The Stuff of Nightmares
By Peter Walsh
A story with Ellie Brand
I had been tearful at Max’s departure. One month seemed like a long time to be apart.
In his music which was very far from the mainstream Max had to take success where he found it. He had a substantial following for his music in Scandinavia and his debut CD and MP3 album ‘Songs off a dusty floor’ had hit the charts in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Three countries, thirty days and twenty two gigs at assorted small venues. I would have loved to have gone with him but knew I might prove a distraction. This tour would be hard work for him.
‘Just think, he has you to come home to’. Julia West had kindly told me when she found me crying into my coffee at the gallery. I managed to smile but my bed was way too big without him. However I had to count my many blessings regards my boyfriend, a kind and considerate man, a talented musician plus an action hero when required. Julia had joked that she would leave David for him if I ever lost interest.
I had worked out how I would combat my brief sentence of loneliness. I would call Mum every other day, take my little brother go-karting, catch up on a few films with subtitles, seek out more books about World War Two for Dad and go dancing with my girlfriends.
Then one Tuesday morning at the ‘One World Gallery’ Julia had asked me what I knew about a place called Evardia.
I knew it was an average sized country to the east, formerly part of the defunct Soviet Union but not much more. I did a quick hit of google to bring me up to speed.
‘David is going over there to check out some local art, apparently being Russian Orthodox they were big on their icons but had their own particular take on things. We have nothing in the UK regarding this’.
‘And probably a non-existent UK Evardian community?’ I added.
‘You may be surprised, an Evardian is close to a Russian but with a few striking differences. David is leaving on Thursday and he would really like you to go along’.
‘You are due a trip on the organisation and I think you need a distraction-am I right?’
‘Yes’. I sighed.
‘British Airways have just started a twice weekly service to the capital Strada. David wants you and Nikki Reid to go with him’.
Nikki Reid was a beautiful and fun girl who worked for David and Julia’s Television production company, I had met her a few times and liked her.
‘Don’t worry, Strada has McDonalds, Starbucks and WI-FI but out of the towns it can be a bit basic’.
This sounded like just what I needed.
A British Airways Boeing 787 flew us in the comfort of First Class from London to Strada the capital of Evardia. It was the only way to travel after numerous trips I had endured on cramped budget airlines.
David West worked quietly away on his IPAD during the flight and made a couple of calls. Nikki and I chatted and giggled incessantly the whole way. We talked breathlessly about the arts, boyfriends, food, music, shopping and shoes. David smiled at us and shook his head, we must have seemed like a couple of teenage girls on holiday rather than the two serious professionals he expected us to be.
‘You two behave!’ He joked.
Nikki and I were the same age and were both of dual heritage. My mother was Afro Caribbean, Nikki’s was Chinese while our respective fathers were English. My skin was slightly dark in colour and I had emerald green eyes, Nikki was as pale as a delicate porcelain and possessed eyes of a striking dark blue. We both had long and very shiny jet black hair. We could both be described as beautiful but did want to trade on it. Being intelligent and caring was more important to us.
David West was our boss and secret lust object. A tall and athletically built man in his early forties with good looks, deep blue eyes and sandy hued hair just starting to go grey. Academic, TV presenter and part-time secret agent, things he all shared with his beautiful wife Julia.
We landed in Strada in the late afternoon. The airport was undergoing a considerable facelift and all traces of the functional austerity of the Soviet era were being eradicated. We were met at the airport by our driver and translator who turned out to be a beautiful young woman. David was being David-as usual. He was addicted (in a nice way) to beautiful women.
Her name was Faina (which was pronounced fahEEnah). Her long blonde hair was tied back from a face of classic blue eyed Slav beauty. Though slender she was strong looking and her tight blue top and figure hugging jeans showed off her curves. She had a nice smile and spoke English well. David was passable in speaking Russian but he required local knowledge. Faina was from the rural part of Evardia where we would be spending three days. It was all very exciting.
The city of Strada was a bustling place with much construction of new buildings taking place and roads that were choked with traffic. We made frustrating progress in the hired Nissan Pathfinder driving from the airport to our city centre hotel. There were very few old buildings due to the city being demolished during the fighting in World War Two (Dad would know all about it). It had been re-built in the regulation austere box like style of Soviet Russia but now all that was changing. Soon we started to see all the familiar commercial logos and in a shallow sort of way it was comforting.
I texted Max to let him know we had arrived, he was currently in Bergen, Norway. I missed him dreadfully but did not want to appear silly about it. Nikki was between boyfriends.
