I’m sitting in an armchair by a warm fire, drinking hot chocolate with a dash of whisky in it, and eating mince pies. To stop myself from weeping with joy, I’ve started to write.
I didn’t want to sleep last night in case I missed my aunt. I didn’t know which form she would take when she came to rescue me, whether it would be through a guard or an animal – I’ve heard shtriga can appear as crows, so I tried to listen out for a caw or a pecking at the door.
But I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I fell into a deep, heavy sleep, and I only woke when I felt my arm being lifted upwards.
In my half-conscious state I thought my sleeve was being tugged by a narrow black beak, but upon opening my eyes I saw that it was actually a hand. A man’s hand.
My bleary vision cleared. It was Terry leaning over me, trying to get me to stand up.
“Come on,” he said, “we need to go. Now.”
I clambered to my feet.
He stopped pulling at me for a moment. “What? No, Margaret, it’s Terry. Can you see me? Are you all right?”
I rubbed my eyes and tried to gather my bearings.
“So you’re not Aunt Iris?”
“Can you see?”
“Yes, yes, I just thought…”
“Did you get my note? I stuck it to your back as we left so Stuart and Gerald wouldn’t see it.”
I felt both relieved and ridiculous all at once, but then… uncertain. I’m not sure if it was the hunger, the exhaustion or everything I’ve been through over the past few weeks, but I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea that it was Terry rescuing me, not my Aunt Iris.
Perhaps it was her, and she didn’t think I could handle the idea of my own aunt being shtriga. Perhaps I was still asleep.
“We need to go!” Terry insisted.
I pushed aside my questions and grabbed my bag.
Terry opened the door and stepped over the body of a man. My faceless guard. As I neared him, I saw that it was Marcus – I didn’t know him very well, but I know he was a friend of Arthur’s. There was a deep cut across his throat and his eyes were open, staring. His blood had soaked into the earth around his head.
Terry saw me hesitate.
“I had no choice,” he said.
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
I was hoping my aunt would choose that moment to take off this mask she had cast onto herself, but I had to stop believing in the stories. The lies. She was dead.
I followed Terry as he began running to his truck, which was parked on a lane a few metres from the shed. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realised where we were. Arthur’s back garden. He was probably still in his house somewhere.
The thought of waking him terrified me.
Thankfully, aside from the sound of our feet squelching in the mud, there was nothing but silence as we got into the truck and gently closed the doors. When Terry started the engine, my teeth sank into my tongue and I gripped tightly onto the seats.
But no lights turned on in the house. There was no shouting, or sounds of shotguns firing in the dark. We were leaving. We were getting away.
Terry drove slowly up the lane and onto the main road. I wanted to urge him to go faster, but I knew it would wake the village up if he did. Instead, I sank down as far as I could and closed my eyes. My fate was in his hands.
After ten minutes or so, Terry parked the truck. I opened my eyes.
“We’re at your house,” I said.
“Are you insane? We need to get out of Morkwood.”
“Not yet. They’ll find us.”
“So what exactly is your plan?”
“I’m going to hide you in my attic.”
“You are insane.”
Terry shifted in his seat and rested his hands on my knees, as he had done in the shed a couple of days ago. He was uncomfortably close to me. If he hadn’t had an expression of pure fear on his face, I would have squirmed away from him.
“You have to trust me,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I know what will happen if we try to leave. We wouldn’t stand a chance. We need to make William think he’s won. If you lie low for a couple of days until Christmas Eve, he’ll think you’re well clear of Morkwood. And then…”
He let go of me and leant back, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
“And then what?” I asked.
He took a deep breath. “And then we can show Morkwood the truth.”
In the house, I poured myself glass after glass of fresh, cold, clean water from the tap, while Terry cooked me a large meal of eggs, toast and sausages. He then ran a bath so hot I could barely stand it, but I sat in the water and scrubbed at my body until I felt clean. I then bandaged my thumb and put on clean clothes. I felt almost human again.
I spent the rest of the day in the attic. I slept for most of the time, waking once around midday to find more water and food left for me. At five o’clock, Terry came to invite me down for dinner.
We ate boiled potatoes and trout in complete silence. Terry didn’t look like he wanted to talk.
But once we were finished, I couldn’t help myself.
“Do they know I’ve escaped?”
He nodded. “They’re searching for you. I spent two hours in the woods this afternoon pretending to look.”
He got up from the table and opened a cabinet. Inside were bottles of whisky and homebrewed, unlabelled beer. He poured a couple of fingers of whisky into two glasses and handed one to me.
“I still don’t know why you helped me,” I said. I gulped down half of my drink, enjoying the warmth that spread from my chest to my cheeks.
Terry sighed. “I’ve felt – uncomfortable – about living here for some time. When they did what they did to Iris, I tried to think of a way out, but it’s difficult. They know too much.”
“What do they know?”
Terry ignored me. “And things have been worse since you stopped coming to the Advent House. William has been hard on people, and there have been consequences for anyone who refuses him.”
“That’s what he’s been calling it. I don’t know everything that has happened, but what I do know has been awful.” He took a deep breath. “I think he took that baby and made it look like your aunt was shtriga. He knew the village were on the edge of rebelling against him, but they’re now terrified of the shrtiga coming for their children. They think you’re shtriga and that you killed Marcus. They’re scared of you too.”
I felt sick. “You’re risking too much keeping me here.”
He shrugged. “I have nothing to lose.”
Terry’s wife had died of cancer six months ago, and all three of his children left Morkwood as soon as they were able to. I don’t think they have been in contact much since.
“Right,” I said, getting up and grabbing the bottle of whisky from the cabinet. “We’re going to drink the rest of this. And then tomorrow we’re going to work out a way to end Christmas.”
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