Jenny let out a squeal of terror in response to the roared greeting, losing her footing slightly on the gravel path, her arm jolting and very nearly sending her glass of champagne splashing across her immaculate wedding dress. Her two accompanying bridesmaids, Sharon and Elsa, added their own squeals in chorus with the bride’s.
The terror just as quickly turned into mirth however as they looked up to see the source of the outburst. A small scraggily-haired elderly man, maybe mid-to-late sixties, was standing, legs astride, facing an unfortunate tree. Bottle of champagne or wine – it was hard to tell in the fading light – clutched in his lofted hand, his appendage clutched in the other hand as he decorated the base of the tree with an intermittent yellow stream of piss. He turned his head slightly, smiling a toothless smile at the three women. A smile wedged somewhere between elation, lechery and severe drunkenness.
‘Aye, thanks’ giggled Jenny as she hoisted the hem of her dress up and fell against Sharon for support. ‘Enjoy.’
‘Who was that?’ laughed Elsa as the three continued along the path, the sounds of UB40’s Red Red Wine back-peddling behind them as they edged further away from Balbirnie House and the wedding reception.
‘Erm…I dunno…’ answered Jenny, ‘Great Uncle maybe…cousin possibly…he’s on my side I think anyway. Christ knows!’
‘He seems to be enjoying himself anyway’ said Sharon, between sips of her rapidly dwindling supply of champagne ‘although someone should maybe tell him that there’s toilets back there in the venue!’
‘Aye,’ agreed Elsa, ‘but so much for coming out to get some fresh air. It smells of that old fella’s pish now!’
‘You girls can just head back in’ suggested Jenny.
‘No no no’ Sharon shook her head, ‘we can’t leave the bride unattended on her wedding night can we Elsa?’
‘No…’ pondered the latter, ‘but shouldn’t it be the job of the groom to keep her company anyway!? Where is Lewis in fact?’
‘In there getting colossally pished.’ Jenny nodded towards the venue with an amused smile on her face. ‘Some use he’ll be tonight if he keeps at it right enough…but eh, no, seriously, you girls head back in. I could do with a minute or two alone, I’ve not had a chance to think all day. Photos, speeches, cake, photos, photos, dances, more photos. Non stop! Seriously in you go. I’ll be in in a few minutes.’
‘Sure?’ asked Sharon before quaffing the remains of her drink.
‘You’re the boss, honey’ came the reply before the two bridesmaids gave the bride the obligatory hug and peck-on-the-cheek parting ritual which comes with a certain level of alcohol consumption. They both turned and started to zigzag back along the path toward the 19th Century Greek Revival mansion house.
Jenny watched them crunch their way along the gravel into the distance, waiting for and then hearing another roared salutation of ‘SLAINTE MHATH’. She shook her head, smiling to herself before she drained the last drops of her champagne. She scoured her surroundings before laying the empty glass down by the side of the path, promising herself she would pick it up on the return journey, and then continued on her stroll away from the venue, breathing in the calmness of the air and the moment as she did so.
She continued along the tree-lined path, eventually arriving at the stone circle by the edge of the venue’s grounds. The partial circle comprised of eight varying sizes and conditions of standing stones thought to date back to several thousand years BC. To some it offered a glimpse into a previous, distant era. To Jenny however, it offered nothing more than the chance to sit down. She sighed a deep, satisfying sigh as she lowered herself onto one of the stones and peeled the glittery high heel shoes off the broken, screaming, burning entities that used to be her feet. Her chest heaved as she tried to contain the pain unleashed along the soles of her feet, all the while reassuring herself that she would never have to wear those particular shoes again. They’d served a purpose, they’d assaulted her feet and now she could shove them in the same box that the wedding dress was set to reside in, never to be seen again. At least until we’re skint, she thought. Or the next wedding. You never know she joked to herself. We’ll see how drunk my newly-crowned dearly beloved gets.
She placed the shoes on the stone next to her before reaching a hand into her dress. She pulled out a small packet of cigarettes and a lighter from within her bra. She carefully selected a cigarette from the pack and lit it, allowing the sweet tarry vapour to invade her lungs and quell the stresses of the ‘most important day of her life’. She gently pushed out a cloud of smoke into the air.
‘No-one needs to know’ she quietly said to herself, smiling and crossing one leg over the other with no lack of effort.
Her new husband was too drunk to notice, she decided, and even if he wasn’t she could wash the scent from her mouth with any number of free drinks handed to her on the way in. And besides, it was only one or two now and again. She stared up towards the stars, suddenly aware that the darkness had closed in around her. A full moon hung heavy in the sky to her left, the tree tops jaggedly skewering its hem. The slightest tint of red seemed to dot the face of the moon itself. Jenny rubbed her eyes, convinced the glass of bubbly was working its way into her brain cells and vision. Only the brief, sporadic bursts of cold nipping at her bare shoulders suggested this was an Autumn night. The night was picturesque, cool. And quiet. Very quiet, in fact. Any sound from the venue itself seemed to have evaporated into the darkness and distance between it and her. She shrugged, thinking no more of it, and took another deep, throat caressing, drag of her cigarette.
