A melody of slamming car doors interrupted the usual routine of the Autumn woodland.
“I didn’t think you were coming!”
“Isn’t this great!”
“I can’t believe we’re still dong this!”
“I can’t believe some of you invited outsiders.” The excited babble died away, leaving this last comment lingering. The women stared at the speaker. “What? This has always been our thing, and now there are two strangers here.”
“They’re not strangers, or Cassie isn’t anyway. You’ve met her plenty of times; she’s as much a friend as any of us.”
“And Emma’s my cousin, my parents blackmailed me into bringing her, but she’s ok.”
“Still doing as your parents tell you at your age.”
“Sure. Sometimes. They are my parents.”
“Yeah. I actually live with my dad remember?”
“And mine let me stay with them while I was getting myself sorted the other year.”
“Ok, ok! Let’s leave parental figures out of this, get our stuff and get going.” Bags were picked up off the ground, out of the boot of the cars, hootched higher on shoulders.
“Hey guys?” Sarah paused. “It’s great to see you all again.”
Catching up on news and gossip, chattering and laughing, the group of seven women started off into the forest. They didn’t look about them much, but walked with the sure obliviousness of familiarity; apart from the two newcomers, they’d all been visiting this woodland since they were children, and at least once a year since to do a Halloween campout. This particular tradition had started in their teens, and they’d managed to continue it – as well as their friendships – into their late twenties.
Reaching their campsite, bags were dropped while the tents were set up amid good-natured teasing and more laughter.
“Not looking quite as confident over there these days, girl guide.”
“Who puts up tents nowadays?”
“Us. Me, my husband and kids.”
“You forgot them didn’t you!”
“Well. . . You as a mum. It’s weird.”
“Yeah, I know. My bendy pole pinged.” A hush followed, filled with suppressed sniggers.
“Oh, you lot are such children! And just so you know, I’m no longer talking to any of you. Except you. Abby’s Cousin Emma, what’s your life like? Know anyone interesting other than these infants?”
“Actually, I work in accounting, which is interesting to me but sends most people to sleep.”
“Maybe you can tell us a bedtime story later!”
“What exactly are we doing later?”
“What d’you mean?”
“Well we’re a bit old for ghost stories around the fire—”
“No-one’s too old for that!”
“I just meant. . . We’ve done that. Every year for the past—”
“Seriously? Leah’s right, you are all children.”
“She was including you in that you know.”
“Well I’m the oldest— nearly, so maybe I have a bit more maturity.” Grimacing faces turned her way: eyes wide or pulled sideways, mouths contorted and tongues stuck out. Rebecca threw her pillow in their general direction and turned back to her tent, which was sagging at the edges.
A few hours later. Tents up, more or less. The day getting darker. Fire snapping in its encircling stones. Seven bundled-up figures sitting around it on blankets. In various poses they stared into the flames; movement, colour, sound. . . steady flames in constant movement, wayward explosions with shooting sparks – the original fireworks.
Cassie hugged her knees. “So what do you do now? Becca didn’t exactly say.”
“I’ve got alcohol.”
“Can’t, it’s not dark yet.”
“Hate to tell you Abs. . .”
“Take a look around. Dark snuck up on you.”
“Oh. Stories and mallows then anyone?” The response was less than enthusiastic.
“I have something.”
“We could go to the Witch’s Tree.”
“Rubbish, there’s no such thing!”
“You’re making that up.”
“No, seriously. I read about this legend, and there’s this tree near here called the Witch’s Tree. It was where this group of women – a coven – used to meet to do. . . whatever. Anyway, one day one of them betrayed the others to the local village. A few of the men went to spy on the supposed witches at their next gathering, and when they saw for themselves. . . well, they came out and killed them. It happened at the tree, in the middle of one of their ceremony thingys.”
“What, all of them were killed?”
“Some of them just disappeared— bodies never found and them never seen again. But a lot of them were, yeah.”
“And why would we want to go there?”
“Because it’s Halloween, and it’s the Witch’s Tree?”
“Oh, come on! It’s something new for us to do. . .”
“You would Sarah!”
“Maybe. I don’t know, I just don’t see why.”
“You sound like one of your kids!”
“My children are extremely canny, so thank you.”
“New girl’s up for it! Yeah! Come on you guys. . .!”
“If everyone else is I guess. . .”
“And the last one? Come on Sam. Please?”
She wavered, and then gave in. “Fine. But if anything happens I’m blaming you.”
“Why should anything happen?”
“Uh— Halloween. Witch’s Tree. Group of girls camping alone in the dark. Yeah, I see you’re point, what could possibly go wrong with that?”
“Women, thanks very much.”
“Sorry. Women alone in the dark. Better?”
“So, are we?”
Glances flickering around as quickly as the firelight. “Let’s go.”