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Witch in a Bottle part 3

A Wyrde Woods Tale

By Nils Visser

Part 3: Stupes & Silver Screen Magic

It wasn’t a particularly loud sneeze, and hastily muffled by Will who immediately threw a hand over his nose. The Stupes were gamekeepers, though.  They might be strong in the arm and thick in the head, but they knew the difference between regular nocturnal sounds in the woods and noises that did not belong.

“What’s that?”

The children ducked low as light beams swept over the graves and tombs.

“It be nothing but your imagination,” one of the others suggested.

“Naun,” the third said. “Some-one-body is here.”

They moved surprisingly quick, spreading about the churchyard to sweep their powerful torches this way and that, and it wasn’t long before one of them discovered the children huddled by the tomb.

“Over here!” He called the others. They were canny enow to surround the children on three sides, with the church wall behind them preventing an easy escape.

The children reluctantly rose to their feet, trying to shield their eyes from the three blinding lights aimed at them.

“I’m so sorry,” Will said miserably.

“Well, well, well,” one of the Stupes growled with satisfaction. “What have we here?”

“Bain’t naun of your purvension,” Joy bit at him.

“That redhead be the devil’s spawn from the Whitfield witch,” another Stupe commented.

“And the little one be Fred Maskall’s granddaughter,” the third Stupe said. “I seen her afore.”

“I’m not little!” Maisy yelled angrily.

“I reckon his Lordship will be wanting to scorse pleasantries with them.”

Joy was mortified. The last thing she wanted was to be hauled off to Malheur Hall to be confronted with Mordecai Malheur. He had scores to settle with both Joy and Maisy, and if he found out who Will was, the boy would be dead before dawn. Malheur had the means, the motive, and the ruthless cruel streak required for murder most foul.

“We ain’t done nothing wrong!” Maisy protested. Valkerie hissed her agreement from her perch on the girl’s shoulder.

“Really?” one of the Stupes asked. “A poacher’s kin out and about in the woods this time of night, with a ferret?”

The other Stupes laughed.

Joy looked around anxiously, but any attempt to scatter and run would end with at least one of them seized and dragged to Malheur Hall, if not all three. Or worse, the shotguns would come into play.

“Enow of this,” the Stupe who appeared to be the leader decided. “We’d best bind their hands.”

The other two began to advance, cautiously as if expecting the children to make a run for it.

Joy suddenly became acutely aware of the weight of Nan Malone’s bottle in her hands. Mordecai Malheur would be delighted to take possession of such an item and the power it might yield him.

Blood, horn, root, thorn, tooth, bone, wood, and stone.

 “I’m going to open the bottle,” she hissed at her friends.

She reckoned it was a risk worth taking, given the circumstances. Nan Malone had been a Guardian of the Wyrde Woods after all. Joy tried to pull the stopper out but it refused to yield.

“What’s that you got there?” the Stupe leader asked, directing his torch at Joy’s hands.  He began to advance on them as well.

Time! Joy needed more time.

Maisy understood. She jumped up on Ellette’s tomb, taking a firm stance and caterwauling like she was fresh out of Bedlam. “Villains! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart![1]

The Stupes stopped in their tracks. All their torches were now aimed at Maisy, allowing Joy to see them looking at her friend with wide eyes, their mouths hanging open as they tried to make sense of Maisy’s strange utterances.

Will jumped up too, joining his cousin in speaking the magic words from the silver screen. “The skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down.[2]

Joy pulled at the stopper with all her might. It was too small for even her nimble fingers to get a good grip and didn’t budge.

“By Pize,” the Stupe leader said. “They’re as daft as a brush.”

His companions agreed.

“Few bricks short of a middling load, sureleye.”

“Naun the sharpest acorns in a treacle mine, tis unaccountable.”

Maisy was outraged, “I heard all the things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell! How then, am I mad?[3]

“Crazy, am I?” Will demanded to know. “We’ll see whether I’m crazy or not![4]

“You be a proper dinlow,” the bulkiest of the Stupes said.

“Willocky and doddlish in the head,” the slightest of the Stupes added, a sneer on his rat-like face.

