A Yuletide Folk Horror Short – The Cutty Wren by Shullie H Porter

A Yuletide Folk Horror Short - The Cutty Wren by Shullie H Porter

Robin starts down the path, insisting they can make it to the beach and back before the light recedes.

The spineless sand puts up no resistance when they arrive. Several standing stones monitor its every move just in case it decides to tell. To the left, expurgated into the sandstone are three inconsequential looking caves watch the four from the side-lines. To the right, ignoring it all, stands the vertical and faceless cliff.

‘I think the tide’s coming in,’ Jenny says. ‘It’s going to be dark soon. Maybe we should go.’

‘Spoilsport,’ shouts the dark-haired man seizing the red-haired woman’s hand, pulling her towards the largest of the three apertures. He’s already undoing the belt on his trousers.

‘What is the matter with you?’ Robin hisses as the two disappear. ‘I thought this is what you wanted?’

‘It is. It was,’ she says, ‘but, something feels…’ The sound of the other couple’s groaning echoes around the bay.

‘Just relax,’ Robin says, as his breathing becomes more urgent.  He starts to stroke her hair. She tries to protest, but his mouth is already on hers. He pushes her back and the sharpness of the rock jars the nape of her back. His hand tugs at the zip on her jeans. She fights the urge to push him off.

The stillness is fragmented by a cry, the sound of splashing, followed by calls for help. The red-haired woman is desperately trying to make her way across the moving shingle. The Tide has changed its mind and is taking no prisoners. The dark-haired man follows, his wet crotch indicated how far the rising water has come.

‘It came in so quickly!’ the woman wails, holding her wet skirt high above her naked thighs. ‘One minute we were fine, the next…’ She makes a gesture. ‘It felt like there were hands in there.’ Lifting her skirt higher, the woman shows them both long thin red welts rippling down her thighs.  Jenny turns her head away as she catches sight of the woman’s red wet pubic hair. The dark-haired man follows behind her swearing loudly. ‘You said we had time.’ His trousers are soaked.

Jenny glances up and sees someone watching from the clifftop, a dark face.

‘It must be later than we thought’ Robin mutters, adjusting himself.  ‘Let’s go back to the car and get warm.’ They start back up on the path as the Sun hits the top of the cliffs. The grass glows, then shivers, agitated by the nagging Wind. Jenny feels a cold chill.

The track back up is steeper than it felt going down. They struggle to place a foot in front of the other. Finally, as they reach the carpark, Robin feels for the keys. He tries each of his pockets. ‘Jenny,’ he says, ‘Jenny have you got the keys?’ She shakes her head.

‘Shit! I’ll have to go back.’ he turns.

‘You can’t!’ She says. The tide, look, it’s almost in.’

Robin peers over the edge. The waves hungrily trounce the bottom of the path in anticipation of his foolishness. Jenny looks over too. She catches the reflection of the keys as they tantalisingly lay on a rock, but she says nothing.

‘Okay, let me think.  Does anyone have their phone on them?’  The other three shake their head.  They’ve all left them in the car, for safety.

‘We could smash a window?’ the red-haired woman suggests. ‘No, we fucking can’t Robin replies.  Do you know how much it costs to get it replaced on one of these? That’s not going to happen.’ He looks at his watch. ‘It’s not that late, we could walk back up to the village. Find a pub, it’s not too far. We can ring a taxi from there. I’ve got spare keys at home.’

‘There’s no way I can walk all that way’ the red-haired woman says.

‘Then stay here and freeze,’ the dark-haired man snarls.  He begins to walk away from them and up the dark unlit road before appearing to change his mind.  He turns and looks back and shouts at the red-haired woman ‘Get on.’ He bends over. ‘I’ll give you a piggyback.’ She laughs and runs up to him. She wraps her damp thighs tightly around his waist, pressing herself against him, wriggling and pushing her wet crotch into the crux of his vertebrae.

Jenny reaches for Robin’s hand, but he pulls away and strides off after the couple. She follows alone. After 10 minutes or so they turn a corner and see a bright white light emanating from a small building.

‘Thank fuck for that.’ The dark-haired man casts off his burden and marches towards the illuminance.

Two men stand at guard each side of the open door. Their faces as shadowy as the encroaching night. Robin tries to enter but they each raise a long, curved sword and bar the way.  The younger of the two holds out a small box and shakes it in Robin’s face.

‘I have a little box under me arm,
a penny or tuppence will do it no harm’

Robin tries to push past but they stand steady and shake the box again. Robin laughs nervously and turns.

