The sky was bruised purple and funeral-grey, back-lit by the last dying embers of the decaying sun. It weighed heavily on the winter wood below, suffocating the last stubborn pockets of light wherever it found them, pouring cold shadow into the leafless void.

  All was silent at first, but then tyres crunched down on narrow tarmac. Two intrusive twin beams of light were doused suddenly; two metal doors slammed in rapid succession; a pair of shadowy figures penetrated the watching wood.

  A man made his way through the trees, a camera in one hand, a hesitant woman towed along in the other.

  “It’s dark,” she said.

  “That’s what happens at night,” he told her, and led her further into the shadows, keen to start their game.

  She swore as something unseen raked her bare leg, but he pulled her ever onwards, forging a path through the creeping undergrowth.

  “It’s really dark,” she elaborated. “You should’ve brought a torch or something. Can’t we just do it in the car?”

  “I wanna take photos first.”

  “You’re not gonna see anything. The sun’ll set in a few minutes. It’s blacker than a witch’s minge out here, and twice as bloody creepy.”

  “That’s what the flash is for.”

  She dug in her stilettos, and came to a resolute stop. “I’m not going any further, Gary. We do it here, or I’m out of here.”

  He sighed. He gave her arm an exploratory tug, but she refused to budge. “Just a little further,” he urged. “We’re too close to the road. Someone might see.”

  “Keys,” she demanded, handing out her hand.

  He huffed, but she stood her ground. The sun disappeared below the horizon. She huffed back. This was not how he imagined their photo session would be. It was supposed to be her draped seductively around tree trunks, all pouting and naked and gorgeous, like some nymphomaniac druid. It wasn’t supposed to be the two of them having a “domestic” whilst ankle-deep in squelchy mud. He would never admit it to her, but he hadn’t realised quite how dark it would be out here in the back of beyond. Maybe she was right about not straying too far from the car. She’d kill him if they got lost and couldn’t find their way back.

  “Okay, we’ll do it your way. Get your kit off, then.”

  “I’m gonna freeze my tits off.”

  “That’s not really the look I’m after. Come on, Debbie. Five minutes. Then back home for a curry.”

  She took her coat off with misgiving. She was naked underneath. She shivered with cold, as she looked around for somewhere to put it. She heard him tutting, but ignored him. She was buggered if she was going to get it all muddy, not when it had cost her  sixty quid in the Debenhams sales. Besides, he’d probably complain about his upholstery when she got back in the car, just to add insult to injury!

  “Ready?” he asked, with more than a hint of impatience.

  She draped her coat over a low branch, and took her position by the tree, her thigh pressed seductively against the rough bark of the trunk.

  “Shoot.”

  “Where are you? I can’t see a thing.”

  “Over here. By the tree.”

  “That’s helpful, in a forest!”

  She snatched up her coat. “Right, that’s it. I’m going home.”

  “I’m sorry. Okay? It’s just that I’m cold, and I’m -”

  You’re cold?” she snapped. “You’ve still got your bloody coat on! I’m the one standing here with my tits out – and pretty much everything else besides – while you keep taking the piss out of me every chance you get. Well, if you don’t like it, find yourself another model. I’m off.”

  He homed in on her voice, and gave her an almost-apologetic hug. He coaxed her coat from her frozen fingers, and placed it back on the branch of the tree. “Five minutes,” he said. “And I won’t say another word. I promise.”

  “You’d better not, or you’re gonna get a kick in the knackers.”

  She took her position again. She pressed against the tree-trunk, feeling it against her right hip, her thigh, her breast. She could just about make out his silhouette, raising the camera, pointing it towards her.

  “You’re too far away,” she told him. “The flash won’t work.”

  “I’m the photographer,” he grumbled, but moved a few feet closer to her nonetheless.

  “I need to pee.” She sensed him tensing up. “Just winding you up. Go on, take your photo. Your five minutes is nearly up.”

