Shadowchild

 

In 1629 something visited the parish of Feckenham. The events that followed were so terrifying that they never gained their place in the history books.

 

Now in 2008, something seems to be wrong with Marie Watson’s young children.

Her father won’t believe her and her mother is nearing the end of her tether.

 

Marie feels utterly alone.

 

But is she?

 

 

Chapter One:

 

1629

 

A sinister presence crawled on the cell walls, just as it had for the previous few days, watching the inmates wallow in their own filth like vermin. During this period of observation it would occasionally reach out and touch the soul of a prisoner, focusing on the weak and the dying, granting them the strength to survive in readiness for this day.

The squalid room in which they were kept was constructed from the natural resources found within Feckenham forest, which back in the early twelfth century had covered most of Worcestershire, from Worcester’s fore gate to as far north as the Lickey hills. A dense weave made from felled trees formed the prison walls that housed these petty criminals.

The inmates of Bennett’s Bower were held captive, right beneath the feet of the ones who prosecuted and sentenced them from the manorial courts situated in the upper section of the prison. Trespass against the vert and the venison or possession of hunting weapons or dogs within the forest, these were the crimes for which they were imprisoned. But today was the fourth day since this evil presence had moved in to live alongside them, and their crimes had greatly worsened in severity.

The prison guards had noticed several new corpses in the cell on each of the last few days. With an average life expectancy of just forty-three years and the horrendously unsanitary conditions which the prisoners were forced to endure, death within the prison had always been commonplace, but never quite like this. These corpses were horribly disfigured and most were dismembered; man, woman, child it made no difference. Every person in that cell, without exception, was subjected to rape, sodomy, and violence from the other inmates. Simple criminals serving time for simple crimes had become depraved psychotics, so disturbed they even sodomised the murdered and ate their flesh.

The guards had expressed extreme concerns to the hierarchy of prison governors about the things they had witnessed, but their deaf ears failed to heed these words as a warning. Instead they chose to brush aside the welfare of the inmates entirely, and indeed the threat to the residents of Feckenham forest. As the governors fed like royalty and basked in the relative luxury their positions afforded them, the inmates below acted as one and faced the wall of the cell, each taking their turn to charge at it, kicking with tremendous force. They focused their efforts in the same area, a joint where two sawn boughs met and signs of rot were visible in the wood. Several inmates shattered bones in their feet and legs, collapsing to the floor, incapacitated by their wounds. The prisoners split into groups of four, using the wounded as battering rams, with each impact the wood cracked a little more, shattering the skulls of the sacrificial, reducing the flesh on their crowns to bloody pulp. The assault on the cell wall seemed barbaric to the guards as they looked on from behind the safety of the rusty bars in the door with a justified apprehension to intervene. The single-mindedness of the inmates was as though they were a single entity in pursuit of a common goal. Before long they were free, scattering in all directions, completely unperturbed by the dead they left behind.

* * *

Inside the cell fell silent. An eerie, hollow silence contained by the damp wooden walls. Dozens of bodies littered the ground, most freshly sacrificed for the cause and more visible now that moonlight shone in through the opening in the wall. A single child stood slumped in the centre of the cell waiting as the guards outside rattled the heavy lock. The door made a dull thud as it hit the wall and three guards felt brave enough to rush inside now that this young girl was all alone. Together they drew their broadswords, the slaying of the last remaining prisoner their sole intent. Without getting close, the weapons they held dropped to the ground in unison with their screams, their severed fingers still gripping the hilts of their swords as they fell, held in place by the crushed loop of steel that was intended to protect, not harm.

Two of the men fled clutching their bleeding stumps, the third crashed to his knees, staring at his hand. He trembled in shock with his mouth gaping wide, his grimy pink skin drained to white. The young girl’s fists were tightly clenched; her knuckles cracked as she splayed her fingers and looked up at him, tilting her head slightly to see through her filthy, matted hair. She was calm and relaxed in a way that simply wasn’t right for a child surrounded by such horror and bloodshed. As she stepped towards him her bare feet were bathed in torn flesh, blood oozed between her toes. The guard’s face felt cold in her hands, she leant his head back to see into his eyes; they were rolled over white in pain and that was before she pressed them into his skull with her thumbs. Beneath his screams was the sound of his eyeballs being crushed, the pain he felt was short-lived, he was lifeless and limp in seconds.

* * *

The escaped inmates ran through the densely forested areas that surrounded Bennett’s Bower, soaked to the skin after crossing the narrow moat. More guards chased them from the prison, charging the trailing pack with their broadswords drawn and then slaying them where they stood. Despite the times it was a rarity for these protectors of the king to use their swords in anger as they had the chance to on this night; their over zealous desire would be their undoing.

