Annie found him waiting for her as soon as she fell asleep. At first, she assumed he was the mysterious lover foretold to her by Roma. She went to him willingly: allowing herself to sink into his arms and sighed at his whispered promises. She felt his hands move over her body, sending shivers of anticipation into her core. She moaned aloud in her sleep and moved with him. His tongue flicked across her cheek and she parted her lips and allowed him to enter her mouth. His words seemed strange to her; his promises confusing. She felt him slip from her side and crawl on top of her. His voice was rasping, entreating her to give him what he wanted, but these were not the words of a lover. She had to get away, to wake up. Her sleep was deeper than it had ever been, and she cried out in terror, as the hands roaming her body dug deeper. She felt his nails scoring her skin and the breath upon her face smelled of the tomb.
“Annie,” it was her mother’s voice. “Annie, child, come back. This is not the way, turn back.”
“Mamma, Mamma, help me.”
“Not me, child,” her mother voice was fading. “But one much higher. Call out to him for protection.”
“Sweet Jesus, help me.”
No sooner had she uttered these words then she felt the weight lifting from her. She fought her way out from the sleep and sprang up in the bed. The room was filled with an angry roaring. Everything spun before her eyes. What little clothes she had danced around her, caught in some terrible vortex. The air was freezing, as the wind turned faster and faster. She tried to get away from it, shuffling backwards in the bed until her body met the unresisting headboard. The wind moved with her, threatening to pull her into its swirling mass. The roaring died down and was replaced by a wailing and sobbing. She held fast to the headboard, praying aloud to God to save her.
Her sisters were pounding on her door. It opened slightly, but the pressure of the wind pushed it closed again.
“Rose, Dora,” she screamed above the noise. “Go back to bed. Don’t come in here.”
“Annie, I’m frightened,” Dora called, and the door opened a fraction as the children pushed against it.
Annie knew if they came inside, she would lose them forever. Holding tightly to the headboard, she stood. She did not know how she knew what to do, what to say, but she held her arms wide and called.
“Before me, Michael, behind me, Gabriel, to my right, Raphael, to my left, Uriel. Guardians of the soul, protectors of the light, help me.”
A dazzling white light shot through her darkened window and pushed the vortex aside. It spread wider until it filled each corner of the room. The screams faded with the last of the wind, and Annie shielded her eyes against the glare. She thought she saw shadowy figures within the light, but it was not possible to be sure. It was like looking at the sun, it hurt her eyes, so she scrambled beneath the covers for protection. She sensed the light fading and screamed when she felt the weight on her again.
It was her sisters, trying to tug the covers from her grasp.
“Annie, what happened, what’s wrong?”
She peeped up at the two anxious faces and struggled to sit up. She was trembling so badly her teeth chattered, and she was glad of the warmth of their bodies, as they joined her in the bed.
“Tell us, Annie,” Rose looked at her in wonder. “What happened?”
She tried to make light of what was the most frightening experience of her life.
“It was the wind, nothing more. I left the window open and the wind came in.”
“It must have been a big wind,” Rose gazed around the room, at the clothing littering the floor and the overturned vase of flowers.
“Yes, it was,” Annie held them close. “And cold as well,” she tried to excuse her shivering and the goose pimples that rose on her arms.
Like all children they accepted their big sister’s answer and were soon asleep. Annie lay awake for the rest of the night. Though her eyes felt heavy from the want of sleep, she could not risk having the dream again. Nor could she risk its aftermath.
They set off for Meg’s cottage at first light, gathering herbs, roots, and berries along the way. She was glad to find her basket waiting for her on the doorstep and a freshly killed rabbit inside. Roma was as good as her word, and the rabbit would make a tasty stew. Annie was anxious to see Meg and hear what she would make of her nightmare. Meg knew the meaning of everything, each sign and omen. She could foretell the coming of snow days before it arrived or smell the onset of the rains. The children reached the cottage first, and there was the usual flurry of greetings and kisses before they rambled off to play. Annie nodded to Meg and placed her basket on the tabletop, then fetched the pestle and mortar for the grinding. Meg worked alongside her for a few minutes, picking the needed herbs and roots from the basket and throwing them into the mortar. Annie beat at the ingredients hard, and they were soon reduced to a fine powder.
“I’d pity the poor soul who gets in your way this day.”
Annie noticed Meg looking into the mortar.
“Sorry, Meg. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Aye, I noticed, child. What was it kept you up?” Meg had not failed to notice Annie’s red-rimmed eyes, nor the pallor of her skin.
“I had a bad dream, that’s all.”