“Puggled beyond a doubt,” the Stupe leader concluded. “And a mite addled, sureleye.”

Despite their derision, the men stayed where they were, uncertainty in their body language.

Joy decided on a different approach, trying to tug the stopper this way and that to see if wriggling would loosen its hold on Nan Malone’s bottle.

Will spoke to the men sternly, appearing to be thoroughly enjoying himself. “Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.[5]

Maisy was definitely having a grand time of it, intoning gravely, “The Spirit of Evil is trying to enter this tomb, but have no fear, the fires of death will guard us.[6]

Even as she kept her eyes focused on the stubborn stopper, Joy sensed the confusion of the gamekeepers. Stupes fared best with the straight and forward, they had a regimented sense of how things ought to be. Will and Maisy’s invocation of the pictures was likely to be beyond anything they had ever experienced and it confused them. Within that confusion, Joy sensed the first sparks of fear.

No matter how dim, the men were locals fed on a steady diet of Wyrde Woods tales. They all knew the Wyrde Woods some-one-time harboured the impossible. Maisy and Will’s magic was working.

What wasn’t working were Joy’s efforts to open the bottle. She looked at it angrily, half-tempted to just smash the bottle for a brief instant, but she immediately knew that Nan Malone wouldn’t take kindly to that, Guardian or not.

Maisy spoke again, “Presently I shall assume a state of trance, in which the outer mind merges with the astral portion of the human ego.[7]

Valkerie scrambled down the girl’s arm, leaping onto the tomb’s lid.

One of the Stupes took a backward step, muttering, “Witchcraft.”

“Listen to them!” Will announced pompously. “Children of the night. What music they make.[8]

“There’s nothing to fear,” Maisy said reassuringly. “Look. No blood, no decay. Just a few stitches.[9]

Joy was distracted by Valkerie, who dooked at her urgently, the ferret’s eyes fixed intently on the witch bottle. Not knowing what else to do, Joy lowered the bottle. She despaired, knowing that sooner or later the silver screen magic would be overcome when the Stupes recalled that they had shotguns and were by far bigger and stronger than the children.

Will intoned, “You have created a monster, and it will destroy you![10]

The Stupe leader must have decided that the Maskall cousins were harmless fools. “Enow of your hurley-bulloo, impersome nidgets. Or you’ll catch hurt, sureleye.”

“You’d bettermost believe him,” the rat-faced Stupe added. “He be teddious and tempersome. If he chooses to give you a proper bannicking, you’ll be shrucking and skreeling a different tune, sureleye.”

Maisy hollered defiantly, “to die, to be really dead, that must be glorious![11]

Valkerie dooked again. Joy looked down, her eyes widening in astonishment and disbelief. It had taken the ferret mere seconds to relieve the bottle of its stopper. The ferret looked at Joy with what appeared to be triumphant satisfaction, then loped off with the stopper. Joy quickly seized the bottle, pressing her thumb over the opening.

Just as the men began to move forward again, Joy jumped up on the tomb, took place between Maisy and Will, and lifted Nan Malone’s bottle high.

[1] The boy (played by Norman Dryden) in The Tell-Tale Heart (1934)

[2] Doctor Fu Manchu (played by Boris Karloff) in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

[3] The boy (played by Norman Dryden) in The Tell-Tale Heart (1934)

[4] Dr Henry Frankenstein played by Colin Clivein Frankenstein (1931)

[5] Count Dracula to Jonathan Harker. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)

[6] Prince Saliano (played by Béla Lugosi) in You’ll Find Out (1940). ‘Tomb’ has replaced the original ‘room’

[7] Prince Saliano (played by Béla Lugosi) in You’ll Find Out (1940)

[8] Count Dracula to Jonathan Harker. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)

[9] Dr Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) in Frankenstein (1931)

[10] Doctor Waldman (played by Edward van Sloan)in Frankenstein (1931)

[11] Count Dracula to Mina Seward. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)

Find out more about Nils ad the Wyrde Woods here – https://nilsnissevisser.co.uk/

Witch in a Bottle part 2

A Wyrde Woods Tale

By Nils Visser

Part 2: The Bottle

It was a small, silvered bottle, long-necked and bulbous below. It was sealed with an aging stopper. Joy drew in a sharp breath at the sight of it.

