It probably doesn’t excuse my behaviour during December, but my parents were never really into Christmas. It’s not that they were against it, per say. They just didn’t feel the need to obsess over every mind-numbing tradition of the festive season. They didn’t queue their weekends away, buying armfuls of unwanted presents for anonymous relatives. They didn’t fret over roasting the perfect turkey or concern themselves about what trimmings were on trend that particular year. The decorations would go up around the twentieth at the earliest and, for most of my childhood, my dad was on call.
“It’s just another day,” he would tell me. “If they’re happy to pay me overtime for missing The Queen’s Speech, then I say let them. It’d be rude not to fleece the buggers.”
Mum saw it as the one day of the year when she could properly put her feet up. She didn’t have any of her friends or sisters round. She didn’t answer the phone or step outside the front door. She’d stay in her dressing gown all day, with her hair up and her face entirely make-up free. She’d put a large pan of chilli on the hob for us to dig into whenever we got hungry, whilst she swam to the bottom of an expensive bottle of wine.
These days, without my parents around, I still find myself carrying on their traditions in my own way. You see, thanks to them, I’ve never been fully invested in the pursuit of a perfect Christmas. Which has helped me to see that, if you can go through December stress free, you have certain advantages over most people.
For example, I spend every Friday and Saturday night in December around the town, looking for the lonely and the overwhelmed. The Christmas party rejects. The ladies who’ve been dumped in order to save someone from buying them a present that year. It’s amazing just how much affection they will show you for just a little attention and some feigned sympathy.
Another favourite festive of mine revolves around people trying to flog some of their belongings online in order to raise present funds. I make it my mission to hunt down the rarer collectibles they’re desperate to sell and then buy them at a discount prices as Christmas Eve looms ever closer. It’s all about the timing and I always get a few valuable things to sell on, come the new year.
Come the big day itself, after all the excitement, I’m always happiest on my own. All I need is a decent bottle of port and a good book. The tree rarely gets put up in my flat and tinsel is quite the lesser spotted species around my undecked halls.
That said, of late, there has been a threat to my festive plans. A threat in the intoxicating shape of Kira Kendal. We’d met through friends earlier in the year and it was love at first sight.
Since that encounter, my feelings for Kira Kendal have proved to my sceptical heart, once and for all, that opposites truly do attract. She’s younger than me for a start. She also sees the good in people before she sees their weaknesses. She goes out of her way to help anyone in need and she rarely ever raises her voice. In fact, for someone her age, she has quite the mature grip on life. She rarely ever panics or appears stressed.
The only time I’ve ever seen her shocked was when she enquired about my plans for Christmas.
“You do what?!”
We were deep into our third bottle of expensive red by then and, for the record, I’d only given her the most basic of details. I’d left out my love for lonely hearts and antiquing.
“There’s no need to pull that face,” I told her. “Not everyone feels the need for crackers and baubles come the twenty fifth. Besides, it wasn’t even his birthday. Most people think he was born in September.”
I should also point out, before we go any further, that Kira Kendal had no clue about my feelings for her. Her father clearly did, along with some of her closer friends, but she’d never seen me as even the slightest romantic possibility. It was something I was aiming to change that in the new year. Although I’d need to sedate her father first.
“You keep talking like that, Gerry Wallace, and you’ll be visited by three ghosts.”
As I topped up her glass with a smile, she told me that her family had a tradition of their own. Apparently, every year the entire Kendal clan decamped to a little hotel on the north coast, where her great grandparents had first met. All the Kendals and associated Kendals headed up there every Christmas Eve and stayed until after New Year had passed.
It wasn’t exactly my sort of thing, but it sounded like a perfect way to crowbar myself into her affections. Her uncles, aunts and cousins all went along, as did some close family friends. They played games, went through old photos and took walks along the coastline. It could be just what Dr Matchmaker ordered.
The only thing causing me to hesitate was that it would somewhat put the kibosh on my usual seasonal festivities. My own traditions were far easier to follow unfettered, so to speak.
“You’re more than to welcome to join us.”
“No, no. I’d be intruding. Besides, we know that your father has already made it very clear how he feels about me.”
“Don’t start that again,” she was slurring already. Lord bless the stronger varietals. “He was joking. They’d love you to come along. My uncle Geoff will be there.”
I’d struck up quite the friendship with her Uncle Geoff recently. We both liked a drink and he was a fiend when it came to card games. The old sod had fleeced me out of a good seventy quid the first night we’d met and, for the life of me, I still couldn’t quite figure out how he’d done it. I just knew he was a better cheat than me.
“Please, Gerry. It’ll be fun.”
As much as I would have loved a chance to walk along some quaint little street with her and declare my undying love outside a jeweller’s, I had a good stock of seeds already planted in online auctions. They’d be ripe for harvesting just as we were supposed to setting off for the coast.
“No, no,” I protested. “I can’t bring myself to ruin a Kendal family Christmas. You go on without me and we’ll see each other in the new year. It’ll be something to look forward.”
“I give in with you, Gerry. I really do. I keep defending you whenever your name comes up. I keep trying to tell people that you’re a good person, but then you push me away like this.”
I shrugged loosely.
“Well, I never claimed to be good.”
She stood up, vaguely swaying and clearly unimpressed. To the point where I had wonder if she knew what I was actually planning to do with my free time. Luckily for me, it appeared that I had just disappointed her.
