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The Rider

Monday, January 2, 2017

Walking home from grandma’s house was always a frightening experience for young Allie. Sunset would create long strips of shadow that would dance and jangle as she moved through the underbrush of the woods. Her grandmother had, when Allie was but a child, taken her aside and brought the fireplace down low, and explained to her the many monsters of the woods, and what they would do if they ever happened upon Allie. These stories frightened Allie and kept her close to her grandma’s house when she was young.

 

Now that she was older, the tales terrified her more. She made the trek out to her grandma’s cabin at least once a week, usually by the light of the moon and stars so that she wouldn’t have to bring a lantern. This week was no different, and Allie was forcing herself not to twitch and jerk at every small sound made around her. Turning on her heel at a small brook, she walked a hundred paces to a small bridge before walking over it.

 

“Just another two miles with the two peaks in my sight and I’ll break the wood’s tree line and be in the fields of my home,” Allie told herself, steeling against the haunting sounds the wood made at night. Looking out into the darkness, she pinned the sight of two distant peaks in her gaze and she began marching.

 

The brook let off into a small pond, one full of frogs. The bullfrog’s croak would reverberate across the wood to be answered by some unseen beast, a snarl mixed with the hum of a hive of bees. Allie didn’t know what animal made such a noise, and she didn’t want to learn; she just wanted to get home. Walking on, she shivered as she passed under the branch of a large tree. Looking at it, the only tree of its kind in the whole wood, she wondered why it was here. Tall and thick, with red wood and solid branches… stepping closer to examine the tree, as she did every time she made this trek, she noted that someone had made a carving into the bark at just her noses height. Squinting her eyes, she could make out letters, but couldn’t read them. Looking up to then heavens, she waited for the clouds to part to reveal the moon, so she would be able to read what had been carved.

 

It took but a few minutes for the wind to blow just right, the clouds creeping across the inky curtain of twilight painted above, revealing the glowing half-moon of light. Smiling, she looked at the words and suddenly frowned.

 

Carved in angry, jagged letters were three words.

 

“Gonna get ya…?” She said, running her fingers over the sharpened pieces of bark. A distant peal of thunder came from deeper in the wood, followed by a smattering of birds taking flight, their cries harsh to one's ears as they screamed in the night like a score of fallen angels. Then the wood went silent.

 

No chirping of bugs.

 

No hoots from the owls.

 

Nothing to be heard… except a soft clopping of hooves. A large animal, most likely a horse was moving at a slow amble through the woods, its hooves echoing out like the bullfrogs mating cry.

 

“Nothing to be concerned about,” Allie said, moving away from the tree and searching the tree line for the two peaks. “Just need to make my way home, and then everything will be fine.”

 

But everything wasn’t fine. The trees had shifted with the wind, and now the familiar sight of the twin peaks was nowhere to be seen. Stifling back tears, Allie walked back a fifty yards to the bridge, to higher ground, and looked from there.

 

Still nothing but the steady clopping of the hooves, still walking slowly through some distant part of the wood, Allie prayed.

 

Deciding to take a chance and walk down a deer path leading between two great trees, Allie walked through the woods listening only to the clopping of hooves for over half an hour, in almost complete darkness as the clouds moved over the moon, blanketing the whole valley in shadow.

 

Allie wished now that she’d brought a lantern. She could barely make sense of the path she was following; the beaten trail seemed to stop and split into four new paths, each leading in a different direction. She tried to stay on the path she felt was right, but instead she soon found herself hopelessly lost in the wood, with nothing to keep her company but the sounds of a distant rider slowly making his way ever closer. Perhaps he would have a lantern?

 

“Should I seek out the horse and its rider, or should I continue on with my own path?” Allie wondered, leaning against a tree. Her clothes were warm, thank goodness, and she had little to fear from hunger; her grandmother had stuffed her full as a roast pig ready for the spit before she left. But to be lost in the wood, where all sorts of beasts and bogeys lurked… it just made Allie’s blood run cold.

 

A sudden series of shrieks from close by made Allie jump and run, tripping over the roots of a knotty oak as she tried to right herself. Turning to look back at what had made the noise, all she heard was the clopping of the horse, and now the whimpering of a child. She stopped, blowing a sigh of relief. She must’ve just scared a farmer boy who was out here as well.

