Off the Beaten Path | A Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse

Robert Francis started the day with purpose and verve. Thrilled by the thought of no drive to work - no grey boring suit or stifled office air - he negotiated the sporadic city traffic with glee. He owned two other bikes, but for this adventure would rely upon his favourite and most trusted of wheeled companions. With a custom paint-job reading ‘ROB’ in large white letters across a frame of black, this was a bike which had never failed him - no bumps, no bruises, not so much as a punctured tyre.
His itinerary was set and he was filled with excitement at the prospect of finally being on holiday. It had been eleven months since he had taken so much as an hour off from his suffocating suit and tie, so the thought of spending eight whole days cycling through the Scottish wilderness, with only his backpack and tent for company was, frankly, exhilarating.

Within an hour he had reached the city limits, breathing a sigh of relief as he left the world of work and sales targets behind. Most of his time was spent in the concrete office blocks of that grey place, but the countryside was where he longed to be, exploring the unbound wilderness. The unpredictable Scottish summer cast its unwelcome interruptions as the busy traffic gave way to winding country roads. It was colder than he had anticipated; but even this could not dampen his spirits. As he made his way through the open countryside, passing the occasional car and rural dwelling, a smile crept across his face - cycling was his passion and Robert was in his element.
A couple of hours passed as the sparse yet vibrant green grassland soon surrendered to a more imposing and altogether impressive setting. Slight hills rose up to become domineering mountains, pockets of isolated woodland soon weaved together into thick and impenetrable forests, and wide open roads soon constricted into narrower, less trodden avenues. For the past three months he had been in a quandary about where to go on his adventure, which remote part of Scotland to explore. But when he passed over an old stone bridge - with a babbling stream underneath like a thousand voices whispering for attention, and found himself face to face with a forest covering hills, mountains, and valleys like a blanket - he knew he had made the right decision. A dirt road cut through the labyrinth of trees ahead, winding and twisting for miles. It occurred to Robert that as he cycled further into the forest the daylight above seemed to diminish with each panting puff of air, blocked by the huge pine trees on both sides as if the sun were an unwelcome visitor. 
As the sky darkened it became clear it was time to stop for the night, so, after spotting a gap in the trees not far from the road, he clambered through some thick underfoot and entangled bushes, hauling his bike and backpack behind him, looking for a suitable resting place. On reaching the clearing and observing the broken and felled trees which encircled it, he set his tent up for the night on a small patch of unassuming grass. Before long he was sitting next to a roaring fire under the stars. Unimpeded by the false light of man, they shone bright and bold above. After a few hours of watching the warm glow of the fire, he reluctantly turned in for the night, excited by the prospect of another day’s adventure: another day of distance between himself and the city. That night he slept soundly, but for one ill-defined dream; of a noise in the darkness growing louder with each breath.
The next morning he set off as soon as there was daylight. It had rained slightly during the night, and after cycling for an hour Robert noticed a change in the landscape. It had become increasingly unkempt, less constrained. The trees seemed closer together and any occasional gaps in the forest scenery were filled by clearings and small fields which had been left unattended for some time. It became clear that he had travelled far enough into the forest that he was now out of the reach of even the park rangers who would normally maintain such a place. It seemed as though, beyond that point, the land had been neglected by its carers. The thought that even those familiar with that wilderness were afraid to tread there weighed on his mind momentarily, before being quickly dismissed as a flight of fancy.  
The sky dulled as the day wore on and it was clear that rain was on its way once more. After pushing his bike up a steep incline which he felt was too uneven to cycle on, Robert reached its peak revealing another breathtaking change in front of him. The land spread out to the horizon, sprawling forward between pockets of woodland and stagnant pools of water, slumbering in a deep set valley which stretched across an ancient basin for miles below. With brooding storm clouds above, he looked down at the valley and decided that it would make sense to set up camp early.
Not half an hour later he had descended and stood in a wide circle of grass, and after putting his tent in place, all that was left was to gather some firewood. The only problem was that Robert had picked a camping spot dominated more so by bushes and shrubs than trees. He would have to venture out across the valley and find what he needed from one of the wooded areas nearby.
