It was a relief to see the girls still alive and seemingly unhurt. Of course, they could be set on fire at any moment but then you couldn’t expect everything to go your way. I certainly couldn’t.
We were hidden behind trees on a rise overlooking the village which consisted of at least a couple of dozen buildings. It was quite a pretty setting for burning people to death.
People had gathered around the three stakes to which Jenny, Claire and Flossie were bound. There were thirty or forty people sat on the grass like they were at a summer festival, relaxed, at the back, trying to work out if it was Iggy Pop or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on the main stage.
And then there were the armed guards. Their clothes were more formal, matching in colour and style. They had weapons, although it was hard to tell if they were well-used and stained with dried blood or made from old tin pots beaten into the approximate shape of the real thing.
Even though they had weapons, they didn’t seem aggressive or menacing. They strolled around talking to people as kids ran around and animals roamed freely. Chickens and pigs. A few goats, a couple of dogs.
The whole thing didn’t really reek of terror and madness, which made it all the more spooky. The seemingly idyllic village that turns out to be full of crazy people who burn people alive was nothing movies hadn’t already warned me about. The Wicker Man had prepared me for the horrors hidden behind bucolic facades. I’d seen the remake with Nicolas Cage, I knew what true horror looked like.
“What’s the plan?” asked Maurice. “Snipe them?”
“If I can keep the high ground, I should be able to pick them off,” said Dudley, his voice high-pitched as ever, but filled with unexpected confidence.
They were both taking it very seriously, assessing the situation, considering the options. There was no sense of panic or doubt. Here was a situation where behaving like little boys who were out of their depth would serve no purpose, and they were here to do a job.
“What the fuck is wrong with you guys?” I said. “We can’t just go barging in there and hope for the best. Look how many of them there are. Don’t let the kids and animals fool you. They’re waiting for us, and they’re ready to use violent means. Look at those torches they’ve got ready. As soon as we attack they can grab one and woof!”
“Oh no,” said Dudley, “you don’t think they’d set one of the dogs on fire?”
“No,” I said calmly. “I mean they can set fire to one of those pyres they’ve built around the girls’ feet. Do you really want to risk the girls being burned alive?”
“We could do what they did in Speed,” said Maurice.
“The Keanu movie?” I’d seen the film but couldn’t think of how it was relevant to the current situation.
“There’s a bit at the beginning where Dennis Hopper takes one of the SWAT team hostage,” said Maurice, “so Keanu shoots him in the leg.”
“He shoots the bad guy?” asked Dudley.
“No, he shoots the hostage. So the bad guy can’t leave with him. If they think threatening the girls will make us do what they want, we could shoot one of them in the leg. Show them they can’t bully us.”
It was hard to know exactly where to begin. “They’re tied to large wooden poles driven into the ground, ready to be set on fire. How will shooting them in the leg help?” I turned to Dudley. “If you do have to shoot one, shoot Claire.”
“Hey, why Claire?” said Maurice.
“Will do,” said Dudley, the man you could count on.
“Our first priority is to prevent them lighting those fires,” I said, which really shouldn’t have needed stating but better safe than sorry.
“You can heal them,” said Maurice.
“I’m not so great with burns,” I said. Jenny’s scar wasn’t from flames, but it was still scar tissue that I couldn’t do anything about.
“I don’t care,” said Maurice.
“Neither do I,” joined in Dudley.
“That’s very gallant of you,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s your love of barbeque that’s important right now. We don’t want to go off half-cocked when we don’t know what the deal is here. Do they look like the kind of people who could sneak into our camp and take the girls away without us even noticing, without any kind of struggle?”
It wasn’t like I knew what those kind of people would look like (other than short and female and sporting a tight black bob) but these people did not give me the impression they had a local ninja dojo.
“Then what?” said Maurice. “Just walk up to them and ask for an explanation?”
“Why not?” I said. “They wanted us to kill that guy. I assume they still want him dead. We can probably negotiate with them, maybe find another way to give them what they want. One man’s monster is another man’s slightly annoyed neighbour. Probably just want their lawn mower back.”
This more circumspect approach was eventually met with begrudging acceptance. It’s much easier to show a girl how much you like her by killing her captors than having a chat with them over a cup of tea. Maurice and Dudley were bursting with a desire to show their loved ones how heroic they could be. If I didn’t nip their newly found bravado in the bud it was bound to get us all killed.
After a little more discussion about what to do in various scenarios (my go to suggestion was to shoot Claire, although it was only accepted as an option in two cases) we walked into the village.
Nobody noticed as we entered, which says a lot about the kind of presence the three of us were able to engender. That moment when you walk into a bar and the room goes silent as everyone turns to stare had never been a problem for us. On the other hand, failing to get served for twenty minutes while waving a tenner in the barman’s face, story of my life.
A couple of dogs spotted us first and came running up, wagging tales and generally being very friendly. People turned and stood up, murmuring and muttering as they got out of our way, forming crowds on either side of us, and a clear path to the green. If they’d thrown rice and confetti it could have been a victory parade. But all they threw were suspicious looks.
The guards rushed to grab torches and raised their swords. They took up position beside the bonfires-in-waiting under the girls, ready to stick the torches into the kindling.
