Nicola Jane hated everything about the countryside, but particularly the weird creatures that lived in it. When she and Mum first moved here, to the middle of nowhere, she’d made those feelings as clear as humanly possible without actually printing them out and taping them to the bathroom mirror. Her complaining, though, had done no good and the only response from Mum was to say that Nicola Jane would get used to it. But now, a year later, she still loathed it every bit as much; possibly more so.
She currently lay in her tree-house at the bottom of the garden, sprawled on her belly on a folded blanket she’d found in the attic, which had initially smelled of mothballs; Her school blazer and tie had been thrown into a corner along with her bag. The blanket protected her from the splinters at the rough edges of the planking caused by the regular way she picked at them with her half-bitten nails.
Just past the end of the blanket there was a knot-hole in the floor and she peered through it, hoping to get a better view of the creature she’d so far only glimpsed. It was important to know if she and her Mum were at risk from some kind of dangerous beast.
She claimed to have no interest in the thing itself, but the creature puzzled her. She’d never heard of anything having such large, diaphanous wings and her biology teacher told her not to be ridiculous when she’d asked him about it. Even though she’d only caught the briefest sighting, the size and nature of the wings had been unmistakeable. She was determined to get proof then show him who was ridiculous.
The sound of a shattering bottle came from inside the house, through the small, open window at the back. Although faint when it reached her ears, the noise disrupted Nicola Jane’s thoughts. Her mother’s daily drinking session was already in full swing. She clenched her teeth and wiped at a frustrated tear with the back of an angry hand.
Movement from below caught Nicola Jane’s attention and her heart began to race, but it was just a dull, brown bird landing on the grass for a few seconds, listening for worms, before flying off. Her heart returned to normal – she felt both relieved and disappointed – then as she thought about the creature further an idea came to her.
A number of bamboo canes stood in the tallest corner of the tree-house – the roof sloped lopsidedly to accommodate the tree’s branches – so she grabbed one then rummaged around in her school bag for a pair of compasses and a roll of sticky tape. She opened out the compasses completely then taped them to one end of the cane. She hefted the contraption like a javelin and grinned as she made a couple of practice lunges in the small space. Nicola Jane placed the makeshift spear on the floor, near to hand, then swapped her school shoes for her trainers to complete her preparations.
She lay down again, on her back this time, and immediately cried out in pain before clamping her hand over her mouth in fear that her mother might hear. She’d tried to ignore the discomfort in her upper back over the last couple of weeks but it had grown worse and now the skin over her shoulder blades itched like crazy, too. She turned onto her front and wished for the millionth time that she was back in the city.
Mum had been in ever such a hurry to move and they’d arrived here only a couple of weeks after Dad’s death. But the selfish cow hadn’t thought of Nicola Jane for one minute and how moving away from all her friends would only deepen the sense of loss and increase the emptiness she felt. Well, that’s what Nicola Jane had heard the grief counsellor say to Mum when she’d waited outside the room with her ear pressed to the door. Mum had taken no notice of the counsellor’s advice or her daughter’s protests. She even found it hard to look at her own child these days, but that was probably because Nicola Jane looked a lot like her father – all Mum’s friends said so just about every time they saw her.
They’d all visited regularly in the first few weeks in the new house, helping Mum decorate, fixing shelves, wiring up the computers and trying their best to be a comfort. Then the arguments had started at the same time as Mum’s drinking and her friends had stopped coming altogether, apart from a brief visit by a few of them at Christmas, which had been a complete embarrassment.
Nicola Jane sighed. The silence of their remote village was almost complete and the only hint of the modern world came when she was lucky enough to hear a distant car. Of course, there were the natural noises of the country, but they hardly seemed like proper sounds at all. Nicola Jane missed her previous life and longed to hang around the city shopping centre on a Saturday with her old school friends again. Although she hated school on principle, at least her old one had its compensations – friends who had a clue about the important things in life, for instance. Half the time she couldn’t even send text messages out here because the network coverage was practically non-existent.
The new school was hopeless, too, and absolutely miles away. Nicola Jane had to get up way too early to catch the bus, which took nearly an hour to travel through all the villages, collecting kids who looked at her like she’d arrived on a spaceship from Mars when it was they who had the look of weird, brainless aliens. She hardly spoke to any of them and invariably used the time during the morning journey to do the homework she hadn’t touched the previous evening. Nicola Jane didn’t care that her handwriting was an untidy scrawl from the rocking of the bus or that her essays were guesswork instead of properly researched. If Mum didn’t care about her, why should she care about a school she hated going to?
