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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Contemporary  ➡  Epic

The Trespassing of Souls

 

The Trespassing of Souls

By M.S.C. Barnes

The Trespassing of Souls

Copyright©: M.S.C.Barnes 2015

Published: 26 December 2015

Publisher: Stone Circle Publishing

The right of M.S.C Barnes to be identified as author of this Work has been asserted by M.S.C. Barnes in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.

Table of Contents

Second Day Nerves

It Gets Worse

The Mark

Teasing

Miss West

The Weekend

Aiden

The Leaf

Explorers

Labyrinths and Doors

Cross-country

Bats and Squirrels

Moonlight

The Sin

The Summons

An Abstraction

The Caretaker

Labyrinth

Think First

A Question of Age

Whispering

The Visitor

History

Left Behind

Dryads and Hellhounds

Believing is Seeing

Sticks and Stones

The Five Springs

Through the Door

The Group

Souls and Trespassers

Failure and Allies!

Listen!

A Quiet Word

New Rooms

The Annexe

Nearly All Together!

Sleeping Arrangements

A Surprise for Zach

Heath

A Father Figure

You Decide

Souls and Spirits

The Ancient Place

Reunited

Preparations

A Time to Sleep

Into the Darkness

Trust

Circles and Summons

The Attack

Defence

Retake Them All

The Fight

Guilt and Power

The Twins

Give up the Ghost

A Mind’s Power

Revelations and Revenge

Sacrifice

Eternal Damnation

The Seal

Concealment

Just a Body

The Escort

Final Rest

Sentinels

Retelling

A Binding Pledge

Blame

Things to Come

Confirmation

A Resolution

The Question to End

The Beginning

Second Day Nerves

Seb’s mum had made him pancakes with ice cream for breakfast. She knew he wasn’t happy, but then he rarely was. Mostly, Seb Thomas was troubled.

This morning was particularly troubling. It was day two at his new upper school and day one hadn’t gone well.

Socially, Seb had struggled through lower and middle school. With the exception of one friend, to all his other classmates he was either invisible, or the focus of ridicule and derision.

He started the new school with this one friend, Zach, and guiltily admitted, only to himself, that he felt resentment at the friendship. Zach, like Seb, was highly intelligent and into ancient wonders, gods, mysteries and mythical beasties. Naturally they were drawn to each other. Seb, however, couldn’t compete with Zach’s overconfident, extrovert character. He felt eclipsed and dominated by him but was forced to cling to their friendship or face total solitude.

So on that miserable Thursday morning he ate his pancakes, as the ice cream gradually melted, with a lump in his throat and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Yesterday morning had been so different, full of excitement at the new start, new possibilities, freedom from the invisible Seb at middle school; a chance to be someone new. Today the gloss had been taken off that hope. He hadn’t managed to make one new friend. He had been with Zach the whole day and couldn’t bring himself to speak to any of their new classmates. He was left feeling it was all going horribly wrong and he was going to be as sad and out of place at this new school as he had been at his last.

He felt a burst of adrenaline, the stomach-churning feeling of trepidation. To the sound of his mother barking instructions at his younger brother, Seb scooted out of the door.

Brooding clouds gathered overhead.

His sister sat smugly in the front seat of the car. She loved school, made friends easily, loved the novelty of new class timetables and had travelled home from her first day at the school full of stories of the friends she had already made.

Scarlet was extrovert, organised, keen where Seb was introverted, chaotic, reluctant. They had started at the new school together in the same year and, as always, people guessed incorrectly that they were twins. In fact, Seb was ten months younger than Scarlet but their birthdays fell in the same academic year which consigned him to a school career living in his capable, gregarious sister’s shadow.

He scowled at the snooty smile she gave him and clambered into the back of the car, dropping his water bottle onto the seat. It tipped over, leaking onto his trousers. He wiped them with a tissue which disintegrated and smeared white, flaky deposits over the black material.

The journey to school passed quietly. As the few miles rolled by, Seb’s nervousness grew.

The eight o’clock news came on and his mum turned the radio down. She habitually protected her children from news stories, not wishing them to hear about stabbings, bomb blasts or other tragedies.

Seb remembered his horror the first time he heard about a bombing. His mum had been too slow to turn the radio down, distracted by his then baby brother vomiting the majority of his morning milk over his car seat. The news story told of an explosion in a country called Iraq, in a city Seb couldn’t pronounce. It had happened in a crowded market area and women and children were among the forty killed.

Whilst the young Seb drew comfort from the fact this hadn’t happened in England, he wasn’t sure exactly how much. His internal world map didn’t contain the detail of where Iraq was and he had to check on his illuminating globe when he got home. He had been pleased at the distance of that country from England but now a hazy darkness had crept into his consciousness. Up until that point the world had been a safe, innocent place. Now he had been introduced to some of the nasty things that could happen and that people could do to each other.

They arrived at the school approach road and their mum parked on the avenue of oak trees leading to the main gates.

Seb struggled with his heavy bags, which seemed to be so much bigger than everyone else’s. Scarlet was shouting at him. She had seen a new friend nearing the school entrance and wanted to join her but knew she couldn’t get away with simply abandoning her nuisance brother. She edged away from the car. Their younger brother bawled that she was going without him and chased after her. Everyone could hear the Thomas family, strung out in a noisy procession: Scarlet shouting and waving to her friend, their little brother crying and their mum calling to him, running behind with his raincoat flapping in her hand. Seb, embarrassed, scowled and followed, holding his head down.

Seb struggled to catch up with Scarlet and her friend as they approached Reception to drop off their mobile phones. Feeling grumpy, he decided that actually he didn’t need his sister’s company today and slowed. He sauntered to Reception, signed in his phone and headed for the playground via the main corridor. Trying to appear as if he had been at the school for ever, he was focusing on the light ahead, the exit door to the playground, when he felt a sudden blow on his right shoulder, heard a thud behind him and was spun around by two hands.

A booming voice shouted, “Halt, mortal, and be identified!”

Peering into the gloom of the corridor, Seb saw a set of bright white teeth shining from a dark face, framed by a head of tightly curled black hair. Zach!

“I heard you coming, your feet stomped so much.” Seb tried to sound unflustered.

Zach threw his head back and laughed a loud, outrageous laugh that rebounded along the corridor and must have travelled into every room off it.

Seb was horrified. “Shh! We’ll get into trouble.”

Zach put his arm around Seb’s shoulders and continued laughing. “I’ve been here ages, what took you so long?”

“I thought you’d be in the playground. Come on, we’ll be late now,” Seb said.

He moved towards the exit, wishing to goodness Zach would take his arm off his shoulders. He knew he should be grateful to have a friend, but Zach was already acting the fool and drawing attention to them both. They would never make new friends.

“Wow, it got sunny quickly!” Zach boomed, staring at the light shining through the exit door.

“Shh, Zach, there might be teachers in the classrooms.”

Zach’s arm at last fell from Seb’s shoulders as he stepped round and walked backwards. “I see no Keep Quiet signs. I see no teachers,” he raised his head. “I do see a fraidy-cat friend though,” he carried on, bellowing out the words as a door behind him opened, “who needs to lighten up.”

Seb stopped dead, staring beyond Zach’s shoulder to where a large figure had stepped from the classroom door between the boys and the exit. In silhouette it looked like a giant – an ogre! Its head only cleared the ceiling by about six inches; its hulking frame filled half the width of the corridor. It was making a raspy sound, thin and high-pitched, but it uttered no words.

“Seb, your mouth is so far open I can see your breakfast!” Zach glanced over his own shoulder and then back at Seb who was frozen where he stood, watching the silhouetted figure shamble forward, still making that creepy raspy sound.

Seb tried to regain his composure. It’s only a member of staff, he told himself.

“We were just making our way to the playground,” he offered, as the large figure took another lumbering step towards them.

Zach stared at Seb, his back to the giant and laughed again. “Yes we were. So why the heck are we stood here?” Another glance over his shoulder and then he looked back at Seb. “Come on Seb, you’re being weird.”

Ignoring Zach’s laughter and confused as to why his friend wasn’t concerned at the monstrous shape just behind him, Seb tried to control his rising fear. The ominous figure shuffled another step closer. It had no discernible features and Seb’s imagination created the missing information: he pictured a huge, ugly visage, one massive eye in the centre; a low, heavy forehead; large, rubbery lips and a selection of random, mismatching teeth. And this monster was lurching nearer to Zach as it wheezed and hacked.

A sudden bang behind Seb made the massive bulk jump and the light behind it intensified. It stumbled back, turned right and disappeared through the classroom doorway, the door slamming behind it.

Seb turned towards the sound of the bang and saw the head teacher, Mr Duir, staring at him from the far end of the corridor. As the light behind Seb waned he smiled.

“Take your friend Master Thomas and find the rest of your group.” He turned and headed towards Reception.

Seb was concerned that The Head knew his name but the thought disappeared quickly as an overwhelming desire to be anywhere except in this corridor swept through him. He grabbed Zach by the arm and pulled him.

“Zach, let’s go!”

“You mere mortals, you fear to be late. We gods fear nothing.” Zach chuckled.

“Zach, are you mad? The ogre will hear you!” Seb said in an angry whisper. “Let’s just get going.”

“Ah yes, ‘ogres’. You mortals fear ogres too. Not us gods, we fear— ”

Seb yanked Zach’s arm harder. “Oh come on, or I’m going without you.” He began speed-walking to the exit, leaving Zach trying to keep up. He pulled the door open and felt a gust of wind and a smattering of raindrops on his face as he stepped out and straight into a huge puddle.

“Seb you fool!” Zach howled.

Seb was mortified. Everyone knew about The Lake. It was famed throughout the school and Year Nine students were warned about it on day one. Don’t fall in The Lake.

It was a mystery to most why The Head had not provided funding to fill in the deep subsidence just under the step. He had taken the job four years earlier and in that time had spent money on additional buildings: a theatre, fantastic science labs and a new gym, but no provision had ever been made for a simple resurfacing of the playground.

Seb stood, feeling his new left shoe filling with water which seeped up his trouser leg. He leapt out and onto the raised concrete two feet away.

Zach stood on the wooden ramp that formed a dry pathway across The Lake, laughing so loud that all the children within a radius of, well, the whole playground, now turned to look at the Year Nine-er who had stepped in The Lake.

Giggles and chuckles started up and Seb wanted to disappear. Then he felt a touch on his shoulder.

“Come on, little brother.”

He turned to see his annoying, full-of-herself sister, with her hand on his shoulder, smiling so nicely at him. Around her were three of her new friends, forming a barrier from the rest of the laughing school cohort. Seb guessed she was trying to impress the girls with a show of kindness. Scarlet took his PE rucksack and handed his satchel to one of the girls, introducing her as Nat. She smiled kindly at him as the girls escorted him out of the main playground.

“Hey, wait for me!” Zach called, chasing after them.

The laughter died down as they turned the corner and headed along the Year Nine pathway. Seb’s shoe squelched and his sock moved around on the slippery insole. He didn’t know whether to be grateful to Scarlet for rescuing him or totally humiliated at having to be looked after by his sister. Whatever, he was content to be out of the spotlight.

When they reached the smaller Year Nine playground, Scarlet and her group left Seb and Zach and went to find their own class line. Standing in his line, Seb now had time to worry about how his mum would react to his ruined shoe. At least the day couldn’t get any worse …

 

It Gets Worse

Academically, the morning lessons were a breeze for Seb – Maths, Science, then two periods of History whose topic was Greek mythology and specifically Theseus and the Minotaur and Ariadne’s thread. He was able to forget his damp sock, able to blot out the embarrassment in the playground – temporarily.

The History teacher, Mr West, had to wait for the class to settle and come to terms with his unusual appearance. The pupils were unused to a teacher who was actually shorter than even the smallest child in the class. His stubby fingers, squeaky voice and the rolling gait, with which he waddled around and between the desks as he talked, drew sidelong glances and the occasional murmur or snigger.

Though they all knew of dwarves or Little People and had all heard of the West Twins, a frequent topic of both student and parent conversations, there was always an initial shock when students were faced with the reality in their midst.

Once that shock subsided and his build and features had been accepted, pupils warmed to Mr West’s dynamic personality. Every word he uttered was enthusiastic and mesmerizing. He related the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and the students followed his storytelling as if connected by the very golden thread Ariadne had given the adventurous hero.

Seb was in his element. So, unfortunately, was Zach, only more loudly. Zach continually put up his hand, each time breaking the spell as Mr West paused, fixed his sunken eyes on the boy and asked, “Master Orwell, you have another question; or is it another observation?”

Zach interjected continually with additional, wholly unnecessary information, facts he had read, speculations and questions designed to demonstrate what he knew rather than to seek answers.

The rest of the class didn’t seem to notice or mind, but for Seb, who had experienced years of the same, it was infuriating. Normally he wouldn’t be bothered but this was a favourite subject and Zach was ruining it!

Mr West continued, the thread began weaving again and Seb floated along with it. He was in the dank, narrow passageways of the labyrinth. He could feel the cold, sense the dampness on the walls. He was passing the blackened bones of youths who had met their demise in that oppressive place, hearing the low growls and grunts as Theseus neared his quarry. And then the thread snapped; again Zach’s hand was up and Mr West was fixing his gaze on him.

Seb sighed. He hadn’t meant to, but it was a loud and obvious sigh, accompanied by a visible slump as he planted his elbows on the table and lowered his head. Now all eyes were on him, especially those of Mr West.

“Master Thomas?” The squeaky voice sounded surprised.

Seb straightened awkwardly in his seat, fixed his own eyes on Mr West’s, which were half-hidden beneath bushy brows, and said nothing.

Zach, dropping his hand, also looked at Seb; actually he frowned at him.

Mr West turned to Zach. “Master Orwell, I note some among your classmates are struggling to keep up with the story. So they don’t lose the thread as it were, can we save questions and observations for the end? If you must, write notes and we can deal with them afterwards. Is that satisfactory to you?”

Zach looked at Seb and nodded smugly. Seb dropped his eyes to his desk and ignored the other glances from around the room. His hands idly played with his water bottle then a small pattern on the surface of his desk caught his attention. He slid the bottle to the side to see the mark more clearly, but knocked it over. The screw top wasn’t on properly and it dislodged, emptying the contents across the desk. The spreading puddle dripped over the edge of the table and into his lap. His trousers, the left leg still wet, were now soaked around the crotch. He could feel cold liquid dribbling between his thighs and under his bottom. A girl sitting opposite him, as the water spread towards her, wrenched her chair backward, bumping into the boy behind who had been balancing forward on the two front legs of his chair. As he fell to the floor he clipped his lip on the table and blood oozed from his mouth. The girl beside him screamed and the domino effect spread. As she screamed she raised her hands to her mouth, sticking her elbows out, nudging the boy next to her in the side of the head. He howled and leant away to the side, knocking a vase off the cupboard beside him. The resulting crash seemed to create a crushing silence as all the children turned first to the fragmented pottery on the floor, then to the boy with his lip dripping blood and then back to Seb.

Events after this were a blur: lots of laughter and pointing; Mr West waddling across the room to yank blue-roll from the dispenser and throwing it in a streamer over the heads of the students to land perfectly in the swelling puddle on the table in front of Seb; the boy with the bleeding lip being escorted to the medical room and then Mr West, his oversized backside sticking in the air, on his hands and knees with a dustpan and brush, sweeping the pieces of pottery up and dropping them with a crash into an empty box.

The class never did settle down. Little tittering outbursts and whispers punctuated the remaining minutes of the lesson.

The clanging bell, signalling lunchtime, was the most musical thing Seb had heard. Head hanging, he stood.

Zach clapped him on the back and in a booming voice said, “Thanks for the entertainment, mortal!”

In the back of his mind Seb managed to feel relieved that the performance had not alienated his only friend. One thing about Zach, his loyalty was unquestionable.

Lunch brought more humiliation. Other than the odd snigger, his classmates, with the exception of Zach, made no move to speak to him or associate with him in any way. He did, however, receive plenty of attention from the hundreds of other students queuing for lunch. The wet patch across his crotch and bottom needed no explanation: the Year Nine-er had peed his pants – well that was the chat anyway, and short of standing on a tabletop and announcing that it was just water, how could he stop the story spreading?

By the end of lunch Seb was known throughout the school as the boy who had stepped in The Lake and peed himself on his second day. Having begun the morning resenting Zach’s presence he now clung to him for security, relieved that Zach seemed unconcerned at the wide berth they were being given by all other pupils at the school.

The Mark

Huddled in the back of the car on the way home, Seb was quiet. Scarlet, however, was not. She recounted The Lake story in vivid detail and described her embarrassment at people believing she was twin sister to the infamous pant-wetting Year Nine-er. She bigged-up her role in protecting him and escorting him to his class line and played down her evasive tactics in the playground at lunchtime, when Seb and Zach had approached her and her girlfriends, looking for a wider circle to be with, and she had pretended not to see them, disappearing into some secluded corner to avoid them.

Seb’s mind retreated from the uncomfortable storytelling and returned to the curious mark he had seen on his desk, before the incident with the water bottle. The school desks were mostly battered old wooden items with scrapes and scratches and years’ worth of scribblings, some accidental, many intentional as the teachers lost the anti-graffiti battle. The mark Seb had noted was obviously intentional. Scratched in black ink, the line pressed so heavily into the wood surface it scored an indentation. It was the outline of a leaf. That in itself wasn’t so exceptional; the school was in the middle of a spread of ancient woodland which would provide subconscious inspiration for students gazing out of the window instead of engaging in their lessons.

This particular leaf, however, had drawn Seb’s attention because right in the middle of it was a single upright line, from the left of which stretched two parallel horizontal lines. It was only about half an inch long, but was precise and clear.

Seb turned his left hand over and stared at his palm. He placed his fingernail on the mark which had been present on his skin since birth and traced along the same design – two horizontal lines, joining a single upright line formed by an overabundance of pigmentation, the doctors had told his mother, and spread in an unusually precise network of lines, as opposed to the usual misshapen blobs that typify birthmarks. He gazed at the area surrounding this criss-cross of lines which was tinted darker than the pale skin on the rest of his hand. This patch of tinted skin undulated and curved, giving the appearance of an oak leaf. The whole birthmark was no more than an inch long.

Seb wondered if he should mention the table-marking to his mother and sister. Scarlet was fascinated by Seb’s birthmark. He decided mentioning it would just open up the whole water-spilling, pot-smashing, lip-splitting incident again and it was best to leave Scarlet to ramble on about her exciting day. He slumped back in his seat and remained quiet for the journey and throughout the evening, sloping off to bed early, sad and disappointed at the disastrous day.

His dreams that night found him wandering in an endless, dark wood. He stumbled into a stream. His shiny new school shoes were soaked; they swelled in size and fell away from his feet. He clambered up the bank and climbed over the ridge at the top. Stepping down into another rivulet he tripped and fell to a sitting position in the water. As the icy liquid soaked into his trousers he looked up in the gloom and saw the glint of a golden thread stretching from a large tree behind him and disappearing into a dark void on the opposite bank. He reached and grabbed the thread and heard a creaking and groaning sound as he used the fine cord to pull himself up. The thread, which had been taut, bent and the massive trunk of an oak tree fell forward out of the dark void towards the stream. As it crashed to the ground it splintered into millions of pieces of pottery. Seb, pelted with the shards of ceramic bark, put his hands up to protect his face and a fine sliver skimmed across his left palm. He felt a searing pain and woke with a start to find himself at the bottom of his bed, his left arm hanging down, illuminated by a beam of moonlight that sliced through a small gap in the curtains.

Everything was quiet except from the bed below where his brother, The Taz, was gently snuffling.

Seb’s left hand hurt and he sat up, holding his palm towards the beam of moonlight to get a better look. Expecting to see a cut or bruising, it was smarting so much his breath caught in his throat as his eyes focused. The lines in the centre of his birthmark looked like they had grown, expanding right to the edges of the leaf shape and they looked lighter than the dark brown he was used to. They seemed to have a hue; a tint he couldn’t make out. The moonlight drained the colour from everything around him. He ran his fingertip over the lines and noticed a softness, a slight furry texture.

Seb tiptoed to the bathroom. Turning on the light he held his hand up and opened his fingers. When he saw the network of lines and the birthmark, the loud groan he made echoed around the room.

He wasn’t wrong. The lines had doubled in size and now they were green. They stretched from the top of the surrounding pigmented leaf shape to the bottom, like a straight spine with veins running from it.

Staring intently at the mark he practically jumped out of his skin as a hand grabbed his left arm. He spun round and pulled away, glancing over his shoulder. Scarlet’s angry face, framed by a mass of tousled hair, loomed towards him. She hissed in a whisper, “What the heck are you doing?”

Seb hissed a Shh! back.

“I am shushing! What are you doing?”

Seb’s instinct was to lie, but he was now upset and worried and needed a friend. Maybe it was the anxiety in his eyes but Scarlet’s face softened.

“What is it? D’you have a bad dream? What’s wrong?”

Seb thrust his palm up about a foot away from her nose. He watched her expression as her eyes focused on the mark. The frown lifted, then the eyebrows, her mouth opened, her eyes widened and she stifled a little choke.

Scarlet’s first instinct was to call their mum but Seb refused to let her. She wanted to know why not; maybe Seb’s birthmark was infected. It had, after all, gone green. Seb became defensive, arguing it wasn’t infected; it seemed perfectly healthy. The pain had gone; it was just that the network of lines was now green instead of dark brown. It really didn’t matter – did it?

Scarlet lifted his hand to her nose and sniffed it.

Seb pulled it away. “What are you doing?”

“Well, shouldn’t it smell if it’s infected? You know, gangrene.” She screwed her nose up.

Seb’s heart lurched. “Well? Does it? Does it smell?”

Scarlet shoved his arm away. “Nope. Well, no more than stinky boys normally smell.” She smiled at him.

They spent the next few hours chatting, discussing whether it was normal for birthmarks to change, what the cause could be, and whether there was a hidden reason or meaning.

Sitting in the bright, artificial light of the bathroom with the sky outside lightening through the frosted glass window, Seb’s fears subsided. It seemed perfectly normal that the lines in his birthmark should change and grow. Wasn’t that part of growing up anyway? He was still adamant he didn’t want to let their mum know; she would fuss and take him to the doctor and make a huge deal out of it. Seb cited The Lake incident and the pant-wetting story as all-too-recent examples of unwanted fame and attention. Scarlet giggled and shrugged, letting him have his way. She was thrilled to be in on a secret.

 

Teasing

On waking, their mum was surprised to find Seb and Scarlet already dressed and downstairs having breakfast. Smiling, she busied herself with getting The Taz ready.

Seb and Scarlet had nicknamed their baby brother ‘The Taz’ after watching a cartoon of the Tasmanian Devil as he wreaked havoc in Daffy Duck’s life and decided that their brother was a child-sized version of this whirlwind character. He was now spinning madly on his bar stool, giggling.

Chomping noisily on her Crunchy Nut cornflakes, Scarlet turned and gave Seb a wink when she saw he was wearing his fingerless gloves with his jumper sleeves pulled down to his knuckles. That had been her suggestion to hide the birthmark.

During the drive to school Scarlet sat in the back next to Seb. In a whisper she told him he should show his hand to her friends and swear them to secrecy. Seb hardly paid any attention. He gazed out at the passing scenery. The sun had decided to reappear for the day and as he squinted out of the window he noted a quick movement between some trees. It was only a fleeting glimpse but he grabbed Scarlet’s knee.

“Scarlet, did you see that?” He pointed and she stared out of the window.

“See what?”

He could smell crunchy nuts mixed with minty toothpaste on her breath.

“There’s no point looking now; you obviously missed it,” he stated, turning to look out of the rear window.

“Missed what?”

Seb lowered his voice and leaned towards her. “Scarlet, I saw— I can’t believe you didn’t see it.”

“Getting annoyed now!” She crossed her arms.

“I am sure I saw— well, a silver person!”

She turned slowly to search his eyes for any hint he was winding her up. Then she looked out of the back window. “Seriously? I mean, really, what on earth do you mean by ‘a silver person’?”

“It was a man – tall, thin and, well, shining! Standing by a tree. I only caught a really quick look, but he was sparkling. He saw me, looked at me. Honestly, Scarlet, it was a silver person.”

“What was he wearing?”

“What? I don’t know; I just noticed that he was shining.”

“Shining? Like a glow-in-the-dark? A block of silver? What do you mean?” She was getting frustrated.

“No. Sparkling, shimmering, really. The skin, the body— ” he tutted, unable to explain properly.

“Well what was he doing?”

“Nothing; just standing next to a tree and looking at me.”

Seb looked out of the rear windscreen. The trees had thinned out and he could see hedgerows and open fields. A slight mist hovered above the ground in the farthest fields. A magpie rose from the grass verge near the road and flapped over the bushes, coming to roost in a lone tree in the middle of a field. Seb saw the silver figure step round the trunk. Keeping his head turned towards the window he tapped Scarlet’s knee. “Look!”

She turned and frowned.

“By that tree in that field – the one all by itself.”

“I see a tree Seb, but there’s no one next to it. You’re winding me up.”

“Scarlet, I’m not. It is there, how can you not see it? Are you looking at the right tree?”

“Of course I’m looking at the right tree! There’s only one in the middle of the field. There’s nothing there!”

Seb turned to look at his sister’s confused and frustrated expression. “How can you not see it?”

She slumped back in her seat. “Well I can’t and I think you’re making it up.”

“Don’t get angry; I’m not making it up. Maybe I’m just tired— ”

She grunted then snorted a little laugh. “Or mad!”

Seb sat back in his seat, deciding to say nothing more. He glanced out of the window. The silver figure had vanished.

 

Miss West

Arriving at school, Seb heard a few sniggers as he walked through the entrance. Fortunately, Zach was waiting at Reception. As they headed down the main corridor and passed the door into which the hulking ogre figure had disappeared, Seb heard a wheezing cackle. He stopped.

“What ya doing?” Zach asked.

“Did you hear that?” Seb put his ear to the door.

“Hear what?”

“That laugh, didn’t you hear it?”

“I’ve heard lots of laughing today, old buddy …”

Seb frowned as they approached the exit. He managed to negotiate The Lake without incident and they headed to the Year Nine playground. Most of the students there ignored them, although a couple giggled or nudged each other.

Seb’s left hand was tingling. He could hear the leaves in the nearby oak trees rustling and looked into the woods. His heart skipped as he saw the silver figure standing about twenty feet away, beside a tree.

Grabbing Zach’s arm he dragged him towards the fence.

“Alright mortal, they’ll laugh no matter where we stand.”

Seb pointed into the trees. The sparkling figure stood staring at the boys.

“Do you see that, Zach? Tell me you see that!”

Zach followed Seb’s finger. “What was it? A squirrel? A deer? Seb, it’s a wood! I’m sure we’ll see them all the time.”

“No.” Seb looked at Zach. Noting the lack of surprise, the lack of interest, he knew already that Zach, like Scarlet, saw nothing. He chose to keep his mouth shut. “You didn’t see it then?”

“Nah.”

A piercing whistle made them jump and Seb turned to see a diminutive figure, dressed in dark purple, standing behind the railing on the ramp to the Year Nine block. The dumpy little female had a shock of outrageous, black, bushy hair and as the wind whipped around the playground strands of it were lifted and whirled all about her head. She had a snub nose and low forehead – not an attractive look – and her beady, dark eyes were fixed on Seb.

“Silence, now.” Her voice was surprisingly soft, with a melodious tone and the students were silent in an instant. Seb figured that was more out of curiosity at the appearance of this other West twin, than from obedience to her command.

Her crazy hair was still twirling around her head and her stumpy fingers strummed on the railing, which came up to shoulder height on her, as she kept her eyes fixed on him.

“Into your classrooms, please.”

The pupils walked up the ramp past her and peeled off to their relevant classrooms; some went left at the top of the ramp, some right. It was like watching a procession, with this curious wild-haired figure at the centre. A few students glanced at her as they walked past, even the smallest of them a good few inches taller than her. One boy paused and tried to speak to her; she lifted a hand and waved him away without ever breaking eye contact with Seb.

Then with a stunningly quick movement she leapt onto the railing with her right foot and launched through the air towards Seb. At precisely the same moment he felt a sharp pain as if tiny spikes were being driven into his shoulder. The blur of activity which followed was punctuated by a shout from Zach, a chant of Miss West! Miss West! from the pupils still remaining on the ramp, a flapping sound very close to Seb’s left ear and that persistent little stabbing and pricking pain.

Miss West, landing beside him, grabbed something from his shoulder. As she pulled it away Seb caught a glimpse of tiny little claws gripping onto and tearing the fibres of his green school jumper. She threw the little creature deep into the wood and a screeching sound came bouncing back from the bush into which it disappeared.

The teacher hitched up her trousers, straightened her purple tunic and ran her fingers through the matted locks of her hair. She wasn’t looking at Seb now; in fact, she had turned her back and was walking away across the playground towards the main building.

Seb looked at his shoulder. Oh great, there were tiny holes torn in the material and—

“Hey mate,” Zach boomed, “that was quite a show! And you seem to have something— oh yuck, you’ve got bird poo on your shoulder!”

The Year Nine audience, half still standing on the ramp, half looking out of the windows of the classrooms, erupted into laughter. Seb was becoming their daily entertainment.

Having spent break time in the toilet unsuccessfully trying to remove the poo from his jumper, Seb never got the chance to talk to Zach about his birthmark as he intended.

Most of their lessons that morning were spent filling in forms and copying course book lists with their form tutor, a delicate bird-like lady called Miss Crabtree. She seemed very sweet natured and gentle.

Zach spent the lessons asking look-what-I-know questions and the big characters in the class got noisier and noisier. As they approached lunchtime the noise level rose to a crescendo and there was pandemonium in the class. Seb was glad to get out to the more general noise in the playground. He was so grateful now for Zach’s continued loyalty and decided never again to resent the friendship.

They were second-sitting lunch and Seb enjoyed the freshness outside before their turn came to go to the cafeteria. He scanned the woodland around the playground for signs of the silver figure but saw nothing. He decided to chat to Zach about it all but wanted to find a quiet place where they wouldn’t be overheard. He had just managed to manoeuvre him to a group of three tree stumps near the wooden fencing and sat on one of them when Scarlet came striding up to them with her new best friend, Nat, and two other friends, Abi and Alex, in tow.

Seb was dreading what was coming, a request to have a private showing of the birthmark for her little girlfriend troupe. He was surprised when Scarlet leant in and whispered, “I haven’t told them.”

She pulled back and said in a loud voice, “So, where’s your pooey-jumper brother? We all saw you being rescued from a sparrow by Miss West; poor Seb. And then you got bird poo all over your jumper – yuck! Mum’s going to love cleaning that.”

Nat nudged her and said, “Scarlet, don’t be mean.”

Seb gazed up at Nat. Her big, pale blue eyes had a wide open expression. Her physique was willowy and she was at least an inch taller than him. Her light brown hair hung in gentle waves to her shoulders and Seb stared at the silky strands which seemed to glisten gold in the sunshine.

Scarlet winked at Seb. “You know I’m just kidding, right?”

Seb gave a shrug.

“Are you okay?” Nat asked, with seemingly genuine concern.

Her blue eyes looked upset and very beautiful. Seb thought she seemed kind and smiled. “I’m fine. It scratched my shoulder a bit, but Mum’s going to be really angry – my jumper’s ruined.”

“That’s not your fault.” It was Alex this time, her little freckle-face pushing between Nat and Scarlet at about their shoulder height. She was tiny, in every way, except for her thick, bushy, chestnut-coloured hair, which was tied into submission in two long plaits.

“Alright girls, I brought you here to see the jumper, not to stand up for my infamous brother!” Scarlet was obviously a bit disappointed that her new friends seemed to find Seb interesting rather than annoying.

A whistle blew and Zach grabbed Seb’s arm, dragging him up off the tree stump to head for the cafeteria. “Come on, I’m starving. You coming, girls? We can talk some more inside.”

“We left our lunch bags in the classroom. Have to go back and get them,” Scarlet answered with a satisfied smile.

As Seb followed Zach he heard a couple of giggles. Scarlet walked up to him and brushed moss and other debris from his backside.

“You actually need a nursemaid, Seb Thomas!”

Seb looked at the three girls watching his sister pat his bum down and received a reassuring smile from Nat.

Fortunately the rest of the afternoon was fairly uneventful and Seb headed home, thankful for the weekend but already nervous about Monday.

 

The Weekend

With his first step into upper school a disaster, Seb was grateful for the weekend. He had managed an undisturbed and dreamless sleep and enjoyed lying under the warm duvet as the morning sunlight filtered in through the curtains. Then he heard his mum’s mobile ring. After a few minutes she came upstairs.

“Come on, Seb. I know we said we were going to have a pyjama day but we’re now having Zach and Gretel round. Julie has to work. You need to get up and dressed; they’ll be here in half an hour.”

Seb was actually pleased; he might get a chance to discuss everything with Zach. But Gretel? That was a different matter – she was a female version of The Taz: a Tazette. With those two together the day would be chaotic.

Scarlet mooched into the room, rubbing her cheeks, and groaned as she heard her pyjama day had disappeared, and not because one of her friends was coming over.

“I thought we’d all go to Sandy Lodge for a walk.”

Their mum’s words brought a groan from both Seb and Scarlet and then The Taz’s little head popped round the door. “Yippee!”

When they had been there last time with Gretel, he had spent a crazy half hour rolling down, climbing up and rolling down again a steep hill near the heath area of the RSPB protected reserve.

That actually would be fun, Seb thought. If they went today he and Zach would probably join in.

Scarlet scowled. “That’s not fair, Seb will have Zach and The Taz will have— ”

“I’ve told you both not to call him that!” their mum scolded.

The Taz ran across the room and did a flying leap onto Seb who was sitting on the bottom bunk. Seb howled as he felt the full force of the four-year-old’s knees impact on his stomach.

“I rest my case!” Scarlet crossed her arms.

“No, seriously, don’t call your brother that. Use his name,” their mum said.

“Yes, you can’t call me that. I’m A-D-A-M, Adam!” his little voice chimed in.

“A-D-A-M, Adam – get off me!” Seb raised his voice.

“The fresh air will do you all good.” Their mum stared at Scarlet whose face was now fixed in a petulant frown. “I don’t want any moaning from you, Scarlet. Go and get ready. You know you’ll enjoy it once you’re there.”

Scarlet huffed and stomped off to her room. In spite of her mother’s instructions, she moaned throughout breakfast and was still moaning an hour later when they noisily piled out of the car at the RSPB reserve.

The Taz and Tazette shot off along the roadway that bisected the vast woodland and Scarlet chased after them, suddenly becoming Nanny McPhee to the pair. Seb and Zach chased after her and before long they were all shouting and laughing and drawing a few frowns from the serious birdwatchers, wandering about the place with their £500 binoculars and fancy oilskin jackets. They drew more smiles, however, from the family groups or middle-aged couples, all out to just enjoy the sights and sounds of this beautiful place, and that included children exploring and having fun.

They all negotiated the cattle grid on the road as though they were tightrope walkers and then took the track that led to the heath. Within five minutes they were scrambling up the high embankment The Taz had named ‘The Roly-Down Hill’. This sheer hillside rising up from the footpath was the best playground a four and five-year-old could hope for. Seb grinned and followed Zach and Scarlet as they chased the terrors up the incline.