  The flash went off, illuminating her for a second. He ran his thumb around the edge of the camera to find the button to check the photograph he had just taken, as it was too dark to see it. It was not a good picture; he was still too far away for the flash to work, and it was pretty hard to tell from the photo what was tree and what was naked (but stroppy) woman. He would have liked to have taken the picture again, but there were other angles he wanted to capture, and the way she was moaning about the cold he might run out of time if he tried to be a perfectionist. Best just move on to the next photo, and hope for the best when he Photo-shopped it (or whatever you call it when you bugger around with the colour and the contrast on the computer).

  “Turn round,” he instructed, shuffling a few steps forward to put her in effective range of the flash.

  “Do what?” she enquired, mystified.

  “I wanna get one of your bottom.”

  “Yeah, I bet you do. Go on, then, I’m there. One more picture after this one.”

  “Two.”

  “One. Did the flash turn out okay?”

  “Perfect. Okay, stop talking. I want you looking sultry. It’ll spoil it if your gob’s open.”

  “Charming!”

  The flash went off a second time. Again, he inspected the photograph he had taken. As promised, she had turned her back to him, and was looking back at him over her shoulder. Her bottom was very much on display. It would have been a good picture, but for the fact that he was now too close with the flash, and her whole body was bathed in spectral white.

  “Happy?” she asked.

  “Your mouth’s open,” he lied. “You were talking. I’ll have to take it again.”

  “Tough. You’ve got one more photo.”

  “Debbie! That’s not fair!”

  “No, what’s not fair is that I’m standing in the middle of a pitch-black wood, stark-bloody naked, shaking with cold, while you play at being David Bailey on Viagra! Where do you want me? Last photo.”

  “Couldn’t I just take another couple after - ”

  “Where’s my coat?”

  “Okay, okay, keep your knickers on.”

  “Chance would be a fine thing.”

  He pretended to think for a few moments, partly because he didn’t want to make it too obvious that he had pre-meditated the last pose, and partly to make her shiver for just a little while longer in retaliation for turning what should have been a real turn-on into a domestic row.

  “Can you pole-dance against the tree?”

  “Define pole-dance.”

  “Hang on to the trunk with both your legs off the ground. Upside down if you can.”

  “Upside-down!”

  “Well, the right way up, if you can’t manage that. With your head thrown back, but looking at me all the time. All sexy-like.”

  “How can I look at you when I can’t even see you?”

  “I’m over here.”

  “That doesn’t help.” There was a scrabbling noise as she tried to jump up against the trunk and clasp it between her thighs. “Ow! That hurts. You so owe me for this!”

  “Can’t you sort of shinny up it, like you’re climbing a rope, and then lean backwards when you get there?”

  “You’re gonna get a slap in a minute!”

  He waited impatiently. After a couple of minutes of scraping, swearing and exaggerated huffing, she was there.

  “I can hold this pose for about five seconds, max.”

  “Are you smiling?”

  “Fuck off.”

  The flash went off. She dropped back down to the ground, and groped around for her coat as he checked the photograph. She saw his face illuminated by the light from the camera as he inspected his handiwork. He looked really startled; the picture must have been pretty bad for him to look like that! And then he stuffed the camera in her hands and was gone, crashing from tree to tree in the darkness, like a panicky human pinball. Surely she couldn’t have taken that bad a photo?

  She pressed a couple of buttons on the camera, trying to find the one which would reveal his awful picture. “Programme”? No, better come out of that. “Set picture size”. No, not that one either. And then she had the photo in front of her on the screen, and she was screaming for all she was worth. And maybe a couple of dozen yards away, Gary was screaming, too, and howling and weeping and begging for his sorry life.

  The picture was a bad one. He had cut off her head, so that you could only see her from the neck down, but maybe that was deliberate (as it wasn’t really her face he had wanted to see). Too much flash, so her flesh was luminous-moon-white. And far from being erotic, her attempts at vertically straddling a tree-trunk were bordering on the ridiculous. She looked more like a plucked koala than the wood-nymph pole-dancer he had wanted her to be.

  These were her very first impressions, taken in automatically, with the practised eye of a keen amateur photographer. But what really, really disturbed her was the figure in the background, stalking towards the camera, just within the compass of the flash.

