The old tree groaned.
Perhaps in the knowledge it would soon be an accomplice to murder.
The victim, hands and feet bound, squirmed, struggled, and made panicked noises from behind a tight-fitting gag. The others sat him down at the base of the tree. One of them, the largest, out of breath from the effort it had taken to carry him, pulled the victim’s legs towards himself and then threaded them under the arch of a thick outgrowing root. A green pointed boot came away in his hand. He considered pushing it back onto the foot from which it had escaped but decided to toss it aside instead.
“Aw! He’s lost a boot. And look his ear on the left side has nearly come off,” he said to nobody in particular.
“You got the rope?” Said another. This one tall, and thin even with the black hooded robe he wore. He was addressing the third member of their amateur cabal.
“Yeah I got the rope, but I’m not climbing the tree, so you had better be good at tying knots.”
“Just give me the rope.”
“It will soon be dark.” It was the large one again, his breathing beginning to steady. He was looking at the cloudless and reddening sky.
“This had better work or we’re deep in it,” said the third, handing the rope to the tall one.
Royce, by unspoken consent their leader, seized the rope impatiently. “It will work. Why wouldn’t it? I know they come here, I’ve seen them.” He gathered the rope together with growing glee, and smirking widely, showed it to the one whose neck would soon wear it. The victim looked away.
“Just because you’ve seen them it doesn’t mean they’re going to respond. And even if they do respond it might not be in the way we expect.” He was staring at the grass covered mounds on the hillside. His name was Hugh. He spoke with the same soft Welsh accent that had echoed through those valleys for generations.
“They’ll come, and they’ll respond as we expect. Just shut up.” Royce set the gathered rope on the ground and clambered out of his robe. He was wearing a dark t-shirt with a Celtic Knot design on it, faded jeans, and hiking boots. “You boys had better get your robes out of the bag as well.” He surveyed the tree looking for the best spot from which to begin his climb, and for the best place to fasten the rope.
“You know, we probably don’t need the props,” said the larger one. Raymond was his name, but they called him Redmond on account of his hair colour. “I mean, if this is going to work the way we think, all they really care about is the sacrifice.” He was studying the back of Royce who had now moved to the base of the tree and was testing for hand-holds.
“We need to do it the way it has always been done, and the book said they had pointy ears like an elf, and green clothing, and the others wore black hooded robes. Therefore we got the black robes and Harry has the elf costume.”
Harry, meanwhile, struggled trying to bring his feet out from under the root of the tree. He was tired, and his struggles were weak. He had been drugged earlier and was still groggy. He leaned back against the base of the tree shutting his eyes as his head began to swirl.
“I never knew I’d end up being one of those insane murderer types you read about,” Hugh Said. He was still looking in the direction of the mounds. The sun was setting behind them, its red-orange glow a dying halo of contrasting colour against the lush green covering of the mounds. “The weird thing is, I feel normal. I always imagined that if I went insane I’d at least feel different, even if I thought I was sane. Now I think I’m insane, but I feel…”
“Just shut the hell up will you. I’m trying to concentrate. Anyway, it’s not murder. It’s different,” Royce said. He was now a little way up the tree and poised above Harry who had sloped backwards, his eyes closed.
Harry began to hum. The sound clear despite his gag.
Ignoring Harry, Royce said, “I’ll need you to pass me up the rope in a second.”
Harry’s humming grew noticeably louder.
“What’s going on with him?” Redmond crouched a little and peered at his former friend. “He’s humming a tune, and he looks all delirious and happy. Sort of.”
Royce sat himself on the base of a thick branch which seemed ideal for the purpose he intended. “Leave him be, Redmond. It’s just his way of coping. Better he’s humming than bloody well screaming.” Royce tested the branch, it seemed sturdy enough. “Pass me the rope.”
Hugh turned around and trundled to where Royce had put the rope. “We’re all completely insane.” He mumbled to himself.
Royce edged forward and took the rope from Hugh who held it out somewhat reluctantly. Hugh had his eyes on Royce, but his ears were listening to Harry. He started to feel light-headed.
Royce bagan tying the rope around the branch. A rising wind raised more murmurs from the tree as he did so. Royce fixed his attention on making good the knot. He did not notice Hugh and Redmond fall to the ground.
“Right, I think that should do the trick.” He gave the rope a tug — it held. “Excellent.”
Royce looked down to where his friends had been standing and were now splayed on the ground. His self-satisfied smile quickly replaced first by surprise and then anxiety.
“What the hell?” He said.
Harry was swaying now, rocking back against the trunk of the tree, and smiling visibly, his teeth biting loosely on the gag. The tune he was humming undulated high and low in time with his swaying.
“Now’s not the time to piss about guys,” Royce said, but he knew Hugh and Redmond were not the kind for such impromptu humour.
He began to edge backwards down the branch towards the trunk of the tree, and as he did his head began to spin. He managed to back up far enough to position himself once again just above Harry, before he fell and landed unconscious on top of his intended victim.
