09 Aug The Witch
“The Witch”Written by Dominic Eagle Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 31 minutes
There’s a story that you won’t read in history books. It’s a truth that you only hear in my village.
The Pendle witches were innocent, but there is a real witch in the Forest of Bowland.
My name’s Thomas, and I grew up in Barley, which is a small English village in the borough of Pendle. Most of you won’t know that place. You might’ve never heard of the Pendle hangings. Even if you do know about the famous witch trials that took place during the 17th century, you probably don’t believe in superstitious nonsense. You probably think the hangings were the mark of an uncivilised era.
You wouldn’t be wholly wrong. It’s ghastly that, throughout history, so many innocent women were murdered based on unfounded accusations of witchcraft.
That doesn’t mean, however, that witches aren’t real. And if you’d ever stumbled across a certain house in Bowland Forest, you would know that.
“Watch out, Sammy! The Pendle witches might turn you into one!” I giggled as my 4-year-old sister nearly tripped over a toad by our local pond.
I was six years old at the time, and I’ll never forget the way my grandpa looked at me. His eyes were filled with a mixture of dread and fury. He grabbed my wrist in his gnarled, decaying fingers and left a mark that didn’t fade for days.
“Don’t you ever joke about that,” he snarled.
“Grandpa, you’re hurting me!” I whined.
My sister, Samantha, had stopped playing. We both quivered in the shadow of the old man who loomed above us.
“Aye? Am I hurtin’ you? Good. Reckon that’ll help you remember this lesson. There’s only one witch of Pendle. She was never tried, and she never died. I don’t ever want t’hear you kids mention her again. Understood?”
My little sister was sobbing at this point, but I tried my best to put on a brave face and protect her. I always hated my grandpa. He was cruel. Still, the old bastard was certainly not creative enough to tell tall tales. And he was no liar. I didn’t realise that as a young child. At the time, he seemed far worse than any witch.
“Get off me!” I demanded.
My grandpa grumbled and released me. I complained to my parents. We didn’t spend weekends at his house after that.
“Of course, we do live in the same village,” my mum pointed out. “You can’t avoid him forever.” Just watch me. I remember thinking that. My dad pulled me aside when my mum left the room.
“Listen, I hate my father-in-law as much as you. He’s always been a twat. Don’t let your mum know I said that,” he whispered.
I snorted. Then, my dad’s expression changed. I’d never seen him look so stern. He was always soft. He was a clown. He didn’t do ‘serious.’
“However, I will say that I don’t want you to talk about the witch again. Okay? Some things are best left alone.”
And I did. I left her alone for eight years. Of course, I grew up in Pendle, so it was hard to avoid general talk of witches, especially at Halloween. That being said, I did start to notice that adults in Barley would clam up when that dreaded ‘W’ word appeared in conversation. I could never understand why other towns and villages in the county of Lancashire seemed to derive great pleasure from telling scary stories about the witches of Pendle Hill, whilst people in Barley shunned the topic.
I didn’t hear of the ‘real’ witch again until I went to a sleepover with my four closest friends. I suppose we were still young and foolish enough to find the “myth” fascinating. And, at the age of 14, we were fuelled by testosterone. We relished discussing something forbidden.
I cannot, as hard as I try, forget that weekend in December. The year was 2009. It was the coldest winter in decades. Why we chose to sleep in a treehouse on such a brutal evening, I’ll never know. I suppose it was another way of proving to ourselves that we were strong, that we weren’t children.
We sat in a circle and told each other ghost stories by torchlight. I think it might’ve actually been a lot of fun at first, but it’s hard to remember. Everything afterwards was so horrible.
The weekend’s steady decline began when Michael told his story.
“There is a forest…” He began.
“For fuck’s sake. Not this again,” Jack groaned.
“What?” Gareth asked.
“Don’t encourage him,” Jack sighed.
“I’m not sure you’ve got the stomach for this one, Gareth,” Michael laughed, menacingly.
Bradley was snoring away at this point, and I still envy him for that. I wonder how different my life might look if I’d had the privilege of missing Michael’s story. Would I have had the courage to do things differently?
“What about you, Tommy? Do you want to hear my story?” Michael asked.
I shrugged. “Whatever we say, we’re gonna hear it, so just get on with it.” Jack nodded, agreeing with my point. Gareth lay on his front, propped on his elbows. Jack scrolled through his phone. I wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag, focusing on the icy breeze that was seeping through the cracks of the flimsy boards that formed Michael’s rickety treehouse. Somehow, I knew the story he was going to tell.
“There once was a witch who lived in Pendle. She-” Michael started.
“What?” Gareth interjected. “We all know about the Pendle witches.” Michael glared at him. “Did I say ‘witches,’ dimwit? No. I said ‘witch.’ Now, shut up and listen. In 1612, twelve innocent women were convicted of ten murders and tried for witchcraft. Not a single one of them ever harmed a soul. In the modern age, we all know that, don’t we?”
“Because witches aren’t real, you dick,” Jack muttered, looking down at his phone and typing away.
Michael laughed maniacally. “No. That’s not why they were innocent. The people simply hanged the wrong women. There was only ever one real Pendle witch. And she’s still out there. She lives in the Forest of Bowland.”
“Hold up, hold up…” Gareth said, sitting up. “1612? She’s, like, 396 years old?”
“Older than that,” Michael answered.
“Is that it? Is that the story?” Gareth asked.
Jack nodded, still not looking up from his phone. “Yep. That’s the entire shit story.”
“My grandpa told me about her,” I finally said once I’d rid my throat of the stubborn lump that was blocking it.
“Why have I never heard of this shit?” Gareth laughed. “That’s way cooler than the original story about the Pendle witches.”
“The ‘original’ isn’t a story, jackass. It’s history. People were hanged. Show some respect,” I said.
