Alyssia felt the damp leaves and branches scratch her face as she raced through the thick undergrowth. Running blind, she twisted this way and that in the blackness, stumbling, racing, tripping over overgrown roots and protruding rocks. Her chest pumped hard, blood pounding in her ears and her skin prickled with adrenaline. Her instincts urged her on, although her legs felt like they could take no more.
She could hear the barking of dogs and screams of the others, as everything around her burned to the ground. She wondered where Liza, Chester and Tel had gone. They had been right beside her just a moment before, although a moment felt like a life time ago.
Alyssia had been in her bed, in the girl’s dormitory just a few hours ago, pretending to sleep as Madam Griselda had just patrolled past the bedroom door as midnight struck. Thirty other girls slept beside her in their own wrought iron beds. She could feel the lattice of steel dig uncomfortably into her, covered by the thin mattress. She pulled the wool blanket tightly around her, waiting for the coast to be clear.
Her dark, curly hair splayed out on her malnourished pillow. She brushed a curl from her toffee coloured cheek. She peered into the darkness, her eyes a deep, golden amber; they were sharp and didn’t miss a thing.
At 15 Alyssia was tall for her age. At times she felt like she was all arms and legs, gangly rather than graceful but recently she had been developing a certain amount of poise, a lady likeness that at first she found strange, but at least had helped with her tree climbing. Her nickname was gecko. She could always be found climbing a tree, wall or beam where she shouldn’t be, narrowly escaping with her tail intact. The gecko is known for its ability to be well camouflaged, stealthy and get out of trouble quickly. Sometimes it has to make small sacrifices to survive but it’s nothing that it can’t grow back in good time. She liked the idea of being like this quick witted creature.
The days melded from one to the next in the Sanctuary. Routine was strict, as was Madam Griselda’s rule over the children. As Principle she made sure she kept the children in line, and fear was usually her best weapon. This was the place Alyssia had known as home for as long as she could remember; an orphanage for unwanted children. Cast away to the further corner of the city amongst the rural farmers and gypsies; they couldn’t get up to any trouble out here. The Sanctuary was just on the edge of a large, dark forest, thick with trees and poisonous bushes and riddled with hidden caves and brooks. The children were strictly forbidden to enter the forest, and if they were even seen to be playing near the edge, they were quickly called back. The caretakers made sure to relay stories of dangerous animals the prowled the woods, looking for plump, young children to devour, and even the children had taken to keeping the legend of the witch in the woods alive. Many had sworn to have seen a wizen, grey old lady lurking the Sanctuary ground while they slept, covered in animal skins, and twigs in her hair, peering in at windows looking for a child to steal. Alyssia didn’t believe any of this nonsense and any chance to steal into the woods she would take.
Tonight was the full moon rising ceremony. The Red Cloaks would gather from all over the East woods to meet to perform their holy rituals and celebrate the moon as she turned a deep blood red at the peak of her rising. Tonight was that night, and Alyssia was not missing it for the world.
“Liza!” Alyssia hissed. “Wake up! I can hear you’ve gone to sleep!”
Liza snorted herself awake.
“Aly? Oh be quiet, I just dozed off for a moment. If you don’t keep quiet Madam Griselda is going to have both our heads. “
Liza and Alyssia were reluctant best friends, although they both knew that they could really never be without each other. They were fiercely competitive and always trying to out-do each other and squabbling over almost everything, but they would never let the other be badly treated by anyone else.
“Get up lazy bones!” whispered Alyssia as she pulled on her wool jacket. They didn’t have much at the Sanctuary, but at least Ms Myra kept them clothed, as the resident seamstress and one of the kinder care takers of the Sanctuary.
Liza swung her legs out the bed and planted them daintily on the floor. She was 16, a year older than Alyssia, which she constantly loved to remind her. Liza had been born in the cold winter lands of Russia. Her skin was pale all year round, even during the summer. Her features were sharp like the icy snow flakes of her homeland, and just as beautiful. Her hair was almost as white as her skin. She looked like a beautiful blizzard, graceful and icy. She didn’t suffer fools and her sharp tongue always found its mark. Many were sure to not get caught in her snowstorm. Liza was a talented dancer, and used what she could from her life before the Sanctuary, to practice ever chance she got. She glided like a swan on satin slippers, and there was no denying her skill and talent.
Like many at the Sanctuary, Liza had never told anyone what had happened to her parents before she came to the Sanctuary, not even Aly. It was a place shrouded in secrets.
“You know Chester is going to be waiting outside already and Tel will be ready to go back to sleep by the time you finally get yourself ready; poor, little dormouse.”
Liza glared at Alyssia.
“I’m coming!” Liza hissed, finally pulled on her leather boots.
