Torches pointing down at the ground, they trooped through the trees. Occasionally a beam would shoot off sideways to play over a wall of leaves, or fade out into the distance between tree trunks. Whether they were trying to move quietly or not, they stumbled and scrunched their way along with the odd whisper or squeal, following behind Rebecca.
“Nearly there.” The whisper was passed along the line, and not long after they stopped before a tree.
“This is it?”
“It’s a Silver Birch.”
“You made it sound like all that stuff happened hundreds of years ago, and they don’t live that long do they?”
“Are you sure it’s a silver birch? The trunk doesn’t look right to me.”
“Since when do any of us know anything about trees! This is the right place, and if it isn’t this exact tree then it’s one around here somewhere.”
“Maybe this is the latest offspring of that tree.”
“Hey, guys, look at this.” Cassie was shining her torch at the base of the trunk. “And what about that. Does that look like. . .” The light moved higher up the trunk.
“That’s a person!”
“Awesome! Maybe we are in the right place.” The combined light of all their torches played over the first major joint of the tree, where it looked almost as though a human figure lay back against the trunk, legs stretching out across the branch. “What else did your legends say, Becca? Is something supposed to happen to us now, or is it only if we dance around the tree?”
“I don’t know. There wasn’t really anything else that I could find out. . . it was a bit weird come to think of it.”
“Anyone else feel like getting naked and dancing?” There was complete silence, during which Sam suddenly spun about and stared off into the dark.
“Did anyone else hear that?”
Abbey folded her arms defensively. “You don’t have to make fun. It’s a thing. I didn’t say we should.”
“It is true that some people find clothes restrictive, and they say that removing them removes the barriers between you and the natural world.”
“So says the accountant. Will you be joining Abbey in a little strip-tease then?”
“None of you felt that?”
“What are you on about, Sam?”
Sam looked around; none of the others had any idea what she was talking about. “I’m going to take a look around.”
“Sure. Don’t go far though, we don’t want anyone vanishing.”
“I won’t go out of sight, don’t worry.”
The others watched her go, then glanced at one another.
“Was she trying to freak us out?”
“Of course, what else?”
“She might have heard something. . .”
“Maybe it was one of the dead witches!”
“Maybe that’s who told Abbey to do her naked dance!” Still teasing, but now feeling somewhat uneasy, they followed Sam’s example and spread out to look around.
Only there was nothing really to see; trees, bushes, small scraggly plants. . . The most interesting thing was the supposed ‘Witch’s Tree’, and pretty soon they all returned to look up at the figure reclining in the branches.
“It is a bit weird, you have to admit.”
“Nah, human brains are hard-wired to find familiar things everywhere. That’s why people see shapes in clouds—”
“And faces in their food!”
A sigh. “They do sort of get everywhere.”
“No-one move, and look where we’re standing.”
“At the tree?”
“Around the tree. In a circle?”
“You don’t think that’s strange?”
“So who’s the traitor.”
“Stop saying ‘what’ all the time Abs, and Sam, stop messing around. We know you’re just trying to scare us, so stop it already!”
“Surely the traitor is the one who isn’t here.”
“Really, Emma, you too?”
“It makes sense, Sarah. The traitor wouldn’t be among us for fear of being caught with us. She would have arrived with the rest and then made her escape while our attention was elsewhere.”
“But we’re all here.”
“No, one is no longer.”
“Leah is the traitor.”
At Sam’s vicious accusation, Sarah stared at her friends, trying to see their faces and decide what was going on. They were all indistinct. Strangers. They were right about one thing though – there were only six of them stood around the tree. Someone was missing. She opened her mouth to demand everyone stop messing around and go look for their friend.
“Abigail, Cassandra, Rebecca, go at once and seek the traitor out. She must be punished. Emma, Samantha and I shall stay here to prepare.” They separated, those sent to find Leah vanishing silently into the trees.
The night of All Hallows Eve progressed, unconcerned by the various dramas unfolding beneath the trees: a woman running; three seeking; three enacting a ceremony beneath the Silver Birch, the torches abandoned haphazardly on the ground providing scant lighting for the scene.
