In the next few weeks, a new story of mine, The Way of the Mother, will appear in Nosetouch Press’ Fiends in the Furrows, an anthology of folk horror. (This story is the one that will allow me to apply for HWA membership, finally!). It is also a story which evolved from a world I started to create back in 2014 when I wrote The Dance, (first published in Horror in Bloom, and which I rediscovered when we needed an extra tale to go into The Infernal Clock’s CalenDark: The Infernal Almanac last year).
The original tale revolved around 3 characters Tommy, Betty and Fiddler, a travelling troupe which entertains rural communities with their music and dance. If you look up the history of rapper dancing, you will find there are actually characters which take these parts. Tommy is usually the MC, Betty is a man dressed as a woman who cavorts and entertains the crowds and there are musicians. For the purposes of my story, I created Fiddler to take on the musical role. Rappers themselves are swords with handles at either end. Numerous videos exist on YouTube and some dances look pretty lethal. Perhaps you can begin to understand why it called to me …
Anyway, after this rediscovery, I really wanted to find out more about this unholy trio and the horrors they could be involved in and so I wrote The Five Turns of the Wheel, – now out for beta reading. The Five Turns, needless to say, refers to a time of ritual, or The Dance, each turn taking place on a different day. There is also a sixth day which the people of the Weald do not like think about – although the preceding five days are pretty horrific themselves. In this book, I was able to properly explore the place beyond the veil from which the three came and how they forced the humans of the Weald to offer up their own.
Whilst I still write other stories, I find that it is Tommy, Betty and Fiddler who keep pulling me back to the Weald and its inhabitants. Perhaps I might kill them off properly one day – I actually thought I had in The Five Turns but then I read my ending again and … well that’s for another time. I am having too much fun with these characters to let them go, something I’ve not actually experienced fully before. Usually a story is done but not with these folk …
In case you’re interested in the triumviate’s first appearance in print, I’ve decided to put The Dance here for you to read. I hope you like it.
The blades flashed in the early morning sunlight, their reflection glittering amongst the newly-minted canopy above; there they lay, five twitching fingers of razor-sharp perfection.
Tommy had prepared them well, now all he needed were the dancers. Betty would be back soon and then they would go a-gathering together, with a hey nonny, nonny. A high-pitched screech reached his ears. Fiddler. Tommy smiled, the musician was on form.
“A fine morning,” said Tommy as Fiddler approached.
Fiddler grinned and plucked at his discordant strings.
“True,” responded Tommy. “I think we should reap a bountiful harvest today.”
Another string rang out its reply and both men laughed at the joke. Fiddler sat down on the grass beside Tommy and raised his face to receive the blessing of the sun. Tommy knew he would sit there quietly until it was time for the festivities to begin. Should a passer-by glance in their direction they would see nothing. Fiddler’s long-tailed coat and breeches were as green as the new-sprung grass; his weather-beaten face as lined as the bark on the nearby oak. Nobody would notice him, Nature camouflaged her son well.
In stark contrast, wild-haired and wild-eyed Tommy drew even the most reluctant look. Clad in a patchwork of animal skins and sporting a peacock feather in his top hat, he presented the viewer with a bizarre and unsettling figure, someone to be avoided at all costs. But when Fiddler started to play they would come to him and dance. They always did.
A slight tremor ran through the ground beneath Tommy’s feet. Betty was on his way. The birds sensed his coming and rose up into the soft blue sky in a panicked frenzy, abandoning nests and newly-hatched alike. Showers of delicate pink and white blossom settled on Tommy’s shoulders and carpeted the ground around him. Betty would like that; Tommy knew he loved to see the blossom fall. It made it easier to see between the branches, to find the larder within and from the shrill cries that came from above, Betty would find plenty to satisfy his appetite. The bounty of spring they called it. And that was just the start, the appetiser if you like.
A shadow stretched towards him from the end of the lane. Darkness had fallen between the encompassing arms of the hedgerows, a thin ribbon of black wending its way along the rural byway. Betty knew how to make an entrance alright. The village was certainly in for a treat that night; forget the wicker man, the rites that they would perform carried a greater potency. This day, the first day of spring, belonged to them, and the night belonged to their dance.
