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Authors: Sandra Greaves

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BOOK: Skull in the Wood
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Only when we were right at the edge of the wood could we make out the oaks' true shapes – stunted, twisted forms, like cartoons of trees drawn by someone with an evil imagination. I'd forgotten how much I disliked the place. Mum's car accident happened somewhere near here, though I don't know exactly where. But it wasn't just that, it was the wood itself. The outer trees were blue-grey with lichen covering every bit of them. Deeper inside the wood, they all had bright green ferns sprouting from their limbs. Every inch of the ground was writhing with mossy
growths on boulders and broken branches.

‘So this is what ancient forest looks like,' said Matt. His voice sounded unnecessarily loud in the silence.

I shivered, though I don't think Matt noticed. ‘This is supposed to be the devil's favourite place on Dartmoor,' I said. ‘That's what Old Scratch means. It's another name for the devil.'

‘Well, if the devil seriously wanted to hang about on earth, I reckon Dartmoor would have to be his first choice,' said Matt.

There he went again. Insulting where I lived, like it was nothing. I plonked myself on a rock.

‘Sit, Jez,' I said. She stared at me with disappointment in her brown eyes, but sat down obediently. Then I turned to Matt.

‘This is as far as I'm going. You go in by yourself. If you dare.'

‘You're not serious, are you?'

‘Yes, I am.' I took a bird book out of my rucksack and began to leaf through its pages. Jez settled down beside me, her black nose on my knee.

Matt stared at me, confused.

‘OK,' he said at last. ‘I'll meet you out here when I've had a look.'

‘Watch out for the adders, then.'

‘Yeah, right.'

I didn't look up, and he stared some more, then turned and started clambering over the boulders into the forest, his hands scratching for holds on the dank moss. Above him the stunted trees dripped fronds of lichen. I sat still until he disappeared from view. Then I helped myself to a pasty, put the bird book into my pocket and scooted round the perimeter of the wood with Jez to a tiny path I vaguely remembered, which led into the centre. I delved into my rucksack, fished out the special item I'd brought with me and put it in my pocket.

OK, city boy
, I thought.
It's show time



'd never seen so much moss in my life. The boulders were covered in it, and everywhere there were huge broken branches wrapped in disgusting green fur. I had to grab the stones because they were so slippery underfoot, so I kept getting a handful of the stuff – wet and cold and repulsive. Up above my head were blue-green clumps and fronds of lichen that looked like they'd been there since time began. Ferns hung from limbs like long hairy curtains. And the trees weren't just short, they were practically horizontal, the branches splayed out low and creepy like twisted arms and hands. It was insane. I'd never seen anything like it.

My imagination was going berserk. I could almost feel the trees eyeing me, as if they were about to bend down and fold me into their trunks. I shook myself. It was all getting a bit
Lord of the Rings
. I knew I was being dumb – they were only trees. Weird ones, yes, but just trees. At home, the only green spaces I ever saw were the London parks. I'd been in forests before, of course – I'd done the whole mushroom-gathering, squirrel-watching,
thing when I was a kid with my mum and dad, and wasn't exactly thrilled by it then – but never on my own. That was why Old Scratch Wood was giving me the creeps, I told myself. I just wasn't used to it.

I gritted my teeth. I wasn't going to pop out after two minutes only to have Tilda sneering at me. Instead I scrambled deeper into the wood, looking for a path or a clearing. After all, it couldn't be that big – we'd seen it from the top of the valley and it wasn't exactly Sherwood Forest. Uncle Jack had said that most of it had been cut down over the years, and it was true there wasn't much left. It looked like you could probably walk round the whole thing in less than half an hour.

The trouble was that inside it all seemed very different. Darker. Denser. And a whole lot scarier.

I didn't quite know how this had happened. If anyone had said to me,
Hey Matt, fancy a walk on your own through this ancient wood that's apparently one of the devil's favourite places?
I'd have told them to get lost, and fast. But spend an afternoon with my pain of a cousin and suddenly I'm knee-deep in prehistoric jungle while she's sunning herself outside with Jez. To my surprise I found I was missing the hairy hound.

The worst thing was, it was my fault. Gabe had told me not to go to Old Scratch Wood. So like an idiot, what do I end up doing? I had to give it to the old nutter, he was dead right about this one. I couldn't think of anywhere I'd less like to be.

But I wondered why he'd gone on about this place. He'd said something about omens. Birds, was it? Back then it had sounded crazy, but now I wasn't so sure. All round me there were rustlings and twitterings. And now I'd started noticing, I could see two crows perched on a low branch ahead of me. One of them flapped its wings and let out a rasping call. For a second I could see its black tongue protruding. Were they watching for me? I thought of the black bird that had flown into the car when I first arrived and felt a tingling at the top of my spine.

And then there was the strange word Gabe had
used when I first met him – the gabble thingy. I wished I knew what he meant.

Stop thinking like this
, I told myself.
Just chill out.

But I was getting myself well and truly spooked. In the thick of this repulsive wood it felt like something horrible could happen any moment.

All at once something hooked into my hair. I jumped about a foot, hit my head against a branch and got a load of the disgusting lichen all over my face. I tore at my hair and untangled the furry twigs from it, then made myself stand still until my breathing slowed. Just a branch.

