The Ford Fiesta pulled into the car park, its colour indefinable in the deepening twilight. The doors opened, spewing its contents onto the skittering gravel underfoot.
‘Come on Sarah, we need to get all this stuff out of the boot, and the others are waiting.’
Two supermarket bags clinked heavily to the ground. Sarah pulled a swathe of material out of the boot, shaking it out and twirling it around her shoulders. Jade wrapped her matching cloak tight under her chin, to fend off the chill in the air. Taylor grabbed the plastic boxes and they set off into the shadows.
Beams of light lit the path for them.
‘Hi Kyle.Tom. You alright? And is that you Liam?’ Hugs all round, they walked into the tree line, branches obscuring the full moon, torches the only light.
‘We’ve been up to the circle already, set up the fire ready to go. You’ve remembered the candles and stuff haven’t you?’
‘Of course.’ Taylor shook her head in the dark.
‘And don’t worry,’ said Sarah. ‘I’ve got the cakes and ale.’
‘Lots of?’ Liam sounded hopeful.
Cloaks rustled the grass as they passed, snagged on twigs and thorns. The girls stumbled, giggling and cursing, the boys gallantly rescuing them.
‘What the?’ Kyle stopped.
‘What’s up?’ Tom stumbled against his back.
‘I can see fire.’
‘But we didn’t…’
‘Shush.’ They edged forward.
‘What’s the hold up?’
‘Quiet. There’s someone else here.’
Three women stood around the flames, their clothes seeming strange, even in the flickering light.
‘What are you doing here?’ Tom had found his assertiveness, as he realised that these were just young girls, no older than themselves.
‘We’re sorry sir if we have startled you. We are here to speak to our ancestors.’
‘Yeah, we’re here for our Samhain ritual as well.’
Taylor pushed to the front. ‘You’ve got a cheek, using our stuff, in our space.’
‘This clearing has been used for many years. The oak has long memories.’ The taller of the girls had her hands on the rough bark of the tree that marked the north of the clearing. Her head was pressed against its trunk. She beckoned to her companions. ‘Come, hark to the whispering of the old ones.’
‘Come on,’ said Jade. ‘I want to hear this.’ She moved to the tree, the light from the flames casting a sheen on her crushed velvet cloak. The girl moved aside, revealing a deep hollow in the tree. Pushing past the strange girl, Jade put her ear to the hole. She heard nothing. Neither did Taylor. Taylor made that circling motion against her temple. ‘Screw loose.’
‘Tell them to go, Tom.’
‘Well, it isn’t private property so I don’t think we can. And they’re only three girls. If they want to be here, what harm can it do?’
‘Yeah,’ said Liam. ‘The more the merrier. Merry meet and all that.’
‘What’re your names then?’
‘I’m Agnes. My sisters are Bridget and Sybil.’
‘I’m Tom. These are Kyle and Liam.’ Tom lifted his thumbs to point either side. He turned round towards where the girls had been, but they had moved away, into the shadows.
‘The girls are…’
‘It is of no matter.’
They both stood awkwardly, hearing the girls’ whispered words that carried in the laden air.
‘Did you hear those names? What were their parents thinking of?’ Taylor burst into laughter, loud, disturbing the night. Jade giggled, while Sarah turned away.
Tom added more wood to the fire, instructed Kyle to place the candles in the quarters. The old oak leaned its branches over as if seeking warmth to ease its aching bones, creaking as it swayed gently in the rising breeze. The flames flared high, revealing clearly the people around the fire.
Taylor was now doubled over, scarcely able to contain her laughter. ‘Just look at their clothes. They look like something out of the middle ages. Probably smell like it as well. I reckon they’ve learned their witch craft from watching old movies.’
‘Such wannabes.’ Jade giggled. Sarah stepped away.
‘Hey, come on you three, let’s get going. The wind is getting up and I’m sure I just heard thunder.’ Tom chivvied everyone into their places. Agnes took the besom from Tom’s hand.
‘Let me,’ she said. She swept the ground, muttering words under her breath that the others couldn’t hear, then laid the broom to one side.
Tom led everyone around the fire, walking at a steady pace, three times. Tom splashed water on the ground as he went. Sarah carried incense, using her hand to waft the rising smoke further into the air. Kyle carried a candle, its small flame dwarfed by the fire, while Jade followed with salt, a fine sprinkle falling to the ground as she walked.
They called the quarters, arms raised to the sky, heads raised to the darkness above. The wind gusted, buffeting the oak’s resisting limbs, whipping the slender alder branches low to the ground.
‘Let’s raise a toast to the ancestors.’ Liam went to the outer edge of the circle, picked up a six pack of Carling, handing a can to each of his friends. Sarah took one, then passed it to the strange girls, to share. ‘What did you do that for?’ hissed Jade. ‘They should have brought their own, if they knew what they were doing.’
‘I don’t believe it.’ Liam and Kyle watched in amazement. ‘They don’t even know how to open it. What the hell’s wrong with them?’
Tom reached for the can, and opened it for them. ‘It’s alcohol, for the toast.’
Agnes stepped forward. ‘I will speak to the ancestors.’
‘You who have gone before, hear me.’
The wind abated, its roar simmering down to a rushed breath rustling the leaves.
‘Mother, you shared your wisdom, but we failed to heed your words. Father, you treated us as was our due. We felt wronged. We know that this world is no better than what we had before. We wish we could return to your bosom.’
Tears glistened in her eyes, reflecting flames.
Tom raised his can.
‘To those who have gone before, to those have gone before them, we raise a toast.’
The wind came crashing back, shaking the woodland. Thunder rolled across the sky.
‘This is fantastic,’ Tom shouted across the noise. ‘Let’s raise energy. This is powerful stuff tonight.’
They drew closer to the fire, starting a chant. The new girls didn’t join in, but listened to the strange words. Together, they chanted words of their own, a rhythm that scarcely needed words. Tom and Sarah remembered from nowhere, joined in the chant. Taylor folded her arms, her head to one side. ‘Damn cheek, coming here, taking over.’ Jade nodded agreement. Liam and Kyle carried on drinking from their cans. Liam emptied his can and threw it on the ground.
Lightning jagged across the sky, growling thunder became a continuous roll. The flames rose higher, higher, forcing them to step back from the scorching flames. New voices joined them. Sarah pointed to the oak tree – a light shimmered in the hollow in its side, where the voices dwelt.
An almighty crack. The clean crisp smell of a lightning strike. The old oak split down the centre, its aged branches crashing to the ground. Freed from its innards, misted moving lights surrounded the girls, hiding them from view.
Tom watched, stunned where he had been knocked to the ground by the force of the lightning strike. The lights faded back to darkness. The girls were gone.
‘Did you see that? Is everyone OK?’
Sarah crawled to him, shaking, crying.
‘Where are they Tom?’
‘They just disappeared. The lights took them away.’
‘Not the strange girls, Tom. Taylor, Jade, Liam, Kyle. They’re gone.’
Tom sat up, checking for himself that they weren’t there. Four large black crows sat on the warm dry earth around the fire, the flames now fading, almost extinguished.
‘What’s going on Sarah?’
Sarah stood, crept to the birds. They waited, still, as she approached. One bird cocked its head to one side, stared back at her.
‘Taylor, is that you?’
The bird cawed, a raucous sound. The others joined in. The full moon shone brightly through the gap in the treetops left where the oak had crashed to the ground. Together the birds stretched their wings, silhouettes against the glowing moon as they flew to its light.
Written by Portland Jones