“Nifty, ain’t it?” Maisy asked. “Whoopsie daisy!”

The bottle seemed to slip from her grip, falling down…

“NAUN!” Joy shouted.

…but deftly caught by Maisy’s other hand.

Maisy chuckled at her trick but Joy wasn’t amused at all.

“Bettermost give that to me,” Joy said, her tone causing Maisy to frown but hand over the bottle immediately. Joy held it firmly in both hands.

“What is it?” Will asked.

“Witch bottle,” Joy answered.

“It belonged to a witch?” Maisy’s eyes grew wide. “I may have shook it about some. It ain’t empty, there’s stuff in there, solid stuff I reckon.”

Joy knew well enow what would be in a witch bottle. She had one of her own, carefully concealed in a secret location.

Blood, horn, root, thorn, tooth, bone, wood, and stone.

A witch bottle was an object of great power. Joy shuddered again when she recalled the moment she’d been fooled into thinking it was going to crash on the ground, breaking open mayhap. That…here…in the light of a full moon…would have spelled moil to be sure.

“What does it do?” Will asked. “I’ve never heard of a witch bottle before.”

“It be said,” Joy answered slowly, “that it protects the witch it belongs to from evil spirits and magical attacks.”

“And the witch lived happily ever after,” Will quipped.

“We should open it!” Maisy suggested.

Joy shook her head. “Naun, we dursn’t. There be part of the witch’s soul in there. If we let it out there’ll be a peck of trouble.[1]

“Blimey! We should definitely open it!” Maisy looked at the bottle eagerly.

“How did you find this?” Joy asked, unwilling to believe that a witch bottle could be so ill-concealed that a casual coke at the crumbling remnants of a cottage’s foundations would reveal it.

“Valkerie found it,” Maisy answered. “She started digging in a corner, went down all the way up to the tip of her tail, then pulled it out.”

Valkerie, back on Maisy’s shoulder now, dooked, seemingly proud of her excavation skills.

Ferrets! Regular little thieves.

“I wonder who it belonged to,” Will said.

Only one person in Tuckersham it could have belonged to.

Joy closed her eyes briefly, fighting the urge to impress her friends with her knowledge.

Unfortunately, Maisy had come to know her all too well.

“Joy! You know, dontcha?”

Joy shrugged.

“Oh, do tell!” Maisy urged. “I’d tell you if I knew, wouldn’t I?”

“Well that ain’t hard,” Will said. “You hardly ever stop talking.”

Maisy glared at him, before turning to Joy again. “Mates don’t keep secrets, do they?”

Joy felt guilty, harbouring a great many of them as she did. There’d be no harm in it, she reckoned, though this wasn’t the bettermost place to be telling it.

“I reckon I ken whose bottle it is,” she admitted reluctantly.

“I thought so, didn’t I?” Maisy said with satisfaction.

“Whose?” Will asked.

“When Tuckersham was still full of folk, afore they were struck down by the plague, one of them was a wise woman, a skilled healer. Her name was Nan Malone.”

A Guardian of the Wyrde Woods.

“Go on,” Will encouraged Joy.

“Nan Malone lived here all her life and knew her neighbours well. She treated their hurts, helped birth their children, and eased the passage of those at the end of their life’s journeys.”

“And she battled monsters!” Maisy added. “Casting mighty spells. Abracadabra, ain’t it?”

Joy shook her head. “Nan Malone were a healer. Howsumdever, there were a monster, of sorts.”

“I knew it!” Maisy declared triumphantly.

“A dark shadow of old, naun seen in living memory for so long folk thought twere a storyteller’s fancy. Howsumdever, it returned to the night sky over the Wyrde Woods, swooping down to seize fowl, sheep, even calves. Folk were afeared it might take to their children. Some went to Nan Malone who counselled that it wouldn’t and twere bettermost to leave the creature be…”

“How did she know?” Will asked.

“She were a Wise Woman, weren’t she?” Maisy said.

Joy nodded. “Justly. The Wise Ones pass on the lore of their people, the tales of the Wyrde Woods.”

