22 September, 2015
I told this to my daughters and their friends over candlelight at a sleepover one night.
Sam and Rachael were hiking through the Downs. They had been walking all day. “It’s getting late, Rae,” Sam told his exhausted girlfriend, “we should find somewhere to pitch our tent.” Rachael opened her map and scanned it for likely places to camp. “There’s a clearing in those woods about a mile up the road,” she said, pointing at the map. “Ah yes,” said Sam, agreeing that it looked like a good place to stay the night.
The woods they’d found were an ancient woodland on the edge of a timeworn Sussex village. Some of the Oak there were many hundreds of years old, ancestors of trees whose heritage stretched back long past the time when Roman Legions trod British shores. And there lay the secret of these woods. For most of the year, they were a beautiful, calm, oasis and home to many species of indigenous English wildlife, who, unlike the rest of animal life in Britain, were flourishing there. But on the first full moon after the spring equinox, the animals fall silent, and the woods become deathly still. That is until the moonlight casts long shadows. Then, shouts and screams will be heard. Fire lights up the trees. There’s the clash of metal on bone. For those woods are haunted by spirits that rose from killings made one terrible night, nearly two thousand years ago.
The woods was where the Roman High Command slew many Druids. They recognised the esteem that the locals held for the High Priests of Britain, so to quell the peasants and crush any signs of revolt, they attempted to eradicate the wizened old men with long silver hair and beards, adorned in brilliant white cloaks with bright purple sashes tied around their waists. So as the Romans marched through ancient Britain, they chased down the Druids and slaughtered them. For this reason, there are many haunted woodlands in Britain, just like the one Rachael and Sam had found in Sussex.
The villagers in that part of Sussex knew the woods’ dark secret and never ventured there after daylight. Even when it wasn’t the first full moon after the spring equinox. But Sam and Rachael were unaware of the local history. And tonight was a full moon. The first of the spring. The first after the sun had risen directly over the equator, making the length of day and night equal. Tonight the woods would fall silent. That is until the moonlight cast long shadows.
“There’s only an hour left of daylight,” Sam told his girlfriend. “So give me a hand pitching the tent.” The pair worked well together, and in barely any time at all, their camp was complete. “Let’s take a walk through these woods, Sam. They’re beautiful!” The pair spent the rest of daylight in awe of the old oaks and the many animals that called those woods their home. Sam was a birder, and his ears were acutely tuned to their calls. He delighted in pointing them out to his girlfriend: “Spotted Flycatcher! Chiffchaff! Goldcrest! Firecrest! Tree Creeper!” But then, suddenly, silence. “Dusk is usually a gradual changing of the guard from the creatures of the day to the creatures of the night,” Sam told Rae. “I have never witnessed such a profound hush. How strange!” Sam remarked. “These woods are magical, Sam,” Rae replied, by way of explanation. She was right. Unfortunately, she was soon going to find out just how ‘magical’ those woods were.
The stillness drew Sam and Rachael into a profound sleep. So they did not witness the full moon rise over the treetops and begin to cast shadows over the clearing where they had camped. Soon the shadows stretched over their tent. And then the first cry. Sam woke up with a start: “Did you hear that, Rae?” Sam asked his girlfriend, nervously. “No,” she replied sleepily: “Go back to sleep.” And then another cry, followed by the sound of metal on metal. Rachael sat upright. “I heard that!” she told Sam, nervously. The woods suddenly began to come alive with the shouts and screams of death and horror. Flames flickered against the tent canvas.
The screams got louder and closer, and sounds of slaughter engulfed the tent. Sam and Rachael cowered under their covers. “What’s going on Sam?” Rachael sobbed, hugging Sam tightly. But his girlfriend’s terror fortified Sam, and he found some courage. “I’m going outside to find out,” Sam told Rae. And before Rachael could persuade her boyfriend otherwise, Sam had begun unzipping the tent door.
Sam nervously poked his head outside. Flames leapt up from a massive fire that was billowing smoke. That made both seeing and breathing difficult. Sam covered his nose with the sleeve of his jumper and squinted to try and see better. He swore he saw a Roman soldier rush across the clearing. “Surely not!” he thought to himself. Just then, another scream. Sam quickly turned to see from where it had come. And there he saw an old man in a white cloak slumped forward, with a sword plunged into his back. Sam froze. “What is it, Sam?” Rachael asked, looking for reassurance. But Sam couldn’t give her any.
The Roman soldier turned towards a young man in the clearing. He was a veteran of many battles and recognised the fear on the boy’s face. It would be an easy kill. He stormed towards his prey, withdrawing his sword so he could deliver his fatal blow quickly.