 

“Hello?” She called out, stepping beneath a low-hanging tree limb. “Are you out there? There’s no reason to be afraid, I’m lost as well.”

 

Silence reigned supreme for a few minutes until a charming voice of a young child to her right spoke up. “You’re not lost!”

 

“Yeah! You’re not lost!” Another voice chimed in.

 

“I’m not?” Allie said, confused. She felt a pair of hands push her by the waist.

 

“Go to the tree, wait for him.” The first voice said.

 

“Yes, go wait for him. He’s done his work for the night and would love some company,” the second agreed.

 

Allie couldn’t place where these voices were coming from, and as she whirled around to look, thanking God above that the clouds were moving and allowing some light, she expected to find two children, dressed as warmly as she, bright-eyed and smiling.

 

Instead, she found no one. She was standing between a clump of five trees amidst mushrooms. One low hanging branch, the one she’d ducked under, pointed off deeper into the wood… or perhaps out of it, who knew in this accursed place?

 

“The woods are a queer place after dark,” Allie said, recalling the quote from her grandmother. Walking out of the clump of trees, she walked in the direction of the pointing branch, going around twisting trees and under branches. The low clopping of the horse still rang true throughout the wood, giving Allie the shivers as she contemplated what the voices had said.

 

“Who is he?” She wondered aloud, picturing a young man atop the horse, walking through the forest with a lantern. But the voices had said he was done his work for the night. What work could someone possibly have at night in the woods?

 

Breaking through a tangle of thistles and vines, Allie heaved a defeated sigh as she spied the tall red bark tree in the middle of the clearing. Walking dejectedly across the clearing up to the large tree, she leaned against it as she scanned the horizon looking for the twin peaks. What she took note of was the knife sticking out of the tree, chipped and sharp, gleaming in the starlight. Grabbing the handle, she wiggled the end back and forth and pulled the blade free from the tree, stumbling back as she wrenched it free. Holding the knife, she studied it with a careful eye.

 

The knife was curved and rusty; the handle was of a polished Maplewood with scuffs and scratches that made Allie believe the tool had been used for quite some time. Her hand scrubbed off some built up a residue of… something. Looking closely, Allie felt her stomach dropped as she realized that the scum near the bottom of the knife, the eight-inch knife, was a brown and red slime that smelled of copper and raw meat. Dropping the knife down to the tall grass, Allie shivered as a cold wind swept over the grove and the sound of the horse approaching sped up to a trot.

 

Looking around, Allie looked in vain for the twin peaks that would lead her home and out of this twisted forest. The voices had told her to wait here, practically led her here; now she was terrified of what she would find should she stay. Running to the edges of the wood, Allie grabbed the bushes that blocked her path and tugged on the branches, which seemed like tiny boneless arms grappling with her in an attempt to keep her in. Letting out a frustrated groan, Allie stomped back into the grove, rubbing her cut and bruised hands.

 

It was then that she started to hear the voices from earlier, low at first, singing as the clouds moved from over the moon, which now basked down with a crimson light.

 

“Red Moon, Red Moon…

 

Washes the souls…

 

Makes them anew…

 

Shining brightly…

 

In the night sky…

 

Waiting for lost souls…”

 

“No,” Allie said, walking back and scooping up the knife from where she’d dropped it. “There is no way I’m hanging out in this grove waiting for some… bogeyman! This is going to get solved right now!”

 

Allie rushed the bushes, slashing at the vines that barred her path with the knife, the sharp edge severing the coiling tendrils and opening her path. Moving down the path, hacking at the plant life as it grew in front her, Allie slowly moved through the woods, in what direction she didn’t know.

 

The clopping of the horse was louder now, followed by a low, husky noise that Allie decided after listening to it after a few minutes was ragged breathing. Deciding that nothing good could come from her meeting the person breathing so haggardly, she doubled her efforts at hacking her way free, tearing through the underbrush. The lullaby about the moon still hung in the air, the voices singing it louder every few bars. This didn’t make Allie feel any better, nor did she find it comforting that disembodied voices were singing to her in the middle of the woods at night. The fact that they’d left her a knife… wait, they had left her a knife.

 

Pausing to look down at the knife, coated in green-tinted fluids from the plants she’d been tearing through, she thought back to how she found the knife.

