. Go and come back with Jinger Barley. If you do that, you’ll get everything you ever wanted.”
“And I don’t have to finish this first?” Felix said, putting down his fork next to his uneaten salad.
Felix tugged his coat sleeves over his hands. He used his arms to sweep back the branches that were in his way and left the clearing and the cabin.
To his surprise, he soon found himself at the shore of the lake. On the other side he could see the lights from the Upper School building that he had visited only yesterday. How had he managed to get so lost before the Woodcutter grabbed him last night? His dad’s boat was bobbing gently on the grey lake water, and Felix headed towards it.
He climbed in cautiously, wishing he could leap in on four legs. He could stop here and think about what he was going to do before going back to Lower School.
“Felix!” Jinger yelled from the further along the bank. “We found you!” A young looking wolf scampered ahead of her.
And then Felix’s indecision vanished, to be replaced a moment later with relief, and perhaps a little annoyance. He would have to think of a way to tell this story so it did not sound like they had found him.