A collection of pine and fir trees, which formed an isolated island of woodland about half a mile across, was close enough to the camp. After ten or fifteen minutes of trudging through the long green grass, occasionally sinking his feet unwittingly into the remnants of a marshy bog, Robert found himself at the edge of the woods. Its boundary was dominated by older trees which had long since withered, covered by thick brown hanging moss - nature’s own burial shroud. The broken trunks of once beautiful and majestic pines and sycamores littered the ground, open and rotting from the inside, not unlike a decomposing animal. It occurred to Robert that the woods seemed somehow out of place. The trees did not belong to the landscape as others did. The long grass which characterised the entire area seemed to thin out and change from a healthy natural green colour to a morbid yellow-brown. As this thought ruminated, accompanied by an increasing sense of unexplainable dread, he realised that he was looking at a large dead ring of grass which followed the tree line perfectly, encircling the pocket of woodland as if marking the limits of a tomb.
On their own in a forgotten part of the world, many would have been cautious of such a sight, but Robert quickly shook off his initial sense of vigilance, finding the area intriguing - a place unlike any he had seen before. With a bold stride he stepped over the woodland threshold into the dim light within. On the forest floor he could see many relics of past trees slumped on the ground. As he continued inward, the canopy above grew increasingly thick with each step, sheltering everything from the rain. Scanning the ground for firewood, he looked up and noticed that, while it was daylight outside, the woodland trees were now blotting the sun from the sky. Had he not known better he would have sworn it was dusk. 
At last he found a collection of broken branches and logs which were dry. Robert knew this was as far as he should go as it was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate through the trees which seemed to be growing closer together, their branches often interlinked and touching as if trying to keep those inside from escaping.
Don’t be silly, Robert smirked to himself.
It had started to rain and although he could hear the drops of water pelting off of the leaves above, his surroundings were perfectly dry. It made sense to make his way back and get a fire started as soon as possible because, once everything was wet, it would prove increasingly difficult to do so. He quickly gathered the last of the wood up into his arms, but just as he turned to leave and follow his own tracks on the pine covered floor out of those unnerving woods, something caught his eye. Several feet away, obscured by a ring of trees particularly close to one another, there appeared to be a strange arrangement of stones on the ground. Robert being Robert, he just had to investigate.
After clawing his way through a net of branches, he found himself staring at what looked suspiciously like a grave. Hundreds of uneven grey stones the size of a fist, and some substantially bigger, had been piled on top of one another about three feet wide, seven feet long, and a couple of feet off of the ground. It looked as though a mourner had marked the resting place of a body.
A shudder crept up Robert’s spine as he momentarily experienced a feeling of being watched, but quickly dismissed this fear, replacing it with curiosity. Nearby, he noticed that lying around the stones was a collection of randomly scattered belongings. Several empty beer cans lay strewn on the floor, a jumper covered in rotting leaves sat on the ground, while a sleeping bag, scraps of newspaper, and even some old food cans betrayed the ‘grave’ for what it really was: someone’s campsite.
Robert breathed a sigh of relief and surmised from his surroundings that a few students had probably been there in the summer, got caught in the rain, moving into the woods to remain dry. The stones were probably just placed there out of boredom, or even as a prank to creep out any passer by in the future. 
University summers really were great, Robert thought, casting a fleeting eye back to memories of summer trips with his friends.
One thing about the stone configuration intrigued him, however; sticking out between two plain grey rocks on the side of the pile was a rock which appeared to be markedly different from the rest. Triangular in shape, it was wider than a human hand, smooth in places and not dissimilar to black marble, tapering off to a dull point at one end. Before he really considered it with any degree of scrutiny, Robert dropped the firewood, bent over, and tugged at the stone. It felt polished and cold in his hands, but it seemed to not wish to leave its home, wedged as it was so tightly amongst the other rocks. Growing slightly exasperated, he wrapped both his hands around the stone and finally, with an exerted judder backwards, it was free. Staring at it intently, it looked suspiciously like an ancient axe head. Whether it was or not, Robert was not qualified to answer, but it certainly looked like a man-made object and he could see chisel marks along its side. Perhaps the previous campers found it nearby and then used the rock in their construction without knowing of its significance. He was excited by the prospect and knew instantly that on his return home he would ask a friend of his, who had studied archaeology at university, whether it was what he suspected or not. 