She was surprised and a little disappointed that neither Maisy or Will connected this with Joy’s own knowledge of the matter. Mostly relieved though, because she had been sworn to secrecy with regard to the lessons she had started to follow. Lessons of the type not taught at the village school.

“What happened next?” Will asked.

“There were folk who refused to believe her. The Stupes, I call them.”

“Stupes?” Maisy asked.

“Folk who don’t see further than the end of their own noses,” Joy explained. “Happy to deny the obvious, happier to preach the unlikely, and happiest to blame others for their own misfortunes.”

“Oh! I know loads of Stupes, don’t I?” Maisy said.

“So do I,” Will added.

“They multiply,” Joy acknowledged.

It was a concern for the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods. Many of them, like Joy’s own mother, continued to live much as they had always done, in sync with the cycle of the seasons. There was a sense though, that the world was changing fast, with an ever-growing number of Stupes whose limited ability to use their own minds was a liability for all. The warring madman in Germany of how easily they could seize control.

She continued, “One of the Stupe leaders decided to hunt the dark shadow and kill it. He took his two sons with him and the three were never seen alive again.”

“Torn into tiny, bloody shreds,” Maisy said. “Weren’t they?”

Joy hesitated. That wasn’t exactly what had happened, but how much should she tell?

And how much do they ken? They’ve already described…

She glanced at the ruined church, acutely aware of the weight of the silvered bottle in her hands, before speaking again, “Other Stupes chose to lay the blame at Nan Malone’s feet. They twisted her words against her. Claimed she had tried to protect the creature…”

“Bastards!” Maisy exclaimed.

“Zackly,” Joy agreed. “Stupe tongues started wagging, gifty blevers that they were. And the lies grew in the telling, as did the number of folk repeating them. Those who dared speak otherwise were mocked and ridiculed. Tmight have been that they didn’t change their minds, but it were certain more and more kept their teeth-traps shut, frit of being the next Stupe target. Afore too long, it were said that Nan Malone had summoned the dark shadow in the first place, that it were her creature. That she were a witch.”

Joy glanced at the bottle before winding up the tragic tale. “It reached a fever point. A mob chased Nan Malone out of her house, then out of Tuckersham. Tossicated on their own power to do such a thing, they set off in pursuit…” Joy’s voice died away and she examined the bottle once more.

Blood, horn, root, thorn…

Maisy said, “They caught her, didn’t they?”

… tooth, bone, wood, and stone.

Joy nodded. “Ere Nan Malone could cross the bridge over the Taunflow. There’s a gurt old chestnut tree there. They hung her by the neck from one of the branches. A few months later Tuckersham was struck by the plague.”

Both Maisy and Will stared at the bottle in silence.

A scritch owl[2] screeched in the distance, and then repeated its call. Joy looked up in the direction of the Taunflow.

She was alarmed to see lights flickering in the distance. Their consistency was impeded by tree trunks but they didn’t have the beguiling quality of Will o’ the Wisps – which Joy knew how to deal with. Instead, the lights were harshly and artificially bright, as well as accompanied by coarse male voices.

Valkerie uttered a warning hiss.

“There’s people coming this way,” Will said.

“Quick, follow me.” Joy led them through the gap in the low wall that separated the path from the churchyard, and then wove a way through the dilapidated headstones and tombs. 

“The dead walk among us![3]” Maisy pronounced in a low voice.

“With these zombie eyes, he rendered her powerless,” Will whispered. “With this zombie grip, he made her perform his every desire![4]

“Ha! You would fancy that, wouldn’t you, Brighton-Blighter?” Maisy said.

“Shut up!” Will responded.

“Hush now, the both of you,” Joy told them. She would have preferred not to enter the graveyard, or rather, not to have come this close to the ruined church, but there was some safety in the particular tomb she led her friends to. It was close by a church wall, larger than most, with a heavy slab of stone as lid. The moonlight revealed the chiselled shape of a dragon on it. Ellette Hornsby, one of the Wyrde Woods dragon-slayers, had been laid to rest here. Like Nan Malone, Ellette was counted as one of the Guardians of the Wyrde Woods. It was the safest place in Tuckersham that Joy could conceive of.