“Oooo,” Jack mocked, giggling. “Yeah, Gareth. Show some respect, y’cunt!”
“Seriously, why haven’t I heard it before?” Gareth asked.
“You never heard it because you didn’t grow up in Barley, Gareth,” Jack explained, still absorbed in his phone and utterly disinterested in the topic of conversation. “That’s what Michael always reminds me. I moved here from Clitheroe, and outsiders just don’t ‘get it.’”
“What do you mean?” Gareth asked.
“Every Barley grown-up tells their kid that dumb story,” I explained, shrugging. “It’s a rite of passage or some shit. I can’t wait to traumatise my kids with it.”
“Yeah, you guys are weird,” Gareth laughed. “This village has a real Hot Fuzz vibe.”
“Move back to Chorley, then, dickhead,” Michael barked. “And did I say I’d finished the story?”
“Yes,” Jack replied.
“No,” Michael said. “There’s a part of the story that you haven’t heard, Jack.”
“Oh, well, please do enlighten us,” Jack sighed, rolling his eyes.
Michael grinned. “I know where she lives.”
Silence. Gareth sat there, slack-jawed, staring at his idol in eager anticipation. I don’t know why I instantly believed him, but I did. It was some sort of intuition. I froze and tried to force back the wave of nausea that threatened to incite a round of projectile-vomiting. Jack’s reaction was the most surprising. He put his phone down.
“Bullshit,” Jack said. “You’re really going to give us an opportunity to call you out on one of your lies? You’re going to give us a location that we could visit to prove that you’re full of shit?”
“It’s not a lie,” Michael assured us. “She lives in a house right at the heart of the Bowland Forest. I know how to find it.”
“And how do you know that?” Jack queried.
“It’s a long-kept Barley secret,” Michael explained. “That’s why it’s only people from our village who piss their pants at the mention of Pendle witches. Only we know that she exists. Only we know where she exists.”
“Yes, okay, but how do you know where in the forest to find her?” I asked.
“You know Mr. Henderson, our old History teacher?” Michael asked.
The three of us nodded.
“I saw him in the pub last Wednesday. He was sitting in the corner, crying. Just him. Mrs. Henderson was at home. ‘He’s in the pub most days,’ Larry said,” Michael explained. “He’s not been the same since Millie went missing.”
“Woah,” Jack interjected. “Stop. We put up with a lot of your fuckery, but I’m not going to let you bring a real-life story into this little ghost tale. That’s fucked. We all knew Millie. She was a mate.”
Michael slammed his fist on the hardwood floor of the treehouse. For a second, it felt as if the whole structure might crumble. But it didn’t. It quietened Jack, though.
“It’s not a fucking story!” Michael growled. “Let me finish, okay? This is why I invited all of you here tonight. You see, I learnt something. I talked to Mr. Henderson. Rick dared me.”
Rick was Michael’s older brother. He was a prick. You can probably imagine what we called him behind Michael’s back.
“And what did Mr. Henderson say?” Gareth asked, now anxiously biting his nails.
“I asked him whether he was okay,” Michael continued. “I said I missed Millie. I wasn’t a knob, all right? I only went over to shut Rick up. I was nice to Mr. Henderson. I didn’t expect him to open up. And he opened up. He really fucking opened up.”
“Just say it,” Jack sighed.
“He told me that he and Millie went on a Bowland hiking weekend, but they weren’t really hiking. They were looking for something. The Pendle witch. See, Mr. Henderson comes from a long line of Hendersons. One of the oldest families in Barley. And they’ve been passing on a warning for generations. Ever since the 1600s, his family has been telling the villagers of Barley to stay away from the Bowland Forest. William Henderson was the only person to ever see the witch and live to tell the tale. He wanted everyone in Barley to know about her. He wanted everyone to stay away. And they listened. Folk from other towns ignored him and said the Pendle witches had already been tried and hanged, but William was respected in our village. People trusted him and heeded his warning.”
“Ah, some new lore. Fantastic,” Jack mocked.
Michael ignored him. “When Mr. Henderson, our Mr. Henderson, heard that story from his father, he became obsessed. You see, William Henderson told his son something that he didn’t tell the rest of the villagers in Barley. It’s a secret that’s been kept in his family for hundreds of years. He told his son something he was too scared to tell his friends and neighbours, in case they might feel brave enough to do something about it. He told his son where the witch lived. So, when Mr. Henderson learned this family secret 400 years later, he wanted to prove that the witch was still out there. Then, Millie found his research. She wanted to go with him. She wanted to see whether the legend was true. Like her dad, she wanted to prove that a witch really exists.”
“And Mr. Henderson just let her come with him?” I asked, choking on my own words.
“He was excited, he said. He wanted to share the ‘adventure’ with his daughter. He didn’t heed his own father’s warning. He didn’t see any danger. Or maybe, he admitted to me, he didn’t really believe the witch was real at all. He was just excited to share something with Millie,” Michael said.
“Is that… all he told you?” Gareth asked, tentatively.
Michael shook his head. “He looked me dead in the eye and told me that they found it. They found a house in the heart of the Bowland Forest. They found the witch.”
“Mr. Henderson did not say that,” Jack scoffed, but even his steady voice seemed to be waning.
“He did,” Michael assured Jack. “And she took Millie.”
“Just… just took her…?” Gareth gulped.
“I tried to ask him what happened,” Michael replied. “He wouldn’t tell me. He told me to go away. Told me some questions weren’t worth answering. That, he said, was what he had finally learned.”
“Jesus…” Jack sighed, collapsing on his sleeping bag. “Okay. I take it all back. Maybe you could work on the ending, but that was a good horror story.”
“Yeah,” Gareth whimpered, crawling into his own bag. “I think I’m ready to call it a night before I piss my sleeping bag.”