After examining the object for some time, Robert was reminded by the sound of rain above that he really should make his way back to his campsite. Pocketing the stone, he bent over to pick up the firewood, but as he did so he heard a noise. It appeared as though one of the stones on the pile had slid off and landed on the ground. A creeping sense of unease slowly started to exert itself upon his nerve, one which he could not explain. Picking up the firewood quickly, leaving the rest of the stones unmoved, he began to make his way back.
With every step something deep within was telling Robert that he was no longer alone, and worse - that he was being followed by someone in the woods. But with several nervous glances over his shoulder, he could see nothing. There were moments when he even fancied that he heard the sound of twigs and pines cracking under foot, but again, no one was there.
Breathing a sigh of relief, the tree line came into view, and Robert was filled with cheer knowing that in a few moments he would be back out in the open air. But just before he reached the periphery of the woods, he heard a crack again. This time it was definite, it was louder than before, more pronounced, and accompanied by the hairs on the back of his neck rising in unison. He was convinced that someone was standing just a few feet behind, staring at him. Caught between the fear of knowing and the fear of not, he finally turned around slowly. Yes, there it was, he saw it! Only for a moment, but he saw it! A shoulder or arm, something disappearing behind a tree nearby.
Robert’s mouth grew dry making it difficult to swallow and his heart started to thud deep within his chest. He began to back pedal slowly, hoping that he would not trip on an unseen root or weed on the floor, leaving him vulnerable on the ground. With each step the woods grew lighter, and as he neared its edge the light from outside bathed its interior in a blueish hue. He did not take his eyes off of the large sycamore trunk where that shadowy figure seemed to be hiding. Not for one moment.
It was peculiar, but an overpowering sense of safety out in the open dominated his thoughts. Normally a person feels exposed and vulnerable in the open wilderness, but not Robert, at least, not in that situation. As he edged slowly towards the grassy plain outside, the subtle, foreboding sound of leaves rustling and swaying almost in anger progressed into a crescendo of noise. But there was no wind to gust, no breeze to disturb. There was only one conclusion to be reached; something was moving towards him. And then he was outside. Out of the woods, away from whoever had been following - no not following - stalking him.
Robert was not a superstitious man, you could not afford to be when camping alone in such remote locations, as the mind tends to play tricks twisting the benign sounds of nature into something much more malevolent, but regardless, he did not wish to stay around long enough to find out who his unwanted companion in the woods had been. Dropping all but the sturdiest piece of wood which he reckoned would make a good makeshift weapon, he ran as fast as he could towards his own camp, all the while glancing back at that strange island of trees, surrounded by dead, withered grass.
But nothing emerged from within it.
Arriving at his tent, out of breath and agitated, he packed up his belongings as quickly as possible, and then carried his bike up a small hill and back onto the dirt path. Waiting not one moment longer, he cycled hard and fast, hoping to put as much distance between himself and that place - and its unseen resident - before finding somewhere safer and more welcoming to camp.
The road was now nothing but a single track of mud which covered Robert in a shower of dirt every time his bike sloshed through an uneven depression in the ground. The weather was bitter, unusually so at that time of year, and the rain, accompanied now by a freezing wind, battered his face making each foot of distance travelled feel like a hundred. He tried to continue for as long as he could, hoping to leave the necessity of making camp until the last usable ray of sunlight, but after a couple of hours the skies opened further and the rain came down in sheets. 
He had to find shelter, and quick, concluding that he had put at least fifteen or so miles of winding, difficult track between himself and that bizarre coven of trees. Regardless of whether it felt enough or not, it was simply impossible to continue due to the elements. On the left hand side of the path there was a rather steep drop which led down into a large field, but it would not provide the shelter Robert knew he required. To his right was a humble gradient of grass which rose up into a large stretch of woodland. Following his strange experience from earlier, some hesitancy did present itself to him, but the horrendous weather soon increased the motivation for shelter, and after pulling his bike up through the grass, he entered the tree-line. 