Such strong feelings were the reason she now lay in the tree-house instead of sitting in double maths next to smelly Mandy Winterbotham. Honestly! Hadn’t the girl heard of soap and water? Perhaps she lived on a farm and her mum made her sleep with the pigs or the goats, which was a perfectly reasonable conclusion, considering the way Mandy ate her school lunch and the noises she made while doing so. Just the thought of Mandy eating was enough to ruin Nicola Jane’s appetite, which turned out to be really useful seeing as she hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast and it was now the middle of the afternoon.
Nicola Jane had mixed feelings about the tree-house. Uncle Jim, Dad’s brother, had built it almost as soon as she and Mum had moved here. He wasn’t very good with the sympathy type stuff, so the tree-house was his way of bypassing the sorrow, guilt, rage and any signs of empathy or thoughts of comfort. She initially resented the idea, seeing the tree-house as part of the conspiracy between Mum and Uncle Jim to countrify her – like the long walks and Girl Guides Mum had insisted on during those first few weeks in the new place. But the tree house was different and it didn’t take Nicola Jane long to realise the benefits of having a place she could escape Mum’s misery and somewhere to hide when skiving off school.
Like Mum’s friends, Uncle Jim had eventually stopped coming around and now they had practically no contact with their old life.
Almost half the year had gone by, but so slowly that Nicola Jane was sure she’d lived through most of human history. It was the third week in June but with four weeks to the school holidays they felt a long way off. Time moved like an ageing catfish in a silted river and nothing would speed it up. She couldn’t even listen to her music because the battery in her old iPod had lost its charge.
A faint noise from below brought her mind swiftly back to the present and Nicola Jane peered through the knot-hole once more. She couldn’t see anything, but a rustle in the grass was followed by what seemed like a high pitched laugh filled with darkness and menace.
In spite of the warm summer day Nicola Jane shivered.
Geraldine woke abruptly from her drunken nap, roused by a strange laugh that left her confused – there should be no one else in the house. She staggered to her feet just as a man’s voice – though high-pitched and seemingly from nowhere – whispered in a light, sing-song manner, “Nicola Ja-ane.”
Geraldine almost collapsed with fear of a very specific kind, which only that particular voice could trigger. Her hand automatically flew to the scar on her face but as soon as she registered her action she dropped the arm to her side again.
She turned her head towards the rear of the house as if she could see through the living room wall and things tried to swim into place in her mind but failed. She screwed her eyes tightly closed and focused her attention for a brief but intense moment. She breathed deeply, opened them again and strode into the kitchen, now completely sober.
Geraldine sensed a dark and foreboding presence emanating fear from the bottom of the garden and she gripped the handle of the kitchen door with fierce determination, only to find that it was locked. She scanned about quickly but there was no sign of the key that had never been removed from the keyhole in the year they had lived here.
Nicola Jane saw something – the briefest of glimpses at the base of the tree – not enough to see the creature clearly, but its ten-inch wings glittered like magic. Her heart thumping in her chest, she got to her feet quietly and grabbed her makeshift spear before she silently descended the ladder.
The thought of this creature flitting around her tree made her cringe, but it would regret doing so by the time she’d finished. No matter that she hated what the tree-house represented, it was still her domain to protect.
Nicola Jane stepped off the ladder and into the long, coarse grass, dappled with mid-afternoon sunlight that broke through the leafy canopy above. She dropped into an eager crouch, her spear held high, ready to pounce the moment she saw the trespasser. If she was forced to live in the middle of nowhere, it was going to be on her terms.
There was another laugh and she shuddered; her shoulder blades throbbed and set her teeth on edge. The sunny day was suddenly colder and darker; unnaturally so. The sun still beat down from a clear, blue sky.
Nervously, she circled the wide, old tree with a steady, crab-like motion, trying to catch sight of the creature she’d glimpsed from above. As she looked around she spotted a ring of toadstools and rich, greener grass that surrounded the tree in a wide circle. It hadn’t existed when she’d entered the treehouse earlier and to make things even creepier, an eerie stillness descended as if time had frozen. But as odd as that was, Nicola Jane was on a mission from which she wouldn’t be distracted. She had a clear purpose for the first time in a year and was determined to see it to completion.
