Free Christmas Story: Holly Night

Some of you might have read my novel, The Five Turns of the Wheel. Some of you may have read my short stories ‘The Way of the Mother’ (Fiends in the Furrows anthology) and ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’ (Diablolica Britannica) which were set in the world of Five Turns. I am continuing to write in this world and one short flash piece is this – sort of – Christmas Story (well, it does mention holly and ivy!). I hope you enjoy it.

Holly Night

When the holly’s barren
And the berries gone
When the birds are dying
Who will sing the song?

When the ivy’s withered
And no leaves are left
When the birds are dying
Who’s the one who’s dead?

The couple paused as they closed the doors of their car, watched the children in the playground.

“A grim rhyme,” said Lily.

“Isn’t it always with kids?” Ray locked the car and took his wife’s arm, guiding her into the pub. The warm light flickering out into the late afternoon gloom was welcoming and he was cold and tired and hungry. They’d had a long drive and still had miles to go.

“You know, I’d be more than happy not to move another inch,” said Ray, sinking into a chair by the open fire. He waited for the ‘I told you so’. It didn’t come, her smirk speaking for her.

The landlord came out from behind the bar. “If you’re wanting food, we’re just opening up the kitchen but it’ll take a while.”

“We’ll wait” said Ray. “We’re starving.” His stomach added its voice to the conversation and Lily laughed.

“Travelling far?” asked the landlord.

“Only a couple hundred more miles.”

The man looked sympathetic. “If you want to break the journey up, we do rooms.”

Ray glanced at Lily, who nodded agreement and they soon found themselves settled into a surprisingly comfortable bedroom.

“En-suite! Wouldn’t have expected that from its olde worlde appearance,” said Lily. “Wonder what Tripadvisor says about the place.” She pulled out her phone and tapped at the screen. Frowned. “Damn, must’ve run out charge.”

Ray checked his phone. No bars. “Out of luck,” he said. “Never mind. Let’s go back down and see if mine host has rustled up that steak he promised.”

The bar had filled slightly when they returned, the stools at the counter now all full. Farmer types, Ray guessed as he took in their soiled clothes and ruddy complexions. Sons of the soil indeed.

The landlord, identified as George, magically appeared at Ray’s side with a tray groaning under the weight of the meals and the drinks they’d ordered.

“Wow,” said Lily, eyeing her plate. “These are certainly generous portions.”

“Always is on Holly Night,” said George, beaming.

“Holly Night?”

“Oh, just a little local tradition,” said the landlord. “Come along and watch if you like. The fun starts in an hour or so.”

Lily grinned. She was fascinated by British folklore and rural ways. “I’d love to,” she said. “It’s okay, isn’t it, Ray?”

Ray nodded, his mouth full.

They ate in silence and only when they had finished, hunger sated, bodies rested, did they start to take in their surroundings, the items adorning the walls—the trophy heads with bared teeth, the traps, all sharp-toothed and vicious.

“Not quite for the vegan crowd,” murmured Lily.

“No,” agreed Ray. “And I don’t think the locals would take kindly to their opinions.”

He thought the faces of the men at the bar looked almost as dangerous as the lures chained to the walls.

A bell tolled outside and as one the customers, exited the pub. They had started chanting as they left. “It’s Holly Night, it’s Holly Night, time to put the world to rights.”

If they hadn’t been laughing and slapping each other on the back, Ray would’ve thought it sounded quite threatening. As it was, he found himself smiling at their good humour.

“Come on,” said George. “It’s Holly Night, it’s Holly Night, time to put the world to rights.”

Ray and Lily laughed, rose from their chairs and followed him out. Across on the green, it seemed as if the whole village had gathered.

A man in animal rags and a hat bearing a peacock feather stood in their midst. He was singing the song they had heard coming from the children.

“When the holly’s barren
And the berries gone
When the birds are dying
Who will sing the song?

As the name was spelt out, a huge bear of a man in a woman’s dress, leaped around the crowd, grabbed the woman nearest to him on the sound of the last letter. It was Lily. She shrieked and giggled but allowed herself to be pulled to the middle of the circle.

“Go on, Tommy. Give us the next verse.”

Tommy called on Ivy, with the giant this time settling on Ray.

Once more, Ray sensed an undercurrent, felt the mood darken, become threatening. Then he saw the children from the playground and relaxed.

They formed a circle around Ray and Lily, two taking a rope which they began to swing, chanting the rhyme yet again. The crowd urged them to jump the rope.

Lily laughed and grabbed his hand. “Hey, Ray. Come on. Let’s do this together.”

Ray chuckled, it would be good to be a kid again. They moved closer to the rope, prepared to jump in. It was only as they neared it that he saw the rope for what it was, a chain of barbed wired.

The couple retreated but the crowd pushed them back. Lily’s grip on his hand tightened and he could see a flicker of fear on her face.

“Ray,” whimpered Lily. “We need to get out of here.”

“And you will,” said Tommy. “If you clear the rope.”

“You must be mad—” Ray was taller than the strange-garbed creature but the man did not seem in the least intimidated. Simply smiled at him.

“No,” said Tommy. “It’s Holly Night. It’s tradition. And we all follow tradition round here. It’s fun.”

They had no choice, were pushed into the wire rope as it spun and were forced to jump. It turned slowly at first and he felt hope rise, then he saw the children’s faces. No longer children, they looked like demons. The wire spun faster, the chanting louder. The last line he heard was “Who’s the one who’s dead?” and the sound of his wife’s scream.

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