The torrential rain filtered through the tree canopy and it took a while before Robert could locate a suitable spot to camp. Finding a large bush under several tightly nit fir trees, he pitched his tent there and then, as the area remained relatively protected from the storm outside in the open. Using some dried roots, grass, and twigs from the forest floor, he was able to start a small camp fire which allowed him to cook some food while raising his spirits. Night began to close in, and as the wind and rain diminished, the sound of sausages sizzling in a frying pan on the fire provided the first sense of well-being and comfort that he had experienced since the morning.
Thinking over his experience in the woods, he began to rationalise the events. He had found various belongings in there; a sleeping bag, clothes, food and beer cans. It was obvious now that he had just disturbed a fellow camper. Someone who no doubt became frightened seeing another human being wandering around their campsite in the middle of nowhere. That must have been it. The man, and he was reasonably sure that it was a man from the little he had seen of him, probably hid behind that tree because he was simply scared or unnerved. Robert relaxed into a sigh of relief, but just as he did so he slipped his hand into his jacket pocket. Touching its cold black surface, he had completely forgotten about the unusual stone he had picked up from that collection of oddly arranged rocks. 
Removing it from his jacket pocket and observing it in the low, red light of the campfire, Robert was certain that it had been shaped by human hands. It felt old, ancient even, but he would wait to contact his archaeologist friend before getting his hopes up too much. He would have to admit though that the idea of finding a relic from the past was something which thrilled him deeply. Since he was a child he was always obsessed by hidden or undiscovered history, which perhaps explained his fascination with exploring the Scottish countryside, a land steeped in stories and myths of strange and forgotten peoples. Above all else he hoped that it was of Pictish origin; that mysterious indigenous people who vanished without a trace over a thousand years ago. Something which historians still pondered and puzzled over. Of course in all probability it was a modern replica, but the romantic side of Robert’s personality hoped that it was so much more, and enjoyed entertaining that hope.
As he stared at the relic, something unusual began to filter into his awareness; something different. Above the crackling sound of the fire, the now subtle wind, and the occasional rustle of a woodland animal nearby, came a noise. It was distant, how far Robert could not tell, but it echoed out through the ridges and valleys nearby, scattering through the trees in the dark. It repeated again and again with only a moment’s pause between utterances; and it was an utterance of some description. An animal perhaps? Robert could not identify it despite his impressive knowledge of the local wildlife. The sound possessed strange characteristics of a creature unknown to him. In some ways it was reminiscent of a bird of prey, parts high pitched and shrieking, but under this lay a painful wretched noise more akin to that of a fox crying in the night looking for its young.
That was it exactly, it sounded like it was looking for something.
For the next three hours Robert lay awake listening to the screeching noise ebb and flow as whatever was producing it moved closer, then farther away. As he eventually drifted towards sleep, the thought occurred to him that the movement of the sound was not unlike that of a search party, yelling and shouting, looking for someone lost in the wilderness, following a distinct search pattern.
In the cold light of day the noise was gone, and while he had accepted that what had scared him the day before was simply a timid camper cautious of a stranger nearby, he still could not shake a feeling of impending dread deep from the pit of his stomach. The day passed quickly, and while he made good progress he did not do so with the delight he had previously felt. Something toxic lay in his mind, just outside of his awareness, something which suffocated his spirits.
That night again he camped in a clearing, and yet again that same horrible shriek screamed out across the wilderness looking for something lost. Something precious, shrieking with one subtle difference from the night before - it was closer. Sleep did not come easy once more, and Robert fancied that during the night he had heard footsteps nearby, but attributed these to the simple nocturnal wanderings of a lonely deer or stag.
While the following day remained overcast and grey, the wind and rain were gone, both a distant memory but for the occasional accumulation of water on the dirt track. Robert cycled onward, negotiating a network of paths while realising that he had strayed from his intended route at some juncture. Despite this, he was confident that he knew where he was and that this unanticipated change would simply be a small detour and nothing more. At times he made great progress when the ground was even enough, stopping occasionally to take in a variety of delving valleys and rising peaks. Uncharacteristically, however, he kept his distance as much as he could from the woods and forests which often accompanied the road. While dismissing it as merely his imagination, at times he felt like there was something within them, peering out from the dark, watching.