Seb’s mum found herself a suitable place beneath an oak tree where she sat, leaning against the trunk, watching them.

One by one they began rolling and tumbling down the hillside to come to rest, laughing hysterically, at the bottom, before climbing up again. The laughter and antics continued for a good forty-five minutes.

Seb stood at the top of the hill catching his breath, waiting for his little brother to clear out of the way, watching as Scarlet veered off to the left in uncontrollable giggles with bits of twig and leaf sticking out of her hair and hanging off her jacket. A cracking sound behind him made him turn and he nearly fell down the hill as he found himself face-to-face with a huge stag.

A full two feet taller than Seb the beast had the biggest set of antlers. Its soft, dark eyes watched him but other than the odd twitch of its ears it didn’t move. Seb could smell its pelt, the dampness of sweat. He could hear its breathing as the creature just stood and looked at him, a slight layer of mucous around its nostrils.

Seb guessed he should probably run down the hill and hope that the stag couldn’t follow and gore him with those huge antlers. He could see the soft velvety coating on them, a silvery-grey tinge to it that shone as it caught the sunlight. The stag lowered its head and there it stayed, an arm’s reach from him.

It seems so tame, he thought.

Suddenly he heard scrabbling and panting from the hillside. It drowned out the short, fast breaths of the stag. Seb reached an arm out. The beast remained still, allowing him to stroke its soft forehead.

The scrabbling was really close now.

“Seb, what are you doing? OMG, a stag! OMG how lovely; let me stroke it!”

Scarlet came bounding towards Seb. As she did, the deer raised its head, let out a huge, guttural bellow, turned on its hind quarters and darted into the nearest copse of trees. Its crashing could be heard for several minutes as it disappeared into the safety of the thickly wooded area.

Seb felt desperately sad. That had been the most magical moment of his life. As his hand had touched the soft fur of that wondrous creature he had felt its warmth, its life, its energy. He didn’t want to let the moment go. And there was Scarlet, tapping him, hitting him on the shoulder.

“What were you doing? What on earth were you doing? Why didn’t you let me touch it?”

“Stop it Scarlet,” he spoke quietly, sadly. “It was you who made it go, bounding in here and rushing at it. You scared it away. Can you never just be quiet?”

There was a pause and Seb heard more scrabbling up the hill. Their mum called out, asking if they were okay. She had obviously heard the bellow and was worried about them.

Scarlet stepped to the edge of the incline. “Mum, we’re fine, but you’re never going to believe what Seb just did!”

She chattered about the deer as they trudged to the bottom of the hill where The Taz and Gretel, having been told not to climb up again and stay with Zach, had decided to poke sticks down a nearby rabbit hole they had found. Zach supported them in their endeavours and as Seb and his mum and sister rejoined them the three had their backsides stuck up in the air and arms thrust down the hole right up to their shoulders. Seb’s mum gave Zach a lecture on how dangerous that was if there was a cornered rabbit in there: sharp teeth, claws etc., and how cruel too. Zach blamed the four and five-year-old, who then burst into outrageously exaggerated tears while Seb’s mum told Zach she was surprised he had been so easily led by children so young. That chastened him and he became sullen and withdrawn for a few minutes until Scarlet started jabbering on about the stag incident, at a pitch above the wailing younger children.

Seb dawdled off down the track, keen to distance himself from the commotion.

Eventually, Gretel and Adam stopped sobbing and the group set off on their walk. The youngsters found a large stick each which they dragged along, leaving spindly, serpentine imprints in the sandy dirt behind them as Zach and Scarlet ran to catch up with Seb. Zach wanted more detail to the stag story and, more importantly, to know why his best mate hadn’t called him to see the creature.

As they came to the top of the quarry, in the corner of his eye, Seb caught a glimmer of silver, but when he turned to look he saw only trees.

Walking towards the sliding bar gate leading back to the main track there was a sudden fluttering to Seb’s right. From a mass of jagged holly leaves at the centre of the quarry a small creature flew straight at him. It leant back and its tiny legs, with sharp, gnarled claws at the ends, thrust out to impact on his head. Digging its razor-sharp claws into his scalp it began stabbing, lifting and stabbing each foot repeatedly. Seb became rigid and then in a quick, smooth movement Zach grabbed the tiny attacker with one hand and threw it back into the holly bush. A small screech was heard and then silence.

Seb looked at Zach, stunned.

“It’s only what I saw Miss West do!” Zach shrugged.

“Seb, there’s no poo this time!” Scarlet laughed. Then as the younger children joined them she leaned in closer to Seb. “Did you see that thing?”

“What thing?”

“Duh, what thing do you think? The one that landed on your head!”

“No of course not – it was on my head!” Seb rubbed his scalp.

“Did you see it properly, Zach?” she hissed, grabbing Zach’s elbow and making the three of them drop back.

“Yup, a little starling or something. I might take up birdwatching.”

“No it wasn’t a starling; it didn’t even look like a bird, Zach. It was a bat! How could you not see that?”

“So what? You do get them round here!” Zach grinned at her.

Seb started to puzzle over the different species he had read about. He didn’t like the thought of the vampire ones and decided he had never read of any being found in the UK so it was highly doubtful it was one of those. He rubbed his scalp again, this time feeling to see if the skin had been broken. It hadn’t and he trudged on silently, anxious to get back to the car now.

As they left, Seb’s palm tingled and he rubbed it gently. He gazed out of the window and said nothing as the car whizzed past a silver figure standing beside the road between two bushes in the hedgerow.

 

Aiden

Seated at the breakfast counter on Monday morning, Seb tried to force down his Weetabix. Sunday had seen the realisation of the promised pyjama day. Scarlet dedicated her time to searching websites to find a picture of the bat she had seen scraping at Seb’s head the day before. She struck gold when she found the Bat Conservation Trust website. Excitedly she called Seb to see one small picture titled Noctule.

“That’s the one Seb, I’m sure of it. It was brown and about the size of an apple.” She opened up the fact sheet. “Yes, and it had that funny-looking nose.”

“It’s not a nose, it’s a tragus.” Seb pointed at the screen.

“Okay, that funny looking tragus. It was definitely one of those on your head.”

“Are you sure? You can’t have seen it for more than a second.”

“Certain.” She crossed her arms triumphantly. “I told Zach it wasn’t a bird.”

They spent the next ten minutes reading the fact sheet then Scarlet lost interest and wandered off, leaving Seb cutting and copying pictures which he pasted onto a Word document.

Pondering the sludge in his bowl in front of him now he decided he’d had enough. He went to print off the document and crammed it into his satchel.

The journey to school seemed endless and Seb felt butterflies in his stomach as they got closer. Once more he wore his fingerless gloves with his sleeves pulled down past his wrists. The day was cheery and bright, hardly a chill and certainly no clouds. The warm sunlight was causing the remaining dampness in the earth and on the roads to evaporate quickly, but not before forming a low-lying mist that covered the fields.

Seb studied his now clean jumper for signs of the droppings of Friday. He didn’t want people reminded of the incident with Miss West, though he did wonder whether it was bird poo he had been decorated with or bat poo. Thankfully his jumper was clean and his mum’s delicate stitching made the tiny holes in it all but disappear.

The Taz was playing with his window button, opening the pane as far as it would go and leaning his little head out as far as he could from the confines of his booster seat. He giggled as the wind, whipping past the car, forced his eyes to close.

Seb could smell hedgerows and vegetation and then— tarmac! It made his nostrils flare and almost made him gag.

“Oh Adam, shut your window; that smell is disgusting!”

His brother just smiled at Seb.

“Mum, that stink – you know I hate it!”

Scarlet, back in the front seat, turned to look at him. “I think he’s going to puke.”

“Do I need to stop, Seb?” his mum asked.

“No, absolutely not here. Get us away from that awful smell and Adam, WILL YOU SHUT YOUR WINDOW!” He couldn’t help shouting. He could feel his heart pounding and desperation rising as they zoomed past the roadworks to blame for the smell of fresh tarmac.

“Alright Seb, calm down.” Their mum put the window up.

Seb sat back and stared out of his own window, trying not to breathe too deeply until the stench left the car. His mood calmed as the miles rolled by and the smell dissipated. And then they reached the school driveway.

With a heavy spirit, Seb got out of the car. Scarlet, looking around for any of her girlfriends, nudged him and pointed to a pair of black-toed shoes and the side of a green sleeve sticking out from one of the larger trees.

“Zach’s waiting to jump out on you.” She giggled.

That made Seb smile and suddenly the day didn’t seem so full of dread.

Grinning, the two of them veered off the main path to walk along the grass. Seb led the way and, unseen, they made it to the tree behind which Zach was hiding. On the whispered count of three they leapt round the trunk, shouting. The poor lad on the other side jumped so high there was daylight between his feet and the ground. His freckled face blushed bright red, particularly his nose, and he looked like he was about to burst into tears.

Seb and Scarlet were stunned and a voice behind them made them hang their heads. “What are you two mortals up to?” Zach came striding along the verge, holding The Taz’s hand.

Scarlet pushed Seb on the shoulder, knocking him into the trunk of the splendid oak beside which the freckly boy was struggling to regain his composure. His face was vaguely familiar to Seb, but he couldn’t place him. The boy, however, knew Seb.

“I never made fun of you for peeing your pants, or for getting splatted by a bird. Why are you picking on me?” His cheeks had turned as red as his nose but at least the tears had not come.

Scarlet took The Taz’s other hand, leaving Seb to answer. When they came his words were neither convincing nor intelligible, “It, er, Zach was— you’re not. Sorry!”

Picking up his bag, the red-faced boy walked off, head down.

“Nice one, Seb.” Scarlet followed him with The Taz repeating her words, “Nice one, Seb.”

“What? How do I get the blame for that? It was you who said it was Zach!”

Scarlet, not listening, continued walking. In the dappled sunlight under the tree Seb was aware Zach was stood, arms crossed, just behind him. As he turned Zach had the biggest grin on his face. “You thought it was me and you tried to get the jump on me! It’ll never happen!”

“Shut up, Zach.”

Seb turned towards the school entrance. As he did so, a small object fell down the back of his shirt. It was cold and smooth and he dropped his bag, fearing he had been christened again by a bird. Thankfully, whatever it was didn’t feel wet. He tried to put his hand down his back.

“What are you doing now?” Zach pretended to be exasperated.

“Something fell down my back.” Seb had his left hand rammed down as far as it would go but the object had fallen to his waist and was balancing on the ridge of his belt. Zach helpfully thrust his own hand inside Seb’s shirt as a group of Year Ten students bimbled past and mutterings of “Not in front of the preschoolers please,” were cast in their direction.

“Got it,” shouted Zach, yanking his arm out. “Oh, it’s only an acorn. How boring.” He tossed the object in the air, leaving Seb to catch it as he walked off. The outer coating was shiny, pleasingly smooth, and as Seb spun it, it glinted in the sunlight. A quick scurrying to his right was followed by a dead weight landing on his forearm and in a furry flash the acorn was seized between the little front paws of a grey squirrel. It sat momentarily on Seb’s arm before jumping onto the trunk and clawing its way noisily into the branches.

“Did you see that?” Nat approached him and gazed up into the branches, trying to spot the squirrel. “Seb, that was amazing – that squirrel came to you! I didn’t know they were so tame.” She was still looking up and Seb noticed, under the yellow and green shading of the oak leaf canopy, her eyes looked turquoise.

“I think it wanted its acorn back,” he said.

Her nose wrinkled slightly as she giggled. “Maybe I should try and find one to feed— ”

A yell from the school gates distracted Nat and she waved at Scarlet who was now wandering back towards them.

“Come on Seb, you can nature watch later!” Zach called.

Having joined Scarlet, the four dropped their phones off and took the main corridor to the playground. Nat told Scarlet about the beautiful squirrel. Scarlet was annoyed she hadn’t seen it.

“First a deer and then a squirrel; you’re becoming quite the Dr Doolittle aren’t you, little brother?”

“What deer?” Nat asked.

Scarlet brought them all to a halt as she began recounting the story with helpful interjections from Zach, the four facing each other in a huddle. Then Seb looked up as he heard raspy, wheezy breaths. A familiar hulking figure, its shoulders nearly grazing the ceiling, was lumbering slowly towards them.

“Who is that?” he whispered to Scarlet.

She ignored him, engrossed in her storytelling.

“Um, we’re on our way to the playground— ” Seb spoke to the ogreish shape, trying to convince himself this was a member of staff and tapping Scarlet’s arm to get her to look up. She pulled away.

“In a minute, Seb; let me finish!”

The figure was now only six feet away from Nat who suddenly stared at Seb. She turned her head to look behind her and then back questioningly at him. There was a shimmering around the gargantuan bulk and it drew a sharp, hacking breath before shuffling backwards and passing through the open classroom door, which slammed shut.

“You children should be in the playground by now!” Mr Duir’s voice reached them from the other end of the corridor. Startled, Seb turned.

“Run along, Master Thomas.” The Head watched as Seb and his friends trotted down the corridor and out of the exit.

As Seb and Zach joined their line in the Year Nine playground Seb saw the freckle-faced boy standing on his own by the tree stumps. He nudged Zach.

“Come on.”

Zach saw the solitary figure and tugged Seb’s elbow. “Do you really think that’s such a good idea?”

Seb ignored him and strode across the playground to where the boy, nose restored to its normal colour, was standing, gazing at the trees beyond the fence.

“I, um, wanted to say sorry for making you jump earlier,” Seb mumbled.

The boy flinched and spun around.

“Well done Seb, you did it again!” Zach laughed and moved to the other side of the boy.

He was about four inches shorter than the pair of them and now looked like a rabbit cornered between two Rottweilers.

Seb smiled nervously and offered a handshake. “Seb Thomas.”

Sensing his hesitation the freckled boy seemed to grow in confidence. He tentatively took Seb’s outstretched hand. “I know. Everybody knows.”

Seb was disappointed to have his fears confirmed. “That bad?” he said.

Zach chuckled.

The boy seemed confused. “Why is that bad? You’re famous! Everyone knows who you are. Everyone is talking about what Seb Thomas will do next. At least they notice you.”

Seb suddenly saw his own life from a different perspective and the small lad’s view of life. He was tiny, shrew-like, not the best-looking of boys with a scruffy mane of mousey-brown hair. Seb remembered now where he had seen him; it was in the cafeteria at lunchtime on the first and the second day, sitting by himself at a table in the courtyard. The cafeteria was always rammed and sometimes students had to sit under the covered patio area in the cold and the wind. Seb had been lucky on both days – as he and Zach had approached, other pupils vacated their seats so as not to be associated with them. But Seb had noticed this boy outside, eating his sandwiches alone, nose in a book.

He smiled, suddenly feeling sorry for him. “Well, yes, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s a bit extreme if you have to be pooed on and look like you’ve peed your pants to get noticed.”

The boy smiled back, his little grey eyes twinkling. “I’m Aiden.”

“Aiden Lord!” Zach said with a click of his fingers. “You’re in our class.”

“Yes!” the boy beamed, happy he had been recognised.

“Well, I really am sorry for making you jump. What were you doing hiding behind the tree anyway?” Seb asked.

“I wasn’t hiding. I found something and was putting it in my bag.”

“Oh? Treasure?” Zach commented helpfully.

“Well, sort of. Do you want to see?” The boy undid his rucksack and pulled out his homework diary, removing something from between the pages. And now it was Seb’s turn to jump. He stepped back, taking a sharp breath.

Aiden held the object up in the sun. A beam of light glinted off something on the surface of it. He was holding up an oak leaf in the centre of which was that design – one central stalk with two horizontal lines connecting it at right angles. Only these lines were silver. The sun caught the silver and its beams were reflected around the playground as a gentle breeze played with the leaf.

“Wow!” Zach’s voice boomed, drawing curious glances from the students nearest them in the playground.

Seb pushed Aiden’s arm down quickly to hide the object.

“Yeah, I thought Wow too when I found it.” Aiden smiled at Zach.

“Can I have a hold?” Zach grabbed at the leaf.

“Mm, okay.” Aiden moved his arm towards Zach but Seb grabbed it by the wrist, careful not to touch the leaf.

“No, the whistle’s about to blow; put it away or everyone will want a hold and then it might get broken.”

Zach looked upset but Aiden nodded.

“How about we meet at break time and go somewhere quiet, like the library, and we can look at it then?” Seb suggested.

Aiden seemed ecstatic to have the option of actually meeting up with someone at break time. “Oh, that’d be good,” he nodded.

Zach frowned, knowing he would have to wait.

 

The Leaf

When the bell went for break, Zach stuffed his books into his bag as fast as possible and was on Aiden’s shoulder in seconds. Aiden was thrilled and looked to make sure Seb was coming to join them.

They made their way to the Old School block and Aiden led them to the library. Zach followed him into the room as though joined at the hip, desperate to be the first to examine the leaf.

As Seb stepped across the threshold he heard a wheezing chuckle. From the direction of the huge stained-glass window that dominated the room, opposite the door, a large silhouette lumbered towards them. Aiden and Zach walked past it without acknowledging its existence. Seb hesitated. A door slammed. Both he and the hulking figure were startled and turned towards the sound. To Seb’s right, standing in front of an ornate, vaulted, wooden door, in a recess between two tall bookshelves, was Mr Duir. A shimmer of sparkling dust motes danced in the space around him.

Zach and Aiden were already huddled on the seat beneath the magnificent window, which bore a stained glass depiction of an oak tree. They were both focused on Aiden’s bag as he opened it, and didn’t seem to notice The Head’s presence.

“You need to choose with care the places you go, Master Thomas,” Mr Duir said quietly and Seb thought he looked slightly concerned. Then, seizing the large silver doorknob, he opened the arched door behind him, passed through and closed it gently.

Seb turned back to the ogre figure and was confused to find it had gone.

The room was crowded with old shelving units, crammed with old-looking books, which squatted in rows creating dark, dimly lit and uninviting aisles. On the far wall at the end of each aisle was a sconce that looked as antiquated as the books and did little to illuminate the narrow spaces between the shelves but provided sufficient light for Seb to satisfy himself the ogre was not there.

Mystified, he joined Aiden and Zach, his heart still racing. “Who is that? Is he the librarian?” he asked.

Zach and Aiden looked at him vacantly.

“Who?” Zach said, looking around the room.

“The ogre man. We’ve seen him three times now and he’s so creepy.”

“What?” Zach looked totally puzzled.

Aiden sat silently, not sure he was included in the conversation.

“Oh come on, Zach, stop kidding around. He gives me the creeps with the wheezing and cackling— ” Seb’s mind was still on Mr Duir’s words and he was completely confused at Zach and Aiden blanking the whole incident but he instantly forgot all that as Aiden pulled out the leaf.

The network of lines at the centre caught the light streaming through the window and shot fine beams around the room. Aiden lowered it into the shade, laying it across both his palms, and held it towards Zach and Seb.

“So you found it just lying beneath the tree?” Seb asked.

“Actually no, it was hanging from a branch. It was glinting in the sun and the sparkling caught my eye. I went to see what was shining, the leaf fell and I caught it. That’s supposed to be lucky you know, to catch a falling leaf. It looked so amazingly beautiful. I didn’t want to be late so I had just put it in my bag when you jumped out on me.”

Seb decided now was the time. “I have something to show you both too, but I need you to swear you won’t tell anyone else!”

Aiden and Zach weren’t listening; they were too captivated by the leaf.

A riotous noise rose outside and the door flew open. Scarlet, Nat, Abi and Alex burst in, giggling. They stopped when they saw the boys.

“What on earth are you doing here?” Scarlet demanded.

Nat smiled and her eyes sparkled as she gazed at Seb. Abi and Alex stood in the doorway looking mildly annoyed.

“We come here at break time, Seb. Why are you here?” Scarlet stopped when she saw the glint of silver in Aiden’s hand. “What have you got there?”

Aiden looked to Seb for guidance and Zach boomed, “Treasure – not for the eyes of mortal women!”

Abi and Alex giggled.

Losing interest, Scarlet snapped, “Nothing you stupid boys think is treasure could possibly interest us mortal women, foolish Zach!” She turned to the other girls. “Come on, break time’s nearly over anyway.”

Bustling them out of the door, she glanced back and mouthed to Seb, Show me later.

He nodded and the girls were gone.

Seb, realising time was short, made a quick decision. He pulled off his glove and thrust his left palm in front of Zach and Aiden, hovering it above the leaf. The boys gasped in unison and Zach grabbed Seb’s arm.

“Oh my g— Seb, when did that happen?”

“I was trying to tell you! On Thursday night my birthmark changed! It’s been like this ever since. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that leaf, Aiden, and get this, what’s really weird is, on my desk in the History room is the same thing – an oak leaf with this exact pattern in the middle!”

Zach’s mouth hung open. “Can I touch it?” His fingers crept towards the birthmark.

“Yes, it doesn’t hurt.” Seb nodded.

Zach moved his fingers onto the brown area on Seb’s palm and traced over the green lines. Aiden lifted his leaf and held it beside Seb’s hand. They crowded over it, casting their shadows across it.

“They’re exactly the same shape. Look, the bulgy bits bulge in the same places.”

“How really weird,” was all Zach could say and then the bell went.

“You mustn’t tell anyone; swear you won’t!” Seb looked each boy in the eye until they nodded as he replaced his glove.

“But Seb, don’t you think we should ask someone – a grown up?” Aiden said.

A sudden bang against the window startled them all and a little brown and black figure butted against the pane, its leathery wings flapping, its clawed feet scratching against the glass.

“It’s another one of those starlings,” Zach said.

Aiden looked horrified. “That’s not a starling!”

“No, it isn’t,” Seb said, reaching into his bag and retrieving the scrunched up paper with the pictures of the noctule bat. “I think it’s one of these.” He showed the page to his friends who looked from it to the winged creature flapping frantically near Seb’s head. “Come on, we’re going to be late.” Seb stood, grabbed his bag and thrust the paper at Zach. “I printed this for you. Scarlet says it was one of these that flew onto my head at the reserve on Saturday.” He started making his way to the door.

Aiden gently replaced his leaf into his diary and then his bag. Zach followed Seb, the picture in his hand.

“Whatever they are, they seem to like you,” he said. “Come on Aiden, we’ll tell you the story on the way back,” and he began recounting the deer story and the bat incident.

At lunchtime they regrouped at the tree stumps. It was a fairly secluded part of the Year Nine playground and the other students playing on the main area paid no attention to them. They had been there only two or three minutes when Scarlet found them. She was dying to see the object Aiden had and within seconds Nat had joined them, gently ticking Scarlet off for pretending to go to the toilet.

Scarlet plonked onto the tree stump, nudging Aiden’s bottom along to make room for herself. She looked at Seb, who was standing, gazing at Nat and rubbing his hand.

“Come on Seb, we can trust Nat; she won’t tell a soul.”

“Tell a soul what? What is all this secrecy? Really, you can trust me.” Nat smiled.

Aiden burst in, his little voice growing with excitement. “I don’t even know what all the secrecy is. I found a leaf, then Seb shows me his hand and then Zach starts telling stories about deer and bats and squirrels. It’s so exciting!” The last was said with a high-pitched squeal that made the girls giggle.

Seb chuckled and nodded to Aiden. “It’s your leaf, Aiden – up to you if you show them or not.”

Aiden immediately opened the pages of his diary. The sight of the glimmering silver lines in the middle of the perfect oak leaf made Scarlet and Nat lean in closer. Scarlet stared at Seb. “Now show them your hand!”

“We’ve already seen it!” Zach said, smiling.

“I haven’t!” Nat stated, stepping towards Seb. “What about your hand?”

Seb pulled off his glove and held his palm up in front of her.

She sighed, “How lovely!”

It was hardly the response Seb had expected but he was pleased.

A screech from the woods beyond the fence broke into their little conclave and a small creature flew from the dense foliage of a nearby bush, flapping towards Seb. Zach leapt onto a small gap on the tree stump, reached his hand up and intercepted the winged attacker before it reached Seb. In the same fluid movement he hurled it back into the bush to the satisfying sound of a further screech.

“Life at upper school is certainly far less dull than middle school!” Nat grinned.

Aiden and Scarlet laughed. Seb felt happy. He was standing in the sunshine with a group of friends who turned everything that was happening into an exciting event. Looking out towards the woods he saw a silver figure near the bush that had produced the bat. It faced him, mouthing words he had no hope of hearing. Then he felt a warm hand lift his arm and a fingernail trace the lines on his palm. He turned and Nat’s eyes sparkled at him.

She smiled. “Do you hear anything, Seb?”

Seb was now only conscious of her touch on his skin. “No, I see— I mean, no.”

She looked puzzled. “But I thought you could hear it. You looked over to— ” She turned her face towards the woods. “I can hear something— ” She was still tracing the outline of the leaf on his palm. “I hear it often,” she whispered but was interrupted as Scarlet grabbed Seb’s wrist.

“It’s all really weird. Aiden, can I have the leaf?” she asked.

Aiden handed it to her and she placed it beside Seb’s hand.

“They look exactly the same – except for the size and colour, obviously.”

Aiden had his nose practically on Seb’s wrist, his brow furrowed. His shadow blocked the light until the breeze caught the leaf, lifting it into the sun. Now the light reflected off the silver pattern and directly onto the green lines in the centre of Seb’s hand. A flurry of sparks burst from Seb’s skin and he yelled in pain. Zach pushed Scarlet’s arm up, breaking the link between the leaf and Seb’s palm. But now the sparks were flying from his birthmark in a cascade of silver that reached the height of their shoulders. Zach clamped his fingers over Seb’s hand and in a second the shower of light was extinguished.

Seb’s knees buckled and, groaning, he slumped onto the tree stump. Scarlet grabbed his arm, supporting him but dropped the leaf as she did. Aiden caught it.

“Oh, look. Oh no.” He held the leaf up. In the centre were scorched gaps where the silver lines had been. As Aiden gripped the leaf it turned yellow, then brown, then fragmented, and the wind blew the pieces apart. They disintegrated and floated in a shower of dust into his face. Unable to avoid it, Aiden breathed in the trail of dust and sneezed. In moments all signs of the leaf had disappeared.

Nat knelt beside Seb. “Are you okay?” She lifted his hand and opened his fingers. “Did it burn you?”

Scarlet was going through the same process with Zach.

As Nat saw Seb’s hand she almost recoiled. “Look!”

Everyone, even Zach, who was nursing scorch marks on his own fingers, looked down at Seb’s palm. The outline of the leaf-shaped birthmark was clearly defined but now the criss-crossing lines had turned silver. They seemed to form part of his skin, like silver veins.

“This is getting really too weird!” Scarlet voiced what everyone was thinking.

A piercing whistle interrupted them and the squat figures of the West twins came striding across the playground. Their identical swaying gait and Miss West’s riotous hair whipping around her head gave a comical air to them as they approached. The looks on their faces, however, were anything but comical.

Scarlet pushed Seb’s hand down into his lap. He sat alone on the tree stump, trying not to faint.

Mr West’s squeaky voice came first, “What is going on?”

Seb could feel Miss West’s beady dark eyes on him.

Zach broke the silence. “A game, we were playing a game – coin spinning.” There was the sound of jingling as he produced a shiny fifty pence piece from his pocket.

Miss West spun on him, a sharp edge to her melodic voice, “Is that so, Master Orwell?” she snapped. “And that would account for the firework display would it?”

They were all astounded. Seb felt too weak to care but looked up at the worried faces of his friends.

“Empty your pockets!” Mr West squeaked.

Obediently they deposited the items from their pockets onto the other tree stumps. There wasn’t much to show: a few coins, a dirty pebble that Zach seemed to find interesting enough to keep, a couple of tissues – nothing more.

Miss West still stared at Seb. He kept his eyes on the items on the tree stumps.

“Master Thomas?” She stepped closer to him. “Your pockets please!”

Seb, feeling sick to his stomach, managed to haul himself up. The two teachers didn’t seem to notice how pale he had become, or how wobbly on his feet he was. He dug into his pockets and produced an empty chocolate wrapper – nothing else.

Mr West frowned at the collection of items. Seb wondered if the next step would be to get them to empty their lunch bags.

“It is your lunch sitting now. Carry on.” Miss West barked.

Scarlet took the initiative. “Come on,” she said, retrieving the few coins that were hers and leading the way towards the cafeteria.

The teachers watched them go. If they noticed how unsteady Seb was as he walked away, they gave no indication.

In the cafeteria they found a table together. No one spoke, all too shocked to say anything. The colour had returned to Seb’s cheeks but he didn’t feel like eating. Aiden spent the time sniffing and blowing his nose which had turned bright red again. Before long, lunchtime was over and the normal lessons of the afternoon were under way.

Explorers

Monday night was Explorers night when Zach came to their house for tea so today he travelled home with them. As soon as they got in they dashed up to Seb’s room.

“We need to discuss what happened today,” Scarlet whispered.

“You’re being dramatic, Scarlet.” Zach laughed.

“It is dramatic!” She opened her eyes wide.

Taking his glove off, Seb rubbed his hand. The silver lines glimmered and Scarlet and Zach’s eyes were instantly drawn to them.

“Does it hurt?” Scarlet asked.

“No, it’s numb. I can’t feel a thing.”

“Wish I could say the same about mine.” Zach opened his hand to reveal the slight scorching on his fingers. “Do you think we’re blood brothers now?” He looked at Seb’s worried face. “Oh come on, Seb. It’s not that bad!”

Seb looked at his friend. “I was already embarrassed by my birthmark, now I feel like a real freak with this!” He thrust his palm up towards Zach who had a grin on his face.

“Seb, it’s really, really exciting!” Scarlet jumped in. “I would love to have something like that.” She pointed to his hand. “I’ll bet you’ve now got some sort of power. That firework display in the playground was awesome.”

“Yeah, maybe you are some alien or ancient god reborn and now you’ve got superpowers!” Zach was as excited as Scarlet.

“Seb, try and do something,” Scarlet suggested.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Seb closed his fist.

“Try and move something with your mind,” Scarlet said, not put off.

Zach leapt off the bed and grabbed an Uglydoll from the floor. He placed it on the bunk in front of Seb. “Yeah, try and move this just by thinking about it,” he said.

Seb looked at the doll. Its one red eye stared blankly back at him. Shrugging, he thought hard, focusing on the doll, willing it to move. Nothing happened.

“Wave your hand over it,” Scarlet said.

Seb waved his palm across the top of the doll, again willing it to move. Nothing.

“Maybe you need to shine something on the leaf.” Zach jumped off the bed and grabbed a head torch from a drawer. Putting it on, he hunched forward and yanked Seb’s wrist. “Open your fingers,” he said and shone the torch light on the birthmark, casting a bright reflection from the silver lines onto the face of the doll. Nothing. Zach pushed Seb’s arm aside. “Okay, well maybe you can read minds. Try and think what I’m thinking.” Zach stared into Seb’s eyes. “Come on, Seb!”

“Don’t be daft, Zach. Anyone can work that out – you’re thinking: What’s for tea?” Scarlet chuckled.

Zach shoved her.

Seb laughed, “I don’t think I have any special powers.”

Zach shrugged. “I wonder what is for tea.”

Fed and changed, they were dropped off at the Boyd Field Scout site. This evening they were to build a campfire within a clearing surrounded by tattered old wooden benches, and then they would sit and sing campfire songs.

They were all dispatched to collect firewood by Nicholas, the shaven-headed, lanky, ill-dressed Explorers Leader.

Scarlet disappeared with a friend, Emily, as Seb and Zach wandered off together, venturing into the thicker part of the woods. The yelps and shouts of the other Explorers echoed around them. A couple of crows came to roost in the branch of the tree above Seb as Zach, on his knees, lifted leaves and stones, searching for bugs and beetles. He was thrilled to find a small lizard, lazy and cold in the plummeting evening temperature. Seb knelt beside him to see but overbalanced. He put out his left arm to stop himself falling, scraping his hand against a thorny blackberry branch as he did so. His fingerless glove caught on the thorns and snagged, tearing a small hole. The fabric laddered across his palm towards his fingers, exposing the hidden birthmark. A glimpse of silver peaked through. He closed his fingers over it.

After a successful forage, the boys had their arms full of sticks and Seb was tramping along a narrow pathway ahead of Zach. His palm, where the glove had been ripped, was tingling. He guessed the thorn had also scratched the skin. A crow cawed in the branches above them and flapped away as Seb stopped in a patch of evening sunlight to adjust his load. He had balanced the branches across his forearms and he shook his wrists, which were getting tired, to improve the blood flow. As he did he glimpsed something shimmering. Zach, with his head down, bumped into Seb’s back.

“Hey Seb, watch it!” he said. Then, seeing the shimmering, stopped and stared. The dim evening light, cast by the half-set sun, revealed a grassy area clear of bracken and undergrowth within which was a small ring of creamy beige mushrooms – a fairy ring. Hovering above the ring was a halo of silvery sparkles, glinting and dancing in the ebbing sunlight.

Zach shouted, “Nicholas. NICHOLAS!”

Seb watched the dancing sparkly patch as it grew to a column of shimmering speckles as Nicholas, hearing Zach’s shouts, joined them.

“What in the world— ?” He placed his own collection of bonfire fodder on the path.

“What is it, Nicholas? Is it magic?” Zach was so excited his voice had gone up about three octaves.

“Glow worms, I think,” Nicholas said uncertainly.

Seb was silent, watching the display and feeling the tingling sensation in his palm. He waggled his hand, hoping it would stop the pins and needles. The silvery sparkles danced and he thought he could see a shape within the bright column. The tingling in his palm, instead of fading, became stronger.

Nicholas, in a confused voice continued, “But glow-worms would more likely be on open ground, not under a covering of trees, and they normally glow greeny-yellow, not silver. Look how they are all staying within the mushroom ring.” He took a step towards the sparkling shower.

Seb was transfixed as the shape within the display became more defined. It was arched, with a pointed peak. He could make out irregular perpendicular lines running across the width of the arch, like planks of wood, and to the right he could make out a circular shape like a … he gasped … like a doorknob. The image was of the door in the library!

Stunned, he stepped back and dropped his collection of wood. His arms fell to his sides and instantly the silver shower was snuffed out. The grassy clearing was enveloped in the natural evening twilight and the fairy ring was barely visible among the solid oak trunks, standing like guardian sentries around it.

Nicholas and Zach groaned. Three Explorers and another leader came bounding along the track towards them.

“Nick, you okay? We’re all ready to light the bonfire.”

The three boys were running on and off the track, singling out Seb and Zach and flashing their torches in their eyes as Nicholas described what they had seen. Seb, listening, wondered why Nicholas didn’t say anything about the door. Still chatting, Nicholas led them back to the benches. The bonfire was crackling in no time and the boys and girls happily sang their campfire songs and waved their torches around in a laser-light-type display. Seb, having checked his hand to find there was no scratch, listened to the singing but didn’t join in.

Zach was animated and vocal on the journey back, talking about the glow-worms. Scarlet was envious she hadn’t seen them.

Back home after Explorers, while their mum was getting The Taz to sleep, Seb sat with Scarlet on the sofa and filled in the details of the library door apparition.

“Seb, do you think you imagined it?”