‘Do you have any change? I think I’ve lost my bloody wallet too.’  The dark-haired man shakes his head. ‘Jenny?’

She doesn’t hear him. She’s staring at a tall two-pronged pitchfork to the left of the door. Several red ribbons have been tied around its shaft and in between the metal spikes a cluster of ivy adorns the two spikes, in its midst sits a small but intricately carved bird. There’s something familiar about it. She tries to remember and almost grasps it before it flies away.

‘Jenny!’ Robin says, ‘Jenny! Have you got any money?’ She looks at him confused.  Can’t he feel it too? Every hair on the back of her neck is standing up. A voice inside her is screaming, telling her to turn and walk, even better, run away as far and as fast as she can.

‘What the hell is a matter with you woman? Do you have any money on you or what?’

She looks at the two men at either side of the door. They don’t move or even acknowledge her existence. She puts her left hand into her left pocket and surprisingly finds a pound coin. She pops it into the box and both sentries lift their sabres.

The pub is packed. Tables and chairs have been pushed back against the wall and in the middle stand a group dressed in long black frock coats and tall top hats.  Their faces painted black. Around the edges are several other smaller figures dressed in brown, though instead of the tall top hats, they’re wearing large floppy bonnets, covered with similar garlands to the pikel outside. In their hand, they each carry a small, tanned vintage valise. As the four enter it is as if someone has given a silent signal and the figures open their case in turn and remove a small musical instrument. Jenny catches her breath at the sight of it all.

To their left are the fiddles, to the right tabors.  The smallest of them, stood close to the bar takes out a set of Irish bagpipes which she blows.  The cry rattles inside Jenny’s head.   Another steps forward and is nursing an old squeezebox, which gasps as the nimble fingers seduce it to play. Jenny realises that the persons in brown are women, though she’s not sure if that makes it better or worse.

‘Let’s sit there,’ the red-haired woman interrupts, pointing to four seats by the open fire.  Jenny is sure they weren’t there when they came in, but before she can voice her concern, the others are making their way across.  ‘We can dry off and get warm while we wait.’

The crowd moves as one, opening up and then closing in behind them as they move across the floor. As they sit down a small, rotund, well-dressed man with a large red bulbous nose appears. Jenny thinks of the Shopkeeper in Mr Ben and tries desperately to stifle a giggle.

‘Good evening’, he says. ‘My name is John and I’m the Landlord here. Are you lost?’ Robin begins to explain but as he tries to the beat of a drum reverberates around the room drowning out his voice. As the noise dies down he tries again but the same thing happens.  The Landlord nods sympathetically before making his way back to the bar. As he does the throng begin to sway in time with the primordial beat, the fiddles join in, followed by the squeezebox. Finally, the wail of the pipes screams out a veiled warning. Out of nowhere appears a tall corpse-faced man, behind him his Molly. Dressed in what appears to be Victorian mourning clothes her head is modestly covered with an old lace cap. However, her presumed breasts are corseted high and bare to all. As she enters some of the men grope her, others try and catch a kiss from her dark ruby red lips. The Curious Couple makes their way into the centre of the circle and the rest of the gathered assembly starts to sing.

The Wren, the Wren, the Queen of all birds,
St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;
Although she is little, her family is great
I pray you good landlord, give us a treat!”

The Molly looks around at her audience before turning to the Man and curtsying. He bows back in reverence before taking her into his arms. The music rises and falls with the pair, who intricately weave between those who surround them, their faces as emotionless as their hobnailed boots which hammer and answer the rhythmic beat of the drum. Then as soon as it’s begun the dance ends. The room raises their glasses, and the Red Nose Landlord returns. He hands each of the four a glass of what looks like Mulled Cider, indicating they should raise it to the Lord and Lady.

Robin and the dark-haired man laugh raucously as they raise their glasses and take a large swig of the golden liquid. The warm nectar tickles their throats as it descends filling them with a surreal sense of camaraderie with those who surround them.

The Lord and the Lady turn and bow to the four. Three times they nod their heads, three times they raise their glasses. As the couple make their way to the door, kiss and leave, the locals roar.

A strange quiet descends. Outside the music, followed by the hobnailed boots, dwindles into the distance.


Jenny takes a deep gulp of the cider and tries calming her nerves. Robin beckons the Landlord again and asks him if he can call them a taxi?

‘Could you,’ Robin says’, ‘let them know I’ve lost my wallet and I’ll have to pay when we get back to the house.’