It was late afternoon and he was beginning to feel tired, most probably due to a restless night combined with the unrelenting pace he had set himself throughout the day. In the back of his mind he was still running from something, fleeing an unseen ominous threat. The path he had been on for the past couple of hours had been rather predicable for the most part, but now it curved sharply around a grassy hill to reveal a change in the landscape which had been previously hidden from view. A long stretch of dirt and uneven track penetrated a thick forest of fir trees. What Robert found interesting about the path was that it was unnaturally straight, and what he found oddly frightening about it was that it was so narrow, only a couple of feet across, both sides of the forest only an arm’s length apart. This proximity provoked deep feelings of over exposure and claustrophobia. If he had been a soldier in a war-zone, Robert would have highlighted this long narrow path as a perfect place for an ambush.
Standing with his mountain bike only a few feet from the beginning of both forest and track, he felt uneasy about the current situation. It was clear that the path was the only way forward and, while it appeared as though it exited the forest a few miles from his position, there was something inherently dubious about it. What, he could not tell, but he did feel that he did not wish to traverse it. Weighing up the pros and cons, he realised that both the way he came and the unknown land ahead provoked trepidation in him. For that reason he dismissed the sense of dread as a figment of his over-active imagination and, with measured movement, slowly set off down the long, straight track hoping to quickly pass in and out of the forest without incident.
A black cloud hovered above and as Robert negotiated the overly uneven path as quickly as he could, the feeling of foreboding which he had so nonchalantly dismissed began to ferment in his stomach, rising up through his body forcing the hairs on his arms to stand on end. He kept his head down for the most part, occasionally glancing ahead at what he assumed was his exit in the distance. He just wanted to be through and out of that place as quickly as possible, the trees closing in on either side creating a suffocating atmosphere. Just over halfway down the path an unnerving and unwelcome familiarity overtook him. A sensation which had accompanied him for days, but now seemed to be sharper, grating more profoundly on his nerves, filled his every thought; the feeling of being watched.
Stopping for a moment to catch his breath, he tried as best he could to shake the immovable sensation that he was not alone. The path stretched out ahead and as is common amongst those who attempt to reach a goal or threshold, without thinking he looked back to measure his own progress. He had managed to cover a substantial amount of the track’s length and was quite confident that in a short time he would escape the narrow stretch of dirt. But just as he turned to continue onward, something caught his eye farther down the path in front of him. He immediately wished that he had not taken the route he had chosen, that he had turned back and started homeward. 
It was there. Unmistakable. Unwavering and utterly paralysing. 
Some distance away in the direction he was heading stood a figure. He could not entirely make out the discrete features of the individual, because they were standing to the side of the path between a cluster of trees, covered in shadow, but it was there, no doubt, and was certainly a product of his imagination. Someone was standing there, watching, and while Robert was a distance away, it felt to him as though the figure’s presence was almost on top of him; its stare accompanied by an uncommonly potent sense of... well... malice was the best way that Robert could describe it to himself.
Then, it was gone, disappearing back into the forest. But the feeling of danger, of the necessity to flee, did not diminish or decline, but grew in intensity. The sound of something moving between the trees rang out across the emptiness, increasing in volume as it neared. Robert panicked, turned, and cycled as quickly as he could in the direction he had come. So eager was he to escape that narrow passage flanked on all sides by the impenetrable forest, that he did not see a deep hole in the ground. The front wheel of his bike crashed into the depression sending him flying over his handle bars, scraping along the ground.
Dazed for a moment, the shambling sound of broken branches and displaced leaves which was nearly upon him brought his mind back into abrupt focus. Blood dripped from a wound in his leg, and his arm was badly bruised from the impact, but all he cared about was escaping from that suffocating pathway, away from whoever seemed to be moving in the woods.
Robert’s beloved paint job, including the letters ‘ROB’ on the bike’s frame, had been scratched slightly in the crash, but that did not concern him. Two spokes on the bike’s front tyre were broken, and that most certainly did. The last thing he needed was to be completely stranded there, so he would have to ride carefully and hope that the wheel would not buckle, lasting long enough to carry him home.