She told me so in no uncertain terms and then stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
“Merry Christmas, Gerald Wallace,” I muttered in the lingering silence left by her dramatic exit, thinking that was that.
One night around mid-December, with still no contact from dearest Kira, I found myself hunkered over the keyboard with a glass of brandy in hand, trying to talk an old dear into dropping the price on a full set of boxed He-Man figures she’d discovered in the attic.
As I attempted to tighten the screws, my heart really not in it, I found myself stewing over the way I’d left things with the delectable Miss Kendal. I was trying to convince myself that it was her reaction was a bit too one sided for my liking. After all, if she’d declined my idea of Christmas, I wouldn’t have pitched a fit and beat such a swift, sharp retreat.
I fumed, letting the brandy do the thinking. I opened another window on my screen and looked up where Kira and her related cohorts would be staying. Just to sate my curiosity, of course.
The Lionheart Inn Hotel. A little rustic for my liking, but it certainly put my current squalor to shame. There were no clothes strewn over the floor in the photos. No piles of plates gathering at the foot of the sofa and all the beds were made.
It was situated just outside the small coastal town of Packston and there was no denying it was a scenic location; perched as it was on top of a gentle, low rising hill, facing an unforgiving sea. You could see an old church spire keeping watch over a knot of old market town streets.
Even from a distance, it appeared a quaint and kindly place. It was no wonder the Kendals flocked there for Christmas in their genetic droves. You could practically hear the children singing carols. The joyous ring of the church bells. The delight as people saw the first snowflakes drift lazily down from bruise coloured clouds.
I topped up my glass and kept browsing. I steered away from festive cheer and indulged in some darker tales of the area. I found some strange old local myths. Most revolved around something to do with birds. Large, predatory birds that called out in human voices, luring their victims to their doom. It was all rather interesting, in a grisly sort of way.
My curiosity drove me to follow the links further and that’s when I stumbled across something familiar. Something I’d heard mentioned before. A game. A rare, old board game. Winter’s Wings. I’d come across stallholders and ardent collectors muttering about it at toy fairs. I’d watched people online trying to buy a copy for obscene amounts of money. It was supposed to be a real find, only ever a few copies made.
There was some nonsense rumour that it had supposedly driven its creator mad or he’d disappeared after it was released, but that was clearly tattle of the highest order. A clever bit of marketing, at best. Although it certainly did the trick. Over the years, the price had climbed past the point of eye-wateringly expensive to damn near priceless.
Looking at the comments online, it was meant to be a one of a kind game. Something truly immersive, all-consuming. The people hunting it out made it sound like a quick round could change your life forever more. Not that I cared about that sort of thing. It was the price that had peaked my interest.
Apparently, it had originated in the Packston area. Developed by some local doctor or professor. No doubt, the clever old sod who’d pretended to vanish in order keep tongues wagging and prices rising.
Looking at the few images I could find, I was baffled why it was in such high demand. It looked positively basic to me. The sort of thing you’d expect to find in an old country house gift shop. Wooden board and pieces. A small deck of cards. Another relic from the bygone era of recreational skipping ropes, hopscotch and scuffed sets of jumping jacks.
Delving a little deeper, I couldn’t believe my luck. Someone was selling a copy. Even better, they appeared totally unware of its value. Not only that, but they were going about in entirely the wrong way. They had nothing on the likes of eBay. No social media posts. Nothing on any website where it could find the right audience. They’d simply put an ad in the local paper and then someone had mentioned the page online.
My hunter’s instinct kicked in. I found a map of the Packston area and studied the roads. I could easily pick it up on the way to The Lionheart. My presence there would certainly keep Kira happy and, all being well, I’d have something to celebrate beyond getting back in her good books. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.
I called Kira that night and told her the good news. Well, an edited version of the good news. Future significant other or not, this game could be my golden ticket. Best not to share that with someone who might be able to claim common law rights one day.
She was overjoyed and made sure I had directions. After we were done arranging my first proper Christmas, as she kept insisting on calling it, I called the man selling the game.
“Mr Chandler? Hello, my name’s Gerry Wallace. I’m calling about the game you’re selling.”
“I see. It belonged to my wife. We…we only played it the once before she…she passed away.”
He sounded ancient. His voice crumbling at the ragged edges whilst his breathing wheezed as stuttering punctuation. It sounds little crass, but I was worried he might not make it to the 24th.
“As long as it’s in good condition, that’s fine with me.”
“I ripped one card, but the game left me no choice.”
Even better, I thought, as I used the damage to start talking him into dropping his price. He didn’t seem to mind. Grief can make an ideal bargaining tool sometimes.
We arranged that I would get to his farm on Christmas Eve, at around six o’clock and take the game off his hands for a fairly reduced rate.
“Are you planning to give it as a gift?” he asked as I was getting ready to say goodbye.
“The game. Are you buying it as a gift?”
“No. No, I’m a bit of an amateur collector, that’s all.”
“Good…that’s good. I wouldn’t take it out the box if I was you then. Just keep it safe and sound on the shelf, hey? Save on the wear and tear”
His relief was palpable and, oddly, a little disquieting.
I hung up and started to plan out the colour scheme on my first yacht.