Seb wasn’t sure. He was disappointed that she suggested it and now doubted his memory. But in some ways he hoped it was just his imagination.

 

Labyrinths and Doors

Tuesday morning and Scarlet noticed how withdrawn Seb had become. She pushed him to say why. The truth was it was PE that morning and Seb couldn’t work out how he was going to stop the teacher from seeing his birthmark. The prescribed kit of the day was polo tops – short-sleeved! He wouldn’t get away with his gloves. Scarlet suggested a plaster on his hand but Seb pointed out that would lead to questions as to how he’d hurt himself which could lead to the teacher asking to see the injury.

After pondering for a while Scarlet decided the best thing was for Seb to say he had forgotten his polo shirt and wear his rugby top, which had full-length sleeves and was way too big for him so would cover his hands to his fingers. He would have to accept it if he got a report slip for not having the right kit.

Seb hated PE anyway, particularly outdoor team sports like football, rugby, cricket. But sport was a big deal for the Oakwood faculty and the school’s pride was to have won the inter-schools championships in every event, with the exception of cross-country, for the last 6 years. The talk over the last few days had been about the potential champions among the new Year Nine cohort. Teachers speculated aloud as to who their footy stars and rugby elite would be in this intake. Seb knew without doubt he would not be in their number. Zach stood a good chance though; he was immensely good at most sports.

As Seb and Scarlet got out of the car, Zach came bounding up to them. “About time! Me and Aiden have been waiting for ages.”

Aiden appeared from behind the car, sheepishly joining them, uncertain he was accepted as part of the group, especially now his treasure, which had been the cause of their interest in him, had gone. A smile from Seb and Zach’s arm around his shoulder reassured him.

It was another sunny day, though a crisp, biting wind whipped the branches and leaves of the trees above their heads. Seb’s mum got The Taz out the car and he was thrilled to walk with them all to the school entrance. They collected Nat on the way. She had been gazing fruitlessly into the branches and kicking around the grass beneath the oak tree where Aiden had found his leaf, trying to find more treasure. Together they wandered through the main gate, but not until The Taz had had a hug from everyone. Suffering yet another cold, he managed to leave a smear of mucous on Seb’s jumper which Scarlet and Zach found hysterical.

After the phone deposit they travelled the ogre corridor and Seb was relieved when they managed to reach the exit door without encountering the giant. The planks wobbled and bowed as the five balanced their way over The Lake. Zach led the way but couldn’t resist turning back to give Seb advice on how to negotiate the expanse of water, which didn’t seem to have receded at all in the recent days of sunshine. As he glanced back he made them all stop.

“Aiden my mortal friend, your freckles are sparkling!”

They all turned to face Aiden, who blushed a deep red at the sudden attention. All over his face silver pinpoints reflected the sunlight like a glittering disco ball. He lifted his hands to rub his cheeks but Scarlet pulled them away and stuck her face right in front of his, their noses almost touching.

“It’s all your freckles; they’re like little silver gems. They’re beautiful!”

Still standing on the creaking, bowing planks the others had to have a go at examining Aiden’s freckles. When they had all satisfied their curiosity, he leant forward to catch his own reflection in the water below them. The little pinpricks of light sparkled and gleamed. They were beginning to itch and he scratched his face.

Agreeing that it was too crowded and uncomfortable at the tree stumps, they arranged instead to meet at break time at the old rickety, wrought-iron bench that encircled a gnarled oak trunk at the centre of a pebbled area the pupils called The Beach. This was in a quadrangle bordered by the main stretch and two wings of the Old School House; the original teaching building. Most pupils stayed clear of that spot because it was overlooked by the teachers’ common room. Scarlet convinced them all that since they were only going to be talking quietly they were least likely to be disturbed there – or overheard.

Seb, Zach and Aiden spent a double lesson of History designing their own labyrinths. Seb kept trying to move the books on his desk to form a barrier behind which he could study the leaf engraved on its surface, but on each occasion, as he checked to ensure he was unobserved, he would find Mr West gazing steadily at him.

Zach was engrossed in his work, determined to design the most challenging and complicated puzzle that would stump his peers. Aiden spent most of the lesson rubbing his cheeks, which were now very red. The freckles sparkled occasionally as he turned his face towards Mr West and followed his rolling progress from one side of the room to the other.

Giving up on his efforts to study the desktop engraving Seb completed his own puzzle. He included many doors, all arched with a pointed apex, which led to dead ends or corridors that returned back to their starting points. Only one true path led through the labyrinth to the Minotaur he drew at the centre. He was quite pleased with his efforts and as he sat back to admire his work he heard a slight rattling breath behind him and became aware of Mr West peering over his shoulder.

“Are you done, Master Thomas?”

Seb believed he was and nodded.

“Right, let’s have yours and Master Lord’s up on the board, if you don’t mind.” Mr West snapped the words.

Seb and Aiden exchanged glances as all the other students put down their pencils. The boys attached their pictures to the whiteboard.

“Would you like to explain, Master Thomas?” Mr West said.

Explain what? Seb was at a loss. He glanced at the teacher who was now standing just three feet from his left elbow, staring eagerly at him. Seb looked to Aiden. Facing the board, his mousey-brown hair wind-scruffy and his shirt sticking out of the back of his jumper, Aiden had a look of astonishment on his ruddy face.

Whispers started amongst the pupils in the front seats and gradually spread around the rest of the class. Seb looked at the pictures and then his jaw dropped – the two drawings were identical, with one exception: instead of a Minotaur at the centre Aiden had drawn a noctule bat.

One of the rowdier boys, Dan, shouted, “They copied each other – cheats!”

The whispering turned to mumbling until Zach decided to defend his friends.

“How could they copy each other? They were two tables apart!”

“Well how else do you explain it?” Dan was determined, glancing down at his own poor effort. “They must have cheated! They’ve used a book or something …”

There was silence. Mr West, staring at Seb, said nothing. Seb fidgeted, wishing he could go and sit down. Aiden was also looking at Seb, hoping for salvation. Then the bell rang for break – a salvation of sorts. The rest of the class piled their things back into their bags and bundled out of the room, casting hateful glances at the two cheats as they went.

Zach hovered by his desk. Mr West turned his stare on Aiden who squirmed slightly, adjusting his jumper. The boys looked at him, waiting, but he simply nodded, turned and left the classroom.

“Well what the heck was all that about?” Zach boomed.

“Shush Zach, he’ll hear you!”

Zach lowered his voice to a loud, harsh whisper, “Well really, ‘Would you like to explain, Master Thomas?’.” He attempted the reedy voice and as he did he swayed from side to side, waddling back and forth in front of the board. Seb and Aiden were giggling but became quiet as Zach stopped inches from the two pictures. “Seriously, who copied who, or what book did you mortals use?”

“We didn’t!” they protested simultaneously.

Zach snorted a laugh. “Yeah, right. And it’s not nice keeping secrets from your best mate, Seb!”

“I’m not! We didn’t copy each other. I don’t know how come they’re so similar— ”

“Similar? They’re exactly the same! It’s like you traced the picture! Fab bat by the way, Aiden.”

Aiden was still speechless. His freckles were sparkling faintly and he kept looking from the pictures back to Seb and then to the pictures again.

“I don’t understand,” he stammered. “I just made up what came into my mind. I haven’t copied a book or Seb. I don’t understand!”

“Come on, we’ve got to meet Scarlet and Nat. Bring your drawings.” Zach called, grabbing his bag and heading for the door.

They walked briskly to The Beach. Arriving before Nat and Scarlet, Seb took the opportunity to talk to Aiden and Zach about the ogre incidents. He got frustrated when they both denied ever having seen the figure.

“How can you not have seen it? Zach, on that second day, in the corridor, when you pounced on me … before I stepped in The Lake— ” he scowled as Zach sniggered. “It was right behind you Zach, we talked about ogres! Then again, yesterday morning with Nat and Scarlet … and … and at break time yesterday, you both walked past it in the library!” He pointed at Zach then Aiden. “You must have seen it!”

Both boys looked blankly up at Seb who was pacing on the gravel under the oak tree, waving his arms.

“What’s up, Seb?” Nat put a hand on his shoulder. Scarlet stood behind her, smiling indulgently.

“What’s happened now?” She grinned.

“I am so confused!” Seb plonked himself down on the circular bench. “You have all seen the ogre, only none of you seem to have seen the ogre.”

“What is he talking about?” Nat looked to Zach then Aiden.

Seb told her of the ogre incidents. None of the others recalled any meetings of any sort.

“And every time you’ve seen this ogre The Head has been there?” Scarlet asked.

“Yes, well no. Every time Mr Duir appears, the ogre leaves.”

They were all silent.

“I have to tell you about last night too,” Seb started.

“Yes, yes,” Scarlet got excited. “We went to the woods for an Explorers campfire thing. Seb and Zach were collecting firewood when it started to get dark and they saw a fairy ring in a clearing surrounded by trees. Inside the fairy ring were millions of glow-worms, but they weren’t glowing green or yellow like Nicholas said they normally do, they were silver like, like Aiden’s freckles!” All faces turned to Aiden, whose freckles at that moment were shimmering and sparkling silver in the patchy sunlight under the tree. He rubbed his cheeks self-consciously.

Seb cut in now, determined to give an accurate description of the door. He explained how an image had started to form inside the glow-worm display. It had grown clearer and then he realised it was the door in the library, the arched door that Mr Duir had gone through yesterday.

“Seb, ” Zach spoke slowly, “there wasn’t a door. You’re making that bit up.” He sounded slightly annoyed. “The story was fantastic enough without you adding in that stupid bit!”

“I’m not making it up. I saw a door – the door Mr Duir used when we were in the library yesterday.”

Aiden sounded timid. “Seb, there isn’t an arched door in the library. In fact, there is only one door: the entrance. There’s an arched window. Did you mean— ”

Seb interrupted, “There is an arched door, an ancient-looking door that looks like something out of an old church. Maybe you’ve never noticed it Aiden,” he said more gently, realising he had shouted at his new friend. “Maybe you’ve never noticed it because it is hidden in a recess between two big bookshelves.”

Aiden looked doubtful. “It isn’t there, Seb. Sorry. I’m not trying to be— ”

“It is!” Seb jumped up, annoyed.

“Why are we sat here then?” asked Zach. “Let’s go to the library. Either we’ll find the door, or prove that Seb here is winding us up.”

Scarlet smiled. “Come on then!” She strode across the shingle towards the side entrance to the Old School House. The others trooped after her. Seb scuffed his feet behind them, still annoyed that they doubted him. Scarlet hurried down the corridor to the library entrance and bowled into the book-filled room. She stopped suddenly, causing Zach and Aiden to bump into her.

“What is it?” Aiden sounded frightened. “Is it the ogre?”

Scarlet’s reply was sharp and angry. “No it’s not!” She stepped sideways, letting the others into the room. They all looked to the right.

“Oh, Seb.” Zach sounded so disappointed.

They were facing a bank of high bookshelves, laden with books of every size. There was no doorway, no room even for a doorway. Seb’s shoulders sagged. His mind was in turmoil. Did I imagine it all? His hand was tingling and he pulled his glove away from his palm, staring at the silver lines enmeshed in the leafy shape. He felt a slight touch on his elbow and dropped his hand by his side.

Nat had edged close to him. She whispered, “Do you hear that?”

Seb looked up at her. She was concentrating, her vision fixed on a point near the window.

“What do you hear?” Seb strained to detect anything beyond the sound of the wind outside.

“Cackling, wheezing, laughing … can you not hear it?”

The others had walked over to the bookshelves and on Scarlet’s suggestion were pulling and tugging the solid structures and various book spines to see if there was a secret passageway or opening mechanism. Zach declared that she had read too many Famous Five books.

Seb gazed at Nat. “I can’t hear anything.” Then he felt prickles stand up on the back of his neck as he became aware of the cackling sound and the tingling in his palm grew stronger. “Nat, we need to get out of here!” The sudden urgency in his voice made the others turn towards him. “Now!” He darted out to the corridor.

Scarlet began to follow. “What, Seb? Where are we going? Actually, why are we going? I didn’t hear the bell.”

Seb’s heart was racing and the sound of cackling was louder as he stood in the doorway. In his mind he could hear Mr Duir’s words: You need to choose with care the places you go, Master Thomas.

Feeling panicky he took a few paces along the corridor and the others followed. Zach though, stopped outside the door causing Aiden, close behind him, to stop too.

“I thought we were looking for the door in the library. Where are we going now, Seb? The bell hasn’t gone and you’re acting really strange!” Zach laughed.

Seb was acting strange. He had a fearful look on his face and was looking from side to side. Scarlet slowed as Zach and Aiden stopped and she felt torn. Nat, close to Seb, was the only one who seemed to be keen to keep up with him.

She turned. “Seb’s right! We need to leave. Seriously.”

The others began walking along the corridor, looking all around for whatever it was that had spooked Nat and Seb. Behind them a sudden loud slam made them almost start running.

“Come on!” Seb called then beckoned frantically as, behind Aiden, a huge, dark shape emerged from the library. It shuffled quite slowly down the narrow corridor, but still gained on Aiden who, noticing the look on Seb’s face, glanced over his own shoulder. Looking back to Seb once more his pace didn’t increase. He looked confused, not frightened.

“Can’t you see it?” Seb shouted at him. “You really can’t see that? None of you?” He was nearing the end of the corridor where it turned right into the main stretch of the old building as Nat said, “They can’t, Seb. I can’t. But I can hear it!”

She stopped with him as they reached the corner allowing the others to catch up. Seeing them stop caused the three to lose their motivation and slow to a walk.

Seb, watching the hulking frame closing down on Aiden, the boy totally unaware of its presence, yelled at them, “Move! Don’t slow down!”

His shout made Aiden jump and he glanced behind again. Seeing nothing, he turned back towards Seb, looking worried. Nat bolted towards the exit door.

“Trust me, there’s something there! You can’t see it … I don’t know why, but it’s there – KEEP MOVING!” Seb shouted. And then he saw a door in the wall beside him, arched, with old, worn wood panels. He hadn’t noticed it before and it wasn’t the exit they had been heading for but in desperation he grabbed the silver orb-shaped handle. He twisted it and the door flew open. The fresh wind from outside blew into his face, like a blast from the Arctic.

“Here!” he shouted, and thought he caught a glimpse of Mr Duir at the far end of the corridor, before his view was blocked as the others reached him and dashed through the opening and out onto the sports field. Zach, the last through, yanked the door shut. They ran along the outer edge of the building, which bordered the PE field, the gravel on the pathway crunching beneath them. Reaching the main exit midway down the building, Seb slowed and the others followed suit.

Scarlet began to laugh. “Well what on earth was all that about, my crazy brother?” The adrenaline coursing through them made them feel euphoric and they began to giggle.

Nat linked arms with Scarlet as the bell went. “There was something. I could hear it, Scarlet!”

“Really Nat, there was nothing there.” Scarlet laughed.

“Well, that was fun!” Zach stated, a look of exuberance on his face. “Mad, but fun! C’mon Aiden, Seb, joke’s over – let’s get back to class.”

Seb felt upset at Zach’s inference that this had all been a joke. Looking back down the length of the building he stopped, totally baffled, and then stepped out onto the grass that edged the path, trying to get a better view. Still confused he heard Zach shout, “What are you up to now, mortal? You’ve really lost it …”

Seb trotted back. “The door’s gone. The door we went through – it’s gone!”

Zach continued walking with Aiden. “Don’t be stupid, Seb.”

Seb knew there was no time to go back, and then his heart sank as he remembered that the next double lesson was PE.

 

Cross-country

The changing room was already packed with one half of the Year Nine boys as Seb and his friends arrived. Some, the sporty ones, were talking excitedly, others were more subdued.

They squeezed into a spot in the corner that was littered with mismatched shoes, trainers, socks and so on as all the boys jostled to get changed as quickly as they could.

Seb changed his bottom half and then went to the toilets. He took his rugby shirt with him and closed himself inside a cubicle. As soon as he had closed the door he heard a heavy bang on the outside. He could see a pair of purple trainers in the gap at the bottom and one foot in a blue trainer next to them.

“You going to cheat at this too, Thomas?”

Seb recognised Dan’s voice. To his horror he heard a loud clatter. The purple trainers disappeared upwards. Seb glanced at the top of the door and saw fingers curling over the edge, then Dan’s face appeared. “Are you, cheater? Going to cheat at PE too?”

Seb realised he was now the target of this thuggish boy’s attention.

“Why have you got your rugby shirt? You know it’s meant to be polo shirts for PE unless we’re actually doing rugby … which we’re not, idiot!”

A second voice interrupted, “Oi, Dan! Watching boys in the toilet? That’s just plain warped!” Zach’s thunderous voice echoed around the room and carried through to the main changing area. Seb heard shuffling as a few other boys ventured in to see. Instantly the face and fingers were gone and the purple trainers reappeared below the door.

“Shut up, Orwell. Your mate’s the warped one. Steps in The Lake, pees his pants, gets pooed on by a bird, and now we find out he’s a cheat.”

“At least he’s not spying on people in the toilet. That’s gross and somewhat disturbing.”

Thank god for Zach. Seb was relieved. He used the opportunity to quickly change tops and within seconds had opened the cubicle door. He saw Dan push past Zach who stood with his arms crossed, a satisfied look on his face, Aiden beside him looking nervous. The blue trainer and its matching second trainer were attached to the feet of another boy in their class. Seb couldn’t remember his name. He wandered over to Zach.

“Thanks. You know we really didn’t cheat— ”

“Yeah, and he really is going to keep going at you, mortal.”

Aiden looked down at his own PE kit. “I didn’t know it was rugby today.”

Seb smiled at his worried face. “No, I forgot my polo shirt.” He pulled up his left sleeve to show his fingerless glove and as he peeled the glove off Aiden glanced at the glinting silver lines in his palm. Seb pulled the sleeve down to his knuckles, hiding the birthmark.

“Oh, of course!” Zach smiled, realising.

Aiden scratched his cheeks. “Good idea, but you’re going to get into trouble!”

The boys trooped out to the foyer at the front of the gym. Staring through the glass doors, Seb could see the Old School House. He located the main exit door with its pathway stretching along to the left. He saw the shingle pathway extending right towards the library wing but, where’s the door? There is no second door. Tugging Zach’s arm he pointed to the building.

“Zach, where’s the door gone?”

Zach glanced across and Aiden looked too, searching the fascia until their vision was blocked as someone stepped in front of the door and, accompanied by a strong blast of cold wind, entered the foyer.

The hubbub died instantly as the tall, muscular man let the door close and stared around at this new intake.

“I am Mr Carter and I will be taking you for outdoor sports this term.” His head moved slowly as he gazed from one side of the expectant crowd to the other. “Now,” he continued in a ferocious tone, “a few things for you all to note: I expect drive. I expect determination. I expect ambition. I do not expect defeatism, I do not expect negativity and I certainly do NOT expect the wrong kit!” Instantly his eyes shot to Seb and the sniggering began. “Master Thomas, out of fifty-three boys you are the only one wearing a rugby shirt. Did you not at some point, in the changing room, pick up on the clue that all the other boys were wearing polo shirts?”

Seb looked at the floor. He had known this would come, but hadn’t imagined he would suffer a public dressing-down. And how come he knows my name already?

In the total silence Dan’s gloating voice rose out from the middle of the waiting throng, “Told you, Thomas!”

“I presume you have an explanation, Master Thomas?” The teacher glared at Seb.

“I put the wrong top in my bag this morning, sir. I am sorry.” He hung his head.

There was a pause, a collective silence as everyone waited for the response.

“You all,” Mr Carter lifted his eyes from Seb and scanned the faces of the boys in the foyer, “get to play one joker. Master Thomas, you have just played yours.” His eyes returned to Seb. “Don’t let it happen again. Clear?”

“Clear, sir.” Seb nodded. What do I do next week? He worried.

Mr Carter opened the door and stood holding it. “Everyone, it’s cross-country day. No negativity, no defeatism. We’re going to find a team of winners to get us that inter-school cup. Am I right?”

There was no response, just shuffling as the boys edged out into the cold.

Outside, Seb felt the bite of the wind and was actually glad he was wearing his rugby shirt. Dan hovered by the exit door, scuffing his feet in the gravel and gave Seb a shove as he passed by. Zach pushed him back, slamming him into the wall. Mr Carter looked over but didn’t intervene as Zach held Dan against the wall for a second, saying nothing. Then, releasing his hold, walked away.

They set off in groups of ten to complete a circuit of the enormous, windswept field. Seb, with Zach and Aiden, was jumping and waving his arms to keep warm.

“D’you know what, I’d rather run than freeze C’mon!” he said, running towards the line. His surprised friends followed and they began their run.

It wasn’t as bad as Seb had worried it would be. He stayed with Aiden for the whole distance. Zach, however, with Seb’s encouragement, whizzed around the field and was back before Aiden and Seb had got half way. He received a pat on the back from Mr Carter who made a note of his name and Zach waved thumbs up to Seb.

As Seb and Aiden turned onto the third leg Seb gazed into the woodland bordering the field. He could smell the undergrowth, could hear the trees rustling and the odd caw as crows swept from one tree branch to battle with the strong breeze and gain a perch on another. Then he saw a silver figure standing about ten feet back from the tree line. There was another figure with it, though this figure looked normal, human, wearing blue jeans and a blue, hooded top, the hood pulled over the head. Seb rounded the corner and glanced back. The silver figure had turned and was moving deeper into the woodland. The blue-hooded person had disappeared.

Relieved to enter the warm changing room, Aiden and Seb were greeted by an ecstatic Zach who had been selected for the cross-country team. Dan, giving them a wide birth, threw them a few dirty looks but changed quickly and left before Seb and the others.

 

Bats and Squirrels

After eating their lunch the boys returned to the bench under the oak and Seb told Aiden and Zach exactly what he had seen in the corridor that morning. Aiden was horrified, Zach sceptical. Snorting, he said he knew Seb’s birthmark had changed, had seen the treasure leaf, had seen the fireworks coming from Seb’s hand. He examined the fading burn marks on his own fingers.

“But invisible ogres in libraries? Disappearing doors? Seb you’re letting your imagination run riot!”

A screech broke into Zach’s musings and a little shape whipped at amazing speed from the woodland towards Seb. Zach was on his feet instantly, caught the thing and threw it a good fifty feet back into the woods, shocking himself in the process. Aiden whistled.

Seb stared at the tree that had swallowed up the little creature. “How’d you do that?” he said.

Zach shrugged. “What can I say? I’m awesome.” Then he frowned. “Those beasties won’t leave you alone!”

A crunching on the gravel made them turn and Nat and Scarlet looked sheepishly at them. They were accompanied by Alex and Abi who followed Zach’s gaze into the woods.

“What’s so interesting about the trees?” Alex playfully nudged Zach.

“We wondered where you had all been sneaking off to.” Abi sat on the bench. “The Beach isn’t exactly the best place to spend lunchtime.”

“Then don’t!” Zach said rudely.

“Zach!” Seb said, embarrassed at the blunt comment.

Zach shrugged and sat down. Alex perched her little frame beside him and then inched closer, her bushy hair flying about in all directions as the wind pulled it free of an inadequate hair band. Her tiny feet kicked the gravel under the bench and she smiled cheekily at Zach. “So what do you all get up to in these secret meetings?”

“Nothing much. Just chatting really,” Scarlet said lightly.

Alex leant in closer to Zach until her shoulder pressed against his upper arm. He wriggled to his left but had nowhere to go since Abi was on the other side. She, though, decided she’d had enough and stood.

“Come on, let’s go and get a softball and play some netball.”

Alex jumped up too. “Are you guys coming? I don’t like sitting here; I bet the teachers are looking out at us now.” She turned and scanned the staffroom wing. Nat and Scarlet decided they needed to go with the girls, fearing the fledgling friendship would fail if they didn’t. The four of them left the boys alone at the bench and wandered off in search of a softball.

Seb sat next to Zach and swivelled round to look at the library window. The colours of the oak tree were more muted this side. He felt tempted to walk over to the clear panes at the bottom and peer in, ogre-spotting, and was about to stand when a quick movement beside his right foot held him back. He looked down to see a grey squirrel inching out from under the cobwebby iron slats of the bench. Audaciously, the squirrel sat in the lea of Seb’s shadow. It snuffed the air, rubbed its nose with its tiny paws and in a swift movement jumped onto his lap.

“Woah!” Aiden was thrilled. Standing a couple of feet from Seb he took a step forward, tentatively reaching a hand towards the creature.

“You have turned into Dr Doolittle.” Zach prodded Seb.

As Aiden’s hand reached the hindquarters of the animal it jerked upright, sensing danger. With a quick jump it darted off towards the woodland, but not before leaving a wet patch on Seb’s trouser leg. The tang of fresh urine drifted up to Seb’s nose and his friends collapsed in fits of laughter.

“Oh, great – squirrel wee! Thanks Aiden!” The warmth of the wet patch was soon replaced by iciness as the wind cooled it. “Oh heck, I can’t leave this; I’m going to have to clean it up. Can you smell that? That is really, really strong!” Seb screwed up his nose and stood up.

“Yes we can smell that! I think the kids in the Year Ten playground can smell that!” Zach was struggling to control his laughter. “You are a dream to be with, mortal!”

Crunching across the shingle to head for the toilets nearest their classroom, Seb caught a movement in the woodland near the library. Standing in the trees was the figure he had seen during the run, blue hood still pulled down over the face. He glanced forward to see where he was going and when he looked back at the woods the figure had gone.

Seb spent ten minutes standing in his boxers and socks by the sinks, washing his trouser leg, putting as much liquid soap on the area as he could before scrubbing. He spent a further ten minutes trying to dry the patch under the hand dryers. The lunch bell went and they walked back to class, Aiden and Zach still laughing and teasing him.

The afternoon, with two new teachers Seb hadn’t so far met, passed without further incident. However, Seb was the recipient of frequent questioning glances from those nearest him as they sniffed and coughed, trying to pinpoint the source of the unpleasant odour they had detected and narrowing it down to his general area.

On the journey home Seb’s mother enquired about the smell, The Taz went on and on about it and Scarlet was blunt, “You stink Seb! You stink of wee. Did you really pee your pants this time?”

“A squirrel peed on me!” Seb mumbled, head hanging as Scarlet laughed.

“How on earth did you get close enough to a squirrel for it to pee on you?” his mum said, surprised.

“It sat on my lap and when Aiden went to— ”

“Sat on your lap?”

“Yes, Mum, it just jumped on my lap at lunchtime. We were under the old oak, on The Beach and it just came out from under the bench and jumped on my lap!”

Seb saw his mum’s eyes widen slightly in the rear-view mirror but she became distracted by The Taz who was holding a Batman toy out of the open window, trying to get its cape to flap in the wind.

“Adam, don’t do that, you’ll drop it! Bring your hand in!” She put his window up and the rest of the journey was spent with The Taz imploring her to open it again and promising not to put his toy out.

 

Moonlight

Seb’s dreams that night began with giant squirrels lumbering through corridors, laughing and waggling their giant back feet to show off their purple trainers. These images were soon replaced by a hazy figure, wearing a hooded robe, calling to him across an expanse of field. Seb lifted his hand to wave and as the silvery lines were exposed to the light from a full moon it bounced off them and a door appeared in front of him. A silver orb-shaped doorknob began to twinkle and Seb reached a hand towards it. As his fingers closed around the sphere he gasped – his hand was a tiny paw with silvery grey fur. His eyes ran up his arm; it was also covered in silvery fur. Looking back to the curved surface of the doorknob he saw his own reflection, the reflection of a huge grey squirrel! He screamed … and woke with a start.

He sat up, breathing heavily in the semi-darkness of the bedroom. His brother snored softly in the bed below him. Bright moonlight shone in through the window onto the glimmering lines on his hand which bounced it around the room. He closed his fingers.

A figure in the doorway, silhouetted by the landing light, made him jump. His pulse, already thumping, began pounding until he recognised the sleek hair, the slim frame, the height.

“Scarlet, what are you doing?” he whispered.

“What are you doing more like? I heard you scream. I’m amazed Mum hasn’t come up,” she whispered back. The sound of the TV downstairs explained why. She came over and clambered up onto the bed. Seb’s palm was tingling.

“Was it a bad dream?”

“Yes, I’d turned into a giant squirrel.”

Scarlet began chuckling and now Seb laughed too.

“Did you find a boy to pee on?” she asked.

He shoved her. “If I was a giant squirrel the first person I would pee on would be you!”

“Charming!”

“What time is it?” He looked out of the window for some hint as to the hour. The sky was inky blue except for the halo of light around the half-moon.

“Hold on.” There was a bright flash of light as Scarlet swiped her finger across her mobile phone. She squinted at the screen. “Ten past eleven.”

“Do you even sleep with that thing?” Seb said.

Scarlet was inseparable from her mobile and since starting at the new school had added at least twenty new contacts to it – contacts she texted non-stop.

She shrugged and smiled, then, lifting the phone towards him said, “I have to get a picture of that bed-head, Seb Thomas!”

As she went to press the screen, Seb made a grab for the phone. He managed to get hold of her hand but she pulled sideways, dragging him over to the right. He toppled and instinctively raised his left arm to regain his balance but as he did the moonlight caught on the silvery threads of his palm and shone a beam full into Scarlet’s eyes.

“Ow, that’s bright!” she groaned.

Seb put his hand down and the beam was extinguished. Scarlet rubbed her eyes. Shimmering tears slid down her cheeks.

“You okay?” Seb asked her.

She was still rubbing. “Ow, really ow! That was blinding, Seb. My eyes are stinging now.” She blinked at him, opening her eyes wide.

“Scarlet!” Seb grabbed her hands. “Your eyes …”

“What?” Concerned by the shock in his voice she frowned at him.

He started stammering, “Your eyes are silver. Well, your pupils look silver … I mean … the rest … the brown, it’s still there but your pupils are silver!”

Scarlet didn’t move; she was facing her own revelation. As she looked past Seb she began whispering frantically, “Seb, the books – I can see them!”

He was lost. “Scarlet, of course you can, it’s quite bright in here … the moon— ”

“No, I can see them clearly – I can read the words on the spines.” She looked around the room. “The little Warhammer figures …” she pointed to the small glass cabinet in the corner where Seb had displayed the Dark Elf collection of figures he had lovingly made over the last year, “I can see every detail!” She looked back at Seb. “Your painting is rubbish by the way.”

Seb looked over his shoulder at the tiny figures. From where he sat they were small dots of plastic and could have been anything. Scarlet was wide-eyed. “It’s like everything is becoming clearer, in fact it’s like I can see everything, really see it.” Becoming more animated she darted a glance down to where The Taz lay sprawled. “Seb, I can see every strand of The Taz’s hair. I can see his eyelashes. I can see the tiny hairs on his pudgy cheeks. I can see every stitch in the fabric of his pyjamas— ”

“Scarlet,” Seb grabbed her arm to calm her, “you need to look at your eyes.” He physically placed a hand on top of her head and turned it towards the mirrored doors in the bank of wardrobes along the opposite wall. Scarlet gasped and then scrabbled down the bunk ladder and trotted to the mirror.

She gasped again, “Seb, they’re silver!”

“I know, I told you. Actually they’re amazing!”

Scarlet turned her head this way and that, checking her eyes at different angles. As she turned out of the moonlight the silver disappeared and her pupils looked normal but for the slightest shimmer.

“Did you see that? It’s only when the moonlight catches them.” She checked herself, uncertain. “Isn’t that the same with everyone?” She sounded a bit disappointed but also relieved. Now she beckoned urgently for Seb to join her and made him face his eyes into the moonlight. All that happened was his pupils closed up, shrinking to pinpoints and the coloured area of his iris grew and reflected the moonlight on their shiny surface.

“Well? Are they silver?”

There was silence, like Scarlet was weighing up whether to be pleased or to go into dramatic despair. She decided on the former and ran to the window. The moon made her blink as though it was strong sunlight and she shielded her eyes. Looking down into their garden she told Seb that she could see the skulking shape of a black cat prowling beside the hedges and the tiny shape of the little rodent it was stalking; she could even make out the individual hairs of the rodent’s fur.

“Wow, this is incredible. I can see so much!”

The sound of creaking on the stairs made Seb leap for the door. He closed it to and they listened as their mum went into the bathroom and cleaned her teeth. While she was occupied Scarlet tiptoed back to her own room and Seb climbed into his bunk, making a convincing impression of being asleep when his mum put her head round the door. He lay waiting for her bedroom light to go out but she was obviously reading and eventually Seb fell asleep.

It seemed like only a second had passed when the Homer Simpson alarm clock sounded.

But I got up yesterday! But I got up yesterday! Homer’s voice incessantly complained.

The Taz was already downstairs. Seb could hear their mum telling him to get down off the table. Scarlet darted into the room. Standing on tiptoes beside his bed she thrust her face into his.

“How do my eyes look?” She rushed over to stare at herself in the mirror. Seb, trying to flatten his wild hair, joined her.

“Let me see then.”

She faced him. “Well, are they silver still?”

Seb hesitated. The irises were shining and looked a deeper, more chocolatey brown than normal. At first, the pupils looked black, then a beam of sunlight struck them and they shone silver – not a blinding silver, just a subtle shimmering that looked unusual.

“Well?” Scarlet was anxious.

Seb whispered, “The silver’s still there but it’s not massively obvious. You only see it in the direct sunlight. How’s your eyesight?”

She smiled, looking pleased. “Still fantastic, Seb, I can see so much. I can definitely see that massive bogey up your nostril! Go and blow your nose you disgusting boy!” She shoved him. He put a hand up to his nose, embarrassed, but smiled. The dawn light was now glowing more brightly through the window and as the sun rose, the silvery shimmering in Scarlet’s eyes looked other-worldly. Seb said nothing.

 

The Sin

Another trip to school and Scarlet chatted away happily in the front seat. Nothing caused her to grump or strop that morning. In the confined space of the car Seb saw their mum cast a couple of curious looks at her. On one occasion Scarlet turned to say something to Seb and he was relieved to see that her eyes just seemed a bit peculiar, nothing you could actually put your finger on.

The Taz was playing with his window again and as they turned onto the main road Seb screwed his face up and had to put his hand to his mouth to stop himself gagging. “Tarmac! Can you smell that? Taz, put your window up. Please!”

Scarlet turned. “Seb, it’s not that strong! Stop fussing.”

Seb stared ahead. They were stuck at a temporary red traffic light as yellow-vested workmen resurfaced one half of the road.

“We won’t be here long,” his mum said, as The Taz played with the window button, winding it up and down. “Adam, you’ll break it! Stop it.” She was more hung up on the window being damaged than on the fact that her oldest son was almost retching and had turned ghostly pale.

“It really isn’t that bad, Seb. You are so overreacting.”

Seb looked over the back of his hand, which was clasped across his nose and mouth, at Scarlet. “It is strong, Scarlet! And you know I hate it.”

“Well you need to get over it. I don’t know what the big deal is.” She frowned.

“It reminds me of Dad. You know that.”

There was a sudden silence in the car. Scarlet glared at him. Their mum’s gaze flicked across to The Taz. He was still trying to play with his window button and seemed not to have heard the conversation.

“Sorry,” Seb said, the word muffled by his hand.

“So you should be!” Scarlet hissed at him.