  Man or woman, it was hard to tell. It was big, whatever it was, with a lumpy bulbous head and shaggy hair. It was just a few feet behind her, and to her right in the photo, heading straight towards Gary as he snapped away obliviously. It could have reached out and grabbed her, ripped her from her precarious perch on the tree, but it seemed intent on accosting her boyfriend instead.

  Gary was still screaming. It had hold of him, somewhere close by in the wood, and assuming that he had run in the right direction then the two of them were blocking her path to the car.

  She tried to fight back the panic. The more noise she made, the more likely that the creature – it hardly looked human enough to be called anything else – would track her down. What to do? Go to Gary’s rescue? Hide amongst the trees, and hope that she survived until daylight? Or make a circuitous break for the car, in the hope that she could find it and seek sanctuary inside?

  Gary stopped screeching. She was relieved for just a second, but then the full implications of this hit her. There was only one reason for him to have gone quiet. He was dead.

  Pulling her unbuttoned coat tightly closed with one hand (it made her feel slightly less vulnerable somehow), she scurried forwards, waving her free hand in front of her like a blind-man’s white-stick. Every time she encountered a tree, she felt her way round it, and then ran on again, heading for where she hoped the car would be.

  She heard something moving to her left. The creature must have finished with Gary, and was trying to intercept her. She quickened her pace, bouncing painfully off a tree-trunk (she prayed it was just a tree-trunk) and hurrying on.

  And then there was the sound of stilettos on tarmac. She had found the road. The car was close by. Which way, left or right? She picked a direction at random. No trees now. She ran along the road at full pelt, wincing at how much noise her shoes were making. She ignored the urge to stop to take them off. No time. She could sense the creature nearby, closing in on her, ready to tear her limb from limb. Whether she lived or died depended entirely on whether she made it to the car before it got her.

  And then she was there. Cold metal beneath her fingers. That must be the bonnet, on the driver’s side. She skirted the car, cursing herself halfway round for panicking and heading for the passenger’s side when she could have dived through the driver’s door instead. Old habits died hard. She prayed out loud that she wouldn’t die with them.

  She reached the passenger door. Convinced that the creature would seize her and pull her back into the wood at any second, she tugged at the handle. The door stayed resolutely shut. She pulled again for all she was worth, but all to no avail. The stupid bastard had locked it!

  She screamed in frustration, again and again. And then she felt a big meaty paw on her arm, pulling her away from the car, back into the trees. She screamed louder, and shriller, and when that didn’t work she swore for all she was worth.

 “Please don’t swear.” A gruff, female voice, full of reproach. “Daddy hated swearing.”

  And then there was nothing but blackness.

 

#

 

  She woke to the sound of slurping and gnawing. It was still too dark to see anything at all. She was lying on the grass, she could feel it beneath her; the creature must have pulled her back into the trees after she had fainted. Her coat had ridden up round her waist as she had been dragged through the undergrowth, and she pulled it down to cover up as much of her as possible, buttoning it tightly against the cold and the horror of her situation.

  “Good night,” said the creature. It giggled. “That sounds wrong. It makes it sound like you’re going to bed. But it’s too early to say good morning.”

  She didn’t answer. She felt nauseous. She huddled in her coat, and prayed that the creature would spare her from further conversation.

  “My name’s Matilda,” it said. “What’s yours?”

  “Beth,” Debbie lied. She didn’t want this “woman” to know her real name. Knowledge is power, and she had more than enough power already.

  More slurping.

  “What are you eating?” she asked sharply. “Where’s Gary?”

  “I’m sorry,” Matilda replied. “I’ve been living rough for a long time. I’m rubbish at catching rabbits. I was starving, and I saw the two of you, and – a girl’s got to eat. Do you want some? I’ve saved you an arm, just in case.”

  Debbie vomited on the grass.

  “No,” said Matilda. “I thought not. But it would have been rude not to offer.”

  “Are you going to kill me, too?”