As things worked out, I ended up leaving a later than I would’ve liked on Christmas Eve. The new managing director was offering time in lieu to anyone who helped beta test the new customer service system he was championing and, following Dad’s old motto of ‘fleece the buggers’, I put my name down.
I left the office at around two, as the others were heading off for a drink with management. I watched them turn left out the car park and head into town. I turned the right and aimed the car towards the motorway. I had a long drive ahead of me.
The roads, unsurprisingly, were a living hell. I joined a slowly moving snake of red lights and, seething in my seat, followed it for mile after mile. I did little more than swap queues and shout at the travel reports on the news, before I even got close to what a Midlander might deem as ‘The North’.
When I was finally able to turn off my final motorway junction, I felt particularly smug. I waved goodbye to the red glare of brake lights, wished them all a very merry Christmas and set off on the route I had memorised to Chandler’s farm with the sun beginning to sink behind the darkening shadow of the landscape.
Things went smoothly at first. I drove through small villages, past windows proudly displaying Christmas trees and gardens that were homes to small, little inflatable snowmen and illuminated reindeer. I passed a gaggle of families coming out of a church at one point and found myself wondering if I’d driven into a Christmas card by mistake.
Out in the dark, beyond the watch of towns and villages, I kept an eye out for road signs and listened as the DJs on the radio counted down the hours until midnight. They gave reports on Santa sightings between the standard stock of festive tunes. All the while, I thought of my future. Of the money I was about to make.
“Happy Christmas, Mr Wallace,” I said to myself, patting the steering wheel in time to a bit of Wizard.
Chandler’s Farm was just outside a little hamlet called Hayford. The lane that lead to it was in desperate need of repair and the farmhouse waiting at the end looked pretty run down. There was a boarded-up window on the first floor and the barn looked ready to collapse into kindling and scrap with one strong gust of wind.
Mr Chandler met me at the door, game in hand. He looked to be in his eighties. Judging by how slowly and painfully he moved, I wasn’t surprised his farm was in such a state. Age had collapsed him in on himself. He was a ruin in the making. His narrowing, bony frame was wrapped in a carapace of old clothing.
“Evening.” His voice was as threadbare as the hall carpet visible over his shoulder.
“Evening, Mr Chandler,” I said, watching him shiver in the cold.
“You’ll be here for the game then.”
“That I am.”
“Good.” He held the age warped carboard box out in a faintly scarred hand. “Take it.”
“For the discussed price?”
“Just take it.”
“Is this some new form of haggling I don’t know about?”
“I want rid of the damned thing. You want the damned thing. Don’t seem necessary to bring money into it. Go on, take it.”
He was a stern old chap under his motheaten jumper and scruffy shirt. I suppose grief was doing a lot of the heavy lifting for me. My dad had been the same after my mum passed away.
“Well, if you insist.”
He thrust the box into my hands and gave the sky over my head a wary glance before turning inside.
“Merry Christmas,” he said over his shoulder as he pushed the door shut.
I stood there, a little taken aback. The wind howled around the hollow shells of the crumbling outhouses. Their metal roofs creaked. Or was that the roofs? It sounded more like something screeching. Some hunter’s cry, calling out from the dark heart of the night around me.
The thought made a city boy like me shiver. I headed back to the car, craving warmth. On the way, I caught sight of a print caught in the muddy ground.
It looked like it had been made by a narrow, bony shape. A bird’s foot maybe. Only it looked a bit too big for any bird you’d get around these parts.
I shrugged it off and got moving. I coasted the country roads and saw the occasional glimmer of snaking headlights in the distance. The motorway was clearly still holding some unlucky travellers hostage in its coiling lanes. I smiled at the sight and pressed on.
Things only started to go wrong when I was an hour or so away from my destination. The car began to make some very alarming sounds. It rattled when it accelerated and grated when I changed gear. Even more worryingly, the brakes seemed a tad reluctant to actually brake whenever I attempted to apply them.
I prayed it would hold up until I got to The Lionheart. Surely some local mechanic there could help after Boxing Day.
I gripped the wheel tighter and tried to take it gingerly on every corner. My best hope was to keep moving. I just needed it to go for a few more miles. I pictured myself stepping over thin ice and trying to navigate a way to the other side. There was a log fire and good company waiting over there. Not only that, but Kira Kendal, keeping a watchful eye out for yours truly.
Her family would be singing Christmas carols by now and her Uncle Geoff would be making sure everyone had a glass in their hand. If I took it easy, I’d be there in time for a few verses of Silent Night before bed. I just needed the car to live a little longer. Come the new year, I could sell the game and buy some new transport. Something shiny, sleek and impractical.
Just as I was convincing myself that I was going to make it, the engine gave out. A dark plume of smoke coughed past of the bonnet. The exhausted trembled. The car shuddered and then the electrics gave one final twitch before dying. After that, I was merely a rudderless passenger as the car rolled to a lumbering halt in the middle of the lane.
I swore and pulled my phone out. No signal. I swore again.
I got out and tugged my coat on. I went to try and chase some glimmer of signal with my phone but it slipped out my rushing fingers, diving into the dark. When I went to retrieve it, I heard a sharp snap crack under my heel.
I glimpsed the smashed remains of my phone when I stepped back.
A mild panic honed its already keen edges as I peered into the darkness around me. There were only fields out here. Old, hunched trees and ragged looking hedges hiding in the gloom. There were no cars in sight. No signs of life at all. I’d driven into the very middle of nowhere.
