The Well Below
Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water.
‘Walk quicker,’ said Jack. ‘You’re always so slow. You almost got us killed back there.’ He gobbled the breath which came ragged into his throat and swung the bucket he was carrying from one hand to the other. ‘Just move.’
His sister, a good length behind him, put on a sudden burst of speed which lasted for three, maybe four uneven steps before she fell back into the sleepy stroll of a six year old out past her bedtime. Jack sucked on another lungful of the cold night air and reached back to take hold of Jill and pull her along with him.
‘But I’m tired,’ the little girl said, as though her brother may have somehow missed the million or so complaints she’d made along the way. ‘I don’t see why I couldn’t stay. I’m big enough now. I could have kept him inside.’
‘Don’t be silly. It’s not safe…’ Jack looked at his sister, the cloud-wrapped moonlight laying its shadows upon her heavy face and soaking into her white hair. ‘And what use would you be anyway? You’re nothing but a… a… girl,’ he said.
Then, as though trying to escape the gravity which had gripped them that night, Jack spun her around and shoved a hand into the small of her back and pushed. ‘Now get a move on,’ he said. ‘Or Mama will be back before us and we shall both be whipped.’
‘Then I shan’t make the crumpets, and Papa will be angry with Mama an’ you shall be whipped,’ Jill replied, digging her feet into the hard flesh of the hill. ‘How much further is it? And why are we…’
-naught shall go ill-
‘What did you say?’ Both children spoke at once. Jack kept them moving. ‘I didn’t say anything,’ he said.
‘Well, I know I didn’t,’ replied Jill. ‘So it must have been you. And it won’t work. I’m not scared, not any more.’
Jack looked at her and his soft brown eyes suddenly filled with the light of a twelve year old rather than those of the soldier he’d become over the past few hours. The moment passed and his eyes darkened once again, framed by a moon of white hair.
‘Don’t you know anything?’ he said. ‘Papa is…‘ Jack struggled for a word to take control of the night’s events, eventually settling upon ‘…safe.’ He eased his grip on her but kept them striding up the hill, even though his feet rubbed in the worn and ill-fitting boots which had carried them seven leagues or more. ‘Papa is safe. But only for now. Mama must still fetch the priest and we must still fetch water from the Well.’
‘I never burn the crumpets, you know.’ Jill picked up her pace a little and Jack let his arm drop, missing the weight of her back resisting his push. ‘Papa says I make them the best.’
Twice they thought they heard a noise on the hill again and twice they stopped. Jill’s ears were sharper but Jack pushed her on once he listened and was satisfied they were alone. ‘Don’t be a baby,’ he said.
The hill levelled out a little. They had both climbed this far many times though not to fetch water, never to fetch water. Water from the Well was forbidden to all except priests. No, the children had climbed just because it was a hill and it had a summit from which they could see across to Gingerbread and Giant’s Landing and even the abandoned village of Deep Dark Wood. The mud lattice of old rivers which once ran between these places were now mostly used as thieves highways, best avoided by anyone with sense. Tonight, of course, none of that would be visible but the contour of the hill told Jack they were nearly there.
‘We need it to be full,’ Jack said, beginning to think ahead for the first time since they had escaped the house. What if the Well was empty? What if the pestilence which had plagued the land had caused even that Well to dry up? He took a few brisk strides to step alongside his sister and tried to lighten his voice. ‘Like we’re cooking or washing.’
Jill put a hand to her mouth and gasped. ‘We can’t use this water for cooking,’ she said.
Jack bit his tongue. ‘I know. I know. I’m just saying we need to fill the bucket,’ he said. ‘So it shall be heavy on the way down.’
‘Oh Jack. Can I still carry it though, can’t I? Even just a little of the way. Please say I can.’ From the corner of his eye, Jack saw Jill gaze up at him. Clouds still hung to the moon, giving her an unearthly pallor. She looked the way an angel might look, he supposed, or a ghost. He laughed.
‘No,’ he snapped. ‘You’d only spill it. I’m the man and I’m in charge.’
