By Monica Marier
This is the conclusion of last week’s story, which can be found HERE
A special thanks goes to PJ Kaiser for helping me post this on her blog today in a time of techno-drama.
The night was in full swing when the two men trod shivering through the black soup of darkness. The lantern swung erratically in large arcs casting ghostly fairy lights and demonic shadows across gnarled trees. He and Vilori had followed the tracks as they led with distinct purpose to apple orchard that marked the edge of Uncle Red’s farm.
“Think the chickens got peckish and decided to have a late tea of apples?”
“Chickens don’t eat apples, Vilori,” said Harcourt. A thought suddenly occurred to him. “But I hope for our sakes they’re trying.”
“Cause if they haven’t stopped at the orchard, and they’re headed due South… that means that they went into The Terrible Woods.”
“Which terrible woods would that be?” asked Vilori.
“That one! The Terrible Woods! Capital ‘T’—The Terrible Woods.”
“Is that really its name? How unimaginative!” cried Vilori in disgust.
“Yes. It was named by a town of very unimaginative people… WHO KEPT DYIN’ in the woods,” hissed Harcourt.
“What, is it Haunted? Do the ghosts come out at night?” asked Vilori with a snort.
“Ghost nothing! It’s full of dense bracken, sudden drops, peat bogs, wolves, bears, griffons, and dragons, AND poisonous spiders.”
Vilori stopped dead.
“How big are the poisonous spiders?” he asked in a hollow voice.
“They’re poisonous! Does it really matter how big they are?” replied Harcourt.
Vilori nodded. “I concede your point.”
They walked a few more yards in silence, following the razor straight lines of chicken feet and trying not to think of spiders.
“Oh bugger,” sighed Harcourt. The lantern light bounced in his hand, but Vilori plainly saw the chicken tracks leave the soft earth of the orchard and trail into the tall grass bordering it. The grass had been trodden and bent in a tiny thin path no wider than an arm’s length. It led with mathematical precision to the forest. Vilori snatched up the lantern to examine the tracks.
“Well it looks like this wasn’t done by any man, Har,” said Vilori agog. “There’s no signs in the grass that anything bigger than a chicken has gone through here.
“Which means what?”
“Um… the chickens are in on it?” supplied Vilori uncertainly.
“What, like they’re?” asked Harcourt in disgust.
“Well, I don’t know!” mobilzin’ cried Vilori, waving his free arm in exasperation. “What other explanation have we got?
“A spell?” asked Harcourt.
“….yessss,” nodded Vilori nodding his head. “I’ve never heard of chicken magic before.”
“I have,” said Harcourt seriously. “I heard of men in the hot islands that puts paint on their faces and dances around fires and sacrifices chickens. ‘Hoo-doo’ they calls is. Barbaric,” he added.
Vilori sniffed in similar suspicion. “Ah, well that’s foreigners for you. Sacrificin’ all manner of things. As if pidgeons and goats and virgins aren’t good enough.”
“Goats was good enough for me granddad.”
“Indeed. So you think it’s some foreign hoo-doo thingummy stealing chickens with magic?”
Harcourt scratched his sandy chin. “Dunno. It’s better than your idea of mobilizin’ chickens.”
“Yeah, that was stupid, sorry,” sighed Vilori, flushing red.
“S’alright. I know it’s just ‘cause you’re pissed.”
“And how,” mumbled Vilori stifling a belch. “Well, into The Terrible Woods then,” he said tramping through the tall grass for the tree-line.
“You coming?” he asked when he noticed Harcourt lingering behing.
Harcourt nodded. “Yuh. Alright,” he said in a high voice. “Only be careful. The sudden drops in there can break your neck... and the spiders…”
“What do the spiders look like?” asked Vilori warily.
“They look like leaves.”
“Is that a spider?”
“Is that a spider?”
“Is that a spider?”
“Would you give over already, Vilori!” Harcourt said through clenched teeth. He was trying to keep his voice down, but with Vilori buzzing around him like a gnat it was hard.
“Is that a —”
“SHH!” Harcourt waved at Vilori to shut up. “DO you hear something?”
The men strained their ears for the slightest sound when they both heard it. It was a warbling susurration, like the sound of hundreds of tiny voices having hushed conversations.
“What is that?” asked Vilori.
“It’s chickens! Must be hundreds of em,” said Harcourt advancing slowly. Vilori observed sweat trickling off his friend’s brow in the growing light. “There’s a light up ahead,” he said.
“Someone’s got a fire lit, I reckon.”
“You were right! There’s Hoo-dooing and dancing afoot, no doubt!” hissed Vilori.
“Well the chicken noise is coming from there, so we’ll see.”