We arrived at the hotel that looked like a former government building-which it was, Faina said that it had previously been The Ministry of Agriculture. While very plain looking on the outside the inside of the hotel had been re-designed with some thought, bright and purposely spare. Faina said she would see us later for dinner.
David, Nikki and I were shown to our respective rooms which were clean and comfortable. The view from my window was of the building next door. David wanted us to meet up in an hour in the hotel bar for drinks and discuss the plans of the trip, this was business after all. I had travelled in a grey pants suit and after showering I donned a longish patterned dress and a light purple cardigan and put my hair up. I stepped into the comfortable flat shoes I had travelled in, I had left all my heels at home. I then went down to the bar.
Over cold glasses of the local beer we discussed what the objectives of the trip were. It seemed that David and Nikki would be doing most of the work regarding the location scouting and photographing the icons. David tasked me with keeping a detailed blog about the trip. That would be easy.
Faina arrived at the hotel looking very pretty in a denim jacket, short white dress and black knee high boots. She was a contrast to Nikki and myself who had chosen to be conservative in our attire but we still looked good.
It was a warm late summer evening in Strada and the city centre was crowded with shops, bars and eateries. There were a great many young people about and it was strange that these youngsters looked just like any I might see in any western city. There was a lot of smoking going on-everywhere. This was all such a no-no back home. We ate dinner at the outside tables of the longest established restaurant in the city. The food was heavy on the meat and dumplings and light on the vegetables but the local red wine had a nice rough edge to it. Faina smoked at the table. Nikki and I did not like it but felt it would be rude to comment.
Faina told us that the next day we would be going on a long drive out of the city and deep into the rural provinces. Evardia was hilly and rocky with quite a bit of forest. I shuddered inside-I was wary of woodland after a recent experience. The province we would be visiting was rich in history and folklore. Faina spoke perfect English and told us that she was originally from a rural community to the east of the capital. She had attended university there but still felt very tied to the community she had been born into. In the ever changing light of a city after dark her eyes seemed to change. They seemed very old for such a young face? She told us tales of her region. Some amusing, some anything but. Nikki and I suddenly felt the day catch up with us and decided to retire for the night. We were put in a taxi back to the hotel and left David with Faina. We expected him to behave himself.
‘I reek of cigarette smoke!’ Nikki wrinkled her nose. We were standing outside our hotel rooms which were next to each other. I scent checked my cardigan and thought of washing it out that night.
‘What do you think of Faina?’ Nikki then asked me.
‘Seems Ok apart from one bad habit’.
‘Did you see the way she was looking at us?’ Nikki had been quiet during the taxi ride. Something was bothering her.
‘Can’t say I did? We do look a bit different from the locals I suppose’.
‘It sounds really strange but it was like she was eyeing us up as-‘.
‘A potential dinner’.
I did not laugh at what Nikki said. Something had unsettled her. I hugged her and told her to get some rest.
Back in my room I wrote the start of the blog for the trip on my laptop and despite the expense called Max on my smart phone. He was happy after his gig in Bergen and we said lots of sweet things to each other. I ruined it by starting to cry at the end of the call. Poor Max. I undressed and brushed my teeth in the nude. It was a warm night and between crisp, flower scented sheets I let the sounds of the city send me to sleep.
We took the major highway heading east out of Strada. There were a great many heavily laden trucks on it, they were bringing construction materials and produce into the city. They raised clouds of dust which blanked out much of the scenery. We kept the windows shut on the Nissan Pathfinder and enjoyed the air conditioning. Faina and David would split the driving. The traffic thinned after an hour and the landscape of Evardia revealed itself. It was and odd mix of the arid and the green and had lots of hills. Most of the towns we passed through were dull settlements of grey single story buildings. Faina and David chatted in the front while Nikki and I sat somewhat subdued in the back. Neither of us had really slept well and we were unsure about the country we found ourselves in. Though I liked to travel I got homesick easily, Nikki admitted to being the same.
We had both dressed sensibly. I had opted for a hooded, zipped sports top, T-Shirt, skinny jeans and Converse trainers. Nikki was similarly attired but had chosen Desert boots for her footwear. We both wore our hair down. It was liberating not having to be girly for a change-just for today though.
We stopped for petrol at a rather ramshackle station. The place seemed to sell anything and everything. There was a pen with goats in it and a mountain of cabbages stacked outside. Nikki and I managed to find some Cadburys chocolate. There was a stooped and elderly vendor cooking some meat dish with a lot of onions. Faina warned us against trying it. I thought about what Nikki had said the previous evening and our guide musing over what we might taste like. Her eyes lingered on me and then on sizzling meat on vendors grill and then back to me.