Jill bit her lip and said nothing. Despite the fright which had turned their hair white, both children drew comfort from knowing about the Well at the top of the hill. Many the time they’d fallen asleep listening to Mama sing nursery rhymes about it. They’d also fallen asleep hearing about it in sermons on Sundays, but they kept those times quiet.
The Well on the Hill, sometimes called Holywell but more often quietly called Witchwell, was older than they were – older by far. Nobody knew how old, exactly, but it was reckoned to be ancient. Over the years it had become ringed by stones carved with prayers and pictures. At one time access down to the water was by use of a ladder but in recent years the group of monks had built a wooden frame with a rope and pulley from which a pail could be lowered. The sacred water was drawn regularly on the Ides. Once a month villagers from miles around would travel up the hill to fetch a pail of water. This they would then pour into earthenware bottles bought from the monks who would bless it. The holy water could be sold or kept as protection. Jack and Jill were risking much by going to take the water without permission. But they had no choice. Mama had said so as she hurried them out of the cottage and away from the howls within.
The ground levelled off and Jack realised he had been bent almost double, the hill was that steep. He shifted the bucket to the other hand and straightened up. As he did so he stumbled and fell. ‘Blast,’ he swore, grabbing at his ankle. ‘Stupid stone.’
Jill darted to his side. ‘Oh Jack,’ she said. ‘Are you alright? Are you hurt?’
‘I’m fine. Leave me alone.’ Jack brushed her away. ‘It’s just a stone.’ He took a close look at it, shifting his body to make the most of the moonlight. There were markings on the stone. ‘Looks like a Well-stone,’ he said. ‘How odd that it’s come loose.’
-naught shall go ill-
Jack looked up at Jill, his face suddenly angry. ‘Why do you keep saying that?’ he spat. ‘Can’t you see it’s not a time to be such a baby?’
Jill seized the bucket and glared at him. ‘Stop being so mean. I didn’t say anything,’ she said. ‘Besides, you’re the one nearly crying.’
Jack pushed himself up onto one leg and tested the other. He winced in pain. ‘I am not,’ he said. ‘It’s just the wind catching me on the face.’
‘Then don’t shout at me,’ said Jill, standing as tall as she could. ‘Can you carry on or not?’
Her brother put his foot on the ground again and winced. ‘Shut up. It’s just a sprain. I can carry on. Keep moving.’
Jill let out a heavy breath then spun around and carried on walking, swinging the bucket beside her. Jack hobbled after.
They made their way onwards in silence for a few more minutes until the ground was almost completely flat. The grass of the hill was more worn here, with rings of mud arranged in concentric circles. Many stones lay scattered about, some on their own and some in small piles as though pushed up from the belly of the earth.
‘We’re here,’ said Jack. He spoke slowly, his eyes darting about the hilltop as he tried to make sense of what he saw. ‘We’re here.’
Jill ran from stone pile to stone pile and then back to Jack. ‘So,’ she said, asking the question Jack daren’t. ‘Where’s the Well then?’
The children did not speak and the moon climbed higher, as though it were looking to sneak out of the sky. Jill traced the path of the circles but they were covered entirely in places and difficult to make out.
Suddenly, she cried out. ‘Ow, ow ow. Over here. I’ve found something.’ Jack hobbled towards the sound of his sister’s voice. A cloud covered the moon, making it difficult to see much on the hilltop. ‘Watch where you’re going.’ Jack stopped just in time to avoid walking straight into a pile of stones.
‘How can you even see in this light?’ he asked.
‘I do as Mama says,’ came the answer. ‘I eat my carrots.’ Then she held a finger out to him. ‘Look. I got a splinter.’
Cautiously, Jack edged his way around the stones and felt the ground. It was wood. ‘Ow!’ he yelped. He stuck in his thumb and pulled it out again. ‘Ow!’
‘Told you,’ Jill said. ‘It’s sharp.’
Jack muttered under his breath. ‘It’s the frame of the Well,’ he said, speaking louder. ‘Something must have broken it. Something which scattered the stones and…’ His voice trailed away, the sound shifting across the scuffled grass like distant thunder over clouds. Frantically, Jack knelt and began to examine the ground.
‘I love how BIG this hill is,’ said Jill, jumping and stretching her arms upwards. ‘I bet I can touch the sky.’
