The cockerels of Witches Crossing were confused. Not in the incredibly difficult super-sized-jigsaw-puzzle kind of way, but confused every day and all-day long. They waited each morning for the sun to rise so that they could welcome it, as cockerels have done since the first egg hatched a long, long time ago. But the sun never rose in Witches Crossing. The sun has not risen here since the year 1645, which was the day the last known living Witch was burnt alive, and her last words cursed the village to an eternity of endless rain. So it was no surprise that the cockerels were confused, and that instead they crowed throughout both day and night. It was against this chorus of befuddled chickens, hollering and wailing in celebration of a rosy-fingered dawn that never came, that the villagers of Witches Crossing carried on their lives.
Witches Crossing sits exactly in the centre of the map. If Old Albion, the country in which Witches Crossing could be found, was chopped out from the earth, and someone tried to balance it on the end of a sharp pencil, it would be at the point where Witches Crossing sat that it would balance, standing perfectly still. A bird flying through the sky who looked down upon the village from above would see it as a large grey smudge, like the blurring print on a wet newspaper. Today the rain was beating down just like every other day in the last four hundred and fifty eight years.
In the centre of the small town square, on top of a mound of earth covered over with thick green moss an old man was shouting. He was tall like a lamppost with a mouth big like a car’s wheel. His eyes, two hard-boiled eggs dug into his haggard-thin face, were dancing from one member of the crowd to the next, silently judging each of the twenty tourists in front of him by the size of the diamond rings they wore, and the cut of their clothes.
“GATHER ROUND, gather round,” he screamed, coughing into his dirty yellow handkerchief. The people closest to him felt his breath brush across their faces like a dirty dishcloth, stinking and grimy, and leaving a trace behind that needed cleaning off.
He bowed suddenly, folding in half at the waist like a straw bent in two. He bent all the way down until his long nose nearly touched the ground. He stopped bending when it was just an inch or so away and then looked up with his boggly eggy eyes, smiling. His teeth, with bits of food stuck between each one, bucked out. Stretching out his arm in an uncomfortable flourish and with a wheezing voice he began:
“Ladies and Gentlemen and tiny tiny people, I am Archibold Scroggs and I,” he paused and scratched his nose, “will be conducting your tour today. Welcome to Witches Crossing, friends, the town where every terrible thing you can imagine has happened … and more besides. A town where, if you stop and listen awhile, you can hear the screams of hundreds of witches ghosts, who lurk in the woods and bathe in our ghastly marshes. Listen close and hear our resident ghosts who wrap their arms around the villagers at night to keep them close. This village, a place of witchcraft and cunning folk, is crowded ladies and gentlemen, not with mere mortals like you and I but with spirits, friendly and … not so friendly. Yes friends – my dear, dear friends – welcome to the town of gloom. Welcome – WELCOME – to Witches Crossing, the Most Haunted Village in all Old Albion.”
As he said the last words a nervous giggle could be heard at the back of the group, so he stood up again, suddenly, bones clicking in his back. Leaning towards the tourists he pointed a long and dirty finger towards the owner of the giggle and stared, his eyeballs bulging in their sockets, bloodshot. The tourists were silent.
Coughing again and spitting a gigantic ball of phlegm upon the road, he twirled around, pointing from place to place as he spoke.
“Witches Crossing is surrounded by the Screaming Woods, where the remains of an ancient crossroads can be found, a place where the mortal world meets the supernatural. Look there, friends”, he said, pointing to the North, “there atop the mound in the Screaming Woods is the hanging tree, where evil witches swung and all the people of the village stood around and laughed. All of these lost souls were then buried at the crossroads in the woods, upside down so they could not claw their way back to the surface.”
“Look down friends, please, please, look down. What lies beneath your feet is the grave of a man with no known name buried here a long, long time ago. Some say he was a king, some say he was a magician not of this world. Some say he took his own sweet life in sadness at his crimes, and some say that he roams the pathways around the village even now. I say I do not know. But if you put your hand upon the floor, you can feel a solemn drumbeat sounding beneath the earth. That is his still living heart they say, his undead heart beating a miserable tune. Will he rise up again? I have heard it said and believe it to be true.”
“Now as we go about this tour, you will be scared, I promise you. So frightened – yes, so frightened – that you may wish to just leave your skin behind you now and proceed in your skeleton alone. It will save on cleaning – yes friends, and yes we can keep your skin, or other valuables for you for just a small donation.”
He said valuables slowly, taking the hand of a woman who dripped diamond rings off every finger, and kissing it.
“Now follow me friends, follow me and let us begin. Terror beckons.”
The old man led off his crowd, like the Pied Piper leading the children towards the mystic river – and they followed on behind him, hung upon his every word, barely noticing the wet of the rain or the howl of the winds. And not noticing that they were being watched.