Here is the new Halloween Story 2016 with characters from The Largest Rabbit book. Tom, the youngest but bravest rabbit in the warren, is walking through the deepest and darkest part of the forest. He knows he’s alone yet feels that someone is watching him. Why is he there? Who is cutting down trees? Who’s living in the pretty cottage in the middle of the forest? And what’s that overwhelming pong of pilchards and garlic?
As Tom wandered further and deeper into the ancient wood it seemed to get darker and darker. He stopped and turned, looking back along the path he had walked and it seemed to him that the brambles had started to grow across it. It was ok, he told himself, he was a brave rabbit. He couldn’t go back – he would have to go on. Forward he trotted, whistling a tune to keep his spirits up….perhaps spirits was the wrong word, considering he was in the old Wychwood and it was All Hallows Eve. But, he told himself firmly, he was not afraid.
There was a scream which made the little rabbit’s blood freeze and stopped him in his tracks – it sounded like a Barn Owl! They love to eat rabbits. He held his breath – nothing happened. He whistled a little bit quieter when he started again. The path weaved between the trees, their creaking, scratching aged branches meeting overhead like brown bony arms. He swore that he could almost make out faces in the bark of some of the older, gnarlier trunks.
The autumn storm that had blown through the woods a few days before must have blasted most of the leaves off, which left twiggy sticks that looked like talons – they reminded him of the owl. Tom halted again and listened. It was odd – there was not a sound, as if he was the only thing alive in the forest. The air despite the seasonal cold was heavy and oppressive, like being smothered in a thick woollen blanket.
Something moved. He was sure of it – away to his left. He peered into the woody gloom. No, it was nothing. He told himself again that he was not afraid…..but he was a little bit wary. Tom walked faster; the path must come out somewhere. He tried to whistle again but his lips had gone dry.
There it was again! Something was definitely over there to his left. “Hello?” he called. There was no reply. He drew his torch out and shone it towards where he had seen the movement. There was nothing apart from trees, brambles and a green hat. What? The hat was gone. OK, the rabbit thought, I can either run away….or see what it is. Is it safe to step off the path? Tom drew himself to his full height (still only as big as a tiny rabbit on tip-toes) and strode firmly into the bushes. He pushed through to where he thought he’d seen the hat. When he got there he looked down – Tom was sure that he could make out footprints. They were people prints but smaller. He grinned to himself – there was someone here. “OK, I know you’re here,” he announced, “You can show yourself.”
It remained still and silent for a while, then a clear voice said, “Good day young Master Rabbit.” It came from behind him. Tom turned slowly and there in front of him was a man but he was the size of a small human – a child he thought they were called. He wore a green jacket, trousers and floppy hat, all trimmed with what looked like oak leaves. His belt had an acorn on its buckle – even his long boots were the colour of autumn acorns. His face was dark, and wrinkled, like it had seen many summers and winters, almost like the bark of a tree. He smiled a kindly smile, as he bowed and took of his hat. “My name is Derwen,” he said.
Tom blushed (as he did not know how to bow) and he mumbled a “How do you do” adding, “My name’s Tom.”
“What are you doing here in the middle of the Wychwood on All Hallow’s Eve?” Derwen asked.
“I was following a butterfly along a path but the butterfly disappeared and there was no path behind me, only in front of me. I’ kept walking as I think all paths that go into a wood have to come out somewhere.”
Derwen grinned, “A very logical thought, young sir.”
Tom couldn’t help it, “If you don’t mind me asking, Mr Derwen – what are you?”
“I am one of the woodland folk, what you would call a Jack in the Green. It is our responsibility to look after all things that grow, especially in the forests and hedgerows. I am here because I am concerned about something going on in the middle of the forest. Someone has been chopping down trees or parts of trees.”
“That’s terrible,” the little rabbit replied.
“I am going there to put a stop to it – or at least find out what is going on,” he looked at Tom, “You’re a very brave rabbit – would you help?”
“Certainly,” he answered, unsure as to how much help he could be, but determined to do what he could.
“Come on then,” the Green Man said and they strode off down the path into the trees. He was also whistling and though Tom didn’t know the tune, he found himself joining in. Derwen drew a little silver flute from his pocket and played the tune that he had been whistling and as he did, the branches that had seemed to be leaning low over them in a rather threatening way lifted by a few metres, and let more light in – where they walked, the oppressive feeling of the forest seemed to change.
