Written by Mall Rat Matt

That flimsy bit of metal didn’t stop us from getting in; it won’t stop anyone else who wants to get in either. We could come back and find the place trashed, and for what? It’s not even Christmas!

‘I still say this is a bad idea,’ Alexandra sniffed.

‘Give it a rest, will you?’ sighed Zander, slamming the grille shut and then checking to make sure it was secure.

‘I’m just saying,’ Alexandra said in a put-upon tone. ‘That flimsy bit of metal didn’t stop us from getting in; it won’t stop anyone else who wants to get in either. We could come back and find the place trashed, and for what? It’s not even Christmas!’

‘It might be,’ Grace argued. ‘It’s not like anyone has calendars anymore, and it’s the right time of year for it. Anyway, it was really nice of Breeze to invite us over, and it’ll be good to see Blaine and Syan again. Don’t let’s spoil it now.’

‘You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,’ Drake added, folding his arms.

‘I never said I wasn’t coming,’ replied Alexandra, holding her hands up defensively. ‘Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

‘Duly noted,’ Zander said sarcastically. ‘Now let’s go, we don’t want to be late.’ He took Grace’s hand and set off, with Drake following behind pushing a barrow full of presents they were taking to the farm, a few batteries and bottles of water. Alexandra looked back at the Youth Centre, shook her head, and followed.

Their first port of call was the Trading Post, where they were greeted by Jaz and Esme. Grace shivered as she saw the empty stall at the end of the row. Evidently the Traders still hadn’t found anybody to take over the running of Tobias’ stall. Turning back, she saw Zander and Jaz hugging and unconsciously twisted the engagement ring on her finger, the way she always did when the two of them were in close proximity.

‘Have you set a date yet?’ Esme asked her. ‘For the wedding?’

Grace forced her hands back down to her sides. ‘Not yet,’ she replied. ‘Things have been a bit hectic lately.’

‘Of course,’ Esme nodded. ‘You’ve made a wonderful recovery. You’d never guess, looking at you, that, you know…’

‘That I had the Virus? It’s ok, you can say it.’

‘Yes, well,’ Esme continued. ‘It’ll be nice to have something to celebrate, won’t it? And don’t forget, if you need caterers…’

‘You’ll be my first choice,’ Grace said, smiling weakly.

‘Excellent!’ Esme smiled, turning back to her stall. ‘Jaz! What are you doing?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve paid for them!’ Jaz replied, slipping some tins of food into Drake’s wheelbarrow. Esme nodded, and Grace went to join the rest of the Strays.

‘It’s quiet at the Trading Post today,’ Zander noted.

‘It’s been quiet all week,’ Jaz replied. ‘People are scared of something. Esme reckons there must be some new tribe throwing their weight around.’

‘The perfect time for us to leave our home and take a walk in the woods,’ Alexandra said, but Zander ignored her.

‘It’s early days yet,’ he told Jaz. ‘It could just be a rumour.’

‘Better to be careful though,’ said Drake. ‘Everyone keep together; no wandering off.’

Zander nodded. ‘We’d better get going again,’ he said. ‘Get there while it’s still light.’

With a little less enthusiasm than before, the group rejoined the road that led out of the City. ‘Have a nice time!’ Esme shouted, waving them off.

‘She’s not coming with us?’ Zander asked.

‘I did ask,’ Jaz replied. ‘But she said somebody had to stay and look after the stalls.’

The Strays carried on walking, reaching the edge of the woods by midday. Jaz and Zander led the way, followed by Grace, Drake and Alexandra.

‘You’ve finally accepted it then?’ Alexandra said to Grace after a while.

‘What are you talking about?’ Grace replied.

‘Why, those two of course.’ Alexandra motioned in front of them with her head. ‘Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed? If he were my fiancé, God forbid, there’s no way I’d let them carry on like that.’

‘They’re only walking, Alexandra,’ Grace sighed, twirling her engagement ring.

‘If you say so,’ the other girl smiled. ‘But…’

‘Alexandra,’ Grace interrupted. ‘Just shut up.’

‘Charming!’ Alexandra replied. ‘I was only trying to…ow!’ Grace looked around to see Alexandra rubbing the back of her leg where Drake had run into it with the wheelbarrow.

‘Sorry,’ he said to her with a flat-eyed stare. ‘I wasn’t looking where I was going.’

As Drake and Alexandra argued, Grace walked into the woods for some peace and quiet, though staying close to the edge so she could still see the others. It was warmer in the wood, with the cover of the trees, and she found herself relaxing muscles she hadn’t realised she had tensed. Birds chirped above her head and she saw squirrels darting behind the trees as she passed. Just then a twig snapped behind her, deeper in the woods. The birds fell silent and she froze, tensing up again. Slowly she turned around, searching for the source of the noise. She saw nothing, at first, then a flicker of movement drew her eyes to a dark shape – a shape that resolved into a crouching figure in a dark robe. Then the figure stood up and she screamed. Within moments the rest of her group were there, but the man in the cloak had vanished.

‘What is it, what’s wrong?’ Drake asked.

‘Are you alright?’ echoed Jaz.

‘What were you doing on your own?’ spluttered a worried Zander.

‘I saw someone,’ she explained. ‘Behind that bush, watching me.’

‘Just stick with me, ok?’ Zander said, putting his arm around her. ‘In fact everyone, stay together. It’s not far now.’

They continued on their way, but closer together and moving more quickly than before. A short while later Alexandra walked up to Grace’s side and, with a look that took in Zander’s arm around her shoulder, gave her a wink and whispered ‘Nice work!’ Grace just shook her head. Before long the party was completely surrounded by trees, and it was beginning to get dark. Every sound made them turn their heads and quicken their step. Finally the clearing where the farm lay came into view and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Then a rustling in the bushes made Grace turn around, but this time it was Alexandra who screamed as robed figure after robed figure emerged from the trees and started to walk towards them.

