The sky was a slate of gray. Not a ray of sunshine was to be seen, nor were there any birds to liven the lifeless sky. The air was still. So still that stray leaves that littered the old, dusty road did not even flutter.
The road itself was hardly ever used. It wove unnoticed, through the dried up, lifeless grass that stretched on for miles, separated by broken down fences to show faint boundaries between fields that were long forgotten.
Hazy mountains lined the most distant fields; their peaks had not been touched by the sun during all the cold months of winter. At the base of the mountains there was a huge, ongoing forest surrounding them. Anyone standing on the road would see a thick black line at the base of the distant mountains, lining the gathering of fields.
The road led in to the forest at the very end of the cluster of fields. When someone reaches that point, all they see when they look ahead is the road entering the trees and being swallowed up by the darkness.
They sky was darkening further now as the evening closed in.
An old, rickety wooden wagon trundled its way down the road and towards the forest, on its way to the small village that lay beyond the mountains. The wheels creaked with the effort of carrying its load of farm crops, dug up throughout that week to sell at the village’s market.
The wagon was pulled by an aging mule that looked bored and tired of life. Its head drooped to its knees and the animal walked at a trudging speed.
The driver clung to the rains with a limp grasp. His hands were worn from the week’s hard labour, his face was weather beaten from the elements.
He looked as tired as the mule, his head bent forward so that his gaze rested on the ground rolling by between the mule and the wagon. As they drew closer to the forest, the old farmer’s face became more and more worried.
The look of worry soon became nervousness and the look of nervousness soon became fear.
As he reached the edge of the trees he glanced up at the dark canopy. His mule stamped its hoof and grunted in fear, refusing to go on.
“Easy boy” soothed the farmer, trying to calm the animal “It’s Ok”
He urged the animal on and it reluctantly did so.
The darkness consumed them as they entered. The tread of the mule’s hoofs and the wagon’s rattling were the only sounds that could be heard in the blackness.
There was hardly any light left to them now, as the night closed in.
Inside the forest, the farmer could feel the icy air bite through his clothes. The mule was getting more agitated by the second. Twisted roots grabbed at the animal’s hoofs and the road became more of a treacherous path.
The trees towered above the two. The man kept his head down to try and disperse the feeling of terror inside him.
The mule suddenly stopped. It flung its head from side to side, grunting and snorting. It tried to back up but a huge, gnarled root was preventing the wheels from rolling backwards.
“Whoa” exclaimed the old farmer, flicking the rains to urge the mule on “Easy boy, what’s gotten into you?”
The mule kept on stamping and flinging its head from side to side.
Just then the farmer received an idea at what had spooked the petrified animal.
A low growl resounded throughout the forest. It sounded like a million boulders being dropped from the peak of the mountain.
The air seemed to get colder. The farmer felt himself go numb as he heard something crashing through the undergrowth to his left. That noise, combined with the growling, was getting closer and closer.
He frantically tried to get his mule to move on but the mule would not. It simply kept on trying to move backwards, its eyes wild with fear.
The man felt his heart, thundering in his chest.
After a couple more attempts he flung the rains to one side and he leapt down to the forest floor. Whatever was crashing through the trees it was getting closer.
The farmer struggled to unfasten the shafts that connected the mule to the wagon. Finally he managed it, unclipping the final buckle he slapped the mule’s behind and it bolted into the foliage, heading back the way they had come.
He ran after it. He could hear the beast chasing after him and he increased his effort to get out. By the time the end of the trees was in his sights his old lungs were burning with the labour. He could see the faint light that signalled the open air.
He didn’t reach it though because, just at that moment, something slammed into his back and the force sent him crashing to the ground. He groaned in agony as he felt a roaring pain ignite his left arm.
He rolled over, onto his back to face his attacker.
He saw its silhouette towering above him. His eyes widened as he noted the shapes of huge, bat-like wings.
“Impossible” he breathed.
The dark outline of razor sharp talons appeared and they slashed down towards the old farmer. He screamed.
Ruby was pretending to be asleep at her desk.
The kids sitting close by were whispering. They were whispering about Ruby the Loony, Ruby the queer, Sleeping Ruby. Ruby just wanted to sleep and to forget about those kids and their whispering.
She wanted to forget about the English class she was meant to be paying attention to. She wanted to block it all out, to simply lie there, with her head on the table, eyes closed with the sunlight warming her face.
She could hear the whisperings turn to rumours now and she knew where that would end up. Like a huge game of Chinese whispers, a rumour would start off as something innocent like the fact she was seen reading a book written by someone with a name like Michael Fiaray. That would turn into “she was seen reading a book about fairies” and then that would turn into “she believes in fairies” and finally, taking a big leap from that “she was seen dancing with imaginary fairies”. Yes, she had been accused of doing that before.
To Ruby, it just proved how gullible people could be.
“Miss Darke?” that was Mrs Peev, the head of the English department. Her snappish tones woke Ruby from her imaginary sleep. Ruby reluctantly sat up straight.
“Yes miss?” she said sleepily.
Mrs Peev looked concerned.
“According to Mr Branner, you fell asleep in his Maths lesson also. Are you feeling alright?”
The girl saw her chance and shook her head. She had never completely liked Mrs Peev but she came up with the best opportunities. Mrs Peev sighed and said,
“You’d better go down to the office then” Ruby nodded, drooping her eyes slightly to add effect.
She packed up her book and pencil case and headed towards the door. She caught people staring at her as she left, many of the faces had their eyebrow raised or were rolling their eyes.
She could hear their accusing voices chanting “Ruby the queer, it’s time for bed, go home now or lose your head”. She could hear them chanting, but their mouths didn’t move. She shook her head and left the classroom.