She flicked the finished stub onto the grass in front of her and stepped down from the stone, wiping the rear of her dress as a precautionary measure. It felt damp. ‘Oh for goodness…’ she started, stumbling forward a few steps into the middle of the circle before looking back at the stone in question, the culprit, ready to unleash pointless volleys of ‘don’t you know it’s my wedding day!?’ levels of abuse. But when she did turn she was speechless. Rendered so by the sight she saw. The stones were still there, yes. All eight of them. Including the cist burial stones beside her in the centre of the circle. But beside each of the standing stones stood hooded figures.
Their heads bowed. Each beside his or her own standing stone. The hooded figures lifted their heads gradually as the moon crept out from behind its partial tree top cover into the clear sky above them. Jenny gulped as she instinctively looked skyward. Patches of red seemed to be incrementally covering the moon. Almost as if a red veil was being drawn across its face. Until eventually every inch, every crater, every crevice was awash with a dull-yet-throbbing red glow. A red hue descended from it, alighting the path, the trees, the stone circle were she stood. She felt a cascading waterfall of horror drip through her body. As if icicles were being dragged up and down her bones. She wrenched her gaze away from the moon and back toward the hooded figures that surrounded her. They were staring. She wheeled round in a circle. Staring at her. Straight at her. All of them. Their eyes seemed shadowed, the darkness of the night and their hoods concealing them. But she knew. She knew they were staring at her. Through her.
‘Ok…’ offered Jenny with a half-hearted laugh, ‘you can stop now guys…whoever you there. It’s a funny prank and all that but…but…not really suitable for a wedding day is it….’
Silence greeted her attempt at pulling the situation back to a level of comfort. Absolute silence. No noise. Nor any movement, individually or collectively. The hooded figures simply stared. At her. Jenny felt an urge to run. Her shoes, still sitting on the stone, stared back at her and suggested otherwise. But no, she thought to herself hurriedly, it’ll be far harder to run in heels, I can send someone back to get them. She started to slowly hoist the hem of her dress up, preparing herself for a quick burst of speed.
‘Look, I don’t know who you all are but this is…’ she started, trying to create any kind of distraction from her preparations, ‘this is…this is not on. You’re creeping me out. I’m not…’
She let the words drop into the silence, whipped her head round and was on the very verge of breaking into a run. When she stopped. Halted in her tracks by a chanting. It came from the hooded figure standing in front of her. She tried to make out the words, any words, but none made sense to her ears. The chanting increased suddenly. Chorused. Echoed. The other figures joining the initial voice as they each started to raise their arms, their palms facing upwards, to chest level. Appealing, almost. Asking. Begging. For someone. For something. Jenny felt a tear drip onto her cheek, her body clenched in shivering terror, as she jerked her head from side to side. Met at each juncture by a chanting, incorruptible hooded figure. She felt a jolt through her body. And she ran.
Only to be knocked back almost instantly as she tried to breach the perimeter of the circle. Whether by stone, by hooded figure, by whatever else, she could not tell. Her mind allowed her no time to ponder as it boiled with pain. She fell to the ground, the back of her head colliding with the cist burial stone, as the shock sent her sprawling back towards the centre of the circle.
As she awoke she felt herself almost floating into a sludgy stream of half-consciousness. Fragments of light, images, sounds clambering for recognition in her mind above the over-arching searing pain of the wound on the back of her skull. Through her confusion she heard a handful of muttered words. The voices deep. Booming. ‘Virginal’, ‘pure’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘offering’. None of the words managed to cloak themselves in sense within her mind before she slipped back into the realms of unconsciousness. For a matter of seconds, minutes, hours; she knew not which.
As her eyes flickered open once again the dark of the night returned to her vision. Quickly followed by that familiar, threatening red glint. And then the hoods. They stood above her. Peering down at her. Surrounding her. She tried to scramble up. And couldn’t. Her arms, her legs refusing to move. She stared down in horror and noticed they were bound. Her arms. Her legs. She couldn’t move. She thrashed, strained, kicked. All to no avail. One of the hoods started to close in on her. Her throat locked, her breathing lacking an outlet, as she trembled in anticipation. And then she heard a rip. She pressed her chin against her chest and looked down to see her once-pristine wedding dress being torn in two, ripped from her body, by some kind of primitive, hooked blade. She stared up to the sky. Bound and helpless. A handful of wispy clouds parted, allowing the red moon to creep into her view.
Jenny closed her eyes one final time as she felt the cold steel scythe into her flesh.
Her soul-searing screams were heard only by the drunken relative she had passed by earlier as her and two bridesmaids had staggered down the path. By the time said drunken relative arrived at the stone circle he was met only by the stones. He peered around briefly, catching sight of the pale yellow moon hovering in the sky above, before shrugging and chaotically ambling back up the path towards his next drink. He broke into a shambling gallop as large drops of rain began to fall.
As the moon crept back behind the trees and a renewed smattering of clouds the last of its shine flashed ever so briefly onto the burial cist stone in the centre of the circle. Any passer by, be it a drunken relative or any other, would have seen the faintest drop of fading blood etched onto the side of the stone illuminated in the moonlight. By the time the search party arrived in the early hours of the next morning however, combing the area for any sign of the missing bride, the drop of blood had been washed away by the previous evening’s rainfall.