‘Keep calm,' I said under my breath. ‘This is exactly what Tilda wants – to scare you out of your wits.'

I dug my camera from my inside pocket. At least I could get some pictures so I could prove to my mates what I'd had to put up with here. And it would give me something else to think about, too.

I started snapping odd things – a mossy stone, a lichen-dripping branch, a gnarled tree trunk. It was amazing how it all crowded into the frame, this jungle of green twisting forms. Everything was straight out of some fairy-tale illustration of an enchanted forest – the kind you get stuck in for ever.

It was reassuring to hold the camera, though. It
made me feel more normal. My dad had taught me how to get a half-decent picture – he's a really good photographer, though he's never done it professionally. He could have, but he chose architecture instead. He'd like these shots, I reckoned. I climbed on to a high-ish stone and carried on snapping till I had about twenty, then stuck my camera back in my pocket. Some of them looked really good.

Suddenly I wondered about the adders Tilda had mentioned. Were they for real? Probably – this wood seemed like the perfect breeding ground, not that I knew the first thing about reptiles. Maybe they'd prefer it sunny? Still, I started looking down before placing my hands on any more rocks.

I was beginning to think I would go back after all, when just ahead the weirdo trees seemed to thin out, and the sun shone brighter through the branches. Relieved, I made for the patch of light. It wasn't easy; the branches clung to me and scraped my hair and my cheeks. Even the stones shifted under my weight, as if they wanted to topple me over.

At last the trees parted around a clearing filled with light. At its centre stood a huge stone, tall as a tall man and twice as broad. Unlike every other boulder I'd encountered in this wood so far, it was entirely bare of
moss. There was something truly strange about it.

Then I realised what it was. A standing stone – a real one, like you get at Stonehenge. But how did it end up here? It must have been dragged in by the druids or some other bunch of loonies, I guessed, and stuck in the middle of the forest. Weird. I wondered what it was for – sacrifices, maybe? I shuddered.

The noises in the wood had changed, too. I slowly became aware of the sound the stream was making down in the valley. Now it was roaring as loud as the sea. I thought of Dad out on the Atlantic and my ears filled with the crashing of imaginary waves. I stepped forward, almost in a trance, my whole body moving to the rhythm of the breakers. There was something about the grey stone that made me want to touch it. Slowly I made for it, pulled towards it like iron filings to a giant magnet.

From behind the stone came a choked snarl.

I froze. My heart was hammering inside my chest. My tongue felt large and dry and alien. I could hear the blood racing in my veins – and surely whatever it was could hear it, too.

Then I saw it in front of me. Some sort of creature. Grey fur. Fangs. A bloody mouth. I screamed. None of my muscles would move. I stood there, hearing the
scream resonate round the clearing.

Suddenly Tilda was there beside me, ripping something off her head and grabbing my arm.

‘It's OK, Matt,' she said, ‘it's only me. Me and . . .' she giggled, ‘. . .Wally the Werewolf. My Hallowe'en special. For the most haunted place in Britain.'

She was cracking up with laughter now. Totally shaking with it. Jez loped up behind her, doing a wolf impression of her own.

‘Your face,' Tilda said. ‘It was the best thing I've seen in years. Don't you know that werewolves don't exist, dummy?'

I took it all in: the furry mask, my pig of a cousin, the awfulness of everything. I stepped towards her.

Tilda jerked backwards, then tripped and fell. She lay there, sprawled on the leaf mould that covered the clearing. I didn't wait to see whether she was all right. I could feel tears at the back of my eyes getting ready to do their stuff and was determined that they wouldn't. I turned and stormed into the forest, no longer caring which way I was going. Anywhere so long as it was away from her.



listened to city boy's footsteps disappearing into the heart of the wood, expecting him to turn back any minute. He didn't. When I couldn't hear anything more, I tried to pick myself up, but I'd done something to my ankle and it hurt a bit to put weight on it. Quite a lot actually, but there was no way I was going to cry about it. OK, I might have whimpered once or twice, but not much, considering. Jez nosed me and whined, then pushed me with her head as if to say
Get up, now, or else.
I pulled myself together, got on to all fours and crawled towards the standing stone. Jez followed, her feathery tail right down. She hates it when something's up with me.

I'd have to drag myself out on the path – which of course Matt hadn't cottoned on to yet, the numbskull. And then I'd just have to wait until someone came along to help, I supposed, since it was impossible to get a phone signal anywhere round here. I checked my watch. Three thirty. It would be getting dark by six, and nobody in their right mind would want to be in Old Scratch Wood once the sun went down. I'd better be quick.

I'm not frightened by many things, but the thought of spending the night in a so-called haunted wood with only Jez to keep me company was just a little bit scary. Already it had grown colder, even though I was out of the wind here. I could hear the stream thundering down below and all sorts of rustlings in the trees. Invisible birds had started chattering, but I couldn't see a single one. They seemed very close. I wondered if something had maybe panicked them, then tried not to think about it.

I eased my walking boot off and felt my ankle up and down. It was sore, but I knew I hadn't broken it – they say you can hear the bone split if you do that, and I was sure the only sound had been me falling on my bum. Anyway, I'd be screaming my head off if I'd done anything seriously bad to it. I twirled my toes
experimentally and then tried rotating my ankle. I could do it – just – but it really hurt.

BOOK: Skull in the Wood
8.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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