Betty joined them on the carpeted bank, his bulk sending a cloud of blossom back up into the air where they whirled briefly before settling onto the ground once more. Some petals landed in Betty’s hair and in the nest of his beard but he did not brush them out, just clapped his hands in delight at his new adornment. The noise reverberated around the valley like a thunderclap, ewes that had been grazing nearby barged their lambs away in panic, heading for higher ground; the few remaining birds in the trees above gave in to their terror and flew off in alarm. A mile away, the people of Wootton heard the noise and paused briefly before shrugging their shoulders and writing it off as merely a car backfiring somewhere. They had other things to think about. Daniel smiled, he recognised that sound. Betty was happy. That was a good sign. They had just come through a long, dark, cold winter and today the season had finally turned. Tonight they would celebrate in style, in the old way.
Children had been kept off school, workers had booked a day’s leave. The half-dozen newcomers who normally commuted to the city had initially looked on in patronising amusement as the locals decorated their village green and had then decided an evening of free food, drink and entertainment was too good an opportunity to miss. If they joined in they might finally be accepted, no longer outsiders but an important part of the community, become true sons and daughters of the earth. Eat, drink and be merry. Such a quaint custom. So very rural.
Posts bedecked with scarlet ribbons were placed around the edge of the green, intertwined with silver and gold; wattle fencing filled the gaps between the posts. These too would be adorned – but not yet, they had to wait for the hunters to return.
Tommy could see all this happening in his mind’s eye, even though he was over a mile away. He loved these little country rituals, kept alive by those who knew nothing of the history behind them but pretended they did; creating false stories that hid the reality of what had really happened, massaged away the blood and the horror, turned it into a tourist attraction. Tommy, Betty and Fiddler though, they knew the true story, they brought with them not only the dance but also its purpose and meaning. Daniel also knew the truth behind the three companions but still he had summoned them on behalf of the village. Just as he had every year – for as long as anyone could remember.
The trio continued to sit silently as the day wore on and the excitement in the village grew. They could feel the expectation even from this distance; it fed them, gave them energy. All they had to do was wait and they were good at waiting. Slowly the sun began to set, sending shards of gold across the blackening fields as around them life went on, in one way or another. Cows were taken in for milking, sheep herded into pens, birds sang their last song of the day and the three rose to their feet. Betty at last pulled his outfit from his bag and held it up against his muscular body. This was his moment.
“Am I not beautiful?” he laughed, twirling in delight.
“A real sight for sore eyes,” said Tommy as Fiddler screeched on his strings. Betty stripped, ignoring the damp air, the growing chill, and pulled the gown over his head. Crimson velvet slashed with silver and gold flowed over him, falling to his knees in soft folds, leaving hirsute legs bare. Clogs enclosed his feet. In his jet-black beard he twined ribbons of a similar colour to his dress. He was ready. The others smiled at him.
Tommy bowed to Betty who curtsied in response. They took each other’s hand and proceeded to circle slowly together, bowing to the sun as it finally set and to the moon which had risen in its place. Fiddler started to play, his song replacing that of the birds which had fallen silent at the command of his bow. His arm moved slowly at first, allowing the bow to gently caress the strings in honour of the season’s birth and then picking up speed, faster and faster, with Tommy and Betty keeping pace until they became no more than a wild blur amongst the blossom that danced with them. When Fiddler finally stopped they knew it was time. Tommy gently picked up each knife, kissing its steel before wrapping it in its own silk cloth and then swaddling them protectively to his chest. When he was ready, they set their feet towards the village, with a hey nonny, nonny.
By now the hunters had returned to the village and hung their catches amongst the ribbons. This sight made the newcomers slightly queasy; rabbit skins, dead crows, foxes tails, all were reminders of the truth of nature, red in tooth and claw. It brought man back down to the level of the beasts.
