Far out among the hillocks and lumps of a misty moor, there stood a house with three chimneys and four windows and six children who lived there all alone. They were very comfortable. Their house was snug and smelled of violets and clary sage, and its insides were well-stuffed with cushions and coal-stoves and crackly, yellow-paged books. Outside was a hawthorn tree and a wash-barrel and a small square of grass, and all of it was enclosed by a high stone wall, its door kept firmly locked from the outside.
Now and then a woman would emerge from the fog that lay forever around the house, and would bring the children pails of fresh milk and trays of meat pies covered with linen handkerchiefs, but she almost never spoke to the children. When she did, she called them “My little lords and ladies” in a sad sort of voice. She would come very early in the morning, before the sun had risen, and would ring a brass bell to let the children know she had placed the pails and trays inside the door into the garden. Then she would go away again in a great hurry.
The children’s names were Betsy, Wilbur, Elihandra, John, Calendula, and Cripps.
Betsy was the eldest. She was ungainly and strong, and would sometimes pause in the middle of a sentence to ponder her words, which made Wilbur think her foolish, because he seldom paused to ponder anything.
Wilbur was second-eldest, loud and insufferable.
Elihandra was waifish and golden-haired, and liked people to get along, so whenever there was a quarrel, she was the one to comfort whomever was crying and also the one to drag the one who had caused the crying out from under a table to apologize.
John and Calendula were twins, and conspired together against everyone else.
And then there was Cripps, who was very tiny and quiet, and wandered about smelling the bristly purple flowers in the garden and poking his nose into cupboards and the tops of shelves where only spiders lived, and into the chimneys, where nothing lived, but which were very intriguing. Cripps wondered often what they were all doing in that house on the moor and why the door was always kept locked, and why the woman always went away in a hurry. He had a great deal of thoughts, but he kept them to himself so as not to ruin them.
* * *
After some years, when the children were only slightly older (there were no calendars in the house, or clocks), they noticed the woman had not arrived in several days, and they were very hungry. Their meat pies ran out. Their pantry became bare. Elihandra suggested they grow their own food – she’d read about it in books, and she knew it could be done – but though they placed seeds carefully in the dirt along the north wall of the garden, and watered them, and waited patiently for their food to grow, none did.
After two days, when still no one had arrived, Cripps climbed up onto the wall with the help of Betsy’s shoulders, and looked over. “There’s a shoe!” he called down. “Poking out of the fog!”
“A shoe?” Betsy said. “Is there . . .” She paused to think. “. . .a person attached to the shoe?”
Cripps wasn’t sure. He had gone very still; twenty paces to the left of the shoe, a figure stood, just visible in the mist, facing the cottage.
Cripps shouted at the top of his lungs. “Hello! Please help us! We’re very hungry, and we can’t get out!”
But at the sound of his call the figure only shuddered and twisted, and then there was the sound of feet thudding on the heather, and the figure vanished into the white.
Cripps and Elihandra went back to the other children, and they all sat in their chairs in the parlour, becoming hungrier and hungrier by the hour.
* * *
“We’re going to have to leave,” Betsy said finally, when they were all so thin they could see their ribs and the shapes of the bones in their hands. “There’s no food, and Miss Bell-of-brass hasn’t been here in days.” (Miss Bell-of-brass was what they called the woman with pies.)
Everyone said no, they couldn’t possibly go. Surely someone would help them. But though the children waited and waited for the tinkle of a bell, and knocked and pried at the door in the wall, no one came for them. The sounds of the moor beyond the wall became strange and unsettling where before the children had never noticed them at all. Sometimes Cripps thought he heard hands and bony fingers tapping at the door, and distant voices. Wilbur became more insufferable, and Betsy took even longer to say things, and there were quarrels that not even Elihandra cared to diffuse. After one particular angry spat, Cripps went after Betsy, who was crying, and followed her into the garden. Betsy was scrubbing a shirt at the washboard, though it wasn’t dirty, and Cripps slipped his hands into the soap and helped her. “I think we should go,” Cripps whispered, very softly. “I think we should escape.” But Betsy only cried and cried.
At last, when the very smallest of crumbs were gone, and the children were so tired they simply sat for hours, their stomachs growling . . . then finally did Elihandra and Wilbur and all the others agree.