They continued for a while (Tom thought it was all really happy and exciting) until suddenly Derwen stopped playing, raised his finger to his lips for Tom to be quiet, and popping the flute in his pocket, slowly crept into the undergrowth. Tom followed him, keeping close. The jolly atmosphere had changed as they had reached the edge of a clearing in the trees. From where they stood they could see that some trees had been hacked at and their lower branches ripped away. There were piles of twigs and leaves scattered along the edge of the clearing. In front of them were at least six large tree stumps, and the remains of what had once been oak, elm and ash trees, now just leaves, twigs, wood chips and sawdust. Beyond that was a cottage. A strange cottage of pink, blue black and green with a brown roof – Tom could swear that it looked like it was made of…sweets? (He remembered Bob bringing some into the warren once – he had found a bag of them dropped by a human child, which he shared round the young rabbits.)
“Careful, wee rabbit. This could be dangerous,” Derwen whispered.
As he spoke, the door to the cottage opened, and a human came out. It was a grey-haired old lady in a cloak, so stooped over that she looked like a hoop. She appeared ever so sweet and gentle. Tom could feel himself smiling, and he even felt his feet lifting and starting to take him towards the lady. Derwen held him by the shoulder, “Careful!” he hissed. Tom stopped – what had made him move? The Old woman stared across the clearing, over the fallen trees, into the gloomy undergrowth straight to where they were hiding.
“Is there anyone out there?” she called in a frail, crackling voice. “I won’t hurt you. Come into my lovely warm kitchen.” She peered towards the rabbit and the Jack in the Green. Could she see them?
She turned on her heel – very quickly, Tom thought, for someone so elderly, “No-one there.” The voice did not sound so crackly or frail either. She unwound her stoop, standing straighter and taller as she stomped towards the doorway which closed behind her.
Derwen breathed out, as did Tom. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“I thought as much. We truly are in a dangerous spot. That’s not a dear old lady, but one of the dark spirits from the caves to the north. She is one of the winter witches. It’s she that’s been cutting down the trees for firewood, probably for her cauldron. They always have cauldrons,” he grinned at the rabbit.
“Why?” asked Tom, unsure as to what a cauldron was.
“To make up foul smelling potions – or else to cook their lunch in.”
Tom felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling as he asked, “What do they eat?”
“Anything with meat in, usually but I believe they like rabbits best of all.”
Tom had the sudden urge to run away though he managed to resist it.
Derwen nudged the rabbit and grinned again, “Come on, I’m sure you’re up for an adventure!” He stepped out of the bushes and keeping as low and as quiet as he could, he crept towards the cottage. When he got to the building he looked for Tom; the rabbit was right behind him, also pressed tight against the wall. Above them was the kitchen window – too high for either of them to see through. “Climb on my shoulders and have a look,” Derwen told him so the rabbit scrambled up. He peered through the Glass. What he saw made him gasp.
In the middle of the kitchen was a huge fireplace, on which there stood a large black and greasy-looking cooking pot which he assumed was the cauldron Derwen had mentioned. It was enormous – large enough for fifty rabbits! Under it there were twigs, sticks and coal – obviously the makings of a fire to heat it up. The witch was filling the cauldron with buckets of water which she carried from a large hand-pump on the far side of the kitchen. In the centre of the floor was an equally enormous wooden table and it was this that had made him gasp; lying across the table, on his side, was a great hairy dog, fast asleep. It was Finn! He just lay there sleeping as around him the witch was heating water. From a drawer she took out some boxes, from which she tipped some plants which she mixed, appeared to talk to, then throw into the cooking pot. Magic herbs maybe? She collected a bundle of carrots from a shelf and threw them into the pot too. All the while she was singing and chanting (Tom couldn’t hear what). The rabbit scanned around the rest of the room before he climbed down to tell the Jack in the Green.
Derwen shook his head slowly and asked the rabbit some further questions; “Did you see anyone else? Any signs of other witches? Was there a cat?”
Tom thought.” I couldn’t see anyone but the far side of the room was hidden by a large chair. There wasn’t any sign of another witch.”
“We’ll need a diversion,” the Green Man mused. “How much noise can you make?” He looked the rabbit up and….well, not up very far as he was a very short rabbit.
“More than you think,” Tom answered.
“OK, then here’s my plan,” he whispered his ideas. As they conferred there was a rustle in the bushes. Tom felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and Derwen reached for the small wooden club that he carried in his jacket. From the undergrowth there was mumbling and some rude words and …the overpowering smell of fish – and garlic. “It’s ok – I know who that is!” Tom beamed. Out of the bushes fell a short fat ginger shape. “Jeffrey!” Tom whispered. The old marmalade cat stood up and waved. “Keep quiet! There’s a witch!”
Jeffrey performed a silent “Aha!” and slinked (as slinky as a round cat could do) over to the low wall behind which the rabbit and the Jack in the Green were hiding. Derwen looked at the strange figure that was shaking his hand enthusiastically though quietly. Here stood a round ginger tom cat with an incredibly toothy smile, practically as broad as he was tall, wearing an old leather flying helmet goggles resting on his round head. On his back he had a rucksack with various odd things poking out. What Tom could not get over was the incredible smell of garlic that surrounded the old moggie almost like a cloud. “How did you find us?” Tom asked.
