The black, twisted forms of the winter-barren trees shiver in rain-laden winds. Looming over the narrow dirt pathway, their spindly branches meet, entwine, form into a bower.
Christiana spurs her horse on, the rotting forest smell now curling into her lungs. While needle-tip branches claw her face and snag her hair, she keeps her attention focused on the light she sees dancing in the distance through the trees. A divine light, she decides, leading to sanctuary.
As she rides the wind gathers; icy rain cascades down between the bare branches. Like the galloping of mighty hooves, thunder booms in the bruised blue-black sky. Head down, Christiana charges onward.
The pool of illumination cast by the car’s headlights is just enough for Lily to make out the course of the narrow road, beset on both sides by tangled woodland. Hands clenched tighter than normal to the steering wheel, Lily squints out through the rain-blurred windscreen.
‘In a dark, dark wood was a dark, dark house…’ Lily mutters to herself. How did that poem go again? ‘In the dark, dark house was a…’
Thunder rolls and the rain intensifies.
‘Great’, she sighs. Where is this dark sodding house, I’ve had enough of these dark sodding woods.
Aware of her pursuers gaining on her, Christiana steers her horse off the track and through a gap she sees in the thicket. Whinnying in protest at the blinding rain and the mess of gnarled, slimy undergrowth that seems determined to trip it, the horse somehow stumbles through. The ground then inclines downwards.
Unsure, the horse demurs. Christiana flexes her spurs hard into the horse’s side and it dashes forward down the slope and then makes a small leap into the open space of a wide bridleway.
The jolting swish of the windscreen wipers can’t prevent the world outside of Lily’s car from swimming into a watery wash. Keep going, she tells herself, can’t be far now. She strains to see the road ahead.
‘In a dark, dark wood was a…’
A shape suddenly emerges from the undergrowth and darts out into the road just ahead of her. Lily swerves the car, wheels on the dirt, trees…
The horse shies sideways and snorts as if suddenly spooked by something… but it’s just the whorling wind.
‘Come now!’ Christiana steadies then rides her steed hurriedly up the bridleway. The dancing light dissipates into the gloaming. A will-‘o-the wisp, she wonders? The ever-darkening sky - she must reach sanctuary soon. This way, this way.
Lily stands before a squat building of white stone and timber nestled amid neglected grounds, its windows tightly shuttered. She sighs with relief at having finally made it… and for avoiding hitting that tree.
Fumbling in her pocket, she pulls out a set of keys, long and heavy. A tell-tale tremble of her hand exhibits her still shaken nerves as she fits a key into the lock. Something compels her to gaze out into the shifting shadows of the surrounding trees - a sensation of being watched…
She unlocks the door to her new home, and pushes quickly inside.
Lily dumps her bags and looks about her in dismay; the rooms are low-ceilinged and bare, the only furniture in the lounge is an old leather couch and a wooden rocking chair. Hanging above a fireplace grate, on a wall marked with soot, the skull of some once mighty stag is displayed on a varnished plaque. Lily looks at it, ruefully. How exactly did I allow myself to be persuaded into buying this knackered old shed?
Two bars on her BlackBerry Z10, she tries to contact her friend, now 200 miles away in London. Her phone goes dead in the middle of the call. Lily hisses a curse under her breath.
Writing that article can also wait, she decides, a hot bath is needed now – oh God, please let there be hot water. And a bath.
Christiana approaches a clearing; it is shrouded in a spectre-grey mist. A stone cottage stands off to the side. Drawing closer the horse suddenly rears, Christiana hangs on but the horse bucks violently. Then, moving out of the misty woods like something in a dream, a cloaked figure on a fierce black charger emerges, flanked by other shadowy riders. Herne the Hunter is draped in the skin of a red deer, jagged antlers curl up from his head like frozen flames. He is the last thing Christiana sees before she is thrown headfirst to the mossy ground.
Lily turns the bath taps, only to be met with guttural grunting from the slumbering pipes - an accompaniment to the assorted wails and whispers of the wind that whips through the gaps in the cottage’s masonry. Lily shivers. Bed, yes, bed. Hopefully some sleep - leave everything ‘till morning. Bundling up her goose-down duvet, she heads to where a heavy, wooden-framed bed waits.
