“Danny!” Martin screamed into the vacant abyss of the woods as he searched for the missing schoolboy. “Danny!! Where are you?!”
He heard nothing back, only the eerie sound of the wind blowing the fallen leaves and tree branches around him. Martin listened carefully. He was almost sure the woods were speaking to him through the wind, as though they were trying to tell him something.
He worked his way through the woods – it was still daylight but not for much longer – at 4pm dusk was not far off. Eventually though he found a clearing.
There in the middle, was Hindleap Warren’s famous ‘Witches’ Tree’, a monstrous gigantic beech tree that bore the face of a witch somewhere on it, hence its nickname. Martin looked up in awe from the edge of the clearing at its numerous wriggling branches intwining with each other up into the sky.
After a moment, Martins vision was drawn closer to the base of the tree and standing in front of it perfectly still – an eleven-year-old boy in a red coat and uncombed brown hair. Danny.
“Danny!” he called over to the kid, walking behind him. No response. No movement either. Strange.
“Danny, you wandered away from your group, they’re worried about you mate. Best get back before they call your parents.”
Martin looked up and saw what Danny was looking at – he had found what many had interpreted as the ‘face of the witch’ on the side of the tree, staring down at them both, with an angry expression. Some of the teachers and staff had been winding the children up by telling them there really was a witch trapped inside and that the tree was magic. Now seeing the huge tree for the first time, Martin wondered what he would have made of it had he now been looking at it with children’s eyes.
“But she was calling me,” Danny responded softly.
“Who? Karen, erm – Miss Wilson?” asked Martin, thinking Danny was referring to fellow teacher Karen Wilson. “She’s been calling your name for a while Danny, a lot of people have – “
“No. Not Miss Wilson.” Danny replied, still facing away from Martin. He lifted up his arm and pointed up at the tree. “Her.”
Martin looked up. Danny was pointing at the face of the witch. Martin felt his stomach drop slightly – a moment ago the expression of Witches’ face in the tree had been one of anger – but now it appeared as though she was smiling. Regardless, he assumed he’d interpreted it wrong and dismissed it.
“Time to go, Danny.” Martin said, laying a gentle hand on the kids shoulder and giving his shoulder a squeeze. Danny finally turned around, facing Martin with his freckles and glasses and bangs draping over his forehead.
“It’s time to go all right,” he replied in an unusually slow and deep voice that made Martin nervous.
“But I’m not going with you,” Danny added.
Before Martin could think of a response, a white flash interrupted his vision and a bang went off in this head, almost like he’d been struck with something. He fell backwards and landed on his back in the dirt.
He got up immediately, dazed and confused, almost feeling like he’d been asleep. He looked ahead and Danny was gone. He couldn’t see where he’d gone either – he’d just vanished.
Looking around, something caught his vision on the tree, quite high up.
When he realised what it was, he screamed.
Karen had been frantically leading the search party for Danny most of the afternoon – a couple of kids from her class had volunteered to help – Samantha and Gary, as they looked through the woods, searching under and amongst numerous bushes.
Her heart was racing; she’d never lost a kid on a school trip before. While that was scary enough, there was something about the woods that was making her more anxious and nervous than she already was. Like something in the woods was ‘alive’. She wondered if Martin agreed, wherever he was.
Out of the blue, Gary said something that startled Karen.
“He’s probably gone to her.”
“Who hun?” asked Karen, thinking he may have been referring to one of the other teachers or students.
“He didn’t say. But he said she was calling out to him from the woods.”
That alarmed Karen. “What are you talking about?” she asked facing him now.
“When we were on the treasure hunt. He said she was calling out to him. She wanted him to come and find her. She said he would be in danger if he didn’t. Then he was gone.”
Both Samantha and Gary were looking at her now. Karen, now filled with dread over the idea that someone dangerous had ventured into the woods and lured one of their children away, fixed her eyes on Samantha who seemed to know what Gary as talking about.
“Do you have any idea who he might have been talking about?”
Samantha shook her head. “I know where he might have gone though. The Witches’ Tree.”
