The children chatted as they walked at an easy pace through the gently waving grasses and flowers. It was summer and the world, for a short time at least, wasn’t such a threatening place.
“Maybe she’s right. Maybe this is the answer to all that…” Tag grasped for the right word. “That squalor we have to live in, is to leave it behind. Maybe we should all move out here, into the fields.”
“And live on what? We don’t know what’s safe to eat out here. We don’t even know if there is anything safe to eat out here.”
“They used to use these fields for that, I think.”
“For what? The ground can’t tell you what to eat.”
“No, I mean, I think they used to use the fields to grow food and raise livestock.”
“Don’t be stupid. You can’t grow food. What’s livestock, anyway?”
“Animals, for meat and that.”
“What? You couldn’t make pigeons and rats stay here.”
“Bigger animals, cows and sheep and pigs.”
“I think you must have had some bad jam. You’re talking nonsense. You’re just saying noises.”
“No, cows are beef and sheep are for lamb and mutton and pigs are for pork.”
“Just saying noises again.” Del shook her head.
“No, that’s what people used to eat, we did too, when we were little. And I think rich people still do eat those things.”
“Well you’ve lost the plot.”
“But if it were true, if there was food out here, would you come with me?”
“We’re already here, and you came with me.”
“When this is over, though. If we could survive, would you come with me?”
Del stopped and looked at him. They walked on in silence for a while.
“When we get to the edge of the woods we need to find the path.”
“I know. Del. Or Lila. Or, whoever you are. I was there, I heard her.”
“Not this again. Look, Fitz just calls me Lila. He’s always known me as Delilah or Lila.”
“But you lied!”
“To who? I never told anyone my name was Del. People just call me that. And some other people call me Lila. I never lied. You’re just angry.”
“Of course I’m angry, Del. Those men are trying to kill us. They’re trying to kill you and it’s not your fault. If I’d never stolen that book…”
“You didn’t, they did. Then you… liberated it.” Del laughed. “You just liberated it from some seriously nasty blokes.”
Tag laughed too. “And now there are loads of grown men trying to kill us.”
“Because we have a book!” Del nudged Tag. “That we don’t even have anymore.”
“Do you think we did the right thing?” he looked at her again. “Leaving the book with Libby? It could put her in danger.”
“She’s a librarian. And she’s heavily armed. I think she’s the perfect person to look after a book.”
The darkness of the woods took longer to adjust to than they’d expected. The trees were heavy with leaves and the canopy was dense. The ground wasn’t as they’d imagined, carpeted with bluebells and ferns – it was too dark. It was colder here, too. After their eyes were used to the lack of light, Tag and Del searched for the path. It was a well-worn dirt track, not a stone or gravel path as Tag was expecting.
Even though they knew that it was still day time, the children huddled together against the things that go bump in the night and shivered. There was a little more light along the pathway where the tree tops didn’t quite meet, but that just made the rest of the forest seem darker in contrast. But there were eyes out there. Little pin pricks of light, pairs of them. And they were following the children through the woods.
“Sh… should be somewhere along here.” Del shivered.
“We must be half a mile in by now.” Tag squinted at the map. “It should be over a bridge. Can you see anything that could be a bridge?”
“You kids lost?” the voice behind them was sharp and broken. “Only people who ever make it this far into these woods are lost.”
Del clutched Tag’s arm tightly with one hand and the straps of her back pack with the other. Tag squeezed her hand back. They looked at each other and together they turned around.
“We’re erm…” Tag began. The man in the shadows behind them was thin and pinched looking. He wore a cloak, like Libby’s, with the hood pulled up forward of his face casting it into shadow. Tag stumbled on his words. “We’re looking for…”
“Blackberries. Or raspberries.” she darted Tag a look.
“Umm. Blackberries.” Tag agreed. “Or raspberries, we’re not sure what we’ll find this time of year…” something was coming back to him about wild fruits having seasons. Maybe he’d gone fruit picking with his mother, back when he had one. “We’ve been busy.”
“Busy, eh?” the voice stabbed. “We don’t get many busy children in these parts. Even fewer of them ever leave.”
A branch broke behind them and the children turned, suddenly aware that they were surrounded. There, shrouded in the gloom, stood a stag. The children froze. They had never seen such a creature. A huge, brown, horse-like animal with branches growing out of its head. They huddled closer together and held their breath. The animal stood and stared at them, its shallow black eyes indifferent and uncaring. It looked away, bounded off. They turned back to the cloaked man.
