Read The Blood List Online

Authors: Sarah Naughton

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General

The Blood List (6 page)

BOOK: The Blood List
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‘Right, well, you don’t have to be in there long,’ he said. ‘Just to the midden heap and then straight back again.’

‘Very well, Mother.’

Richard didn’t smile. The lantern light had leached all the colour from his face.

Barnaby was about to step into the shadow when he heard a shout from behind. Griff was running across the field. Eventually he reached them and panted: ‘Someone told your father, Barnaby.
He’s coming to fetch you back.’

Barnaby glanced back at the barn. More people had come out to watch. He could see their moving shadows in the pinpoints of lantern light. He was going to get a hiding for this.

‘Take this.’ He handed the lantern back to Griff. ‘Otherwise he’ll see it and come after me. The moon’s strong enough without it.’

The two boys stared at him, open-mouthed.

‘Right,’ he grinned. ‘See you soon.’

He stepped over the threshold of shadow.

It took a long time for his eyes to adjust enough to see anything at all. It was strange, walking blind, with just sounds to tell you that you were still in the real world. He could hear his
feet crumpling the grass, the swish of his breeches rubbing together, his breath – still reassuringly steady – the rhythmic swilling of his blood in his ears. And then there were the
other sounds, the unpredictable sounds of the night: the distant cries of foxes, the murmur of the wind in the trees; a nightjar’s strange whirring call, more like a cricket than a bird, and
rustling everywhere, all around him. He even heard the whisper of a moth’s wing as it passed close to his ear.

Eventually he was able to make out the lie of the land. Above him the stars seemed to multiply by the second, with new ones appearing and growing stronger until there was not the tiniest scrap
of empty sky. He saw one, then another shooting star: it made an audible hiss as it whizzed by. Everything was clear and vivid and beautiful.

And then he looked straight ahead and saw the trees bearing down on him.

It was fatal to let his steps falter: if he gave his body any hint that he was afraid he’d crumble. He knew what it was like to be utterly drowned in terror. Until the age of nine
he’d suffered from debilitating nightmares and would have to be carried from his bed, rigid and screaming, and rocked on his father’s lap by the fire. His father and Agnes had believed
it was the fairies tormenting him with horrific visions, trying to send him mad so that they could lure him back to them. In hindsight, being told that could only have made matters worse.

But he had learned to control his fear. His father had taught him how: to breathe deeply and loosen all his muscles one by one, to trick his body into thinking he wasn’t scared at all. He
followed the same routine now: rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck from side to side; balling his hands into fists and then stretching out the fingers; breathing deeply,
in-two-three-four-five-six, out-two-three-four-five-six – tightening and relaxing every muscle he could without slowing his pace.

It worked, because the next time he looked up he was in the forest.

The sudden change of pressure made his ears pop and for a moment or two he was deaf as well as blind. Panic welled up inside him. He could hear only the crashing of his heart. He swayed. Was he
falling? There was no way of telling, no marker to orientate himself by.

Then something struck him violently in the back and sent him reeling. The undergrowth swallowed him and for a while it was as if he was six again, lying rigid with terror on his sweat-soaked
mattress. But the blow had un-popped his ears and as his reason returned he understood what had happened. He’d overbalanced and hit a tree trunk, that was all.

He sat up.

He could really do with a few slugs of Griff’s foul-smelling mead. If only Richard could see him now, cowering in the undergrowth, his opinion of Barnaby as some sort of rival would

The dark inside the forest was all-encompassing. He could see absolutely nothing: not even the white breast of the barn owl that just screeched demonically above his head and made him jump
several inches from the ground.

He had a vague idea where the midden heap lay, but it was only ever Juliet that made the trip.

He set off in the direction he thought it lay: a little to the south-east – the direction the devil’s wind blew from. A shaft of moonlight fell through the canopy to light the
clearing beneath. He picked his way across to it and stood in the faint glow. Then he saw another clearing a little way off, the moonlight a little brighter there. Steeling himself, he waded
through the darkness until he had reached it, then paused to get his bearings. He was fairly sure the heap lay to his left. There seemed to be another clearing further in that direction and he set
off again.