‘STOP. DON’T MOVE.’
‘Why should I?’
Her brother took a deep breath and stumbled to his feet. ‘Because you’re standing on the Well.’
Jill looked down. The moon struggled through the clouds but even so she could make out a tangle of wood in the dirt. It was as though a tree had been ripped apart by a storm. With foot still mid-hop in the air, Jill leaned forward. The wooden matting creaked and she froze.
‘What do I do?” she said, her voice cracking as much as the wood.
Jack took a step forward. His bad foot twisted and he cried out in pain. ‘Wait. I’m coming,’ he said through his teeth. ‘I’m coming.’
Jill wobbled where she stood. The wood didn’t creak. ‘It’s OK, I think…’ The wood beneath her snapped and she dropped like a bucket. ‘Jack!’
Jack threw himself forward, ignoring the agony in his foot. His chest hit a pile of stones and wood and he gasped but kept the momentum going by flinging out a hand to catch that of his sister. He was too late. He peered into the hole and counted the seconds.
The sound of a splash followed after. Jack waited. And then came a voice.
‘Jack, Jack,’ cried Jill. ‘Pull me up.’
Jack almost laughed with relief at the sound of her voice. He looked around but only tatters of rope lay amongst the wreckage of the Well. ‘I can’t,’ he replied. ‘There’s no rope. Wait, I’ll think. Let me think.’
He scrabbled about the floor, shifting broken bits of wood in the hope that something was still useful. There was nothing. Whatever had destroyed the structure of the Well had done a thorough job.
‘Jill, I’m going to have to–‘
‘It’s OK.’ Jill’s voice floated up the Well shaft. ‘I’ve found something. I think it’s an old ladder.’ Her footsteps came slow but steady and Jack found himself holding his breath as he waited for any sign of a white-haired head to appear like a moon in the darkness.
He saw her hand first, tiny and frail but gripping the rungs of darkness with a steely strength. He leaned down, the hard edges of the Well head digging into his ribs. Gripping his sister with both hands he steadied her as she climbed, pulling the bucket behind her.
‘We’re… going to…’ Jack breathed heavily and wrapped his arms around her. ‘Have to call you… Bucket… I think. Ding dong dell, Jill is in the Well,’ he sang.
Jill thumped him in the chest. ‘Silly,’ she said. ‘Let’s go, Jack.’
Jack nodded, his face lighting up as the clouds slid away from the moon. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think that’s a smart idea for a girl who always needs saving.’ Jill thumped him again.
-naught shall go ill-
‘Oh Jack, don’t.’ Jill sat back from her brother. ‘You give me the creeps when you do that.’
-naught shall go ill-
‘It’s not me,’ Jack said. ‘It’s…’
A shadow, silhouetted against the moon, stretched itself tall.
-Jack shall have Jill and naught shall go ill-
The voice was low and hard, like stones being piled in front of a tomb.
Jill turned and stood. ‘Papa?’ she said. ‘Papa?’
The figure moved forward, spreading across the white moon like black blood. Jack struggled to his feet and moved to stand with Jill. ‘Steady, Jill,’ he said.
‘Maybe he’s all better now,’ Jill said. ‘Maybe Mama reached the priest in time.’
-Jack shall have Jill-
The voice rumbled out again and Jack reached out to pull Jill back a step. ‘It’s not Papa,’ he said. ‘We locked Papa in the house. This is something else.’
-Now Jack shall have Jill and naught shall go ill-
It moved forward, releasing a bolt of moonlight from behind its wide shoulders. Jack and Jill saw it then, a creature whose bones were chilled with fear and whose blood was mixed with hate.
‘It’s you,’ whispered Jack. He touched his hair. Before him stood the thing which had cursed his family.
‘What is it?’ Jill asked. ‘Is that the bad thing?’
Jack began to walk backwards, gently leading Jill with him. The thing followed, its clawed feet digging into the bone-hard earth. The moonlight flashed into its eyes, turning from white to the colour of dead teeth.
-Jack shall have Jill-
‘That’s it,” said Jack. ‘That’s what bit Papa. It must have escaped.’ The fear he’d felt upon seeing it for the first time was just as raw now. Jill had only seen a glimpse of it before their mother had sent them running and locked it in with Papa but even that glimpse was enough to send her hair white.