They crouched behind the tomb, the cousins no longer needing reminders to be silent as the torch-bearing men were close enow for the children to overhear their discourse. It was mostly grumbling about being sent to lope around at this time of night on behalf of ‘his Lordship’. Daring a peek, Joy recognised them as gamekeepers from nearby Malheur Hall, three men in all, shotguns slung over their shoulders.


Henchmen sent out by Mordecai Malheur to apprehend poachers no doubt, even though any poacher worth his salt would have easily noted their approach and melted away into the night.

Joy relaxed. They’d wait until the men had passed and then call it a night. She hadn’t been sure as to what she’d find at Tuckersham, but Nan Malone’s bottle was ample reward. It was an object of great power and Joy was keen to dive back into her books to discover possible uses for it.

Will sneezed.

[1] The witch bottle from Sussex kept at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has a label that says the old lady in Hove who donated it remarked “…and they do say there be a witch in it and if you let un out there it be a peck o’ trouble.”

[2] Barn owl

[3] White Zombie (1932)

[4]White Zombie (1932)

Read part 1 here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/?p=8186

More about Nils Visser here – https://nilsnissevisser.co.uk/

Witch in a Bottle part 1

A Wyrde Woods Tale

By Nils Visser

Part 1: Setting the Scene

The moonlit ruins radiated menace. Joy Whitfield’s companions Maisy and Will perceived the grim and ghastly projection as well.

“Blimey,” Maisy said. “That’s a proper set for an H-Rated horror flick.”

“Shoot scenes in that corner, there.” Will agreed. “Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff would feel right at home.”

Shoot who? Joy thought. Why?

Maisy and Will were both silver screen buffs and embarked on a discussion that Joy couldn’t understand. She had known about the moving pictures before her friends had arrived in the Wyrde Woods because folk somewhen talked about the ones they’d seen in nearby Odesby, but Joy had never been herself. Her friends’ enthusiasm wasn’t contagious. It all sounded horribly confusing, like some of the things they insisted on teaching at the village school in Wolfden.

“I betcha there’s a beating heart underneath the floor in them ruins,” Maisy said.

She sounded oddly pleased about the morbid prospect. To Joy’s discomfort, Maisy wasn’t far off the mark.

How does she ken that? Folk say the silver screen has magic. Mayhap they’re right.  

“I can just about see Norman Dryden stalking John Kelt,” Will agreed. He changed his tone to speak melodramatically, “True. Nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I’ve been, and am. But why will you say that I’m mad?[1]

“Or!” Maisy exulted. “Doctor Vollin keeps his homemade torture machines in there!”

“Doctor Vollin?” Joy asked. “He bain’t from round here, sureleye? Torture machines?”

“A very curious hobby,[2]” Maisy confirmed.

Will lowered his voice to deliver an ominous line: “It’s more than a hobby.[3]

Maisy copied his tone. “What a delicious torture. I have done it Bateman![4]

“Shadow of a black-feathered, sharp-beaked bird over his shoulder,” Will said.

“Or Murder Legendre’s pet swooping down,” Maisy suggested. “All feathers and razor-like talons.” She followed that with a set of shrill shrieks.

“MWUAHAHA MWHAHAaaa,” Will tried to utter that in a low and deep manner again, but his voice broke and what had started as an eerie guffaw ended in a high-pitched squeak.

Maisy dissolved in merry peals of laughter.

Joy shivered.

Truly this silver screen is magic, they ken much more than I reckoned.

Joy observed the two briefly. The full moon was fierce enow to stage her friends here at the remnants of what had once been the village of Tuckersham, in the dark depths of the Wyrde Woods.

Maisy, whose diminutive physique in no way demeaned her spirited presence, was dressed in a Western outfit her grandmother had made for her. It resembled that of a cavalry soldier from the moving pictures that Joy’s best friend often praised as the best thing “since London was invented – much better than Brighton, ain’t it?”