I checked my watch. Five to eleven.
None of Kira’s family would be in a fit state to pick me up now. I couldn’t even call them to ask if they knew a good, local taxi company.
I leant against the car and kicked the bumper with my heel. A cold wind blew through me. The surrounding trees creaked. Something screeched too close for my liking before taking flight and flying overhead.
Glancing up to see what it was, I saw the trees ahead move to the demands of a stampeding gust. As they swayed left, they revealed a small pinprick of yellow light in the distance.
It wasn’t close, but it was all I had.
“Please don’t be a streetlight,” I whispered under my breath. “Please don’t be a streetlight.”
My words fogged into the night air as I rolled the car off the road and took my bag out the boot. I stashed the game at the bottom of the bag, wrapping it in a shirt, before locking the car up. That done, I made for the light.
The going was tricky. The road didn’t always head where I needed it to go. A few times, I had to hop a fence and swiftly hoof it over the uneven surface of some gloomy field. Technically I suppose it was trespassing, but it was freezing out in the dark. I needed to get to somewhere with a landline and a radiator, quick sharp.
Out in the pitch black, it felt like I’d stumbled into another world. A dim world of shifting distance and misbehaving shadows. I was certain I wasn’t alone there. Occasionally, I heard something padding through the dark behind me. Or the soft rustle of something landing on a branch. I was catching some hint of a muted hunter’s step, keeping close, making sure to never show itself.
I tried my best not to look around. I kept walking. I kept my head down. I was acting like this was some gang of teenagers I wanted to avoid, but I knew this was something very different to hormonal thugs. This was something hungry. Something wild. Something that didn’t care about Christmas cards, neatly wrapped presents or collectible board games. No, those very nearly silent feet were being driven by age old instincts and they weren’t going to let me get away if they could help it.
I picked up my pace once I got back onto the road and the light got closer. I resisted the urge to look at my watch. Kira had to be wondering where I’d gotten to by now. Not that she knew I’d come this way. I’d wandered far off the map set by her directions by now.
When the light revealed itself to be a pub, I quietly thanked the stars above. As I drew closer I found my almost silent shadow had left me alone. I tipped a thankful salute to The Crow Pie. A true beacon of salvation, if ever I’d seen one.
The weather crusted sign showed a sharp beak protruding past a thick crushed pie. I could hear the faint bleed of music creeping past the old, single glazing.
Frozen and exhausted, I tried the door. When it opened, warmth washed over me. I smiled at its touch. Inside, there was a local sitting at the bar who could easily be mistaken for part of the furniture. An older man was serving him. They both turned to face me as I shut the door behind me. There was a dog lying by the fire. A large, grey old thing. He didn’t seem too worried about me.
“Evening,” I said as I approached.
“Damn near morning,” the customer tutted.
“I’m guessing you’re having a bad night,” said the barman as he set a pint down in front of his customer and eyed me carefully.
“My car broke down. I’m trying to get Packston.”
“Packston,” the local said before taking a sip of his dark ale. “That’s a fair way from here.”
“Look, could I borrow your phone?”
The barman set an old dial telephone on the bar and I ordered a pint. I dialled Kira’s number, which I had memorised in a fit of modern romance after our first meeting. The romance dimmed a little when I ended up with her voicemail. I told her the name of the pub, roughly where I was and the short version of what had happened. Then I gave her the phone number for The Crow Pie and hung up.
“Answer machine?” the barman asked.
“You really are having a good night.”
I sat at the bar, with my bag close by my side. The dog, Bruno, gave it a brief inspection before returning to his place by the fire. Tommy, the old boy enjoying a drink or two before Christmas, told me some breakdown horror stories of this own and then we got onto Christmas. Just like Kira, both men looked horrified when I described my childhood traditions. Even Bruno raised his shaggy head.
“You should bring your other half and her family here tomorrow,” Tom suggested. “Alfie cooks a mean roast.”
“Alfie is also already very fully booked, thank you,” the barman said. “So Alfie is afraid they’ll have to come back next year.”
We sat and talked until getting on for one, when Tommy announced he’d better be getting home and leave Alfie to lock up. As he shuffled out and offered me a Happy Christmas, I glanced back at the phone. Kira still hadn’t called.
“Suppose you need to stay by that phone tonight,” Alfie said as he locked the door.
“If that’s okay.”
“Can’t see why not, but I’m off to bed in a minute and you’re not touching any of these taps once you’ve helped me clean up. Deal?”
“Right, yes, deal.”
I helped Alfie put the chairs up and clean the floors, all the time listening out for the phone. He cashed up and I made sure the place was locked for the night. Then he brought me a spare duvet and a pillow down and pointed me to a bench in the far corner, away from the windows.
“Best place to sleep down here,” he said. “No noise from the road and close to a radiator. You’ll be out before you know it.”
After he headed upstairs, I left the light on in the corner he’d pointed me to and tried to stay close to the phone for a while. Bruno had opted to stay down here with me, but his guard duty seemed to involve him sleeping on the rug in front of the now dormant fireplace.
I quietly opened a bottle of whiskey and told myself Alfie had said to stay away from the taps, he’d not said anything about bottles.
