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Authors: Sandra Greaves

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BOOK: Skull in the Wood
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‘What is it?' I yelled. The wind whipped my words away and sent them whistling in all directions. Tilda didn't stop.

We were on it now: a white shape lying by the hedge. Its middle was a raw-red pulpy mess. A crow fluttered up from it, barely bothered by our arrival. Something pink and stringy hung from the side of its beak. As we came closer I could see the shape was a sheep. It lay on its side, twitching its legs pathetically. Where there should have been an eye was a dark, bloody socket. The air smelt of iron.

Tilda looked as if she'd been punched in the face.

‘What can we do?' I said.

‘Nothing.'

‘There must be
something
.' I couldn't bear it. I'd never seen anything so horrible.

She shook her head. ‘Put her out of her misery, that's all. They've started on her insides – she doesn't have a chance. I'm going to get Dad.'

I turned away from the ewe and her empty eye. She wasn't even bleating. Just lying there, taking it. She'd given up. All the other sheep just went on munching the grass as if nothing had happened.

Tilda sped off towards the farm. I followed with Jez, feeling sick. As we made our way down the ridge, more crows flapped over to the sheep.

Uncle Jack brought his gun but he didn't need it. The ewe had gone. Died, I mean, not disappeared. He slung her over his shoulders to take her down to the farm. It reminded me of those pictures from Bible stories. A Jesus pose. But not a happy one. Not happy at all.

8

Kitty

D
addy brought back one of our sheep but it's all dead now. He says it hurt its leg and the crows killed it and that's two lambs we won't be having in the spring. I wanted to look but he wouldn't let me. Tilda hurt her leg, too. She's very cross. Her and Matt found a bird head in the wood. It's white with great big holes for its eyes and a big long beak. I was allowed to hold it just for a minute only Tilda said I had to put it down or I might break it. I'm watching it, though. It's funny. The end of its beak is going all black.

9

Matt

I
kept waking up in the night, convinced I was back in the middle of Old Scratch Wood and that Paul was there, too, laughing at me. It took me till about five to fall asleep properly, and it felt like only minutes later that I became aware of something clawing at the bedclothes – sharp and vicious and insistent. I burrowed deeper underneath the cover, but something plucked it back from my face. A black-beaked shape from out of my sleep slowly morphed into the silhouette of Tilda, her red hair backlit by the light that shimmered through the curtains.

‘Get up,' she said, and tugged at the sheet again. ‘Slob.'

‘What time is it?' I mumbled.

‘Quarter past seven. The animals need feeding, so get a move on.'

I groaned. She couldn't be serious.

Unfortunately, she was. In fact she seemed determined to make my life a misery. She switched on the lamp next to me and I had to scrunch my eyes up to get away from the glare.

‘Are you actually going to help around here or just sponge off us all the time?'

I wasn't going to let her score any more points off me. ‘Five minutes,' I said furiously. ‘But only if you get out of my room right now.'

She banged the door. I threw on some clothes and stumbled downstairs. I'd intended to look at the skull again – it was nagging at my mind – but Tilda was already at the front door putting on her wellies.

‘How's the leg?' I said. ‘Had a miraculous recovery, then?'

Tilda pulled a face. ‘It still hurts. But I can walk – no thanks to you.' She limped out in this really obvious way. What a drama queen.

I caught up with her in the back yard. She'd already fed the overgrown puppies, which were running round in circles as if they were possessed. One of them
jumped up at me, leaving great muddy footprints all over my jacket.

‘Down, Lawless!' said Tilda. But I could see her smirk as she scattered corn for the chickens.

‘What have you done with the skull?' I said. ‘I want another look at it.'

‘Nothing. And it's mine, by the way. So you won't be seeing it any time soon.'

I glared at her, but she was busy putting fresh water in the chickens' drinkers and didn't even notice.

‘So what am I supposed to do round here, then?' I said, brushing the dirt off my jacket.

‘Go and let the geese out. They're in the side yard through there – the barn with the blue door. And give them this.' She shoved a bucketful of pellets at me.

I opened the gate. The side yard was half taken up by a mucky-looking pond that must belong to the geese. I found the blue door and lifted its wooden latch. Instantly I took a step back.

Long white necks were snaking towards me and the sound of hissing rose into the air, loud and alarming. Suddenly the geese were all around me: ten or twelve of them, huge white birds with bright orange beaks, all of them waving their necks at me and sticking out their tongues like a pit full of angry cobras. One
flapped its enormous wings at me as if to let me know it meant business. Then a beak snapped towards my hand. I jumped backwards but they kept on coming, charging towards me, hissing and swaying.

I dropped the bucket and ran.

Tilda wasn't with the chickens any more. I found her in the front yard outside East Barn. By then I was so angry I could hardly get the words out.

‘You knew they'd do that, didn't you?' I said.

She grinned unpleasantly. ‘Hungry, were they? What have you done with the bucket?'

‘Get it yourself. I'm going in for some breakfast.'

‘Oh, don't be so pathetic, Matt,' she said. ‘It was a joke, that's all. Look, you can carry on sulking, or you can come and see the calf that's been put in East Barn. Dad brought in one of the cows yesterday because there's something wrong with her foot, and her calf had to come, too. It was born in May but it's not weaned yet. But hey, don't strain yourself. It's not like you'll be able to do anything remotely useful.'

I considered going straight back into the house, hunting out the skull from wherever Tilda had put it, and hiding it so she'd never ever find it again. Instead I found myself following her into the barn. And the calf
was
sweet, with its great big eyes. Until its mother
decided to go completely mental, that was.

