“War wages inside every man. The greater his destiny, the more talents at his command, the sterner his trial.”
Friday, 31st August, 1498. Bentley, England
“Feel the Chill. Ride the Thrill. Sight the Kill. Taste the Spill.”
“Don’t go talking all mad,” said Rachael, putting the tray on the table and sliding along the bench until opposite Spooky. She leaned closer, scooping her long red hair away from her face and hooking it behind an ear. “People say you’re evil. Don’t give them more reason to do something about you.”
Spooky watched the alehouse keeper drop an armful of wood onto the hearth then throw two logs from the heap onto the fire. A cloud of smoke puffed out and a shower of sparks shot into the air before landing and suffocating on the dirt floor. He ran his soft hand over the knife-gouged tabletop. He wasn’t a warlock.
Tell them to stand in line,” he said without turning from the fire.
Rachael pouted her full lips. “What line,” she huffed.
He flicked his index finger straight, pointing up to the roof. “They’ve come from the stars and they are here tonight – for me.”
“Get away. Tonight, while you can.”
“Fate brought me to Bentley and Fate keeps me here. I have tried to leave – twice…”
“Go on,” she said.
Spooky glanced around the tables. Fridays nights were usually busy but as long as the midsummer light stayed good the farmers would stay in the fields. Rachael could spare the time. He wrapped his hands around his mug and took a thoughtful sip on the ale.
“By the time I was thirty there wasn’t a town in the north that didn’t know my affliction and pushed me on through. Heading south out of London two years ago, I came to Bentley. Like most towns, it was full of superstitious, God-fearing people. I hardly gave the place a second thought. When my horse threw a shoe crossing the Wey I should have known; should have listened. But with the clatter of London still in my head I missed the sign. Horseshoes come off all the time – just an accident. No reason to suspect Him.”
“Him? You mean…”
“Yes, Him. There were other small signs while I waited for the blacksmith to re-shoe my horse – the way the animals watched, the trees looked like those I’d seen in my visions. But it wasn’t ‘til after the second time that I knew for sure. Thieves came one night while I camped near Alisholt Forest. I had nothing worth taking – except my horse. You see? I am meant to wait in Bentley.”
“I don’t understand. Wait for what?”
Three loud young men shoved their way through the doorway. Their blood-covered clothes gave them away as hunters – not of Bentley but regular enough to call themselves local. Once warmed by the fire, they headed for a nearby table. Dumping down on the benches, their smell and bad manners soon crowded out the already seated drinkers.
“Ale,” a hunter yelled, thumping the table so hard the candle broke free from the blob of wax that had held it upright. The candle rolled across the table and over the edge onto the floor. Like small children the hunters raced to stomp on it with their boots.
Rachael gathered up her tray. “I had better go. I’ll get back when I can.”
“Don’t worry,” said Spooky, seeing the worry on her face. “I have been expecting them.” He gave a small smile and watched her go. Part of him wished he could take her with him, but anything more than routine, rural life would be too much for her delicate mind.
A shiver ran over Spooky, spreading goosebumps up his bare arms. After so many times, he had no need to question the cause. Sneak was nearby. There were spirits here – both good and bad, but Sneak wasn’t of their ilk. Sneak was a star man. His arrival confirmed everything - Bentley was a special place and God had given him a small, but special role to play in a grand and incredibly special play.
Sneak was one of three. The star men wore costumes that hid them from the eyes of people, but for Spooky with the gift to see what others’ could not they were plain enough. Not of this world, yet not from the other side. Shaped like a man, but longer limbed, they were. On rare occasions he’d seen them together, but usually it was just Sneak, the strongest one. Being so bold and sure of his invisibility he would come to town in broad daylight to watch and record local life and occasionally venture inside inhabited dwellings. Sneak was searching for something or someone.
Spooky ignored the tingling sensation on the back of his neck. Tempted to look for Sneak, he instead took a quieting sip. It was by never letting his reactions or emotions slip in the presence of Sneak that he had been able to build a small dossier on this traveler from the stars.
