HORLA FICTION (May 2019)

 

A-HUNTING THEY WILL COME

by

S.J. McMahon

 

 

FATIGUE. A well-known companion now. I had travelled by foot. One full day.

When I had rented the property, I had been gifted a tattered old map. Repeated evidence of folding had left areas of the map marked by fuzzy white lines, devoid of any useful features. This added an unwelcome weight to a journey of a length I had woefully under-estimated.

Now my legs dragged under me. The heft of my bag drove its strap deep into the flesh of my shoulder.

Yet I was close. A blessed relief. One last bend in the rough-hewn track and my haven would be in reach.

I trudged on.

I had chosen to follow the river for much of my trek. Despite the aged state of the map, the water’s self-created route remained clear.  

The river had started to narrow some distance back. Despite my lack of knowledge on such matters, I felt it was now of a size to be officially called a stream. This meant that ahead was the valley I was to call my home. I crossed a small wooden bridge, which creaked a welcome to me and I saw my sanctuary, perched high above me.

The building looked to be holding tight, gripping the slope of the hill. I imagined that were it to realise any tension, the house would slide down the slate strewn path uncontrollably.

It was a large country house. A former hunting lodge I had been told. It peered back at me seriously, its windows dark and silent. It was an austere sight to one so weary.

Yet what did I expect? To be welcomed with open arms? It was just a house. A place rarely used and only occasionally serviced by a local family who lived a few miles away.

I shook off my illogical apprehension and made my ascent up the incline. With the steep gradient I found it easiest to cut a diagonal route. If my burning muscles had been devoid of energy on the journey, this last slog was their death rattle. I stumbled, slide and slipped on the loose carpet of slate. Rough gasps pushed and pulled at my lungs. One last push. One more small surge of adrenaline.

I reached the veranda, a redness behind my eyes, my chest heaved as my heart hammered. Slowly the rosy glow that swathed the world faded as I regained composure.

The rental agent, who I felt, had been overly eager to have me sign the agreement, had instructed me on the location of the house keys. Duly I stretched up one arm to poke my fingers along the top of the door frame. My nails dragged against the dry facing stone until they hit air. I pushed deeper, standing on my tiptoes and found a hollow. Here cold hard lines met my flesh. With considerable relief I pulled down an archaic looking bunch of keys and proceed to locate the correct one for the front door. 

Noiseless. Cold. The smell of a long unoccupied building. The air was not fetid or unpleasant. No, not quite that. A little stale maybe. Odd. I could not quite put my finger on the atmosphere. Was it a feeling of expectation from the house? Maybe I had brought my own air of melancholy with me and the house sensed it.  I chided myself for yet another fanciful notion. This was an inanimate edifice and I must stop anthromorphosising it.

I dropped my heavy bag in the hallway and took a few moments to wander from room to room.

It may have been empty but there were signs that someone had visited recently, albeit, I imagined, very briefly. A dutiful ‘popping in’ to leave vitals for me. Fresh bread, fruit and vegetables lay on the kitchen table. In the fridge a glass bottle of milk stood next to a ceramic dish housing a slab of ivory toned butter.    

I decided to focus on warming the place. It appeared that the main appliances were powered via gas from two large canisters positioned in the utility room off the kitchen. This included a series of ornate wall mounted lights. These I found cast disconcerting staccato flickering light across the walls, giving disjointed pools of illumination.  

Still, I had established light and this allowed me to explore the remainder of the lodge. Now I was inside it the place seemed vast. I felt that I was passing through room upon room, all connected by oddly positioned doors. Each room was laid out with a variety of beds, I brushed my hand against one. Its rough woollen blanket made for an unappealing sleep partner, and I hoped more comfort was available elsewhere in the property.  Eventually I reached a final door and peering out saw a functional yard area at the rear of the building. I quickly retraced my steps and made me way back to locate the main living room.

The room was one of faded glory. Full lined with dark stained wooden panelling, it felt more like the bowels of a great ship than a domestic living room. A large stone fireplace stood to one end, surrounded by sagging armchairs and a small sofa. The rest of the room was dominated by a heavy wooden sideboard, a large table and an aged piano. I absentmindedly lifted the instruments lid and depressed a series of the off-white keys. Dull flat tones filled the room overwhelming me with an unexpected dread. I seemed to be succumbing to my darker emotions all to easily in this strange house.

Straightening and clearing my throat I sought to adopt a more rational demeanour. My attention tuned to the sideboard and the opening of its many drawers and doors. Uninterestingly it was larger filled with ageing crockery, much of it cracked and bearing old stains of use.

Then in the very last draw, things covered in mottled biscuit coloured fur lurked. I drew in a sharp breath, then barked a laugh.