And he was gone, like a wisp of smoke.
It was some time before they spoke again.
“Well.” Tag cleared his throat while he thought of something to lighten the dark mood. “Good-job you had your sword.”
Del did a sort of half laugh. “Shut up.” she smiled. She’d grabbed Tag instead of the hilt of her weapon. She would have to remember not to do that again. She shook her head. “It’ll be fine, you know. One way or another.” She looked around, Tag noticed something new in her face, he didn’t know what it was, but something about it unnerved him. “We just have to keep a look out for strange men and weird tree headed horses too now. As well as the bridge to find this woman and the Church Street Gang and whatever nutter wants the book and the missing hour which neither of us really believe is a thing.” she laughed properly now. “What a perfectly normal thing to say. What a perfectly normal life we live.”
“I don’t think it was a horse.”
The bridge was a small rickety wooden one held together with rotting ropes. Tag smiled. Well this wasn’t how he expected to die in this adventure, what with the homicidal maniacs chasing him and the mad woman with the gun and the weird cloak wearing men and the tree headed horses. But, if he was going to drown in a white water river it might as well be falling from a decaying bridge. Why not?
That’s when he saw it. On the other side of the bridge in a bright clearing, just meters away, a little old cottage – the house in the woods!
“There it is, Del!” he shouted. “We’re so close!” he looked at Del, her hand shot to her sword.
“We’re in real danger now.” she said, her wicked smile illuminating her face in the murk. “Everyone in the woods knows where we are and that little bridge lies between us and either safety or of annoying another of these crazy ladies we keep bumping into.”
Three cloaked men suddenly stepped out of the blackness to their left and a low growl emanated from deep in the mass of trees to their right. Hundreds of pairs of eyes blinked at them from the shadows. The children were cornered. There were certainly creatures watching them, and now the creatures had to take their chances before someone else got to the tasty children first.
“Oh bum.” Tag breathed. The girl was too pleased about the danger for his liking.
“Oh bum indeed.” a woman’s voice behind them cut through his thoughts. “If you care to cross the bridge, you can come in for tea and cake and tell Lilith all about it.”
The cloaked figures backed away.
“Come on over, the bridge is sturdier than you think. You can make it.”
Tag looked at Del. Her black eyes were fierce and her knuckles were white where they grasped the hilt of her little sword. “You first.” she said, grinning wildly at the retreating men. “Anyone tries to follow you and I’ll start cutting hands off.”
“Are you sure?”
“Just go. I’ll catch up.”
Tag turned and stepped tentatively onto the bridge, gripping the slimy ropes on either side. Del backed after him, holding the sword out in front of her.
Inside the little cottage was warm and a fire burned.
“Everyone who lets us in gives us tea and cake.” Tag said, shovelling cake into his mouth gratefully. “Not that I’m complaining. It’s great. And thanks.”
“Umm.” Del stared into her tea. “Thanks.”
“You were sent here by The Librarian?”
“Yes, miss. You see, I stole this book, well, liberated it, really, from some thieves, and then my friend Aldo said I should take it to Mr While and he said to stash it at the Library and Del came too – this is Del – and as we were at it we should find an hour he lost, or it was stolen or whatever and so we took the book to the Librarian, Libby, she’s nice, has a shot gun, though, makes me nervous, and she said you might know where the missing hour is and that you’re a witch but I don’t believe in witches and I got cross and then I asked Del to run away to the country with me and she said we already had and then didn’t say anything and then I got cross and then there was this man in the woods and then there was a horse with a tree coming out of its head…”
“Stop.” Lilith said. Her voice was strange. Something about it made Del feel uneasy. And it didn’t move with her mouth as it should. “Too much truth in that cake, I think. I forget about smaller doses for children. And you are a hungry, hungry little thing. Adrenalin will improve the appetite, I suppose.”
“Whose voice is that?” Del asked.
The woman flashed an angry look. The hair on the back of Tag’s hands stood on end. “You think I stole it?”
“I don’t know.” Del didn’t seem phased by the woman’s anger. “I don’t know how these things work. Maybe you borrowed it.”
“Borrowed it?” she chuckled. “Maybe I did.” the woman smiled a broad, genuine smile. “I was talking to a friend of mine.” she patted her chest. “She puts a glamor on people she talks to.” the voice was different now. Soft with a slight, unrecognisable, unspecific, vague northern English accent. “Makes their voice match her own, in case anyone is listening at her cell door, they just think she’s talking to herself.”