Meg felt the cold fingers close round her heart; so, it was starting. This terrible blackness she had felt approaching.
“Come away, child,” she caught Annie’s hand in mid-air, as she raised it to crush a new batch of herbs. “Come, sit by the fire and we’ll talk awhile.”
Annie allowed herself to be led to the chair. She was glad of the heat from the fire, as she found it hard to get warm since her fright. Meg sat opposite and was quiet for a while gazing into the leaping flames.
“Tell me about this dream, child.”
“It wasn’t just the dream,” Annie clasped her hands in her lap.” But what happened afterwards.”
Meg listened to the strange tale as though it was a common, everyday occurrence. When Annie finished, she crossed herself and mumbled a prayer that Annie was unable to make out.
“Listen to me, child. For the hours of the day are short and the nights from now on will be endless. We have much work to do, to stop what’s about to happen,” she held up a hand to stop Annie’s questions. “The names you evoked last night were the most powerful of all. The four guardians of the soul came to your aid, with Michael as their leader. He is the warrior and the one most feared by the Dark One. Aye,” she answered Annie’s unasked question. “That’s who you saw in your dream. The one cast out and who fell from heaven. He has roamed this earth, this Hell since time began. His quest to gain as much power as God and bring about the destruction of mankind. He will not rest until he does so, and its man himself who aids his quest. Those who grasp at power, who lust for riches are his aids and feed his hunger. He has sensed the great goodness and power that’s in you and wishes to make it his own. You must learn to resist it. Fight him as fearlessly as Michael did and still does. He, along with all the hosts of angels, will be your allies and through him you’ll win the eternal struggle.”
“I’m frightened, Meg, not so much for myself, but for my sisters. What if he tries to hurt them, how will I protect them?”
“It’s he who plants such doubts in your mind. Pay him no heed and trust in what is right. You knew the exact words to say to save yourself last night. These came from God and will continue to do so.”
“I’m only a girl. How can I take on the forces of darkness?”
“When he comes to you again with all his whispered promises tell him you want none of him. To be away and leave you in peace.”
Annie looked at her wide-eyed. Meg sounded as though she was shooing away an unsuitable suitor rather than the Devil.
“Come now,” Meg rose stiffly. “There’s much work to be done in helping those who are in need.”
Annie joined her at the table, and they spent the next few hours mixing and packing the herbs. Annie told her as they worked, about the visit from the O Brien’s and the offer of marriage. She was glad her sisters were not around to hear Meg’s curses and ranting at the news. She also told her of Roma and her children and the villager’s hatred of them.
“Well, God between them and all harm,” Meg sighed. “But they’re welcome to any spare food I have, and you tell them so.”
Annie promised she would, and it was well into the afternoon when she set off with her basket. She took great care to avoid running into the O Brien’s on her travels. The reception she received from the villagers was the same as before, with only Jane O Regan inviting her in. There were two more deaths overnight and Jane whispered to her of the rumours that were doing the rounds.
“They say we’ve been cursed,” Jane said, looking about the room as if in dread of someone overhearing. “They say it’s those gypsies who are camped down in the hollow.”
“What nonsense. Why only last night I spoke to them and found them to be lovely, gentle folk. It really is all nonsense.”
“Still,” Jane sniffed. “The sickness has to come from somewhere and there’s none in the other villages.”
Annie knew it was useless to argue any further with her and after exchanging a few pleasantries, she set off for home. She was almost on the outskirts of the village when she heard her name being called. She turned to find Pat O Malley hurrying towards her.
“Have you heard the rumours?”
“Yes, but they’re nonsense. Those people wouldn’t harm a fly.”
“There’s mischief afoot. Mark my words,” he took her by the elbow and led her towards a thicket of bushes. “Only last night I saw that old witch Mary O Brien coming out of Jane’s house and her with a smile on her like the cat that’s been at the cream. She’s up to no good, that one.”
“Their horse lost a shoe,” she explained about the gypsies. “They’ve no money to replace it and the man’s sick.”
“Send them to me. I’ll give them enough to shoe the horse and have them on their way before any harm befalls them.”
“I will,” she picked up her skirts and made ready to run. She wanted to get home and tell Meg of what was happening and warn Roma as well.
“Thank you, Pat. You’re a good man,” she reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll not forget your kindness.”
He was still standing with his hand to his cheek, when she reached the edge of the forest and turned to wave at him.
