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Authors: Graeme Cumming

Ravens Gathering

BOOK: Ravens Gathering
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Ravens Gathering

 

Graeme Cumming

 

Published by Graeme Cumming

 

Copyright © Graeme Cumming 2012

 

 

The right of Graeme Cumming to be
identified as the Author of this Work has been asserted by him in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.

 

All
rights reserved.   This eBook is copyright material and must not be
copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly
performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the
publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was
purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any
unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of
the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law
accordingly.

ISBN
978-0-9575107-0-8

This book is a work of fiction. 
Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely
coincidental.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to
thank:

 

Tony
Fyler
of Jefferson Franklin Editing – for his help
and guidance.
 
Out of sheer stubbornness,
I didn’t follow all of his suggestions, so I’ll take the rap for any remaining
errors.

 

Torrie
Cooney – for her patience and creativity in designing the cover

 

For

Lizzie,
who left me in peace to do my own thing

and

Christine
Tubb
, who encouraged me all those years ago.  I
don’t know where you are now, but you’re often in my thoughts

Prologue

 

 

Drums were beating.  They drew him upwards, towards
them.   His ascent felt slow, laborious.  Like swimming through
treacle.  At times he wondered whether the effort was worth it.  But
the drums called to him, so he kept on.

Perhaps this was like being born.  It seemed strange
that he couldn’t remember that experience.  But he knew pushing was
involved.  He’d seen enough films and TV programmes to know that. 
Had it been like that when he was a baby?  Did he have to push his way
out?

Or was it more like swimming against the tide?  He
could relate to that.  More so than the treacle thing.  He must have
picked that idea up from somewhere else because, God knows, he’d never had that
experience.  Swimming in the sea when he shouldn’t have, well, that was a
different story.

Yes, swimming against the tide.  That was more like
it.  He realised his thoughts were becoming more lucid.  Which meant
he must nearly be there.  He was swimming upwards now, the surface close
by, the drums growing louder.

And then he broke through.  He was awake.

Oddly, the beating had stopped.  In the darkness of his
bedroom, he wondered for a moment whether the drums had just been part of a
dream.  Then he heard something familiar from downstairs.  The
rhythmic rattle of a latch hitting a strike plate.  It was the sound his
mother regularly complained about when he came in from playing and didn’t close
the door properly.  Someone had left a door open, and it was swinging back
and forth in the night air.

Sitting up in bed, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. 
In truth, the sleep was illusory.  The pause was an unconscious effort to
give him a moment to rein in his emotions.  And those were wide and
varied, covering a range that ran from puzzlement to fear.  He realised it
must be the middle of the night.  The only illumination was the faint glow
of a nearby streetlamp through his curtains.  So why would his parents
leave a door open?

His bed was close to the window.  He pushed the
bedclothes back and knelt up, leaning forward to lift a curtain to one
side.  The street was deserted.  Looking to the left, he saw no sign
of life.  To the right, there was barely enough light to see
anything

Just one streetlamp about 50 yards away, then nothing.

He had hoped a quick look outside might explain everything,
but it didn’t.  Now he had to face the prospect of getting out of bed and
negotiating the darkness of the house.  And the first thing he had to
concern himself with was the crocodile under the bed.

Of course, he knew there wasn’t a crocodile there.  How
could there be?  He’d seen them on TV.  There was no way they could
get upstairs for a start.  And they lived in and around water – a lot more
than they’d find around here.  He only got a bath once a week.  In
addition to that, though, he’d checked under the bed before he got in it. 
And the door was closed.  Crocodiles weren’t noted for their skills in
silently opening and closing bedroom doors so they wouldn’t disturb sleeping
children.  So there couldn’t be a crocodile under the bed, could
there?  But logic and rational thought aren’t always dominant when your
companions are darkness and shadows.

Assuming he managed to outrun the crocodile to his bedroom
door, who knew what other terrors lurked in the rest of the house?  But he
certainly couldn’t just stay where he was.  His mum and dad would kill him
if they were burgled, and then found out he’d known a door was open all the
time.

Reluctantly, he began to pull away from the window. 
Just as the curtain started to fall back into place, he glimpsed something
moving at the edge of the darkness.  He held the curtain and leaned back
to the window.  A fragment of colour drifted towards him, blown gently
along by a light breeze.  He watched it for a long moment as it drew
nearer.  It was only when it passed directly under the streetlamp that he
recognised it.  A checked handkerchief.  It belonged to his dad.

His father was outside.  He knew it
instinctively.  And so was his mum.  Crocodile forgotten, he leapt
off the bed and raced on to the landing.  He didn’t stop to check the other
bedrooms.  He knew he was alone in the house.  The door was still
slamming, the sound getting louder as he ran down the stairs.  His bare
feet hardly registered the coldness of the wooden floor as he entered the
living room.  The front door was at the end of a hallway that opened into
the room.  As it swung open in the breeze, he caught a glimpse of the
street outside before it threw itself frantically at the frame, desperate to
close properly.

Before leaving the house, he paused for a second to make sure
the snib was up.  Obviously he wanted to close the door, but he wasn’t
going to be stupid enough to lock himself out.  Then he was on the
pavement, running towards the hankie, which had landed on a hedge and was
trapped there now.  He lifted the hankie, careful not to tear it. 
His dad could fly off the handle at the slightest thing.  He wanted to put
things right now, not make them worse.