  Silence. She half-wished she could see Matilda’s face, to see whether there were any signs of compassion or doubt. But the other half was glad that she could not. Presumably, she had part of Gary’s body in her mouth, chomping away on it as if it was a giant turkey-leg. Some things were better left unseen.

  She changed tack. “Are you on the run? From the Police?”

  “Sort of. They’ve eaten Crow, but someone else will be after me now. There’s always someone after me.”

  “Eaten Crow?”

  “And Father. And a fat boy. I’m not sure who he was. He cried a lot.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “I’m not sure I do either. Are you sure you don’t want some meat? It’ll make you feel better. It tastes a lot like chicken.”

  Debbie vomited copiously, which Matilda must have taken as a “no”, as she did not offer again .

 

#

 

  Dr Read was uncomfortable. Partly because he had huge reservations about discharging his favourite patient from the psychiatric hospital, but also because he had bolted down his dinner and now had a nasty case of acid indigestion.

  Georgia Richardson sat opposite him. His colleagues were unanimously of the opinion that she was no longer a threat to society, however much he had argued against this. He had arranged this one final session with her, on the pretext of it being a debriefing/appraisal (he suspected that there were quite a few of his colleagues who would be only too happy to debrief her if professional ethics had permitted it, which enfuriated him as he wanted to have exclusive rights in this respect). But his real motive for this consultation, though, was to see if he could obtain anything from her which might enable him to cancel her discharge, and keep her here with him for as long as he possibly could.

  He looked at her file on the laptop on the desk in front of him, still trying to compose himself. This was such an important meeting. He had to get it right, or she would be gone, and he would lose her forever.

  “You’re all ready for tomorrow?” he asked. “No last minute qualms about facing the great big outside world after all this time safe and sound in here?”

  She nodded, a confident smile but with the tiniest hint of wariness in her eyes. He loved that grin of hers, even when it was suspicious at the corners. Young ladies (she was in her early thirties, but he was twice that, so she was still young to him) often had silly, inconsequential smiles, he always thought, but not hers. With a tight twist of jealousy which momentarily swamped his indigestion, he speculated that his colleagues may have only certified her fit for release because she had shared her smile with them. But they were idiots; they should have realised that if they liked her that much, it was better to keep her here, where she could flash those perfect white teeth at them all day long.

  “You’re happy being in accommodation all on your own? You wouldn’t prefer to be here, where we can look after you?”

  She shook her head, he assumed in response to his second question. She did not appear to be in the mood to talk. She knew that all she had to do was keep quiet, and she’d been free in the morning. Talking was dangerous. Talking would risk everything, especially with him sitting here ready to take notes. She had been here for ten years (the last three of which were under his watchful eye) and she had had enough. She wanted to go home.

  He scrolled through her admission notes on his laptop.

  “What happened to Michael Crow?”

  She shrugged. This was starting to get a little irritating. Didn’t she know that he was trying to keep her here for her own good?

  “According to your file, you were an animal rights activist. You turned up at the house of one Maurice Bailey, accusing him of kidnapping a friend of yours, and making serious threats against him and his elderly wife. He called the Police, and you were escorted off the premises by Officer Crow. You were later found handcuffed in Crow’s car in Ramsgate, screaming your head off. When asked about his whereabouts, you claimed that he had gone to capture trolls in a deserted terraced house nearby.  Does any of this ring any bells with you?”

  “I was confused.”

  “You went on to say that you and two friends of yours had earlier liberated a troll from a research facility in Maidstone, left her in a caravan, and that you had last seen her running out of the deserted house into which Officer Crow had disappeared. When that house was later searched, there was no sign of Crow or anyone else, save that there was blood all over the place. Which was found to belong to Crow, his son, and one other as yet unidentified person.”

  She shuddered.

  “You knew the son, didn’t you?”

  “You know I did.”

  “Dexter.”

  “Dexter.”

  “The Police speculated that you had lured Crow there, possibly with the promise of sex.”

  “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

  “And then you killed him, possibly with the aid of accomplices. You handcuffed yourself up in his car. And you would have gone to prison for life, but for the court taking the view that you were criminally insane, with all this talk of trolls.”

  “I know better now.”