It was getting on for two when I finally had to admit Kira wasn’t going to call. I shuffled off to my draughty corner and pulled the thick cover over my day-old clothes. I lay back on the rather skinny feather pillow and tried to convince myself that I needed some sleep. The thought refused to take.
In the end, I sat up and looked at the tall bookcase behind my bench/bed for the night. There were old classics crammed onto the shelves, along with well used guidebooks and board games. I recognised a lot of them, but they were out of date. In fact, there was a good chance they were worth something. Maybe I could have a word with Alfie in the morning. Offer to take them off his hands and buy him replacements. I might even make a little further profit out of this detour.
Looking at those old boxes, I remembered what was in my bag. I dug through my clothes and found the bundled-up shirt. I unwrapped it and took a closer look at Winter’s Wings for the first time since Mr Chandler had thrust it at me.
It was a small and thin cardboard box. Age had dented the lid and faded the illustration of a path through some dark woods down to little more than a musty impression of its former glory. Although you could still some hidden forms perched in those drawn branches. Dark, hunched forms with beady eyes.
I set it on the table in front of me. It almost looked homemade. On the side the words ‘For One or More Players’ were written in thin, spidery script. There was something oddly inviting about it and it opened far too easily to reveal the contents.
An old, simplistic looking board was sitting on top. I took it out and carefully unfolded it on the table. At the bottom of the box, there was a small set of pieces. Six of them looked like small, running people. They were carved from light wood. I put one on the board, at the start. Then there were three pieces carved to looked like birds. Large crows or ravens, possibly. They appeared to be made of stone. White, worn stone. I set them up behind my piece.
There was also a rough, worn old dice that appeared to be made of the same material and a deck of faded cards.
I took the cards from the box and set them on the table close to me. Then I took hold of the dice. It felt ice cold.
A quick read of the instructions told me it was simple enough to play, even with only one person taking part. I simply needed to get my piece safely through the woods before the birds killed me. Or ‘claimed me’, as the typewritten instructions put it.
Every turn I had to roll the dice, move and then draw a card. Each card had to be played when it was drawn.
“Why not?” I asked the empty pub and sleeping dog. After all, it wasn’t every day you got the chance to play such a rare and expensive game.
I rolled the dice and moved my piece forward. I picked up a card and read it out loud to the dark room.
“Storm worsens. Roll totals halved for two turns.”
Outside, the wind picked up. Smirking, I put the card aside. The smirk faltered a little when I noticed one of the birds had moved forward.
“Must’ve knocked it,” I told myself.
I rolled again. Moved. Drew another card.
“The way is closed,” I told the vacant chairs and tables. “Move one back. Find a new path.”
A new path? There was only one route on the board, so that was overplaying the game’s hand somewhat. Only, when I moved my piece back one space, I was surprised to find a second path branching off at that point.
I knew I was only half awake, but surely I would’ve spotted that.
As I was puzzling over the change, I saw the other two birds move forward by themselves, as if steered by some unseen hand.
I went to pick one up and inspect it, but tried to tell myself it was nothing. I was tired, that was all. I picked up the dice and rolled again, trying to distract myself from what I’d seen. I moved my piece and drew another card.
“The wind shifts. They have your scent.”
One of the bird pieces moved forward two on its own. I saw it that time.
Outside, in the dark, something screeched. I’m not too proud to admit I jumped when I heard that shrill sound.
“Get a grip, Gerry.”
Which a shake of the head, I rolled again and moved my piece further along the second path. I drew another card. There was nothing written on it. It was totally black.
Suddenly, the light overhead went out. The whole room plunged into darkness, into true pitch black. In fact, if anything, it was too dark. I couldn’t see the table or the board. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I couldn’t see anything in this utter gloom.
My heart started to race as I cursed this ridiculous game. I tried to get up and smacked my leg on the table. I cursed louder.
The dark wasn’t lifting. My eyes weren’t adjusting. What if this was me? What if this was medical? I thought I’d seen those pieces move on themselves and now this. Maybe I was having some sort of stroke.
Fumbling my way into the main room, I realised I had no idea where the fuse box was. I needed to find something else. I’d seen candles and matches behind the bar. I had to get to them. Get one lit. I had to drive this blackness back. It felt like it was pressing me into a corner. Burying me alive.
My hip collided with the edge of another table. I bit back the urge to shout. I didn’t want to wake my hosts. Although I was surprised they could sleep with the wind howling around the pub so violently.
Something scratched in the dark. I stopped moving. I hesitated. Maybe I’d started hearing things as well…
No. There it was again.
Too big to be a mouse. Too fast to be the dog. It got louder. Feathers rustled. What was that?
I moved quickly, hands outstretched, trying to find the edge of the bar. I had to be close by now.
There was that screech again. That shrill call. It sounded like it was right outside the window. Far too close for comfort.
I flinched back and collided with a chair. The scratching started to get louder. I could imagine claws splintering through wood.
Not claws, I thought, correcting myself. Talons.
There was something else. Light, familiar footsteps. Getting closer. I was certain they were the same footsteps I’d heard following me in the dark on the way here.
I managed to get around the bar and began fumbling through the shelves beneath the counter. I found the candles by knocking them over. I pulled one out and struggled to find the matches.
“Come on,” I hissed. “Come on!”
I was certain I’d seen them around here.
That scratching sounded like it was right beside me now. I thought I saw two eyes glint in the dark.