Gareth and Jack fell silent, but Michael and I were still sitting up in our bags. He was staring at me with the most petrified eyes. It was a look I’d seen in the eyes of both my grandpa and my dad. True terror.
“It’s not a story,” Michael whispered, before lying down and turning off the lamp beside him.
I sat there for a while longer. At this point, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking the tale to be make-believe. But it’s not about the words. It’s about the feeling. Maybe it’s something only Barley folk can understand. Like Michael, I’d caught the fever. I’d seen the witch. Not physically, but in my mind. In my dreams. She felt real to me. I didn’t need to go to the heart of Bowland Forest to find out whether she was real. I already believed.
The next morning, I woke to the sensation of something heavy landing on my chest. It was my rucksack.
“What the fuck’s this? We going on a hike?” Bradley asked, throwing his bag off his body.
Michael was dressed in full hiking gear and standing by the open trapdoor to the treehouse.
“You slept through some weird shit last night, mate,” Gareth laughed, sitting up in his sleeping bag and rubbing his eyes.
“The Pendle witch,” Jack clarified.
“Oh, right. Bit old for ghost stories, aren’t we, lads?” Bradley chuckled. “You’ll grow up eventually. Don’t worry.”
“You’re the same age as us, Bradley,” Jack pointed out. “Anyway, Michael’s updated the legend. He added a pretty freaky story at the end, actually. Gave it a spooky update. I was impressed.”
“It’s real,” Michael explained. “And we’re going to find her.”
“Erm… who?” Bradley asked, snorting with laughter.
“Millie,” Michael answered.
Everybody fell silent.
Jack scolded him. “Michael. Don’t be a twat, man. You’re pushing it too far now. The girl’s dead.”
“Mr. Henderson told me everything that I told you last night. Believe it or don’t. I couldn’t give a shit. I know Tom believes me,” Michael said.
Suddenly, all eyes were on me. I looked down at the rucksack on my lap.
“I do believe you,” I said. “Well, I believe that something bad happened to Millie out in that forest. So, why the fuck would we go out there?”
“Yeah, witch or no witch, I think I’m gonna pass on that one,” Bradley said. “I don’t wanna find some dead body.”
“I thought you were saying we all needed to grow up, eh?” Michael pointed out. “And you said it yourself. Nobody ever found her body. She’s still out there. She might still be alive.”
She wasn’t. Even then, I knew that. But I also knew that Michael loved her. He had always loved her. She’d softened his coarseness, and he’d returned to being a full-blown arsehole when she went missing. But maybe this wasn’t just about finding her. Maybe, as had been the case with Mr. Henderson, Michael had the obsession. The itch. The bug. He had to find the witch.
And then I had a horrible thought. A thought that sickened me to the very core of my being. Maybe that was what the witch wanted. Maybe that was how she found her prey. She got into their heads and lured them to her lair. I’d love to give you an answer, but I don’t know, even after what happened.
“A group of 14-year-olds searching for a dead body in the forest,” Gareth said. “Sounds like Stand By Me.”
“Everything’s a fucking reference with this guy,” Bradley laughed. “Forget it, lads. I’m going home. I’ll tell the villagers of Barley about your brave sacrifice. Safe travels, my friends.”
And then he disappeared through the trapdoor.
“Whatever. That fat, lazy shit would only slow us down,” Michael said.
His words were pure vitriol at this point. His eyes were bloodshot. It looked as if he hadn’t slept all night. I know I hadn’t. I’d barely managed more than a couple of hours. There was no way I was going on a hike in this sleep-deprived state. Anyway, I had the excuse that any 14-year-old would have.
“My parents won’t let me,” I said.
“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Michael moaned. “I got your precious permission slips. My folks rang your parents last night.”
“How would we even get to Bowland Forest, mate?” Jack pointed out. “It’s a bit far on foot.”
“Ready, shit stains?” Came a voice from the bottom of the ladder.
We all gathered around the trapdoor and looked down to see Rick standing at the foot of the tree with a set of car keys dangling from his fingers. My heart sank. It was at that moment I realised I had no escape. Michael wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. In the ten years we had been friends, he had never taken ‘no’ for an answer. And yet, naively, I had hoped this would be the exception.
As everyone started climbing down the ladder, I remember looking at Michael with tears in my eyes. I tried my best to hold them back. I’d accepted the inevitable, but we shared a look. I think, for a moment, his expression was apologetic. It was as if he were under the witch’s spell. He probably would’ve let Gareth or Jack walk away if they’d really wanted to do so, but he wouldn’t let me. I was his rock.
So, we all piled into Rick’s battered old campervan (bringing rucksacks filled with supplies that Michael had gathered before we even woke up) and said goodbye to our parents, who were standing and waving in the front yard of Michael’s house. Everything was arranged, and our parents were happy for us to go camping as long as Rick and Stacey (his girlfriend) looked after us on the trip and brought us back before 6 o’clock on Sunday night.
I watched Pendle Hill from the car window and thought about how beautiful it looked in the early morning sun. I wished, more than anything, that we were going on a pleasant stroll up the hill to find the witch. Anywhere but the forest.
“Haven’t you got anything better to do than hang out with a bunch of 14-year-olds, Rick?” Jack teased, making Gareth snort.
“Yeah, of course,” Rick replied. “I’m gonna feed you fucks to the witch. That sounds much better than hanging out with you.”
“Rick! Don’t be mean. They’re just kids,” Stacey protested.
“Aren’t you guys only, like, 18?” Gareth asked.
“19,” Rick corrected.
“Oooo, sorry, Mr. 19-Year-Old!” Gareth responded, making Jack laugh.
“You two make a cute couple,” Rick retorted, which silenced Gareth and Jack for a while.
“So, why do you boys really want to go to Bowland?” Stacey asked. “Shouldn’t you be busy playing Call of Duty or something?”