The nine armed guards easily despatched the first three or four unarmed and weary escapees, but again as one, the others doubled back behind them forming a wall of filthy, wretched-smelling rags, two men deep. The guards readied their weapons for the slaughter of the onrushing mob that encircled them, so many of their number were female or juvenile; they had dismissed any threat to their lives.

What followed could only be described as carnage, so fearless and such was the determination of the group, the guards could each offer only a single flash of their blades before they were overwhelmed. The lucky ones were put to death by their own swords. Timid and frightened captives these savages were no more; this was the curse that the evil in that cell had bestowed upon them, and now they had a feast of fresh meat to satisfy their desperate hunger after living off scraps in their cell.

To die by one’s own sword for a loyal protector of the king could be considered as a less than honourable way to meet your demise, but given the choice, the three that were still alive as the prisoners began to feed would have chosen the blade. That’s exactly what their agonised screams implied.

* * *

Back at Bennett’s Bower the young girl stepped over the corpse of the guard she had murdered, cool and unruffled, she slowly ascended the stairs to the courts above. She was greeted with regarding eyes. Shy of four foot in stature and dressed in heavily soiled rags, her puny frame and withered appearance was all these eyes saw, neglecting to notice the menace staring back.

The small collection of governors and noblemen were sent reeling to the floor, their seats whipped from beneath them with a simple wave of her hand. The men who carried them, unsheathed their rapiers; a far more elegant and decorated sword than those carried by the guards, and they rose to their feet confronting the child. The first nobleman to attack was disarmed and beheaded in a single deft movement, leaving only three armed men and the Lord of Coventry opposing her. A second brave man approached the child, more wary after witnessing the ease with which his counterpart was slain. His lunging attack was dodged effortlessly with a twist of her body and he found his guts spilled as she sliced him from groin to sternum. What was primarily a pointed weapon more suited to thrusting attacks; somehow seemed sharper and more lethal in this child’s grasp.

The Lord of Coventry called for his guards as his last two governors threw their rapiers to the floor and backed away from the child, fearful of her threat.

“They won’t come!” the girl spoke in an unearthly tone, leaping on to the solid oak table that ran almost the full length of the court. The Lord of Coventry stood tall at the head of the table as his governors cowered in shadow across the room. He expected nothing but death as she walked towards him sweeping the table clear with her blade, his terror heightened as an unseen force held him in place

“What is the meaning of this intrusion into the king’s court?” he said, trying to mask the fear in his voice.

The sanctuary in which the governors cowered came to life, just as the cell walls had done four days earlier. The two men attacked one another, lacking command of their own actions as the Lord of Coventry was forced to watch them beat each other brutally; their screams of denial an illustration of their lack of control.

“Where hides this one you call king?” the child demanded an answer, taking the Lord of Coventry by the throat. “Lead me to him,” she ordered.

“I would never betray my king.” He gasped for breath, spluttering his defiant response. She squeezed harder for a moment as the struggle between the governors reached a bloody conclusion, the victor left exhausted and in tears of disgust at what he had been forced to do.

“So be it,” she replied, releasing her grip on him. He choked for a few seconds before clutching hold of his silver crucifix.

“Dear God rid us of this evil!” he cried out, facing the heavens. The child laughed, demeaning his pleas for help. “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I order you to release this child,” he held the crucifix out in front of him.

“Primitive,” she said, snatching the crucifix from his fingers, examining it closely. “Your faith in such iconic symbols is proof of how weak you are old man.” Her voice haunted him as he dropped to his knees and prayed. “Tell your king what you have seen here today; tell him this is just the beginning.” She tossed the crucifix at him, “go now, and take this worthless trinket with you.”

“You’re not going to kill me?” he asked nervously.

“Not today,” she whispered, stepping aside inviting him to leave. He eagerly accepted the invitation and fled from the court, the terror of the ordeal unlike anything he had ever seen, felt, or endured. He didn’t know if what he had witnessed was demonic or spiritual, but he did know that little girl was human in appearance only and the threat she posed was as real as the ground on which he walked.

* * *

A battle that would last for many months began that night. Under cover of darkness the escaped inmates attacked the settlements in the parish one by one. They used the thick forest as cover and organised their strikes with military precision, observing patiently for days before moving in to feast on raw flesh. This cycle of slaughter and feeding was a hunt that served their most basic of drives while systematically eliminating human life in each area. Word spread throughout the parish and indeed the kingdom via those who slipped through the net. The Lord of Coventry had been allowed to go free to provoke a reaction from the king, but the villagers who were spared were also part of this plan. It was always the diseased and dying that were of little use for food that were set free, their eyewitness accounts helping to reinforce the imminent danger that swept the forest.