Red Nose John patiently waits for Robin to finish, then before he walks away turns and says, ‘I’m sorry Sir, but due to the time of year, it’s impossible to get a taxi out here.’ He pauses. ‘But thinking about it, I know someone who may be able t’help. I’ll give ‘im a call. What’s the address?’

After Robin has told him, the Landlord returns with four more glasses. ‘On the house,’ he says. ‘So you’re not from ‘round here?  It’s wrong time of year for holidaymakers, so what brings you ‘ere?’

‘We’ve just bought the cottage,’ Robin says. ‘It’s my wife’s fault.’ He points to Jenny. ‘She wanted to come and live by the sea.’

‘Ahh,’ says Red Nose John. ‘I’m sorry, but I didn’t get your names.’

‘I’m Robin.’ He holds out his hand and the landlord shakes it. ‘This is Jenny, my wife, and these…’ but before he can finish the Landlord looking straight at Jenny walks across to her and takes her hand.

‘Jenny?’ He says. ‘My, we have a Little Jenny Wren with us. It’s been a while.’

Jenny sighs. It’s been a ‘while,’ a long ‘while’, since anyone had called her ‘Little Jenny Wren.’ You’d have thought people would have grown out of it. Throughout her childhood, she’d been the butt of jokes not only by the children she’d gone to school with but their parents too. It didn’t help when she and Robin got together. Then her family joined in. It hadn’t helped that Robin had flaming red hair. Even so, she’s surprised when Red Nose John bows and kisses her hand. Then on a turn of his heel, he whistles to himself and walks away and back behind the bar.

He returns holding an exquisitely embroidered blood-red ribbon, similar to the one she saw outside. It must be centuries old. It is. On it, embroidered in a fine gold thread is a delicate little bird flying across fields and woodlands. Black French knots are used to portray the faces of Boys following the golden Troglodytidae. Down each side is a border of musical instruments, interspersed with bows, arrows and silver knives. Despite its age, the colours and the stitch work are vibrant. The Landlord offers her the ribbon.

She tries to refuse, but the words won’t come out. Robin and the others stare in disbelief. The red-haired woman jealously murmurs. ‘If she won’t take it, I’d be happy to.’ Red Nose John looks at her in disdain. ‘This is a very special ribbon, and it’s only for a Dear Jenny Wren.’

Panicking Jenny looks at Robin. He laughs, raises his glass and slurs. ‘Looks like you have a new admirer.’

A young boy appears and tops up their glasses. The Landlord, without warning, moves behind the back of Jenny’s chair and ties the ribbon into her hair. As he finishes he calls a toast, and the remaining locals stand.

‘Ladies and Gentleman,’ he says, ‘to our Dear Jenny Wren. Our Dear Queen, dressed as she should be, on this fine St Stephen’s Day. We’re truly blessed. Huzzah!

Red Nose John empties his glass and looks at Jenny.

Jenny remains seated, her face as scarlet as the ribbon. Deep inside her is a flutter, a movement, an undertone of dread. She pushes it back down.

‘One more for the road?’ the Landlord asks. ‘I don’t suppose you’d fancy a glass of my homemade brew?’ The other three laugh. Whatever they’re drinking is hitting the spot. She shakes her head.

‘Thanks, but…’

Red Nose John disappears and returns with a tall bottle together with a small silver cup; the sides of both are embossed with similar images to the ribbon. He pours the translucent liquid into the silver vessel and offers it to her. She half-heartedly accepts. Then pouring the other three a similar shot and one for himself.

‘To our Jenny Wren’, he exclaims, and the others follow suit. In unison, they down the bittersweet fluid.

The pub door opens, and a tall young blonde-haired man walks into the bar.

‘Ahh here’s that friend of mine,’ the Landlord says. ‘He won’t take any money from you. He’s happy to help. What we’ it bein’ such an auspicious day an all.’


Red Nose John and the other patrons escort them outside to the car. There’s no sign or sound of the Dark Faced Men and their entourage. Jenny feels her heart beating faster. She’s not sure if it’s fear, relief or the warmth of the liquor as it enters her bloodstream.

Red Nose John looks up. ‘Great night for it,’ he says. ‘Very fortuitous for us all. I hope you manage to make it home before the Moon sets.’

The rising Full Moon glares in anticipation.

Robin and the dark-haired man intoxicated fall into the back of the car. The red-haired woman leans over, kisses the Landlord, and tells him he’s a ‘lifesaver’. He grins.

Jenny watches, feeling somehow ‘removed’. It’s not real.