It was dark and the forest, that once seemed such a friendly, familiar place, frightened her. The call of the night owl, who had recently risen from his slumber made her jump. The small scurrying from the bushes as she walked along were now transformed into the terrifying scratching of some great horned demon, who she expected at any moment, to rise and block her path. Even the slight, evening breeze skimming the treetops sounded like thunder in her ears. Hugging her shawl tighter around her, she hurried on. Once or twice, she thought she heard her name being called and stopped to listen. The first time she dismissed it as her imagination, but the second time… She stood still, hardly daring to breathe, as it came again, louder this time.
“Mamma?” she called, looking desperately around her. “Mamma, is that you?”
“Annie, Annie, child.”
The voice was stronger now. She saw a dark figure silhouetted in a clearing among the trees.
“Mamma,” was it her mother? She had somehow come back to her, though every fibre of her being cried out it was not; could not be her mother, she did not care. She wanted so much to believe it was true. That her mother had somehow survived the grave and come back
“Mamma,” she dropped her basket and ran towards the figure, tears streaming down her face.
A hand reached out from the dark, grabbed her skirt and pulled her back with such force she fell against a tree trunk, winded.
“Be gone, vile creature,” Meg waved her stick towards the figure. “Leave this child in peace.”
The figure sighed Annie’s name once more before it faded into mist.
“Come, child,” Meg helped Annie to stand. “Let’s go home.”
Annie was unaware of the walk to Meg’s cottage or the tender words meant to soothe her. It was not until she was seated by the fire and had drunk one of Meg’s cures for the vapours, that it hit her.
“My God,” her hand shook as she handed the cup to Meg. “What’s happening to me; what was it, that thing out there, in the forest?”
“A demon sent to lure you away. He’ll stop at nothing to gain your soul.”
“Oh, Meg,” Annie started to sob. “Just for a moment…”
“I know child. I know,” Meg put her arms around her.
“I can’t fight him. I’m just not strong enough.”
“We’ll fight him together. He is no stranger to me. You can stay here until you learn the way, until you are stronger.”
Meg had put Rose and Dora to bed. She prepared a sleeping draught for Annie. This would ensure she would have no dreams that night. The herbs contained within the draught would soothe her mind and still her thoughts and he would not find her waiting for him.
Annie was led to bed as the draught took effect. She was unaware of her shoes being slipped from her feet and did not feel the pillow when her head touched it. Meg stayed awake for most of the night. Fashioning crosses from dried reeds, she hung them from every opening in the cottage. Each was put in place with a small bundle of herbs attached to it and a prayer added to form an invisible barrier. Throughout the night, Meg poured over the many books and writings she had inherited from her mother. Refreshing the words of protection that were still clear in her mind as the day she first heard them, but she found comfort in reading them again. There was much to learn and little time. She cursed herself for not teaching Annie of these things sooner, but in truth, she had not realised how strong the child’s power had grown and how needful she’d be of this protection. She piled sods of turf on the fire trying to distil the gloom and the cold circling her. Dark shadows, thrown by the flames, danced across the walls and she lit a few more candles. She knew he was outside, prowling around the cottage. She heard his voice as she had done years before and brushed aside his promises of youth, of riches, of eternal life. When he tired of entreating her, he sent more powerful voices. She heard the soft voice of her mother. It told her to heed him, to do as he said, and they would be together again. Its strange Meg thought, as she brushed aside a tear, how a voice lost to her for over forty years could stir her heartstrings as though it were yesterday.
“God grant you peace, poor spirit,” she prayed, and the words whispering in her ears echoed away into a mournful cry.
She knew the voice was not that of her mother’s. The Dark One was using some lost soul to imitate the sweet sound in the same way he had done to Annie.
She was to have no rest that night. Angry, at what he saw as her meddling, he sent demon after demon to torment her. Tiny balls of flame leaped from the fire and turned to hideous snarling beasts that reached out sharp claws and tried to scratch her. The shadows lengthened on the floor as small black shapes crept from between the cracks in the walls and flew, turning into giant bats, their teeth dripping with blood. They hissed and swooped around her, their wings snapping like whips at her face. Still she prayed, never ceasing, allowing nothing to stop her in her mission to defeat the Dark One. It was only with the coming of dawn the torment stopped, and she felt him moving away.
He had not succeeded that night, but he was no fool. He knew what he was up against in the old woman. There were many others not as strong, who would easily succumb to his promises, and they were not so far away. The birdsong irritated him; the light slanting through the trees blinded him. He would rest now and allow those of his legions who worked by day to do his bidding. He belonged to the night and would need to gather strength for the task ahead. For he was about to do something he had not done in centuries; he was about to take on human form.