“That’s enough, Scarlet – he knows. Now, what lessons have you two got today?” Their mum tried to change the subject as they eased past the roadworks.

Scarlet flounced round to face front and crossed her arms. The strop was back. Seb felt dreadful and couldn’t believe he had sinned so badly. He suppressed the urge to cry which arose not because he had spoken unwisely but because of the memories that now came flooding into his mind.

The putrid smell was still there and it took him back to the day, nearly five years before, when his dad had taken him for a bike ride, trying to make him road aware. They had been held up for a few minutes at the bottom of the main road which was being resurfaced.

Seb remembered the image of the man – tall, athletic, smooth unwrinkled skin that glowed with vitality, his sparkling brown eyes, so like Scarlet’s, laughing at his eight-year-old son as he became impatient waiting at the red light. Bringing his bike up to sit abreast with Seb he pointed out the different machines and bits of equipment the workmen used and told him the story of tarmac and how a man called Edgar something – Seb couldn’t remember the name – had invented a way of mixing tar and macadam, which meant crushed rocks, so they could be laid together as a road surface and he patented it as Tarmacadam or Tarmac for short.

Seb, as always, hung on his father’s every word and as the smell of hot tarmac filled the air he watched the workmen pouring, patting and fixing the layer onto the road. He was fascinated and listened as his dad went on to explain how, with so many more cars using the roads, they got worn out more quickly and local councils had to resurface them every now and again to provide a safer surface for cars to drive along. It cut the numbers of accidents and so helped reduce the number of injuries and deaths …

… And deaths. Two weeks later death had become a reality for the Thomas children. Two weeks later Seb’s wonderful, marvellous dad was slipping into unconsciousness behind the wheel of their car, their mum, heavily pregnant with The Taz, already unconscious.

Their parents had been on their way back from shopping when, for some unknown reason, their dad veered off the road and crashed their car into a tree on the verge beside it. The story had been told in the barest detail by their mum, she herself remembering little of the actual incident. She had woken to labour pains and The Taz had been delivered by an ambulance crew on a thermal blanket on the ground beside their car as her husband’s life ebbed away on the grass on the opposite side of the vehicle.

Their dad had only taken the day off work because it was his own birthday, September 23, and it was so close to the birth of his third child. It had been noted by staff later that the time of death, 11:48 as declared by the paramedic on scene, was to the minute the same as that listed by the ambulance crew as the time of birth of the baby boy Adam, Aubrey, Thomas.

The days following their father’s death had been subdued and painful. Their mum had been absorbed with the responsibilities of caring for her new baby and Scarlet seemed to find some form of solace in helping. Seb, however, simply walked through life as if he was in a dream, removed from reality, isolated. At the funeral he felt numb.

Over the next days, periods of numbness were interspersed with periods of anger and a refusal to accept. Then he would fantasise that it had all been a dream. Many times, in his imagination, his dad walked through the front door. Each time, the return to reality hit a little less hard.

Slowly, time moved on. There had been an unspoken pact between their mum, Scarlet and Seb that they did not ever, ever discuss their dad or the accident in front of The Taz. He was unaware and living in blissful ignorance. Mostly, he didn’t seem to notice the absence of a father. At the age of three, he had casually asked why he didn’t have a Dad-Dad like Gretel. Scarlet and Seb had remained silent, waiting for the answer their mum would give.

She simply told him, “Your Dad-Dad had to leave when you were born. He can’t be with you.”

The Taz had accepted this information and toddled off to play. A few more enquiries followed at gradually lengthening intervals and eventually he stopped asking. Their mother had explained to Seb and Scarlet that she would tell Adam about their dad when he was old enough to understand.

So Seb had committed the sin of referring to a person who, for him, evoked an intricate network of emotions and feelings, in the presence of his brother, to whom that person meant nothing. And now his sister was angry, his mum upset and his own longing for a hug from his dad had been reawakened to an unbearable level.

He sat facing the window, frowning so as not to cry. The smell had decreased but was still there, travelling with them inside the car.

A silver figure stood silently next to the lone tree in the field to his right, where the magpies had taken roost. Seb barely looked. He was fed up with all this strangeness. Fed up with all the emotions. Tired of worrying, of caring. He turned away from the window, controlled his revulsion, tuning out from the fading smell and found his mind wandering to the beautiful sight of the magnificent stag at the Lodge, the musty smell of its pelt, the sound of its breathing. And before he knew it, they arrived at school.

 

The Summons

By the time his mum parked the car Seb had calmed himself. It had only been a minute before Scarlet had uncrossed her arms, turned and mouthed the word sorry to him.

They parked in what had become their usual spot. Zach, Aiden and Nat were already waiting and swooped on Scarlet and Seb as they climbed out of the car. The Taz was ecstatic. The main gate goodbye hugs completed, the five went to drop mobiles off and started down the corridor towards the exit.

Although Seb wanted to give the impression of nonchalance he couldn’t help walking quickly and glancing around nervously. None of the others spoke but Seb was aware of Aiden’s head moving left and right and occasionally glancing over his shoulder. Their pace was quick and they all seemed to have one goal, the exit door.

“Back here please!”

The shout from behind made them stop. Mr Duir was standing at the end of the corridor with his arms crossed. He looked stern.

They walked back down the corridor and as they reached a point a few feet from him The Head turned and led them across to a flight of stairs behind the Reception area. Seb felt embarrassed as they were watched in their procession by other students depositing their phones and the two receptionists checking them in.

A blaze of light shone through a tall window on the half landing as the stairs turned back on themselves to rise to the next floor. They all knew this was the way to the Head’s office, with the Deputy Head’s beside it, but none of them had yet been up there.

Mr Duir stopped on the half landing, letting Zach, Scarlet and Nat pass him. As Seb drew level with him by the window a bat smacked into the lower pane of glass. Mr Duir put his hand up to the glass and gently flicked the pane with his index finger at the point of the small beast’s head. It immediately veered off, flapping away from the building. The Head, with a blank expression on his face, made a gesture to indicate for Seb to proceed up the stairs, followed by Aiden.

The others were hovering in the seating area outside two imposing doors which sat at ninety degrees to each other in the hallway on the top landing. The Deputy Head’s door was on the left and Seb knew that the office, which sat atop Reception, had a commanding view over the entrance gate and the walkway that led to the main door. Several times he had walked through the door and glanced up to see the Deputy Head watching him out of the window.

Mr Duir’s door faced them. As he opened it the worn hinges creaked. A shaft of light shot into the hallway and painted a rectangle of brightness on the dark varnished wooden floorboards with The Head’s shadow framed within it. The light shone from a tall, imposing window, facing the office door which gave a view of the The Beach and the Old School.

Seb stepped into the room and stopped in line with the others, in a row in front of a large oak wood desk which sat in front of the window. The Head closed the door, with more creaking, and walked round to stand in front of the window. He faced outward, not looking at them. They exchanged confused and worried glances as he spoke.

“You must all avoid the main corridor. We have some … issues with maintenance in that area and it will be closed to all pupils for the foreseeable future. Do you understand?”

Still facing the window, the Head could not see that what had begun as exchanges of confused looks had now evolved into titters and nudges as the group’s heightened nerves at being summonsed to The Head’s office made the slightest thing seem funny – namely Zach, squeaking his shoes on the wooden floor as he rocked on his toes. When The Head spun around the sudden movement stunned them all and Seb was sure he saw a shower of sparkles stir in the air.

Mr Duir continued, “You will not walk through the main corridor. Do you understand me?”

There were embarrassed nods from each of them.

“Miss Thomas?” He glared at Scarlet who was staring at the floor trying not to laugh. She put her hand up to shade her eyes as she looked at him. “Do you wear glasses?”

The change of subject seemed to wrong-foot Scarlet and she remained silent.

“Do you wear glasses, Miss Thomas?” The words were repeated steadily, in a deep, rumbling voice.

“No … um … no,” she hesitated.

Seb knew why. You’re meant to. Scarlet had been fitted for them a year before and had been so excited to have a new thing to bring attention to herself. But the novelty had worn off within days and the glasses now languished at the bottom of her school bag.

There was silence. Moments passed.

“Well, Miss Thomas?”

Scarlet cracked, “I am meant to wear them, but I don’t need them. My eyes used to sting but they don’t any— ”

“Wear them!”

Scarlet didn’t dare answer back to the barked order.

“Master Thomas.” Seb’s heart pounded. The Head pulled open a drawer in his desk and took out something green which he passed to Seb. It was a pair of fingerless gloves. They were made of a bottle-green woolly material and had the Oakwood crest embroidered into them in silver stitching. “These will be available for all students from this week. According to Mr West, your maze design in History was the best and he asked that I give you a complimentary pair as a prize.”

“Thank you, sir.” Seb meant it.

With a curt nod towards the door the Head ordered, “On to your classes for registration.” He turned back to the window.

After a second of hesitation they filed out, led by Aiden, and walked down the stairs, the only sounds the clacking of their shoes on the wooden boards. Obediently avoiding the ogre corridor, they virtually sprinted to the main exit and turned right, around the side of the building, all chattering at the same time. They made a hurried agreement to meet at The Beach at break time and then rushed to their classrooms.

As he dashed into the classroom, Seb ripped open the packaging of his prize and placed one of the thin gloves over his birthmark.

A double lesson of English preceded break. The normal teacher being indisposed, the class was taken by a dull old man by the name of Dominic White whose teaching methods lulled Seb and his friends into a near-sleeping state. It seemed an eternity but the bell eventually rang and the boys hurried to their meeting place. Nat and Scarlet were already seated on the bench.

It was a cloudy day, the biting wind was still present, but not as strong as the day before. The branches of the oak waved lazily in the breeze, shedding leaves which drifted off in all directions.

Scarlet is wearing her glasses! Seb was surprised but relieved. As he approached, the filtered light from the sun, which was trying to push through the greyish-white clouds, bounced off the lenses and reflected back at him. It made it difficult to see her eyes behind the glare.

Each of them tried to speak at once, but their words were stopped instantly by a loud screech. A beastie flew from the woodland, again making for Seb. Zach, quite accustomed to this now, leapt up, snatched it from the air and threw it back.

“What the heck is it with these bat things?” he mumbled.

Aiden sat and began scuffing his feet on the gravel under the bench, hunched forward. “They do seem to like Seb …” his voice trailed off and he suddenly lurched forward. He began scraping the stones and dirt with his fingers.

Seb noticed the movement and glanced down. Then he realised why Aiden was grubbing around in the mud. He could see a glimmer of silver. Now they were all looking.

“What are you doing, Aiden?” Zach asked casually and then dropped to his haunches as he too saw the silver surface of something buried beneath the earth.

Aiden continued scratching the mud away and in a minute he was tugging at what appeared to be a small, flat, circular tin that was stood on its end. A few wiggles and the object broke free. Aiden rubbed it to remove the dirt, revealing a pleasing silver sheen.

Nat leant in towards him. “Oh Aiden, that’s lovely.”

He held it out and they all crowded round.

“My mum’s got something just like it. It’s a make-up compact, Aiden. Great treasure find!” Zach laughed.

“Does it open?” Scarlet asked as Aiden cleared the last of the mud off it. He turned it and sat it flat on the palm of his hand and to Seb it did look like a circular make-up compact.

Scarlet’s voice got a touch louder as she pointed at the tin. “Look, it has engravings on it!” She plopped onto the bench beside Aiden, looking at the curved surface which reflected the dappled green of the leaves above. The quick polish Aiden had given the tin made it look pristine. An intricate pattern of an oak tree was carved into it in fine lines. Within its leaves the letter A was flamboyantly engraved.

“A for Aiden!” Zach declared, smiling at Aiden who frowned.

“No, it has an accent over the A,” he said.

Seb strained to see it more closely but now Scarlet took the tin from Aiden and began moving it around.

“Have you seen among the leaves? Squirrels, acorns, birds …” she became really excited. The others were having difficulty seeing what she saw but she was adamant the images were there. And then she almost screamed and nearly dropped the tin, “OMG!”

“What? What?” Aiden was really concerned now. Scarlet’s reaction made it seem like the tin was a cursed voodoo doll.

“Look!” Her voice was high-pitched and loud. “The pattern in the bark of the trunk makes the shape of a door. It’s like the door you described in the library, Seb!” The others couldn’t see it. “Look at that …” She pointed her little finger at a round object which had looked to Seb like a knot in the wood. As she drew their attention to it he realised it actually was like a doorknob. Suddenly the overall picture became clearer.

“It is a door,” Seb said quietly.

Aiden took the tin from Scarlet’s hand. “Should I see if I can open it?” he said.

“Of course you should!” Zach stated. “It might have money in it or something.”

Aiden held the tin away from himself, as if he thought it contained an explosive. He placed a finger and thumb on the tiny push-button clasp at the front. A small click and it sprang open. Everyone bunched in closer.

Inside on the inner surface of the lid was a highly polished mirror. In the hollow recess of the bottom section were five yellowy-red berries, perfect in shape, without a blemish, as perfect as if they had just been plucked from a tree or bush.

“What on earth are those?” Zach bellowed, snorting in disgust.

“Shh, Zach! We’re right outside the staff room. Keep your voice down,” Seb said, moving round to sit next to Aiden.

Zach stifled another snort and looked over at the staff room window.

“Can I?” Nat put a hand out.

Aiden willingly gave the tin to her. She lifted one of the berries out and held it up in front of her eyes. “These are rowan berries.”

“Now, how would you know that?” Zach mumbled, taking one out of the tin himself and squishing it between his fingers.

“Zach! Why did you do that?” Scarlet had taken one out herself.

“Well it’s not like you’re going to eat them, is it? What does it matter? A bunch of mangy berries in a compact tin.” He reached up to the oak tree above his head and wiped his finger and thumb on one of the leaves.

“Actually you can eat them.” Aiden was rolling a berry between his own thumb and forefinger. “In pagan times there was a story of a mythical rowan tree that was called The Tree of Life. It was meant to fruit every month and it was said to stave off hunger. There was also a belief that it could add a year to your life for every berry you ate and in the old Celtic tales it was believed that eating just three rowan berries could make you years younger.” With this, Aiden popped the berry into his mouth. He chewed and then spat out a couple of small seeds.

“Nice!” Zach said.

Scarlet was horrified. “Aiden, you don’t know that was a rowan berry!” She turned to Nat. “Nat, are you sure? It might be something else. It might be poisonous!”

“It looked like a rowan.” Nat smiled. “My grandmother makes rowan jelly every summer …” her voice trailed off as Aiden began to cough, his eyes darting upward in a sudden panicky reaction.

“He’s choking!” Scarlet stood and began slapping him on the back. “It wasn’t rowan – it is poisonous!”

Aiden was spluttering now and his face had turned red. Through the coughing though, he was trying to point upwards.

“No, not poison. Snake!” he sputtered and then pointed frantically at the branch above Zach’s head. “IT’S A SNAKE!” he shouted as he managed to clear his throat.

Now they all jumped up and Nat gave a small squeal of shock. Seb stared into the leaves of the tree which were being whipped back and forth by the breeze. And then he saw something move. It looked like nothing more than a branch until it began to weave and twist its way through the smaller branches around it. Then Scarlet leapt back as the head of the snake popped out from between a thick patch of leaves above her head, its tongue darting in and out of its mouth, yellow eyes seeming to stare at Zach. It turned its head around towards him, curving its body down and forward until its flicking tongue was inches from Zach’s nose. Zach stared back at the creature, apparently unperturbed. He reached up and grabbed it behind the head and gave a yank. The whole body flopped out of the tree and stiffened. Seb blinked. His mind was now totally confused. In Zach’s outstretched hand was a stick. Just a stick! No tongue, no eyes – a smooth, reddish-brown, shiny dead branch with a bulbous end beneath which Zach’s fingers curled.

“What?” Zach was obviously as surprised as Seb. He twirled the stick like a majorette and then slammed the thin end into the gravel at his feet. “Some snake, Aiden!” He sounded confused and tried to cover it with a mocking tone.

Aiden blurted, “It was a snake. I mean, I saw a snake. Now it’s a stick! How did that happen?”

“Aiden, it’s a stick!” Zach was examining the object more closely.

Scarlet and Nat were speechless.

“Maybe I imagined it …” Aiden’s voice was quiet, then he looked eagerly at Seb. “You saw a snake too Seb, yes?”

Seb was uncertain. “Maybe. I thought I saw one. You said snake and I saw the stick. I thought I saw a tongue and yellow eyes. But maybe I just imagined it because you said snake.” He turned to Scarlet who was staring at Zach. She shrugged, smiled and linked her arm through Nat’s.

“Just your imaginations,” she said, but sounded uncertain too.

Nat seemed lost, staring at the stick Zach was now holding between two hands. Her voice, when she spoke, was faint.

“Did you know that rowan trees are supposed to be guarded by snakes and dragons?” The others looked at her, confused. “That’s what my grandmother told me. She’s quite into things about ancient tree magic and wisdom – bit hippyish really,” she sounded apologetic. “Well rowan trees protect us but in turn snakes and dragons protect the rowan.”

“Not getting it.” Zach shrugged.

“You squished the berry, Zach. Rowan is a protecting tree and you squished one of its berries.”

“I squished a berry, and now the tree seeks vengeance by sending a … stick to get me?” Zach was laughing.

Aiden interrupted, “Zach, in ancient times people also carried small crosses made of rowan wood to protect them or carried a switch made of rowan.”

“A switch? A light switch? In olden times? Really!” Zach was still laughing.

“Zach, a switch is a stick or a staff.”

Zach gaped at him.

“A stick … or a staff!” Aiden pointed at the branch Zach was toying with.

“What are you two talking about?”

“Zach, I saw a snake. That stick was a snake!” Aiden was more confident now.

Zach suddenly threw the stick to the floor. “Aargh … a snake! Save me!” He pretended to bite his fingernails. “I squished a rowan berry and now the snake guardian is trying to get me back!”

No one was laughing.

Zach shrugged and bent to retrieve the stick, turning it in his hands. “It’s a good stick though – smooth, straight. I’m gonna keep it.”

“How old are you, Zach? Four-year-olds collect sticks!” Scarlet criticised.

“Well I’m keeping it to see if it will turn into a snake for me.” He grinned at her and then frowned, cocking his head to one side. “Hey, what’s going on with your eyes?”

Scarlet immediately turned her head to one side, lowering her eyes to the ground. Now Nat and Aiden looked at her and she began to blush slightly. Then her brows lifted and she smiled. Facing them all square on she began telling in great detail what happened in the moonlight the night before and what she could now see. All thoughts of berries, sticks and snakes were gone. She had only just finished when the bell went.

An Abstraction

All of them were in the same Maths set and they scrambled to sit on a table together. The teacher, Mrs Tilbrook, was a roly-poly female who wore a strange pair of silver-framed glasses perched on her stubby nose and clothing that looked as though she had rummaged through her grandmother’s wardrobe.

The class were silent. They had been since she had walked through the door and placed a cream canvas bag onto each of the desks.

“Today our subject is transformations,” she stated and bewildered expressions appeared on many faces. “You may remember this from middle school.” Seb vaguely did.

The opening of the classroom door diverted everyone’s attention. Mr White stepped in. He hadn’t knocked. He didn’t address Mrs Tilbrook but simply hovered in the doorway. She observed him with what Seb thought was amusement.

“Mr White?”

The teacher gazed around the room and, spotting Aiden, pointed a skinny finger at him then gave a beckoning motion. Aiden nervously stood and started edging his way towards the dull teacher. Two more jabs of the scraggy finger and Seb and Zach were summonsed, then a further two and Nat and Scarlet were called to join him. Without a single word, and certainly no acknowledgement or apology to Mrs Tilbrook, Mr White turned and left the room, Seb, his sister and their friends following.

The seemingly doddery old man was actually very sprightly and as he marched out of the Year Nine block and down the ramp they all had to trot to keep up. His long strides took him swiftly into the main building and down the ogre corridor.

“I guess the rule about not using the main corridor didn’t get through to the old man,” Zach mumbled as they raced after Mr White.

Following him up the stairs to the Heads’ offices Seb wondered how he could be visiting this place for the second time in a day.

Mr White opened the door to the Deputy Head’s office. Like everything else on this level it creaked and the teacher ushered them inside.

The room was amazingly bright but Seb hardly noticed the furnishings or objects within it. The scene offered by the floor-to-ceiling window opposite the door was what drew his attention. The elevated view was on a level with the yellowing canopy of the oak woods and through this vegetation the long avenue of the approach road to the school cut like a grey scar.

As they all clustered within a foot of the doorway a figure rose from a small alcove seat recessed in the left wall and came to stand in front of them.

From the few school assemblies he had attended and from the times he had glanced up to this window to find himself being observed, Seb recognised the figure of the Deputy Head: Miss Angel. The female looked as decrepit as Mr White and the contrast between the suggestion her name evoked and the actuality of her appearance was a source of amusement for all students who attended Oakwood; she was elderly and emaciated. Her face was almost skeletal; the wrinkles in the skin across her forehead, cheeks and jaw seemed to have been carved aeons ago. Her silver hair was held back in a long, wispy ponytail and around her hairline were patches where she was almost bald it grew so sparsely. Her eyes were masked by a pair of delicate, tinted glasses.

There was silence. Seb’s eyes flicked around the room and now he realised why it was so startlingly bright. Covering every wall were mirrors – many, many mirrors – some ornate, some simple, some designed in the shape of familiar objects or animals, others plain rectangles or ovals of reflective glass; small, medium, large. Hundreds of mirrors. Scarlet was nudging him as she too looked around the room. Why on earth would Miss Angel, so old and so … Seb tried to find a kind way of describing it but couldn’t … so ugly, want so many mirrors to remind her of the fact?

Miss Angel spoke, “I have had a report from the caretaker that minor damage has been done to an area beneath the old oak on The Beach and something has been removed.” She waited. Aiden lowered his head. Zach snorted. “You have something to say, Master Orwell?” Zach’s chin dropped and he shook his head. “Master Lord?” Aiden coughed but said nothing. “You must return the object you took,” Miss Angel said.

Seb wondered if the compact Aiden had found belonged to Miss Angel. None of them had thought to ask if it belonged to anyone – and why would she bury it? He looked at the frail figure and started to feel sorry for this strange woman who surrounded herself with mirrors and seemed to have such an obsession with them she had taken to burying them around the school grounds.

Aiden pulled the small tin out of his trouser pocket and gingerly held it towards Miss Angel, who tutted.

“I didn’t think it belonged to anyone,” Aiden almost whispered.

Another tut. “Not that object. That is yours, Master Lord. You found it, so it must have been meant for you.” She turned to Zach, waiting. “Master Orwell. You must return it,” her voice was soft, not angry or challenging. It sounded more like advice.

“The stick? Are you talking about a silly old stick? It fell out of the tree!” Zach snapped his head up.

“And where is it now?” Miss Angel took a couple of steps towards him. Zach leant back slightly as she stopped about two feet from him. Skeletal she may be but she was also tall.

Seb tried not to stare at her paper-thin skin and the cluster of five or six long, wiry hairs sprouting from her jaw line.

“In my bag, in the classroom,” Zach sounded uncertain.

“You must return it,” Miss Angel said.

“Are you serious? The stick! You want me to put a tatty old stick back in a tree?”

Seb was shocked at Zach daring to challenge the Deputy Head and held his breath, waiting for her response.

“You will get the item; you will return it to the tree. You will fill in the hole left by Master Lord and Master Orwell,” Miss Angel took another step towards Zach so that she now towered, in all her prehistoric glory, over him. “You will remain under that tree and will not speak until the caretaker says you can go. Am I clear?” She had still not raised her voice.

Zach gave a brief nod.

Miss Angel returned to the alcove and sat on the plump, green cushion that covered the seat there, pulling her knees up to her chin and clasping her legs with her arms, like a young girl.

Mr White stepped behind them and Seb heard the click and creak as he opened the door. He ushered them out.

Closing the door he mumbled, “Did you all eat a berry?” They stopped still at the top of the stairs.

“Just me,” Aiden said.

He nodded then Scarlet volunteered, “Zach squished one!”

Mr White opened his watery eyes then said, “Master Orwell, you must do as Miss Angel says.”

Aiden took the tin out again and clicked it open.

“You know the rowan?” Mr White asked.

“Yes, my grandmother makes marmalade and jam with it,” Nat said.

“Oh, but it is for so much more than that— ”

Aiden broke in, shouting, “THERE ARE FIVE!” He was looking into the opened tin where five, yellowy-red berries nestled in the cavity inside.

“But Aiden ate one and I squished one!” Zach said as Aiden plucked a berry out of the tin and brought it close to his mouth.

Mr White placed a hand over Aiden’s. “Only one a day.” Aiden looked up at him, confused. The teacher continued, “The berries can be poisonous. Actually it is the seeds.”

“I read that somewhere and I spat the seeds out,” Aiden said, fishing around in the bottom of his pocket. Smiling, he produced two small seeds and held them up.

The teacher raised his eyebrows. “Ah, good.”

Zach interrupted, as though he had a burning point everyone seemed to be forgetting, “Does no one else think it odd that there are five in the tin again?”

Scarlet added, as though he were missing the main point, “Does no one think it strange that we dug up a tin and inside, even though it had been buried for who knows how long, were five berries in the first place? Mr White— ”

But Mr White had disappeared down the stairs and was gone before they realised he had moved.

“Where’d he go?” Zach looked over the landing railing.

Aiden joined him, peering over at the stairs. “Should we go back to class?”

Seb was puzzling over the summons to the strange Deputy Head’s office just to tell Zach to put a stick back in a tree. Not necessary for them all to come really, was it? And something else was nagging at the back of his mind.

“How did Mr White know about the tin and the berries?”he said.

“Well Miss Angel knew too, at least about the tin.” Scarlet shrugged and began plodding down the stairs. “Come on, at least we got out of half of Maths!” She smiled as she turned the corner of the half landing.

“But how did they know?” Seb didn’t want to let it drop and trotted after her.

“Duh, Seb!” Scarlet’s voice shot quite nastily back at him. “We were sat right outside the staff room!”

Seb now had a creeping feeling at the thought that the teachers were watching them, spying on them. He mumbled to Zach, “It’s all really strange: the ogre, the teachers knowing about the tin …”

“And,” Zach added as though frustrated no one thought it as important as him, “there were only three berries left but when Aiden opened his tin there were five again! That’s the weirdest part!”

“No.” Scarlet waited at the bottom and as they joined her she put a hand on Zach’s shoulder. “The weirdest part is Miss Angel telling you to go and put a stick back in a tree! That’s just plain strange!” She smiled a broad smile at Zach who frowned back at her. “And don’t forget you mustn’t speak! How crazy is that? I think I may have to come and watch! Oh, and have any of you ever met the caretaker?” She was giggling now.

Nat linked her arm through Scarlet’s, guiding her gently towards Reception. Zach overtook them and, walking backwards, said, “Didn’t even know there was a caretaker. What’s so special about him anyway?”

“Why do you assume it’s a him?” Scarlet laughed.

“Well … it is, isn’t it?”

Scarlet simply smiled at him.

They were passing the Reception area, which was deserted, and Zach carried on going, walking backwards. He turned the corner and Aiden called out, “Zach, Mr Duir said not to use this corridor.”

“Well Mr White brought us this way. So we can go back this way.” Zach continued on.

The others shrugged and followed him. Seb glanced at the ogre door as Zach reached The Lake exit. He felt a slight tingling in his palm and then Scarlet pulled him to a stop. She was staring at the ogre door.

“Come on mortals, what are you doing?” Zach said.

Scarlet whispered, “I see a shape, through there.” She pointed nervously at the door.

“It’s a door, Scarlet. You know – entry, exit, large slab of wood in a hole – a door!” Zach rejoined them.

“Shh, Zach,” she hissed. “There’s something in there.”

“Probably a teacher. Stop playing games, Scarlet.”

“Scarlet, can you actually see into the room?” Seb asked.

She shook her head. “No, not into the room, just … I can see something there.”

“You’re not really making any sense, Scarlet.” Aiden sounded confused.

Scarlet turned to him. “I can’t explain it. I am not seeing into the room; I can just see a figure, a large, dark figure. But it’s not in the room, actually.”

“You’re right, you can’t explain it!” Zach sounded annoyed. “In the room, not in the room – not very helpful.”

She spun on him angrily. “Well it wasn’t meant to be helpful. I am confused. I don’t know what I am seeing and so I can’t describe it properly.”

“Well why don’t you open the door?” Zach grabbed the handle.

“Don’t be daft, Zach. There’s probably a teacher in there and a class. How well would that go?”

“I highly doubt anyone’s in there! The way you’ve been shouting the teacher would have come out by now,” Zach said.

“I wasn’t shouting,” Scarlet hissed.

Nat put a hand on her shoulder. “You were Scarlet, though it doesn’t matter. Zach’s right. A teacher would have come out by now. But we should leave. It doesn’t feel right!”

Aiden spoke nervously, “I want to go back to class.”

“Oh, you mortals are starting to do my head in … Doesn’t feel right … What doesn’t feel right? Just open the door!” Before anyone had a chance to discuss the matter further Zach pulled the handle down and pushed. The door swung back and the dark, hulking shape on the far side of the room turned slowly.

“Run!” Seb shouted.

“What?” Aiden sounded panicked.

“Why?” Zach was confused. “There’s nothing there!”

Scarlet was already on her toes, heading down the corridor, Nat by her side. Seb followed, grabbing Aiden’s sleeve. Zach stood by the open doorway, calling after them, “What are you guys on? There’s nothing there!”

Seb heard the wheezing, cackling sound and called back, “It is there – run!”

Zach reacted instantly though he had a look of utter dismay on his face. He pelted down the corridor. “Honestly, mortals, there’s nothing there!” He was laughing now, finding the whole situation ludicrous.

As they neared the turn in the corridor Mr Duir stepped around the corner. They all skidded to a halt. Seb glanced back down the corridor. The ogre had gone, vanished. Scarlet looked back too and gasped.

“But … where?”

“You were instructed to avoid this corridor.” Mr Duir sounded annoyed. He folded his arms across his chest and Seb knew he was staring at him. He looked at his shoes, his heart still pounding. Don’t make eye contact.

Scarlet, overcoming her nerves at being caught said, “So you know about that monster then?”

Mr Duir stared at her, stony-faced. “This corridor is out of bounds. You have been told.”

“But the og— ”

“Master Orwell!” Mr Duir ignored her.

“Sir?” Zach sounded sullen.

“The caretaker will meet you at the old oak at lunchtime. Do as Miss Angel instructed.”

“Yes sir.” Zach mumbled.

The Head took a step to the side allowing them to walk past. Heads hanging, they made their way back to class. There was muttering and murmuring as they entered the room.

Dan leant towards Seb as he sat down and whispered, “You guys get a telling off? About time, cheat!”

Seb ignored him.

Zach frowned. “Can’t believe we missed half a Maths lesson just to be told to put a stick back in a tree.” He nudged the stick, which was under his chair, with the toe of his shoe and he was still moaning about it twenty minutes later when the bell rang.

The Caretaker

Seb found Religious Education tedious and the lesson couldn’t finish soon enough. He was up instantly the bell for lunch sounded. Aiden too, hurried to the door. Zach was more reluctant.

“Come on, all you have to do is put the stick back.” Seb tried to cheer him up.

“It’s a stupid old stick, and a hole in a bit of dirt. Really, it’s just nonsense.”

“Okay, but we’d be going to The Beach anyway, so there’s no harm really.” Aiden tried to help.

“It’s like a detention … for what? The stick fell on me and it was you who made the hole, Aiden. Why am I being punished?”

The girls were waiting when they got to The Beach.

Scarlet put an arm around Zach’s shoulders. “Don’t look so glum, Zach. All you have to do is put the stick back. Oh … and not talk!” she chuckled.

Zach shook her arm off, glaring at her. “Wish it was you who had to not talk.” He threw his bag onto the bench and about two feet of stick was poking out of it. He pulled the whole thing out, held the bulge at the top and planted the other end on the ground by his foot. “So where’s the caretaker then? I don’t want to miss my lunch.” He looked around.

There was a crunching sound on the gravel and a figure stepped around the tree. It was the figure Seb had seen in the woods during cross-country. The head was still covered by the hood, throwing the face into shadow. He wondered if this was the caretaker. He had expected an old man with shabby overalls. Judging by the build and the clothing this person was a twenty-something at most; tall but with a slight, athletic frame. The hoodie was accompanied by jeans and a pair of blue deck shoes.

Zach tried to peer under the hood but the youth turned towards the tree, placing a hand on the bark of the trunk. The hoodie’s sleeve flopped back to the wrist, revealing delicate fingers with finely shaped nails.

“Luis is a protector.” As the stranger began speaking, Zach blinked. The speech was slightly gravelly, almost husky, with a feminine tone to it.

In fact, Seb thought, looking at this character, It’s difficult to tell if it’s a male or female. The height, the clothing, the bearing – all male. But the delicacy, the fingers, the build, the voice … could be female. Seb found himself distracted from what this newcomer was saying as he struggled to find clues to help him confirm the gender.

Zach had moved round to try and face the youth. “Luis? Who is Luis? Are you Luis?”

“Luis, the quicken-tree, witch bane – take your pick.” Again the husky, almost female tones.

“Rowan!” Aiden said. “Those are other names for the rowan tree … and that stick is made of rowan, I think.”

The stranger said nothing. Zach raised his eyes.

“Mm. Fascinating. Are you the caretaker?” He sounded doubtful but keen to just get on with returning the stick. He had no interest in talk of tree names.

“I am.” The figure turned and removed the hood.

Scarlet was smiling and nudged Nat who simply stared at the youthful face of this stranger. A couple of older girls walking along the edge of the playground stopped and stared too, then nudged each other, giggled and walked off, talking in whispers.

Even with the whole head visible, Seb still couldn’t decide if this tall and slender person was a girl or a boy. The girls’ reaction suggested they thought it was a male. Definitely young, couldn’t be more than twenty-five he guessed, but Seb was erring towards female and he knew that was mainly because the character had long, glossy, wavy black hair which framed an attractive face. The features could easily be male or female, though: a straight nose; high forehead; full, slightly arched, dark eyebrows; piercing blue eyes, lined with long, dark lashes; a straight, firm mouth with full but not thick lips; and a strong, slightly pointed jaw. The whole effect was of a strikingly good-looking person. But which gender?

I can’t tell. Seb gawped.

“So what’s your name?” Zach frowned, curious.

“The Caretaker.” A wry smile crossed the face and the character offered nothing more.

There was a pause and Zach stared. He glanced at Seb, then back at The Caretaker. “So are you a boy or a girl?” he asked, and Aiden gasped.

Seb cringed and Scarlet berated, “Zach! Don’t be rude!”

“Well I’m just asking …” Zach didn’t take his eyes off The Caretaker who regarded him impassively and didn’t answer.

In the awkward silence that followed, Zach still stared, but in the end he gave in and flicked the stick up into the air and caught it again half way down the shaft, holding it out in front of The Caretaker.

“Here ya go! One stick, returned. Can I go to lunch now?”

The Caretaker made no effort to take it. “You were asked to return it to the tree, to fill in the hole,” the blue eyes darted to the small hole at their feet, “and then to remain until I say you can leave. Were you not?” The Caretaker raised an eyebrow.