That was exactly where he intended to go, as quickly and directly as possible, and as he was now facing in the direction he had been travelling for days, there was no time like the present. The moving sound in the trees continued, and as Robert carefully, yet at pace, negotiated the broken ground, he hoped above all else that his trusted mountain bike would get him out of there. Despite his obvious advantage of speed, the sound seemed to be only moments behind and as he came closer to the end of the forest path and out into the open, he heard a noise which chilled him to his very core.
From within the dark recess of trees spewed that same, shrieking, tortured cry from the nights before, echoing out, piercing Robert’s ears and scratching through his nerves. Was it that figure who had been wandering near his camp at night?
Surely no human could make such a sound.
Panicking, he increased his speed as the front tyre of his bike wobbled and creaked under the pressure and strain. Finally, he was out of that narrow place, but he did not stop, cycling for hours without once looking back. Only when sure that his pursuer could not have followed, did he stop to rest.
Night was once again drawing in, and now every sound, every smell, every part of what had always made the countryside fascinatingly inviting to him took on a new, ominous, and menacing form. The remoteness, the solitude, to be left alone far away from the buzzing lights of the city. He decided that tonight he would not set up camp; no fire, no tent. Robert was sure that the person following him had been able to do so because of the noise and light which he had made from night to night. It would not be pleasant. It would be cold, wet and uncomfortable, but he wanted to make sure that he could not be tracked. There were various paths and dirt-tracks in the area that he could have taken, but hopefully the man who was stalking him, for whatever reason he was doing so, would not be able to find him again.
Robert knew of course that his tyre tracks could easily betray his location if his pursuer was smart enough to follow them. The bike marks were obvious. For this reason he backtracked for several minutes off the path in an attempt to confuse anyone following, should the need arise. The worst thing he could do would be to sleep next to where his tracks ended. Finding a large bush with space underneath to sleep, he hid himself and his bike for the night with one question on his mind: if this stalker was able to keep up with his progress each day, he must have been using a bike or vehicle of some description, but where were the tyre tracks?
Sleep did not come at all that night, but around three in the morning that wailing inhuman noise did. Moving around the area, searching. By now Robert was beginning to suffer from lack of rest, but in spite of this, at the first sign of daylight, he quickly uncovered his bike from its hiding place and started on his way once again. 
Not one foul noise was heard that day, nor any evidence that his stalker was nearby. Rationality began to overtake Robert’s fear as night once again settled in. He had covered much ground throughout the day and had managed to take care as best he could of his bike’s front wheel, which bar the occasional creak or groan was performing admirably. He concluded after much soul searching that he had allowed himself to get carried away by the isolation of his surroundings and the, admittedly, unnerving person he had seen in the forest over the past few days. But surely it was preposterous to believe that he was really being followed? Perhaps the individual he had seen was not the same as the one he had encountered at that strange island of trees? It would make more sense that it was in fact just another camper. Maybe there were a few of them in the valley, and as for the unfamiliar animal screeching at night, it must just have been a species of bird in the area which he had never heard before. That night, Robert would set a camp fire. He would cook his food, eat well, and enjoy the solitary countryside as he had intended to for such a long time since planning his holiday. 
After locating a suitable spot in the forest, that was exactly what he did. He cooked on a roaring campfire and sat for hours gazing at the night sky through the branches of the trees above. There were no noises, no strange shrieks, no shambling footsteps in the darkness; nothing. Confident that his unwelcome travelling companion had been left far behind, he retired to his tent exhausted, in much need of a well earned rest. 
Two paltry hours of sleep later, however, Robert woke to the sound of something stirring outside. He had left the campfire burning as he was uncomfortable in spending another night in darkness, and its flames seemed to dance, shifting and changing shape in the night air, casting shadows all around onto the thin canvas of the tent like a naturally occurring cinema screen. But it cast one shadow in-particular which dominated all others; that of someone sitting by the fire.
Robert froze, his mouth went dry and his breathing became shallow and anxious. He could not believe that he had been so stupid to persuade himself that no one was following him. In lighting another fire he had led the stalker directly to where he slept, and now they had the upper hand. God only knew what they wanted!
