I walked across the dense forest, the unusually ruthless wind piercing my throat and my legs felt numb, as though they hadn’t moved in ages. The moonlight guided me towards a path I was magnetically attracted to. With absolutely no idea in the world where I was heading, I was merely a puppet in motion, whose strings were controlled by an unknown force.
Shivers ran down my body, the heart was palpitating as though a bulky rock had been attached to it, which was oscillating and banging it. I felt like a cactus, as prickly goose pimples wrapped me up. Time seemed to have just halted, and I felt I had travelled a million miles across the forest when suddenly a luminous ray of light punctured through the moonlight filled darkness. I pushed aside the leafy branch of a tree, and viewed on the ground at the edge of the forest, the enormous silhouette of an intimidating castle and heard a blood-curdling cackle.
I woke up almost instantly as if a chilled bucket of water had been splashed all over me. I was sweating profusely, with my heart palpitating in the same manner as it had done in the nightmare.
“Ellie! Get down for breakfast!” yelled mom, which diverted my fears slightly. This was about a millionth time that this nightmare had struck me since the tender age of eight. I had never conveyed it to my parents because of an agitating fear of being considered emotionally fragile. Being born and raised in a family of two brothers, I had determined myself to be as tough as a male no matter what the consequences or problems I come across from all walks of life. However, this seemingly petty nightmare had relentlessly sliced through my defences throughout my life.
As a child, these nightmares tormented me pathetically and I would wake up crying in my bed, while my mom would hold me tight and sing me back to sleep. And now, even on the verge of adulthood, these nasty dreams still had the same adverse effect on me it deteriorated now to such an extent that it even began haunting me during daylight. I went downstairs for breakfast, struggling to maintain a straight face and wiping off all the sweat from it.
Almost instantaneously as I descended the stairs, there was a deafening cry of, “Happy Birthday!” as the entire family surprised me with the entire house decorated with balloons and stickers with a scrumptiously gorgeous cake waiting for me at the dinner table. I blew the candles breathlessly and a shower of snow spray came falling on my reddish hair, like Jared, my elder brother sprayed an entire bottle on me, while the younger one James lifted me in the air, filling my insides with exhilaration.
“We adore you sis!” they both chanted as they chucked a mound of cake down my little throat and decorated my cheeks with the lusciously delectable chocolate icing, while mum and dad roared with hilarity.
They celebrated my eighteenth birthday like that of a precocious five-year-old child’s. Being the youngest in the family, I was pampered and loved to bits, but I never minded. I considered myself more than fortunate to have such a family. We weren’t as well off as the other families in Abbey Wood, my parents couldn’t afford to throw a lavish party for my birthday, but they never caused me to feel the struggle they encountered in making ends meet and while managing the expenses of my education. My father worked in a fast food joint, earning a meagre salary barely sufficient for us to afford a two-bedroom apartment, while my mother was a homemaker. Jared, who was supposed to be in his final year of college, had dropped out of university in his second year and worked as an office clerk whose income was inadequate as well. The only one who had a chance at receiving a thorough education was me, as James had been expelled due to the default fee as a result, even he sat home and sacrificed his education for mine.
“Ellie, return home early,” called Dad, sitting in his armchair and reading his favourite newspaper. “Mum will be cooking pot roast for you,”
“Yeah Ellie, come early, don’t go fooling around with that boyfriend of yours Matt,” teased James as I clenched my teeth in irritation while he sniggered. I vented my feelings by smirking and gesturing Jared to smack James on his abnormally egg-shaped head which he accomplished and I marched off to school.
It was an ordinary day in school, nothing special or exciting other than the mass birthday wishes. Judy, my best friend, and I went through all the lectures without me showing a single sign of pondering about the nightmare. I couldn't succumb to fears and overflowing thoughts while neglecting my studies, especially in our twelfth grade when we were just a few months away from taking our finals. I had never even confided in Judy about this ludicrously enigmatic dream, perhaps due to the unambiguous fact that I wished to keep my inner self robust, and besides, Judy would freak out and become apprehensive towards me.
During lunch, Alex, Judy’s boyfriend, and his mate Matt were sitting in the school cafeteria, serenely planning a road trip to the forest of Dracon located in the deep south of England, about a hundred and fifty miles from London. As Judy and I walked in, their attention immediately diverted towards us, as Alex and Judy exchanged flirtatious glances, Matt looked at me as though Christmas had arrived a month earlier as we joined them on their table.
“Hey, Ellie, why don’t you join us? It’s going to be one heck of a trip! There is my house nearby the forest built my ancestors where we’ll stay, and we’ll have the time of our lives!” he exclaimed, with a slightly flirtatious tone. He had a super crush on me, I, on the other hand, was too much of a nerd to pay any thought to relationships no matter how much I secretly adored him, a fact, which only Judy was aware of but I trusted her sufficiently to never let a hint reach his eye or ear.