Zach frowned. “We’re game-playing aren’t we? This is ridiculous. It’s a stupid stick and a hole in the dirt.” The Caretaker said nothing. “Oh fine, have it your way. It’s ridiculous!”

In a breathtakingly quick motion, Zach hefted the stick into the air. It shot up through the foliage above their heads. There was a clattering sound as it hit a couple of branches and then a further clattering as it dropped back out. Zach caught it and tutted. He tossed it up a second time. Again the clattering, some rustling and the stick dropped back out. “Oh for pity’s sake!”

Zach jumped and poked the stick into the tree. He landed and the stick followed him back down. He growled in annoyance. Now he leapt up onto the bench. Feeling up into the tree he lay the stick horizontally onto the thick, main branch and gingerly removed his hands. As he stepped down from the bench with a broad grin on his face the stick fell onto the seat behind him and then rolled onto the gravel.

He fumed at The Caretaker, “Why do I have to put it back in the tree? It’s a flaming stick! That’s all! It fell out of the tree so it must have needed to fall. It won’t go back!” He picked up the stick from the gravel and, using his other hand as he did so, scraped some of the mud around the hole Aiden had made into the middle of it. Then, with his shoe, he shoved the rest of the dirt and the dislodged gravel back in place.

“Well there’s your darned hole filled in. As for this,” he was shouting and glared at the stick, “it’s a stick and I’m not going to stand here for the whole of my lunch break trying to put a flaming stick back into a flaming tree!” The Caretaker still said nothing. “I’m hungry and I’m fed up and I need my lunch.”

Once more he threw it up, this time with such force that several leaves and small twigs were dislodged and fell to the ground, followed, inevitably, by the stick.

“Enough!” The Caretaker’s voice was harsh and so loud it caused a few boys on the playground to glance over. They stared for a moment at the striking figure. One boy raised his eyebrows and nudged the others who smiled and shoved him back. They walked off, looking over their shoulders at The Caretaker.

“You were asked to put the stick back, not do more damage!”

“I wasn’t asked, I was told!” Zach retorted. “If you’re so fussed, you put it back.” He thrust the stick towards The Caretaker who now put out two slender hands and gripped it. Dropping one end to the ground the figure made a lithe jump, gripped the lower tree branch, which was easily eight feet above the ground, and then swung into the tree, disappearing from sight. In a second The Caretaker reappeared, dropping sure-footedly to the ground … without the stick.

Zach stood, mouth open. They all looked up into the tree, waiting. No stick.

Zach seemed momentarily lost then he mumbled, “You didn’t say I could climb into the tree.”

Scarlet laughed. “Like you could have done that, Zach – wow!”

“No Scarlet, not wow! Pointless!” Zach was angry again. “All of this is pointless. This was a stick, falling out of a tree and a bunch of teachers and …” he looked at The Caretaker, “… staff, playing silly games. Pointless!” He kicked the shingle, sending small stones skittering.

Then Aiden shouted, “Snake!”

Seb stared at him. He was pointing, wild-eyed, into the tree. Seb followed the direction of his outstretched arm where a snake slithered out of the leaves. He blinked, just as Zach, in a re-enactment of the break-time incident, grabbed hold of the thing. As Zach’s hand grasped the snake behind its head it stiffened and as he pulled Seb blinked again. Zach was tugging the same stick from the same tree.

Zach’s head dropped and he groaned, “Aiden! Not snake, stick!”

“But I …” Aiden mumbled, “I was sure it was a snake.”

“And what did you think it was, Zach?” The Caretaker asked.

Zach was scowling at the stick and, ignoring the question, grabbed the bulbous end with both hands. He lifted the stick to head height and then slammed it towards the ground, ramming the end into the dirt. The tip penetrated the earth and he let go of it. It remained upright. He grabbed his bag and strode off towards the Year Ten playground.

Scarlet called after him, “Zach, where are you going? You weren’t told you could leave— ”

“To lunch!” he called back over his shoulder and didn’t stop.

Nat touched Seb’s arm. “Look.”

He looked towards the stick. The bulge at the top was elongating, the shaft sagging and then, as he watched, the whole thing collapsed to the ground and began undulating. A long tongue flicked out of the end and two eyes popped open. A snake. It was a snake, and the creature was now slithering towards Zach who was still striding away.

The Caretaker, pulling the hood of the jacket up, walked off, calling back to them, “You can go.”

Seb was finding it hard to believe what he was seeing. It’s a stick, he kept telling himself as the snake crossed the playground, gaining ground on Zach. He trotted after it.

“Seb, where are you going?” Aiden called, then Seb heard crunching as the other three followed him.

“Zach!” he shouted.

Zach stopped and turned. His mouth fell open as he noticed the snake with Seb running beside it, barely keeping up. In three long strides Zach reached it and scooped it up. Instantly it became the stick again.

Breathlessly Seb said, “It’s yours. It must be yours. Every time you try to get rid of it, it comes back – turns into a snake to follow you.”

Zach looked incredulously at Seb. “What are you talking about?”

“The stick! It must be meant to be yours. How else do you explain why it keeps coming back to you?”

The other three joined them and as if making a split-second decision Zach pulled open the flap of his bag and stuffed the stick in.

“Are you going to keep it then?” Aiden asked.

“Well, Seb seems to think it’s mine, and I need my lunch, so I’m not wasting any more time trying to plant it back in the tree!”

Seb’s stomach growled. “I’m hungry,” he apologised.

“Yes, I need lunch!” Zach said again with a pained expression and began walking.

As they entered the cafeteria Zach managed to sideswipe one of the dinner ladies with the stick and she ordered him to leave it in the hallway just as The Caretaker entered.

“Oh great. Here we go again!” Zach moaned and before The Caretaker could speak he stated, “I am not going back to the tree. I need to eat and I will get my parents to complain about child cruelty if you don’t let me have my lunch.” He was shouting and the students queuing in the hot meals line turned to look. As The Caretaker pulled down the jacket hood the girls in the queue giggled self-consciously and the boys nudged each other.

“Leave it in the hallway as Mrs Bentley has said.” The Caretaker pointed to a recess in the corridor wall. “You can leave it there.”

The dinner lady nodded, folding her arms across her ample chest.

“Are you going to try and make me take it back to the oak after lunch?” Zach sounded confrontational.

“No.” The Caretaker, saying nothing more, left the food hall.

Zach stepped over to the recess, propped the stick against the wall and returned to his friends in the queue. They found a table and he began unselfconsciously devouring his packed lunch.

“So why do you think The Caretaker isn’t bothered any more about you returning the stick?” Scarlet asked, breaking the crust off her sandwich and nibbling it.

Zach shrugged and took a huge bite out of a granary roll, screwing his face up as he did. “Don’t know why my mum has decided to give me this bitty bread stuff. And look at this!” He held up a packet of raisins. “Where’s my treat? That’s it? A roll and a packet of poo drops!”

“I think the stick was always meant for Zach.” Aiden suggested, interrupting Zach’s complaining about his lunch. “And I think the whole thing with putting it back in the tree was to make sure it was for him and he hadn’t accidentally come across it.”

Zach stopped chewing for the first time since they had sat down. “It’s just a stick!” he said, getting annoyed.

“Zach, you can’t possibly still be saying that!” Scarlet said.

“Well whatever. Sticks fall out of trees all the time.” He sounded as though he wanted the discussion to just end.

“Rowan sticks falling out of oak trees?” Aiden said.

Zach shrugged again. “Not discussing it anymore! I need a proper treat.” He stood, sticking his hand in his pocket. Coins jangled and he pulled a couple out and examined them then tutted, “Well I won’t get much for this, will I?” He sat back down.

Nat smiled. “Have this, Zach.” She passed him a packet of mini Jaffa cakes.

“Ooh, thanks.” Zach was genuinely pleased. Then a thought seemed to strike him. “So is The Caretaker a man or a woman?” He looked at Scarlet.

She leant across, previous topic forgotten. “That was the point I meant earlier. No one knows. All the boys in the school say The Caretaker is a girl … and sounds like they all fancy her! All the girls say it is a boy and they all seem to fancy him! So no one knows. What do you think?”

Zach sat back and with chocolatey teeth he grinned. “Definitely a girl!”

Seb felt Zach was right. The more he thought about the character, the fine hands, fingers, the striking features, the glossy hair – a pretty girl.

Nat disagreed. “Well, I think it’s a boy. Quite young-looking. But maybe he’s older than he looks.”

“Don’t care either way!” Zach finished the packet. “He or she is a miserable character and hopefully that’s the last we’ll see of her … or him.” He swung back on his chair, balancing on the two rear legs then lurched forward as he sensed the glare of Mrs Bentley who was stood behind him, arms folded, looking disapprovingly at the slovenly mess he had made of the table.

Zach made a pathetic effort to scoop up the crumbs and the dinner lady wandered off. The others finished their food and as they headed out of the hall the bell for the end of lunch sounded. Zach raced to the alcove to retrieve his stick and then groaned when he realised it had gone.

“I’ll bet The Caretaker took it. That’s really not right!”

As he moaned Miss West appeared in the corridor.

“You will be late for class. Enough complaining and move on!” she said and Seb noticed she was holding the stick, in her hand. As they approached she held it towards Zach who tentatively took it.

“Fit it in your bag,” she said, walking away, leaving a puzzled Zach and his friends in the middle of the corridor as students pushed past them, rushing to their afternoon lessons.

 

Labyrinth

Sitting in the History lesson the following morning, Seb thought back to that moment in the corridor the day before, as Miss West strode off, when he and the others had watched Zach obediently try to fit that stick into his satchel. As he poked the end into the bottom corner the whole shaft bent, like a piece of spaghetti softening in hot water and the entire stick disappeared into the bag. Zach, unquestioning, had buckled the clips with a satisfied smile.

This morning, at break, they gathered at The Beach, as had become normal.

Seb immediately asked, “Doesn’t it worry any of you? All these strange things happening, and the teachers know … they obviously know.”

Zach had shrugged, removing the stick from his satchel like a magician pulling a run of colourful hankies from a stooge’s pocket. As the shaft of the stick emerged it straightened then Zach gently pushed it back into the bag. The others, ignoring Seb’s question, peered in, watching it bend and curl into the bottom. Zach removed the stick again, it became rigid and he leant on it.

“What’s the biggy, Seb? Nothing bad has happened.”

“But, my birthmark, Scarlet’s eyesight, Aiden’s freckles …”As he said that Aiden got his tin out, “and his tin that refills every time he opens it … and your stick!”

“So what?” Zach wasn’t interested in problems.

“So? This isn’t normal. Why are none of you concerned? What about the ogre?”

Zach snorted, “You guys and your ogre. There isn’t one and, Seb, there are lots of strange things in life. We’re just kids starting out. We’re bound to come across strange things.”

Seb fumed. “You are all in denial. This is really scary!”

Nat stood and placed a hand on his arm. “Seb, only because you don’t understand it. Zach’s right, nothing bad has happened. I agree it’s strange though. Do you think we should talk to the teachers? Or our parents?”

“Woah, hold on there, Nat!” Zach twirled his stick. “My mum for one would cause a riot trying to find out what’s going on, and Seb’s mum … well she’d whisk him off to the doctors about that silver in his hand. And personally, I’m not having anything to do with quizzing Miss Angel or Mr Duir if I can help it!”

Scarlet agreed. “I think it’s exciting and no, I don’t think we should tell our parents. What a nightmare that would be! We could ask Mr White though; he seems tame enough.”

Zach began flicking small stones with the stick, like he was knocking a croquet ball. One flipped up and struck the window of the staff room. Miss West appeared at the window, frowning. He smiled pathetically and she moved away.

Aiden offered Nat a berry, which she took nervously.

“I think we’re meant to eat one a day,” Aiden said, eating one and spitting the pips into his hand. “There are five berries, five of us – it can’t be coincidence.”

Seb was astounded. “None of this is coincidence! There’s something going on and I can’t believe none of you are worried by it!”

Aiden smiled. “It’s magic Seb. All the books I’ve read since I was so young … and now I am living something magical!” To demonstrate he closed the tin then re-opened it. Once more there were five berries inside. “It’s fantastic!” he beamed, offering a berry to Scarlet and Zach who took one each and put them in their mouths. “You all need to spit the seeds out.” Aiden reached his hand to Scarlet’s mouth. She was disgusted.

“That’s foul!” she said. “They’ll be covered in everyone’s saliva!”

“Nothing wrong with a bit of spit!” Zach laughed, grabbing Aiden’s hand and gobbing one seed into it. Aiden didn’t seem bothered. He pulled a tissue from one of his pockets with the other hand and grabbed the seeds with it. The girls reluctantly deposited theirs into the tissue.

Aiden offered the tin to Seb who shook his head. “I really don’t like berries. And I can’t believe you are eating them,” he mumbled.

“But Seb, they’re supposed to make you live longer,” Scarlet argued.

“Scarlet, you are so gullible!” Zach laughed as they walked back to their classes.

Seb was suddenly snapped from his musings and brought back to his History lesson by the sound of flapping as Mr West pulled a large sheet of canvas from an object which had been on his desk before the students arrived.

The object turned out to be a large model of a labyrinth in which a marble had been placed, as he explained, to represent Theseus. The 3D wooden model sat on a cradle that allowed it to be rocked and moved in order to roll the marble around the wooden corridors.

The pupils would work in groups to try and get the marble to the centre of the labyrinth. Within it, however, were doors which only opened one way. If the weight of the marble fell on the appropriate side, they would give way and the marble would fall through to the next corridor. However, care had to be taken. Since the doors did not open back the other way there was no option of a return through to the corridor the marble had left; if it was an incorrect choice there was no going back.

“The rules,” Mr West squeaked. “You can lock the doors but only as you come to them and, once locked, you cannot reopen them. To mark your route you can use these.” He opened his stubby hand to reveal hundreds of tiny silver sticker dots.

There was laughter, frustration and finally resignation as, one by one, each group failed at the task. Mr West sat and watched with a smile.

The fifth group, led by a bossy girl called Clarissa, bounded across to the table.

“On you go girls.”

Clarissa took charge and in fact it became pretty much a one-woman show. She moved and rocked the labyrinth, snapping orders to her timid friends to lock doors here and there. Impatient and headstrong she rolled faster and more chaotically and the girl placing the sticker trail lagged behind. Before long the runaway marble had been rolled, by Clarissa, down more turns than the sticker placer could keep up with.

“Slow down, Clarissa!” she pleaded.

“What? But I’m nearly there …” Clarissa continued tipping and moving the labyrinth. The marble rattled. The sticker marker got flustered and now the marble had moved several corridors on and it was sheer guesswork as to the route it had taken.

“Look, look …” Clarissa called excitedly. “I’m nearly … huh? No!” She let go of the labyrinth and stood back, turning angrily to her friends, looking for someone to blame.

“Miss Stone?”

She looked at Mr West then back to the labyrinth. The marble sat in a dead-end corridor, which ran alongside the central atrium of the maze. She had failed, the marble was trapped. She stood, cheeks flushed, looking like she was ready to explode.

“Thank you, Miss Stone. Last group.”

Clarissa bumped and pushed her way back to her desk, followed by her disappointed friends. Dan was already standing and heading to the table with his friend Marcus in tow. They had reluctantly been grouped with Seb, Aiden and Zach to make up numbers.

Dan took prime slot in the middle, gripping the edge of the labyrinth, ready to start it moving. “Ready boys? Let’s show the girls how to do it,” he stated.

Seb stepped over and took hold of a corner, holding the labyrinth still.

“Why don’t we all take a corner and get Aiden to check which way the doors open. He can mark the track and tell us which way to move the marble.”

Dan looked ready to argue but Zach grabbed a corner next to him and said, “Great idea. We don’t want to rush it like Clarissa!” He sneered, nudging Dan. “Us boys use our brains.”

Dan grumpily edged his way to the third corner, leaving Marcus to take the fourth. Aiden stepped to the edge, and collected a handful of silver dots.

Mr West had been removing the previous trail, unlocking the doors and now took the marble from its dead-end trap and handed it to Aiden. “Proceed.”

Aiden placed the marble at the start and, armed with the dots, indicated for Seb and Zach to drop their end, making the marble roll towards them. Deftly placing dots behind the fast moving sphere he called a halt as it neared doors, pressing a finger against each one to check the way it opened and locking it or leaving it as he thought necessary. On his instructions the other boys dropped or righted their corners as he worked out the path ahead.

The room was absolutely silent except for Aiden’s commands and the gentle roll of the marble.

Five minutes of door-pressing, locking and marble-rolling later and the class sat enraptured. At no point did the marble trace over a path it had already followed.

Mr West said nothing. Seated on a high stool a few feet away he rubbed his chin and watched Aiden.

There was a humph! from Clarissa as Aiden manoeuvred the marble to the opposite side from her attempt, and it now rolled along a seemingly dead-end path. But there was one final door. Aiden didn’t even bother to try it; he simply told Dan and Marcus to dip their end, causing the marble to roll across the door. The door gave way and the marble slipped into the square centre of the labyrinth.

Dan bellowed, “Yes!” and punched the air. Marcus was beaming, Zach and Seb smiling and the rest of the class erupted into cheers, with the exception of Clarissa who frowned and crossed her arms.

The track of fine silver dots made an intricate pattern through the corridors, one that Seb believed he could never replicate. He listened to the cacophony of cheering and chattering and followed the dots of the marble’s path to the centre – and his heart sank. They had got the marble to the centre, that was the aim, but now he realised, how would they get it out again? What was the point of marking your track? It was to help you find your way back. But they had passed the marble through a one-way door. Their track was pointless. They couldn’t get home again. Puzzling over this, he looked up to see Mr West staring at him.

The cheering was still going on and Dan was managing to take the accolade for all the work. Aiden stood silently opposite Seb, a frown on his face. Zach clapped both friends on the back and then noted their perplexed faces.

“What? What now? You guys are such downers!”

Mr West put his hands in the air, shuffling off the stool. His squeaky voice penetrated the general noise of celebration.

“I think Master Thomas believes we have an issue.” Gradually the noise died down. “Master Thomas?”

Seb could feel himself blushing. He looked at Aiden’s upset face for confirmation of his own thoughts. Without turning to face the class he spoke to Mr West, “We’re trapped! The marble is trapped.”

“What are you talking abo— ” Zach looked down at the maze, at the shiny marble which had come to rest in the exact centre. His eyes widened as his brain made the leap and realised the marble was now stuck!

The sound of the bell masked the confused mumbling from the class and then the issue was forgotten as they packed up their bags so as not to waste a moment of their lunch break.

Seb, Aiden and Zach were still staring at the trapped marble.

“Well that was great!” Zach said, turning back to his desk. “One moment we are conquering heroes, next, we’re failures! But d’you know what? I still think we did well, we achieved the task that none of the others could do. Who could have known it was a trap?”

“Quite, Master Orwell.” Mr West placed his hands on the side of the labyrinth. “Your achievement is remarkable in the face of the failure of others. And whilst you did not anticipate this being a trap, you will know in future to think of the possible consequences of everything you do rather than just focus on a given task. There was a simple thing that could have ensured you received the accolade that comes with complete success. Ponder on it.”

He took the marble from the chamber, handed it to Aiden and left the classroom.

Aiden stared at the shiny sphere in the palm of his hand. They spent another minute gazing at the door and the marble before packing away their things and heading off for lunch.

 

Think First

They were still talking about the labyrinth when Nat and Scarlet joined them in the cafeteria. Zach had reached the conclusion it was a mean, no-win task designed to humiliate the students.

“What are you boys so gloomy about? We’ve just had double PE – we’re the ones who should be miserable!” Scarlet complained as she opened her lunch bag.

“Well we were turned from heroes to idiots in a split second, thanks to Seb.”

“Hardly fair, Zach.” Aiden said. “We should have seen it.”

“No! We managed to do what none of the others could, but that was all forgotten just because Seb here noticed a minor flaw.”

“Minor flaw? We were trapped, Zach!” Seb pushed his own lunch away and folded his arms. “That’s not minor. It’s a major thing.”

“It doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter. The task was to reach the centre. No one said anything about getting back out again until you pointed it out.”

“I think Mr West would have said something even if we hadn’t.” Aiden said.

“What are you talking about?” Scarlet asked, taking a drink.

“Mr West, in History?” The girls nodded. “He brought in this labyrinth model. We were split into groups and had to get a marble to the centre. No one could do it, except our group. But when we got the marble to the centre, right in the middle of everyone cheering us, Seb here points out that we now can’t get the marble out and home again, which we were never asked to do!”

“If it was Theseus— ” Seb started.

“It wasn’t!” Zach cut him off.

“If it was Theseus and he— ”

“It wasn’t Theseus; it was Sebeus and his stupidus friends in History, Seb,” Zach cut in again, “who were only asked to get the marble to the centre!”

“Zach, you’re the one who loves the Greek legends. If it was Theseus and he had been given the golden thread by Ariadne to find his way back, and he managed to get to the centre and kill the Minotaur but was trapped and never did get out, do you think the legend would still be known today?”

“It wasn’t Theseus, Seb; it was our moment of glory!” Zach took a massive bite of his sandwich, turning towards Scarlet. “Have you done the labyrinth yet?” he asked.

Scarlet and Nat exchanged glances. “No, we’re not even doing Theseus and the labyrinth. We did that in middle school. We’re doing the history of this village.” Scarlet looked at Zach. “So why was the marble trapped?”

“There were these one-way doors that let you through to different corridors. You could lock doors to stop you going through them if you thought you wanted to carry on down a corridor, but once you locked them you couldn’t unlock them and the only way into the actual centre was through one door that opened into it.” He was chewing vigorously now. “Well, Aiden gets the marble to this last corridor, which is a dead end, but it has the door to the centre and we rolled it across the door. Bingo, it opened and in went the marble. Yeah, all hail the conquering heroes. But— ”

Nat’s eyes widened and she filled in the blank, “They were one-way doors and you couldn’t get back out. Was that the only door?”

“Yes it was the only door and the most annoying thing was that we had carefully marked the trail we had taken so that we could get back to the start. But we couldn’t get out of the door!” Seb answered.

Zach threw his arms up and sat back, exasperated. “But we were never asked to find our way back!” He looked infuriated. “Everyone was cheering us until Seb here puts this puzzled look on, which Mr West notices and then gets Seb to tell the whole class that we can’t get home. None of them cared before, they were just impressed we had made it to the middle. Then suddenly they all forget that we’ve done what they couldn’t do and all they notice is that we’re idiots because we’re stuck in the middle!”

“So it was an impossible task then!” Scarlet stated. “What did Mr West say?”

Aiden sat forward. “He said we had done remarkably well, but that now we would know to think about consequences before we just focus on a task. Something like that, anyway.”

“He thought you did well then?” Nat tried to mollify Zach who was still fuming, and comfort Seb who was obviously upset at the failure.

“But he also said something about us doing a simple thing that could have meant we had complete success …” Seb frowned, still puzzled.

“I think we did have complete success.” Zach refused to accept they hadn’t done well. “Like Scarlet said, it was an impossible task.”

“No it wasn’t.” Scarlet said with a smug grin.

“What? You’ve changed your tune.” Zach was almost shouting. “What’s the answer then, you’re so clever?”

“The answer, stupidus boysius, is to keep the door open! If you knew the doors only opened one way then you must know that if you go through, and it’s the only door in, you won’t be able to come out again if the door closes. So you needed to keep the door open, wedge something in it. Did Mr West say you couldn’t do that?”

There was silence. Zach’s jaw dropped open, displaying a half-chewed bit of chicken sandwich.

“And in fact,” Scarlet continued, “you should have wedged all the doors open that you thought you might want to go back through. Your trail home was also useless because you had used one-way doors to get to the centre. You needed to keep all of those open too. Mr West was right; don’t just focus on a task – think first!” She smiled a huge smile of self-satisfaction and then took a bite of her own sandwich as the boys and Nat sat gaping at her.

Eventually Zach’s mouth closed and he muttered, “We were never told we had to get back to the beginning again. I say we finished the task we were set!”

Nat sat forward and spoke quietly, changing the subject. “I found something amazing on the Internet last night,” her tone was hushed and she continued even more quietly, “about the teachers.”

“What, Nat?” Scarlet was curious.

“Something I think you will find very hard to believe.” She smiled mysteriously.

Zach took a huge bite out of a chocolate muffin donated to him by Aiden. “Don’t tell me, they are all part of a weird, secret society that meets in the woods and holds strange and mystical rites under the trees,” he sniggered.

“When everyone’s finished can we go to The Beach?” Nat asked, as Aiden shut his lunch bag. Seb hadn’t touched his lunch and Scarlet was just finishing. They all nodded. Zach still chewed. Four pairs of eyes turned to him, waiting.

He shrugged. “Not bothered where we go.”

 

A Question of Age

Minutes later they arrived at The Beach. A huge grey cloud had moved across the sky and seemed determined to hover over the school for the entire lunch break. Spots of rain fell and they sheltered on the bench under the oak. Nat held a folded sheet of paper.

“So what have you got there?” Zach asked. He rifled around in his bag and pulled out his stick, planting the tip on the ground. Leaning on it he peered at the sheet on Nat’s lap.

She carefully unfolded the paper. The wind made the corners flap in her hands. The others leant in to see. It was a printout of a newspaper article. The headline read:

 

Purchase of Land for School Development

It reported on the purchase of a large tract of woodland in the area for the building of a new school, Oakwood.

“So what?” Zach had read the headline and scanned the first paragraph. He stood and threw a stone which skipped across the Year Ten playground.

“Look at the date of the article: 1923!” Nat said.

“And? Everyone knows the school is old … almost as old as Miss Angel!” Zach snorted.

“Yes, they do,” Nat said patiently, smiling. “The article says that the purchase was completed through an agent, West and Co.” Zach ignored her. “On behalf of a company, Duir and White.”

Now Zach turned to look more closely at the paper. “Still don’t get the point.”

I don’t either, Seb tried to grasp the threads of information.

“Legal affairs were completed by Angel Solicitors!” Nat was beaming now and Scarlet grabbed the sheet of paper.

“So what?” Zach frowned. “So their grandparents were all involved in the purchase of this land. Maybe that’s why they all decided to come and work here as teachers.”

“Mm. Now look at the picture.”

Scarlet gasped then passed the sheet to Seb and Aiden.

“Is that— ? Oh, Nat … how did you find this?” Aiden’s voice screeched. He pressed his face in towards the flapping paper and Seb craned his head round him to see.

“What?” Zach grabbed the article and took a closer look.

“The picture, Zach?” Scarlet was grinning too.

Zach studied the picture and his mouth opened. He put the page to his side then lifted it again, peering at the date.

“I was on the Internet last night,” Nat started answering Aiden’s question, “doing our history project.” She looked at Scarlet. “We were told to research the history of a local building. I thought I would do the Old School. I know we were meant to do something like the town hall or an old church but I was just curious about the library wing and the window, which is beautiful.” She glanced over her shoulder at the stained glass pattern. “So I started a search on the school and found this article on the original purchase of the land.” Zach looked down at her. “It’s an article from the 1923 Bedfordshire Chronicle. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the photo!”

Seb took hold of the paper and had a closer look. The photograph in the centre of the article was slightly fuzzy, a poor shot from the 1920s. It was a picture of a man striding away from a business premises doorway. Stepping over the threshold of the doorway was a woman, her bespectacled face in three-quarter profile as she glanced back to another male. The subjects of the photograph obviously had not intended to pose for the camera.

Seb studied the most identifiable character. The emaciated, skeletal frame, the wizened and wrinkled face, the thin, lank hair, held back in a ponytail – without a doubt it was an ancient Miss Angel, the image of today’s Miss Angel but clothed in the least extreme version of pre-World War II fashion.

Seb looked at the male striding away from the doorway. His frame muscular, his height impressive, head reaching the level of the top of the ground floor windows in the old Victorian building. His short hair, strong features, the unmistakable set jaw line – Mr Duir had apparently been anxious to depart without attention. Seb took a look at the male behind Miss Angel. The lanky physique, the old and weathered face: Mr White. The caption under the photograph read:

 

Messrs. Duir and White completed the purchase of 10 acres of Bedfordshire woodland, through Angel Solicitors based in Church Street.

“So maybe they just look exactly like their grandparents?” Zach was reaching and he knew it.

Seb sat, dumbfounded. What they were looking at was an old black and white photograph in a newspaper article dated nearly a hundred years ago, that depicted three of the teachers at this school. And looking at Mr Duir, he hadn’t aged a day. Miss Angel and Mr White were as ancient-looking as they were today, but this was nearly a century ago!

Scarlet spoke first. “But this means these teachers have been alive for over a hundred years, if it really is them, Nat! Could it be wrong? Could the wrong date be on the article? Could the wrong photo be attached to the internet page? There are all sorts of reasons why it may not be real. It might even be—”

“A fake!” Zach put in. “You can make anything look real on the Internet.”

The spots of rain were getting heavier, making a pattering sound on the leaves above their heads. Seb was still holding the paper which flapped around in the breeze but he wasn’t looking at it. He stared at Nat. And now he noticed his palm was tingling. He shivered slightly, as a few large drops of rain hit his face, blown by a sudden horizontal gust of wind.

Seb folded the sheet of paper and handed it back to Nat. Another gust of wind and there was a loud cracking sound as a not insubstantial branch above their heads broke in a jagged split halfway along its length. Laden with smaller branches and a dense network of wet leaves, the heavy, foliage-covered end fell. Without a pause for thought Zach whipped his stick up and hooked the end of the branch, catching it inches above Seb’s head, spun and hurled it in a sweeping arc over The Beach shingle. It crashed to the ground forty feet into the Year Ten playground which, fortunately, was deserted, all other students having taken refuge from the unpleasant day in the big hall. Seb only had time to cower slightly and raise his arms and now he stared at Zach, stunned.

Scarlet stood, picked up a small stone from the shingle and threw it in the direction of the branch. It fell about twenty feet short and bounced several times before stopping, still some distance from the greenery.

“That was a stone, Zach, not a dirty great big branch full of twigs and leaves. A small, light, stone. How did you do that? And how did you react so quickly? None of us had even realised the branch was falling until it was too late. How did you do it?” Scarlet was standing with her hands on her hips. Small droplets of water glistened on her nose and glasses. She was grinning.

“I’m awesome! What can I say?” Zach said, plopping onto the bench and sounding like he felt anything but awesome.

“Yes, you are,” Scarlet said. “More than before!”

Zach looked at the scuffed toes of his shoes and shrugged.

Seb’s hand was really tingling now and he pushed down the glove to rub his birthmark. As he exposed the palm a chink of sunlight squeezed through the heavy clouds above. It caught the silver lines on his palm. The light rebounded, intensified and reflected into his eyes. Suddenly flames leapt from his palm to his eyes. He yelled. Nat, dropping the piece of paper, which was carried off by the wind into the woods, grabbed his hand and turned it over, out of the sunlight. The flames extinguished.

“Ohh-kay,” Zach said slowly. “That was kind of worrying.”

Seb, half blinded, caught a movement in the corner of his eye. He glanced at the staff room window and saw Mr Duir turn quickly and walk out of sight.

Now he was beginning to feel light-headed and darkness started to close in on him. His palm felt very warm. Then everything went black.

For a long while everything was dark then a noise drifted into his mind, very faint, but getting louder.

“Follow me. We’ll take him to the sick room.” Mr Duir’s voice was accompanied by a lurching feeling as Seb’s world warped. The blackness receded and he opened his eyes to see grey clouds, someone’s chin, a strong jaw line, a green tie, a white shirt.

It was a second before Seb got his bearings and realised he was being carried up the planks across The Lake, like a baby, by Mr Duir. He felt queasy, as though he had just stepped off a roller coaster. His brain was muddled, his senses woolly. He struggled to comprehend what had happened. Had he fainted? A couple of cold raindrops fell on his cheeks. As he turned his head to look around, he saw Nat’s concerned face.

“You fainted, Seb,” she spoke quietly to him.

Seb looked up at Mr Duir, whose eyes looked straight ahead.

“Relax, Master Thomas.”

The grey clouds disappeared as they entered the gloom of the ogre corridor and turned towards Reception. Seb’s palm was once again tingling and he tried to ignore the urge to rub it. As Zach led the way inside Mr Duir stopped abruptly a foot over the threshold. Seb heard a small sound like a whimper and realised it had come from Nat, who had just stepped in behind them.

“Miss Kitchener?” Seb heard Mr Duir’s voice rumble through his chest.

Nat’s reply was slightly breathless. “I hear … sorry, I just feel something …”

Scarlet walked through the doorway behind them. “What’s happening, what’s the problem?” There was a gasp and then she stammered, “Who is that, sir? Shouldn’t we leave?”

Mr Duir still held Seb and now Seb could hear it, the wheezing, the cackling. He lifted his head and looked along thirty feet of dark corridor. He could just see Zach who had stopped further along when he realised everyone else had come to a halt.

“What’s going on?” He turned back just as the massive bulk of the ogre emerged through the doorway feet from him.

“Zach!” Seb called a feeble warning. Zach just looked confused.

Nat couldn’t disguise her fear. “Mr Duir?” She moved back behind him. The huge ogre took a lumbering step forward.

“Are we going or not? What are you all doing?” Zach looked at his friends, huddling around Mr Duir in the doorway. “Someone tell me what’s going on!”

“Is Seb going to be sick?” Aiden asked, wondering too why they had stopped in the doorway.

The ogreish figure took another, heavy step forward. Seb gripped Mr Duir’s arm as his heart raced and he started to panic. He wondered why Mr Duir didn’t lead them back out the door but then maybe, like Zach and Aiden, he couldn’t see it.

And then The Head muttered a strange word in barely more than a whisper. Seb, his right ear pressed to Mr Duir’s chest, caught the clear vibration of it. One word, which he couldn’t make out.

Suddenly a cascade of sparkles surrounded them and the mammoth figure stopped in its tracks. It remained on the spot and rocked from side to side. Seb strained to see features, details to it, but he could detect nothing. The sparkles danced and then the hulking figure turned, lumbered back to the door and shambled through. It didn’t appear to have opened the door and it left an eerie silence until Zach boomed, “Why are we just standing here?”

Seb looked at Nat and Scarlet. They were staring in awe at Mr Duir. The Head moved on down the corridor as though nothing had happened. Passing the door, Seb glanced at the handle, looking for any sign of movement. There was none.

The sound of the group’s footsteps rattled through the corridor accompanied by Zach’s words. “At last! I thought we were going to spend the rest of lunch here!”

Whispering

Still carrying Seb, who was now feeling much better and rather stupid, Mr Duir strode past the Reception desk towards the sick room. The older of the two receptionists jumped to her feet and hurried over to open the door.

“Student’s name, sir?” she asked in a clipped manner, as if she needed to be rid of this disruption to her day.

“He won’t be going home, Mrs Reeves. Just needs a bit of rest.” Mr Duir answered, placing Seb on the bed.

“Could you ask Mr West to come to my office, please,” he said, ushering the woman out. She gave an indignant look over the top of her glasses and closed the door behind her. The strong scent of her perfume hung in the room as Mr Duir pulled a chair up next to Seb. “You’ll need to rest, Master Thomas.” He smiled, his green eyes reflecting the rectangle of light from the window beside the bed.