He tripped a few times and had to make a detour around a huge knot of brambles he didn’t see until they’d torn his face and arms. He could pretend they were wounds from demon claws.
That would shut Richard up.

He stumbled on. The trees grew thicker and the birdsong died away, to be replaced by silence.

Something stung his leg through the stocking. Could a nettle do that?

To lift his spirits he began to hum. The frail thread of sound was immediately consumed by the silence. He stopped.

He’d been walking for a while now. Surely he was nearing the heap.

It was taking much longer than he’d expected to reach the next clearing, and now that he looked more closely the light didn’t seem to be coming from above at all. It was as cold as
moonlight but it pulsed and wavered like a candle flame in a breeze. Unnaturally. It was fairy light.

They had found him. They’d always wanted him back and now they had found him.

He dropped to a crouch in the undergrowth, turned and began to slither back the way he had come.

Twigs scraped his stomach and nettles scalded his exposed flesh.

The second clearing came into view again, the moonlight stronger now, a steady shaft slicing through the darkness. He would crawl around the circle of light so as not to be seen.

He was nearly there now, just a few more feet.

Suddenly the ground domed upwards, blocking his path.

There was no sense trying to run: the forest was theirs to enchant and distort however they wished. He had to face them: stand tall and demand to know what they wanted of him.

His mind whirred in panic and he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. There was a strong, sulphurous smell. The smell of enchantment.

Finally he opened his eyes and stood up.

‘I am not afraid,’ he said loudly and clearly.

Raising his hand to his eyes to protect them from the glare he waited for them to appear. Would they be tall like him, or tiny as children like they were in the stories? Somehow that would be
worse. Would the other one be there: the one they had tried to replace him with? Hungry to return to its human family? He shivered. An icy clamminess crept across his skin. But hadn’t Agnes
said that in all probability it wasn’t a live thing at all, just a lump of wood they had bewitched to seem like a human baby?

The canopy whispered. Dust motes tumbled through the cold white moonlight and he followed their trajectory, wondering whether they would transform into their fairy forms when they landed.

They did not.

And now he saw that the rising of the ground was not unnatural after all. It was just a little hill of earth, flattened on top. And what was that rising up from a bumpy area protruding from the
side – was it smoke? Steam?

Now that he thought about it there was something beneath the sulphurous smell: something unpleasant.


It was the midden heap.

He laughed out loud.

Now he could make out cattle bones and broken crockery, a stocking, a rotting animal hide.

Then he caught his breath.

Lying on top was a small skeleton, picked clean by insects and vermin. A light breeze disturbed the few rags of skin that still hung to the frame. It had a strangely flattened skull and huge eye
sockets. The spine was elongated, the arms too long, the legs too short. A strange, malformed thing: unlovable, inhuman.

Surely it could not be the changeling . . . Not after so long . . .

Then he let out a hoarse cry of relief.

It was a cat. Just a cat. A strip of red wool hung around its neck – loosely now, but possibly once tight enough to throttle it. He moved closer. Strung onto the wool were feathers, twists
of iron wire, holed stones and what looked like animal teeth. These looked like the sorts of charms used by witches. Certainly the Widow Moone was always trying to hawk such bits of junk.

Hadn’t the poacher thought he’d seen a cat at first, not a baby? Perhaps he had. Perhaps this was the sacrifice used to provide the blood for the devil’s pen.

There might be some truth to the story after all.

He glanced nervously behind him, into the shadows. The moonlight only stretched to the first line of trees. Beyond was unbroken darkness. Something in the darkness began to whisper. The whisper
passed all around the clearing, spiralling closer and closer. He tensed up, waiting for whatever it was to burst from the trees upon him. But when it did it was only the wind, rushing up the slope,
flapping rags and clacking the light bones of the chicken carcasses. It blew up his legs, billowed his shirt, then passed cold fingers through his hair.

And then something blew out of the ribcage of the cat to slap against his boot.