I rushed to pull the matches open and heard them cascade to the floor. I cursed the upside-down box and struggled to find one by my feet. I seized it and quickly struck it.
The flame drove the dark back. I could breath again.
Until I saw something large, black and feathered fluster away from the weakly quivering flame. I didn’t dare look too closely.
I put a hand in front of the lit match and gently applied it to the wick of a candle. The glow grew a little. I relaxed. The room had fallen silent. There was no trace of the pursuit that had sounded inches away from my skin only moments ago. I sighed in relief.
I set the candle in a holder and went to the window, the flame lighting my way. It was closed, they couldn’t have gotten in that way. There was only the road out there. The trees and low stone walls. There was nothing else.
…or was there?
Something was watching me from a nearby tree. It took a moment to see the sharp, glinting eyes looking right back at me.
I turned away and made sure to collect the matches and a couple more candles before returning to my table and the board.
My piece had moved forward one and the birds had turned as if they were going the other way.
Unsure of what to do, I looked around. I knocked into the table and the dice rolled again. It landed on five. I watched my piece move five away from the three large, black birds.
“What?” I asked it.
It offered no answer. Baffled and feeling myself slipping beyond my control, I reached down and drew a card.
“Fork in the road. Choose wisely.”
Sure enough, there was a fork in the route I was taking. My racing heart was fuelling a mania in me. I couldn’t help but smirk at the sight of it.
“I didn’t spot you before,” I told it.
I sat at the table, trying to tell myself that everything was fine. Trying to bat the panic away. If anything, on a night like this, a game should be a welcome distraction.
Both paths looked fairly innocuous from where I was sitting. I was tempted to peek ahead in the deck, but something told me it wouldn’t do a lot of good.
In the end, I chose left. Dad always went left when he was stuck at a tricky junction. I watched, fascinated, as the birds went right. One lingered by the crossroads, but the other two had missed me completely.
I grinned at the sight of my victory. Finally, I was getting somewhere. I rolled again. Six. Even better. I drew a card and any sense of victory quickly fell away.
“They have found you. Hide.”
I looked at the board. The other two birds were in front of my piece.
A chair fell over across the room. I glanced up to see something dark moving towards the bar. Something as dark as the shadows that cloaked it. I saw a jagged beak and ragged feathers.
Fear took hold as I swiftly grabbed the candle and blew it out. I ducked under the table and listened past my again pounding heart.
Keenly honed talons were treading across the wooden foor. Something was sniffing the air and breathing. Something ancient and encrusted with the remains of past meals.
I went to make a move for the bar, when I heard another one close to me.
This was insane. This couldn’t be happening. I was just playing a game. There weren’t any birds in the pub with me. There couldn’t be. Only I could smell them. I could hear their claws catching on the floor. I could see their careful eyes watching out for me. They were getting closer. God help me. They were getting closer.
I tried to think. I reached up and took one of the candles off the table. I was about to toss it to the far end of the pub when Bruno woke up. The large dog stood and started barking wildly. I wanted to shush him, but I could only watch in stifled horror as I saw my pursuers take flight towards him. Large black wings soared across the room at the proud dog as I tried not to whimper.
They surrounded him and raised their rancid, black wings. They hissed as he barked. They went for his throat with their talons and beaks. Soon enough the barks turned to yelps and whimpers. Then they fell silent and there were only wet, tearing sounds.
I knew I had to move if I didn’t want to suffer the same fate. Terror hampered every step as I tried to quietly slip away from my hiding place. I found the side entrance to the bar and ducked beneath the hatch. I pressed myself against the wall and tried to think. Tried to hold back the sound of them searching for me.
They were moving again. Something cawed and was answered by a similar, if higher cry. They were going to find me. They were going to find me here. What could I do?
If I got through this, I had to put the game away. Regardless of reason, I had to make sure it stopped. No wonder that older farmer had wanted it out of his house. No wonder he’d told me not to play.
The one near the bar stalked away.
I needed to find some way to escape them. Which meant I needed to obey the rules that had brought them here. I needed to move in the game, which meant rolling again. Which meant playing on.
“God, help me,” I whispered, trying to think past the fear. “God, help me.”
I edged to the end of the bar and peered into the shadows. The three murky, feathered shapes had gone back to other side of the room again. They were pecking at the bloody remains they’d left on the floor.
One of them snapped at another. It screeched and snapped back. They hissed, circling each other. Backs arched, wings open wide.
I struggled to make them out. The gloom clung to their feathers. I think they were about the size of an adolescent child, too big for any normal bird. They reeked of stale meat, wet feathers and sweat.
They were more focused on the meat than me. This was my chance.
I crept back to my table as quickly as I could. The floor under my feet felt too uneven in my haste. Something dry brushed my skin. A dead leaf. I must’ve tracked it in with me.
I snatched the dice and fumbled an awkward roll.
Two hungry heads whipped round to face me at the sound of it. Wings flapped. I felt the air stir. I heard them coming for me. At me. I barely had any time to do this.
I checked the dice. It had landed on three. Three would do.
Quickly, I grabbed the board and brought it down. I moved my piece. Struggled to get hold of the next card and read it aloud.
“Mist rises. You are safe.”
They were gone.
Breathless, terrified, shaking under my stale clothes, I collapsed.