Fear of the unknown and the tension of the hunt sent a primal thrill through her body. She was invigorated in a way she hadn’t felt since she regularly played the various sports she once loved. Her heart beat ferociously as she continued around the tree and she licked her upper lip, tasting the salt of the sweat that now beaded her entire face.
As she firmed her grip on the spear, for a moment it felt alien in her hand, taking on a life of its own that manipulated her, imbued with a power she couldn’t control. The itch at her shoulder blades abruptly grew worse and erupted with a pain so intense she felt the skin had been branded. She fell to her knees and struggled to breathe.
Then Nicola Jane saw it from the corner of her eye – something sharp and sparkling that was gone before she could react. As she cast her gaze about, still in pain, her face was suddenly filled with a flurry of movement and glittering wings. Whatever the creature used in its attack was razor sharp and a shallow cut opened up across her forehead. She felt blood trickle down her face and screamed.
Geraldine heard her daughter’s cry and her hunt for the missing key became frantic. Drawers were wrenched out and tipped onto the floor, cupboards thrown wide, their contents tossed aside, but in none of these places could she find the key. Then, inspired by a strange thought at the back of her mind, she peered through the keyhole and saw the key had been inserted into the outside of the lock.
Nicola Jane heard the creature laugh again and she instinctively turned and threw the spear as soon as she caught sight of her target, hurling it as she’d been taught to throw the javelin. The point of the compasses impaled the creature and pinned it to the ground, its death throes swift but mostly hidden by the long grass.
The dappled light flitting over the area prevented Nicola from making out exactly what it was she’d killed. She moved closer to see more clearly and her jaw dropped at its unexpected appearance. Then its seemingly dead eyes blinked and looked directly at her. She backed away with a ragged gasp, her face contorting with shock and horror.
This time the scream was much more intense and Geraldine’s eyes bulged in momentary paralysed fear. Snapping herself into action, she grabbed a chair and threw it through the kitchen window, which exploded into a million fragments. She cut her hand badly as she climbed swiftly through the hole but ignored the pain and dashed down the length of the garden.
Nicola Jane was sitting on the ground hugging her knees in fear, but when Geraldine tried to approach her she was prevented from doing so by an invisible barrier that matched the perimeter formed by the Faerie Ring of toadstools.
“Nicola Jane!” she yelled.
Her daughter looked up and stared at her, horror mapped out clearly across her tear-streaked face. She jumped to her feet, pointed at the cane spear but struggled to speak.
The grass had now been trampled down enough for Geraldine to see exactly what it was. “Come away, darling.”
“Why isn’t it dead?!” Nicola Jane yelled, twisting her arm to scratch her upper back. “I stabbed it.”
“Fairies are hard to kill,” Mum replied and looked away.
Nicola Jane could hardly believe her mother’s words but stared again at the creature as if trying to make sense of an impossible situation. “But why does it look like Dad?”
“Sometimes,” Geraldine said, “When Fairies die they can sometimes return initially taking on another form.”
“You mean… Dad was… is…?”
Geraldine nodded. The little man grinned and pulled the compass point from its chest, his surprising strength belied his size. He let the homemade spear fall to the ground then leapt to his feet. The other two flinched. Although Nicola Jane shrieked she watched as the broken wings rapidly healed themselves.
“Shit!” Geraldine quickly worked her hand to increase the blood flow from her cut and let the drops fall onto the Faerie Ring where they hissed like water on a griddle. The ring’s power collapsed instantly.
Before she could grab her daughter, the Fairy flew at Geraldine and landed on her bare forearm, sinking his tiny teeth into her skin. She cried out in pain but found herself unable to move.
Although terrified herself, Nicola Jane was jolted into action by the harm being done to her mother. She tore the Fairy from her Mum’s arm then wrenched its head until the neck snapped. She didn’t stop pulling and twisting until the head came free of the body, spilling black blood on the grass.
Repulsed by what she held, she threw the parts onto the ground then ran to her Mum and hugged her with shaking arms. She sobbed and tears flowed down her face again.
“It’s all right, darling,” Mum said, soothingly and hugged her daughter in return. “It’s all right.”
“But… I killed Dad, too,” Nicola Jane whispered.
She abruptly convulsed and escaped her mother’s arms, falling to the ground in agony. The back of her school shirt was red in two places at her shoulder blades – the skin had split open.
“No!” her mother shouted. “It’s too soon.”
Around them, a dozen hidden Fairies laughed with further menace.
Copyright © Steve Ince 2016