“We’ll climb over the wall,” said Elihandra. And so they did. The very same day, the six of them built a ladder out of all the chairs in the house, scaled it unsteadily, and leaped down the other side of the wall.
Cripps was the last to go. He waved goodbye to the cottage, and the scrawny hawthorn tree, and the wash-barrel, and the three chimneys and four windows, and then he leaped gingerly from the top of the wall, arms outspread as if he hoped he would fly.
It was a long drop to the moor, but the children steeled themselves and made it without injury, and set off into the bank of fog.
They had not gone more than twenty paces when they came upon the woman who had brought them their milk and pies. She had been mostly eaten. There was blood all down her front, and all over the gorse around her, as if the moor had bloomed briefly in spatters of crimson flowers.
“What d’you suppose happened?” the children asked, gazing down at her solemnly.
“A beast,” said Elihandra. “Or worse. We don’t know what might be out in this fog.”
Cripps knelt and closed the woman’s eyes, which had been staring unsettlingly at the locked door in the wall, and then the children continued on their way.
* * *
After a while, they came to a town. It was crackly, rust-brown and mossy, and all the gables and chimneys leaned in one direction, as though at one point a giant had attempted to flatten the town with a hot-iron. The children walked down its street, staring around them at all the dark, locked-up houses. And though the doors were all closed and the shutters bolted, they were sure the town was not abandoned. They thought they saw figures moving in the mist, and heard people going about their business within the houses.
When they passed a tall, pointed window, they heard a breathless, frail voice from beyond the shutters. “Go away,” it said, delicate as bird bones and rattling with fear. “Go back to your own place. We have nothing to give you.”
The children glanced at each other. They came to a window that seemed to have grown inside a lilac bush, but in fact it was the lilac bush which had grown strong and tall and swallowed a house and window.
A hand went up to the window, and an old face peered out. “Off with you, children,” said an old woman, her cheeks rosy and her eyes black and bright. “You are not welcome here!”
The woman’s hand at the window was oddly purplish and long-nailed, and did not seem to go along with her face. It was as if someone else’s hand was poking from her lacy sleeve.
The children put their heads together and conferred. Then, because Elihandra was the politest, she said: “Could you give us something to eat, please? We’re very hungry.”
“Hungry?” the woman said. “Aren’t we all: hungry and cold. We have our own troubles here. Be gone. And beware the hunter!”
The children did not want to be gone. They were tired and starving, and they could see a fire burning beyond the casement of the old woman’s house, and they supposed if they could have gone inside, they might have been able to beware the hunter better (whoever that might be). They stood below the window in the lilac bush, looking up wretchedly and hoping she would change her mind, but then the old woman came out onto the doorstep, and her two old sisters with her, and they stood there in their starched aprons and clean caps, and shooed the children away, cawing and crying like a trio of ancient birds.
* * *
The children left the town and followed a road, on and on into the fog. Their feet hurt and the slippers they had worn at the three-chimneyed house had gone threadbare and ragged, but there was nothing for them to do but walk. After a while they came upon a gang of boys.
The boys were small and grubby and wild-looking, and their clothes flapped in tatters around them.
“Hurry,” one of them said, soft and desperate. “Hurry! Run! They’ve seen us. They’ll catch us all, and what will they do with us?” And then the entire pack – as if they were one single body – turned and fled into the fog, giggling in a piercing, frantic way, like a cry.
The six children stared after the tattered boys, and then wandered on. They walked for what felt like days. It was difficult to tell, because there was no sun or moon in this fog, and it never seemed to become darker or lighter. They could not exactly sleep, because somewhere at the edge of their senses someone was always murmuring or laughing. Once, Cripps looked over his shoulder and was sure he saw the woman who brought them their milk standing at a break in the drifting mist, her front wet and shiny with blood.
When they had been walking a very long time and were hardly more than bones, Elihandra stopped abruptly with a cry, and felt about her back. Several black strings extended from it, stretching away into the fog. It was as if she had snagged her coat on something and unraveled it on and on behind her. And when the other five children looked behind themselves, they saw that all of them had threads in their arms and their backs, vanishing back into the mist.