“Yeah Ellie, please join us! Consider it as a late birthday gift from us,” Alex persuaded meaningfully, glancing at Judy for assistance.
Nonetheless, I opened my mouth intending to courteously reject their offer but no voice came out as Judy gave me a tight nudge.
There was no way her parents were going to allow her on a trip with a gang of boys, moreover, her father was stringent enough to prevent a lie escaping her lips. Therefore, for the sake of my best friend I agreed, though most reluctantly. However, the idea of the trip being at the cost of keeping my parents in the dark about it haunted me every second, I’d never in my wildest dreams wished to break their trust, nevertheless, I still agreed to keep my over-possessive but extremely loving parents in the dark regarding it and considered providing them with an excuse about a sleepover at Judy’s place. Though the trip was planned for next week, Alex and Matt super excitedly decided to purchase all the hiking and barbecue material the following evening.
“Matt, you never told us that you owned an ancestral mansion,” I inquired slowly, not meeting his eyes as I knew they would ogle at me seductively. My emerald eyes couldn’t even afford to hold the piercing gaze of his exotic hazel ones for more than a few seconds, without a subtle blush forming across my cheeks which didn’t have the potential to go unnoticed by anyone.
“Oh no, it’s not a mansion, just a manor house,” he replied modestly, staring into my eyeballs with the usual intense passion and cheesiness in his deep voice. “Frankly speaking, I became aware of it a month ago, when my parents were discussing it. Never really knew I had royal blood,” he sniggered, trying to be as modest as possible.
“No offence to you Matt,” began Judy, speaking in a highly serene tone. “But why can’t we just visit Hela's woods near Wales or Jermain mountains which fall on the way to Scotland?”
“But what's wrong with Dracon, babe?” asked Alex, eyeing her with suspicion.
“Umm…nothing just, I have heard highly mysterious stories about those woods. The place has been haunted for centuries and….,” she gulped, with fear, making a substantial effort to utter the rest of the sentence. “Those who have had taken a stroll in those woods or the mountain nearby have had their heads sliced and hung on top of trees,” her sentence ended, sending a massive line of shiver down my spine. A moment of silence spread across us as Matt and Alex glanced at each other, looking troubled. I half-expected them to either change the plan or the location, but to our surprise, they roared with laughter, punching the table and causing passers-by to scowl at them annoyingly. Judy and I glared at them resentfully.
“Come on babe, that’s all a pile of utter rubbish. A couple of mad tales told by parents to young children to make them sleep at night I suppose,” said Alex, unable to wipe the ludicrous grin from his face.
“What do you feel, Matt?” I shot at him, begging him internally to disagree at least to some extent.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “sounds like a heap of bat droppings to me,” causing me to shake my head and eye him with disgust. Judy attempted to dissuade the guys from changing the plan but in vain and looked at me for help but I sort of purposely didn’t help much, partly coz I wanted to remain strong and prove to myself that neither the ridiculous nightmare nor any haunted place could weaken me at all. In the end, she gave in as the majority won and we returned to class, which was the most boring and mundane subject ever created by mankind: History. And our ‘charming' teacher, Mr. Grey, who never even bothered to discuss the topics or the syllabus guidelines much, began lecturing us about Medieval Britain.
Half an hour passed, and the students already had tears of sleep or boredom in their eyes, for that matter. In another teacher's hands this subject would have perhaps been mildly interesting, I thought, struggling not to yawn.
“Alright class, since all of you, seem so drowsy, I have the perfect way to boost you,” he announced, opening his Lenovo backpack and removing his laptop. He connected the HDMI cable and turned on the projector with the remote control. The class displayed a brief sign of interest at this action, however, received a gargantuan disappointment, when he declared that it was an assessment of identifying the medieval personalities which he had taught in the previous class that was held about a week earlier. I slammed my palm against my forehead as I was going to fail this one horribly. Although I was a pretty competent student and a topper in a few subjects, History used to be the last on my priority list and I couldn't even force myself to study. The students of my class managed to pass by copying from one another, but this time, Mr Grey had been unexpectedly cunning and devised such an assessment where it was nearly impossible to cheat. He pressed a button and a series of medieval characters appeared on the projected screen and each student had to identify them with their royal title along with their contribution to the medieval world. Nearly all the students were at a loss as none could provide accurate answers, and I dreaded the moment when my name would be called.
“Miss Ellie Parkinson,” Grey called and I stood up, with my stomach groaning as though hit by a rock. He slid the image on the screen, and a tall muscular man wearing royal red robes with a golden crown on his head appeared, holding a gleaming silver dagger in his hand in an intimidating manner.