Sneak, came and went in his starlight-bending ship, irregular as though he had appointments elsewhere. Sometimes he would be gone for weeks at a time, other times his visits were only days apart. He never saw Sneak eat or drink, but he did collect many samples of plant and small, alive, animals that would suffice for food. Never did he see Sneak out of uniform. He had no idea what his underlying skin might look like or even the true color of his eyes. Sneak was methodical and careful in manner – perhaps he was a soldier. The weeks and months rolled by their chance encounters became common, especially in and around Alisholt Forest, that it became almost second nature not to notice. It came as a shock when the voice inside him, with whom he kept wise council, said the encounters weren’t accidental. At the time the revelation had sent a chill down his spine, but now everything made sense.
For many weeks he had pondered what it was about the forest that Sneak found so interesting. Unasked for, the answer again came from the voice within. It wasn’t the forest that intrigued star man, but the forest’s gamekeeper -Thomas Johnson.
Rachael arrived from behind and whispered over Spooky’s shoulder. “The hunters say they would be doing the town a favor if they got rid of you.”
“It would give them a reputation as well. Pride has no bounds,” he added.
“Get out while you have a chance,” she pleaded.
“Get out? You would have to drag me away.”
“But they are going to kill you.”
“It is they who are to be killed. There is a play afoot those stupid fools can’t even begin imagine.” Spooky twisted around on the bench to face the hunters. After a short appraisal, he christened them Curls, Red, and Stumpy. He drew a small dagger from under his breast coat and gave them a wink. Having got their dander up, he stabbed the dagger point into the table to make sure they took the bait. If his time on earth was coming to an end he might as well use the occasion to rid Bentley of some of its unwanted vermin.
“You are quite mad,” said Rachael.
“Death has no hold over me.”
“Do you want to die?” she asked, perching down on the corner of the bench.
“My death is part of God’s plan for him.”
“Not Him - him. Well, maybe Him too.”
“Who?” said Rachael, confused by Spooky’s cryptic way with words.
“Not the king, but he will be a great king all the same.” Spooky bent forward to share in confidence. “There is going to be a war. The greatest war ever fought.”
“France?” offered Rachael.
Spooky shook his head. “Much bigger.”
“Russia,” she guessed.
“No. The war between Heaven and Hell. Angels against demons.” Spooky laid his hand on Rachael’s delicate wrist as she tried to leave. “Revelations - the final war.”
“I didn’t think you believed in the bible,” said Rachael.
“Of course I do,” said Spooky. “Just not like most people.”
Red yelled across the room for more beer.
“I had better go,” she said, freeing her arm. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m away.”
Spooky let the present moment slip away until there was no place for the raucous alehouse din in the peaceful silence that filled his mind. The dream took a firmer hold and Spooky’s eyebrows knitted together in focused contemplation. Something wasn’t right. Stars sparkled in his mind’s eye and Spooky cursed himself for being so careless. Of course, there could only be one war for the soul of Man - the Messiah against Satan. But the first Great War was to be fought amongst the stars. Spooky grasped the enormity of the task God had decreed for the man of Alisholt Forest and his heart cried for him. Spooky unconsciously drilled the dagger deeper into the tabletop as the dream took a firmer hold.
Man stood on the cusp of a great Age. Incredible things would come to pass. Machines would come and they would multiply across the lands, bringing noise and stink. A man of reason would see the machines as inevitable; a man of science would say they were advancement. A man of the church would view the soulless machines as proof of Man’s divine creation. But he saw things differently.
He had seen further into the future. Just glimpses – flashes that a logical person might think the onset of madness, or worse, the devil at play. The machines would bring ruin, for a machine had no care for the world. He had seen the billowing chimneys reaching many times higher than the tallest tree. He had seen the parched lands and the rivers running thick with unnatural waters. Machines would bring Mother Earth to her knees.
Rachael deftly unloaded the tray of mugs onto the hunters’ table and fought off the lecherous gropes at her bodice and dress. She tried to leave but a blood-crusted hand dragged her back. She let out a short scream and fell into Curls’ hard lap. Her slaps and shrill protests brought hearty guffaws from the hunters and squirrelly compliance from the alehouse patrons.