“We are all merely animals,” said Daniel. “It does us all good to remember that, even those who prefer to see nature wrapped in cellophane on a supermarket shelf or from the safety of the armchair. Tonight is the night we remember our real place in the world. When you become real.”
The newcomers laughed nervously. They had begun to sense something in the air, not the blanket of expectancy that had hung over the village all day but something more dangerous, primeval even. It was so strong, they could almost taste it and as the drink started to flow, they accepted gratefully, allowing the alcohol to smother their fears, soothe away their worries. It was a party and they were having a good time. It did not cross their minds to simply go home, nor would Daniel have let them.
He, meanwhile, glanced up the lane that led to the green. The entertainment would be here soon. The villagers deserved a night like this. They had worked hard. He was not so sure the townies would appreciate it but then again that was their loss and the village’s gain. He refilled his pint from the barrel and took a bite from the steak sandwich that had been passed to him. Blood dribbled down his chin. He liked his meat rare. He did not wipe the juices away but allowed them to drip down his beard, stain his shirt. Others marked themselves in the same way. Only the newcomers dabbed prissily at themselves with paper napkins, trying to maintain civilised standards the villagers appeared to be casting off with abandon.
Small pyres had been built around the edge of the green, embracing it in a fiery halo; within its bounds, a circle of braziers, all combining to warm, light and delight those within the ribbon-dressed perimeter. The moon had also dressed itself for the occasion, donning a crimson cloak that bathed the celebrants below in a bloodied shimmer.
Daniel was pleased with the preparations. Tommy would approve.
The sound of laughter drew the approaching triumvirate on, pulling them into the village, into the fire, into the soul of the community.
At their arrival the crowd fell silent; parting to allow the men to take up their positions in the centre.
Tommy went over to the table that had been left empty for him and rolled out the cloth, freeing the knives that had slept within. He would not make them wait long.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” he cried. “Tonight we welcome spring and bid farewell to winter. Tonight we welcome light and banish dark. Tonight we welcome life and banish death. Tonight we dance!”
Tommy raised his hat in salute to the villagers who cheered him in response. Daniel stepped forward. It was to him the honour of reply had always been given.
“Villagers and Strangers,” he roared. “Tonight we birth spring and kill winter. Tonight we birth light and kill dark. Tonight we birth life and kill death. Tonight we dance!”
Daniel bowed to the three old friends in front of him.
“My lady,” he said to Betty. A small snigger from amongst the newcomers broke the silence, he ignored it. “It is for you to choose the dancers. It is for you to decide the shades of life and death.”
He took Betty’s hand courteously, a gallant leading his lady. Together they walked sedately, turn and turnabout, nodding to the faces that smiled back at them, accepting the curtsies and bows of the audience. When they had completed their circuit, Daniel dropped Betty’s hand and stepped back. Betty walked towards the small group from which the earlier snigger had come. Without hesitation, he reached his arm in amongst them and grabbed the arm of the culprit, dragging him out into the middle of the circuit.
Tommy picked up a knife and walked over to the man, who quailed at the sight. When he was merely handed the knife, he smiled with relief.
“Tonight sir,” said Tommy. “You will dance.”
Betty selected four other dancers; each was a newcomer to the village, an outsider, each was given a knife.
“Gentlemen,” said Tommy. “I bid you welcome. This is a simple dance. You will find it easy enough to follow the steps, Fiddler’s music will guide you. Firstly though, you must take your positions.”
Tommy guided the men so they stood in a small circle each holding the handle of their own knife and the free end of the rapper knife belonging to the man next to them. In this way they formed an unbroken chain of flesh and steel. Betty clapped her hands in approval giving Fiddler the cue to start playing; hey, nonny, nonny.
Slowly the men started to circle, tentatively at first, then with more confident steps with the silver blades glowing between them. Fiddler increased the tempo and the dancers lurched forwards, pulled by the knives which seemed to have come alive beneath the bloodied moon. The blades tugged now, making their holders twist and turn, contorting their bodies to allow them to weave in amongst each other whilst avoiding the lethal edges that flashed in front of them. In and out, round and round. Fiddler no longer stroked the bow, he drove it furiously across the bridge of his violin, unleashing a sound that held its audience without mercy, prevented all thought, all movement – except amongst those who danced. For them, he allowed senses to be heightened, to experience fully the fear and terror that came when death became a suddenly real possibility. Sweat ran freely down their faces, down their backs, along arms and on palms, making them slick, taking them one step closer to the end they feared.
