The hills spread out across the far side of the valley in the dawn light. Apart from the sound of a few birds chattering there was silence; silence and stillness. Then, quietly at first, a low humming sound began. It grew in volume until the ground seemed to throb and shake. The birds stopped their singing and flew, terrified into the skies. With a flash, a tall column of brilliant white light sprang up from the ground. The light changed to a deep blood red and from out of it stepped four figures. There were two men and two women; all were dressed in plain black clothes. One of the men was holding a long, carved, golden staff in both hands. As the light began to dim around them, small bundles could be made out in the arms of the two female figures. The bundles moved every now and then, and made strange gurgling noises. The women cooed softly to comfort them after their strange journey, and rearranged the blankets to wrap them more tightly and to keep them warm in the chill morning air. More flashes of light were now appearing around this strange group, each light dropping a long black bag, or other objects and packages near by. The men quickly gathered these things together, swinging them onto their shoulders. Then, looking around to make sure that they were not leaving anything behind, the four walked quickly together across the fields towards the town. The only trace of their unusual, sudden appearance was a number of dark, round scorch marks burnt into the earth…
Jack Anders grew up in London. His father, Peter and his mother, Sophie were always very busy. They ran their own business and occasionally had to travel away from home. Sometimes Jack went with them, but he was usually looked after by a friend of the family, an older woman called Larena, who stayed with him while his parents were away. Larena was alright, but she never let him out of her sight. She watched him like a hawk all the time. She even looked a bit like a hawk. No, perhaps not quite like a hawk, Jack thought, more like a large raven. Her eyes were tiny and black, and her nose was long, sharp and hooked, like a raven’s beak. Whenever he asked if he could do anything or go anywhere she always come up with an excuse, and say something like: ‘You are in my care now. We must stay here in the house where I can see you.’ Then she carried on watching with those beady little eyes of hers.
Even his parents were always very careful of ever letting him out of their sight. But it wasn’t just the usual way that his friends' families liked to make sure they knew where their children were. That only made sense, for safety’s sake. He could understand that. But this was different. It was as if his mum and dad weren’t just looking after him, but guarding him. Sometimes it made him nervous, so that he hardly dare move out of the chair where he had been told to sit quietly.
But apart from being so protective of him, most of the time it didn’t seem to Jack as if his parents were interested in him at all. They would stop their conversations suddenly when he came into the room, or would be too interested in their papers or books to bother talking to him.
He learnt not to expect regular treats, and even though he was allowed to invite friends over to the house, they had to sit under the watchful eyes of his mum and dad, or the dreaded Larena all the time. She would appear suddenly, as if out of nowhere, startling him and his friends so that they jumped, guiltily, even though they had not been doing anything wrong.
Soon his friends stopped wanting to come around to visit him, and made excuses. Jack knew that they were scared of Larena. Of course, no matter how politely he asked, he was not allowed to go over to visit his friends’ houses at all.
So it came as quite a surprise when one day not long after his twelfth birthday, his dad announced that Jack was going to spend three weeks with his Uncle Matt and Auntie Jenn during the summer holidays. They lived in the town of Darlington in the north-east. Not only that, but he was going to travel on a train, on his own, to get there! He could hardly believe it. His dad told him that he and his mum needed to ‘sort a few business things out.’ Jack wasn’t sure exactly what was being ‘sorted out,’ or why it was taking three whole weeks. His dad went on to tell him that it had to do with a big conference in Birmingham. His mum added that Larena was away on holiday with her family, so she couldn’t look after him. Jack was surprised at this. He had never even known that Larena had any family.
‘You’ll just be bored if you come with us,’ his mum said. Jack thought it was more likely that she and his dad would be bored having to put up with him in the evenings after the conference. But this thought made him feel guilty and he didn’t say anything. ‘And anyway,’ his mother continued, ‘we couldn’t leave you in the hotel on your own all day.’
So that was why he was sitting on a train, heading north all on his own, without either his mum or dad, or even Larena to watch over him. On his own, for the first time in his life! At first this was such a novelty that it overcame any nervousness he felt.