Seb still felt weak and as he nodded felt queasy again.

“What was that all about?” Zach asked. Mr Duir twisted round to face him and waited. “Er … sir!”

The Head replied in an even voice, “Master Thomas fainted.”

“I get that …” Zach paused, trying not to sound rude. “What was that all about in the corridor?”

“In the corridor?” Mr Duir’s eyes were fixed on Zach and Seb watched his friend’s confidence wane. His shoulders dropped as he made the decision to let it go. It was obvious from The Head’s demeanour he wasn’t going to explain anything.

“I will get Mr West, you rest,” Mr Duir said, rising. Towering over Seb, his massive frame blocked most of the light. Then, with a nod, he left the room.

“Well? What was that all about?” Zach waited not even a second after The Head’s departure to ask.

Scarlet plonked herself on the foot of the bed. “Not sure we should tell you Zach; you’ll just make fun!”

“Don’t tell me, it was the ogre!” He raised his arms and, wiggling his fingers, made a ghostly moan, “Oooooooo.”

Scarlet stared defiantly at him. “Yes, it was the ogre. It came out of that same classroom and stood in the corridor. It was only a foot from you Zach!” She smoothed her hair down, tucking a stray strand behind her ear, as if that would help suppress her urge to shout.

Zach looked at Aiden who was gazing out of the window at the trees being buffeted by the wind and the raindrops spattering the pane.

“Aiden, come on. I need some support. There was nothing there.”

“Just because you couldn’t see it, Zach doesn’t mean it wasn’t there!” Scarlet snapped.

Aiden turned to Zach. “I didn’t see anything, but Scarlet and Seb obviously did. And so,” he paused, “did Mr Duir!”

Zach crossed his arms and frowned. “No he didn’t. He didn’t say anything and when I just asked him he— ”

“He chose not to answer you, Zach. He did see it and what’s more, he made it go. I don’t know what he did but there was sparkling and the ogre ran away!” Scarlet said.

“Well how come me and Aiden didn’t see it, and Nat? She couldn’t either!” Zach said smugly.

Nat looked nervous and perched on the bed beside Scarlet. “I didn’t see anything— ”

“See? See!” Zach was triumphant. He stood and pointed at Nat. “I don’t know what you guys think you saw but none of us did.”

Seb, watching Zach, thought he saw a flash of green whizz behind his back. He spun his legs round, sitting upright and immediately regretted the movement. Hanging his head, trying not to faint again, he shivered as a dense cluster of clouds overshadowed the sun, changing the light in the room to sombre darkness. He heard a fluttering in his ears. Feeling dizzy he gingerly shuffled his bottom back on the mattress and leant against the wall.

Aiden hovered by the bed. “Seb you look really pale. Are you going to puke?”

“I hope not.” Seb closed his eyes.

The sound of Aiden’s voice became muffled, “Should we get Mrs Reeves? Are you okay?”

He heard shuffling feet.

“Where are you going, Zach? We can’t leave him like this.” Aiden’s voice was louder and Seb heard Zach answer.

“To get Mrs Reeves. Oh, and to get out of the firing line if Seb here decides to projectile vomit.”

The sound of the door opening seemed distant and Seb focused on the hardness of the wall against the back of his head, scared he was about to faint again.

He heard Zach’s surprised voice, “Oh, sir, I was just going to get Mrs Reeves. Seb’s doing it again – he’s going to faint!”

Pinpricks of light were appearing and disappearing like a private firework display behind Seb’s eyelids. He heard Mrs Reeves and smelt a waft of her perfume.

“I’ll call his parents,” she said.

“No!” Mr Duir sounded firm. “He’s safe here, Mrs Reeves.”

Seb now heard Mr West’s voice, “Some water would help. Fetch a glass please.”

There was a pause before the clip-clop of Mrs Reeves’ shoes could be heard as she crossed Reception. The remnants of the strong perfume did nothing to ease Seb’s nausea and he swallowed hard.

“It will pass, Master Thomas.” Mr Duir’s deep voice was reassuring.

“What’s wrong with him?” Scarlet sounded more interested than concerned.

“Absolutely nothing. Now, it’s time for you to go to your classes,” Mr West said.

Scarlet and Zach grumbled then Seb heard more footsteps as the others left and the click as the door closed.

He heard a buzzing sound and felt a breath of cool air as something breezed past his cheek and then he felt a slight touch on his right hand, which lay, limp, on the bed. A fleeting pressure and then it was gone. He pulled his hand away. The sudden movement made him retch, his stomach heaving in an uncontrollable spasm. No vomit, he was relieved, but he felt so ill. He sat forward, placing his forehead on his knees which he bent up to his chest and then the mattress beside him lurched away as a heavy weight depressed it. He toppled left, too weak to stay upright, but his fall was stopped as Mr Duir’s arm looped around his shoulders and cradled him.

In an instant the nausea subsided, the dizziness stopped and Seb felt well enough to open his eyes.

Mr West peered at him and smiled. “Ah, that’s better.”

Seb felt fine. He turned to look at Mr Duir and as he did caught sight of another whoosh of green colour that darted from near the door towards the window.

“What was that?” Seb asked as he heard more buzzing and felt another breeze skim across his cheek.

“Just listen, Seb.” Mr Duir’s words were mumbled, barely audible over the buzzing which had become whispering and was almost recognisable as speech but just beyond Seb’s comprehension. Dominating his hearing, it disturbed him, like it was the chattering of ghosts.

Mr West opened the window. A gust of air rushed in. The curtain flapped and Seb felt his hair being ruffled by the breeze. It wasn’t comforting, it was chilly, and he shivered again. The whispering around him rose and Seb saw another flash of green whizz across the room.

“I am not well,” he groaned.

Mr Duir spoke quietly, “It is now as we thought, Greg.”

Mr West grunted, “Very young! I will tell the others.”

Seb watched the curtain dance in front of the window and listened to the fluttering which had become a definite whispered voice.

“Seb, pay attention,” Mr Duir said to him.

The whispering grew louder and now Seb realised he could hear words:“Do you see me? You need to see me.”

“You will stay?” Mr West asked, walking towards the door.

Mr Duir nodded to him.

“See me …”

“Who’s saying that?” Seb asked.

Mr West didn’t turn. He left the room. Mr Duir removed his arm from around Seb’s shoulders, stood and closed the door. Leaning against it he stared down at Seb. Although relieved that the nausea and dizziness didn’t return, Seb was alarmed at the ghostly whispering he was hearing.

“You must see me!”

“Who is saying that?” He looked around the small room. Mr Duir watched him, his face expressionless.

“See me. You can see me.” The whispering became a rustling voice.

“I can hear something, someone.” Seb stood, confused.

“Don’t ignore me, Seb … ” The whispering voice rose above the noise of the flapping curtain and Seb spun around. As he did he jumped – the figure he saw, sitting on the end of the bed swinging its legs back and forth, made him believe he had lost his mind.

The Visitor

Seb leapt backwards, slamming his shoulders into the window. He gaped and blinked, then whimpered.

The creature that regarded him from the end of the bed had human shape, like a youth about Seb’s age, but its body, with the exception of the face, hands and the long, slender feet, was covered almost entirely in a mesh of small green leaves that overlapped like the scales on a fish. The leafless areas were covered in yellowy-brown skin.

Seb stared at its face. Oval and narrowing to a pointed chin, its features were hauntingly like Seb’s own. Its head and forehead were covered in a patchwork of tiny leaves, a row of minute, brown acorns ran along the line of the eyebrows and the two large eyes had stunning silver irises surrounding their pitch-black pupils. They now watched Seb in expectation.

The leafy creature suddenly leapt and stood on the bed. “At last!” Its voice was like the rustling of leaves.

Seb looked at Mr Duir who was observing him keenly, still leaning with his back against the door.

The creature twirled, turning a circle and its leafy scales fluttered. It completed the circle and then jumped from the bed to stand between Mr Duir and Seb.

“You see me. It’s about time – I spoke my name ages ago!”

Seb opened his mouth to respond but flinched when the door to the room banged as someone on the other side tried to open it. Unable to move it with Mr Duir leaning his body weight against it, Mrs Reeves called in to them, “Mr Duir, is the young lad okay? Do I need to call his parents, a doctor, an ambulance?”

“No, Mrs Reeves,” Mr Duir answered over his shoulder. “He’s fine. In fact he is up and about now.”

He stood away from the door and Mrs Reeves barged in. She checked her pace as she saw Seb standing by the window, mouth agape.

“Ah.” She peered over her glasses. “I must say, you look very well!” She narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips.

Seb glanced at the leaf-boy. The creature stood between him and Mrs Reeves who, to Seb’s astonishment, gave no reaction at all; no shout, no exclamation, in fact nothing to indicate she even noticed this strange boy standing just two feet in front of her. She continued to glare at Seb and now her fingers, bright purple nail polish flashing, began drumming on the sides of her ample hips.

“Well my lad, what is going on? Have you been wasting these teachers’ time?” She called over her right shoulder, “What are we to do with him, Mr Duir? This boy has been having you on.” She pursed her lips.

Seb was totally bemused. The receptionist was looking right over the head of the leaf-boy who now leapt to his left and plopped down to sit cross-legged on the bed.

Mr West waddled through the doorway. He frowned at Seb.

“Mr West, he was feigning, faking!” Mrs Reeves glared at Seb.

And then unexpectedly, Mr West clapped his hands, his face breaking into a massive flat-toothed smile. “Ah Mrs Reeves, these youngsters recover quickly, don’t they? Now, I need you to find me a file if you wouldn’t mind.” He physically ushered the protesting woman out of the room. Mr Duir once more closed the door.

In a sudden blur of green the leaf-boy shot through the door as though it didn’t exist and was gone.

The bell rang for the end of lunch but Seb just stood, open-mouthed, wondering if he had imagined the leafy creature. His heart sank as another flash of green whizzed back through the door and the leaf-boy rematerialised beside Mr Duir who had stepped towards Seb, a look of concern on his face.

The leaf-boy, silver irises sparkling in the light from the window, smiled. “You should stop staring at me.”

Seb gaped. “Who? What is that?” he asked Mr Duir.

“Seb— ” Mr Duir started then there was a rap on the door.

Mrs Reeves called out, “Mr Duir, lunch is over.” Without waiting for a response she once more opened the door and stomped in.

Mr West followed behind her. “Mrs Reeves, the boy needs to be left in peace.”

Seb saw the slightest frown of annoyance on Mr Duir’s face as he turned to Mrs Reeves. She had stopped at Mr West’s protest and now stood inside the body of the leaf-boy as though he were a ghostly shape or a film projection. Seb was horrified. He stared at the image of this strange creature, swallowed up within the larger frame of Mrs Reeves. I am going mad, he concluded.

He breathed heavily and then physically jumped as, in a flash of greeny-yellow, the creature zoomed from Mrs Reeves’ body to materialise inches from him. The leaf-boy was exactly the same height as Seb, the same build and with features so similar to his, Seb felt he was staring at his own foliage-covered twin.

Shocked and confused, Seb bolted for the door. His heart was pounding as he pushed past an irate Mrs Reeves and he heard her remonstrate, “So there was nothing wrong with that lad!”

Mr Duir called out, “Seb!” And Seb heard footsteps, but he was already running towards the main entrance. Stepping into the open, a strong gust of wind pushed him sideways. He turned left, heading up the virtually unused path by the building. The rain was falling in a constant light stream and accompanied by its pattering sound, the rustling of wet leaves and the splash of his own footfalls, he was glad to be away from that small room and its strange occupant.

Following the path as it turned ninety degrees round the side of the assembly hall Seb took the route most students avoided. It ran under a natural tree tunnel where the older oaks stretched their branches across to almost grasp the side of the building with their finger-like twigs, creating a dark, ominous space beneath. Trotting through the dank tunnel he had just reached the threshold of the playground when a movement in the periphery of his vision made him panic. Staring straight ahead, he sprinted through the puddles, focusing on the ramp that led to the classrooms. The greeny flash whizzed past him to his left and then the leaf-boy materialised at the base of the ramp, blocking Seb’s way to his classroom. He skidded to a halt, feet from the figure who was staring with what Seb interpreted as annoyance at him. Uncertain what to do now, Seb tried not to scream and stood dithering, his feet in a puddle.

The figure reached out a hand. The fingers were slender and smooth, no wrinkles over the knuckles, no discernible fingernails. Seb stepped back.

The boy’s lips moved slowly. “Are we not to be friends?” his voice rustled.

Seb remained motionless, his mind reeling. The figure in front of him threw back his head and laughed a rippling, whispering laugh.

Looking at Seb he said, “You really don’t understand and Seb, you look terrified. Am I so scary?” The laughter and the words sounded good-natured but Seb was too upset to care.

“This isn’t real!” he shouted.

Rain drops drummed on his head, his shoulders were soaked and he could feel the dampness seeping through his jumper. Then he heard chattering voices, normal voices and the tramping of many feet.

A procession of students filed out of the classrooms at the top of the ramp. They ignored Seb, standing, soaking at the bottom. They also ignored, or did not comprehend, the leaf-boy and Seb watched in horror as the first students reaching him simply walked through this figure as if he was a ghost.

Scarlet reached the bottom of the ramp. “Seb, what are you doing?” She moved him to the side. Nat, Abi and Alex joined them and stood with hunched shoulders as Scarlet berated her brother, “You should still be in the sick room. Why are you standing here in the rain? You’ll catch a cold.”

“Ah, the sister who should see but does not.” The leaf-boy didn’t seem bothered by the repeated passage of people through his body, but as he spoke Nat gasped and turned in his direction. “Mmm. Interesting, Seb, do you not think? I do believe your friend can hear …”

Nat tilted her head towards the leaf-boy.

“Do you Nat? Do you hear?”

“Come on, Scarlet. We’re getting soaked,” Abi moaned and trotted off with Alex.

Scarlet threw a vicious glare at Seb. “We have to go, Seb. Go back to the sick room!” she ordered, but didn’t leave.

A shout hailed from the top of the ramp, “Seb, oh mortal fool, why are you standing in the rain?” Zach bounded down with Aiden beside him and then stopped on exactly the spot where the leaf-boy was standing. It was like he had stepped into its body and was shrouded by it.

Seb stared, appalled. Zach waved a hand in front of his eyes and frowned. “Girls, Aiden – he’s lost it. We need to get help.” Aiden was nodding frantically, raindrops dripping from the end of his nose.

Out of the corner of his eye Seb saw Mr Duir emerge from the path under the tree tunnel. He looked across at Seb. In a sudden flash of colour which whizzed to Seb’s left, the leaf-boy vanished in Mr Duir’s direction.

Seb decided he didn’t want to be taken back to the sick room by Mr Duir to be shut in with the strange leafy creature and have Mrs Reeves pester and nag him. He wanted the security of being with his friends, his sister. Snapping out of his indecisive stupor he grabbed Zach by the arm and trotted along the path.

“Where’s everyone going?” he asked.

“The hall. There’s an assembly.” Scarlet and Nat ran with them.

Zach laughed. “Seb, one minute you are about to puke all over us and the next you’re standing in the playground like you were never ill. Did you get booted out when they realised you were faking?”

“No, he ran away, from me actually.” The leaf-boy zoomed forward to block Seb’s path. Seb stopped again.

“What now?” Zach splashed to a halt in a big puddle and grabbed Aiden’s arm, making him stop too. Aiden looked miserable as the rain spattered his face and dripped off the top of his raincoat hood.

“Do we have to stop in the rain, Seb? I am sorry, but I’m freezing and wet and …” he looked at Seb who was staring at nothing, “you are acting quite strange. I don’t mean to be rude but …” Aiden stared desolately at him.

“Aiden’s right, oh strange mortal, you are behaving weirdly,” Zach said.

Seb looked down at his feet, tried to ignore the rustling of the leaves on the figure in front of him and the broad grin on those features that were so like his own. He heard Mr Duir’s footsteps approaching rapidly from behind them and made a decision. With a deep breath he ran through the leaf-boy and got a slight electric jolt as he did so. Relieved, the others joined him and in minutes they were following other stragglers inside and passing through Reception, with Mrs Reeves glaring at Seb as he headed through the double doors to the assembly hall.

Miss Angel stood in the centre of the floor area waiting for everyone to settle. The assembly began with an award-giving for those who had earned a milestone number of merits or praise slips, Scarlet being one of them. She smiled proudly at Seb from the floor as she collected hers. Miss Angel continued to cover basic administrative topics, which included a brief reference to the main corridor being out of use for health and safety reasons.

Cocooned in the normality of his surroundings, Seb relaxed. He stared at this woman and recalled the picture Nat had shown them all. How old is she? He could see her scalp through the thinning covering of her hair and in the artificial light shining from the recessed bulbs in the ceiling, the shadow of her features looked more gaunt and skeletal than ever.

“No merits for you then, Seb? I wonder at that.”

Seb nearly fell forward as he lurched away from the rippling, whispered voice that came from just behind his head. He turned to look and the leaf-boy grinned at him, sitting in the lap of the pupil behind him in the next row up, who was unaware of the ghostly intrusion.

Zach whispered to Seb, “What is the matter, Seb? Sit still.”

Seb, facing front, hung his head.

Miss Angel continued, “Finally, the main purpose of this unusual assembly is to make you aware of a great opportunity the school has organised.” She paused, looking around to make sure she had everyone’s attention. “As part of the History syllabus, we have organised two trips to sites of historic interest in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire …”

Seb barely registered her words, his eyes focused on the leaf-boy who now stepped down, through the oblivious Zach and sat in the same spot as he occupied. Sickened by the grotesqueness of that scene – his friend encased by the ghostly body of this strange visitor – Seb turned his eyes away and sat rigid, staring straight ahead. He noticed Mr Duir in the shadows at the corner of the elevated stage area behind Miss Angel. The Head was staring at him with intense interest.

“You know, of course, that others know I am here.” Seb ignored the whispering words. “Shall I name them? Shall I tell you why? Are you not interested, mystified, confused? Do you not want answers, Seb?” Now Seb did turn and stared at leaf-boy. “Oh Seb, you are really making this difficult! You accept the silver elves; you accept what Scarlet can see; and you accept, for goodness’ sake, that your friend has a stick that can turn into a snake!” Seb opened his eyes wide. “How can you not see it all?”

Zach turned slowly towards Seb. He mumbled, “Why are you staring at me?” Seb faced front.

“ … Waulud’s Bank in Leagrave and then Royston Cave,” Miss Angel continued. “Details of the dates of the relevant trips, the first of which is next week, will be sent home in letters to parents and guardians today.”

“I give up, Seb. When you stop doubting and start to believe beyond this reality I will come back. But you need to catch up!”

With that there was a green blur and the leaf-boy was gone … a streak of colour that swirled its way across the huge assembly hall, over Miss Angel’s head. She paused in her dialogue for a second and then continued. The green flash zoomed across to the right and vanished through the wall, inches in front of Mr Duir whose eyes were still firmly fixed on Seb.

 

History

When you stop doubting and start to believe beyond this reality I will come back. But you need to catch up!

The leaf-boy had uttered those words and vanished a week ago. With the distance of time, Seb now believed his appearance had been a side effect of fainting and since then life had settled into a form of normality. He and his friends still met at The Beach every break and lunchtime but other than the apparent magical manifestation of five ripe berries each day in Aiden’s tin, the inconsistent properties of Zach’s stick and the occasional bat attack, nothing strange happened. Seb refused to eat the berries but the others had become used to their morning dose and the ritual of spitting the seeds into Aiden’s waiting tissue. After wiping them off, he would place them in a small drawstring pouch. None of the others knew why, or cared enough to ask him.

Scarlet got used to her phenomenal eyesight and enjoyed enacting the odd parlour trick for the others, such as reading the scribblings in some student’s diary from the other side of the playground. Of course, as Zach pointed out, the others couldn’t prove or disprove the accuracy of her account but they all enjoyed the pastime nonetheless.

Seb hadn’t seen one silver person and the ogre had not reappeared. However, Seb wondered if that had something to do with the frequent sightings he had of Mr Duir. Pretty much whenever he turned a corner The Head was there. It gave Seb a peculiar feeling and he always knew he was going to see him because the silver lines in the skin of his palm would tingle first.

Twice at home he had felt that tingling and once he thought he heard the cackling sound of the ogre but it never materialised.

He thought about telling the others about the leaf-boy but, convinced that he had imagined it, he kept quiet.

They discussed the strange happenings of the first week innumerable times and tried to quiz Mr White but they got no answers. So in the backdrop of a more comfortable normality Seb allowed himself to feel excited. This morning was the first of the two visits to sites of historical interest which Miss Angel had detailed in the assembly.

Today they were going to Waulud’s Bank in Luton, an earthwork bank believed to date back to around 3000 BC. Seb was thrilled. He imagined a stone circle, a half-excavated skeleton or two, exhibits of flint spearheads, misshapen, crude coinage. Zach was as excited. He was also living in expectation of finding a circle of monolithic stones, only in his version, at the centre, there would be a larger sacrificial stone and he spouted on about how many poor souls must have met a gruesome end at the hands of some crazed Druidic shaman.

Aiden, seated across the coach aisle from them, was less enthusiastic.

“I went on the Internet and researched it, Zach. I don’t think there’s anything astounding there. It just looked … well … grassy.”

“Aiden, it is never obvious. You have to use your knowledge, your vision, to see hidden signs. The stones probably look like an old wall or something. I hope there’s a skeleton or a bog-person.”

There followed Zach’s own graphic description of the squashed and deformed remains of Lindow Man he had seen in the glass display case at the British Museum until Clarissa, sitting in front of them, told him to stop being gross and shut up.

The journey from the school to the site lasted only forty minutes and when the two coaches pulled up in the middle of a grotty car park, overlooked on one side by a vast housing estate, Seb was crushed.

They piled off the coaches and lined up, facing what appeared to be a simple and uncared for playing field. The place was drab, filthy. Bits of rubbish lay trapped in the grasp of the lower twigs of nearby bushes, there was more debris being blown around the grassy expanse in front of them and as Seb turned he could see huge high-rise blocks of flats dominating the skyline.

Zach was unimpressed. “This is it? This is the 5,000-year-old ancient monument?”

Aiden jumped off the coach step behind him. “I did try to tell you. I looked at the photos on the website – not very inspiring.”

It was a blustery day but the sun shone resplendently in a blue sky devoid of clouds. The pupils formed a raggedy circle around Mr West in the middle of the car park. Seb’s eyes roved over the landscape and he tried to just be grateful that they were out of the classroom.

Seb, Scarlet and their friends were together in one group, which pleased Seb, and he was even more pleased to discover that their teacher was to be Mr West. Unfortunately Clarissa was in their group too and bounded over.

“Ah, you must be unlucky enough to be Seb’s twin!” She smiled at Scarlet. “I’m Clarissa.” She nudged Nat. “Let’s stay together.” She linked an arm through the girls’ arms. They looked, to Seb’s annoyance, quite pleased.

“We’re not twins!” he mumbled as Mr West approached them.

“Come now, Master Thomas, Master Orwell. My, such long faces. It may seem uninteresting now, but just wait and see what of our history and heritage we can unearth.” He winked at them and smiled happily.

He led their group across the grass and along a footpath to where a huge horse chestnut tree spread its limbs, leaves reddening, over a small concrete platform that was fenced off on three sides by harsh metal railings. He herded the six pupils into the small area. Seb was squashed between Scarlet and Zach. Clarissa muscled Nat out, standing to Scarlet’s left, complaining about being crushed.

Mr West spoke from behind them, “Though many do not know it, behind and beneath these monstrous blocks of flats are five springs which together form the source of the river Lea. It emerges here and trickles down that way,” he pointed along the river course, “to Rotten Corner, where it is joined by other springs which increase the flow to something more magnificent than that which you see here at your feet.”

Seb looked down. He could see the railings of a gated grille which spanned the rectangular hole below the platform. Beneath its bottom rung, water limped over a stony bed. No more than an inch deep it didn’t even cover some of the bigger rocks and stones. A crumpled drinks can, some soggy newspaper and a bicycle wheel decorated the banks as the unimpressive flow of water rippled its way between their shallow sides to disappear under overhanging trees.

Seb watched the water barely managing to bubble along, and then a sweet wrapper floated away from the railings where they stood and gently dropped onto the surface to be carried away under the trees.

“Clarissa!” He shot an angry look at her.

“What?” she answered aggressively, leaning round Scarlet to frown back at him. “What, Seb? Have you got a problem?”

“Yes I have!” Seb dropped his voice, “This place could be quite beautiful if people didn’t drop litter.”

“Oh don’t be so prissy, Seb. Who cares?”

“Actually, I do!” Mr West stood, glaring at her. “Master Thomas is quite correct. These places, albeit surrounded by the not-so-glamorous examples of twentieth-century buildings, still hold a natural beauty we would all do well to respect. You will, none of you, drop litter, damage the wildlife or do anything else that disrespects the natural environment we are in.”

The anger in his voice was breathtaking and Clarissa blushed. Making a mumbled apology to Mr West she flicked her eyes back to Seb and mouthed at him, I hate you!

Now Mr West led them off towards the steep embankment that was Waulud’s Bank. Scrambling to the top of the two-metre rise Seb looked down at the expanse of grassland and across the tree-smattered landscape. Mr West explained that this bank was believed to have been built around 3000 BC in the traditional ‘D’ shape of such earthworks. Excavations of the bank in 1953, 1971 and 1982 brought forth a wealth of artefacts. Finds included Neolithic pottery, animal bones and flint arrow heads. No skeletons then, Seb thought.

Standing atop a piece of ancient history, the sounds of the nearby road and urbanization fading away, Seb tried to imagine what it would be like growing up in those harsh days 5,000 years ago.

“This is so boring!” Clarissa’s moaning voice intruded, “When’s lunch?” She stood beside Aiden. “This is a tatty rec area in a yucky estate and I can’t believe this is a school trip. Why couldn’t we do Hampton Court?” she mumbled.

“Actually Clarissa, it really is quite lovely here. Can you see the river, the trees? If you ignore the estate you can think you are in the middle of nowhere,” Aiden said.

“Precisely …” Clarissa began tramping down the slope. “Nowhere!”

“Not quite the Stonehengey sort of thing I’d expected, but hey, it’s history!” Zach beamed, ignoring her.

“Ah yes, Master Orwell, history and nature.” Mr West shuffled over. “It is no accident that man has chosen this spot on which to establish habitations from as far back as those early settlers. A source of fresh water is a treasure and all civilizations have, to some extent or another, held a belief in the magic and spirituality of places where the Earth deigns to bring forth its blessing. This place has five!” He turned to Zach, accentuating the word by lifting his hand, splaying the digits in his face, “Five such sources. Five springs. How magical must this place therefore be?” He beamed and Seb smiled at his enthusiasm.

Clarissa reached the bottom of the slope. “Mr West, where are we going now?”

“Why, nowhere Miss Stone.” With that the dwarf sat down among the prickly, spiky grass and patted the ground, indicating for the others to sit also.

The breeze blew fresh air into Seb’s face and he breathed deeply. He felt happy. Aiden sat next to him and so did Zach, smiling as Scarlet and Nat joined them. Clarissa, having stomped back up the bank, found a patch of grass to sit on and waited.

Aiden’s pudgy cheeks were flushed and his eyes twinkled with excitement. “This is fantastic isn’t it?” he whispered.

Clarissa overheard. “Don’t be stupid, Aiden. It’s a pile of grass-covered dirt in a disgusting litter-filled field in the middle of a tatty housing estate. It is anything but fantastic!” she hissed at him.

“Wonder where all the litter came from.” Seb stared at her.

She ignored him. “I’m cold, and I’m hungry.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a sweet. Seb noticed that after undoing the wrapper she paused as if ready to drop the paper and then instead stuffed it back in her pocket.

Mr West began a captivating monologue which covered, in a nutshell, the transformation of lifestyle from the marauding, roaming tribes of ancient England to their gradual conversion to settlement and civilization. He traced the ‘D’ shape of the mound on which they sat with a stubby finger, drawing their attention to how it fell away to a ditch on one side and suggested that the purpose of such earthworks may have been to provide shelter within which early settlements could be built.

Above them the heavens were a piercing azure blue and the brisk wind had kept the clouds at bay until now. Enthralled by the teacher’s narrative none of them noticed the bank of black and ominous clouds storming towards them from the rear as the wind picked up.

Mr West continued, “But Waulud’s Bank is more fascinating and amazing than just this overt and tangible record of history.” He paused and glanced around the eager faces of the group. “Through this place, through Waulud’s Bank, runs St Michael’s Line.”

Aiden squeaked with excitement, “I’ve read about that!”

“You’ve read about everything!” Zach jovially chided.

Mr West beamed at Aiden. “You have? So please, do explain to those less well-read, Master Lord.”

Aiden happily began, “St Michael’s Line is a ley line. Ley lines are straight lines which join the tops of hills and along which you will always find hallowed or sacred places, like churches, burial grounds, henges and so on. They’re sort of mystic highways— ”

Zach butted in, “Aiden, England is very hilly and I am sure if you drew a straight line on a map of England you would always find the tops of hills, churches and ancient monuments and things along it. There’s nothing mystic about that – just lots of history!”

“Ah, Master Orwell, but that is not so. Yes, with any line drawn across a map of this great patch of Earth you would get a smattering of churches, old graveyards, the occasional barrow, but along ley lines there are many, many of these sites.” While speaking, Mr West delved in his jacket pocket and pulled a tattered map from it. He spread the huge document on the grass and as the wind played violently with it indicated for Zach and Aiden to sit themselves on the corners for anchorage. Everyone else crowded in.

The huge paper showed a map of England and in green marker pen a straight line had been drawn, running from Land’s End at the bottom left to Bury St Edmunds on the right. Along the line, black dots had been marked.

As Mr West pointed to the first dot he was interrupted by Clarissa, “Burrow’s Mump? That can’t possibly really exist!”

Mr West ignored her, keeping his finger on the first point. “This line begins at Land’s End and traverses St Michael’s Mount,” he ran his finger along the line to the next dot, “a monastery on an island off the coast of Cornwall. Taking the line back up through England, see here …” he poked the map with his nail as the wind really picked up, “the line runs through an ancient site, a set of three stone circles, called the Hurlers.” Zach chuckled. Mr West said, “You would do well not to laugh. Legend has it that the stones are actually the petrified remains of men who dared to practice hurling on the Sabbath. A punishment indeed!”

“Wish we’d gone there!” Clarissa mumbled.

“Miss Stone!” Mr West glared at her, then after a moment he again pointed at the map. “Burrows Mump does exist … but is also called St Michael’s Borough. It is one of two famous Somerset hills, Glastonbury Tor being the other, also traversed by this line and both of which have churches atop them dedicated to the Archangel.

“Other sites along the line include Avebury Henge and Big Rings near Abingdon. It continues into Bedfordshire to— ” he pointed at the ruffling map.

“Waulud’s Bank!” Aiden squealed. “And look, it goes through Royston! Isn’t our next trip to Royston Cave?”

“It is indeed, Master Lord. But this isn’t just about dots on a map. This is about a ley line.” He widened his eyes. There was silence except for the haunting howl of the wind. Mr West studied their faces before continuing. “You all understand that a compass needle finds magnetic north?” They nodded. “Well the Earth has a magnetic field and it has long been believed that animals – such as birds, whales, bees and so on – navigate by use of this field. They have a certain tissue in their bodies which contains a substance called magnetite and by this they sense changes in the magnetic field. That is how the Arctic Tern can navigate its way across more than 21,000 miles of land and ocean each year; how salmon can find their way back to their spawning pools; how whales, butterflies, caribou and all manner of living things manage to find their way without use of map, compass or …” he looked at Clarissa, “satnav!

“Interestingly, it is now known that the ethmoid bone in the front of the human skull also contains such tissue. So it is not too far-fetched to believe that humans could sense, tune into, the natural magnetic field around us.” Everyone except Aiden and, surprisingly, Scarlet, looked lost. Mr West ploughed on. “Ley lines are straight lines whose magnetic field is different from the Earth’s normal and dominating field. They stand out from the magnetic background of the Earth and they provide a route, a track, a pathway for those able to sense or detect them.

“There are many theories as to the purpose of these lines. One such theory touches on a mystic element. It is said the energy of all those that tread their path is absorbed and bound within the line, producing a collective record which increases the energy output of the ley lines, making them stand out further from the background of Mother Earth’s natural magnetic transmissions, effectively more clearly defining their path and route. And their significance is profound: it is stated that ley lines are a path for the travel of souls!”

A sudden stillness descended on the group, the wind pausing for a second and then there was a massive thunderclap. They all turned to see the monumental mass of clouds coursing across the sky towards them. It spread from one side of the horizon to the other without a break and looked like a sheer wall of black, swallowing up the blue as it rushed towards Waulud’s Bank. And then the wind resumed in a sudden, tremendous gust that whipped and buffeted them. The map was torn up from beneath Aiden and Zach, the paper shearing at the corners. Then calm descended once more, the wind lessening but the cloud mass still rolled towards them.

Seb realised his wrist was throbbing. A shadow fell across him and he looked up. Mr Duir stood towering over him. “We need to move them back to the coaches, Greg,” he said.

“Quite!” Mr West was up in an instant, staring at the approaching storm. “We love this English weather.” He tried to sound carefree but hastily hustled the group back down the bank towards the car park.

 

Left Behind

As they reached the bottom of the bank the clouds caught up with them and the downpour began. Seb found it difficult to walk. The wind was ferocious and sucked at his clothing, pulling him back towards the bank. He felt the pounding of the raindrops on his head and within seconds was drenched. He could hear Aiden beside him gasping and Clarissa whimpering. It was now as dark as dusk. Seb could barely see through the torrent of raindrops.

Mr West’s voice rose above the shrieking wind, “Head for the coach lights.”

Seb could just see the white internal lights of the coaches a short distance away. It was a welcoming sight. He thought how weird it was that the wind was pulling him. Does wind pull? Surely it only ever pushed! He heard Clarissa scream that she couldn’t walk anymore and then begin sobbing. He turned and, through the torrent, saw Mr Duir lift her, carrying her forward ahead of the rest of them. Zach and Mr West were helping the other girls.

Aiden stumbled and Seb felt his fingers grasp his arm, dragging him down with him. They landed with a splash in the squelchy quagmire the ground had become. Aiden let go as water seeped into Seb’s trouser legs and his hands sank to his wrists in cold mud.

“Aiden, are you alright?” Seb called over the howling wind. He felt Aiden’s fingers grasp his arm again, gripping so tightly they hurt. He peered through the curtain of rain.

“I can’t get up,” Aiden wailed. “The mud is too sucky!”

Beneath the sodden fingerless glove, Seb’s palm was throbbing painfully. Blinking as the rain dripped from his eyebrows Seb could no longer see the coach lights but could see the others moving on into the murkiness.

“Come on, Aiden.” He managed to stand but was hampered by the tight grip Aiden had on his arm. He helped him to his feet. They rocked unsteadily as the wind tugged at them and Aiden called, “Wait for us!”

“They can’t hear us.” Seb placed his mouth right next to Aiden’s ear, “We have to move. Come on!”