It happened so quickly. Tilda had got inside the pen and was cooing at the calf. She looked back at me with a nasty smile on her face, as if she was about to give me another job I'd hate. Behind her I could see this enormous great cow moving towards its calf. Its nostrils flared dangerously.

I was about to say something, I honestly was. Only I was too late. All at once the cow was pinning Tilda's arm against the bar of the pen, leaning on it and snorting and stamping its feet. It looked as if it was about to have a fit. Tilda screamed, her arm and shoulder jammed against the bar.

I leant over and pushed the cow tentatively, but it was like pushing a mountain. Tilda screamed again, a scream full of pain. This time I didn't stop to think. I picked up a broom and just whacked the cow over the side with it. It let out this long mournful moo, but didn't shift an inch.

‘Quick!' Tilda yelled. ‘Hit it!'

I whacked the cow again, harder this time. It bellowed blue murder. Then, very, very slowly, it shuffled away and started nuzzling its calf.

Tilda darted out of the gate and banged it shut. She clutched her arm, tears rolling down her face. Not
surprising really – a cow must weigh half a tonne. You don't want that crushing the life out of you.

‘Are you OK?' I said. I was worried the thing might have dislocated her shoulder.

Tilda wiped her cheeks and tentatively shook her arm. Then she managed a weak smile.

‘Yeah,' she said. ‘All in one piece still. She didn't put all her weight against me.' She looked at me for a second, then her eyes shifted away. ‘Thanks,' she said, quickly.

‘So what was that about?' I said, glancing at the cow. It looked totally calm now, feeding its calf and looking about as vicious as a telephone directory.

‘It was my fault,' said Tilda. ‘You shouldn't get between a cow and its calf. I was really stupid.'

Was that all? I wondered. My mind flicked to the curlew skull with its tiny, delicate head and gigantic curved beak. ‘Maybe something else was freaking her out, too,' I said. ‘Same with the geese. It's like they've been spooked.'

Tilda rolled her eyes. ‘Geese are always like that,' she said. ‘That's why I got you to let them out. And I told you, it was my fault with the cow. You're sounding just like Gabe.'

‘He was right about the birds, though,' I said. ‘And
it could be that we found one of his omens. Buried in that box.'

‘Oooh, really, really scary,' said Tilda in a stupid high-pitched voice. ‘Gabe doesn't know the first thing about anything. Anyway, I got Dad to look at the skull last night. He said it probably
is
a curlew, so I was right. And even if it was one of Gabe's stupid birds, maybe you hadn't noticed that it's kind of dead?'

I gave up. I knew perfectly well that she'd been as freaked as me when everything had kicked off with the skull, but now she was making me out to be a complete idiot for taking any of it seriously. But if I hadn't been there, what might that cow have done? I'd had enough of Tilda this morning. I headed indoors.

Uncle Jack was in the living room, bent over his ancient computer doing what looked like farm accounts. He barely even looked up. Tilda got a better reception when she came in. Kitty leapt on her immediately and dragged her off to sort out a costume for Hallowe'en – it was at the end of the week and she was going to be a skeleton, only she was determined to wear a pink tutu as well. I clearly wasn't wanted.

I loafed about the kitchen for a bit, filling up on cereal and wondering what to do with myself. The skull wasn't anywhere to be seen. Tilda must have
stashed it away in her room. Finally Uncle Jack appeared, on the hunt for coffee.

‘I thought Tilda was in here,' he said. I shrugged. He turned and looked at me. ‘Getting on, are you?'

I didn't say anything. He raked a hand through his unkempt hair, looked closely at me for a second or two, then sighed.

‘Too bad you had to find that ewe yesterday,' he said. ‘It's a real shame. She was one of my better beasts. Can't be helped, though.'

I wondered whether to mention the cow, but Uncle Jack looked so fed up I didn't like to. Abruptly he changed the subject.

‘Couldn't sleep last night for some reason, so I looked up your find from yesterday in one of Rose's bird books,' he said. ‘She had a lot of those.' For a minute he seemed very far away. ‘Anyway, it's a curlew all right. Not making much noise now, your one, but in the wild, curlews have a really haunting cry – a kind of whistling sound. Apparently, sailors see them as a bad omen – I suppose it's because they sound a bit like a storm. Very superstitious bunch, sailors.' He suddenly scratched his beard, embarrassed. ‘Though I'm sure your dad isn't, Matthew. Or you, for that matter. I gather you're pretty good on the helm yourself.'

‘Actually Dad
is
a bit superstitious,' I said. ‘It's Mum who says she doesn't believe in stuff like that. But I'm not sure that's true. She never wants to come here . . .' My voice trailed off.

Tilda was standing by the door, her shoulders rigid.

‘Now, that reminds me,' said Uncle Jack, glancing between the two of us, ‘your mum called again this morning. She wants you to ring back – says you haven't spoken to her since you've been here. I assured her you were still in the land of the living. But give her a call, Matt, won't you? Use the landline. And I'd better get back to the fencing. There's another gap up in Far Field and if I don't sort it soon, the sheep'll be out.'

I ignored Tilda and went off to make the call. Next to the phone on the old wooden sideboard in the hall was a picture I hadn't spotted before – Mum and Aunty Rose when they were young, in matching dark dresses. Aunty Rose looked really sulky. Mum had an arm round her and was staring straight ahead with a sort of anxious smile. I could tell she was unhappy about something.

BOOK: Skull in the Wood
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