Spooky slapped his forehead in anger, his reverie shattered. The hunters needed to be set right. He needed to tell them they were a blight on society – leeches who always took and never gave. Malcontents who sucked the goodwill out of those more civilized upon whose deeds their carefree world depended. Suddenly he felt helpless. What could he do against three, except scowl? If only there were more people like the man of Alisholt. If only more would stand up and resist the decay.
He twisted around.” Barbarians,” he yelled “Get your dirty hands off her.”
The patrons stared in disbelief at Spooky then, as one, they turned to Curls. Curls glared at them and they shied away – going back to their mugs and pretending small talk. The timid amongst them sidled towards the door.
Curls threw Rachael to one side and kicked his chair backwards. He reached up to his full height, fury building on his beaten face. “What did you say, warlock?”
“I said let her go - Curls.”
Curls hesitated. “How do you know my name?”
Spooky smirked. “Know all about you,” he said, playing on his reputation. “Know what you are afraid of.”
“Ain’t ‘fraid of nothing.”
“Afraid of dying. Don’t want to be crow meat.” Spooky taunted Curls with several crow squawks.
Curls almost choked on his rage. He drew his skinning knife and wagged it at Spooky. “We gonna see who is scared of dying.”
“Not here,” snapped Red.
Curls was in no mood to back down. “I’m not taking that talk from the weasel.”
Red grabbed Curls by the sleeve and pulled him down.”Later,” he said, then cuffed Curls around the ear to shut his grumbling.
Concluding the performance over, the patrons went back to their casual gossips about others, moving between the tables or leaning against the Ash roof poles cut from Alisholt Forest and worn smooth over the years by countless backs and shoulders.
Spooky breathed deeply - again and again, deeper and deeper, encouraging the anger to leave and the return of the dream.
Change was inherent in the world, but the heart of man would stay the same. Sin would continue until Man commanded such power the angels trembled. Inexact by nature, the dreams didn’t give dates, but such darkness and decay would be when little of the sensibilities of now remained. It would be a time when good was bad and bad was good. A time when the law helped the unlawful and saw their victims as unfortunate byproduct. A time when it was clever to be dumb and wages could be made without work. A time of deceit and lies.
But most of all, it would be a time when Man could beget man. When Man possessed the power to alter Life and felt no need for God. Pride, the greatest of the Seven Sins, made the heart of man an easy meal for Satan. Immortality was the great promise of both religion and science. If only man could live forever then all his problems would go away. With endless Time and limitless knowledge to contemplate his lot he could solve all his problems and find everlasting peace. But Man was wrong. Immortality was solely God’s domain and those who dared venture too close by any other path were destined to fall into the Pit.
Every time has an end and at the close, Man would beg for God’s forgiveness. Out of Love, He would come, but not before misfortune had wrung every ounce of pride from Man’s wretched heart.
A jab of pain brought Spooky back to the alehouse. In his daze, he’d cut his palm. With unfocused eyes he watched drops of his blood pool around a splatter of wax. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed locals moving to reclaim the table vacated by Curls, Red, and Stumpy. Was he so sure of his calling that he could so easily forfeit the gift of life? Was the wonder of what was to come greater than now? Did a hunch count for more than a chance of love? Spooky raised up his arms in a long, unhurried stretch. It was time.
Rachael blocked Spooky at the doorway. “Be careful, please” she said, her brown eyes peering up into Spooky’s soft face. “They’re out there.”
“My fate is sealed.”
“Oh, Spooky, what is to become of you?” Rachael looked out into the chill of the night and a tear slid down her cheek. “Good people shouldn’t die young. You deserve a gentler age.”
Spooky pulled a red handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped away the tear. He placed the handkerchief in her palm and clasped her hand tight. “Pray for my soul.”
With a whoop and holler, Spooky fled into the night, riding the thrill of the adventure to come. He raced along the main street of Bentley, at each corner spreading his arms wide as though they were wings and pretending the need to bank hard against the night air. Into the cemetery he went, leaning one way then the other as he weaved between the headstones. Up the pathway and dipping under the yew tree in the yard, until at last he reached the church door. A single oil lamp fluttered in the rising breeze. Spooky pressed his back to the oak door and between heaving breaths listened for the hunters.