The cat shook his head, “I wasn’t looking for you chaps – I’m looking for Finn. It’s been a very strange day.”
Jeffrey outlined to the others what had happened that morning. Finn had been a bit twitchy since breakfast and actually left some (unheard of). He was really restless. He said he had had some strange dreams in the night about an old lady in trouble. After breakfast they had gone for a walk on the edge of the great wood and when they were walking they saw an old lady gathering kindling. Finn had run over, and Jeffrey and Rubbish the greyhound had gone too. The lady was ever so friendly and had offered the three friends a lovely breakfast in her cottage in the woods, if only they would help her carry the sticks that she was gathering for her fire. Jeffrey was not built to carry, and Rubbish was too slight but Finn being Finn had offered to help. They had walked into the woods together but as they walked the path got narrower and narrower so that they ended up walking single file. At one point the undergrowth overhung the path. The lady led Finn through this almost tunnel, and when Rubbish and Jeffrey went through – there was no-one on the other side. Finn and the old woman had vanished! The greyhound and the cat searched briefly but of Finn or the lady there was no sign. Rubbish and Jeffrey had rushed home and told the Butler who told them that his father had spoken to him when he was a boy about an old lady in the woods who stole young animals that were never seen again. She was a witch who visited the forest around Halloween every few years. The Butler had thought it was a fairy story but realised now that it must have been true! He had taken out the old Landrover and with Rubbish, Flower and some of the other animals they were searching the woods. However, Jeffrey knew that he was facing something magical and evil so he had come prepared. Creaking as he turned around, he untied the rucksack and showed the Green Man and the rabbit what he had brought with him,
“Have to be prepared, you know, never know what sort of evil you might encounter!” Out of the rucksack came some sharpened bits of wood “Stakes in case of vampires,” he muttered, then a large crucifix “Ditto” he said. From the pockets in his fur (they always amazed everyone) he pulled out handfuls of garlic bulbs “Ditto again”. There was also a small slingshot and a pair of silver earrings, “In case of werewolves”, he explained. “I’ve also got a small bottle of Holy Water. That’s pretty good against most things.”
“Anything specifically for witches?” Derwen asked.
“Hmmm,” came the reply from Jeffrey, rummaging through the rucksack. “A Bible?”
“Should work,” confirmed the Green Man.
“Righto! So, what do we do – a frontal assault? Like El Alamein?” Jeffrey enquired enthusiastically.
“I did have a plan, but I think I now have a better one. But it depends on how brave Tom can be,” Derwen and Jeffrey turned towards the little rabbit.
The Witch tested the water in the great cauldron; Yes, coming to the right temperature. The carrots and the herbs (thyme, sage and parsley) were smelling nicely – really rustic. All she needed now was some nice doggy meat to cook slowly in the stew. She looked down at the enormous deerhound who lay snoring across the wooden table. She couldn’t believe how gullible he’d been; she’d cast a spell in the night to find a likely dinner date and in her seeing-bowl she had found Finn. He was so noble and kind – so easy to snare! The witch gave him a poke in his thigh – oh, he was very meaty but also very soft and tender. Lovely! Now she would only need to cut him into chunks to drop into the pot.
Walking over towards the sink, she slid a large meat knife out of the knife-block. It was heavy, and had obviously seen a lot of action over the years. She slipped her calloused thumb along its 12 inches of cold metal. Blast! It was blunt! She went in the drawer to take out a sharpening steel. She began to draw the edge of the blade over the sharpener, and could see it getting sharper and sharper, keener and keener with every drag. She raised it over the slumbering hound. No, she told herself, don’t spoil the ship for a happor’th of tar…take time and make sure the knife is properly sharp. Finn stirred slightly – the witch lifted the knife – but he slept on. She whistled to herself and continued sharpening. She stood to her full height now – she had looked like a bent over old woman outside but here in reality she was tall, strong, with thick silver grey hair that hung down her back. She did have the usual witchly hooked nose with warts, and deep black eyes, as cold as the darkest night. The water in the cooking pot popped – it was just coming to the boil. Excellent! And just in time – the knife was now sharp enough too.
Then there was a knock on the door. She growled, put the knife down and stooped down as she went to the door. Turning the brass door handle, it creaked open and she peered out. There was no-one there. She was about to close the door when a voice below her made her look down, “Hello” said a little rabbit. “Have you seen a big hairy dog called Finn?” Tom smiled back up at her.
The Witch returned the smile to the lovely little, tender, sweet chunk of rabbit meat. “Hello, little one, and what is your name?”
“My name’s Tom. Please lady, have you seen Finn?”
“Why yes, he’s inside waiting for you. He is my guest for dinner – maybe you would like to join him?”