“Listening at her cell?” Del’s heart jumped and her mind danced.
“So you want to know who stole the hour?”
Tag leaned forward. He was staring at them, horrified. Truth cake. Borrowed voices.
The room span and Tag’s vision blurred.
He came round on a sofa. The fire was burning out in the grate and the wooden floors glowed orange with reflected light from the embers. A black cat dozed on a red and brown rug next to the sofa where he was sleeping. He could hear the woman, Lilith, and Delilah talking in another room. Someone had put a blanket over him. He balled up the blanket at one end of the sofa and tiptoed towards the voices.
“Tell me about that horse thing, the one with branches stuck in it’s head.” she was asking. “Is that why it’s so cross?”
“It’s not a horse!” the woman laughed. “It’s a stag. Have you never seen a stag before?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a male deer.”
“Deer? That’s just noises again. Tag was making noises about animals too.”
“We’ll talk about this another time. I think you need to sleep now. It’s late.”
“Before I go, can I ask you something?” Tag leaned closer to the crack in the door to hear what Del wanted to know. “About you?”
“Why do you live in the forest?”
“Honestly?” there was the sound of fabric rustling. “I’m a fugitive.”
“My crime shouldn’t be a crime. But the law wants me. They’ll never get me, though. No one would look for me here.”
“People…” Del paused. “People know where you are. We were sent to you, those men in the woods, they know where you are…”
“The people who know where I am…” lilith coughed uncomfortably. “Well, they erm, they aren’t the sort of people who would go to the police.”
“She’s considered a danger to national security. She protects knowledge that the government want removing. She’s dangerous.”
“And so are you?”
“In a different way. I am what they call a dissident.”
“What?” Del was getting angry. Tag smiled, he thought she was cross because she didn’t like asking what words meant. She was clever. Cleverer than most people, anyway. “As if you’re some sort of political rebel?” Tag’s smile spread. His Delilah was so clever.
“Well, there are laws I don’t agree with. This government doesn’t like people who disagree with their laws. You know it wasn’t always illegal to campaign for the opposition.”
“That’s a fairy-tale for another day, lovely child.” the woman’s voice was soft and warm. “Are you ok sleeping on another sofa in the living room with Tag? There are three sofas in this cottage but only one bedroom. I should really do something about it.”
Tag darted back to his sofa and pulled the blankets over his head.
The morning sun streamed through the light curtains of the witches cottage like refreshing a river, washing over the two children and waking them so reinvigorated for their days adventures that they had no trouble getting up and dressed and feeding the cat before leaving a note for Lilith, who was nowhere to be found. The note thanked her for her hospitality and kindness and explained where they were headed. Rather cryptically, or so Tag thought, Del wrote, “I have kept my first promise, and look forwards to finding out what my others are.”
There were two packs on the kitchen table, each with one of their names on. They each contained a jar of jam, a knife, though the Tag had his own and Del had her sword, a pack of something called ‘butter’ which Del assured Tag was delicious on toast, crackers or bread, a lump of cheese, a set of lock picks and some rope.
“Well,” Del looked at her array of goodies, “She clearly thinks we’re going to run into trouble.”
“Do you know where we’re going?” Tag asked, pulling on his boots, stowing his pack of stuff from the latest mad woman in his backpack and helping himself to another slice of cake.
“Yes.” Del announced proudly. “And I have a map.”
The children marched confidently out into the woods away from Lilith’s little lodge in the opposite direction to the one they’d arrived in.
“We just need to follow this path out of the woods and head to the next mountain we see.”
“Oh,” Tag said sarcastically. “Very specific.”
“Smart Alec. There’s only one. The guy we want lives up there. In a cave.”
“Great. Another nutter. Do we know if he’s the cake feeding type or the homicidal type? Or is it a lovely surprise?”
“Don’t be stupid. The homicidal type. Obviously.” she winked.
The forest opened up suddenly into dazzling sunshine and Tag and Del danced, this time, out into the brightness, happy for the blinding light, though it made them stumble on the uneven rocks as they shielded their eyes. There were no eyes out here, watching without bodies. No hooded men. No howling creatures hidden in the shadows.
Their eyes slowly got used to the sun as they skipped away from the woods towards the one, solitary mountain towering above them. From behind the mountain the river snaked, glinting in the bright sun, meandering into the forest behind them.