Around them the darkness was now almost complete. Seb felt a stab of desperation, fear of being left behind. Pulling his foot loose from the mud he stomped it forward.

The grip Aiden had on his left arm was so painful.

“Aiden, can you let go a bit?” he shouted and then to his astonishment saw Aiden raise both his muddy hands to cup them round his mouth and shout back at him, “What?”

The firm grip on his arm was still there and Seb jerked his head down, straining to see. It wasn’t Aiden – both his hands were still cupping his mouth. In the relentless downpour he could see nothing.

He panicked. “Aiden, something’s got hold of me. Someone’s got my arm!” He screamed the words and reached across with his right hand, feeling for the fingers that were bound around his arm. And then he heard a rustling voice as though it were whispered directly into his ear: “Stand still.”

Seb was already standing still, frozen to the spot in fear.

Aiden called, “We need to get to the coach.”

Seb fumbled up his arm trying to find the hand that was gripping it so tightly. There was nothing there.

“It’s me, Seb Thomas, and it is time for you to accept more than you see. In fact you have to. Stop doubting your senses and open up to the realities around you!” The words rustled into his ear.

Seb’s heart was palpitating and his mind racing. He would have run if his feet weren’t stuck.

Aiden tugged his arm. “Come on Seb, they’ll go without us!”

“Hold fast!” the rustling voice ordered. Seb was straining to see, trying to locate the fingers on his arm, the body that went with them. All he could see was blackness and the horizontal sheet of rain. He could feel his feet sinking and pulled one free, taking a wobbly step forward.

“Seb, over there. The coaches!” He just heard Aiden’s words and then he spotted two small red lights hanging in the darkness, perfectly still. Not the internal white lights he had seen before. Rear lights, Seb thought, the back of the coach!

“I see them. Rear lights!”

Aiden took a step to the right, tugging his jacket.

“Seb Thomas, you are not safe.” The words sent a chill through him and the grip tightened.

He called out, “Let me go! We’ll miss the coach!”

Aiden shouted, “Seb, come on then,” and pulled his jacket.

“Seb, see more than your reality. It is not safe!” The rustling sound was urgent, the grip on his arm painful.

Seb had had enough. He yanked his arm away and took two stilted steps with Aiden towards the red lights. There was a buzzing in his ear, a touch grazed across his cheek and then through the blackness he could see the leaf-boy a foot in front of him, blocking his path.

“You must not, Seb. It is not safe. Open your eyes!”

Aiden, oblivious to the figure in front of Seb, pulled him again, shouting over the wind, “Quickly.” Seb couldn’t move and Aiden turned to him. “Seb, come on! What’s wrong?”

Seb stared at the leaf-boy in horror. I am definitely losing my mind. He decided the stress and panic was making him see things. He tried to ignore the throbbing in his left hand, tried to blot out the image of the leaf-boy … and then he saw it. It was as if his brain had just made sense of the images it had been seeing but not recognising. In the darkness in front of them was a deeper, denser patch of blackness. And from this blackness these lights shone. Seb’s heart nearly stopped. The shape, the blackness … A huge black dog … and the red lights were its eyes, glowering at him.

 

Dryads and Hellhounds

Seb shouted, “Aiden, a dog!” He pointed but Aiden grabbed his jacket again, trying to pull him towards the lights. Seb resisted and his friend overbalanced, falling to the boggy ground.

He let out an angry shout, “What are you doing, Seb? We’ll miss the coach.”

The leaf-boy was chattering, “You need to believe what you see. You have the power to deal with this— ”

“What are you talking about?” Seb shrieked. “You are talking nonsense!”

Aiden screamed back, “The coach, Seb! It’s not nonsense.” He scrambled to his feet, blocking Seb’s view of the red eyes just as the black shape lunged forward.

Then Aiden was suddenly dragged sideways. The swift movement was followed by a large figure swooping in to stand between Seb and the leaping hound. Mr Duir. He raised his hand, pausing for a second, then turned and paused again, hand raised, before he lifted Seb off his feet, threw him over his shoulder and ran across the waterlogged ground.

Bent over Mr Duir’s shoulder, Seb looked back expecting to see the dog pursuing them. All he saw was a wall of rainfall, grey-blackness and a few shimmering silvery sparkles. No hound, no leaf-boy.

Within seconds Seb was placed gently onto the tarmac of the car park in the spread of light below the coach windows. His legs were wobbling, he felt frozen to the bone. Rain still poured from the sky as Mr Duir shrugged off his jacket and draped it around him. Next to them Miss West, Aiden’s rescuer, was placing a thermal blanket around him. The bedraggled dwarf, water streaming down her face, looked up at Mr Duir.

“It is only five minutes to the school,” he said without looking at her. “Mrs Parkinson expects us.”

With a hiss the coach doors opened and Miss West ushered Seb and Aiden up the steps, accompanied by a massive gust of wind which rushed in and crashed along the length of the vehicle.

The boys, directed by Mr West, sat in two empty seats near the front. Mr Duir, his soaked shirt clinging to his skin, followed a dripping Miss West into the coach and sat in front of them.

Seb’s palm was now merely tingling as the driver slipped the coach in to gear and drove out of the car park. Seb cleared the mist from the window beside him and looked out. It was like staring into the night and he couldn’t believe it was only about midday.

He could hear Clarissa, two rows back, complaining, “What on Earth were Stupid-Seb and Idiot-Aiden doing? Why didn’t they keep up? Serves them right. Bet they catch flu now and spread it to the rest of us!”

Seb shut out her words; he had more serious things to worry about than her disapproval. Am I going mad?

Aiden hadn’t spoken and pulled the thermal blanket over his head. Seb guessed his friend blamed him for making matters worse in that dark, swampy place.

Zach appeared in the gangway next to Aiden, the tight black curls of his hair glistening with residual raindrops. “Oh it’s a laugh a minute with you around, Seb,” he boomed. “You okay, Aiden?” He reached out and yanked the foil blanket down from Aiden’s head then let out a yelp of loud laughter, “My friend, you need a hairdresser!”

As the coach turned a sharp bend Zach bumped against one of the teaching assistants, Miss Frank, who occupied the aisle seat opposite Aiden. A very large lady, her ample backside also occupied a fair bit of the aisle. She huffed and was about to rebuke him when Mr West, smiling, suggested she moved over to the empty seat beside her and let Zach sit down. Moodily, she did as he suggested.

“Waulud Lower, Mr Duir, sir,” the driver said as the coach stopped. He opened the doors and the head teacher from the lower school, flapping rain droplets off an umbrella, climbed the steps, announcing that she had organised biscuits and hot chocolate for all in the school hall. Cheering, the students stood as one, barging and shoving each other to be the first off the coach, but Mr Duir’s appearance in the aisle instantly brought the clamour to a halt. He directed the teachers off first, followed by Aiden, Zach, Scarlet and Nat. Both girls smiled at Seb as they passed, then Mr Duir placed himself in front of Seb, blocking his exit until everyone else was off the coach.

Seb wondered if he was about to be told off.

Mr Duir stepped into the aisle and, towering over him, regarded him thoughtfully. “Quite an experience, Master Thomas.”

Seb nodded sadly as his mind flashed back to the red eyes in the blackness and the whispering of the leaf-boy.

“Master Lord is a bit upset.” Mr Duir sat down.

Seb stared at his hands.

“Maybe he feels you contributed to your predicament?” Mr Duir’s eyes watched intently for Seb’s reaction.

Seb felt a stab of guilt and looked up. “Maybe I did,” he mumbled.

“Maybe you didn’t.” The Head leant forward. “Storms can be confusing, the darkness, the noise – it can make you doubt your senses.”

Seb was certainly doubting now. In the bright internal lights of the coach he realised that his fear and confusion had made him imagine things. He felt foolish. Something tickled his left ear.

Mr Duir was still watching him. Seb didn’t want to speak; he felt like an idiot. Again a breeze fluttered past his ear.

“You shouldn’t doubt your senses.” Mr Duir’s words were accompanied by the slightest echo, Shouldn’t doubt.

Seb shivered. “I should,” he said, “if they make me imagine things!” He stared at Mr Duir. “I saw things, in the dark …”

Mr Duir’s reaction was surprising. A kind smile spread across his face. He sat upright and with a sudden movement he made a grab into thin air. As his hand closed, the wrist, then arm and then the whole body of the leaf-boy materialised, wriggling and squirming, trying to release his grip.

“Things like this?” Mr Duir was still smiling. “Be still!” he commanded the leaf-boy who instantly stopped squirming and shrugged. He had been hovering two feet off the ground and now placed his feet on the coach floor. Mr Duir let go of him and he stared at Seb like a defiant child.

“Seb, it is not your senses that deceive you, it is your doubt.”

“Precisely what I told him!” the leaf-boy uttered, sticking his chin out.

Seb stared at The Head. “You can see him? He’s real? I’m not imagining— ”

There was a sudden hiss as the coach doors opened.

Mr Duir stood. “Master Lord, I hope you are feeling a bit warmer. Thanks, Dominic.”

Seb craned his neck around the seat backs to see a tousled and confused Aiden, two cups of steaming hot chocolate in his hands, climb the coach steps, Mr White behind him. Aiden smiled sheepishly at Seb and shuffled towards the vacant seat next to him, passing through the ghostly leaf-boy without noticing. He sat down and handed a cup to Seb. The teachers said nothing, waiting.

Seb felt too awkward to speak. So it seemed did Aiden.

Eventually Mr Duir said, “Things will be a lot easier if you talk to each other.”

Seb wondered what he was supposed to say. In the end it was Aiden who spoke, “I am sorry I shouted at you, Seb. I was just so frightened and you …” he stopped, unable to find the right words.

“I know, you thought I made it worse out there,” Seb said.

The leaf-boy flitted upward and hovered mystifyingly just below the coach roof. “You did!”

Mr Duir glared at him, giving a small shake of his head.

“The storm caused the problems Seb,” Aiden said.

“It’s just that out there I saw …” Seb paused, unsure whether to continue. “Well, I don’t know what I saw.” He hung his head.

“Course you don’t!” The leaf-boy frowned.

“Do not interfere.” Mr Duir became angry.

Aiden jerked his head up thinking the comment was directed at him and then seeing the direction of The Head’s gaze, turned to look.

“Well he is clueless!” The leaf-boy perched on the headrest in front of Seb.

“You would do well not to be rude. He has not had the advantages of your existence. Do not mock, young Dryad!”

“Dryad?” Aiden seized on the word. “I’ve read about Dryads!” He looked at where Mr Duir had been gazing.

“And what have you read?” Mr White asked.

Seb watched his friend whose eyes were now roaming the space around them.

“Well, I know they are ethereal creatures, tree spirits actually, only visible to those they want to be visible to.” He turned back to Mr Duir. “Is there a Dryad here?”

Seb was surprised how open Aiden was to the idea. “Aiden, you don’t really believe such things exist do you?” he mumbled.

Aiden turned to him with wide eyes. “Of course I do, Seb.” He gave no further explanation but began looking around again.

“Of course he does, Seb,” the Dryad echoed. “I love this boy!” He turned to Mr Duir. “Why couldn’t he have been my twin?” In a sudden blur he disappeared, only to reappear sitting on the headrest above Aiden, patting him on the head.

Seb felt a stab of hurt pride at the Dryad’s rejection of him in favour of a friend who couldn’t even see him. “Why, of course?” he snapped. “Why? We are old enough not to believe in fairies, in Father Christmas, in pixies and elves! Why of course would he believe you exist?” Seb was shouting and Aiden recoiled then, realising his rant was aimed behind him, looked over his own shoulder. “It is not wrong of me to not believe. People would think I’m mad if I told them I was seeing a boy, who looks like me, covered in leaves! Stop giving me a hard time for not believing in something I have been told is not real!”

“Seb! You can see something?” Aiden sounded so excited.

Seb’s anger had subsided slightly after his outburst and he slouched back in his seat, trying to ignore the Dryad. The more he thought about the worry and upset he had experienced over the last week, believing he was losing his mind, the more he decided he really didn’t like this Dryad who seemed to know so much and be ridiculing him for knowing so little. He crossed his arms.

“Oh, and now you sulk. You won’t face what you are and what you can see and so your defence is to sulk. Very grown-up!” The Dryad’s fluttering words were like the crackling of autumn leaves.

“I’m not a grown-up,” Seb shot back, “and, actually, neither are you! I don’t know what you expect from me but I want nothing from you. Leave me alone!” He stared angrily out of the window.

“Wow, Seb. Calm down.” Aiden was trying to grasp what was going on.

Mr Duir stepped forward. “Speak your name,” he said harshly to the Dryad.

The creature folded his arms and lifted his chin in the air. “I will not,” he bristled.

“Do not try me, Dryad. Speak your name.” The words were not shouted but they were said in a tone that made Seb turn and face Mr Duir. The look of thunder on his face conveyed a clear warning.

The Dryad slumped and murmured, “Aiden, Dominic – I am Alice.”

As he spoke the name, Aiden fell off his seat into the aisle, landing on Mr Duir’s feet. He stared up, open-mouthed at the Dryad who Seb guessed from his reaction had just become visible to him.

“A … well … a Dryad!” Aiden finally managed to blurt out.

Seb began laughing. “A Dryad named Alice, Aiden!” He tried to suppress his giggles. “That’s really your name – Alice?” He turned to the Dryad.

“Yes it’s my name!” The leafy character lifted off the back of the seat and flitted over to hover behind Mr Duir. “And you ought not to laugh.”

“Seb, that’s enough,” Mr Duir cautioned. “Names have powerful meanings for Dryads, in fact for all. Do not make fun.”

Seb’s laughter stopped as he saw the serious looks on the faces of the teachers and felt bad when he saw the pained expression on the Dryad’s.

“It’s just that Alice is a girl’s name, isn’t it?” He looked to Aiden for support but Aiden was still staring, open-mouthed at Alice.

“Sounds in one language can mean and be associated with many different things in other languages, Seb. You cannot spend your life restricting yourself to one experience, one perspective. In fact, it is essential that you do not.” Mr Duir spoke quietly, watching Seb.

“The sky is clearing,” Mr White muttered.

The change of subject drew everyone’s attention to the world outside the coach where the cloud cover was lifting.

 

Believing is Seeing

A tap on the door of the coach broke the silence and Mr West climbed the steps. “Mrs Parkinson has offered the use of their sports hall for the children to have lunch.”

“That’s fine, Greg.” Mr Duir turned back to face Seb and Aiden, with Alice still hovering behind him, more subdued. “What you see is real. All you see is real. Your Dryad twin, Alice, is here to guide you and to reopen your mind to the realities it has learned to close off. You do not like him?” Seb didn’t answer. “He does not like you,” Mr Duir stated flatly. Seb felt a twinge of hurt. “That your starting point is one of dislike and mistrust is not a bad thing. You will each have to prove your worth to the other.”

Seb flicked his eyes towards Alice. The Dryad looked angrily back at him, his expression laced with loathing. Seb felt his own dislike swell. He decided he was simply going to ignore this creature. He had no need of him. In fact, so far, Alice had brought him nothing but trouble and worry.

He frowned at the brightening sky. The tail of the storm was clearing away, leaving a refreshed and pristine blueness to the cloudless expanse he now saw outside. The return of the sunshine brought sudden warmth to the soaking ground and a mist of evaporating rainwater lifted from the playground surface. Seb’s thoughts were building in ferocity and defiance. His eyes watched the mist, and spiralling vaporous columns began to rise. He remembered his fear at the Bank, caused by Alice he believed and, getting angrier, he watched the columns swirl and thicken.

Mr Duir reached past Aiden and put a hand on Seb’s shoulder. “Seb, anger and resentment can be very destructive.”

The touch made Seb jump guiltily. He turned as the spiralling columns disappeared, replaced by a low layer of hazy mist, which lay like a blanket just above the surface of the playground.

“It is lunchtime, Alice,” The Head said to the sulking Dryad. “You will accompany your twin. The number and nature of those who see you is up to you, as you know, but it may help your relationship with Seb if you include those he will also need.”

The noise of chattering and footsteps signalled the return of the other students and nothing more was said by Mr Duir or Mr White, who got off the coach.

Chaos followed as the pupils, in the wrong order, stomped along the aisle, barging past each other to where they had been seated to retrieve their lunch bags.

In the noise Aiden turned to Seb. “Seb, you are so lucky; Alice is so cool and weirdly he looks exactly like you, except for the leaves and things!”

Seb felt secluded in the double seats, surrounded by noise and he mumbled back to Aiden, “Aiden, he was the one who caused the problem, out there, in the dark. He had hold of my arm. That’s what made me panic and stop. And when I tried to move he told me to stand still, right where the dog was!” Seb was talking in rapid sentences, trying to keep his voice from being heard by Alice.

Aiden looked lost. “What dog? I didn’t see a dog.”

“Aiden, there was a dog, and it was like he wanted us to be attacked by that awful beast!” Seb whispered.

“What beast, Seb?” Aiden looked alarmed.

“A massive dog, with glowing red eyes. It wasn’t the brake lights of the coach we saw – it was horrible, angry eyes. The dog! It was just about to pounce on you when Mr Duir and Miss West arrived!” Seb hissed the words as Aiden stared wide-eyed.

“But … but I didn’t see a dog; all I saw was the lights.”

“When we got back on the coach and everything was so normal I started to think I imagined it, like when I thought I saw Alice at school. But then Mr Duir made Alice appear, and then you could see him too, so now I am sure the dog was real!”

“You saw Alice at school? Today?”

“No, no, last week, that day I fainted. He was in the sick room, the playground and the assembly too. I thought I was going mad, Aiden.”

The buffeting and bustling of the other students continued and suddenly Zach thrust his head into the recess where Aiden and Seb were seated. “C’mon you two – lunchtime. What have you been doing?”

Scarlet and Nat stopped on their way up the aisle. “There you are, Seb. You missed the hot chocolate!” Scarlet stopped as she saw the untouched cup Seb had placed on the seat-back tray in front of him. “Or maybe you didn’t!”

“Lunchtime. Come on!” Zach insisted, pulling Aiden into the aisle.

Seb stood to follow. As he did, Alice flitted into the space in front of Aiden’s seat.

“Am I invited?” His leafy voice was cold and challenging.

Seb ignored him. Taking a deep breath he stepped through him. As he did he felt a sharp kick like a static shock. He fell against Scarlet.

“Careful, Seb,” she tutted. “And bring your cup, dirty boy. Who do you think is going to clear up after you?”

Seb frowned. To get the cup would mean passing back through Alice, which he certainly wasn’t going to do. Scarlet tutted again and, leaning through Alice, who didn’t move but watched Seb angrily, she grabbed the cup and thrust it towards Seb.

“Your cup. Your responsibility.”

He took it and his packed lunch which Zach handed him and they made their way to the lower school sports hall. Still annoyed, Seb sat beside Aiden as the girls began chattering about the terrific storm.

A movement in the corner of Seb’s eye and he knew Alice had come along too, invited or not.

Aiden nudged him. “Aren’t you going to speak to him?” he whispered.

“No.” Seb took a half-hearted bite of his sandwich and didn’t look up.

“ … like night-time. Never seen a storm like it.” Zach agreed with the girls. He took a slurp from an orange carton. “Bet you boys were scared.” He looked eagerly at Seb.

“Yes, but not for the reasons you think,” Seb answered.

Aiden nudged him. “Seb, be careful. He’ll hear!”

“I am well aware that he’ll hear, Aiden. And he doesn’t scare me!” Seb shouted, turning to stare at Alice with a frown.

Zach, Scarlet and Nat stopped eating and gawped at Seb who seemed to be glaring into thin air. Realising he was making a spectacle Seb turned to them and lowered his voice. “I have to tell you something.”

Alice whizzed forward to stand between him and the other three. “Do you, Seb? And what would that be?”

Seb stood. As he did he realised his palm was tingling. He heard Nat gasp. Behind Zach, emerging through the double fire exit doors, he could see a black shape. Scarlet, seeing the look on his face, looked over her shoulder and stifled a scream just as, in a flash of green, the Dryad whizzed to stand in front of the ogre shape that was now completely through the door. Alice began flitting backwards and forwards in front of the ogre so fast he left a trail behind him. Seb’s eyes couldn’t follow him. In seconds the trail had formed a mesh in the air.

Aiden stood beside Seb. “What is he doing?”

“Who … what are you guys staring at?” Zach was confused and other students nearby had started to look over.

The ogre shape took a step forward and walked into the meshing Alice had made. It recoiled as if struck, stumbled backward and disappeared.

Scarlet spoke, “Seb did you …? I thought I saw … no, it’s gone.”

Alice rematerialised beside Seb, hands on his hips. Seb caught a glimpse of Mr Duir leaving the sports hall through the internal doors.

Alice sounded angry. “I am here to help. I did not cause you problems at the Bank and if I had not made you stand as you did, your friend here would be dead. There is so much you just don’t know and yet you have so much arrogance you wish to dismiss me and believe you can manage alone!”

Nat was staring at the spot occupied by Alice. Zach, demolishing a Kit Kat, laughed. “Scarlet, there’s nothing there. Don’t be such a girl!”

“I thought I heard something …” Nat said then shook her head.

And now Alice zoomed forward and bent towards her. “You did hear something, Nat, and you should trust your senses.” Her head darted up, her eyes searched the air. “You see, Seb? There is more to believing than seeing. Nat knows there is more, which is why she hears.” Staring down at Nat, Alice bowed. “Nat, I am Alice.”

As he completed his flourishing bow Seb watched Nat’s eyes open in amazement. She stood, dropping the sandwich she had been holding.

“Nat!” Zach was horrified. “Your lunch!”

Nat looked guiltily around as though she thought she was alone in seeing Alice. Then she made eye contact with Seb. He nodded to her as Aiden stepped forward. “Nat, do you see?” She smiled and nodded.

Scarlet had noticed their strange behaviour. “What are you three doing? Sit down. I’m sure they’ll call us back to the coach soon. You’d better finish your lunch.”

Zach looked at Nat’s sandwich. “I’ll have that if you don’t want it.” He reached over to retrieve it from the floor.

As he did Alice spoke, “Zach, Scarlet, I am Alice.” He completed his sentence as Zach’s fingers made contact with the sandwich. A look of horror crossed Zach’s face as Alice materialised around his outstretched hand. He snapped his arm back.

“What is that? What are you? OMG it’s a ghost!” His voice boomed around the sports hall and all eyes turned on him.

“Zach! Be quiet!” Aiden whispered.

Scarlet was staring open-mouthed at Alice.

“Sit down, Zach.” Seb tugged Zach’s arm, making him sit.

He looked back and forth between Alice and Seb. “Can you all see it? Tell me you all see this, or have I lost the plot?”

 

Sticks and Stones

A shrill whistle from the main doorway brought silence to the hall.

“Finish up, toilet breaks and then back to the coach,” Miss West said.

Bedlam followed as there was a mad scramble for the toilets. In the privacy of the noise and disturbance Zach was speechless for once.

Scarlet gazed at Alice. “Seb, it looks exactly like you … except the leaves and things.”

“That’s where you are wrong …” Alice hovered beside Seb. “He looks exactly like me, except the pasty skin and strange hair and things,” his voice rustled. “And Scarlet, I am a he not an it!”

Zach regained his composure and confidence and now leant forward to wave a hand underneath Alice’s feet. Then he lifted his arm up and through Alice’s legs. Alice leapt upward, blurring into a green flash, then reformed feet above where he had been. “Watch it, Zach. You don’t know me well enough!”

Zach pulled his arm back. “What did you say your name was?”

“You heard perfectly well, otherwise you would not see me.”

A smile crept across Zach’s lips, actually more of a sneer. “Mm. Alice, wasn’t it?”

“Zach, don’t make fun of his name. Mr Duir said we shouldn’t.” Aiden said.

“Mr Duir? What has he got to do with this hallucination?” Zach turned to Aiden.

“He can see him and I believe Mr White could too.”

“Oh, so we’re all going mad together then?”

“Seb, your friend is worse than you,” Alice complained as Scarlet and Nat stared in admiration at him. “Zach, if you see you should believe.” A flash of green haze and Alice disappeared.

From the sports hall entrance Miss West beckoned them and then placed her hands on her squat hips, frowning. They packed away and walked towards her.

“Toilets then onto the coach!” she snapped.

“What is that thing, then?” Zach whispered as they entered the boys’ toilets.

“He’s a Dryad,” Aiden said. “A tree spirit.”

“Oh, hence the leaves I suppose,” Zach said sarcastically, approaching a urinal. Alice reappeared in front of him. “You are not seriously going to follow us in here!” Zach almost shouted. The last boy in the toilets glanced at him then shuffled out of the door.

“Nothing I haven’t seen before.” Alice crossed his arms.

“Now you are just being creepy and I tell you what, nothing will stop me peeing.” With that, Zach approached the urinal and unzipped his trousers. Alice raised his eyes upward and zoomed off, disappearing through the solid door.

“Thank goodness for that!” Aiden relaxed. “I really don’t think I could have gone with him watching.” He went towards an empty cubicle.

Zach called out, “So why is he here, then? And why does he look like you, Seb?”

Neither Seb nor Aiden had an answer.

Miss West met them, with the girls, back in the corridor and escorted them to the coach. They found their original seats and Nat and Scarlet swapped with Jack, next to Aiden, who gladly relinquished his one seat for their two.

Standing at the front, Mr Duir announced that the weather had improved sufficiently for them to return to Waulud’s Bank. There was a collective groan as the coach driver pulled out of the playground.

Seb stared out of the window, wondering what had happened to Alice but glad to be free of him until Zach nudged him and pointed. Seb leant across to see what he was indicating and then huffed in annoyance when he saw Alice, seated inside the driver’s body, hands on the large steering wheel. His head stuck out from the driver’s shoulder and he winked at Seb then turned to face front, pretending to drive the coach with the driver but over-accentuating the steering, leaning dramatically from side to side and laughing with that rustling sound Seb had begun to hate.

Zach laughed. “Hey, Alice is driving!” He nudged Aiden who leant into the aisle to look, just as Alice leapt out of the driver’s space and somersaulted onto the rail beside the driver’s access door. Zach was still chuckling. “I like him, Seb.”

Seb frowned and sat back in his seat. “I don’t.” He jumped when a green blur reformed into Alice, perched like a cheeky child on Nat’s lap.

“Woah!” Zach was shocked. “You’re fast!”

Nat smiled.

“Nat, you need to talk to these boys. We are going to be in real trouble if they don’t start to take this seriously.” A leaf dropped from his head and fluttered down to land on Scarlet’s hand then dissolved in a shower of sparkles.

“What are you?” she said, in awe.

“He’s a Dryad.” Aiden and Zach whispered in unison.

“Scarlet,” Alice’s voice rippled. “I am what you would call a wood elf. That information will not help you, any of you, other than to make you realise that there is so much more to this world than what your naive minds see. You should already know; in histories past the Five already knew. I am not here to teach you the basics.” He zipped across to stand in the aisle. “You will have to learn as we go and all of you,” he turned angrily to Seb, “will have to learn to believe in more than you see.” He put his hands on his hips. Another leaf fell onto the wet floor and disappeared.

“You’re moulting,” Seb mumbled.

The Dryad recoiled as though he had been hit. Momentarily stunned he didn’t move and then shot upward in a blur to disappear through the coach roof.

“I think you upset him, Seb,” Aiden said as Mr Duir stepped into view between the seats and the coach came to a stop in the Waulud’s Bank car park.

“You five off first,” he ordered and led them off the coach, followed by Mr White. He marched them straight across the car park which glittered with residual water. The wind had all but ceased and if it had not been for the damp ground and the mud on his clothing, Seb would have doubted the storm had ever happened.

Seb didn’t dare speak as Mr Duir strode quickly, veering past the ugly tower blocks and then out onto the sodden ground to follow a muddy footpath. Ignoring a mottled stone, covered in lichen and nailed to the top of which was a green sign which read Source of River Lea, they eventually stopped in a rather uninspiring place, surrounded by short, wet grass and sparse woodland. Beside an ivy-choked gap in a hedge, four massive, irregular stones were strewn. One had a rivulet of descending furrows, like a miniature staircase, etched into its surface.

Seb waited, expecting a lecture on some crucial historical point of interest to do with these stones. The sun was warm and the damp earth smelt dank. A cloud of midges danced lazily around them as a crow cawed in the trees.

“You will need your staff, Zach,” Mr Duir spoke quietly to Zach.

“What?” Zach acted confused. Mr Duir waited. “Really, what? What are you talking about?”

Mr Duir remained silent. After a few seconds of awkwardness Zach shrugged, reached into his trousers to the side of his left leg, and pulled. The stick emerged and Zach smiled, embarrassed. “You mean this staff?”

Squelching footsteps approached and Miss West walked through the overgrown gap in the hedge. She leapt from where she stood to the top of the stone, somersaulting over Mr White – a jump of at least eight feet.

“Woah!” Zach shouted. “How’d you do that?”

Mr Duir turned to Seb. “Now, you need to apologise to Alice.”

Seb looked to the ground. I can’t think why. I don’t like him anyway.

“Seb,” The Head said and Seb looked up. “Autumn approaches.” Mr Duir looked steadily at him. “Alice is a Dryad, a wood elf; they mirror the seasons.”

“So his leaves are falling off because it’s autumn?” Scarlet asked.

Mr Duir gave a slight nod. “Dryads, like humans, have many different characters: some mild, some wild, some humourless and some playful. But the one trait they all share, whether for good or bad, is vanity. They take extreme pride in the attire of each season, relishing the beauty each one brings, however the transition from one to the other is an untidy and sensitive time for them. What you said to Alice was deeply insulting.”

“Like telling him his breath stinks.” Zach snorted a laugh. Miss West glared at him.

Seb felt himself blushing. “All I said was that he was— ”

“I know what you said; do not exacerbate the insult by repeating it.”

Seb looked down at his mud-covered shoes. “He’s not even here so I can’t apologise.” The fluttering to his right made his heart sink. “Oh, so you are here. Do you never leave us alone?”

Alice appeared, hovering above the ground in front of him. “Seb, I cannot leave you, I am your twin and …” he paused as a leaf dropped from his arm and floated to land on the mud at Seb’s feet. The Dryad followed it with his eyes and, seemingly mortified, hung his head.

Seeing the upset on his face Seb actually now felt sorry for him. “I am sorry,” he blurted and reached up to place a hand on Alice’s shoulder. He realised how silly the movement was, knowing his hand would pass through and then was shocked when it came to rest on the leafy shoulder. At Seb’s touch, Alice glanced at him and then smiled a broad smile. Seb smiled back, suddenly feeling less annoyance at this strange creature. The physical contact, the feel of the soft, silky leaves under his fingers and palm – it was as if a dark resentment had been lifted from his mind. He removed his hand and as he did a leaf stuck to his palm. The smile disappeared from Alice’s face but returned instantly when Seb, without a word, stuffed his hand in his trouser pocket, preventing any of the others from seeing that the leaf had come away.

“Well that was nice.” Zach twirled his stick. “All friends now?”

Miss West leant forward and grabbed the stick, mid-twirl. Without pause she slammed the end of the stick into the ground as if she was spearing a fish. It stuck at an angle in the soft earth, wobbling slightly to and fro, the end embedded just underneath the large staircase stone.

“Leverage, Zach,” she said, and waved towards the stick. “On you go.” Zach gawped. “On you go,” she repeated.

“Leverage!” Zach shrugged and took a run and jump. As he jumped he leant sideways and glided through the air to plant both feet along the shaft of the stick. His body weight pressed down on the stick and levered the heavy stone upward, flipping it over to land with a thud, revealing a hole below it.

There was a hissing sound, like taking the cap off a bottle of fizzy drink, and then a sigh accompanied by the sound of trickling water.

Mr White was already walking towards the hole and stepped into the dark opening.

The Five Springs

Miss West followed Mr White into the hole. Always up for excitement, Zach went after her, Aiden and the girls next.

A small creature swept from a nearby copse of trees and veered towards Seb’s head, stretching its claws out.

Alice’s voice rippled, “Down, Seb! In you go.”

Seb reacted slowly, getting a glimpse of tiny sharp talons as Mr Duir grabbed the creature and threw it into the woodland.

Ducking into the hole, Seb’s shoe slipped and he lost his balance. Before he could panic he felt a strong hand grab him under his arm and help him regain his footing.

“Thanks,” he said as Alice released his grip and smiled.

The last through the gap, Mr Duir followed Seb onto the tree root staircase and there was a thud as he closed the stone over the hole.

How did he do that? Seb wondered. And how are we going to get back out?

He was surprised to be able to see clearly below the ground. A single beam of light shone through a small hole in the top of the roof of the vast domed cavern they were descending into. Below it a cloud of fireflies danced, collected the light and multiplied its strength.

“Wow!” Zach had reached the bottom with Aiden and the girls. Seb joined them on the dense covering of heather and moss which grew over the floor. The sound of trickling water became louder and, gazing across the floral carpet, he noticed five small pools, each about two feet in diameter, situated beneath the centre of the dome. The water in them rippled and reflected the sunlight from the fireflies, providing more illumination.

Mr Duir moved everyone forward to stand beside this little collection of bubbling pools and then Mr White spoke, “These are the Five Springs, the combined source of the River Lea.”

The pools formed an irregular circle. Each had a rivulet, about four inches wide, flowing in an arc from it to the next, making a ring of running water linking them all. On the far side a further straight rivulet sprouted from the ringed channel and the water spilled along it to disappear into a small tunnel in the wall.

Mr White pointed to the tunnel. “That leads to the platform on which you stood earlier, the overt point at which the source emerges and becomes the River Lea. But this is the true source, these five springs.”

Seb stood looking at the pleasing spectacle. He noticed a circular stone slab embedded amongst the heather within the ring of pools. It looked ancient and carved into its surface was the image of Seb’s birthmark, the same oak leaf, the same intersecting lines, shining silver in the light. Scarlet nudged Seb; he stood, speechless, a sick feeling in his stomach.

Mr Duir said, “We have obviously brought you here for a reason and you must surely now have seen enough to raise many questions, suspicions maybe?” He moved towards the circle of pools. Without crossing the ring he faced them and said, “Dryad, speak your name!”

A faint rustling voice said, “I am Dierne.”

A blur of dark colour appeared beside Mr Duir and a Dryad materialised, hovering in the air beside him. A larger version of Alice, his leaves were denser and matted and tinged with yellow. This Dryad, silver irises sparkling, looked like Mr Duir.

“So there are more of you,” Zach said to Alice.

“Just a few.” Alice smiled at Dierne.

“Any place where nature chooses to bring forth water from the ground is a magical place,” Mr Duir continued. “Here there are five springs in one site, linking together to form one source. The potency of this place was understood by the souls who trod this ground centuries before us. More crucial, however, is the fact that this site lies along the path of a powerful ley line.” He beckoned them closer. “Greg West explained to you the significance of ley lines. They carry the collective memories, existences, energies of all who have trod them, creating an imprint, a path for the use of more than the substance of humankind.”