‘Now Jenny Wren, you fly home you hear,’ Red Nose John whispers, as he opens the front passenger door and eases her in. ‘Jack ‘ere, will take you as far as he can, but you’re on your own after that. Fly straight and good luck.’

Jenny floats into the front passenger seat and is surprised to hear the click of the door as it closes. She glances back through the side mirror at the Landlord who waves.

The driver stutters nervously. ‘I’m sorry I can only take yers as far as the next crossroads. It’s not that far to yer ‘ouse from t’ere. Straight over field.’ In the back Robin groans. ‘It’s fine.’

Jenny’s eyes are beginning to close.


The car stops. The young driver shakes her. ‘You’ve ggggotta gggget out nah. Go on, quick befffffore they get ere.’ Slowly she opens her eyes and turns her head. In the darkness, she sees the flicker of burning torches. Then, as if in time with her heartbeat, the sound of the beating drums.

‘It’s as ffffar as I take yer,’ the young man says again. He gets out of the car and opens the back door. He points to the dark opening to the right. ‘Yer about hhhhhalf a mile away from yer’ ouse. Darn there. Yer shud make it if yyyer quick. ‘

Robin and the dark-haired man don’t understand what he’s saying, but they get out of the car and stretch.

‘Where are we?’

The young man points, this time down the dark lane in front of the car. ‘Sssstraight down tttttheere…’ He goes to the other side of the car and opens the other door. The red-haired woman falls onto the pitted tarmac. She whimpers.

The dark-haired man snarls. ‘For Christ’s sake. If I’d known you’d be like this I wouldn’t have brought you.’ He walks around the back of the car and towards her up. ‘Come on. Get on.’

The red-haired woman grabs the young driver and pulls herself up. Embarrassed he pulls himself away. ‘Poor thing,’ she giggles.

The dark-haired man grabs her and she clambers onto him, wrapping her legs around him they set off down the road, laughing, swaying.

Robin moves to the front passenger door and opens it. He seizes her hand and pulls her out of the car. ‘Let’s run,’ he shouts, drunkenly. She stumbles. He doesn’t notice and drags her across the road towards the open field gate. She shouts at him to let her go.

The car pulls away with a screech. She desperately holds onto the wall, waiting for the world to stop spinning. As the car disappears back up the lane, she hears the tramp of the hob-nailed boots before she sees the torches. The Lord and Lady and the Coryphée of the Dancers who follow them make their way towards them. Jenny sees that behind the dancers four men are carrying a long white stretcher high above their heads, their faces as ashen as the Curious Couple and as devoid of emotion.  She watches, mesmerised as they weave in and out, moving slowly and rhythmically to the sound of the screaming instruments. They all come to a stop a hundred yards in front of her. She is unable to take her eyes off them as the troupe embrace each other and then with ponderous, galumphing steps, moving first to the left and then to the right. It’s only then that she notices the men on the outer side carrying polished longbows that are illuminated by the light of the flames. Behind them, she sees others who are waving long knives which twinkle as they are ceremonially crossed and un-crossed. The whole company move as one as they take another step towards her and Robin.

And she remembers.

These are Hunting Boys, the Cutty Wren Boys, the Boys her grandmother warned her of.  Their voices echo all around her.

“Where are we going?” says Milder to Melder.
“Where are we going?” says the younger to the elder
“We may not tell you,” says vassal to foe.
“Away to the green wood!” says John the Red Nose.

“What shall we do there?” says Milder to Melder.
“What shall we do there?” says the younger to the elder

“We may not tell you,” says vassal to foe.
“Hunt the cutty wren!” says John the Red Nose.

Seizing Robin’s hand, she hauls him through the gate and onto the muddy field.

How shall we shoot her?
We may not tell you,
With bows and with arrows.

Jenny and Robin begin to run. Just as she thinks they are going to make it she feels Robin fall and he pulls her down with him. They both land face down into the mud, becoming as hidden in the darkness as the men behind them.

‘Please Robin you have to get up.’ She begs. ‘We have to move!’

Robin stares and laughs. Turning onto his back he begins to sing at the top of his voice and starts to make ‘mud angels’.

‘Please, Robin, please. Be quiet, shhhhhhh.’ Pulling at him she tries to get him to stand, but he’s too heavy. Looking towards the gate she sees the four carrying the stretcher.

“How shall we fetch her home?”
“We may not tell you.”
“On four strong men’s shoulders.”

Panic embraces her and she lets go of Robin. Self-preservation kicks in and she starts to run down the field.  In the distance, she can see lights. It’s their house, she’s sure. If she can get there, she can get help.