The silhouette of a tall man appeared at the end of the pathway.
Spooky clutched his dagger in a tight fist. “Just the one?” he called out.
Curls crept closer.
Spooky squinted harder and saw the other two. “That’s more like it,” he goaded. He darted a nervous peek up into the quietly swaying yew tree. “It won’t make any difference. We are all going to die – just some sooner than others.”
“You are damn crazy,” squealed Curls, the excitement in his voice rising with the adrenaline in his veins.
Spooky stepped forward, not wanting to leave blood on the church steps. The hunters closed in.
A katana sword flashed in the light of the second full moon of August. The shorter wakizashi sword came next – thrusting hard and straight. Sneak, an expert in using the daishō, set upon the hunters with clinical savagery and consummate skill – natural, but perfected from watching and fighting the best samurai of Shogun Yoshimura.
Spooky backed away from the gruesome sight of the kill until he felt the hard-locked church doors press up against his shoulder blades.
Panicked by the carnage, Curls lunged at Spooky. “What the hell are you?”
Sneak’s katana sword split the back of Curl’s head apart. Blood spurted out Red’s mouth through the gaps left by rotted-out teeth, splattering across Spooky’s startled face. Spooky dry retched at the taste of Curl’s spilt blood.
The blood-covered blades vanished. Immediately, a small dart pricked Spooky in the arm. His eyes rolled upwards and he collapsed forward as the sounds of approaching pandemonium drifted up from the bottom of the path. Sneak threw an invisibility cloak around Spooky and in a single, suit-assisted bound, he returned to the yew tree to enjoy the upcoming sideshow.
The townsfolk braved their way up the path. Armed with their best weapons, their torches swayed and twitched at every windswept noise. Yellow-orange torchlight cast ever-changing, spectral, shadows across the murder scene - Red cut in two, Stumpy disemboweled, and Curls near-cleavered through. The townsfolk desperately searched for Spooky’s remains. Only over his dead body could the town’s curse be broken.
A fearful voice spoke up. “I seen what happened.”
Jones pushed his pitchfork in Blighty’s direction. “Seen what,” he snapped. “What did you see?”
“The demon…Spooky” stammered Blighty. “He used swords of fire. Then he disappeared – right before my eyes. Just gone.”
“Rubbish,” rebuffed Jones.
“It’s true,” protested Blighty, backing away from Jones’ stabbing pitchfork.
“He’s still here, I tell you.”
Jones searched feverishly, even checking the church doors until overcome with frustration. He faced the crowd and his head slumped. “Then the curse remains,” he puffed. “And more young men will die.”
Betsy McGuire crossed herself. “Oh, Lord, who will deliver us from this evil?”
Saturday June 15th 1499. Alisholt Forest, Bentley, England.
Tom parted the branches for a better view. After weeks of tracking and many near misses he finally had the quarry in sight. Killing came harder these days, but it went with the job. As principal gamekeeper of Alisholt Forest, it was his responsibility to control the pests. These feral pigs were that – and some. They wrecked crops rooting for food and on the palest spring nights the big boars went after newborn lambs.
The pigs lay in the comforting shade; their bellies full after a dawn foray. Occasional heaves of the chest, a snuffle, an ear twitch or a tail flick to ward off a fly were the only signs of any bother. The 250-pound boar that ruled over the group, and which had maimed several of the town’s best hunting dogs, slept in the shadows. Half obscured by bracken, its long white tusks marked it out as the one to die.
Tom rummaged through his quiver of homemade arrows. Many of the tips he’d deliberately hammered wide to cut the most flesh and cause the greatest loss of blood. But he wanted a heavy, narrow, tip - like those used to penetrate a soldier’s armor. Out of three possible arrows, he settled on the one with the longest shaft for the hardest hit. A quick shrug of the shoulders and the quiver nestled back into place.
Tom scrunched the soles of his leather boots into the rough bark of the big oak and pushed a knee against the stem, forming a sturdy brace for the forty-yard shot. Carefully, he drew the bow back until the arrow’s feather guides touched his right cheek. A slight side wind caressed his other cheek and after sighting the boar down the shaft he moved the arrow tip a fraction to the left.