The dome above them magnified the sounds around them, the water, the gentle rustling of the leaves on the Dryads in a barely noticeable breeze and Mr Duir’s words. “And now we are going to show you something that you must not speak of outside this company.” He gave the briefest wave of his left hand. Seb thought he saw a flash of silver but the movement was so quick he wasn’t sure. The light in the cavern intensified as, within the boundary of the ring of water, a column of sparkles rose. Like the column within the fairy ring at Explorers, the sparkles danced in a rising pillar and another shape formed – a door. It solidified and its shining silver knob turned. The door opened and Mr West and Miss Angel stepped out onto the heather bank. Mr Duir waved his hand again and instantly the door and the column of sparkles disappeared.

Alice whispered in Seb’s ear, “Now you must believe?”

Seb turned to him, mouth open.

Mr West joined them. “So you have found the Five Springs. Are you impressed?” He beamed at Seb and then Zach who, recovering quickly, smiled.

“Well it’s better than the field.”

Now Mr Duir stepped inside the ring of water. “Seb,” he called. “Come over here.”

Seb didn’t move.

Aiden turned towards him. “Seb …”

Seb faced him and whispered, “Aiden, this is crazy. This is not real.” He turned to the others. “Surely none of you actually believe any of this!” He looked at their stunned faces. “I haven’t a clue what is going on here,” he muttered.

As he was about to continue, Alice zipped in front of him. “Seb, what will it take to make you simply start believing, open your eyes, see the reality around you? You are holding everyone up and you are in danger!”

Seb felt a surge of adrenaline. Danger? Dierne gave a rustling hiss and Mr Duir said, “Enough, Alice, he cannot. He has come to this early; they all have.”

Stepping out of the ring The Head moved over to stand in front of Seb who stared at the ground. He placed his closed hand in Seb’s line of sight then opened his fingers to reveal the palm. In the centre of his hand was a discoloured patch of skin in the shape of an oak leaf, inside which was the same mark Seb bore on his own palm!

Seb stumbled back, as Mr Duir said to him, “Seb, in order to understand, I need to open your eyes.”

Scarlet seemed to be finding all this thrilling. “Come on, Seb. Close your mouth. This is fantastic!”

He glared at her. “You don’t even know what this is. None of us do!”

She glared back at him but didn’t answer.

“Step into the circle.” Mr Duir gently took hold of Seb’s elbow. Feeling the pressure of everyone’s expectations Seb reluctantly walked with him, to stand beside the time-worn stone. “Seb, you have this marking on your hand for a reason.” Seb’s eyes latched on to the crude image in the stone. “It is the sign of the Oak,” Mr Duir said. “The symbol of protection and strength. For you to understand why you bear this symbol I need to open your eyes.” He looked down at Seb. “The sad fact is this next part will cause you some pain and I cannot spare you that.”

Seb glanced over his shoulder at his friends’ eager faces. Alice zoomed across and appeared beside him.

“Is this like some weird ancient ritual?” Zach laughed.

Pain? Ancient rituals? Seb desperately wanted to leave but didn’t know how to say it with everyone watching, so he stood in silence, staring at the stone.

“Seb, there is danger and we cannot stay here long. You must hold your hand out, palm down, and point it towards the stone. When this happens you will need to close your eyes and focus on my voice because what you will see will overwhelm you at first.

“As soon as I do this your eyes will be opened to every trace, every historical memory that has passed this spot … and that will include every creature from every other reality you have the inability to see at the moment.”

Seb blinked but didn’t move.

“Seb,” Scarlet called out. “Come on!”

“Open your hand,” Mr Duir said gently. “Close your eyes and listen to my voice.”

Seb opened his hand as he had been told and pointed the flat palm towards the stone. He was about to shut his eyes but curiosity got the better of him. He watched as in a sudden movement Mr Duir lifted his own hand and pointed it towards the stone. Light reflected off the pool beside him and struck his palm. A bolt of white light shot from it and struck the carved symbol then rebounded to hit Seb’s palm.

Pain ripped through Seb’s hand, as if a branding iron had been pressed against the skin. It was so excruciating he fell to his knees, clutching his hand to his chest. The line of light disappeared.

Mr Duir knelt beside him. “Close your eyes. The pain will pass quickly but what comes will be more disturbing.”

Horrified, Seb stared at him. The pain had indeed gone but now it was as if he had suddenly been thrown onto a crowded tube train during rush hour. Everywhere he could see throngs of ghostly bodies: tiny babies; old crones; young boys; old men; and images of people overlapping one another sometimes four, five, six bodies occupying one small space. Interspersed among them were thousands of animals – horses, foxes, rabbits, sheep, deer – animals and people were everywhere, all seemingly oblivious of Seb and of all those around them.

Among them Seb saw hundreds of Dryads and then more incredible creatures, creatures he could only imagine were from fairy stories, folklore and myth, indescribably strange and overwhelmingly disturbing.

And the noise … the raucous, deafening noise of conversations, laughter, crying, animal bleats, howls.

Over it all Mr Duir’s voice rose. “Close your eyes, Seb!”

But Seb couldn’t; he was aghast. He looked frantically through the crowds for one of his friends, his sister, then a woman, holding the hand of a snotty-nosed tot, walked towards him. They ignored him and he shivered as woman and child simply passed through him as though he was a ghost.

He stared at the thousands of figures around him, feeling engulfed by the enormity and density of the crowd of life flowing through the cavern.

Mr Duir took hold of his chin and pulled his face up to stare into his eyes. Images swam between them.

“Close your eyes. You cannot deal with it all at once. Close them!”

Shaking with shock and fear, Seb obeyed. In the artificial shelter of the darkness his closed eyes gave him it was like he could pretend the masses no longer existed. But the noise was so loud it was impossible to eradicate the visions from his mind.

Mr Duir, close to his ear, spoke firmly, “You now have the most precious of gifts Seb, but you will see it as a curse until you learn to control it.”

Then Alice spoke as if his voice was inside Seb’s head. Seb found his presence comforting.

“Aelfric has opened your eyes to the other realities you were unable to see before. You need to filter some of it out. Focus on one thing; the others will disappear. Think only of Dryads. Think of me. Are you doing that?” Seb nodded. “Now, open your eyes again,” Alice whispered. Seb obeyed. And then he relaxed. Around him was space, empty space … and peace. The noise had stopped. He turned to look at Alice who had a big smile on his face. “Better?”

Seb smiled back, relieved to be free of the overpowering images and the oppressive din. He looked up at Mr Duir who nodded. “We must go. This is no place to be now.”

Seb felt his palm throbbing.

 

Through the Door

Mr Duir took Seb by the elbow, pulling him to his feet, and guided him out of the circle towards the others. He waved his hand and the sparkling pillar with the door within it appeared.

“We will continue at the school,” he said and Miss Angel and Mr White ushered the others to the door.

“So what was all that about?” Zach asked. “What did you see, Seb?”

As Seb was reminded of the overpowering press of humanity it once more became reality. He was instantly surrounded.

An old man hobbled towards him and passed straight through him. Seb shivered violently. In front of him youths in a group sauntered in the direction of the pools, laughing at a shared joke and walked into him and out the other side. He groaned and fell to the ground.

Mr Duir pulled him to his feet and in a patient voice said, “Shut your eyes and start again.”

“Seb, are you okay?” Scarlet asked, stepping forward and passing through a young woman who was crying. Neither female noticed the other and he barely heard her words over the din of speech and animal noises.

“Can’t you see them?” he shouted at her.

She simply looked confused.

Mr Duir called over the noise, “Seb, most of it is just memories, like standing in the path of a movie projection. Ignore it.”

Seb couldn’t. Two fairies flew across, inches in front of his nose, and then a small dragon flapped through his head. “Get them away from me!”

“Take them through,” Mr Duir called to the other teachers. Miss Angel and Mr West helped Scarlet and Nat through the door. Seb felt Aiden brush past him. He leapt away and found himself standing inside an old woman. Hunched and miserable, she was holding a walking stick but seemed too frail to walk anywhere. She just stood, bent over, staring at the pool of water in front of her as other figures passed through her and Seb.

He screamed, “GET AWAY FROM ME!”

“Seb, I didn’t mean to bump you.” Aiden sounded panicked.

Now Alice stood right in front of Seb. “You have to learn to ignore these images. We have told you, they are just memories, just imprints. Block them out, Seb, because we need to leave.” His voice was inside Seb’s head.

Seb stared at Alice. As he focused on him he found that the human figures and the creatures around him faded. The throbbing in his palm, however, did not.

The Dryad looked intense. “You have to help yourself, Seb. We can only explain; we can’t do it for you.” He was impatient. “Go to the door.”

Seb stumbled towards the sparkling he could see between all the figures when suddenly Aiden, right beside him, yelled, “Help, my foot!”

Seb looked down. Wrapped around Aiden’s foot were wiry, black roots which seemed to be growing and sprouting through the ground at an astronomical rate. Aiden yanked his foot free as Mr Duir lifted him and tucked him under his arm, carrying him to Miss West and Zach who stood in the doorway.

They all disappeared through as vines began wrapping themselves around Seb’s feet. His mind now focused on them, he found all the other images around him faded. Beneath Mr Duir’s feet the heather and moss remained undisturbed. He was untouched by the grasping creepers.

Seb lifted a foot but it felt anchored to the ground. “What are these?” he shouted, glancing at Alice.

“We delayed too long,” the Dryad said.

Seb’s heart sank. “Well that’s helpful!” he snapped as he pulled his right foot up and managed to tear it free. As he put it down again more shoots grabbed it, growing faster and stronger.

Mr Duir lifted Seb and carried him to the doorway as Mr White passed through it. Placing him on the threshold, The Head put a hand on Seb’s shoulder. “Seb, a ley line is a pathway, a track that carries an imprint, a record of all who pass along it and a track that is used by more than humans.”

Seb stared at him. Am I getting a lecture? Now? All he wanted to do was step through the door. He looked down as vine tendrils began crawling up the doorway.

“When one such as you treads the line it is like shining a beacon, like shining a light in the darkness of a forest, a light that will attract every moth and every crawling thing.” Mr Duir removed his hand. “When you walk a ley line you will be visible to all.” At last he allowed Seb to go through the door.

Seb didn’t know what he had expected … but it wasn’t this. He had stepped from the cavern and into the school library!

Rainbow colours daubed the floor in front of him as sun shone through the stained-glass window. Scarlet and his friends were sat at the large table, bemused looks on their faces, the teachers opposite them.

In the aisles between the bookshelves the lights had been turned out and the rows were cast in darkness. In fact, other than the mottled light from the huge window, the room was cloaked in shadows.

As the doorway disappeared in a flurry of sparkles, to be replaced by a dusty bookshelf, Mr Duir manoeuvred Seb towards the table’s last two seats and sat down opposite him. Alice leapt to the top of a bookshelf and perched there while Dierne stayed close to Mr Duir.

The Head spoke quietly, “It is time for you all to acknowledge that around us there is more than what you have learnt to see.”

Zach leaned nearer to Scarlet. “Oh, really?” he mumbled, but in the quiet room everyone heard. Miss West tutted and Mr Duir eyed Zach impassively. “You heard that then?” He looked guilty.

Mr Duir continued, “Since birth you have all been encouraged to disregard anything society does not wish to acknowledge as real. In times past humans were more receptive to the idea of other realities.” He waved a hand and sparkles of silver danced above the table. “You are trained to be literal, to only believe what you see in this three-dimensional world and to disregard as nonsense anything else.” He continued to wave his hand and now an image appeared within the sparkles. “Over the years and generations, more things become that else. Humans have become cynical – expecting to be able to prove, to touch, to evidence – but sometimes you have to simply feel and believe.”

With a quick movement his hand darted down and grabbed what was now a solid shape within the sparkles. He closed his fist, concealing what he had grasped. The sparkles disappeared.

“What did you see, Scarlet?”

She was staring at his fist and stuttered, “I’m not sure …”

“You are sure, Scarlet. You just think your friends will disapprove if you speak it,” he said. “What did you see, Zach?” Mr Duir turned his attention to Zach who was grinning at Scarlet.

“Sparkles,” he answered, his grin widening.

“Don’t be clever, Zach!” Miss West snapped. The smile disappeared.

“What did you see, Aiden?” Mr Duir turned to a blushing Aiden.

“I saw a fairy.”

Zach laughed and the redness in Aiden’s cheeks deepened.

“You laugh because …? Zach?” Mr Duir rounded on Zach.

“Well, I mean … fairies!” Zach snorted.

“Fairies. You mock that suggestion, yet you accept Dryads?”

Zach’s eyes flicked to Dierne. “Well, that’s different.”

“What did you see, Zach?” Mr Duir asked him again.

Zach frowned, looking down at the table. “I don’t know.”

“Oh my, you are stubborn. What did you see?” Mr Duir sounded mildly irritated.

Zach muttered, “Something with wings.”

“Indeed.” Mr Duir opened his hand. Curled up on the palm was a small figure no bigger than Seb’s forefinger. He could barely make out its little face but could clearly see that it had arms and legs like a human, its legs pulled up to its chest, head tucked down onto its knees and arms wrapped around its body, clasping a pair of delicate wings and pulling them around itself like a protective blanket.

“Aahh …” Scarlet and Aiden gasped together and leant across the table to get a closer look. Zach frowned, crossing his arms.

Nat was sitting with her eyes closed and Seb watched as a tear rolled down her cheek. He couldn’t understand why she was upset. She opened her eyes and looked at Mr Duir.

“I’ve always heard them,” she whispered. “I’ve just never seen them.”

Mr West suddenly frowned and spoke quickly to Mr Duir. “It happens more frequently,” he said and Mr Duir nodded but remained seated.

“What words do you hear, Nat?” Mr Duir asked as Seb realised he could now hear faint whisperings.

“Strange words …” Nat sniffed and sat more upright, “The displaced soul must serve.”

As she said the words the little fairy flew in a vertical line towards the high ceiling where it disappeared. The words stopped as it vanished but now Seb heard a faint wheezing sound and felt his palm tingling. A sudden bang made them all look to the library door.

Scarlet, staring at it, shrieked, “The ogre, it’s outside!”

Zach was up in an instant, leaping across the table, through the gap between Mr West and Miss Angel.

Miss West called to him, “Zach, leave it be. There are other ways.”

Zach turned, confused, as Mr Duir stood, murmuring words under his breath which Seb only just caught, “You have been told you must wait the hour. Feorsian!”

Bright light, which had no apparent source, lit the whole library. The door became transparent and the figure of the ogre could be clearly seen rocking backwards and forwards, like it was dithering, deciding what to do. Then it turned, shambled to the right and simply dissolved into nothing.

“Did you see that thing?” Zach’s voice was loud as he paced back over to the table. “I mean, that was a … well, it looked like an …”

“An ogre!” Scarlet finished for him. His shoulders slumped as he stared at her.

Zach could see it!

Within a second Zach regained his confidence, straightened his shoulders and strode back to his seat.

 

The Group

I haven’t even a clue what time of day it is, Seb thought. The light in the library had grown dim as, beyond the window, another storm was brewing. He wondered if the rest of the students were still at Waulud’s Bank. He glanced up at Alice sat atop the bookshelf, arms crossed, grinning at him.

“Can’t we have some light? It’s rather dismal in here,” Zach complained.

“It is, isn’t it?” Mr White smiled. “Aelfric, do you mind?” Mr Duir nodded and Mr White said, “Flamers, please.”

Seb watched as tiny lights appeared everywhere. As if a swarm of glow-worms had taken residence in the library, they lit up all over the place – bookshelves, picture rails, chair backs, the table top – everywhere. The whole library was suddenly brightly lit with their orangey-yellow glow.

Alice appeared next to Seb. “That’s a bit better, isn’t it?” The Dryad smiled and Seb nodded, amazed.

“How did he do that?”

“Do what?” Zach said. He turned to Mr Duir. “Are we getting light in here or not?” His tone was challenging and in a flash Miss West leapt across the table, jumped over him and yanked his chair from underneath him. Zach’s reactions were swift and he stood before he fell, turning to the irate woman. “Hey!”

“You are rude.” She glared at him. “Check your tone when you speak to him!”

“It’s alright, Trudy.” Mr Duir raised a hand. “Zach, the light is there, you just need to see it.”

Miss West stood behind Zach, her jaw set, shoulders stiff.

“I didn’t mean to be rude.” Zach turned to her, “but I have to say, you are a bit touchy!”

Seb dropped his head and Scarlet gasped.

“Well she is. Maybe it’s not just the room that needs to lighten up.”

Seb was astounded at the cheek of his friend and Trudy West looked fit to burst. She clenched her fists.

“Am I to work with this?” She looked to Aelfric Duir. There was a small smile on his face.

“Trudy,” Mr West said. “They are young.”

“That’s not an excuse for rudeness, Greg,” she answered and the room fell silent.

As more points of light appeared around the library Seb felt his spirits lift.

“What are they?” he asked.

“They, Seb,” said Mr Duir, “are flamers. But you need to help your friends see them. Although you now have insight into the worlds around you, your group …” he looked at the others, “… will only see what you help them to or what their gifts allow.” With that, he waved his hands and Zach’s jaw dropped as the thousands of lights became apparent to him.

“Oh!” he said.

Alice placed a hand on the edge of the table and scooped up a handful of the lights. He held them under Zach’s nose. “Flamers. Their role is to illuminate the darkness. You only have to ask.”

Zach stared at the little cluster of glowing spheres. “Are they alive?”

Aiden lifted one between his thumb and forefinger and squinted at it. The freckles on his cheeks sparkled and the flamer responded. Its light became more intense and then further flamers appeared all over his hand, as if he was wearing a gauntlet made of light.

Zach picked up a flamer. Like a popping bubble the thing disappeared. He picked up another and the same thing happened. He looked at Aiden who now had lights all across his shoulders and along the top of his head. “They obviously like you, Aiden.”

Scarlet and Nat giggled.

Aiden grinned. “They’re quite lovely.”

Mr White’s hands too were covered in the lights and several had moved to decorate his shoulders and hair.

“Alice, Dierne, we need to continue.” Mr Duir stood.

Dierne flitted to the centre of the table and hovered above them all. Alice winked at Seb and joined him. Then they darted off in opposite directions, beginning a crazy circling above the centre of the table. The blur of their paths remained in the air, leaving a trail marking their flight – one green, one green tinged with yellow. Within minutes the trails merged and moved upward, forming a column. As the column of colour neared the high ceiling the Dryads stopped but the trail remained.

Mr Duir lifted his left hand. Reflecting light from the window on the lines on his palm and shining it on the column he said, “Torhtian nú!”

The column of green flattened, the top slamming to the base with a loud crack, to become a solid disc of shining metal, hovering above the wooden table. Then the disc flipped upright, displaying a perfect circle, like a huge, green mirror bordered in glistening yellow, hanging in the air.

Seb could see his own astonished face reflected back at him. The mirror began to spin. Completing a full revolution, it spun again, faster. The spinning continued until mirrored surface and edge were a blur, like a spinning coin, until it spun so fast as to create the illusion that it had stopped … and Seb was once more staring at his own face.

Miss West was still behind Zach. She now held a staff, very like Zach’s rowan stick but shorter. Seb wondered whether Zach’s stick was still digging into the earth above the hole that led to the cavern of the Five Springs.

Miss West spoke, “You have now formed the group you were born to be part of. Each of you has a role.” She pointed the tip of the staff towards Nat, “Sensor.” Then Scarlet, “Seer.” She indicated Aiden, “Guide.” Then the stick moved to Zach, “Guardian.” She pointed to Alice, “Weaver.” And finally she thrust it towards Seb, “Custodian.” She strode to the end of the table. “You are the next generation, the ones to take on the responsibility of overseeing the passage of all souls.”

Seb looked into the mirror as his eyes were drawn to a shadow forming in it.

“Let us look at some of the things your group will have to contend with,” Miss West said.

Within the mirrored surface, the dark area took on a recognisable form. Galloping towards them was a massive, black stallion, its eyes glowing a demonic red. It tossed its head in a crazed fashion and froth and spittle sprayed from its mouth. Its muscles rippled, its mane flew, its hooves, the size of dinner plates, pounded, eating up vast tracts of invisible land as it tore towards Seb. He leant back in his seat and Nat did the same as Aiden whimpered. Zach stood, stepping away from the table.

Miss West spoke in a calm voice, “Sit, Zach. This is merely an image. This is a gytrash or shagfoal, cousin to his watery friend the kelpie, or bækhest.”

The image changed. Still horse-shaped, its skin now looked like rubber and its mane, dripping with water, was entwined with water weeds. The glowing red eyes did not alter.

“Whatever name it has been given through the centuries, in whatever country, it is the same thing. It is a trespassing spirit, or soul.” She spoke forcefully, “Every one of us has a soul, an essence beyond the shell of our flesh. That is not religious theory; it is fact.

“Greg has spoken to you of ley lines, explaining that they are not just an imprint of what has gone before, but are a path for the travel of souls.”

Seb was spooked. The cheerful glowing of the flamers could not brighten the eerie creepiness in the room.

“Human souls travel eternally backwards and forwards, visiting this existence again and again, experiencing, learning, growing …” she glared at Zach who watched her, a cynical grin on his face, “… but some souls are not satisfied with waiting for their time; they seek to return when they choose not when Nature dictates.” Her body stiffened with outrage. “All souls must obey the laws of their existence. They travel at the time appointed by Nature and they return at the demise of their host body. They must not break that law!” She fell silent.

Zach decided that was his cue. “Who decides when they can come and go? Assuming of course we believe in this theory of reincarnation of yours.” He sounded rude again. Miss West looked ready to launch herself at him.

Mr Duir rose from his seat. “Trudy, if I may?” She gave a stiff-shouldered nod. “Zach, you will soon learn this is not a theory and as we move on you will view and witness in all its magnitude the reality you doubt and denigrate now. At the moment we need you to simply listen and keep an open mind,” Mr Duir said. “We are six who have carried the responsibility for maintaining the balance of life for a span of time you would not comprehend and we will not hand over the mantle until you are all ready. But you are now a group who will share our responsibility and you need to listen and learn.”

Souls and Trespassers

“Let us start at the beginning. Trudy …” Mr Duir nodded to Miss West who lifted her staff and tapped the mirror. The vision of the galloping kelpie disappeared.

Mr Duir placed a hand on Seb’s shoulder. “Seb, as Alice advised you before, you must concentrate on just one reality; if you do not, you will see everything at once.”

He addressed the others. “The world you perceive is only one small part of a wider existence. There are so many other realities you habitually disregard.”

Seb thought back to the throng in the cavern, the mass of people and creatures and suddenly he was surrounded. Between his friends and the teachers, above, below and even occupying the spaces inside them were hundreds of strange creatures: creeping horse-shaped ones; flapping, flying ones; some grotesque, others cute; fairies flitting; darker shapes slithering – a crowd of indescribable strangeness.

Just us, no other humans! Seb realised as he closed his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Seb?” Scarlet noticed him, eyes squeezed shut, breathing heavily.

“He sees it all, Scarlet. He will reveal some of it to you in time, but for now he sees it all and has to learn to accept.”

Mr Duir addressed Seb. “Seb, once you accept, these things will only appear when you choose. But you have to accept everything that is around you.”

And suddenly Seb understood. They are always here! That’s what he’s saying. I just never noticed them. Never knew! He felt himself calm down and opened his eyes, smiling.

“I get it,” he said quietly. “They’re always here!” He looked at Mr Duir who nodded.

“Who are?” Scarlet looked around.

“Scarlet I can see it all.” He watched a fairy land on Scarlet’s head and begin stroking the strands of her hair. He reached out. The fairy hopped onto his hand. He brought it down and stuck it under Scarlet’s nose. She frowned.

“What, Seb?”

She can’t see it! “You must see it …” He thrust his hand towards her and a dusting of silver sparkles floated through the air. Aiden let out a sigh. “They are always here, Scarlet, all the creatures; we just don’t see them.”

Scarlet and Nat smiled at the little creature sat cross-legged on Seb’s palm. Zach looked around, frowning and raised his eyebrows as he saw many fairies in various locations within the room.

Mr Duir picked up a flamer. It didn’t disappear.

“There are so many things that over the centuries humans have simply learned to ignore. You will all now see them, but only what your gifts require or Seb enables you to.”

“Why Seb?” Zach was put out.

Miss West snapped, “Because he is The Custodian and you are merely The Guardian!”

“Just asking,” Zach said quietly. A fairy dropped onto his hand and his features softened as the little being turned a somersault in mid-air.

“Trudy, the gytrash once more, please,” Mr Duir said.

Miss West raised her staff and tapped the mirror. The black stallion reappeared.

“As Trudy told you, we all have a soul which is bound by the rules of Nature to travel to the physical world at its due time and live a finite span in this reality. That too is true of the souls of fairies and Dryads , though theirs is a slightly different tale. When the soul is not in the physical world it goes to a place at the centre of all realities – Áberan. Here it enters a dormant, resting phase where it reflects on its experiences. This enables the soul to grow, just like your night-time sleep helps you make sense of the events of your day.”

Looking at the gytrash, Seb found that if he focused on something specific the other creatures around him became ghostly, almost invisible forms.

“When Nature dictates, souls travel along the ley lines, the paths between the different realities, to enter a new body – their physical shell. When that host body dies, they return via the ley lines to Áberan.” Seb saw Mr Duir make a quick movement with his left hand. A minute shower of sparkles fluttered around his arm and then vanished and a moment later The Caretaker stepped from behind the mirror and joined Miss West, standing beside Zach, who dropped his head and mumbled something incoherent.

Zach flinched as The Caretaker placed an object on the table in front of him. His head jerked up as he recognised the rowan stick and made a grab for it. “Thanks,” he smiled.

“Caretaker, thank you,” Mr Duir said.

The Caretaker nodded, said nothing and walked around the table. Mr Duir raised his hand and sparkles danced again. Seb leant round to see behind the mirror just in time to watch a door fizzle out of view in the bookcase at the far end of the room. The Caretaker was gone.

“Given that some of you still struggle to accept, we will continue nevertheless.” Mr Duir nodded to Trudy West.

She tapped the mirror again and now she spoke. “The laws of transition must not be broken and it is the purpose of your group to police those laws.

“The sad fact is that some souls are not satisfied with waiting their turn; they crave the physical sensations of this life and become impatient to return.” She pointed to the charging stallion. “What you see here is a trespasser – a soul that has decided to ignore Nature and has sought a return to this world before its time. Trespassers may take other forms, such as the Fiskerton Phantom, the Beast of Bodmin, and the Beast of Exmore,” as she spoke the image changed first to a huge bear, then to a panther-type cat, “or the Barghest or Black Shuck,” and now the image became a massive dog, the same demonic red eyes staring ferociously at Seb. He gasped as he recognised the dog he had seen at Waulud’s Bank and lurched back in his seat. He felt the weight of Mr Duir’s hand on his shoulder calming him.

“These are not fictional beasts,” Miss West said. “These are the husk bodies of animals, overtaken and warped by human souls trespassing against Nature’s law. “Throughout centuries these beasts have been seen by the unwary and some trespassers have achieved their aims with devastating consequences.”

Aiden asked nervously, “What aims?”

“To take over a human host. Watch!” She touched the screen with her staff. It panned back, the hound now became a silhouette in the distance, its glowing eyes barely visible. A man wandered into view in the foreground.

Dressed in fancy hillwalking gear, he was reading a map by the light of a small head torch. It was dusk and a slight mist wove its way between gorse bushes and clumps of heather, hovering just above the surface of the soggy ground, obscuring the path. He trod carefully as he struggled to see the track and keep within its bounds.

The squelch of the man’s footsteps and his laboured breathing could be heard. Then he glimpsed the red eyes, which gleamed like a welcoming light in a cottage window. He turned and took a tentative step from the track, then another. The red points of light grew and the man seemed to become determined. He stepped firmly towards the lights.

He was now a good twenty feet from the path and darkness swallowed the scenery around him as dense clouds scudded across the sky, obscuring what little moonlight there was.

Suddenly the red lights disappeared. The man stopped abruptly. He turned in a circle, disoriented. He glanced at the map then seemed to realise how futile that was since he now couldn’t tell which direction he had come from.

Seb was transfixed and then he noticed Mr Duir lower his head and close his eyes as if the image was too painful for him to watch.

Seb looked back at the screen. The man, his face contorted with uncertainty and fear, jumped in response to a faint sound – drumming footfalls.

From his left a dark shadow loomed and for a split second the torch beam illuminated the hound as it pounced. The man fell to his knees and gave a horrified, fearful cry as the weight of the beast knocked him to a prone position, his face pressed into the cloying mud.

The great dog stood astride the man and lifted its face skyward. Then the beast jerked and, as if being jettisoned, a wisp of white swirling mist poured out of its chest, curling around the back and shoulders of the poor man who lay motionless. The white mist dissolved into his torso and the hound’s body crumpled as though the moisture and essence of it were draining away. In seconds the mist had entirely disappeared into the man’s body and the large dog’s carcass fell to the side, lifeless.

Another second passed and then the man stood up. He made half-hearted efforts to brush the mud from his clothing and then strode towards the track, confident of his direction now. The only sign that anything had happened was the mud still clinging to his face and the front of his jacket.

Seb heard Mr Duir exhale and, as if to distract Seb, Miss West planted herself in front of him. “The aim of these souls, Seb, is to come to this reality when they choose … and they need a host body!” She snapped the point of her staff onto the wooden floor.

Drawing a deep breath, Mr Duir stood. Dierne launched into the air to hover beside him. Accompanied by his own reflection and the fluttering Dryad he walked around the table.

“They need a host body,” he repeated the words. “That is just the beginning.” He sounded downhearted, defeated. “Once that aim is achieved all manner of suffering will follow.

“Seb,” he turned to look at Seb, his face sad. “What you saw at Waulud’s Bank was a trespassing soul that had been unable to find a human host. The aim of these errant souls is to trespass at the point of birth, at the start of a human life if possible, but if they cannot then they must take whatever form they can. Temporarily some take over an animal host.”

Miss West tapped the mirror and the image disappeared.

Mr Duir continued, “For a trespassing soul to inhabit the body of an animal is a cursed existence. The soul suffers exposure to the puerile, unimaginative outlook of the animal, twinned with it for sometimes months, years even. The animal’s body will live for many more years than its natural lifespan, the energy force of the human soul extending its physical capabilities. So effectively the soul has brought about its own entrapment.

“But taking on an animal host now enables the soul to travel beyond the limitations of the ley lines and it can then hunt for a suitable human host and, as you have just seen, it will wait for a chance to leave the animal host and take over a human one.

“However it is unusual for a trespassing soul to enter an adult host. If they embed themselves within the body of a baby or a young child they are stronger and can completely dominate the soul within. Sometimes they are even strong enough to force out that soul. But to take over an adult host means vying with a soul that has reached an awareness of their own being, their own identity, in this life. Often the result is such a conflict that the behaviour of the individual, with two occupant and battling souls, becomes so strange that either society rejects them – and institutionalises them – or the life of the host is brought to a premature end.” Mr Duir looked sadly into the mirrored disc.

“Suicide?” Nat whispered fearfully.

He turned and stared at Seb as if trying to bring a message home. “Yes Nat, suicide.”

Now Mr Duir waved a hand in front of the mirror. An image appeared: Seb and Aiden struggling, in torrential rain, against the pull of the wind at Waulud’s Bank.

Zach chuckled until Miss West clacked her stick on the floor.

Seb stared, horrified. He could clearly see Alice, holding his arm, preventing him from walking towards a huge, black hound with demonic red eyes which was merely feet from them.

Aiden gasped, “Seb … I didn’t see it!”

And then suddenly Miss West and Mr Duir appeared. Miss West scooped Aiden up and away. Mr Duir stood between Seb and the crouching beast. He lifted his hand and now Seb could see Dierne spinning above him, forging a path through the dense clouds. A chink of sunlight broke through and Mr Duir reflected it off his hand onto the black hound. A trail of mist zoomed out of it. Mr Duir gave the slightest beckoning motion and the mist trail travelled towards him and through him. He spun, reflected light onto it and the mist trail floated off into the darkness. He scooped Seb up and the image faded.

“So that’s what kept you!” Zach said into the silence that followed.

Seb’s mouth was hanging open. Aiden’s too.

Mr Duir abruptly gave a command, “Torhtian ende!” There was a huge clap, the disc stopped spinning and flipped to lie horizontally above the table. The Head waved an arm and it dissolved into a green mist which evaporated into nothing.

“Seb,” he looked down at him. “You are the Custodian. This is your role: to find, read and deal with trespassing souls before they can achieve their aims.”

Seb, still reliving that moment at Waulud’s Bank, felt his heart pounding.

“My role?” he said weakly.

 

Failure and Allies!

A sudden bumping sound on the library door made Seb jump. Miss Angel, having sat in silence since their unconventional entrance now walked to the door. Unlocking it without making a sound she grabbed the handle and yanked it open so quickly Mrs Reeves, who had her ear pressed against the other side, stumbled forward.

“Oh! Miss Angel.” The receptionist was flustered. “I didn’t realise it was you. I heard …” her eyes fell on the collection of teachers and pupils in the room. She straightened her too-tight skirt. “Mr Duir, sir, I hadn’t realised the library was in use. I heard noises and thought we had a rogue pupil in here during lessons.”

With an engaging smile he answered, “Actually, five pupils and several teachers trying to deal with them, Mrs Reeves.”

“Five, Mr Duir? Oh, and I see a familiar face amongst them.” She glared at Seb.

He felt a growing annoyance and dislike of this woman.

A puzzled frown crossed her features. “I, er, didn’t hear the coaches. Is the trip over already?” She glanced down at the tiny watch on her wrist.

“We had to bring these pupils back early, Mrs Reeves, in order to deal with them. Actually, we were just finishing.”

“Oh quite, quite.” She reached in and flicked on the main lights in the room. “My, how dark it has become. Is there anything I can do? Detention slips? Exclusion notification?” Again she looked at Seb.

“Thank you, Mrs Reeves; we have all we require.”

Miss Angel began closing the door but Mrs Reeves wasn’t done.

“Mr Duir, I saw the caretaker in the main corridor as I was walking over. Is the fault fixed? Can I remove the signs?”

Mr Duir stared at her for a moment before answering, “By all means, Mrs Reeves.”

She nodded stiffly, stepping away from the rapidly closing door, Miss Angel deciding it was time to bring the exchange to a close.

***

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The Trespassing of Souls

Have you ever felt out of place and struggled to fit in? Seb Thomas has felt that way all is life. A disappointing first day at upper school sees the pattern of isolation and rejection begin to repeat itself. Already downhearted, matters take a turn for the worse when Seb encounters first an ogre, then sparkling silver figures, doorways that somehow appear and disappear and then a boy who is the leaf-covered image of himself. Now he fears he is losing his mind. Under the guidance of the school's head teacher, Aelfric Duir, Seb soon learns that there is more to reality than his previously narrow perspective of the world. He is shown the truth about life, about death and about the travel of souls. But Seb is plagued by self-doubt. He refuses to embrace the role he has been given. When the actions of a malicious soul threatens the lives and souls of Seb, his sister, his friends and Aelfric, Seb must resolve his own internal conflict and find a way to use the power Nature has given him to save them, but, more importantly, to preserve the balance of all realities and protect the freedom and travel of innocent souls.

  • Author: M S C Barnes
  • Published: 2016-04-13 18:50:20
  • Words: 151701
The Trespassing of Souls The Trespassing of Souls