“They’re going to sit around the campfire and jerk off to each other’s ghost stories,” Rick answered.
“Ew,” Gareth groaned.
“You should be on some kind of register,” Jack added.
“We’re just going on a hike,” Michael explained, coldly, as he stared vacantly out of the passenger window.
“I don’t believe you,” Rick replied, shaking his head. “You’re a shit liar, little brother.”
“How about you shut the fuck up and mind your own business?” Michael asked.
“Woah, woah… how about you remember who’s driving you to your new little sleepover spot?” Rick pointed out.
“Anyway, I know you’re looking for the witch. Bradley told me,” Rick said.
Michael didn’t say anything. He just continued to watch the scenery flood past the window.
“I don’t really give a shit. Stacey and I won’t be going on your little hike, though. We’ll be staying behind and having some, er… alone time,” Rick said.
“What? But Mum said…” Michael began.
“Yeah, I know,” Rick interrupted. “We’ll set up camp and make some food whilst you go on your little adventure. So, don’t walk too far, okay? I don’t wanna have to go looking for you in that creepy-ass forest.”
Michael sighed. “Fine. Just don’t eat everything whilst we’re gone, you greedy shit.”
“Fuck you,” Rick laughed.
I listened to music on my iPod for the rest of the trip. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t happening. I tried to convince myself that the witch wasn’t real, which I’m sure you’re already doing. But you just don’t get it. Michael’s right. People from Barley are different. The witch has some sort of hold over us. I always believed my grandpa, deep down. I just didn’t want to admit it.
I won’t tell you where we camped. I don’t want some ignorant person to stumble across this story and decide they want to go looking for the witch. Don’t do it.
Rick was most certainly a prick, but he looked after us. I can’t really fault him. On this trip, he was kinder than usual. The teasing started to fade as we drove closer to the forest. He became like Michael and me. He grew quiet. Fearful. He was a Barley lad, after all. He might not know Mr. Henderson’s story, but everybody in the village feels something about the witch. Like I said, I can’t really explain it.
“You’ve got two hours,” Rick said as he and Stacey started to put up the tents.
“That’s not enough time,” Michael protested, clicking together the rucksack straps across his chest.
“Two hours,” Rick repeated, fiercely.
We didn’t question him. Everyone was on edge. Even Jack and Gareth seemed to sense that something was wrong with the Barley kids. They seemed a little nervous. We’d infected them with our superstitious fear.
“So, we just… blindly walk through trees?” Jack asked.
“Henderson told me where to go,” Michael explained.
“You don’t have a map or something?” Gareth asked.
“No, Gareth. I don’t have a map,” Michael sighed.
“Let me guess,” Jack said. “It’s a Barley thing?”
Michael didn’t respond. Gareth turned to face me. I was walking at the back of the line as we weaved between tall trees.
“What’s the time?” he asked me. “My phone’s dead.”
“Already?” Jack laughed. “Fuck me. You wouldn’t last two seconds on your own.”
“Shut the fuck up! I would’ve charged it before we left, but somebody didn’t tell us we were going on a camping trip this weekend,” Gareth shouted.
“Nobody forced you,” Michael said.
“You always force Tom. He feels sorry for you. We all do. So, we go along with what you say,” Jack said.
“Or maybe I’m just the alpha of the group, and you’d all be lost without me,” Michael suggested, laughing.
“Bollocks,” Jack retorted. “You throw a hissy fit when you don’t get your way. We were just avoiding a scene.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Michael replied. “I’m here for Millie. You only want to find the witch, and maybe you feel guilty about that. It’s okay.”
I looked at my phone and finally answered Gareth’s original question. “12:57.”
“Okay,” Gareth said. “So, we turn around and head back to camp at 2 o’clock, right?”
“We turn around when we’ve found Millie,” Michael answered, marching forwards.
“Michael, we’re not going to find Millie,” Jack said, his tone becoming aggressive. “We’re not going to find anything. We’re turning around at two in the afternoon, and we’ll get back to the camp at three.”
“Yeah, I’ll be hungry by then. I haven’t even had lunch,” Gareth said.
“I packed everything we need,” Michael explained. “There are crisps in your bag. Eat up and shut up.”
Other than the sound of Gareth munching, we were silent for a little while. A long while, actually. After about an hour, I looked at my phone screen.
“Shit. It’s 2:07,” I said. “Come on, Michael. Let’s turn around. The sun will have almost set by the time we get back.”
“We’re nearly there,” Michael insisted. “We can’t turn back now.”
“Well, I’m turning around,” Gareth said, spinning on his heel and stomping past me. “Fuck this.”
“Fine. Go, pussy,” Michael spat.
“We’re all going,” Jack said, firmly.
“Trying to be the leader, eh?” Michael asked, turning around and squaring up to Jack. “You haven’t got the balls.”
“We don’t have a ‘leader,’” Jack replied, standing his ground. “Stop being a cunt and come back with us.”
“Nah. I’ll just do it on my own,” Michael mumbled, continuing on his way without us.
“We should go after him,” I sighed.
“Fuck that guy,” Jack said. “I’m not gonna get lost in the middle of this forest in the dark, and neither are you. Come back with us. He’ll turn around. He can’t do anything without you, Tom.”
I begrudgingly followed Gareth and Jack back to camp. I hoped they were right. I hoped Michael would get cold feet and follow us. He didn’t. We were all starting to feel the chill of Bowland Forest as the sky turned a mesmerising shade of orange and eased into darkness. The hour-long walk back to camp passed quickly.
When we arrived, however, the site was deserted. There were three fully-pitched tents and a smouldering pile of logs. In the dirt, there was an open packet of marshmallows. Some were lost in the mud. There were six camp chairs. Two of them were also lying in the mud.
“Thanks for ruining the marshmallows, jackass!” Gareth yelled at no one.