Harry didn’t feel any pain when Royce fell on top of him, even though the bulk of Royce’s rump dropped onto his waist and smashed him into the knotted base of the tree. He was elsewhere, lost in song, and focused on the figures calling from the twilight. One of them, slender to the point of being skeletal, walked towards him. It was a curious movement, both graceful and jerky; a display of harsh angles and bony edges. Then a pallid face with thin lips and large black eyes appeared before him. It spoke and Harry heard the words faster than those stretched lips formed them.
“Why do you mock us?” It said in an aged voice. “After all these years, you still have nothing better to do than taunt us?”
Harry couldn’t count how many figures were now before him, but it seemed like a dozen at least. He had stopped his humming. Fear was upon him, and pain from where Royce had landed on him. He tried to back up and felt something jagged dig against his back.
“I’m sorry.” He mumbled from behind the gag. “Don’t hurt me.”
The pale face withdrew a little, and the strange figure stood upright. It was tall. Harry couldn’t determine its gender from appearance alone, but its voice had been masculine. It appeared to be naked, but Harry’s vision was blurred and he could see no genitalia on display. The creature looked at Harry’s fallen captors.
“They brought you here?”
“To mock us.”
Harry shook his head.
The creature was in Harry’s face again. It smelled like dank earth. It raised a hand and slashed at him with midnight edged fingers. He winced and drew his head back, banging it against the tree. The gag fell away from his cheek on one side.
“Speak,” it said.
Harry regained his composure and shook his head vigorously to dislodge the gag from his mouth. He felt dizzy, and a warm trickle on his cheek.
“Speak,” it said again, withdrawing slightly.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“We were friends. At least I thought we were friends. We played games together. You know, fantasy games. Not sex… Um. I mean like board games about fantasy things. Except we didn’t use a board really, either….” He paused to test for a reaction, but was greeted only with silence. “Anyway, we’ve been playing for a few years, met online, through a computer. You know. Do you know…?
The creature stared.
“It was good, but Royce was always into the fantasy thing a bit too much. He got lucky and found this apparently rare book after hunting for information about fairies. It had rituals in it that supposedly called the fairy folk. I thought he was nuts. But I guess I should have taken him more seriously. He told the others that if they did this one ritual, which required a sacrifice, the spirits, elves, would come and grant him great powers or immortality. He convinced them it wasn’t a real sacrifice as the elves would only take the victim to their world. I’m not sure actually how convinced the others really were, but I guess they were convinced enough. All along when I heard them mention stuff about it, I thought they’d get over it. They asked me to help find a suitable victim. I told them to grow up. They then decided I would have to do – I guess. Fuck. Royce said he came out here one night and saw elves. I’m thinking now that maybe he was telling the truth.”
The creature nodded, and sat itself down in front of Harry.
“Once we lived above ground as you do,” it began; “it was a battle, fought long ago, that forced us to retreat into the hills. Nevertheless people remembered us. They remembered what we had taught them. And they respected us. Back then we did not look as we do now, but the passing of time and the hatred of humanity has not been kind to us.”
Harry leaned back and listened, relaxing a little.
“Eventually the respect and reverence your folk once held for us was replaced by fear, and then some sought to make for themselves a name by seeking us out. They found ways to harm us, and to ward against our crafts, especially as we were weakened. They would hang us from the trees like your friends attempted with you, with chains made of hurtful metal, and our bodies smeared with painful pigment. They would mock us, and taunt us, and dare us to confront them. In time we learned to stay away. To withdraw completely form the world of men. Humanity had become dangerous and demented, and there was no reasoning with men or their new found ideas. Thankfully, after some time they forgot about us. Eventually even their theatrical rituals invented to mimic and celebrate our suffering faded into memory. And now you come along. Unfortunately for you, after all this time we’re finally tired of hiding.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry said. And he meant it.
“Your remorse is not enough.”
“But I didn’t want any of this. They were going to hang me.”
“For hundreds of years we have hid from the surface because of the actions of your kind, do you really think your regret is of any consequence?” The creature inched forward to peer into Harry’s eyes, its own dark eyes slickened with the appearance of an oily film.
“You cannot be allowed to live. You are a threat to us. We will announce our return to the world on our own terms. Humans cannot be given opportunity to muster their strength against us. I must tell you, in our exile we have grown hungry, as all of nature is now hungry from your actions. Even the tree is hungry. Can you not hear how it calls for your life? This land has been stained by the actions of your people against us, and now only the life essence of the despoilers will remove that stain. Will revivify that which has wizened and stupefied. We intend to bring back vitality. To bring ourselves back to vitality. But you should know, in the past we never once required any sacrifice.”
Harry saw several of the figures beyond the one he had been talking to begin to close in on him. Then his mind began to spin, and a smile formed on his lips. He began to hum. The aches and pain in his body subsided. He closed his eyes. He did not see Hugh and Redmond disappear down the hillside towards the mounds, dragged by shadows into darkness. He did not hear the sound of bone and flesh being rendered, or the last flashes of reflected sunset on the obsidian blade as it tore into the architect of his capture. He did not feel the warm spray of Royce’s blood as it splashed across his face and stained his comic attire. He saw and felt nothing. He heard only the enchanting melody that filled his mind and escaped his lips. He did not even feel the rope tighten around his neck. He certainly did not feel the breeze as he swayed back and forth.