The journey however, had been a long one. The train from London to Darlington took three hours. Soon he was thoroughly bored. He had finished reading the film magazine his mum had bought for him at the station in London, and he was fed up of looking around him at the other passengers, trying to imagine who they were and where they were going. So, when the guard finally announced that: ‘this train will shortly be arriving in Darlington’ he jumped to his feet. Jack pulled his rucksack onto his shoulders as the train started to slow down. He set off along the narrow aisle in between the rows of seats, in search of his small suitcase, which he had stuffed into the luggage rack at the end of the carriage. He wobbled from side to side as the train lurched. As he pulled his case out, he tripped and bumped into a large bearded man who was also struggling with his own bags. The man turned and stared at him with angry, yellowy-green eyes. He wore a long black coat that hung down like a cloak. Jack murmured ‘sorry sir’ in a low, embarrassed voice, and hurried past.
The boredom of the journey changed quickly to anxiety as the long platform of Darlington station began to rush past. This was the town where his aunt, uncle and cousin Helen lived. It had been over two years since his mum and dad had last brought him up here for a visit; just before he had turned ten. That time they had all travelled together in his dad’s car. It had been one of the good times, and he remembered playing guessing games in the back, mum shouting out clues, and dad laughing and telling them both stories as they drove north. It was very different this time, travelling on his own. Jack had been so protected all the time he was growing up, that he always felt shy and nervous with people he didn’t know very well. He didn’t want to spend his precious holidays so far away, with an aunt, uncle and cousin he could hardly even remember. Even staying at home – with Larena watching his every move – would be better than that. He started to wonder if they would even be there at the station to welcome him. His mum had said that he would be fine, the guard on the train had been told to keep an eye on him, and that Jenn, Matt and Helen would be there as soon as he stepped off the train. But would they recognise him? What was his cousin Helen like now?
The train made a final jerk forwards, and stopped. Several other people were also getting off, and when Jack stepped onto the platform he had to wait until the crowds had thinned a bit before looking around for his relatives.
‘Jack? Jack! Over here!’
He turned and saw them standing a little way off. It was Auntie Jenn who had called out. Now she started waving and walking towards him. Helen and Uncle Matt followed just behind, with smiles on their faces. The two adults looked just about the same as he remembered; Auntie Jenn with lots of curling, bouncy, light brown hair and big, happy light green eyes; Uncle Matt very tall and thin, with a toothy grin that seemed to be too wide to fit on his narrow face. Helen, however, looked very different to what he remembered. She and Jack were about the same age, he just over twelve, and she eleven and three quarters. The last time they had met, she had appeared to be much younger than him, but now somehow, Jack thought she seemed very confident, as if she was far older than he was. She was even a little bit taller than him now. ‘But at least they seem happy enough to see me,’ he said to himself, and a little of his nervousness slipped away from him. In another moment he was being kissed by Auntie Jenn, and Uncle Matt had his hand firmly on his shoulder, saying, ‘Good to see you, how was the journey?'
Jack was embarrassed at their attention on the platform which was still crowded. He wasn’t used to being shown such affection and being kissed – certainly not in public. If his parents hadn’t thought he needed a kiss when he was little then he definitely didn’t need one now! He was twelve for goodness sake!
His uncle took his bags from him and the four of them set off towards the station car park. They passed the taxi rank where Jack noticed the large bearded man he had bumped into on the train. The man was struggling to get a long bulky package into the boot of one of the taxis. The package looked as if it might have fishing rods or golf clubs in it, thought Jack. The big man had already knocked off the taxi driver’s cap with the end of the package. He was just bending down to pick it up, when the package poked the driver in the eye. Jack couldn’t help laughing out loud as he walked past. The man stood up to his full height and glared at him with those yellowy-green eyes. The look seemed to freeze Jack’s laugh in his throat, and made him cough as if he had swallowed something too quickly. He turned and hurried away, following Helen and the others to their car.