Becoming concerned that their sisters did not return, Sarah, Emma and Cassandra surveyed the surrounding trees for signs of movement with growing frequency.
“We should have completed the ceremony rather than pursuing the traitor.”
“You would let her go unpunished?”
“I would have our task completed. She will be repaid in kind when she realises the villagers will no more accept her than us.”
“There is still time. . .”
“But not enough of us.”
“Wait! Listen. . .” There was no sound, but then a voice called softly from the dark.
“Do not fear, it is we.”
“Do you have her?”
“No. She is most accomplished in her deceits.”
“We still have time.”
“Cassandra desires us to finish the ceremony previously interrupted.”
“I am in agreement.”
“Are all?” There were nods around the circle. “Then we must begin.”
* * *
The sun brushed gently against the tree tops, focused through gaps in the canopy to spear down to the tents below. Birds sang a noisy chorus, unappreciated by those who heard it as tousled heads poked sleepily from unzipped doorways, and bare feet snuggled back under covers. A noisy yawn sounded from one tent, followed by a shriek.
“What?” The sleepy question was called from another.
“Is that you Abbey?”
“Course. Why d’you scream.”
“I— uh— I’m kind of— naked.”
“Seriously?” By this time there were sounds of others stirring. “Hey, I am too.” The noise of rustling tents and exclamations rose in counterpoint to the birds, all brought to a halt by the sound of swearing and a tentative voice.
“Hello? Are you guys here?”
“Leah?” Abbey poked her head out of her tent to see the others doing the same, although they were all either holding blankets about them or keeping the entrance of the tent close about their necks. “Did you just. . . wander in from the forest?”
“And you’re not wearing shoes.”
“I notice— Ow! Can someone— thanks.” An uncomfortable silence fell over them, and they avoided one another’s eye.
“Ok, someone has to say this and I guess it’s going to be me. . . Does anyone have any idea what happened last night?”
“I thought it was just me—”
“—Really freaked out here!”
“Kay! So no-one knows what happened? We left for Rebecca’s tree and then. . .?”
“Somehow we got back to camp.”
“All except me. I woke up wedged between a rotting log and some sort of thorn bush.”
“At least you’re wearing clothes.”
“You’re not? Not one of you?”
“Hey, maybe we did like Abbey said and ‘communed with nature’!”
“Ahrghr! I say this is too weird, and we move on. We get. . . dressed. Pack up and get the whatever out of here. As soon as we can. And we tell no-one about any of this.”
“Tell them what exactly?”
“No, that was my question. What would we tell them? All we know is—”
“That we came out here like always, talked a lot, had a bit to drink and told ghost stories and did stupid girly stuff. That’s it. Agreed?”
“No argument from me!”
“No. That’s it.”
Though some were more reluctant than others, the agreement was made: the night would never be mentioned again. It was a subdued party that packed away, cleared the fire, and trudged back to their cars. Back at the parking space and track they lingered, wanting to say something but having no idea what.
“So. . . See you all next year?”
“Next year? You think we should do this again?”
“Well, it is our tradition. And it’s not like any of us got hurt.”
“No, we just did who knows what with who; running through the forest at night and waking up the next morning naked.”
“You seem awefully fixated on that fact.”
“Well it’s not something that happens to me very often.” Leah froze. Rebecca met Sam’s eye and they turned away, grinning. Cassie barked a laugh then clapped a hand over her mouth, looking shocked at herself, which set them all off. The awkwardness disappeared, like their memories of the previous night, and after a few minutes of lively chat, they separated to their cars in great good humour. Within ten minutes the natural quiet returned to settle over the forest: the sun shone brightly on the turning leaves; creatures scurried and scuffled around the floor; birds hopped through the branches; the wind breezed through. In her tree the figure perched, leaning back serenely, keeping an eye on the various goings on. Then pushing herself free, she dropped to the ground in a single graceful move, and strode off through the trees.