After a moment of utter terror, Robert realised that he needed to defend himself. Sitting up slowly and pulling his sleeping bag off and out from under him as quietly as possible, he scanned the tent looking for something he could cannibalise as a weapon, but anything of any weight was in his backpack (a metallic torch, the wood he had taken days earlier, a glass bottle etc.) and he had stupidly left that outside of the tent. He cursed himself for being so reckless, and could scarcely believe that he had left his bag outside when he always kept it inside, away from rain and wild animals. Exhaustion was the only explanation, but that did not help his current circumstance at all.
Then he remembered, the old axe head; the black rock he had found at the stranger’s camp! Indeed, if it was a hand axe as he suspected, he reckoned it could still deal a nasty, perhaps even fatal, blow. Running his fingers along its once sharp ridges, Robert composed himself, never for a second taking his eyes from the flickering shadow on the tent wall. The door to the tent was luckily unzipped, but the two flaps from the outer flysheet were draped over the entrance, obscuring his view. 
With one eye, he peeked through the slit between the canvas, slowly. There it was. Someone sitting at the campfire. By his build, Robert was certain it was a man. The back-light of the fire made it difficult to decipher any of his features, but the shoulders were broad, strong, and it was clear that this man had been in the wilderness for some time, as it appeared that he was wearing rags of cloth which hung loosely around him. His head was covered in long strands of black, wet hair which had clumped together in places, presumably because it had not been washed for some time.
Staring at the rear of the man’s head, Robert tried as best he could to subdue his fear. He thought that he could conceivably sneak up behind him and knock him out with a blow to the back of the head with the black stone, but that could be murder. And Robert did not even know if the man was violent, perhaps he was a nomadic type, a gypsy, a traveller? Yes. Maybe it was best to wait, maybe he would just wander off into the woods, although that seemed unlikely.
Just as Robert affirmed to himself that if the man made a move towards the tent he would rush out into the open and fight him head on, he noticed something. Something was odd about the way the man was sitting. First of all, he was sitting still. So still that anyone would have been forgiven for mistaking him for a statue. Not the slightest movement was made, nor was there any indication of life at all. No subtle shifting of weight, no rising and falling of breath. Nothing.
While this stillness was unnerving, it was Robert’s second observation which bothered him the most. The man was sitting forward, facing the fire, but the shape and position of his upper body and head was somehow... off. They did not seem to quite add up, his frame seemed unnaturally positioned.
A crackle from the fire followed by a wayward flicker of light revealed the truth. The flames lit up the area momentarily, the light bouncing from tree to tree, even onto Robert’s tent and reflecting back onto what surrounded it. Two pin points of light momentarily shone in the night through black clumps of matted hair. Yes, the man’s legs were facing the fire, but his body and head were horribly contorted, twisted into an inhuman posture. The man’s legs were indeed facing the fire, but his head and body were facing Robert.
This was no man at all.
How long it had sat there staring at the tent, waiting, he did not know, but a creak of movement from its neck was enough to send Robert out of the tent, into the woods, consumed by a terror so profound that it could be likened to madness. He did not know how long he had been running, nor if he had been screaming the entire time, but his feet were cut in several places and the first rays of sunshine were peeking out through the still thick branches of the forest.
In the distance Robert could see the flame from his camp fire still burning bright, and despite his terror at the knowledge of being stalked by something entirely inhuman, he had to get to his bike to stand any chance of escape. For a while he hid behind trees, under bushes, his nerves absolutely shattered, refusing to go near the fire. His preconceptions were broken, but Robert was a strong character, and, after a time, a modicum of composure returned to him.
Step by cautious step, he neared his own camp. There was no sight of whatever had been sitting at that fire staring at him. By now, daylight illuminated the wider area and after much self bargaining, Robert decided to reclaim his belongings, grab his bike, and continue as quickly as he could on his way out of the wilderness, back to the city. Everything seemed to be accounted for, and he even allowed himself a smirk at the thought of that creature at least not being a thief. That smile soon vanished at the sight of his bike, however; unharmed, yes, but strands of a black putrid liquid covered the seat and front wheel.