“Where are they?” Jack asked, walking over to the campervan. “They’re not in here.” Then, we heard a haunting sound. A razor-sharp scream that pierced the air and caused the three of us to immediately throw our hands to our ears.
“What the fuck?” Gareth cried, shaking.
“That sounded like a woman. It must’ve been Stacey,” I said.
“Oh,” Jack said, lowering his hands from his ears. “I get it.”
“What?” I asked.
“They’re fucking with us. Michael, Rick, and Stacey. They’re fucking with us, guys. They planned this whole trip to scare us,” Jack said before starting to bellow. “NICE PRANK, GUYS! YOU CAN COME OUT NOW!”
“I guess they’re really committing to the bit,” Gareth suggested, gulping.
Jack pointed to the forest, only a few hundred yards from the field we’d chosen for our campsite.
“They’re hiding behind some trees and giggling,” Jack explained. “Fuck ‘em, I say. Let’s eat some grub and wait for them to get bored. I’m freezing my tits off out here, and they must be cold, too. We’ll restart the campfire to draw them to us.”
Gareth and I followed Jack’s lead, sitting in two of the still-standing camp chairs and proceeding to roast some marshmallows. Half an hour passed. Then an hour. Then another. And another.
“6:30 pm. It’s pitch-black and freezing cold out there. Why would they still be pranking us?” Gareth asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Those brothers are arseholes,” Jack sighed, picking up the portable stove and throwing it at me. “Feel like cooking us some proper food, champ?”
I looked up from my lap. I’d been sitting there, silently, contemplating everything Michael had told us. There was a cutting breeze in the air. Something unnatural. The campfire had warmed us up, but I felt a different kind of coldness. Something I couldn’t explain. Everything felt wrong.
I pushed it aside. I did as Jack said. I wasn’t being a pushover. I just preferred his plan of staying away from the forest. I was scared. I was a coward. And I know I was a coward because I knew that scream had been real. I knew something had happened to Stacey, Rick, and possibly even Michael. He’d been gone for hours.
I cooked some sausages and clumsily shoved them in buns, passing them shakily to Gareth and Jack. We ate in silence. My friends weren’t their usual chatty selves, and I know they wouldn’t ever have admitted it, but they were scared. They were starting to have their doubts about the whole thing being a prank. It wasn’t until 8 o’clock that any of us said anything. And it wasn’t who you’d expect to speak up.
“Something’s wrong,” Gareth said, leaping out of his chair. “We have to go and find them.” I pulled my earphones out, and Jack put his phone down.
“It’s cold, and it’s dark,” Jack replied. “You really want to go out there?”
“They’re not pranking us,” Gareth whispered, quivering. “We’ve been here for five hours. They’re not pranking us.”
“I think we should all just go to bed and wait until morning,” Jack said. “It’ll be light, and we can figure out what’s happening. Plus, they’ll probably have caved and crawled back into their tents. Or maybe they’re camping out there on their own.”
“They don’t have any supplies,” I pointed out. “They left everything here. The place was a mess. There was that scream… Gareth’s right. Something’s wrong.”
“Fuck, Tom. Well, what do you want to do?” Jack asked.
The two of them looked at me. I didn’t want to march into the forest and save anyone. I wanted to go home.
“I think we need to phone our parents and tell them something’s wrong,” I said.
Jack and Gareth groaned.
“Great idea. That’s a sure way for us to never be allowed to do anything like this again,” Gareth sighed.
“Something might have happened to them,” I insisted. “We have to be sensible, guys.”
“I’m all for avoiding the forest, Tom, but we’re not snitching to our parents. Fuck that,” Jack said, shaking his head. “Two options. We go to sleep, or we search for them.”
“I vote we search for them,” Gareth said.
“I vote we go to bed,” Jack said, turning to me. “Deciding vote, Tom. Michael’s not here now. This is finally a democracy.”
I looked down at the campfire, wishing for Rick, Stacey, and Michael to come running out of the trees with smiles on their faces. But they didn’t, and I had to make a decision. I wanted to phone my parents. I wanted to run back to Barley if necessary. I could’ve followed the dirt path back to the main road. Five hours, I reckoned. Five hours to walk home.
I wish I’d done that, but peer pressure is a supernatural force of its own. Foolishly, I voted to search for our missing friends. I might’ve been a coward, but I couldn’t live with the prospect of cosying up in a tent whilst something unholy was happening in the heart of that dreadful forest.
So, guided by the torches that Michael had packed for us, we delved into the forest. Jack and I had gone to Scouts together, but we were not equipped for this. We had no idea how to navigate the Forest of Bowland at night. We had no idea how to track missing people. Instead, we were guided by adrenaline, boyish stupidity, and perhaps a smidge of bravery.
“Stacey! Are you okay?” I called.
“Rick! Michael!” Gareth shouted.
Not a sound. Not even the rustling of tree leaves. Such an icy night, and yet the air was still. So, why could I still feel wisps of wind, like Winter’s breath, washing over my flesh? I can forgive Gareth and Jack for ignorantly running into the witch’s forest, but I should’ve known better. Everyone from Barley knows better.
“This is hopeless,” Gareth cried. “We should head-”
“Oh, fuck,” Jack interrupted, lifting his boot out of something that made a squelching noise. “What the fucking fuck is this?” Gareth and I slowly walked towards our crouching friend, casting our torch lights onto what he held in his hands.
“God…” Gareth shuddered, before turning and vomiting behind him.
Jack immediately dropped the squishy object, trembling as he returned to reality and finally realised what he’d picked up with his bare hands. It’s a sight that haunts me to this day.
A heart. A human heart. I’m no biologist, but I knew it was human.
“No, no, no…” Jack cried.
“We have to find them,” I said, calmly.