The girls themselves looked very calm. They didn’t say anything, didn’t call out or give any indication we were walking into a trap. They could have been drugged or under some kind of mind control. Or they could have been delirious from being staked out in the sun all day.
As we got closer, they didn’t seem all that delirious. Claire in particular was glaring at me, although that could have been her resting face. I was tempted to give the signal to shoot her immediately, just in case.
A small, plump man in a grey shirt and fur-lined green cloak emerged from the crowd. He had a large chain hanging around his neck, flashing yellow in time with his steps. Four men dressed in dark leathers and carrying spears formed an escort around him. All five had determined looks on their faces, like they were trying to play it cool but really wanted to find somewhere private where they could quietly shit themselves.
I stopped in front of them, Maurice and Dudley either side of me doing their best to look dangerous, although Maurice’s glowering made him look mildly constipated and Dudley looked like he wasn’t sure if he’d left the gas on.
“I am Mayor Nelbum,” said the man with the gold chain. His voice was tense and he spoke quickly. “Have you killed the man in Wizard’s Tower?”
“Yes,” I said. “Can we have our girls back now?”
“You have not killed him,” said the mayor in an accusing tone. “You lie.”
I didn’t know if he was guessing or knew somehow but you can’t blame a fella for trying. You can, however, set his girlfriend on fire.
“Of course we haven’t killed him, you twit!” I said, deciding to go on the mildly offensive. “Do you think we’d just go murder someone because a bunch of hicks tell us to? We went to the tower and saw him, he seems a perfectly nice old geezer. A bit of a moaner, but that’s just old age for you. Perhaps you’re the people we should be killing.”
The mayor raised an arm and the guards by the girls lowered their torches so they were closer to the piles of wood.
“And what good will that do?” I said, starting to get a bit annoyed. “Once you kill them, that’s your leverage gone. Then we definitely will kill you.”
“Don’t test me,” said the mayor. “You can watch them die one at a time, or you can do as we ask.”
It was a decent threat. As much as I’d like to play it hardball, watching people you cared about suffer isn’t easy. Caring, in general, was a terrible thing. Made you very susceptible to blackmail and extortion. And you were expected to get gifts for every birthday and anniversary, which could be a minefield. Very little upside, as far as I could see.
“If you harm any of them in any way, we will burn down this village and everyone in it.” I could make big threats too.
The mayor didn’t seem overly concerned. “You expect us to hand over all three girls, just like that?”
“I might be okay with two out of three.” You have to be open to a little negotiation, even with terrorists.
“Just do what he says,” said Claire.
“Hey!” I shouted over the mayor. “I’m trying to arrange your release.”
“Two out of three?” said Jenny.
“It’s called negotiating, not ultimatuming.”
“They need our help,” said Claire.
“They aren’t bad people,” said Flossie. “They love animals.”
Wonderful. Heckled by my own side.
“Mayor Nelbum, if I could offer you some advice, next time you kidnap a bunch of women, you might consider gagging them.”
“You will kill the man in Wizard’s Tower. Or we will kill your friends.”
With friends like these…
“And why do you want him dead? He didn’t seem much of a threat.”
“He is not what he seems. He is a monster. When the sun sets, he roams the land, spreading chaos and destruction.”
“Is he a werewolf?” asked Maurice.
“No,” said the mayor.
“A vampire? Some kind of nocturnal beast?” Maurice continued naming various creatures of the night and Mayor Nelbum responded negatively to each.
“Can’t you just tell us what he turns into?” I said, getting tired of playing twenty hundred questions.
“No one knows. The monster is invisible.”
“So you’ve never seen it?” I asked, a creeping feeling this was all in their imaginations.
“It is the wind on the night air,” said someone from the crowd that had closed in to form a circle around us.
“The chill in your bones,” said another.
“The ice in your veins,” threw in a third.
“Have you considered just putting on a jacket and a scarf?” I asked. “Sounds like this monster is vulnerable to woollen goods and knitwear.”
“Stop being a dick and listen to them,” said Claire. “Their children are being killed every night.”
I didn’t see how this information changed anything. They weren’t my children.
“I’m not going to kill some bloke because the wind is killing their kids. You can’t stick a sword in pneumonia. Even if this guy is responsible, how the hell are we supposed to get to him? He’s locked up safe and sound in his tower.”
“Wait for him,” said Mayor Nelbum. “Wait here, and tonight you will see for yourself.”
How we’d see an invisible monster I wasn’t sure, but waiting around did have that lack of action feel to it I liked so much. Still, it would end up in us facing some kind of monster, which had that dying in agony and screams feel I wasn’t so fond of.
“Why can’t you kill him yourself? You’ve got all these armed men ready to lay down their lives, right guys?”
The armed men didn’t seem inclined to agree.
“It must be you. The priestess told us you would come. She brought us these women to ensure your cooperation. She named you as Colin, the Master of Sacrifice. You will deliver us from the monster, as foretold to the priestess by the One True God.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
“This priestess, where is she?”
“She will be here tonight.”
I wasn’t too enamoured with the Master of Sacrifice title. A bit ambiguous as to who was being sacrificed, if you asked me. But there did seem to be quite a lot going on here and perhaps it would be worth trying to figure out what. Not like we had any big plans.
“Do you have anything to eat while we wait?” I asked him.