  “In what way?”

  “I was clearly deluded. I’ve had ten years of treatment. I’m better now. I’m ready to go home.”

  He studied her, trying unsuccessfully to make her squirm under his gaze. He liked making people uncomfortable, it was one of the perks of his job. She stared back at him, cool as crushed ice, not giving him an inch. She was one tough nut to crack, which was pretty much why he felt this way about her.

  “You’re not just saying that, Georgie? Trying to lie your way out of here?”

  “As if.”

  “You can tell me. It won’t go in your records. Just between the two of us. Were there any trolls that night?”

  “There’s no such thing as trolls.”

  “Trust me. I believe in them, too.”

  “Then maybe you should have my room when I book out tomorrow.”

  This was clearly not working. She was never going to say anything he could use again her, not if they continued with this conversation until Christmas. He would have to move on to Plan B. He didn’t want to; she would hate him for it, and that wasn’t what he wanted at all, but the alternative was for her to walk out of here tomorrow and he would never see her again.

  “You’re convinced you’re better, then? Full recovery.”

  She nodded. “One hundred per cent.”

  He typed out a long entry in her records. She tried to crane her neck to see what he was typing, but he moved the laptop round a little to obscure her view. It was for her own good. It would only distress her if she could read the entry he had just made.

  “Then you’re free to leave.”

  “I know. First thing tomorrow morning, right?”

  “You’re free to leave now.”

  She stared at him. He stared back. His indigestion cranked up a notch. He assumed that it was because he was becoming a little agitated by this game they were playing. He tried to discount the notion that it was Karma, dishing out a little mild torture to punish him for his duplicity.

  “But it’s supposed to be tomorrow. I’ve got no transport tonight. No accommodation. I’ve not packed my stuff up.”

  “All arranged. Your bags have been packed for you while you’ve been out of your room. There’s a taxi waiting for you outside, and a nice cosy bed for you just ten minutes drive away, with your name on it.”

  He blushed at the word “bed”, hoping it wouldn’t be too obvious what was going through his mind when he said it. She looked wary. He felt hurt that she didn’t trust him. So maybe she was right to be suspicious of him this time round, but she wasn’t to know that, was she?

  “I can walk out of here? Right this second?”

  “Unless you’d rather stay here with us? I’ve just discharged you, but I can always delete the entry if you’d be happier here with me. With us. Where it’s safe.”

  She stood up. “Let’s go.”

  He tried to stifle a smirk. Plan B was going better than he expected. He led her out the room, and down a succession of long white-walled corridors with shiny wooden floors. They had to stop twice for him to key in entry codes. Everything was going to plan.

  “This isn’t the way out.”

  “The taxi’s out back,” he lied. “It’s quicker this way.” Less chance of bumping into other members of staff too, he thought. I can’t just march you past reception. I can’t march you past anyone without getting in an awful lot of trouble.

  They reached a door. Another access code, and it was open. It was dark outside. She stood on the threshold, looking out. He had a cat, which always sniffed the air before leaving the sanctuary of home, presumably to see whether there were any other (bigger) cats in the neighbourhood which might be lying in wait for him outside. He assumed it was the same for her. She had been in here for a decade. She desperately wanted “out”, but he guessed she was a little scared at the same time, however confident she seemed on the outside. Life was pretty hard out there. He was doing her a favour really.

  She took a step outwards. She shivered.

  “I need my coat.”

  “It’s in the taxi.”

  “What taxi?”

  “It’s just round the corner.”

  She looked deep into his eyes. He looked away after a few seconds. It was easier too lie that way.

  “What’s going on?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Maybe I should wait until morning.”

  She made as if to step back inside. He blocked her path.

  “You’ll have to get your stuff from the taxi first.”

  “You can do it.”

  “You’re discharged now. It’s not up to me. Either you leave tonight, or you go and collect your stuff and sit on the doorstep until morning. It makes no difference to me.”

  She tried to shuffle him to one side. “I want to go back inside.”

  “Are you assaulting me? Maybe you’re not ready for this yet.”