I was stunned by my balanced composure. Perhaps I wasn’t a coward, after all. Or perhaps I was in shock. I’d probably know if I were ever to see a therapist, but I’m sure they’d have me committed if I were ever to tell them the rest of the story that I’m about to tell you.
You see, I’d love to say that Gareth and Jack didn’t listen to me. I’d love to say that they decided we should go back to the tents. But we were boys. And boys follow leaders. In the absence of Michael, I seemed to have assumed that role. Perhaps that would’ve always been my role in the friendship group if I’d ever fought for it. Perhaps I could’ve challenged Michael in the treehouse and prevented any of this from happening. What if?
As we marched onwards, I felt a renewed sense of confidence. Something I hadn’t possessed since the age of 6 before my grandpa and dad had traumatised me into being a sheltered little lamb. I wish I’d stayed a frightened lamb rather than the dumb oaf who decided to delve deeper into the woods.
“What was that?” Gareth whimpered.
“What was what?” I asked as we continued to walk through the blackened forest.
“I heard something behind me…” Gareth whispered.
I stopped walking and turned around, casting the torch light onto my two friends. The colour left my face, and any ounce of courage swiftly vacated my body. I screamed. I screamed louder than I knew I could scream.
There was a figure behind Jack. A pale woman was strolling between the trees. I thought it was the witch.
“Help…” she wheezed, weakly.
It wasn’t the witch. It was Stacey.
The three of us rushed over to her, and Gareth dived to cushion her fall as her knees buckled, and she fell to the ground.
“What happened?” Jack asked, kneeling beside her.
I was relieved to see that she didn’t seem to have a cavernous hole in her chest, but whose heart was it? That was all we wanted to know. Anyway, that didn’t mean Stacey looked physically well. She didn’t. Her face was grey, as if the blood had been drained from her body.
“Rick…” She sobbed, pressing her face into Gareth’s shirt. “He just… he disappeared.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Where did he go?”
“We were at the camp,” Stacey sniffled. “He said he heard something. I thought he was playing a cruel joke on me. He said she was calling to him. He said he had to find her.”
“Who?” Gareth asked.
“Millie,” Stacey whispered.
“How did you end up out here? Did you follow him?” Jack asked.
Stacey nodded. “I saw… something. I can’t… I don’t know. Please. We have to go.”
“We have to find Rick and Michael,” I pleaded.
She shook her head. “No. They’re gone.”
“We found you, so we can find them,” I insisted.
Gareth and Jack were in a state of uncontrollable panic. We were children. It’s hard to understand that when you’re young, but I saw it for a brief, fleeting moment. Then, I snapped back into my leadership role. I don’t know why. I think I wanted to prove something to myself. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be a hero.
“Rick…” Stacey whined. “He tore out his…”
The four of us fell silent. Gareth turned paler than Stacey, pulling himself away from her so he could empty his guts into a nearby bush. She didn’t need to finish her sentence. We knew what he tore out. We didn’t, however, expect her to say what she said next.
“And after he… after he did that… after he tore out… he… he just carried on walking,” she sobbed.
“What?” Jack asked. “He… where’s his body, Stacey?”
“Listen to me,” she pleaded, assuming a foetal position on the ground. “He didn’t die. He… walked away.”
“We still need to find Michael,” I stated, firmly.
Stacey sat upright and screamed at me. “You don’t know what I saw!”
“It sounds horrible, but-“ I started.
“Not that,” She interrupted. “That was only the start. I told you. I… I saw something.”
“I want to go home,” Gareth cried, and Jack hugged him.
“So does Michael,” I said. “Whatever Stacey saw, he’s still out there. We have to save him.” Jack stopped hugging Gareth, and he walked slowly towards me. There was such a disgusted look on his face.
“Rick’s dead, Tom. And Michael isn’t here. For all we know, that little psycho is the one who did this. He’s the reason we’re all here, isn’t he? There’s always been something wrong with him. Something wrong with his mind. So, no, I’m not going to risk my life for him. Nobody else is dying tonight.”
“That doesn’t explain what Rick did,” I replied. “That doesn’t explain what Stacey saw.”
“We have to go,” Stacey cried, stumbling to her feet and tugging at Gareth’s sleeve.
Jack whispered to me. “Stacey’s got fucking PTSD or some shit. I don’t fucking know. Wake the fuck up, Tom. Rick didn’t rip his heart out and walk away.”
“No. Something else did it to him,” I muttered, trying to repress the fear that was clawing at the surface of my mind.
Jack suddenly shoved me to the ground. It knocked the wind right out of me. I looked up at him in confusion, pulling myself to my feet.
“Guys…” Gareth protested.
“Shut the fuck up, Gareth!” Jack shouted. “Are you really trying to say what I think you’re trying to say, Tommy?”
I held up my hands. “I know you don’t believe…”
“THERE IS NO FUCKING WITCH! HAS EVERYBODY LOST THEIR MINDS?!” Jack belted at the top of his lungs.
Then, there was the faint sound of humming. We all stopped and listened. Stacey looked bewildered, wiping the tears from her face and watching we three boys exchange horrified looks at one another.
“Millie…” Gareth whispered, sobbing.
“That’s her favourite song,” I cried, fervently clinging to my last strand of sanity. “She’d be told off for humming it in class.”
“What are you saying?” Stacey cried. “I don’t hear any humming… please. This is all in your heads. Don’t leave me. Not like Rick.”
“Michael,” Jack said. “It has to be Michael. He’s toying with us.”
“It isn’t Michael,” Stacey screeched. “We have to leave this place…”
“I agree,” Jack replied. “Let’s go. Fuck you, Michael! Fuck you.”
“You guys get Stacey back to camp. I have to keep going,” I said.
What was propelling me forwards? The farther we walked, the sicker I felt in the pit of my stomach. And, yet, as we vanished into the heart of the forest, the more compelled I felt to find whatever I was trying to find. It wasn’t Michael. I knew that much.