As I tried to get myself under control, mist did indeed rise from the floor. Just as the card had predicted. It looked so real. It obscured the details of the room. I pushed myself up to my feet.
Through the curling banks of thickening mist, the floor no longer appeared to be floorboards and rugs. No, I saw dirt and leaves down there now. I saw the twisted shapes of exposed roots.
I stood and followed one through the mist towards the doorway to the main bar. Except the doorway didn’t look right. As I got to it I saw it was a tree trunk. A gnarled old tree trunk. The room beyond had become a small clearing.
The Crow Pie had gone. I was surrounded by trees. Across from me was the carcass of their first kill. What was left of Bruno was barely recognisable as a dog any longer. They had stripped parts of him bare.
Overhead, the moon was cloaked by thick, smoke tinted clouds. I had been stranded somewhere else. Somewhere no person belonged. Somewhere within the hold the game.
With a trembling hand, I reached out and touched the wood of a nearby branch. It was so unreal. I whimpered, panicking, as I felt the knots. The tangled contusions within the bark. It was damp, cold. Undeniable. Unmistakable.
I looked back in horror to see my table had gone. My things. The game.
I stumbled back. The mist made it difficult to steer. I froze and listened to the wind whisper through the leaves around me. I heard an all too familiar screech in the distance.
Opening my hand, I found the dice waiting in my palm. It showed a five. I glanced around. There was no clear way out of this. No easy path. I had no choice but to move. To keep playing.
I kept as quiet as I could as I started to move. I tried not to trip over anything or snap anything. I thought I was doing fine until, suddenly, I couldn’t move any longer. My feet wouldn’t budge. I looked down as the mist cleared.
Nothing was holding me in place. I was caught fast by some invisible force. My legs simply wouldn’t obey.
There was something sticking out of a tree trunk. I plucked it out. A card. I struggled to read it in the obscured moonlight.
“The woods grow deep and dark. The way is no longer easy. You may only move two per turn until you find a new path. Your hunters may move four.”
I looked around. I could hear their call, but it sounded different out here. It sounded almost human and it sounded victorious. Worse still, it sounded close.
I saw shadows gliding over the uneven ground. They were closing in on me. They were hunting me down. Terror ran through my veins. I wanted to bolt, but my feet only moved two steps.
“Goddamn it!” My voice was little more than a yelp now. The true sound of prey. “This isn’t fair!”
There was a card at my feet. I picked it up.
“Can you hear the voices on the wind? They will not help your progress. You must keep moving.”
There were no other instructions. No obstacles or hinderances. Was that a good thing?
One of my pursuers landed somewhere over my head. Leaves fell as the branch moved. The wind picked up. It gave a soft, curious caw.
A sudden gust kicked up the leaves at my feet.
“there’s no point running”
Was that whisper on the wind? It sounded so close.
“they’re faster than you”
It sounded so close it could be in my own head.
“you can’t turn back”
They sounded feeble with age. Broken and in pain. I tried to turn, but I couldn’t. I tried to run, but I stopped once I reached my second step.
“I’m going to die here!” I muttered to myself.
“there is no death here”
“there is only the game”
“there is only their survival”
“winter keeps us warm,” that sounded like more than one voice. Chanting, somewhere off in the dark. “winter keeps us warm. winter keeps us warm.”
I tried to block the voices out. They were making my head spin.
I searched for the next card. I couldn’t see anything. I bent down and felt through the leaves, roots and stones. There was no card. Maybe I’d reached the end of the deck already?
Suddenly, something hooked and sharp scratched its way up my back. I yelled as it cut easily through my clothes and reached my flesh. I turned and waved my arms, shouting.
A large, black shape flew away.
Alone in the dark, I felt cold. I was shaking. I could feel the warm trickle of blood seeping down my back.
I winced as I reached a trembling hand to the wound. It came back dowsed in wet, warm redness.
I saw the card perched on a nearby stone. I snatched it up.
“If you are unlucky, they will weave their nest within your corpse. Fortune favours you with a choice.”
Past the stone, I saw a fork in the beaten track.
The birds were closer still. I heard them calling to each other. I heard those fragile voices on the wind mocking me, warning me, crying out for help. I heard my own terrified, staccato breaths.
I quickly consulted the dice. Four. I could move four.
I took the left path again. I prayed it was the correct choice as I stumbled over a root and saw another card waiting for me on the ground. My back was starting to feel numb.
It didn’t look like an instruction. It appeared to have been copied from a textbook.
As far as I understand it, they would drive their pretty deep into the heart of their territory, away from other carrion feeders. These birds didn’t build nests as we know them today. Instead, they would carve a home into the bodies of their kill and live there until they had picked it clean.
Another talon raked at me, cutting into my right arm. I screamed in pain. I twisted and tried to drive them away. I could see the hideous, curved beak. Bloodstained feathers. It flew away, but it didn’t fly far this time. I could see eyes watching from the treetops.
“their patience is growing thin” the wind told me.
I grabbed at my arm. There was blood running down my sleeve, dripping onto the mud.
My joints were starting to fizzle into numbness. My back and neck were heavy with exhaustion. I needed to rest but I couldn’t stop until I was safe.
My vision was struggling to see the way ahead. I checked the dice in my clammy palm, my breathing sounded ragged. My lungs were burning. Five.