The bit about Brighton was a dig at Maisy’s cousin Will. The two were outlanders, Vackies – or evacuees in proper posh English. Maisy from the nation’s capital, Will from the popular seaside resort town on the Sussex coast. The both of them could entertain themselves for hours mocking the other’s hometown, cheerfully arguing about which was bettermost. Joy deemed it silly and childish nonsense. Everyone knew the Wyrde Woods were the bettermost place to be. Tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Weald, far away from the busy madness of cities and towns.

At thirteen, Will was the oldest of the three. Joy followed him at twelve. Maisy claimed to be eleven-and-almost-four-quarters, as well as a rapid “not a bloody six-year old, you glocky nickey” when comments were made about her height.

Joy knew her friend’s sensitivity was about more than just her height, as Maisy was especially galled by the common assumption that her mind must somehow have been stunted by her body’s refusal to grow. Joy loved Maisy for the sheer brilliance of her mind and her fervour to shape life on her own terms – only a chuckleheaded puckstool would assume that Maisy was anything other than bettermost deedy.

Will wore his Air Raid Precaution uniform with pride, a blue overall and utility belt, with a Tommy helmet askance on his mop of blond hair, bearing a white “M” for messenger. It wasn’t painted black, like most ARP helmets, because Will had refused to paint over the fading green of the original. He was extraordinarily proud of the helmet because it was something called a Mark One from The Great War that – he assured anyone who cared to hear (or didn’t for that matter) – was far superior to modern regulation issue.

Maisy made fun of him all-along-of that. Joy didn’t. She understood all too well the power of symbolism. It could transform the reality most townfolk insisted was the only dimension that could possibly exist and warp it right into something wholly else. As such, to Joy’s mind, Will had made it into a powerful token for himself. He had an aptitude for the Wyrd but Joy suspected he was unaware of it. Will might have been born elsewhere, but his exile from Brighton had brought him home. Maskall blood ran old in the Wyrde Woods. His heritage here was as broadly branched as the roots of the oldest oak, shared with Maisy whose mother was a Maskall. For all their boasts about London and Brighton, Joy reckoned they both belonged to the Wyrde Woods in a manner that was beyond their own comprehension as of yet.

Joy herself was barefooted. She wore a simple white summer shift that seemed timeless in style, as if she had stepped out of any previous century that featured human habitation on the British Isles. It was vanity, she supposed, chosen deliberately – symbolically. Less of a choice was her wild and frizzy red hair that never stayed in place no matter how often she brushed it.

Joy’s connections to the Wyrde Woods were older than that of the Maskalls. The Whitfields weren’t just familiar with the land; they were at one with it, all those who had previously been, and those who would one day.

Well, almost all of it.

Pushing awareness of her friends aside, Joy focused on the forbidding crumbling walls that enclosed the roofless remains of Tuckersham’s church. Unlike Maisy and Will, Joy didn’t need her eyes to establish the hostility exuded by the main building and its short, squat tower – not to mention the lopsided head stones and half-sunken tombs in the churchyard atween the main ruins and the broad dirt path the children were on. It was a tension that hung in the air so thick that Joy felt compelled to urgently whisper words of protection for her friends.

This was a place of vile hatred. The ominous doom of the ruins had spilled over into the woods around it, so folk generally didn’t come this way unless they absolutely had to, and then they would hasten their step as they hurried through, fuelled by shivers running along their spines.

“Oh, Gwydion” Joy sighed.

She frowned briefly at the sight of a girl, three or four years older than Joy herself, scurrying along the path. The girl was incongruously dressed in heavy soldier’s boots combined with a short dress patterned with what appeared to be skulls. A troubled girl, Joy perceived, but before she could take a second look at the strangely dressed stranger, the passer-by had vanished into thin air. No shim, this one, but a lost soul nonetheless. An anomaly of the Sight, or a vision from past or future. Joy could usually see them clear enow but to her frustration had no idea how to identify what she was seeing, or what meaning lay behind it.

“So what’s with this place, Joy?” Maisy asked. “Why did we come here? Oh, hullo there.”

Those last words were addressed to a ferret. Valkerie usually accompanied Maisy when the children were out and about on adventure, and now formed a white blur as she scrambled out of a coat pocket to perch on Maisy’s shoulder, half concealed by the girl’s abundant mane of dark hair.

“I was curious,” Joy answered.