  She attempted to dodge round him, but he seized her arm and pulled her back. She flared up, and for a second he thought she was going to strike him, but she thought better of it. If she used violence, then she would be back in the mental hospital for years to come. He filed that away for future use, just in case she was ever to be discharged again.

  He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off angrily. She didn’t even want him to touch her, even though he was discharging her early (well, maybe not, but she wasn’t to know that). He pushed her away (back towards her imaginary taxi), stepped back inside, and slammed the door behind him before she could follow him in.

  He hurried off down the corridor. She banged on the door for a while (how ironic that she was trying to get back in after all this time!) but had given up by the time he had passed the store-room. He knew what she would do now. She would be on her way to reception, to tell them that he had forcibly thrown her out the back door. He had to be quick.

  The hospital had an alarm, an old air-raid type alarm which they had introduced at the insistence of the local village after two separate escape attempts by dangerous residents (one successful, one not). And here it was. He punched his fist against it, smiling with satisfaction at the wailing noise which reverberated both inside and outside the building.

  They would be out looking for her in seconds. She’d be safely back in her room well before bed-time. And with a little luck, she would require more psycho-analysis that ever.

  Even allowing for his indigestion, this was going to be the best day since he had first met her. Life was good. Life was Georgia.

 

#

 

  Matilda’s new companion was not very talkative. She just sat slumped on the grass, sobbing from time to time. She must have been poorly, as every time Matilda took a bite out of the young man she had caught for her supper, the girl clutched her ears and started shaking violently. Earache could be a terrible thing.

  She felt sorry for her new friend, and would have comforted her if she could. But she knew from bitter experience that people got upset when she put an arm round their shoulders, and they tended to scream a lot. She didn’t like that. It made her cry.

  She had not had the best of lives herself. For the first twenty years or so, she had been at the House with her family. Pitch dark, cold as scorn, and she was never, ever allowed to go out to see the Outside. She had been beaten regularly by her brutish father, and if it wasn’t for Mummy, brother Vincent and (in the early years) Nanny, she would have been very miserable indeed. But they kept her going, and she kept them going, and somehow it had all been bearable between them.

  Nanny was born Outside, but had come to the House many years before, because she loved Granddaddy and wanted to be with him. When the menfolk were out foraging, Nanny would tell her stories of what it was like out there. Outsiders could come and go as they pleased, there was light (she had not really understood the concept of this at the time, but it sounded like it was a good thing from the way Nanny described it) and no-one was allowed to bite anyone or break their bones. Matilda had never quite understood why Nanny had given up all of these wonderful things to stay in the darkness in the House; she must have loved Granddaddy very much. And Matilda wanted to love someone, too. Not one of her own – not Family – but an Outsider, who could tell her stories, and be as kind and gentle as Nanny had been.

  And she had found such a man on her wedding day. Daddy had foraged him, and he was to have been her Wedding Feast. It was traditional for Family to have one every time they married. That way, everyone could eat the Outsider during the service, rather than getting all cross and agitated and taking chunks out of each other.

  But she had saved Philip. She had told him that she would rescue him if he married her. He hadn’t seemed too keen at first. He looked as if he was going to throw up when he first saw her, and for a moment she thought he was going to choose to be eaten alive rather than doing her the honour of becoming her husband. Once she had assured him that she had no intention of riding him “like a little piggy”, though, he had been a lot more relaxed about the idea. Where he had got such a strange idea from, was beyond her. She had loved him very much indeed, but he had had some very strange notions, it must be said.

  Theirs had not been an uneventful engagement. Her Family had come after them, and Agent Crow had come after them, and even Philip’s previous Beloved had got a bit cross. But Philip was dead now, and so were all the others. And she could never go back to her own kind, as she had sold out her Family to try to save the man she loved, and she was now an outcast.