“Good. I’m ready to finish up and get to bed,” yawned Vilori. The night was getting colder and a thick mist was starting to rise from the forest floor, undulating in ghostly shapes in front of the lantern. They grew closer to the fire, and unsheathed their swords. Swords could only do so much in the face of magic, but they could generally sever a head from a neck, which was sometimes enough.
Cautiously, they peered over a bramble thicket to see what they were dealing with.
Both men dropped their swords in shock.
“It looks like…”
A large clearing was occupied entirely by chickens.
There wasn’t the slightest sign of human involvement; only avian. They weren’t milling about in typical chicken fashion, but they were evenly spaced in a circle, five deep around a ring of standing stones. Large fires had been lit in key places around the field casting a weird orange glow on the perfectly still birds. In the middle of the ring was a large flat rock lying lengthwise on the ground.
It was currently empty.
“How do chickens light fires?” wondered Harcourt aloud.
“What is this place?” Vilori managed in a terrified voice.
“It’s the faerie ring! It’s older than…than… really old stuff! It probably predates the word ‘old’,” Harcourt stammered, his face ghostly white.
“The chickens aren’t doing anything! They’re just standing there!” squeaked Vilori.
“No, see. They’re all looking outside the ring on the southwest side…. They’re waiting for something!”
As if in answer a loud roar shook the air and made each man cower with his face in the dirt. It sounded like someone trying to saw a bottle in half with cello string.
Vilori and Harcourt gibbered momentarily before rounding up enough sanity to look at what was approaching. Their swords were still on the forest floor, untouched.
A dark shape sillouetted in the firelight descended on the avian crowd. It walked upright like a bird, but there was something distinctly mammalian about it. It had a snout full of cruel teeth despite its coat of feathers, and its feet were definitely paws. It let loose another shriek, similar to a dog’s howl, but there was no mistaking the consonant and resounding “BWARRRRRK!” that shook the tree tops.
Harcourt and Vilori were suddenly more sober than a teacher on Monday.
“It’s a cock-a-doodle,” said Harcourt.
“A what?” asked Vilori.
“Part dog-part rooster. Distant relative of the cockatrice.”
“Cor,” said Vilori. “What’s it got there in its paws?”
Squinting in the gloom the men could make out something round and flat with something lumpy on it. It was clutched awkwardly in the cock-a-doodles forepaws as it approached the flat stone in the middle of the ring. The beast then lay the object in the middle of the stone.
“I don’t like this…” said Harcourt, trembling.
“Why what’s he got?” asked Vilori, trying to make heads or tails of the dim shapes.
“That’s the carcass of the chicken we had for tea tonight,” he said.
Now that he knew what he was looking at, Vilori could indeed see a former chicken picked clean with bits of sage still stuck to its insides. It was even on the willow-ware patterned platter Harcourt’s Aunt had served it on and surrounded by wrinkly cold potatoes.
The cock-a-doodle roared again, and the susurration of idle chickens stopped. Silence blanketed the clearing, and even the crackle of the fires seemed to have stopped.
Then the cock-a-doodle began to utter strange sounds in a low monotone drone. After he began the chickens would answer him, all clucking in perfect unison to a strange rhythm.
“BWAARK BWARRK BWARRRK”
“Bok-bok bok-bok b-bok bwaark!”
“BWAARK BWARRK BWARRRK”
“Bok-bok bok-bok b-bok bwaark!”
“It looks like…” began Harcourt, afraid to finish.
“It looks like a ritual,” answered Vilori.
Harcourt and he exchanged glances of pure horror, before watching the birds and their master again, helplessly captivated by their own curiosities and the mounting terror of events.
The standing stones began to glow an unearthly green and the light channeled by the outlandish carvings in the stones fed into the oblong stone table where the sad remains of dinner sat. The boks and bwarrks grew louder, faster, more fervent as the light grew brighter. Vilori felt the hairs on his arm stand up and felt his ears block up as an oppressive cloud of energy grew around them. Just as the chickens were so frenzied that they seemed about to break out of their orderly ranks the last of the light flowed into the now-glowing dead chicken. Silence reined again.
The men held their breaths as they stared at the carcass. If birds could hold their breaths, it was very likely the chickens were doing the same. Only the cock-a-doodle seemed cooly confidant.
Then it happened.
It was subtle, but every eye, beady or otherwise, caught it.
One of the naked wings began to twitch.
Harcourt and Vilori didn’t know how they got back to Uncle Red’s farm. To Vilori it was all a blur, and if Harcourt remembered, he wasn’t saying anything. Uncle Red and Aunt Primula took it with the resigned attitude of “boys will be boys,” assuming it all to be a drunk hallucination and were kind enough to never bring it up again. It didn’t seem there was any harm done anyways, since all the chickens were back in their coops the following morning.
Although… and this was the strange thing…
…It seemed there was one extra bird.