“Beware the hunter!” the cry came suddenly very close by, and the children ran as fast they could, the strings hissing through the gorse behind them, unspooling on and on.
* * *
In time, the children slowed again, because nothing had come after them.
“Do you think someone caught us?” Elihandra asked, examining her strings. “Like a fish?”
“The hunter, perhaps?” said Elihandra.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Wilbur. “If he caught us, why are we still doing as we please?”
But in the end, they could not agree what the strings were for, and because they could not rip or break them, they decided to follow them to see where they ended. It became a sort of game. They wrapped the coarse threads around their arms until they each had a coil of it, and they began to move more quickly and talk amongst themselves and dart among the hillocks, leaping like sprites, and they didn’t feel quite as tired anymore. . . .
Until all at once, they froze.
There was the hunter, looming in the mist just ahead. He was dressed all in black, and wore a dark hat that drooped over his eyes, and he had a blunderbuss strapped across his back and many large, scabbed knives in his belt, and in his right hand were a pair of small silver scissors of the sort used for needlework.
“There you are,” the hunter said, and he raised the silver scissors, and dove toward the children.
He cut Elihandra’s string first, and she stared in horror at the hunter and then at the other children, and then the mist drifted and swallowed her up, and she was walking away though she didn’t mean to, calling over her shoulder until her shouts and farewells were lost.
Next went John and Calendula, their strings cut at the exact same moment. “Off you go!” the hunter said, almost merrily. “This is no place for you to wander.”
But at Cripps, the hunter stopped. Cripps was standing very calmly, frowning at the hunter, and he said: “Why are you cutting the strings, and where have Elihandra and John and Calendula gone?”
“Onward, silly!” replied the hunter. “And you should, too! And where is the woman? I haven’t found her yet, the poor soul who died at the door to your cottage. They made it look like a wolf did it, but it was so savage, I think only a human could have. I’ll find her soon, and ask her.”
“But what do you mean? Why was she dead? And why were we locked up? And where is onward?”
“She was one of the few who knew you were there,” the hunter said, “far out on Wickham Heath.” The hunter’s eyes skipped across the children, and glimmered not unkindly from under his hat. “And I’m afraid someone wanted there to be one fewer who knew. You’re the kings’ children, that’s the trouble. But kings mustn’t have too many children, and when they do, the children must be hidden far away. Poor things. It’s not your fault, what happened.” And then the hunter said: “I catch all the lost souls and set them free.”
What? thought Cripps. Elihandra was gone now, and even Calendula and John had wandered off, hand in hand into the fog, which now seemed even thicker and colder than before. The remaining three children stared at the hunter. They were very tired. They were gaunt and sleepy, and all they wanted was to find the end of the black strings, and perhaps sleep a while, and so when the hunter approached them, they leaped on him and tore his blunderbuss from his hands and blew his head off.
His body collapsed on the gorse, but he rose from it shortly in a tangle of black string and looked angrily at the children.
“Why’d you do that?” he demanded, but Betsy, Wilbur, and Cripps were already running away, following their strings, looping them haphazardly over their shoulders. They ran and ran and ran, thumping across the moor. They passed through the flattened town again, and they saw the three old sisters with strings extending from their backs, too, sweeping the step of their house inside the lilac shrub. They passed the rowdy boys again, and saw they were all tangled up together, their strings knotted like the tails of a rat king, hurtling through the mist like a desperate comet, shouting: “Get away! Get away, they’ll catch us!”
The children came at last to a high stone wall. The threads went over it and disappeared. The three children stood on each other’s shoulders and pulled each other up and dropped down the other side. There was the cottage, the hawthorn tree, the three chimneys and four windows. Only now there were six skeletons on the chairs in the cottage, and the chairs had not been removed at all, or stacked against the wall. The six children had not escaped. They had sat on their chairs and waited.
“Beware the hunter,” Cripps said, settling himself into his skeleton at the table, which was very comfortable, like an old sofa.
Betsy looked sadly out the window for Elihandra and the twins, but there was only the wall and the fog, and the black strings seemed to drape the cottage now, tying it down and tangling them up with the earth. The three of them curled into cushions, and opened books and spoke to each other softly, and the fog rolled over the house and swallowed it, and they waited for someone to come and feed them.