  So she had been out here for the last however many years, hiding from Outsiders, hiding from extended-Family, hiding from everyone. It was a lonely existence, and it was hard to catch enough food to keep her alive. She had tried to live off woodland creatures when she had first come here, but the little rascals were far too quick for her. She had ventured into the nearest town after dark to raid dustbins, but Daddy had never taught her how to forage (she was a girl, and girls never left the House) and she had nearly been spotted on two or three occasions. If they had found her, she would have been put back in the cage, where they would torture her and cut her open and tease her with poor dead Mummy’s corpse. So she had resolved to stay here in the woods, eating whoever was silly enough to venture into the trees after dark. They kind of deserved it really.

  She didn’t want to eat these poor people, of course. She had always hated it when her Family had tucked into Wedding Feasts, tearing them limb from limb, sucking on the bones they had wrenched free from their often still-living meal. Mummy had said that Wedding Feasts weren’t like us, and didn’t feel pain; they just screamed and twitched through reflex. But Matilda wasn’t so sure. That look in their eyes was just too much to bear. And once she had met and fallen in love with her Philip, then the idea of eating them was almost too much to stomach. Almost, but not quite. The alternative was a lifetime chasing tricky little foxes, or a very much shorter lifetime in a tiny cage, being tormented by hurtful Outsiders who wanted her dead. No, however distasteful it was, she would have to eat anyone she could get her hands on.

  Her companion started weeping again, out of the blue, for no apparent reason. Outsiders were funny like that. It had been a good hour since she had eaten this woman’s Beloved, yet every time she thought the tears had dried up they started all over again. It was true that she herself had never forgotten Philip, and it still made her very sad thinking about him when she was all on her own out here, but that was different. Philip had been much better than the man she was munching on. He would not have made her take her clothes off in the woods and straddle a tree, like this poor girl had done. Indeed, Philip had always been very keen to ensure that she did not take off her clothes at all.

  She heard a twig snap, somewhere not far off. She was on her feet in an instant, straining to listen, to work out what was out there and whether it was big enough or likely enough to do her harm. She could hear nothing, though, as her new friend started screaming. She had heard Matilda jump to her feet, and was now convinced that she was next on the menu.

  “Stop screaming,” Matilda pleaded. “I’m not going to eat you.” She hesitated for a second, torn between the desire to reassure this woman into silence and the lessons which had almost literally been drummed into her as a child to never, ever tell lies. “Well, I am, but not yet.”

  The silly thing screamed all the more. Matilda was losing valuable time. Whatever was lurking out there in the trees could be fall on her in seconds. She couldn’t hear them, but they could hear all the screaming so pretty much knew where she was. What if it was Crow? Well, maybe not Crow because he must be dead, but one of his men. Come to take her back to that cage. Last time, they had put Mummy’s corpse outside the cage, just beyond her reach, to make her cry. She couldn’t bear that again. Besides, after all these years, Mummy would not smell very nice at all.

  Matilda took action. She had to shut the screaming up. The safest thing to do would be to break the woman’s neck, but in her panic she opted for grabbing her and sticking her in the lower branches of a tree, like leopard-kill. At least that way she could go back for her later, and she would still be fresh. She hated to see good food go to waste.

  She went to dash off into the woods, but changed her mind. Maybe it was just a fox out there? It would eat her half-chomped man if she left him on the ground. She collected his corpse, and jammed him between the tree trunk and the woman she had stuffed up the tree earlier. For some reason, the silly girl screamed all the more. You would have thought she would be grateful to be reunited with her Beloved one last time, even if he was a little chewed around the edges.

  Now was the time for escape. But which way to run? She listened, but it was hopeless; the hysterical girl was still yelling for all she was worth! She sniffed, but all she could smell was her supper (who was fast getting cold!) She had no real idea who or what she was running from, or where she should run to. So she picked a direction at random and galloped off.

  Within seconds, something had grabbed her round her broad waist, and wrestled her face-first to the ground. Something powerful; there was no Outsider in the world strong enough to take down a big girl like her. She struggled, but to no avail. She was well and truly caught.

  “Matilda, I presume?”

  She craned her short stubby neck to see who had done this to her. She cringed. This was bad. This was very, very bad. This was one of her own kind. And last time they had caught her, a whole bunch of them had tried to eat her. Which was no way to treat Family, as far as she was concerned.