Martin was tired, hungry and thoroughly pissed off. His feet ached badly and the rucksack weighed heavily on his shoulders from hours of walking. He was still several miles away from the youth hostel; at the rate he was going it would be early morning before he arrived. He could have been peacefully asleep by now, but he’d been unable to resist a drink at the last small town. The pub had been friendly and he’d started chatting with the locals. One beer had led to another, and now he was hours behind schedule. Tramping through the dark countryside when he should be in a comfortable bed.
As his thoughts wandered, Martin gradually became aware of music. It was so faint that at first he wasn’t sure whether he’d really heard it. Just a few bright notes drifting on the faint breeze, almost drowned out by the sound of his breathing. He stopped walking and listened carefully. Yes, there it was, a definite sound of strings cutting through the air. From what he could make out the tunes were fast and furious, as if someone were holding a late night ceilidh in the deserted countryside.
He stood listening, trying to determine what direction the sound was coming from. There, that way. As he stared across the moonlit fields he could just make out a yellow light flickering through some trees in the distance. A fire, it had to be. Some late night revellers probably.
The thought of a party was tempting; why not stop here for the rest of the night? There would certainly be alcohol, probably a joint or two being passed around, maybe something stronger. The more he thought about it, the more appealing the idea seemed.
Leaving the path, Martin began to make his way across the scrubland in the direction of the copse and the fire.
The music grew swiftly louder as he approached. It never stopped, one dancing piece flowing seamlessly into the next. Although the tunes were new to him he quickly found himself whistling along easily. The playing was perfect, the music cheerful, yet Martin felt uneasy. Something was wrong. Something was missing.
Yes, that was it – something was missing. The sound of the fiddles was clear and strong – and alone. There was none of the accompanying laughter and conversation that he would expect to hear from a party. The atmosphere was more one of a solemn concert, at odds with the lively nature of the music.
His whistling seemed suddenly out of place. Falling silent he slowed down and began walking more carefully. The flickering shadows cast by the fire made him shiver, menacing now where only seconds before they had seemed welcoming. He could feel his skin prickling, but his curiosity was too strong for him to turn back now. The music was coming from a tree-ringed clearing just ahead of him.
Martin cautiously approached, close enough now to hear the crackling of burning wood and smell the smoke. Concealing himself behind a large tree he peered carefully round the trunk to view the proceedings.
In the clearing a large fire was burning fiercely. Around it stood three men and three women, all elderly. They were spaced alternately in a wide circle wearing evening dress more appropriate to a night at the opera than an open-air ceilidh. All held fiddles which they played with eyes tightly closed, faces showing no trace of emotion, just extreme concentration
Between the musicians and the fire was a lone dancer. In her late teens, the girl looked out of place in jeans and a T-shirt. With sweat pouring down her face she leapt and whirled in perfect time to the music, never stumbling or missing a beat. Whilst her dance was full of life and joy, her face was twisted in pain and fear.
Martin stared at the girl. Under normal circumstances he would have found her moderately attractive. In the light of the fire, cavorting with wild sensuality, she was infinitely desirable. The terror on her face somehow made her yet more attractive, a helpless plaything to be used until exhausted, sucked dry then discarded.
Martin shook his head, trying to fight off the unusual, cruel thoughts. Still he found himself mesmerised by the girl. Her body radiated youth and strength, a vitality he found he craved above all else. He was appalled at his perverse lustful desire yet unable to deny it.
As he watched, the music became faster, more furious. The girl kept perfect time, whirling ever faster, grimacing more pitifully. More seductively. When it seemed that she could not possibly keep up any longer she leant towards the fire and swept up a large stick.
Her feet stopped now, but her body still swayed back and forth with the music. Then she raised the makeshift stake and held the burning end to her neck. She stared at it for some seconds with wide, frightened eyes. Gripping tightly with both hands she thrust the point into her throat, twisting it fiercely to ensure that it pierced the skin. The blood rapidly began to spurt forth, splattering over the ground and into the flames. Dropping the stick, she raised her arms in the air then toppled forwards on to the pyre.
Her hair caught fire first, then her clothes began to burn. As they did so, she seemed to regain some control of her body and struggled to rise to her feet. It was too late; she had no strength left. She opened her mouth and a silent scream tore through her ruined throat. Then her eyes closed and she fell back, her lifeless body crashing through to the centre of the fire. The music swelled to a crescendo, looks of ecstasy appearing on the faces of the players.
The smell of burning flesh proved too much for Martin’s stomach. He turned away and threw up violently. All thoughts of sexual arousal had gone, replaced with disgust and fear. He wanted to be a long way from this place.
Stomach empty, he stood up again and was about to run when he became aware that the music had stopped. Looking back towards the fire he saw six pairs of eyes staring greedily towards him. Then the musicians raised their fiddles, closed their eyes and started to play again.
Martin’s feet began to dance.