Candle sticks. This was simply a pair of candle sticks wrought from some poor faun’s hooves.

Without thinking I reached in and pulled out the objects. The fur felt inert and rough to my touch. The sight of the antiquated deer hoof candle holders in my hand caused repugnance and a heaving nausea to rise and I quickly stuffed them back in to the draw.  

A leather-bound visitors ledger lay on the table. I half-heartedly flicked the pages. Platitudes of ‘wonderful stay’ and ‘cosy home away from home’ covered the first few pages. Then a few pages had been torn from the book, the ragged remains of them still spiking from its spine. What came after that caused a dryness to my tongue and a quickness in my temples.

For the remained of the book, despite a myriad of different handwriting, only one sentence had been written on each page.

                                                A-hunting, they will come’.

Strangely repulsed I cast the book from me and rose to pace back and forth. What could it mean?  Had I made a grave error in coming here? Alone? I was nothing but a fool to think I could control my wayward imagination in such a place. This had been a hunting lodge. Why wouldn’t there be mention of it? But is such an odd manner. That’s what had affected me. Not the word, but the unknown reasons for their being repeated in the book.

A sudden flush of shivering overtook me. The dusk was setting in, accompanied by a dip in temperature. I felt sure that this, combined with my weariness, had to be the reason for my disquiet. It could be the only logical explanation.

Fortunately, logs and kindling has been left by the fire side. As was my habit I carried a box of matches. I set about building heat.

Once the fire seemed strong enough to survive a few moments without me, I ventured back to the kitchen to gather the provisions that had been left. The odd little gas lights in the hallway cast their moving patterns. It was as if I were accompanied along the passage. Darting shapes enticed my eye. I tried to catch full sight of them only to be too late, each time. They played an unwelcome game of hide and seek with me and I was relieved to return to the relative comfort of the living room.  

That first night I slept in the main room. I told myself it was to benefit from the warmth of the fire. In truth, I was fearful of the undulating shadows in the hallway.

I must have slept deeply as without warning, morning filled the un-curtained windows. I had neglected to pull across the blinds in my exhaustion the night before. However, the light of day brought some ease.  I proceeded to make myself ready for a wander in the valley beyond the house.

The air was crisp and clean as I stepped out. The seasons had commenced their change and smears of colour smudged the landscape. The valley was devoid of forest expect for one small copse of trees, stubbornly clinging to one sharp slope. the stream I had followed to get here cut a route through the base of the valley, bisecting it cleanly.

Intrigued by the small wood I made my way to it. A strange anomaly, as I entered it there was a noticeable temperature increase. The bosk was barely of a size to call itself a wood. Once within it I realised how very few trees there were. Despite their low numbers, their foliage was dense, causing heavy shading, Warm, dank and boggy under foot I felt I had stepped into another realm. It seemed significantly at odds with the clear openness of the valley.

The closeness of the place pressed itself against me. A dizzying pressure overcame me, muffling sound to my aching ears. I could not stop myself from tipping forward as the world shifted about me. I fell hard against the trunk of the nearest tree.

Dazed, my hands swam in front of me. They appeared to be smeared with an odd grey shiny substance. I looked about me. The trees were coated in some kind of silvered fungus. This odd, yet fascinating substance was upon me, I recoiled and scrubbed my hands furiously against me coat. I felt sure I was having a panic attack. The lightness in my head and tight chest had happened to me before. But now they were accompanied by a sickening disgust of the slimy fungus.

 I forced my legs to stand. I staggered my way back to the tree line.

I had company. Across the stream a small mob of deer grazed. They reared up, skittish, at my noisy exit from the trees. Nervous beasts, they eyed me from across the water. I had no wish to frighten them so set off walking back to the house. Looking back, I saw they had moved on mass into the woods. A couple of them still seemed to still keep a watch on me. The others nibbled and lapped at the stick grey coating on the tree trunks. For some reason I found this to be an unbearable sight and I hurried back inside the house, happy to move away from their actions. 

The following days I walked the length of the valley and back. Each day I obsessively waited until I had seen the herd of deer. It was not the practices of the deer that interested me. Nor did I wish to watch the stomach-churning action of them licking the peculiar tree coating.  Apart from this activity they seemed to live a simple existence, focused on foraging across the valley and in the copse. No, what caught my attention and filed me with concern was that each day the herd reduced in number. I could discern no reason for it until one dismal mist filled morning.

That morn, the valley had a stillness that should have brought me peace. Yet it unsettled me. The depth of the quiet seemed cavernous. No birds sang, the water in the stream seemed to have become slothful and stagnant. There was little breeze and little sun.