Soon they had pulled out of the station. They began to make their way through the evening traffic. Before long they were well out of the town and driving along a country road. The late afternoon sun was dipping lower in the sky now and casting long shadows across the fields which Jack glimpsed every now and then as the car passed a fence or a gap in the hedge. After another mile or so they came to a small village, with two long rows of cottages that ran around either side of a wide village green, complete with a pond in the middle.
It looked beautiful; much more interesting than he had hoped. When Jack had last visited them, his relatives had lived in the town of Darlington itself, in a Victorian terraced house close to the supermarket. He hadn’t thought much of the town that time. This though, was a different thing entirely. Two big trees stood at one edge of the pond and Jack thought that they looked like great climbers. There was even space in the middle branches for a lookout post over the whole village. He had always wanted to climb trees, but at home he was never allowed to. As he looked at the trees a large raven flew down and settled on the topmost branch. It obviously frightened the other smaller birds as several of them, mainly sparrows from what he could make out, scattered immediately into the air.
‘Hah! It looks like Larena!’ Jack thought to himself. Being able to make fun of his childminder at a safe distance, knowing that he didn’t have to see her again for weeks and weeks cheered him up even more. He looked back at the bird again and stuck his tongue out at it. The raven sat there, gazing around impassively. Jack grinned.
Helen tapped the car window with her finger. He turned from watching the birds to look in the direction that she was pointing. ‘That’s our house. There, that one at the end of the green’ she said.
He looked out at a large, stone house, set some way back from the road. There was a porch at the front covered with a long climbing ivy, and at one side of the house he could see a huge garage. ‘This bit used to be the stables,’ said Uncle Matt as he drove the car towards the double doors.
The house really was beautiful but suddenly Jack felt afraid. A strange anxiety welled up in his chest. He couldn’t explain the feeling, even to himself, but as the car stopped and he glanced through the car window, he got the sensation that someone inside was watching him!
‘Is…is there anyone else at home?’ he asked in a low voice.
‘It’ll just be the four of us Jack’ Aunty Jenn replied. She made her way to the front porch door fumbling for her keys. Jack held back, hovering by the car. Helen ran up the path, following her mum. Dusk was all around them now and the low sun in the deep red sky lit up the sandy coloured walls and reflected on the big windows. The reflected sunlight looked like a raging fire inside the house. The feeling of dread in Jack’s mind wouldn’t go away. He had never felt anything like this before. It was like a dream where you know something terrible is around the corner, but you can’t do anything to stop it. He looked once again at the crimson sunset’s reflection in the windows. Was it just his imagination that made the red glow seem like fire….or blood? No. Not just his imagination. Something was wrong, he knew it. He wanted to cry out; ‘don’t go in there’ and he felt the words forming in his mouth ready to scream: ‘there’s evil, evil in the house! Don’t go in!’ but he couldn’t make a sound. Suddenly, everything seemed to go black.
The next thing Jack knew, Helen was standing over him, looking down with a worried expression on her face. For some reason he was lying on the floor. He heard a thump on the gravel of the driveway as Uncle Matt dropped Jack’s rucksack that he had been lifting from the car boot and came running towards them.
‘Give him a bit o’ space Helen love. Must be the journey. Poor lad must be shattered. ‘Ere, move over, let’s get at him.’
Jack felt himself being lifted up and carried inside, past Auntie Jenn who was holding the door open for them. Just before they went in, he looked towards the windows once more, but in the last few moments the sun had finally dipped down below the horizon, and the fiery glow could no longer be seen. The house looked perfectly normal again and Jack shook his head to clear his mind as they crossed the threshold into the hallway.
There had been such confusion and concern over Jack that none of them had noticed the taxi driving slowly past on the opposite side of the village green. They did not see the face that peered at them out of the rear window of the taxi, the bearded face of a large man with yellowy-green eyes. The only thing that might have seen him was the large raven at the top of the tree, but the bird didn’t seem to take any notice. It flapped its wings and took off, circling the pond lazily a couple of times before flying off over the roof of Matt, Jenn and Helen’s house...
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