-Now it’s time for Beanstalk Jack to eat up Jill – your tasty snack-
Jack seized Jill and grabbed her hand. ‘Run!’ he yelled. Jill tried to do as she was told but too frightened to speak and too confused to move. Jack’s hand came away from hers and he fell as his foot gave way. Then Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.
The creature howled and the hairs on its body stiffened like needles. Jack and Jill felt as though each of those needles were sliding into their hearts.
‘Jack.’ Jill crawled towards her brother who lay motionless a little way ahead.
-Little Jill begins to tumble, then the hill begins to rumble-
The creature raised its arms and Jill felt the ground shift beneath her. There were many questions about the Well but perhaps the biggest was why it had ever been built upon a hill. Water was hard enough to reach underground without going higher. The truth was that it hadn’t been, not at first. When the world was younger the Well had been dug on the floor of a valley to help fight off creatures such as these. But over time their victims had piled high and the Well had to be dug anew. Again and again, the Well shaft was cut through the bodies of the fallen, through witches and warlocks, preachers and priests as one religion rested on another but the fairytales persisted.
‘Jack! Wake up Jack.’ Jill could almost reach out and touch her brother but the trembling ground slowed her down. Then it erupted, showering her with dirt and spilling bones into her path. She tumbled again and this time she lay there as the creature stalked towards her on its hind legs.
-One bite in the night and all will be right-
‘Jack Jack,’ Jill called to him like a hungry bird. ‘Jack.’ Her heart sang as the boy stirred and sat, holding his head.
But her happiness was short-lived for the creature was upon them both. With a sweep of its arm, the wolf-like thing flung Jill back up the hill and then bent over Jack.
-Jack shall have Jill-
Jack kicked out at the beast and managed to catch it in the teeth. It reared up and growled. He kicked again, lower this time but with his bad foot and he cried out. The beast circled him, saliva dripped down the length of its stake-sharp teeth.
‘Leave us alone,’ yelled Jack. ‘I don’t want to be like you. I don’t want to eat her.’
The creature let out a sound which was halfway between a laugh and a threat.
-Just a girl, little Jack said, better a boy or better be dead-
It lunged forward and Jack only just managed to roll out of the way. He got caught in a nest of bones jutting up and struggled to break free again.
‘I don’t want to be like you.’ Jack’s voice sounded lost on the hillside, as far away as the moon and as shallow as a breath. He looked to see where Jill could be. His vision was blocked by the leering face of the creature.
-Sugar and spice and all things nice-
‘STOP IT!’ Jack kicked out again but the creature caught his foot and lifted him into the air. Jack swung like a little wooden puppet. He couldn’t fight this thing. It was too strong. They’d only managed to lock Papa away because Mama had been there. It was her strength… it was her strength.
Suddenly the creature dropped Jack. He fell with a crunch, like so many more bones on the hill of bones. He rolled to a stop and twisted to watch as the monster writhed. Its shape split the moon in two, and it looked as though wings had sprouted from its back. The screams coming from it were anything but heavenly. They were deep, shuddering screams as though the earth itself were being pulled apart as its roots and had Jack’s hair not already been turned white it would have done so in that moment.
The boy stood. White fire began to lick across the monster’s body, enveloping its arms and chest and stripping away its hair. Jack walked closer and saw the thing drip onto the hillside. Where it fell, bones shrivelled like fragments of paper – a beautiful origami of destruction.
‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?’ The words were spoken in a quiet voice, the voice of a child.
‘Jill!’ said Jack, blinking through the dying light to make out the shape of his sister. There she stood, holding an empty bucket and looking every bit the hero. He ran forward, kicking through the husk of the fallen creature and hugged Jill. ‘You saved us,’ he said, his words running thick into the little girl’s white hair. ‘You saved us.’
Jill wrapped her arms around Jack and hugged him back. ‘Like a girl,’ she said. ‘Now let’s fill this bucket and hope we’re not too late to save Papa…’
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Illustration © 2017 Carl Pugh. Thanks dude!