I moved my allotted five steps. I leant against a tree and tried to get my breath. The wind cleared the clouds from the moon and I saw my reflection in a small, dirty puddle. A hunted man. A pale, haunted man.
The next card was lying by the puddle. My cold fingers struggled to retrieve it. More text.
These creatures truly are survivors and such sublime predators. I thought all of them had been wiped out. The joy I felt at finding three fine, living specimens in our modern world was overwhelming. Not that I could tell anyone about my discovery. My colleagues would think I’d lost my mind. Besides, these were all males. There was no hope of furthering the line. Not unless I could find some other way to preserve them. Something other way to keep them fed.
This time the thing flew right at me, nearly pushed me down. Claws raked at my stomach.
The blow drove me back. I tripped over a root. The dice flew out of my hand and landed on six. I struggled up and, clutching my stomach, moved my six steps.
By now, I was hunched, shaking. My bones felt tired, buckled as these old trees around me. My veins stood past my leathery skin, as clear as the dead roots at my feet.
My six steps carried me into a clearing of a short. Bleeding and terrified, I struggled to stand at the centre of it.
I blinked, my ancient eyes barely able to see past the wounds that had been sliced into my skin by those creatures. There were bodies woven into the trees around me. The wood appeared to have grown around them. Their bellies all carved open. Their faces frozen in pain. In twisted, rictus agony. Blood was dried around their mouths like sap. Their clawed fingers were reaching out through the wood, clasping for some hope of the freedom that had escaped them.
The dice lay at my feet. It looked blank now. No numbers to keep me moving. I struggled to pick it up. I turned the blank cube over and over in my hands. It was bone. The damn thing looked like it had been carved from bone. Just like the pieces back at the pub.
One of the tree bound corpses moved in his prison of bark and bone. Maybe unaware of how little of him was left below the neck.
“a father doesn’t let his children die. i looked to the past. i used their bones…to carve this place for them. i…I keep them here and…soon enough, they will be your keepers too. you’ll never die, they won’t allow it. you’ll suffer, but there is no death here…only their survival matters…”
“winter keeps us warm,” the other bodies all began to cry. “winter keeps us warm.”
Large, feathery wings landed in the branches overhead. A hooked beak let out a screech and they were upon me.
“I…I can’t die like this.”
“there is no death here,” the corpse in the tree told me.
“winter keeps us warm. winter keeps us warm.”
I never stood chance. In a heartbeat, I was bleeding, broken and nowhere. Their shrill screech echoing in what they left of my head.
Early Christmas morning, Kira Kendal found herself tired and out in the car. She didn’t need this, but she couldn’t have asked any of the others to make the drive. She’d invited Gerry Wallace along, hoping the change would do him some good. She’d woken to his message this morning and couldn’t bring herself to wake any of them. Of course, it didn’t help her mood that she was struggling to find the place Gerry had mentioned in his message. She still couldn’t fathom how he’d ended up this far off the beaten track.
When she finally parked up at The Crow Pie, she tried the door and was surprised to find it open. She stepped inside and found the landlord clearing up the tables and chairs.
“Morning,” she said. “Happy Christmas.”
“And the same to you.”
“This is going to sound a bit odd, but I’m here to collect someone.”
“Oh.” He stopped and looked over at her. “I thought you’d already been.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Unless you’ve come back to collect his things.”
It turned out that Gerry seemed to have left in the early hours, after polishing off nearly a whole bottle of whiskey and wrecking the place. Even worse, he’d left the door open behind him, which’d allowed the landlord’s dog to escape.
“My boys are a bit inconsolable at the minute.”
Guilt drove Kira to stay a while. She helped the landlord to get the room tidy and ready for serving Christmas lunch and then they spent a good hour or so looking for Gerry and the dog out in the fields and lanes around the pub.
She couldn’t believe Gerry had wandered off by himself, without any of his possessions. That wasn’t like him at all. She tried calling his mobile, but didn’t get any answer. When she called her parents to let them know what had happened, her father sounded far too pleased for her liking.
After a while, Kira could tell she was taking up far too much of the landlord’s Christmas Day. She thanked him for his help and went to pick up Gerry’s bag. There was an old board game spilt on the floor under the table. It must’ve ended up there when he’d left in such a drunken hurry.
She quickly packed it all away and sat the box on the table before leaving.
“If he does make an appearance, give me a call.”
After she was gone, Alfie locked the front door and went to head up to his family for a brief break before going back to the kitchen. On the way, he noticed something on the table near where the stranger had slept last night. It was a board game of some sort by the looks of it. An old one. It must’ve come off the shelf, but he didn’t recognise it.
“Winter’s Wings,” he said, reading the name aloud.
He considered taking it upstairs for the lads to play later but a stray, unwelcome shiver slipped swiftly down his spine when he held the box. He heard the rattle of wings. A large bird taking flight, but it sounded nearby. Almost too close. It must have been right outside the window.
The flap of those wings unsettled Alfie more than he cared to admit. He quickly stashed the box back on the shelf amongst the other old games and briskly went to spend some time with his family upstairs.
The sounds of their muted Christmas celebrations sounded miles away from the shadows around him in the empty bar. It was as if the stranger had brought something unwelcome in with him last night. Something that was still lingering close to walls, like leaves and roots woven into the nest of a hungry, winter bird.