Martin looked up horrified and scrambled backwards in the dirt, his legs had turned to jelly though so getting to his feet was proving difficult.
It didn’t look real. But it was. He couldn’t understand it. But there was no other way to explain it.
The ‘face’ of the witch was still there in the wood of the tree. But next to it now was a new face. One that hadn’t been there before.
The face appeared to be that of a boy. Wearing glasses, bangs over his forehead and freckles across his cheeks. As though someone had engraved it with a knife onto the tree. It was there, looking frightened, next to the face of the witch who was now looking angry again.
Martin had just about managed to get to his feet, when he heard a voice. He swung around, looking in every direction.
“Who’s there?” he cried.
The dusk that was settling onto the woods now had reduced the light in every direction. Darkness was now creeping in around him, but he couldn’t see anyone anywhere.
When the voice spoke again, he realised where the voice was coming from.
It was inside his head.
“You won’t get him!” the voice hissed angrily. A woman’s voice. An older woman.
“You won’t EVER get him!”
Martin turned around slowly. He didn’t want to believe what was happening. He turned to face the tree. The two faces were still there high up. The face of …. the boy. Danny’s face. And then the other face. The Witch. But there was a difference now. The eyes of the Witches’ face were glowing red. Martin froze.
A noise, somewhere amongst the leaves of the huge tree, came above him.
Martin looked up and saw a branch. But the branch was moving. Towards him. As though the branch had come to life and turned into a long dangling arm. Martin screamed and tried to run, but before he could get to any kind of safe distance, the branch closed around him and pulled him upwards.
Karen heard the screams and charged in the direction of the tree. Branches big and small grazed her as she bolted through towards the clearing, where the huge beech tree they called The Witches’ Tree stood. As she finally emerged into the clearing, the screaming stopped.
She looked around frantically, and saw someone she recognised, standing there by the tree.
She ran towards them and embraced them.
As she did so, her phone rang. It was the head of year Patricia who had stayed behind to call the police.
“Pat! I have him! I’ve found Danny! He’s okay!”
“Oh! You have! Thank god! That’s brilliant! He’s not been hurt at all?”
Karen pulled the phone slightly away from her head.
“You’re not hurt are you Danny?” she didn’t think he looked hurt but thought she’d check anyway.
He shook his head.
“No, he’s fine!”
“Good, good” Patricia said, followed by a long pause before she spoke again.
“Listen, Karen, is Martin with you?”
Startled by the change of focus to Martin, Karen replied, “No, he isn’t. Why?”
Another long pause.
“It’s just, we have the police here… and as it happens, they’re looking for Martin too and they want to speak to him. They’ve found some …. concerning images on his laptop.”
Karen’s stomach tightened.
“Really? What kind of images?”
“Images of Children. Including some pictures of Danny, walking home after school. They really want to speak to him. Do you know where he is?”
Karen felt sick and felt herself pulling Danny slightly towards her with her arm out of instinct.
“I don’t, no.”
“Does …. does Danny know where Martin is? Was he maybe…with Martin while he was missing?”
“I’ll ask him,” Karen said. “We’re coming back to the lodge now. I’ll talk to him on the way. See you in a bit.”
She put the phone back in her pocket and knelt down to Danny’s line of sight.
“Danny, have you seen Marti- I mean Mr Collins?” she asked, using the name the children would have addressed him as.
Danny at first looked up over her shoulder at something high up in the tree but quickly looked back at Karen before answering.
“No,” he lied. “I haven’t seen him at all. I don’t know where he is. I just got lost.”
Karen smiled at him.
“Ok. Not to worry. Come on, let’s get back, you’ve worried a lot of people!”
As Karen took Danny’s hand and led him away, he looked back at The Witches’ Tree.
He saw the face of the Witch in the tree staring at him, smiling now. And next to the Witches’ face …was another face. Martin’s face, engraved in the wood of the tree. His mouth wide open as if he were screaming.
At that point, Danny heard the Witches’ voice one final time, in his head.
“It’s OK Danny, he won’t hurt you. You’re safe now.”
Credit: Nick Wilkins
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