In turn, each settlement was either put to the slaughter at the hands of these twisted lunatics, or it was deserted in search of a safe haven by the residents. The parish of Feckenham was slowly dying and its deforestation was promptly ordered by the king. His belief that the evil sweeping his land must be born of the forest was fashioned by the tales that it attacked from the trees. A five hundred strong army was despatched to see this threat put to death. By day the army advanced, destroying much of Feckenham’s natural beauty. By night the prisoners continued to attack any populated settlements, but the pickings had become scarce and their hunger unsatisfied. In starvation these psychotics turned on one another like they had done in their cell; the sacrifice of the weak in their number made them a smaller unit, but helped them stay strong.

Barely three dozen of the prisoners remained on the day the king’s army of five hundred soldiers breached their shelter in the forest. Without the cover of darkness they were overcome with ease, as though the tales about their great strength were merely falsehood bred from the panic of the ones who had survived their savagery. A final assault on Bennett’s Bower in the centre of what remained of Feckenham forest was all that was needed to cleanse the evil in the parish.

* * *

The young girl had remained at Bennett’s Bower, waiting for the impending attack. Inside the court the surviving governor stood as her guard, kept alive by devouring the remains of the three who lay dead since the day of the initial attack. Their bones had been picked clean of flesh, the fact it had begun to rot hadn’t deterred him at all, he was deranged, like the prisoners had been.

The ground appeared to shake as the advancing army closed in, it was just before dawn and the moonlight reflected off the surface of the moat, its pale blue glow shimmered with the gentle movement of the water. The last of the prisoners had extinguished the lives of just four soldiers in their final stand, the odds against the young girl and her single protector seemed laughable, yet she looked out at this vast army with a smile.

“Make me proud,” she whispered in the ear of her protector, sending him to his certain death. With a rapier in each hand he descended the stairs and charged into battle.

“Halt!” was the call from the lieutenant. The young girl watched as her protector engaged the army in combat; he matched the prisoner’s tally with his first attack, piercing two soldiers with each of his blades. The army was forced to spread and rush Bennett’s Bower via its moat; the drawbridge was just a few yards wide. Five, six, seven; the body count climbed as he hacked and lunged at the endless numbers that attacked him. Soldiers swarmed into the moat, but none could pass, instead they were dragged beneath the water as they thrashed violently in search of breath. Eight and nine fell before the young girl’s protector was slain by the lieutenant’s musket fire.

“It’s over child,” he said as the soldiers regrouped. Again, she smiled. He summoned his archers and fifty strong they took aim, releasing a barrage of arrows towards her. She jumped down twenty feet on to the bridge, easily avoiding their flight, the court wall split open as they rained upon it.

“This is only the beginning,” she replied calmly. The ground beneath the ranks of soldiers seemed to open up, dragging them into the soil. The lieutenant was showered with blood as the sound of fifty muskets fired at once. He turned to see his archers fall to their knees, a thick cloud of gunpowder smoke engulfing the whole area. As it cleared he could see his own men with their muskets still tight in their shoulders, his army had dwindled by more than a hundred men in minutes, and the numbers were still falling as they were hauled into the earth.

“How is this possible?” he asked, astounded by what he was seeing. As half his men tried to flee, the rest fell under the child’s spell and attacked them. “How are you doing this?” he screamed at the child. She forced him to his knees with nothing more than a look.

“Time is short,” she said, looking up at the sky. The black of night was growing brighter with every second.

Carnage continued as the soldiers fought with steel blades and the ground continued swallowing them as they butchered their fellow men. The child placed her thumbs over the lieutenant’s eyes; he prayed for life as he began to feel pressure. There was a sudden surge of intense heat and the girl screamed out in pain, the pressure on his eyes was gone in an instant.

After a few moments, the lieutenant was brave enough to open his eyes; Dawn had broken and shards of light pierced the trees bathing him in warmth, it seemed his prayers had been answered and the girl was gone. A cloud of ash fluttered away from him in the breeze and he spun around to see his army had been completely destroyed. He yelled for survivors, but could barely hear his own voice, his ears still ringing from the sound of musket fire. His army of five hundred had been all but wiped out in a manner he couldn’t possibly fathom. Severed limbs and blood seemed to be all that remained in the child’s wake, but as the sun rose he saw that the moat was brimming with drowned soldiers, each of them floating with their faces beneath the surface. That day marked the end of the evil in Feckenham forest, and Bennett’s Bower was left to rot, as for the lieutenant, he was never seen again.

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