Alyssia was already out the door.
Aly snuck through the stone corridors, past Professor Ignus. They could hear him snoring through the door. He was always full of chalk dusty and smelt of old bacon. He was the Sanctuary professor and tutored the children of all ages, from Geography, science, mathematics, language, philosophy and science. His favourite quote was “"Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with a full one." Although he thought that every child in the Sanctuary had a hopeless empty mind. Even the bright ones could do nothing to impress him. He signed and grumped through ever lesson, convinced that he was never going to get anything into these children’s cavernous heads. He frowned upon the arts as a frivolous waste of time, and downright detested physical pursuits. Chester could not have been more of a disappointment to Professor Ignus if he tried. At fifteen he was short but strongly built and relished his ability to out run every other girl or boy any time of the day. He could pull out a young tree straight from the ground (although Tel would tut tut him and make him replant it immediately) and climb and wrestle like a man twice his age. His blue eyes and copper hair stood out of his broad face, and were only outshone by his bright white smile. Liza had noted with irritation that some of the other girls at the Sanctuary had also begun to notice this. People sometimes called him Cub, after the young, black bear cubs that lived in the safer parts of the forest. Their endless wrestling, climbing and boisterous nature seemed to embody him perfectly.
Alyssia quickly opened the lock, they both squeezed out through the wrought iron gate. Aly had learnt to pick a lock from a travelling gypsy that had set up camp for a short time near the forests edge. In turn she had “borrowed” a piece of silk from Ms Myra’s workshop and presented it to him in exchange for his knowledge. The same gypsy was so pleased with the silk, he had given her a little bit of information about the Red Cloak’s dealing’s tonight. The gypsies were always privy to secrets and were said to have the sight into the mysteries of the future. Alyssia took the information with a pinch of salt, but any opportunity to sneak away during the night was always welcome.
Chester and Tel were standing near the edge of the forest, looking to be squabbling about something.
“Yes Ches, I know that it’s psychically impossible for pigs to look up at the sky, but we’re still not breaking into Farmer Curdle’s farm to test the theory!”
“Finally! We’ve been waiting for you two for eon’s already!” Tel exclaimed as Alyssia and Liza sneaked along to meet them.
Tel was the youngest and smallest of the group at thirteen. Behind his baby face and soft, brown hair, was a keen mind that could understand and absorb complex ideas or solve problems in an instance. His parents had been rumoured to be great philosophers and mathematicians, and highly respected in higher thinking circles, but their controversial theories on politics and creation had not sat well with the Prime Minster, and that was part of why Tel had found himself at the Sanctuary a few years later. In defence he has thrown himself to his studies and even Prof Ignus could not deny his dedication even if he refused to believe in his ability.
“It’s all Liza fault! You know how slow she can be when you try wake her up” Alyssia gave Tel a quick smile and a wink. She often thought, if she had ever had a little brother, she hoped he would be like Tel. Tel blushed and looked away with a shy smile.
“Come on, we’re going to miss the whole thing!” hissed Tel, and he stalked into the forest. Alyssia smiled to herself. Such a brave, little dormouse he was.
Life at the Sanctuary wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The four had heard stories of some of the other orphanages across the land. You could always see the ones that come from the tougher territories. Stories of beatings and abuse always found their way into the dormitories at night, whispered from bed to bed. They would have that hard look in their eyes, and would hardly ever open up to the other children at the home. She would sometimes creep to the edge of the boundary where the Sanctuary met the forbidden woods, just to be alone just to think. Sometimes she would think about what had become of her parents, she remembered nothing about them; a flash, a sound, a smell here and there, but just flimsy wisps of memories, mostly of her mother. She wondered if they thought about her. The other children could be heard running and shouting in the playground during their free period before the long study time. Sometimes she would hide from the others, and they knew to leave her be until she returned to them. As the years went by at the Sanctuary, she sometimes felt like she didn’t fit in with the other children. She felt like a strange, foreign creature, hiding inside a body that didn’t belong to her; being inside her own skin felt very unnatural these days.
She sat at the base of a large cedar tree. It was her favourite tree in the grounds, if someone could have a favourite tree. She never told anyone these types of things, fearing they would think her a bit strange. Thinking you’re strange and other people thinking you were strange, are two entirely different things. She always felt a sense of calmness when surrounded by the earth and nature. Especially when she was feeling like she did today. She stared absentmindedly out into the woods, letting the deep green colours take her in.
A large crow glided from the tree tops, its pitch black feathers reflecting rainbow colours. It ruffled its wings, preening its black beak through its long, sleek feathers. It landed just on the other side of the boundary.