How shall we cut her up?
We may not tell you
With forks and with knives,
With hatchets and with cleavers!

She ignores the burning in her lungs. It’s the sudden white shooting pain in her right ankle that makes her scream out loud and alerts them to where she is. The next thing she’s rolling over and over.

She grabs for the grass, but it cuts her fingers.  She manages to dig her fingers into the dirt and bring herself to a stop. The shrieks she hears are in the distance, not up the field. It means The Boys have caught up with the dark-haired man and the woman on his back. She mutters prayers she thought she’d forgotten

To her left another sound and she realises the Others have followed her down the field. Pushing herself flat into the dirt she waits. She holds her breath as they go past her, banging their swords and knives, making unnerving guttural calls

Lying there, she waits for the noise to fade away before summoning all her courage and trying to stand. I need to get my bearings. The house can’t be too far away.

A small wall stands between her and the lane. If I can get over it I might get in front of them. But her ankle feels broken and every time she puts any weight on it she wants to vomit.

The red ribbon, deftly tied in her hair, flaps around in the chill of the night, its gold stitches flickering and betraying.

The sound of glass breaking and the soft metal of a car being used as a drum makes her realises they’re on the driveway and in the lane at the front of the house.

Slipping back down behind the wall she tries not cry.


The Boys dance and bellow before knocking on the front door. Robin’s boss and his wife look on unsure what to do.

My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
and two or three shillings, would do it no wrong.

‘Who the hell are they?’ he asks. His wife shakes her head. ‘I’ll call the police.’ She says but the line has been cut. At the door, the Boys carry on singing.

Sing holly, sing ivy–sing ivy, sing holly,
a drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.

They offer up a bloody battered Robin to the observers. The shocked couple rushes to the door and open it. The Boys take a step forward but stop, suddenly. Hanging between them and their prey is a large bunch of mistletoe, put there by the Cleaning Woman on Christmas Eve. One of the Boy’s spits, the others mutter obscenities. The couple seeing their chance, grab Robin and slam the door shut.


Jenny tries to stand, no longer caring if she’s seen or caught, wrong when she notices a new horde descending and joining the baying mob. They’re carrying something aloft.  Leading this new throng is the Landlord, Red Nose John. He walks straight towards the car parked on the drive. She hears the click and watches as the car doors open. Red Nose John nods and the unconscious couple are ceremoniously placed in the front seats. He walks around the car and slams the doors, one by one, shut. The crowd move forward, manually picking up the car, they turn it anticlockwise so its bonnet is pointing north.

Jenny smells petrol. She wants to turn away but can’t. The torch like a comet travels slowly across the blue-black sky, as a mighty cheer goes up and the car explodes.

She slips back down behind the wall, covering her ears with her hands, imploring the screaming to stop. The foul bile erupts leaving beads of snots and debris over her gillet.


Prostrate against the bitter earth and the boundary, Jenny pulls herself along by her elbows. She makes her way through the slurry until she is sure she is far enough before she reaches out and feels for the gap of the old stile.  The coarse cold stone and the wooden slats offer her a martyrdom she doesn’t want to accept.  Pushing it out of her mind she pulls herself through and over. The bitter rock, never one to miss a trick, tears at her soft white belly, demanding an offering for some rancorous and unknown deity.

She lies there, for a moment, on what is now ‘her’ side of the wall before she dares to look around. The back door is only a matter of feet away. Trying to make sense of what’s happening and failing miserably, she pauses. Salt tears mingle with the mud and cow shit as a slither of light appears.

At the front of the house, the Boys continue to stamp their boots, bang their drums and chant. Burning flesh mixed with the seedy rubber hangs heavy at the back of her throat. Ash rises and falls, dusting the back garden like icing sugar.

Taking a deep breath, she forces herself to stand up and choking on the putrid fumes she takes the last few steps. As her hand touches the door handle, someone grabs the back of her head. Her face crumples as it smashes into the door frame, her nose snaps as it parts company. A hand pulls her head back before slamming it down again and her cheekbone cracks then pops as it gives way to the hard corner.

A victorious cry goes up. The warm blood flows debauched down from the deep cut.  Blinking through the ooze of flesh and fluid, she sees another coming out from the light, and she remembers the next verse.

How shall we cook her?
We may not tell you,
in pots and in kettles.

The woman from the village, the one she’d reluctantly employed to clean, stands astride her. Beside her left is the local butcher. She recognises his eyes. In his right hand, he brandishes a large cleaver high above his head. He winks. In his left hand is his prize, her long blond bloody hair and the Wren’s Red Ribbon.