“Yes please,” beamed the little rabbit. All Tom could think was – blimey, isn’t she tall – and what an enormous warty nose!
“Please Miss, my friends are here too,” he said. “Can we wait for them?”
The Witch scowled. More rabbits – ah well, they’d pack out the stew, “Where are they, my dear?”
“Outside – over there in the woods. They’re a bit shy. Would you come over and say hello?”
The Witch was now growing to like the idea of rabbit as a starter so she allowed herself to follow him out across the grass. As she walked she uncurled and got taller and taller until she got to the wall, where she stood and rose to her full height. She glowered down at the little rabbit.
“I do hope that you’ve not been wasting my time, young Coney!”
As Tom had led the witch across the lawn, Derwen was creeping through the open doorway into the kitchen. He found the sleeping Finn and climbed up onto the table where he stood over him and began to speak a spell to act against the Witch’s evil enchantment. The Green Man is a woodland spirit, and has deep and ancient magic of his own. He tried the first spell, but it didn’t raise Finn. A second spell made the hound’s eyes quiver, so Derwen knew he was on the right track. As he chanted the third spell, and crumbled a handful of oak leaves over Finn’s head two things happened. He heard a scream from outside, and Finn opened his eyes wide. “Hello,” the Lord of the Glen said. “And to whom do I owe this honour?”
As the Witch grew to her height a ginger figure leapt upon the wall and faced her. “Not so fast!” shouted the marmalade mousketeer. The Witch took a step backwards in shock as she stared at Jeffrey. She was astonished and was for the first time in her life, totally, speechless. There in front of her stood a round ginger cat in a flying helmet, who peered back at her through goggles. “Whatever are you?” she asked.
“I am your nemesis!” he replied.
“Fine words for a fat cat! “ she cackled. “Well be quick – that smell of garlic is making my eyes water!”
“I have everything to defeat your evil ways!” Jeffrey announced as he reached into the rucksack that he’d placed by his feet. Out came a crucifix which he waved in the Witch’s face.
“Sorry, that does nothing,” she replied.
“Ah, OK,” he rummaged in the bag again and brought out a stake and a mallet.
“I’d have to stand very still and even then, I don’t think that’d work – do you?” She shook her head,
“Fair enough,” back in the rucksack he went. “Bible?” he offered. The Witch shook her head again. “Silver earrings?”
“I usually wear gold, thank you,” she replied.
“Aha! Holy Water!” Jeffrey declared.
The Witch stepped back. “What?” She looked worried.
Jeffrey was jubilant. He pulled the glass bottle from the sack and waved it in front of her. “Holy…” he stopped for a moment.
Tom was tapping him on the leg. “It’s not Holy Water,” he whispered.
Jeffrey looked. “Oh dear…” the cat read the bottle, “Wart Remover!”
The Witch screamed loudly with laughter and leaned forward with her long clawed fingers scrabbling to grab the Professor. Jeffrey said to himself, “Ah well, here goes nothing,” and flung the bottle of wart remover into the Witch’s face. She screamed and stopped for a second, then screeched with glee as the warts on her nose disappeared.
The Witch shrieked with laughter. “Thank you, cat, I had been wanting to something about those! Now cat – how would you prefer to die?” She moved towards Jeffrey whose eyes closed inside his goggles. He tensed for a moment.
The Witch screamed a scream of someone in indescribable pain. Jeffrey opened an eyelid and was amazed at what he saw; the Witch was starting to smoke as the chemical in the wart remover got into her bloodstream. She stood stock still, her arms dropped to her side and then she started shaking. As Finn and Derwen ran out of the cottage towards them the Witch suddenly went “BANG!” – And vanished! She was gone.
“Well bless my soul!” he said.
“Jeffrey to the rescue again, old friend!” Finn smiled as he got to Jeffrey. The Lord of the Glen bowed to the cat, as did the Green Man.
Jeffrey beamed back, “Of course, had it all worked out!”
“What got her?” asked Derwen. “Bible?”
Jeffrey blushed deep under his ginger fur, “I thought it was Holy Water – but I’d picked up the wrong bottle. It was Wart Remover!”
Finn and the Green man laughed. “As the Witch was made up of so much warty matter, it must have gone into her bloodstream and dissolved all of her. Amazing!”
Tom clambered over the wall. “But we owe it all to the hero – step forward, Tom!” Derwen cried. The rabbit smiled a huge smile which stretched from ear to ear. He felt so proud. “Young sir, I owe you my life,” Finn told him. Tom blushed even more.
“Right! “Jeffrey smiled, “Theres a cauldron in that kitchen with herbs in. I wonder if anyone fancies some garlic stew?”
Tom held up a sharpened wooden spike, “What goes well with stake?”
- Faces in the Bark
Characters and story copyright Chris Dignam/Crafty Dog Cymru 2016.