‘Anything wrong?’ I asked her. She shook her head and turned back to the Nissan.
I was bored after three hours of driving and inevitably I could not get a signal on my phone. However I feigned interest in what David told us about what was waiting for us at our destination. A stone church dating back 1100 years in the middle of a forest which boasted a wonderful selection of Christian relics and frescos.
‘So what did people do to live in these parts?’ I asked Faina after David had taken over driving.
‘Farm goats and pigs, grow potatoes and worship’. She told me.
‘Is it a very religious region?’
‘We have our traditions’. She said. ‘The Soviets sought to suppress and destroy them’.
‘They closed a great many if not all the churches I hear?’ Nikki then said.
‘Churches?’ Faina looked back at us briefly frowning slightly. ‘The Christian church plays no part in our traditions?’
‘But the country is known for its strong history of Russian Orthodoxy?’ Nikki was puzzled.
‘Some pre Christian beliefs still exist in certain parts’. David interjected. Faina had grown a little tense and diverted her full attention to looking at the road to her front. She was obviously awkward with some aspects of her culture.
‘Worship of nature and beasts, classic pagan beliefs really’. David concluded for us.
‘We are going to see a church though?’ I then asked.
Nikki and I exchanged slightly puzzled glances. I looked out at scenery flashing by. With each progressive mile the landscape became a little bleaker and empty of people.
I had been asleep when we arrived at our destination. Nikki gently shook me awake. I groaned a little, I had a stiff neck and I needed to go. We were surrounded by trees at the base of a steep slope. The road had petered out into a rough track. I looked around me and knew that we were in the middle of nowhere. Why were David’s artistic passions always so far from civilisation? I suppose it was down to history. The pine trees around us were densely packed and tall. Light was lost as a result. It was now late afternoon so it meant a long drive in the dark back to Strada. Great!
‘The church is at the top’. Faina told us.
‘I need the loo’. I announced.
‘Me too’. Added Nikki.
David sighed. ‘Ok. No facilities here girls, the trees await you’.
Attending various music festivals where Max had been playing had introduced me to the art of improvised comfort breaks. Nikki and I stepped out of the Nissan and vanished into the trees. We dropped our jeans and assumed the position. Nervously looking around us as the deed was done. It was dark and spooky amongst the tall pines. Suitably relieved we scampered back to the Nissan and some hand wipes.
The Nissan Pathfinder had the power to make the climb up the track but it was a rough ride in the back. David seemed to be enjoying himself at the wheel. Faina looked back at us a couple of times, her mouth set in the thinnest of smiles. Nikki and I exchanged concerned glances.
We reached the top. A clearing with a very disappointing looking building at its centre. A small building of white stone without spire or steeple. It looked old and worn down by time. David seemed very excited. He turned off the engine and virtually leapt out of the Nissan and raced towards the ancient church. Faina was seemingly quick to follow. Nikki and I found it hard to disguise our lack of enthusiasm. We slowly exited the vehicle and followed. David had already vanished inside the centuries bleached building.
We had gone maybe ten meters when a large number of figures emerged from the tree line on either side of us. They moved stealthily and swiftly to surround Nikki and I. Nikki’s blue eyes were suddenly wide with fear and apprehension and I could only assume that mine were the same. Scores of women, young and old with wild hair and black painted faces, dressed in dark smocks which recalled a bygone age closed in on us.
We were quickly seized. I made to shout to David but a rough skinned hand appeared in front of my face and promptly covered my mouth.
I was held by three of the fearsome looking women. Two had a vice-like grip on my arms while a third had a hand over my mouth. Normally I would have elbowed, kicked and punched but they were too strong for me. Then I saw Nikki helpless in the grasp of three more of our female attackers, held fast and with a hand smothering any outcry she tried to make. Nikki was slight of build and no match for the women who had assailed us.
My mind was reeling what was happening? Who were these people? What did they want with us?
The women then began some type of shrill chant. It was a horrible noise.
David then emerged from the church with Faina just behind him. His handsome face took on a look of total disbelief. The painted women, the dreadful chanting and Nikki and I captive in their midst. David drew a Glock pistol from a concealed spot at the small of his back. He fired two shots in the air. The flat cracks of the guns report cut across the chanting but the women did not flinch. David levelled the Glock in a two handed grip and moved down the slope towards us.
Faina was then at his back. Her right arm blurred as she slammed a wooden club into the side of David’s head. I heard a sickening noise and saw blood spurt. David fell heavily to the ground and was still. I screamed into the hand that covered my mouth.