The crow hopping closer, cocking its head to the side playfully, it’s glistening, marble eyes staring straight at Aly. A strange shimmer passed over the bird. Aly cocked her own head. That was also strange. The bird seemed to be staring straight at her, and again the image shivered like heat rising off a fire and for a split second, the crow vanished and Aly saw the bearded face of a man where the crow sat. And then it was gone. Aly stumbled back. The crow stared back at her unblinking, squawked at her angrily and flew away. Aly shuddered, feeling a chill spread through her. Perhaps Madam Griselda was right about the woods.
Four pairs of curious eyes peered out of a green cascade bush in the midnight forest.
“Stop shoving; ouch my foot!” Grunts and whispers arose from the rustling foliage, but the spectacle before them soon captured their undivided attention and they fell quiet, mesmerised by the old rituals of the Red Cloaks.
A great fire burned inside a circle of twelve stone obelisks inscribed with strange writings and etchings. Sixty Red Cloaks, men and woman, although they could not be sure from the deep, crimson hooded cloaks that covered them from head to toe, slowly circled the burning stones. Five Cloaks surrounded each obelisk, and began to chant softly. The sound was deep and soothing. The four children could not understand the words that were being said, but they sounded ancient and rolled off the tongues of the Cloaks as if they had known them from another life time. These were the holy men and woman of the ancient tribe. They guarded their secrets carefully and made sure to move continuously; never making one stop their home. No one even knew how many their number, although it had been rumoured in the hundreds.
The fire and stone burned fiercely in the dark forest, so deeply that the ancient etchings and lettering began to glow bright red. The Cloaks chanting became more urgent and powerful, as sixty pairs of red arms and hands lifted upwards towards the moon and stars, like a field of blood red wheat. The four could feel the air thicken; they could sense something strange was taking place, something mystical. The Cloaks joined around the twelve stone spears, forming a protective circle as the moon shown down on them, with her blessed glow.
Aly peered out from the thick bushes, the light falling on the face of one Red Cloak revealing a strong, handsome jaw. Curiosity sparked in her; she leaned a little closer. The hood lifted from the ground for a moment and two green eyes found Aly’s. She froze. A boy not much older than her was looking straight at her; his eyes pinned straight on hers. Would he betray her position? The eyes crinkled in a small, secret smile and Aly felt a jolt through her. She hid her mouth shyly behind an oak leaf as she felt her own mouth return the smile. The handsome face flicked his eyes back to the ceremony at hand.
The intonations became more frantic and the four saw a figure emerging from the outskirts of the Cloaks. Red hair, dressed all in white a young woman walked serenely through woods, eyes closed as if in a trance. As if not feeling the heat, she floated forward towards the flames, a peaceful look on her face. The chanting reaching a frenzied pace, as the young woman looked up towards the full, bright moon, her lips moving silently in time with the chanting and stepped delicately into the raging inferno. The moment the flames touched her she disappeared into a column of raging fire that shot up mightily into the night sky. The moon, full and white in the dark autumn evening sky, big as a giant’s white china dinner plate, started to take on a strange pink hue. As the chanting became more frantic the moon’s colour started to deepen until it was a crimson red. The four could not believe their eyes! The stars glittered, tainted pink with the red glow of the Mother of the sky. The girl was no more, just a mound of ash, an offering to the Mother of the night, paid in life. The chanting subsided to a gentle hum again. The magic had been recreated for one more generation, a promise to the moon through spells and blood and oaths long held. The Red Cloaks had made their blood vow one more time.
Pulling twigs and leaves out her hair, Aly’s eyes were strung wide open, like on hinges.
“That was …..” Tel started and then stopped, just shaking his head in disbelief. None of them were quite sure how to process the dark magic they had just experienced.
Liza’s shook a moth out of her sleeve.
“I really thought it would be more exciting, very disappointing!”
“You fat liar! I felt the whole hedge shaking you were so scared!” grinned Aly.
“Oh shut your trap” Liza snapped , but a small smile snuck across her face.
Aly thought back to the handsome face, and smiled secretly to herself.
“Lay off your two”, said Chester, “let’s get back before someone notices the pillow in my bed isn’t breathing”
They all started back again pushing through the thicket of beech and pines.
Half way back, Tel suddenly dropped to one knee “Wait…” Something’s wrong. He wasn’t sure if it was something he’d heard, smelt or just felt, but something was amiss. He had a habit of detecting things, unseen, subtle things that other people just weren’t aware of. They were always joked with him,” it must be your whiskers little dormouse!” Whatever it was, it was always right.
They hunched down, creeping slowly forward, as quiet as could be, tip toeing over logs and rocks. Suddenly in the distance they heard screams of fright, men and woman shouting and dogs barking. They peered through the tangled mass of mottled creepers onto a horrifying, bloody sight.