Stacey wailed. “No. Please. I can’t leave you on your own… Please… don’t make me come with you. We need to go back to the camp.”
“Come on, Tom,” Jack said, putting a hand on my shoulder and speaking more gently. “You’ve done enough for him. You don’t have to keep going. You’re not under his spell anymore.”
With tears in my eyes, I smiled at my dear friend and said something that I wouldn’t understand until later. “I’m sorry.”
I kept walking. I knew that Gareth, Stacey, and Jack would follow. They did not protest, but Stacey continued to cry. The boys followed the siren call of Millie’s hum, as I did. Then, we saw it. Something none of us had really expected to see.
A house. Little more than a derelict shed, really. Situated in the midst of this dense tree cluster was a tiny little house.
“What the fuck is this?” Gareth asked. “What is this house doing out here?”
“I don’t like it,” Jack whispered.
“The voice is coming from there,” I said.
“It’s a trap,” Stacey said. “She’s not really in there, and you know it. You know it, Tom. Please, stop this.”
“I have to go inside. Millie and Michael are in there,” I said.
I cannot describe how I felt. I was not possessed. I did not hear the cackling voice of some sinister witch in my head. There were no demons telling me to kill my friends. I felt entirely in control of my limbs and my mind. Nonetheless, I was not myself. I was filled with an urge. An urge to go into that haunted hellhole.
I started to walk towards the front door, but Stacey barged past me, still sobbing her heart out. I suddenly realised she had Gareth’s torch in her hand.
“Let me,” I remember her crying out as she sprinted towards the door.
She thought she was protecting us. She thought she was the grown-up. And we all thought that at the time. But she was 19. She was a child. Just like us.
Stacey grabbed the door handle, shaking as she did so, and called out. “M-Millie…? Michael? Are you… Are you in there? I’m going to come in…”
Gareth, Jack, and I stood a few yards behind her. We waited with bated breath, wondering what could possibly lie inside. It was too dark for us to see. Stacey opened the door, revealing nothing but darkness. She slowly lifted her torch, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It was just a house. She stood in a narrow hallway with doors lining either side, and there was a painting on the wall at the end. I couldn’t quite make out the picture from that distance, but it looked familiar. Stacey stepped inside, shining her light onto each of the doors and calling out for Millie and Michael again.
Faster than any gust of wind could’ve carried it, the front door slammed behind her. She screamed.
“Stacey!” Gareth yelled, lunging at the door.
He and Jack started ramming their shoulders into it whilst I simply clasped both of my hands onto my head, dropping my torch to the ground. What had I done? Where had I led us? I still wanted to believe it wasn’t real. This was just a house. Rick, Michael, and Stacey were pranking us. That heart was fake. It wasn’t real.
“Tommy!” Jack shouted, slamming into the door that wouldn’t budge. “Help us!” I snapped out of it and joined my friends. Eventually, the latch snapped and the door flew open. My bravery seemed to have abandoned me, so I let Jack take charge. He led the way with his torch, and I followed, too mentally broken to remember to pick up my fallen torch.
We stepped into the house. I don’t know why. I think we all knew that they were gone. We just couldn’t accept it. Or maybe that same force, the same thing that hummed at us, was drawing us inside.
“Stacey!” Jack shouted. “Which door, Stacey?”
The house was a bungalow. And it only had one hallway with six doors. There were six rooms that could be holding our friends.
“One at a time,” Jack said, opening the first door on his left.
Gareth and I cowered behind him, watching as he illuminated the first room. There was nothing in there but a pile of rucksacks. Their rucksacks.
“They’re here,” Gareth whispered. “They have to be here.” Jack quietly closed the door, and we shuffled across the hallway to the first door on the right. A bedroom. There were scribblings on the walls in some language we couldn’t understand.
Four more rooms. With each door we opened, my throat seemed to close a little more tightly.
The second door on the left offered nothing but a book on the floor. Jack cast his torch on it. ‘The Pied Piper of Barley’ was the title on the front.
“Where are you?!” Gareth screamed into the empty space.
Jack clasped a hand to our friend’s mouth and, with his torch-holding hand, he raised a finger to his lips. Gareth nodded, and we shuffled silently across the hallway. It was the second door on the right that gave Jack a reason to hesitate. He placed his hand on the door handle.
“Stand back,” Jack said. “I don’t… something about this room… do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” I asked, feebly.
Of its own accord, the door to the fourth room flew open. What we saw next is something that I cannot explain. There stood Stacey, with her face contorted in a way that defied all laws of nature. All I can tell you is that her eyes were gone. Her sockets were two black chasms. Stacey was gone. She looked as if she had stared into the face of fear itself.
The worst part was that she was still alive. She lifted a shaky arm and stretched her bony fingers towards us. I think she wanted help. I think she wanted death.
“Stacey!” Gareth cried, squeezing between Jack and me.
He knocked Jack’s arm as he ran into the room, and the torch went flying out of his hand.
“Gareth, wait!” Jack screamed.
The door slammed behind him. Without the last torch, we had been plunged into complete darkness. I was too afraid to walk back outside and find mine. Jack fiddled with the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Neither of us had the energy left to fight it. I think we realised we couldn’t fight it.
I realised I had my phone, so I slid it from my pocket. I used the flash light to find Jack, who was leaning with his back against the now-closed fourth door. He had his hands on his knees.
“They’re not making a sound in there,” He said. “Nobody leaves this house, do they?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, solemnly, casting the light on the third right-hand door. “Two more rooms.”
“Tom, Millie is gone. Rick is gone. Stacey is gone. And now, Gareth…” Jack stopped, stifling his tears. “Michael is gone, too. You know that.”
“I just…” I paused. “I think Michael’s here.”