‘Run!’ Zander shouted, grabbing Grace’s hand, and everyone ran for the farm. It soon came into view, with its welcoming lights, and the smoke from the chimney bringing the delicious smells of farm cooking. Drake was last to the gate, struggling with the wheelbarrow that he hadn’t abandoned, but a look behind showed that he was in no immediate danger. The blue-hooded figures, eight in total, stood watching from the edge of the wood, then one by one they returned to the darkness.

‘Who are they?’ Drake asked, panting.

‘I don’t know,’ Jaz replied. ‘But it looks like Esme’s rumours are true. No wonder people are afraid to come and trade with those creeps about.’ She shivered, and looked to Zander, but all his attention was on Grace. Instead, Jaz knocked on the heavy oak door, eager to be safe inside the farmhouse.

‘Breeze!’ she cried as her friend opened the door, wearing an apron and covered in flour. ‘It’s so good to see you!’

‘Jaz! You made it!’ Breeze beamed. ‘But you all look like you’ve seen a ghost! What’s the matter?’ As the Farm Girl led them inside to the warmth of the main house, the Strays told their tale, with Breeze looking more and more worried by the second. ‘Dawn thought she saw something in the woods yesterday,’ she said. ‘But I had no idea…If I’d known how dangerous it was out there I’d never have asked you to make the journey. If you want to stay a few days until it’s safe…’

‘Thanks Breeze,’ Zander said. ‘But we’ll just stay the one night like we planned, then we really should get back and check on the Youth Centre.’ Alexandra gave a self-satisfied smile but Breeze just nodded.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I’ll ask Dawn to take you to the City in the cart tomorrow. There’s a route that cuts off the woods altogether.’ The Strays and Jaz murmured their thanks. ‘Well,’ Breeze continued. ‘Now that’s all sorted, there are a couple of people here who are going to be so pleased to see you!’ She opened the door to the kitchen and two black dogs appeared, barking happily at her feet. The noise caught the attention of the other occupants of the room, Blaine and Syan, who instantly stopped their preparations for dinner and came to greet their friends. There were hugs for all, even Alexandra. Syan was soon drawn to Grace’s engagement ring, then loudly asked Blaine when he was going to get one for Breeze. His cheeks turning a bright crimson, he was spared from answering by a knock at the door that made the Strays tense up and give each other worried glances.

‘It’s ok,’ Breeze cried, slipping through the crowd to answer the door. ‘I invited a couple more people, that’s all.’ Sure enough, a familiar voice soon came from outside.

‘Breeze, Happy Christmas!’ Vanessa greeted. ‘How is Ellie?’

‘A complete recovery!’ Breeze replied. ‘She’s in the City with Alice at the moment. Come in, come in! How is…your friend?’

‘Oh, much better,’ Vanessa replied. ‘Still not talking, but calmer.’ The muffled tone left her voice as she entered the kitchen, followed by the blue-haired kid she had taken under her wing the last time the Strays had seen her. Grace and Syan were particularly pleased to see her, since it was thanks to her that they had found out about the antidote to the Virus. She spent some time talking to the pair of them, enquiring as to their recovery, while her companion latched onto Blaine, who he seemed to have taken a liking to, and started poking him. It was quite a chaotic scene with so many people in the kitchen, but before long Breeze had control of the situation, sitting everybody around the table where they were joined by Dawn and the remaining Farm Girls for a dinner of goose, potatoes and vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies.

‘That was the best meal I’ve had since before the Virus,’ Grace said, holding her stomach, and everyone agreed. Blaine and Syan, either side of Breeze, smiled at each other, proud of their involvement in the cooking.

Afterwards they exchanged gifts, with the Strays and Jaz each receiving a basket of fresh vegetables, bread, milk and cider from the Farm Girls, and a First Aid kit and medicines from Vanessa. Breeze used one of the batteries she had been given to set up some music, and soon everybody was talking and dancing and having a good time, even Alexandra. Vanessa’s companion amused himself by chasing the dogs around the table, Drake spent time talking to one of the Farm Girls, and Blaine finally managed to get a few moments alone with Breeze.

‘Merry Christmas,’ he said to her, holding up a slightly withered piece of mistletoe.

‘Blaine!’ she giggled. ‘Where did you get that?’ She kissed him lightly on the lips. ‘Merry Christmas to you, too.’

The party continued long into the night, until finally Breeze showed her exhausted guests to their beds. In the morning, fog shrouded the woods, and the fear of what might lie in wait there returned to the Strays’ minds. As promised, though, Dawn readied the cart and took them back to the City by a different route, waved off by Breeze, Blaine, Syan and Vanessa, who was staying at the farm an extra day.

When they were well clear of the woods, and the more substantial buildings that signalled the outskirts of the City came into view, Dawn stopped the cart and let them off, wishing them well. As they said their goodbyes to her, and then a short while later to Jaz, back to the Trading Post, the Strays started to think about their home and what might have happened to it while they had been away. Zander tried to keep their spirits up by reminding them of the night before, but even he looked worried. When they got back to the Youth Centre, though, they found the grille still shut tight and the building secure, with no sign that anybody had tried to get in or even been in the area. Settling back into their normal routine, they soon forgot about their run-in with the hooded strangers, and the Farm Girls never saw them in the woods after that day. In fact it was to be many months before anybody on the farm or in Sector 4 met them again.

And by then the whole City would know of the Chosen.