Sam saw the soldier rush towards him, which gave him time to take action. But his nerves let him down. Panic overcame him, and Sam froze. As if in slow motion, paralysed by fear, Sam watched the grizzled infantryman raise the sword’s flashing steel in his strong right arm. The soldier brought it crashing down. The blow smashed into Sam at the base of the neck, plunging on down through his lower ribs.
The dead soldier’s blow didn’t kill Sam. Nevertheless, Sam agonised at the clawing sensation of cold steel. And although the soldier’s blow wasn’t deadly, the sword’s deathly chill ripped out any sense of wonder and hope from Sam, leaving a deep, dark despair like no human should ever witness. With great clarity, Sam suddenly realised the full horror of the woods. He might not have died, but he wished he had.
The soldier stepped forward, bringing his sword over his head, ready to deliver the fatal blow. With practised precision, he was going to crash straight through the boy’s collarbone and on through his heart.
And then a wizened old man with long silver hair and beard, wearing a brilliant white cloak with a bright purple sash tied around his waist, stepped in-between the Roman and Sam. The Druid High Priest parried the sword with a staff carved from a yew tree that was thought to be older than the world itself. Then, in a single motion, he swept the feet from under the soldier and brought the butt of the staff down hard on the Roman’s throat. That instantly cut off the ghost soldier’s spirit and he vanished instantly.
The High Priest turned toward Sam, who was still frozen to the spot in his terror. Quick as a flash, he touched the boy’s shoulder with his staff, sending him into a profound sleep. Gently, he lifted Sam back into the tent to lie down by his girlfriend, who was still cowering in terror under the covers. The Druid also touched her on her shoulder with his staff, and she fell asleep instantly too. And then the Druid High Priest slipped away into another dimension, taking the terrifying scenes with him.
Rachael woke up at dawn. She tried to put her arm around Sam but found an empty space instead. She quickly put on something warm and went outside. Sam wasn’t there either. She searched the woods; still nothing.
She eventually found Sam on the edge of the village. Relieved, she went to put her arms around her boyfriend, but he shrugged away from her touch. “Can you see that, Rae?” Sam asked, troubled. Rachael looked down the deserted street at the empty village square: “I can’t see anything!” She told him, puzzled. “You don’t see all those people?” Sam asked.
The Druid High Priest stepped out in front of Sam: “She can’t see the dead, boy,” he told Sam. “But you can.” The news shocked Sam, who fell to his knees: “Am I dead then?” he asked the Druid. “No,” replied the priest. “I blocked the fatal blow and saved you from that fate,” he told Sam. “But you were struck by the steel of a dead Roman Soldier, who also killed all those people you see. Their souls have been wandering these streets ever since.”
Sam stood up and turned towards Rachael. But the priest intervened before he could speak to his girlfriend. “I hadn’t finished, boy.” The priest told Sam. “You can’t tell her about what you can see and why,” he said. “I could not remove the pall of death from you, but that ghostly Roman steel did not hit your girlfriend,” the Druid continued. “However, if you tell her, the horror of last night will come back and haunt her forever, as it will you, boy.” The Druid paused to let that news sink in: “You should save her from that ordeal.”
Sam smiled weakly at his girlfriend. “What’s the matter?” Rachael asked her boyfriend. Sam’s behaviour was troubling her: “You’re behaving very strangely. You’re worrying me.” All the pleasure had gone from Sam’s heart, and he felt like sobbing. But he knew he couldn’t inflict his pain on his girlfriend, after what the Druid had said: “It’s nothing, don’t worry,” Sam lied. “I just had this really weird dream. I can’t remember any details, but I felt I had to come out of the woods to clear my head.” Rachael squeezed Sam’s hand gently: “Dreams can be funny beasts sometimes,” she told him, reassuringly.
As the couple walked out of the village, The Druid High Priest called after Sam: “One last thing, boy!” Sam turned back towards the old man. The priest recognised the fear of the night before. He pitied the boy, but he had another warning to give him, “Anyone who hears your story will also see the dead. They too will be visited forever by the horrors you witnessed. You should keep your secret to yourself and spare them that fate.”
But it’s too late for you. Sam’s horror will also come back to haunt you. You will see the dead. And if you ever visit those ancient woods of the Sussex Downs, you may be in for a very nasty surprise, in the shape of a ghostly Roman sword. If you see the flicker of flame, and the sound of battle in the form of shouts and screams, then run, because your horror strewn life may well depend on it.
The Druid by Steve Huckle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://glowkeeper.github.io/assets/stories/TheDruid/.