This was not the time to be concerned with sludge on his means of escape, it was still working and that was all that mattered. Had it been a week earlier Robert would have been angry about the slightest scratch to his beloved mountain bike, but now he just cared about it getting him home, or at least back to Aberfoyle village, to civilisation. After cleaning the liquid off and packing up his tent, Robert once more continued onward as fast as he could. He reckoned, with a hard push, that he could be out of that horrid place in a day and a half, as long as he took minimal rests and cycled for the duration of available light. The weather was not exactly ideal, but while rain occasionally came, it quickly disappeared leaving long stretches of the journey clear from the wearing effects of the elements.
As the day progressed so too did Robert’s unease. He felt oppressed on all sides, as if he were running from something terrible, yet nearing an undefined danger. A horrible realisation bubbled up from his subconscious: what if that thing followed him all the way home? As this thought swirled around in his mind, he passed over the crest of a hill and down again, suddenly realising what was wrong and why he was feeling so much unease about what lay ahead.
A gulf in the land opened up before him. Pockets of stagnant water lay strewn between stretches of marshland and long grass, and in the centre there it lay, that horrible island of wretchedness. It was the woods where Robert had first seen his pursuer, and then in a flash it all made perfect sense. Call it superstition. Call it blind stupidity. Whatever you would call it, Robert knew that he did not wish to see that twisted man again. As a child he had been told ghost stories of people disturbing graves, and the ghosts of dead rising up to haunt the living, but he never took much stock in such things. Not until then, at least. What he did know was that he had inadvertently triggered the whole, terrifying ordeal. 
He had taken something which did not belong to him.
After hiding his bike in the long grass, he trudged towards that isolated pocket of woodland where what he now knew to be a grave lay, minus one oddly shaped black stone which he had been carrying with him ever since the ordeal had begun. He half expected for that thing to be sitting next to its resting place, but while there were a number of strange noises and movements between the trees, there was no sign of Robert’s unwelcome travelling companion. He assumed it was still out there looking for him.
Wasting no time, he plunged into the woodland and headed straight until finally finding the grave, that elongated pattern of stacked rocks and stones. After locating the gap where he had torn the black stone from, he wedged it back in tightly. A noise echoed from the other side of the woods and Robert did not wish to hang around to find out what it was. Running as fast as he could over roots, mud, leaves, and fallen branches, he jumped out of that dark place into the open outdoors, filled with a sense of accomplishment and utter relief. It was not long before he was back on the dirt path, moving forward on his bike in search of one more place to sleep for the night, then home the next day.
A weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He knew he had unwittingly disturbed something unimaginable, unfathomable, but by returning that which he had taken, he had narrowly escaped what he assumed would have been a terrible fate; death, or perhaps worse. There was no explanation of this feeling of elation and survival; he just knew deep down that he had righted his wrong.
That night Robert lay in his tent. It was dark, as he had decided against a campfire, just to be on the safe side. He was confident that he would be left alone, however, and took great comfort in knowing that he was safe, while looking forward to the next day and the comfort of home. That was a funny thought. A man who had always adored the countryside, detesting the humdrum of daily city life, relishing the idea of a couch, a television, a beer, and a warm bed.
Next year he would holiday at a sunny resort and lie on a beach for a couple of weeks, one preferably far removed from his homeland!
Robert closed his eyes with a smile on his face and drifted off. 
The noise which he had heard outside for so many nights suddenly screeched at a blood curdling and overpowering volume. Without having to open his eyes, he knew: the sound did not come from the woods, it came from inside the tent. 
Robert Francis was never seen or heard from again.
Scotland is old. It has an ancient and hidden history of peoples and places long forgotten, but perhaps some trace remains, isolated and alone in the bitter wilderness; so, should you ever wish to wander the hills, forests, or lochs of this old country, bear one thing in mind: if you find a collection of stones heaped together not unlike a grave, and they are surrounded by trinkets of modernity - a sleeping bag, food cans, or perhaps even an old bike with the name ‘ROB’ etched into it - walk on, do not look back, do not touch anything whether it is an unusual black stone, or a simple piece of forest wood. Above all else, most certainly never take a souvenir, for those who lie in slumber nearby, may just take one from you.



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Michael Whitehouse: Off the Beaten Path | A Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
Off the Beaten Path | A Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
Michael Whitehouse
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