There wasn’t always a moor to the north of Little Howling. Local tales told of an ancient forest, stretching for miles across the land now occupied by the moor, and Great Howling. Angela loved the stories of witches in the woods, and thickets so dense that villagers became lost in them, their cries for help giving rise to the names of the twin villages.
“But the greed of the villages was too great,” her grandmother would say as she recounted the stories in her cottage on the edge of the moor. “They cut more and more trees down to build houses, until there were none left. Just a great big scar in the land between here and there.”
Angela liked to walk on the moor during the day, sometimes even venturing across to Great Howling to visit their shops. If she stayed too late she got the bus home instead of walking across the moor at night. The vast open space became threatening after dark, a place of endless night and mysterious rustlings. Once or twice she even fancied she heard wind through branches that were felled long ago.
Angela left Little Howling for London, swapping the village for university. The moor faded from her mind, though she sometimes dreamed of the gales that whipped across the grass, or the plaintive cries of the sheep in autumn. One nightmare cast her as a nightdress-clad Gothic heroine, running across the moor with a masked rider in hot pursuit, though she woke when she tripped over a rock.
Her mother’s second marriage drew her back to the village, and she spent an evening trading memories with her grandmother.
“If you believe the stories, the last tree was felled three hundred years ago this very evening.”
“Do you believe the stories?” asked Angela.
“Some of them.” Her grandmother gave that quiet, knowing smile that drove Angela mad with curiosity, and would say no more.
That night, Angela couldn’t sleep for the screaming that came from the moor. At three minutes to midnight, she found herself standing in the living room, gazing at the mirror that faced the window. The view outside revealed a barren, desolate landscape, dotted with the tiny pin pricks of light from Great Howling. The view in the mirror showed a mighty forest, the trees pointing their largest branches in the direction of the village.
“I knew some day they’d be back,” said Angela’s grandmother from the doorway.
“What’s going on?”
“The trees are back.”
“How? They were cut down.”
“Yes, but their spirits remained. And they’re very, very angry.”
Howls erupted outside. Black shapes rippled like wind through the leaves, passing along the streets and tearing through houses. The screams of the trees merged with the screams of the villagers. Angela dashed toward the door, but her grandmother blocked her path.
“Don’t worry, child. You’ll be safe enough in here.”
“But Mum and Gerry-”
“She’ll be safe too. So will he. You’ve both got enough of my blood in you, and he’s an outsider.”
Angela’s grandmother moved towards her, suddenly stronger and taller than she’d been that morning. Her eyes shone with a strange light, and she smiled. Angela backed away, her hip connecting with the sofa.
“Who exactly are you?” asked Angela.
“The last witch of the woods.”
Her grandmother laid her hand on Angela’s face, the skin of her palm cold and smooth as glass. The world went black and Angela’s last thoughts were filled with screaming trees.
* * *
She woke up twelve hours later to find her mother and Gerry making a makeshift lunch in the kitchen. The whole village was cordoned off and the quarantine meant the wedding would be on hold until the authorities could discover what caused the deaths of half of the village, leaving the other half untouched. Angela didn’t need to ask how long the survivors had lived in the village. She knew none of their families were in Little Howling three centuries ago.
“Where’s Gran?” asked Angela.
“I don’t know, love. We came round to check on you both, and we found you passed out in the living room. The front door was wide open,” replied her mother. “Did she say anything to you last night?”
“No, nothing. She just told me some ghost stories before I went to bed.”
Angela looked out of the living room window. Somehow the moor didn’t look so desolate any more.