Faina then stood over David. Her fine features were now a beacon of devilish glee. She waved the club above her head and started shrilling like the rest of the women. Stepping over David she walked down the slope in our direction. Rough hands continued to silence Nikki and me. I had known fear before but nothing like this.
The shrill chanting stopped. Faina came to a halt in front of me. She prodded my breasts hard with her club.
‘You belong to us now’. She smiled, her face alive with an evil passion.
David lay where he had fallen. There was no movement from him. Had Faina killed him? It was too awful to contemplate. I thought I saw him breathing!
Faina spoke to the women in an odd tongue. Nikki and I were roughly handled as the black faced women stripped us naked. My top, t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, socks, bra and panties were all torn from me by the three women. I tried to fight but this resulted in me being given a trio of very painful slaps across my face. Nikki just wept as her clothes and shoes were pulled off her. The rest of the women looked on and laughed at our plight. There were so many of them!
Dark smocks of a rough material were then pulled over our heads and down our bodies. They were the same as the women wore. Our faces were then roughly daubed with a black tar-like substance. Our features vanished beneath layers of this vile black goo. I shut my eyes to avoid getting any of it in them.
My arms were then pulled behind me and I felt leather thongs bite into my wrists as they were bound. Nikki with her lovely pale skin now vanished under the layers of black was also secured. A stick wrapped in course cloth was then jammed between my teeth, cleaving my jaw and trapping my tongue. There were leather thongs fixed at each end of the stick and these were cinched tightly and knotted to keep it painfully in place in my mouth. I then saw that Nikki had been gagged in the same way as me.
Faina then loomed up in my vision. She had slapped some of the black tar on her face. She looked me over.
‘You were pretty before but you are much prettier now!’
I cursed her through the gag, my eyes blazed defiance through the black muck all over my face. She laughed and shouted orders in that strange tongue to the massed women. A group of six women jogged over to where David lay and between them they picked him up and started to carry his inert frame towards the church. Gagged and with our wrists bound Nikki and I were dragged along behind them. The rough ground hurt my bare soles.
Darkness was falling and this just added to my sense of foreboding. We were all so helpless. The women lit up torches and the light from the flames created all manner of mad shadows. We were hauled inside the church and forced down onto a rough stone fall. Nikki and I cried through our gags as our bare ankles were tightly bound with more leather thongs. We squirmed at the feet of our crazed captors. David lay a few feet away. There was blood all over his face but he was breathing-just.
The black faced women then stepped back and out of the church though some lingered in the arched doorway. I blinked at my surroundings through the black crap on my face trying to breathe through the cloth wrapped stick jammed into my mouth.
There were no icons or frescos, they had long since been defaced. The ancient walls were a mass of crude finger paintings of odd figures and beasts. One piece of this primitive art stood out. Lots of stick figures throwing others into a huge fire. Oh my god!
Being gagged was not a new experience for me although it probably was for Nikki. The gag currently in my mouth was easily the most painful I had yet endured. It was effective at keeping me quiet and it hurt too. My whole jaw was numb. Nikki’s eyes in her blacked up face were wide and terrified in the flicking lights of the flaming torches. She made small retching sounds through the stick and the cloth cleaving her jaw. We had both managed to wriggle into sitting positions leaning on our bound wrists against the wall of the church. Our ankles had been crossed when they bound with the thongs. Neither of us could attempt to stand.
David lay a few feet away from us, head bloodied and inert but alive. He was breathing. Bound and gagged Nikki and I could do nothing to aid him.
There was no guard in the open archway that was the entrance to the church but the women who had seized us were nearby. Fires had been lit and we could shouts and laughter. What did they have planned for us? I was certain that it was nothing good. I was very apprehensive about possible pending events but no longer terrified. I was now contemplating how to get out of this bad situation. Nikki and I had to get free from our leather bindings and dreadful gags, pick up David, get to the Nissan and drive away fast. Easy or what?
We sat there in the rough smocks which chafed our naked bodies underneath them. Our blackened faces were like a fearsome cosmetic mistake. The thongs were cutting into our bare skin and the cloth wrapped sticks secured in our mouths made any attempt at speech impossible.
Then Faina suddenly appeared in the archway. She had shed her clothes and was barefoot wearing one the rough smocks that seemed to be uniform amongst the horde of crazed women. Her hair was wild and her face was now totally blackened. Her eyes blazed with madness. She looked down at us and almost purred at the sight of our helplessness. I saw she still held the wooden club. She stood over the prone David.
‘Soon we will feast on him and you will join us in this sacred rite’. She said. ‘You will feast and join our sisterhood’.
Nikki and I looked at David and then up at Faina with a puzzled terror.
