It’s still dark out. There must be at least six hours before the next door is opened, but I want to give myself enough time to write all of this down.
They took me yesterday morning.
William had sent Arthur and Henry to fetch me. I begged them to tell me what was going on, but they wouldn’t say a word. Henry’s brow was furrowed the entire time, and I don’t think he was fully on board with what he was being forced to do, but Arthur – he was holding himself back from doing something worse, I could tell.
I kept asking them about Aunt Iris. What had they done with her? Would they trial her at the lake to make sure she really was shtriga, or just go straight to punishing her? Was she even alive?
But the two men said nothing as they tied my hands in front of me and pulled me down the stairs to the front door.
Outside, dozens and dozens of wreaths littered my front garden. Most of them had hares attached to them, but a few had crows or other black birds. I saw one with the head, legs and tail of a small brown cat.
The villagers had made them. It was their way of telling the evil spirits to come to my house, not theirs. It was beyond insane – they knew the story, they knew why the Advent House had been created. An aristocrat had used it to punish the poor villagers he despised so much, and had entwined old stories of spirits, demons and shtriga to add familiarity to the torture, but it was all just a ruse to make one man feel powerful. And now it is William who feels that power.
How many Christmases will there be before the villagers realise it’s the things they do that cause the pain, not the things they don’t do?
Logic is not a currency I can barter with in Morkwood, so I allowed Arthur and Henry to march me through the empty village. I didn’t put up a fight. Not yet. I told myself I would know when it was time for that, but for now I had to conserve my energy.
As we approached the Advent House, it felt like everyone in Morkwood had turned at the same time to stare at me. And I stared right back. I wanted them to see me, covered in my own dried blood, tired and hungry and exhausted. I wanted them to see what they were doing in the name of tradition.
I searched the crowd for Aunt Iris but I couldn’t see her, only unsympathetic, vaguely familiar eyes. These were people I had talked to in the library. People I had bought groceries from. People I had waved hello to in the street. Now they wanted nothing to do with me. They wanted hell to rain down on me because they thought that meant nothing bad could happen to them.
“Idiots,” I spat. Their expressions didn’t change.
They’re cattle, I thought. Dumb, penned-in cattle.
As William held up his hand to open the eleventh door, the cattle turned back to face their shepherd.
“I know it’s almost lunchtime, so let’s make this quick,” William said, chuckling.
The painting behind the door was of men in dented top hats and women in shabby dresses, all holding hands in a circle, grinning inanely with one leg raised. A man in a fine morning suit played a violin around the outskirts of the circle.
“You know what that means!” William said, fumbling in his bag for his violin.
The eleventh day. That meant eleven minutes of dancing.
The villagers quickly sprang together to hold hands. Arthur and Henry tightened their grip on my wrists and pulled me in with them.
As William began to play a terrible rendition of My Wild Irish Rose, the villagers began to kick out their legs like marionette puppets. No one was really in time with the music, but that didn’t matter – they just needed to move. Quickly.
William walked around the outside of the circle as he played, kicking anyone who wasn’t moving fast enough. When he was behind me, he booted my ankle so hard I toppled sideways into Henry.
“Dance the devil out, Margaret,” he said. “You’ve already done Morkwood enough harm this year.”
So I danced for him. Yet in my mind, I was stamping his head deep into the ground.
The eleven minutes went by, and with that, another Advent House activity had ended. The villagers, flushed and breathless, headed back to their jobs and their homes.
But Henry and Arthur held onto me, making it abundantly clear that I wasn’t allowed to leave.
Once William had put his violin away, he said the five words I knew were coming.
“Take Margaret to the lake.”
That’s when I fought back. I threw my body from left to right and yanked my arms as hard as I could to free myself. I kicked out at William and screamed and yelled and cried, but I was too weak. I was no match for them. They dragged me effortlessly to the ground and bound my feet in rope.
All three of them carried me to the lake. They then dumped me on the ground as they wheeled the wooden contraption out from behind the trees. I heard the metallic squeak as they opened the cage door, and then they bundled me inside and pushed me over the edge of the water.
Before I could even form the words to protest, I was plunged straight down into the grey depths of the lake.
The shock of the icy cold water forced a gasp out of me, but I managed to close my mouth before I swallowed too much water. Luckily I had hooked my feet under the bars of the cage before I had hit the water, so after thirty seconds or so the men were forced to pull me out again. I did not float. I was not shtriga.
I coughed and spluttered as they took their time pulling the contraption away from the water and pulling me out of the cage.
As I shuddered from the cold, my wet hair clinging to my face like seaweed, I wondered if Aunt Iris had also been inside that cage. I wondered if she had been able to step out of it herself, or whether they had carried her body.
Henry and Arthur took me straight back to my room after that and barricaded the door again. There was nothing I could do but change out of my wet clothes and collapse onto the bed.
But now it’s morning. Despite feeling weak from hunger and thirst, there is an anger boiling within me. It helped me write all of this down. It’s helped me plan my next move.
Whoever reads this – if there are no more words after today, you’ll know it’s because my attempt to escape has failed.
You can now get the edited version of The Festivities of Morkwood on e-book and paperback.