The horned silhouette of Herne the Hunter swirls back into Christiana’s view. The figure extends a hand to her, and, as if from the depths of some forgotten well, his voice intones ‘joins us in the Wild Hunt’. Dazed and fearful, Christiana somehow finds the strength to scramble to her feet and makes for the cottage. Throwing herself against the door, she pushes and pulls on the door handle, but to no effect. She glances over her shoulder and sees that Herne has dismounted and is now advancing on her. She bangs on the broad panelled door.
Bang-bang-bang. Lily peeks out from under the duvet. That wasn’t just one of this old pile’s bumps-in-the-night, that was someone banging on the front door. Bang-bang-bang go both the door and her thumping heart. A paralysis of momentary fear subsides and Lily slides her legs out from under the covers and pulls on a dressing-gown, ears alive to every sound. Bang, bang, BANG.
‘Who is it, who’s there?’ her voice tremulous as she tiptoes barefoot to the door. Only the shrieking wind replies. Now more angry at having being made scared than actually scared, Lily throws open the door. ‘What?’
Outside, nothing but the trees stare back. Then, from out of the murk, a figure scurries towards her. ‘Ah, hello! Hello,’ a bearded man in a rain-sodden green tweed hunting jacket smiles a greeting, ‘I didn’t think anyone was in for a moment there. Thank goodness.’
Lily stares open-mouthed, ‘can I help you?’ She looks around, where did he come from?
‘Ah, sorry, I’m Henry: the gamekeeper. I’d heard somebody had bought this place, nice to meet you. I wonder if I could seek shelter just a wee while? Got caught in the storm, I’m afraid. The winter winds blow the fiercest.’
The stranger grins expectantly, rain water dripping from his scraggly grey beard as Lily calibrates her response. The man’s wolfish, greenish-amber eyes fix hypnotically onto hers. After a moment, she steps back and allows him in.
Pulling the dressing-gown more tightly around her, Lily leads him into the bare lounge. ‘So… How come you’re out so late? Not working, surely…?’
She stops in her tracks; cowering in the corner of the room is a young woman dressed in a green woollen gown and red couvrechef. Christiana gazes through Lily with a hunted, haunted look.
‘Excuse me…’ Lily says, exasperated, ‘what…? Who are you?’ She turns to face Henry, who is stood casually admiring the stag skull’s antlers, ‘Is she with you?’
‘In a dark, dark wood was a dark, dark house…’ Henry lifts the skull from its mount; Lily’s face now a mask of bewildered fear.
‘Look, sorry, but I live here now and I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Tell you to leave. Or I’m calling the police,’ she waves her useless phone.
‘In the dark, dark house was a dark, dark room,’ Henry delicately fits the skull onto his head, placing it with the solemnity of a king with his coronation crown. ‘And in the dark, dark room…’ Henry’s eyes flick to Christiana, ‘was a ghost.'
Lily turns back to Christiana, except she’s nowhere to be seen. Aghast, she turns as Henry approaches her, his eyes glinting, glowing, a malodorous air about him. ‘Christiana fell fatally from her horse when it was shot by a soldier’s arrow, many centuries ago. She is dead, dear one. As are you.’
Reeling, Lily holds her head in confusion. She feels something, a split in her skull. She pulls her hands away - they are covered in blood. ‘I am Herne the Hunter,’ he extends a hand towards her, ‘ride with us for eternity in the Wild Hunt.’
Lily steps back, shaking her head. ‘No. No, stay away…’
‘Cursed are those trespassers who kill a royal deer reared in the bounds of these woods…’
‘Deer? I never…’ then she remembers swerving her car, too late…
Christiana reappears as from nowhere at Herne’s shoulder, her eyes also aglow. ‘I shot the king’s stag, and so I fell under this Devil’s curse. When Herne appears before you, you are to obey him; else the Evil One himself will seize your immortal soul and you will suffer torments unending.’
Herne offered again his hand.
Thundering hooves. Herne leads his phantom huntsmen, Christiana, and Lily, his newest captured soul, and they ride their spectral steeds weightlessly on the wild winds above the forest. Glancing down momentarily, Lily sees her car - mangled against a tree on the side of the road, the deer she struck still lying nearby. The sense of her old self fading, Lily rides on into the winter sky.