She didn’t really have a better answer. Hours of poring over old books and ancient crumbling paper scrolls had led her to believe there might be answers to be found at the ruins of Tuckersham’s church. Joy hadn’t shared this particular quest of hers with the others because she wasn’t sure how much to tell, especially since she was mostly guessing and only uncovering knowledge a puzzle piece at a time. Howsumdever, Maisy’s inquisitive mind was unlikely to be satisfied with the vague justification of curiosity. She knew Joy well enow to know that her friend rarely ever acted out of impulse. Any expedition Joy led them on in the Wyrde Woods had a reason that would have been extensively weighed in Joy’s mind first.

Fortunately, Joy was saved immediate further interrogation by Maisy when Will raised an observation.

“I though you said there was a village here. I can only see the church.”

“It be here alright.” Joy swept an arm around to indicate the ample undergrowth beneath the pale trunks of the birch trees on the other side of the broad dirt path. “The cottages were timbered but dunnamany had stone foundations. Start coking about that undergrowth and you’ll find them soon enow.”

“Enow? Enough, ain’t it?” Maisy commented.

“Enow,” Joy insisted stubbornly. Whatever version of English the other two spoke, Broad Sussex was enow for her.

“So what happened here? Why did people leave?” Will asked.

“They ran away,” Maisy suggested. “From the Martians!”

“Quiddy?” Joy asked. “Martians?”

“Ming the Merciless,” Will said, further confusing her. “Evil ruler of Mongo. I’d run if he pointed his Nitron ray at me.”

“Allied with Azura, the Witch Queen of Mars, weren’t he?” Maisy added. “Oppressor of the poor Clay People.” 

“There bain’t naun of that in the Wyrde Woods,” Joy assured them. “The folk here, they never left. Twere the plague. Killed every man, woman, and child in Tuckersham.”

Will shivered. “No wonder it’s such a cheerful place.”

“It’ll be haunted for sure then,” Maisy concluded with evident delight.

“Don’t be silly,” Will objected. “Ghosts don’t exist.”

“Do too!” Maisy retorted.

Joy remained silent on the subject. Will had an aversion to shims. He was by now willing to admit to the possibility of Pooks, but remained insistent on the subject of shims. As far as Maisy was concerned, the more shims the better, a wish just as foolish as Will’s denial. Joy didn’t want to trigger another endless discussion between the cousins on the subject. Not here. Not at night. Shims were best avoided, like many other beings in the Wyrde Woods.

That thought caused Joy to glance at the ruins again, suddenly doubting the wisdom of this visit.

I need to know. Is it still alive? After all these years?

“I’m going to explore,” Maisy announced. “Find me some ghosts, ain’t I?”

She walked towards a patch of undergrowth to push branches and brambles aside with her boot, chatting away to Valkerie who dooked contentedly in reply.

Joy didn’t mind as long as Maisy wasn’t intent on exploring the church – or rather the dark crypt beneath the grass-edged flagstones inside.

A black feathered shadow. Sharp-beaked. Razor-like talons. They missed out on the menacing eyes, glowing red like fierce coals. 

Left on his own with Joy, Will immediately reverted to a state of awkwardness. Maisy had claimed this was because he fancied Joy like mad, but Maisy never hesitated to exaggerate morsels of truth into grandiose designs of her own. Then again, when Joy was alone with the boy, he mostwhen stumbled over his words like a drunk staggering from the Raven’s Roost after closing time. He also blushed a lot.

Ever slow and cautious, Joy was digesting it all at her own speed. She was fond enow of Will when he forgot to be awkward around her, less comfortable when he turned into a timmersome grummut, and immensely flattered by his adulation. Before the cousins had arrived, Joy had allwhen been the odd one out, virtually an outcast at school where she was disliked and feared for…

Being different.

Maisy’s friendship had changed all that, and Will’s feelings – if they were what Maisy said and Joy now strongly suspected – seemed to cement it. Her worry was that he would change his mind when he discovered just how different Joy was.

“So, who’s this Dr Vollin?” she asked, not especially interested but keen to break the ice before the silence between them became unbearable.