I was of course prone to melancholy. Dreadful emptiness was common to me. I had hoped that being away from my daily woes would somehow allow me to fill that void. Yet, it seemed on that damp shrouded day that my attempts to escape myself were again failing me.

I watched my friends the deer. As was their habit they entered the grouping of trees. I waited. Eventually they stepped back into the valley. It was then that my disconsolation deepened. For between the trees I swear I saw figures moving. Not the deer, but upright bodies. They seemed to be almost spectre like. A silver grey in the wispy mist, they became visible to me as they passed by the trees.

I thought my eyes must surely be fooling me. A trick of the weather, the hazy shroud of it creating fantastic imagery to me eye.  Yet I felt a presence now. It was not just the deer and myself alive here.

Then came the realisation. The deer herd reduced by one each time they visited the strange little wood.

A surging fear gripped me and I rushed back to the house and barred all of its entrances. 

Over the next few days the weather settled dingy layers across the valley. Knife stroke of rain sliced at the air and the cold made me want nothing but the fireside. I spent these dank days reading, dozing and watching the changing light across the hillsides.

Each new day I looked from the house windows. Seeking my Cervinae companions. Each day they would enter the curious wood, only to leave with their numbers diminished by one. By the end of the week only one dainty female deer remained. I was filled with concern as I watched her roam the valley in search of her family.

I believe she must have felt very isolated as she even ventured close to the house. sadly, the sight of me clearer raised more fear within her than the copse, as she skittered back to the treeline.

I called out to her.  

‘No! Don’t!’

What a fool. As if she was even able to understand me. She simply looked back at me with large fluid eyes before wandering out of sight amongst the sparse trees.

How could I loss eyeshot of her in such a pitiful copse? I could see from one end of it to other, even from my vantage point within the safety of the house. Yet she had become invisible to me. How could this beast and the others before her lose their way within it?

I felt very alone.

Later that night a great storm flashed through the valley. Impetuous and booming it slammed itself against the house. Its long mournful whistling sounded like the cries of some great ocean beast. I rush to salvage the fire fearing the force of the wind would rush at it down the chimney. The wooden walls and ceiling of the room groaned and cracked, as if the wind were pushing its fingers between the timbers, pulling and prying. The room seemed to roll this way and that, riding the storm, wave after wave.

Earlier in the day, at sight of the glowering skies I had hastened to fasten the shutters to each window. Now the relentless squall rattled their catches and pushed against the thin glass of the windows behind. Back and forth the wooden shutters were dragged by the surging wind and it became clear that I had failed in my vigilance. With a sound like gunshot, one set of shutters, their latch shaken free, crashed back against the wall of the house.

I rushed to open the window in an attempt to reposition the flapping shutters. 

Horror. The sinewy grey figures I had seen in woods were now standing the grass below my veranda. Their forms seemed somehow denser than the night. Slender limbs visibly stretched out, they reached toward me through the balustrade.

I could not move. Mesmerised by their horrific movements. As they came closer, the soft light allowed me sight of their faces. Grey slick flesh, their mouths opened and closed like dark stains. I could see no eyes, yet it was clear that they were staring at me.

Locked in their thrall I had little time act. The first creature had reached the open window. Its head pushed towards me through the opening and I realised I could no longer close the aperture.

I grasped the undersides of its arms. Cold to my touch, the skin felt like that of an earthworm, moist and ridged. My fingernails burst the surface, causing rivulets of icy pungent liquid to run down my hands and wrists.

Gagging I quickly withdrew my hold.

The creature appeared to have not even felt my touch. It pressed forward through the open window, wrapping its long talon like fingers around the frame, it hauled its body through. The pale translucent heads of its companions behind it were now visible to me.

I rushed to reach the room door but too many of the beasts had entered the room.

They were upon me. Their gelatinous limbs enfolded me, chilling my blood. I was drowning in the mass of their clammy chill.  Encased by them, their dampness coated me, lurid mouths pushing against my shivering flesh. There was little I could do now.

A long hollow sound released itself from my throat as I recalled those words repeated again and again in the visitor’s book.  

A-hunting, they will come.

A-hunting, they will come.

A-hunting, they will come.

 

 

***

S.J.McMahon is a writer from the North of England, living in a quiet rural area of Leeds, Yorkshire. She describes herself as ‘a lover of old school horror’ and likes to write ‘creepy, offbeat stories’. ‘I like to try to write stories that unsettle the senses and hopefully keep the reader guessing. A very kind reader once described my dark tales as ‘Stephen King with Yorkshire grit’. That is a lot to live up to, but I like a challenge!’ She has written a number of short stories some of which have been published and is currently working on two novels. Her photograph shows her outside Temple Works, Leeds, which she says is her favourite building. 

Her website can be found here: sjmcmahon.weebly.com