He picked it up.

It was a scrap of paper: yellowed and dog-eared. Just visible in the corner were a few clumsy markings in brown ink. He couldn’t make them out. Perhaps one was an E, another an L or
perhaps an R.

Then he froze. The devil’s list had been written in blood: blood that would have turned brown as it dried.

He dropped it with a cry. At once it was caught by the wind and carried off into the darkness. He stared into the shadows, panting. There was no way he was going after it. Even if he came back
without it he had surely done enough to impress Richard and set Flora’s heart aflutter. He slithered down the side of the heap and stopped at the bottom. Then he turned in a slow circle.

He had lost his bearings.

He peered up through the gap in the canopy, but he was useless at navigating by the stars at the best of times and was now totally disorientated. He turned on the spot, trying to make out the
lights of the barn through the closely packed branches. Eventually lights were appearing and vanishing all across his strained vision and he closed his eyes and rubbed them.

A rustling close by made him spin around.

A large fox was watching him from the other side of the midden heap. It was a grizzled, bony thing, with half an ear torn off. Its eyes glowed in the moonlight.

‘Yah!’ he shouted – a fox couldn’t hurt him; it wouldn’t dare try.

The fox gave a low bark and a split second later the bark was returned. Barnaby spun around. Another fox stood in the trees behind him, so thin he could make out the shadows of its ribs and

He picked up a stick and swiped at this closer one. The fox skittered back but didn’t depart. Then the other threw back its head and howled. It was an oddly human sound, almost a scream of
anguish, but Barnaby understood its purpose.

It was a summoning.

Impossible to judge how close the answering howls were. And how many. How many would they need to be to feel confident enough to attack him? Four? Five?

The two on either side of him stood motionless, waiting.

Then suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he spotted something out of place in the haphazard fecundity of the forest.

A regular line of white spots.

Slowly, keeping both foxes in view all the way, he made his way to where the line began.

They looked like pearls.

He bent down and picked one up. It was cool and firm.

This was not chance, a will-o-the-wisp or his fevered imagination. These had been left here to mark a path. Was it a fairy trick to lure him to his doom? Or perhaps they were simply white
pebbles or beads left to mark the way home by someone who had come to use the midden heap.

The trail stretched out into the darkness of the trees.

Rustling behind him made him turn. The foxes had climbed to the top of the midden heap and were staring after him with opaque, yellow eyes. Now both threw back their heads and howled, their
fangs glimmering in the moonlight. Before they had closed their mouths and lowered their heads to resume the watch on their prey, Barnaby had sprinted off along the trail.

They were waiting for him at the edge of the trees. A line of lanterns, as if a search party was about to depart. There were screams when he burst from the shadows.

‘What?’ he said, steadying himself and grinning.

Griff bounded forward and hugged him, stinking of sweat, and then was wrenched away and his father’s white face was an inch from his own nose, the lips quivering.

‘What the hell do you . . .’ he stuttered. Barnaby stared at him. He’d never seen his father in such a state.

‘It’s all right,’ he said softly. ‘I’m all right. It was just a dare, that’s all.’

His father’s bewildered eyes searched his own, then he took his son’s face in his hands and pressed his cold clammy forehead to Barnaby’s, which was warm and sweaty from the
run through the trees.

‘I thought I’d lost you again,’ he muttered.

‘Oh hush, you old piss-head,’ Barnaby said softly, but he let his father hold him until someone cleared their throat beside him.

It was Richard.

His face was almost as pasty as Henry’s. Richard stretched out his hand. Barnaby shook it and for a long time Richard wouldn’t let it go.

‘You are no coward,’ Richard said finally, then he turned and walked back across the field to where the barn still throbbed with music and rowdy laughter. The crowd had begun to
disperse now, all except one woman. The furrier’s widow. She was staring at him with that intensity that always made him so uncomfortable.

‘Come on, Father,’ he said, turning from her gaze. ‘I don’t want to miss the rest of the party.’

BOOK: The Blood List
8.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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