Will found his voice easily enow when there was safe ground to cover. “He was an insane surgeon who liked to torture people to death in his cellars. But he died when Bateman threw him into the shrinking room.”

Joy disapproved. “Doctors are supposed to heal folk, naun frit and hurt them.”

Will seemed to take her admonition personally. He shrugged and began to withdraw into awkwardness again.

Joy quickly asked, “Are there many of these mad doctors?”

Her ploy worked because Will started listing a great many.

“…Doctor Zorka who invented devisualizer belts…”

I bain’t much interested in modern city fashions.

“…Doctor Orloff, he dumped people into vats of water and charged them with electricity…”

Strange way to take a bath.

“…Doctor Janos Rukh, he travelled to Africa to find a meteorite composed of Radium X, that made him glow in the dark and drove him bonkers…”

Africa! A far stride from Sussex.

“Doctor Fu Manchu, who was after Genghis Khan’s sword and threw his enemies in crocodile pits.”

I bain’t ever gwoan to see a doctor again, sureleye.

“…Doctor Laurience, who started out researching minds and souls and ended up transferring brains…”

“Transferring brains?”

“Like putting the mind of one person into the body of another. It’d be like my mind in Maisy’s body, and Maisy’s mind in mine.”

Joy wasn’t sure what to make of that. Maisy stayed at the Whitfield cottage a lot for sleepovers in Joy’s loft room. What if this Doctor Laurience had put Will’s mind in Maisy? That might be really awkward when it was bedtime.

Joy giggled, briefly stalling Will mid flow, but he recovered.

“Erm, anyhow, he swaps his mind for that of a younger man, cause he…ahem…really fancies Anna Lee who plays Doctor Wyatt, and he reckons as a younger man he’s got a shot with her, but all sorts of things go wrong, with people’s minds prisoners in the wrong bodies and such.”

Joy nodded. She doubted any good could come from such exchanges, no matter who fancied whom, although she was pleased to hear a first mention of a female physician.

“…Doctor Moreau, on the Island of Lost Souls, who changed beasts into people in the House of Pain. Wolfish for the Sayer of the Law, or a panther like Lola. But it all became a mess and the apeman Ouran turned against him! They tied Doctor Moreau to his own operating table and cut him to bits with his surgeon’s tools…” 

Joy frowned at the mention of beastlike people, or humanlike beasts. She wondered again just how much the silver screen had revealed to Will and Maisy.

Maisy joined them again. “Dontcha forget Perfessor Bandov from Castle Sinister.”

Will nodded wisely, before providing another incomprehensible explanation, “Mad doctor tries to put girl’s brain into apeman’s head.[5]

“They’re not all bad though,” Maisy said. “There’s Professor Norton who helped Ray Crash Corrigan stop Unga Khan from taking over Atlantis.”

“Don’t forget Doctor Huer in the Hidden City,” Will exclaimed.

“Or Doctor Zarkov!” Maisy enthused. “Who helped fight Emperor Ming, King Kala of the Shark Men, and King Vultan of the Hawk Men – but Vultan later changed sides. Oi, Joy, look what Valkerie dug up from them foundations.”

“That be nice,” Joy said absentmindedly, not really registering the item Maisy held up. Her mind was a-swirl with a mizmaze of strange names and even stranger storylines. The odd names reminded her of incantations and Joy was trying to discern a pattern in this strange new magic. Further distraction was caused by the tantalising notion of Will on a sleepover. Would it be better to have his mind in Maisy’s body, or Maisy’s mind in his? Joy had never appreciated the complexity a simple sleepover could pose.

Bettermost to naun…

The object in Maisy’s hand caught the moonlight and lit up in a spectacular manner, dazzling all three of them and finally drawing Joy’s full attention.

[1] The boy (played by Norman Dryden) in The Tell-Tale Heart (1934)

[2] Doctor Vollin (played by Béla Lugosi) in The Raven (1935)

[3] Doctor Vollin (played by Béla Lugosi) in The Raven (1935)

[4] Doctor Vollin (played by Béla Lugosi) in The Raven (1935).

[5] Castle Sinister (1932)

Find out more about Nils and his Wyrde Woods books here – https://nilsnissevisser.co.uk/