When he had freed it, he realised his pyjamas had no
pockets, so he tucked the hankie in the waistband of his trousers.  That
done, he began to run again, heading towards the edge of the light from the
streetlamp.  There may even have been crocodiles out there, but already he
was aware of bigger fears coursing through him.

Into the darkness.  In a sense, it was like the
complete reverse of how he had felt when he was waking up.  It was like
being plunged into cold water.  He slowed for a moment, but wasn’t
prepared to stop.  He wasn’t prepared to, but that didn’t prevent it
happening.  His foot pushed into something soft and cold and coarse, and
it met resistance, causing him to lose balance.  He put his hands out as
he fell.  The slap of his palms on tarmac left them stinging.  The
impact on his knees left a tear in his trousers, and the knowledge that he was
going to be in big trouble for ruining them.

He reached down to pull the thing off his foot.  As his
fingers ran over it, he knew the fabric was familiar.  It was a jacket his
dad wore.  It had been lying on the road, and his foot had slipped in
under one of the lapels, catching in the opening to the sleeve.  Why had
his dad’s jacket been abandoned?  Though underneath that question, he
suspected he knew the answer.  He realised that the apprehension he was
feeling now was very strong.  He also realised that it was an apprehension
that had started even while he was asleep.  Which didn’t really make
sense, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it now.

His eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, and he
could make out the outline of the hedge that ran alongside the road.  A
little further on, the shape changed and there was blackness instead.  He
recognised the opening, and knew the track that lay there would take him up
into the woods.  Strangely, he felt as if he should have predicted
that.  He put the jacket down carefully under the hedge.  It would be
too heavy for him to carry, but he wanted it in a safe place, where he could
find it later.

When he first started up the track, he could see nothing
ahead of him.  The only light was a small glimmer that came from the road
behind him.  But his eyesight adjusted surprisingly quickly.

The next item of clothing was his mother’s.  A
headscarf, it was caught on a low branch of a tree at the side of the
track.  Further along, he came across her cardigan.  Then a shirt,
another coat, some shoes, his dad’s trousers.  Intermittently at first,
and then more regularly.  Some he recognised, some he didn’t.  And
all the time, he was getting closer to them.

Gradually, he became aware of firelight up ahead.  He
was well into the woods now, and flames flickered among the gaps between the
trees.  There were brief glimpses of movement.  Shadowy silhouettes.

The apprehension he had felt on the road had grown even
more.  Oddly, he knew he wasn’t in any physical danger.  And yet
there was a part of him that expected whatever lay before him to be far
worse.  In spite of this, he went on, drawn relentlessly forward.

Sounds were beginning to carry now.  He could hear
voices.  The words were indistinct, but the tone suggested a mixture of
different emotions.  Anger was a strong one.  He was reminded of his
dad shouting at him when he came home a few weeks earlier.  He had been
playing with his mates in the stream, and had fallen over.  By the time he
made it to the house, he was soaked through, and Dad had been furious with
him.  The anger in the woods reminded him of his dad, but it wasn’t his
voice he could hear.

Fear was another emotion he picked up.  And shame.

The gaps between the trees were getting wider now as he drew
nearer.  More clothes lay scattered in his path.  And not just
outerwear.  He’d passed at least two bras and several pairs of underpants
– both men’s and women’s.

Bare skin flashed in the firelight.  A part of him
wanted to turn and run.  A part of him wanted to discover what was
happening.  And the biggest part of him knew that he had no say in the
matter.  He had slowed down now, but still he walked forward, heading
inexorably towards the fire.

Overhead, he heard the rustle of wings, and looked up in
time to see a large dark bird settle on to a branch in a nearby tree.  Its
eyes were looking in the direction of the fire.  Sitting on the same
branch were two more birds.  He looked into other trees, and saw the
outlines of birds in each and every one of them.  Their presence was more
unsettling than the idea of a crocodile under his bed.

He was close enough now to recognise where he was.  At
last he stopped moving.  The clearing was only three trees away from
him.  Near enough for him to be able to see everything that was happening
in it, but far enough back that he was still concealed by shadows.  No one
in the clearing would be able to see him.

On the far side of the fire, he could see his dad. 
Standing beside him was a tall man he didn’t recognise.  Long black hair,
and a long pale face that seemed to reflect the firelight.  As he watched,
he saw the long-haired man smile and nod at his dad.  His dad’s tormented
face should have been sufficient warning for him to turn and run.  Perhaps
he would have done if he hadn’t suddenly spotted his mum lying on the ground to
his left.  He recognised the figure kneeling down in front of her. 
Not understanding what he was seeing, he glanced back towards his dad.

Dark eyes stared back at him from a pale face.

 


*  *

 

He sat up, panting.  His chest heaved as his lungs
pumped frantically.  Reaching up with trembling hands, he wiped the sweat
out of his eyes.  Then he hugged himself, holding on tightly until the
tremors subsided, and his breathing returned to something approaching normal.

The nightmares were becoming more frequent, more
intense.  He had no choice now.  It was time to do something about
them.

BOOK: Ravens Gathering
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