 

“Embedded in the tree,” she said. Spinning around, she stomped down the destroyed path of vegetation, tripping over roots and tubers rising up from the dark earth as she made her way back to the grove.

 

She found it as she left it, tinted in the blood-red light that she felt was an ill-omen, with the children’s voices singing the lyrics to the song over and over. Walking up to the tree, she ran her hand over the ragged carving in the tree.

 

“Gonna get you,” she said, reading the carving. A sharp pain arced through her neck from behind, causing her to drop to her knees with a cry. Looking behind her, she didn’t see anything. Looking back at the carving, she launched herself at the trunk and began carving into the tree a response. She ignored the dark sap welling up from the trunk, the red light of the moon making it look like crimson blood seeping from a grievous wound. Ignoring the macabre appearance, she continued carving her message, even as the clopping of the horse came to a full gallop, no longer in the distance but within a few hundred yards.

 

Stepping back, wiping away the bloody sap from her hand on her forehead. Smiling, she turned as the great pale steed jumped over the underbrush and into the clearing, a bare-chested man, thin as rails laid out for an iron fence, sat atop the pearl steed, a large sword dangling from his wrist. His eyes were wild, pale pink from the red light shining above. The man guided his white horse over to the tree, his eyes staring at the new message carved into the bark of the tree. Allie winced as she saw a satchel stuffed to the brim with severed heads hanging from the other side of his saddle. Clutching her knife, she prayed to God that this would be what she needed to do, that this would work.

 

“You…” he smacked his lips, dry and sticky from his lack of saliva. “You wish to go home?” The man asked, his voice that of someone far younger, yet as old as the very roots of the mountains.

 

“Yes,” she said in a quiet tone, staring at the pale horse and its rider, the calloused hands that held onto a thick blade spattered with dried blood. He looked over at her and lifted the blade, the moon slowly dimming back to the pale white moonlight as he pointed over the treetops to the twin peaks.

 

“Your path will be unfettered now that you’ve made your intentions clear,” The man said, allowing his arm to fall to his side, as if suddenly tired. The blade dug into the earth a small trench up the hooves of the horse, who merely huffed in annoyance as it stared at Allie with red eyes.

 

“Will… will you be visiting me soon?” She asked, nodding to the satchel of heads.

 

“No,” he said after a moment. “No, I don’t think I will. You’ve rejected me as a man, so I see no need to come after you as anything else, at least until your time calls.”

 

“Thank you,” Allie said, a great weight being lifted from her shoulder.

 

“Don’t thank me yet,” the man said, a sick sense of humor entering his tone. “Your reason for entering these hallowed grounds has ended as of this night. Falling from her bed and knocking her head on the end table.”

 

“You… you…” Allie said, turning to stare at the emaciated man, his sunken skull-like visage grinning with broken red lips.

 

“I’m what I am girl,” the man said, breathing out a burst of dust. “And nothing you could do would ever change that.”

 

“Then why did the voices send me here?” Allie asked, confused. “They said… they said you would be waiting for me!”

 

“The voices are my brothers, two of the three. They, believe me, to be too focused on my work.” He said, looking down at Allie with a wry grin. “Someone has to do it, and I picked up the sword and mounted the horse last. One day someone else will take my place.”

 

“So the… y’know, the…” Allie began to ask, twiddling her fingers.

 

“The End of Days?” The man asked with a chuckle. “No. No, you just stumbled on the garden where we rest, where we work, where we live. One day we will leave this garden and ride as we have never done before. But for now I just collect those that have fallen like wheat to the scythe.”

 

“So I’m free to go?” Allie asked, pointing over her shoulder. “You won’t chase me down and claim my soul or anything?”

 

“You’re a beauty that could have made me forget my job for a day or two, but I would have been forced to reap your soul for such temptation,” He said, leaning forward on his horse. “I suppose that you finding this tree was a sign I might have been due for a break.”

 

“What do you mean?” Allie asked, piquing her head.

 

The man dropped a hand into the satchel and grabbed by the hair several heads that he threw to the ground in front of her. The eyes of her grandmother, her father, her mother, her brothers and sisters stared up at her in abject horror.

 

“The fact that I cleared out your family and left you alive, I should have known something was up.” The man said before Allie began screaming.

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