“Maybe,” Jack nodded. “And maybe he’s fucked up like everyone else. Look, I’ve seen some shit I can’t explain, okay? I believe. I believe in the fucking witch. You and I can still make it out of here.”
I ignored Jack and walked over to the third door on the right. We’d reached the end of the hallway, and I remembered something. The painting. I slowly lifted my phone light to get a better look at it.
It was a picture of a pond with three figures standing beside it: a boy, a girl, and an old man. That’s when I realised it was my grandpa, Sammy, and me. It was a painting of that day. In the picture, my grandpa was clutching my wrist. The brush strokes captured that horrifying expression he’d worn on his face as he told me of the real Pendle witch.
“It’s me… that’s me in the painting,” I whispered.
“What the fuck are you saying?” Jack cried from behind me. “Let’s go wnjhjkbnjhyu7hilst we still can, Tom.”
But I couldn’t. I reached for the door handle to the third room on the right and lightly pushed it open. Inside, there was a boy standing up and a boy lying at his feet. Rick and Michael.
“Rick…” I gently whispered.
I had my light firmly fixated on his looming figure. He shuffled around to look at us. There was a bloody hole in the centre of his jumper, and he revealed a face even ghastlier than the one we had just seen on Stacey. Unlike her, Rick did not look as if he had seen the face of fear. He did not look scared at all, in fact. Beneath the black, empty holes where his eyes used to be, he wore a toothy, blood grin that stretched from ear to ear.
It haunts me. I still see Rick’s face. I still see him raising a finger to his lips and making a shushing sound. I remember his wheezy laugh. I remember him pointing at the floor behind him.
Unable to utter a peep, I shakily moved my phone light to the floor. There lay the partially-massacred body of Michael. He was missing an arm, two of his legs, and both of his eyes. But they weren’t black holes like the ones that Stacey and Rick had. They were bloody wounds. Claw marks ran down his face. He was pointing at something in the corner of the room.
“I found her,” Michael groaned. “The witch made Henderson do it.” I leaned around the doorframe and cast my light into the corner. There it was. A pile of bones wearing hiking clothes. Millie.
I finally started to cry, and when I turned around to find Jack, he was gone. It was just me, Michael, and what used to be Rick.
“Jack?!” I screamed.
The fifth door slammed in my face. The brothers were gone. Jack was gone. I found myself standing alone in the hallway. I could feel a weight lifting from my mind. As if I had been in a trance and now I could see, I wondered why I was still in that house. I turned on my heel and eyeballed the open doorway that led back out into the forest, but something still had my body. I couldn’t move.
And that was when the sixth and final door creaked open. The third door on the left. I found my feet carrying me towards it. I remember glancing at the painting at the end of the hallway before I entered the room. The three figures were gone. There was a silhouette between the painted trees. It moved out of sight.
I found myself standing in the last room, and the door closed behind me. It was cold like no coldness I’d ever felt and dark like no darkness I’d ever seen. I felt my arm moving. I couldn’t stop it. My phone light was moving across the walls, slowly making its way towards something at the back of the room.
“No…” I cried, trying desperately to stop myself.
I didn’t want to see what was at the back of the room.
I could hear breathing. I couldn’t move my limbs, but I could move my lips.
“Wait!” I pleaded. “Why did you let William Henderson live?” My arm stopped. My whole body stopped. The breathing stopped. Whilst I had control of my limbs, I let the phone drop to the floor. It landed face-up, so the flashlight was pressed against the floor. I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t want to be forced to see what Stacey and Rick had seen.
“Made… a deal…” a voice whispered.
It wasn’t the voice of a woman. It wasn’t the voice of a man. I always say it was the Devil, but I do that to help myself sleep at night. Truthfully, whatever was in that room scared me more than the Devil.
“What deal?” I whimpered.
I’ll never forget seeing her blackened silhouette, as she moved in front of the one window in the room. Dim moonlight wasn’t dim enough to completely hide her. Seven-foot tall, gangly limbs, and a head far bigger than that of any human. I see her in my dreams. I see her in my waking hours.
I’m lucky I dropped the phone. Would I be like Stacey or Rick if I’d seen her in the light? “Must… feed.”
That was all she said before I passed out, but I knew what she wanted. She’d already told me what I needed to do. The book on the floor. The pied piper of Barley. She would let me live, but I had to continue what William Henderson had started. The tales he told the villagers of Barley had been leading victims to the witch for years.
Maybe he hadn’t given exact directions, but all it takes is a spark. An idea. Of course, everyone in Barley knows the story, but not everyone feels the pull. Maybe it only works on the broken. Mr. Henderson ignited that spark in Michael. He planted the idea of the witch, and Michael did the rest. I like to think our dear old History teacher did not willingly lead his daughter to the slaughter, just as Michael did not willingly lead our friends to that house. Mr. Henderson was just a fool who learned the hard way what his ancestor had really done to make it out of the Bowland house alive.
And, like the Hendersons, I knew what needed to be done. When I woke in the morning, I was back at the campsite. I rang my parents and told them that everyone had gone missing in the woods. I told them they tried to find Millie, but I stayed in the tent.
I’m 27. It’s been thirteen years, and the families of my friends still hunt for their missing children, but they don’t know where to look. I could’ve told them where to go, but the witch would not have taken kindly to an angry mob. I misdirected the police, and her house was never found.
Not everyone in Barley is prey. Some of us are just storytellers. The witch’s pied pipers. Speaking of which, I still see Mr. Henderson in the village from time to time. I think he knows what I am. I think he knows what I’ve done. He shames me with a glare, but no more than he shames himself.
Heed my warning. The Pendle witch is real. She’s something far older than you or me. And she’s hungry. Very hungry.
I think you know why I’ve told you this story. I think you finally understand. It’s an idea, and I have to plant it. If you feel something pulling you deep into the Forest of Bowland, please forgive me.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Dominic EaglePublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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