“Kill winter,” roared Betty.
“We kill,” replied the villagers.
“Kill dark,” cried Betty.
“We kill,” replied the villagers.
“Kill death,” sang Betty.
“We kill,” replied the villagers.
The rapper swords were spinning now, taking their dancers with them. They continued to weave in and out. Tossed into the air even, without breaking the chain. Again and again and again. Then the music stopped. The dance stopped. The men gazed in bewilderment at each other, wondering how they were still in one piece, glad it was all over. Slowly a look of relief began to form on the face of each one. Pulses slowed, hearts slowed, yet minds continued to race.
“You have danced with perfection,” said Tommy. “Gentlemen, I thank you.”
The dancers still held the swords in an unbroken chain which were now locked to form a pentacle. The men relaxed a bit, allowed themselves to smile, a slightly embarrassed look on the face of each one as they realised their stupidity. They had not been in any danger. This was all just harmless fun. They would humour the village, this bizarre trio; they could be as rustic as anyone. They awaited their next instructions with lighter hearts. The crowd was hushed around them.
“However, the dance is not over yet,” said Tommy. “There is one more task to perform, hey, nonny, nonny.”
“We kill,” said Daniel, his face lighting up at the thought.
On cue, Betty skipped around the watchers. This time no one sniggered, the one remaining townie stayed quiet, she tried to become invisible, surreptitiously moving back, away from the dancers.
Still Betty stopped in front of her; reached in with his long hairy arm, grabbed the botoxed bottle-blonde, and lifted her out. He carried her gently towards the dancers, and then lifted her above them, placing her in the centre space of the five-pointed star that had formed. She was amongst friends, there was nothing to fear. This night could not go on forever. She did decide however, first thing in the morning, she would be putting her house on the market; it was a good job that she had held onto her flat in the city. The sound of voices around her drew her back to her current predicament, better get it over with. Dance and then sleep, oh how she longed to sleep.
“We dance again,” said Tommy, looking directly at her. “And then you will sleep.”
“We kill,” roared Daniel and raised his tankard in a toast to the crowd.
“We dance,” they cheered back.
“Hey, nonny, nonny,” sang Betty.
Fiddler struck a note and the men found themselves spinning again. As before they wove in and out, round and round, forming a perfect circle of terror. They had no time to think of the latest addition to the circle. Their movements were so frenzied they could see nothing except the steel that shimmered so dangerously close to the skin, they did not see what was happening to the woman in their midst. Occasionally one would feel a warm spatter on their face, perhaps notice the shirt of the man next to them had suddenly darkened in colour, felt a sudden resistance to their blade which fell away after a few more steps. They might have noticed Betty had started to sing and another, more high-pitched sound had joined in; an accompaniment that did not last long, leaving Betty to sing by himself as he skipped happily around the steel-bound dervishes, with a hey nonny, nonny.
The music slowed, became more sedate. Fiddler was leading up to his finale.
“Welcome Spring,” cried Tommy.
In answer, the moon turned the full power of its bloody eye on those below. The fires around the green roared up in expectation. The audience moved closer to the dancers. The woman was no more to be seen. Silver blades reacted to the pull of the moon, allowed it to guide their edges, to kiss the skin of the dancers in thanks for their offering. Tommy watched in approval as the knives fed on the dancers, tasted the death of winter, drank in the birth of spring. The season had changed to Fiddler’s tune.
At last both the music and the knives stopped. Tommy picked up the silver fingers that, now sated, no longer twitched; he caressed them tenderly before wrapping them up once more. He started to walk down the lane and out of the village. Fiddler followed him, still playing on his violin, but this time a lullaby for the sleeping blades whilst Betty sang softly beside them. Their work was finished, hey nonny, nonny.