‘If you refuse or resist we shall feast on you’.
She then turned and was gone. We heard her shouting orders in that strange language to the sisterhood. There were then shrieks of delight. Things were starting to happen.
They came for us with Faina at the head of the horde.
Nikki and I had the thongs about our ankles cut away and we were hauled to our feet. Still gagged and with our wrists remaining bound behind our backs we were half dragged and half carried out of the defiled church. I cast a pained look over my shoulder and saw David being roughly borne by several of the frightful women.
As always thinking about all that was dear to me I began to struggle for my life and for a few seconds I broke free of the grasping hands. I tried to run but the stones bit into my bare feet and I was again swiftly seized. Poor Nikki, eyes full of terror in her blackened face, offered no resistance. In my frustration I bit down on the solid block of a gag between my teeth.
We were pulled away from the church and towards the tree line. The shrieking of the women was deafening to my ears and I wished it would stop. The way to the trees was illuminated by the flaming brands carried by ragged horde. I glimpsed Faina at the head of it. She was almost skipping along with a savage glee.
The pain caused by my gag and wrist bindings was now joined by similar torments in my feet. I tried to shut the pain out of my mind but it was nearly impossible to do so.
We were then engulfed by the trees. Up ahead I could see a yellow and red glow which grew stronger as we got nearer to it. I felt the heat emanating from it. Before I knew it Nikki and I were standing on the rim of a huge fire filled pit. It was hellish to behold. I saw the piles of blackened remains ringing the flames and knew what they were. I shut my eyes and made what peace I could before I was hurled to a horrible death. I felt a hand grab my fair and pull my head back. They wanted me to see.
Faina and three others of her brood were dragging David towards the pit. They brought him to the edge.
My eyes then locked onto Faina’s. The flames of the pit were a malevolent reflection in them.
‘See!’ She screamed at me gesturing to David at her feet. ‘See!’
It became unspeakable.
I woke up fighting for breath.
I sat bolt upright in bed drenched in perspiration and blinded by the damp mess of my hair. Deep breaths, deep breaths. I was safe, I was indoors, in bed and all around me was quiet.
It took me several minutes to compose myself. The light of dawn was peeping through the small gap of the curtains. I saw some familiar items of mine and picked up my phone. A text from max.
‘v.tired, good gig, LuvU’.
I slowly started to relax. It had all been a horrible dream, a really horrible dream. I quickly called Nikki’s phone.
‘Ellie?’ A sleepy voice responded.
‘Are you Ok?’
‘Yes-why wouldn’t I be?’
‘I had an awful dream’.
‘Too much pudding last night, mind you I had too much to drink, did I say anything stupid to anyone?’
I recalled her comments about Faina.
‘I don’t remember anything’. I half-lied.
‘Good. Well we have to be up soon but try and get another hours sleep if you can’.
‘I will-see you’.
I still had the rest of the day to get through.
Everyone was very jolly that morning as we left the crowded city of Strada for the rugged countryside. The nightmare I had endured during the dark hours had put a spoiler on things for me. Faina drove the Nissan and David sat up front giving us a lecture on the country and its artistic heritage. Nikki was an enthusiastic listener. I sat, smiled and tried not to ruin the mood.
A delightful day ensued. Faina asked me about Max’s music and I offered her my phone which had all his recorded works stored on it. Plugged into the Pathfinder’s MP3 player Max provided the soundtrack for the trip. The roads were modern and almost empty of traffic and the scenery rolling past the windows was lush, green and with lots of tree shrouded hills. We stopped in a couple of villages that were a nice blend of the old and the very new and the friendly locals spoiled us with tea and cake. I started to relax and began updating the blog. Faina was a charming guide and we got to meet some of her extended family. We arrived at the church in the early afternoon. It was on a hill up from a village where we were spoiled with a lovely lunch and local wine. We walked up a tree lined path to the church that contained everything David hoped for and more. He was like a boy in a sweetshop. The view from the hill was stunning and I sat down to enjoy it. I loved the warm sun on my face. Nikki and Faina joined me and we talked about girly things for over an hour, it got a bit silly which caused a lot of giggling amongst us. Thankfully the latter did not bother David this time.
I enjoyed the drive back to the capital and we had another evening out together. Faina did not smoke as much. Nikki, Faina and I were now officially friends and we wanted her to come and visit us in London. David promised to do something about the latter. Faina saw us off at the airport and there were hugs and parting tears.
I felt a sense of relief when the flight touched down in London and even more so when I put my key in my front door. Home and safe. I put my bags down and revelled in the familiarity of my surroundings. My phone chimed.
He was only an hour away.