A swirl of heat-charged air danced through the carpet of dead leaves littering the forest floor. The boar grunted awake and gave a cautious sniff.
After a long, calming, inhale, Tom held ready to fire. Ever so slowly, he moved the arrow tip further to his left, to where an outline of branches and leaves appeared unnatural. He kept his aim, trying to make sense of what he couldn’t see.
The cagey boar gave another grunt and sat up on its haunches. Tom shifted his attention back to the animal and after a second’s aim he unleashed the arrow. The arrow zipped through the bracken true to aim and, if not for a late deflection, would have speared deep into the boar’s neck. Instead, it thudded into heavily muscled, thick-boned shoulder. Wild with pain, the boar spun around, gouging at anything it made contact with. Another arrow sliced into its rump.
In quick, fluid movements, Tom knocked over two prime-eating pigs before the rest, squealing in confused terror, fled into the undergrowth.
The boar, bleeding and puffing hard, backed further into the stand of bracken. Tom slipped on his leather gloves and approached with soft steps. The boar was a killer and would be more dangerous now that it was cornered and wounded. He swept his hand across his hip, feeling for the handle of his hunting knife. With the long blade, he cleared the first tangle of bracken to entice the boar to meet the threat. The boar bolted upright and charged headlong. Tom grabbed a tusk for leverage and used the boar’s rushing weight to stick the knife deep into its throat.
Tom made his way home carrying the boar’s head in one hand and the trussed and gutted eating pigs on either end of the staff across his shoulder. After skirting his way along the edge of the forest, he paused in the open to wipe the sweat from his brow and settle himself. Something in the woods nagged at his sense of natural order.
He looked back, straining his eyes through the heat haze radiating up from the over-baked ground. Near the woods, where he had not long ago walked, he spotted movement. No wind, he thought. But for a second or two, starved stalks of wheat wavered. His intuitive sense of danger jarred clear and hard, demanding every other sense awake.
The eating pigs hit the ground with a sloppy deadweight. Tom headed back for a closer look. The trampled wheat leading into the woods meant only one thing - trouble. He knew the tracks of all the woodland animals and none would have left such a trail. The cleanly broken stalks suggested the weight of a man – a big man. A poacher, he frowned.
Tom loaded a thin-shafted, long-range arrow and approached to within fifty yards of the woods – outside ambush range. He peered up into the branches, nervously rolling a wheat stalk between his teeth. The trees were giving up early this year, he thought, as yellowed, drought-stricken leaves let go and fluttered to the ground. His gut never lied; someone was hiding up in there. Tom racked his brain. Who, other than himself, could use the trees so well? Why were the woods so quiet?
He habitually checked for his knife and edged closer, daring the poacher to make a move. He watched and waited. Nothing. Tom spat the wheat stalk out. Turning to go, he saw the bed of leaves around the bottom of a tree compress as though squashed by an invisible weight. In an instant he let loose an arrow, hitting the tree trunk next to where he’d seen the strangeness. From out of the shadows and for the barest moment of time, two red eyes flashed back at him. Tom drew his knife.
At the edge of the forest Tom knelt next to the tree and examined the crushed leaves. The feeling of being watched was all over him. He lifted his head and skimmed the area for clues. Six feet away, he noticed a small circle of disturbed leaves. Then another - ten feet further on. An unlikely connection came to him. Footprints. Used to picking out animals camouflaged by their surroundings, he scanned the trees for a sign of the demon. A bead of sweat trickled off his temple.
On a branch, high up and to his right, Tom made out a crouching, near invisible outline. “I see you,” he murmured.
Tom sheathed his knife and looked back towards the wheat field to deceive the demon. Casually, he tensioned an arrow against the bowstring. In a single action he drew the bow, spun, and fired. The arrow twanged into hard beech wood.
From nearby, a chilling, mocking laugh rumbled through the branches. Tom loaded another arrow and cocked his head to better pinpoint the direction. From further away, the laugh came again, before echoing away to an eerie silence. The delicate hairs on the nape of Tom’s neck tickled as he contemplated the improbable, alien nature of a forest without birdsong.