Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: The Old Forest Road
At first, Morris ignored the rustling in the underbrush.
The Old Forest Road did, after all, take him through the middle of the Old Forest. Though he'd seen nothing more than a pair of large gray birds during his afternoon walk, it stood to reason that the thick, green woods harbored wildlife in abundance.
His host, Lord Bonnett, had implored him to confine his rambles to the family estate.
Morris wouldn't hear of it. After a two week sea voyage to England from New York and a full day of travel by coach to the Bonnett home, he was anxious to exercise his legs and breathe some fresh woodland air.
Bonnett, a college friend who understood his American guest's intractable nature, argued the point with vigor, and with honor satisfied, conceded defeat.
“Just promise me you'll stay on the main road, Morris,” he'd said, clapping a bony hand on the American's beefy shoulder.
Bonnett stood half a head taller than Morris but had always felt like the smaller man when in his company. He believed his slight frame and fair hair and complexion cut a less impressive figure than the swarthy Morris' raw-boned athletic build.
Morris grinned-- a crooked smile that had won him easy friendships and much attention from the ladies wherever he landed.
“Do you fear for my safety, dear Bonnett? I've visited your country before.”
The Englishman released his friend's shoulder and walked to the window.
“Yes, old boy, you have. But these are not the alleys and avenues of London you see before you. Nor of your own great city of New York.”
Morris made no reply.
“You cannot, then, be convinced to remain on the property?”
“You know me. I go wherever my legs carry me.”
“Then promise me this, Morris. Promise me that no matter where your legs carry you, you will stay on the road.”
“You mean the road the coach rode in on?”
“Yes. I mean that one. You will find trails and paths all around you and you will be tempted to follow them, no doubt, but do not. Grant me this one indulgence. If you must leave my lands, do not stray from the Old Forest Road.”
Morris thought on that strange conversation with his host as he walked.
He'd looked Lord Bonnett full in the face, searching for a hint of guile or mischief. There was none. The man was in earnest, which he found, in and of itself, unsettling.
The lush foliage of the ancient woods around him failed to provide him with anything to substantiate his host's concerns.
Fallen leaves carpeted the ground beneath the trees. Two or three of them skittered across the hard-packed dirt road every time the wind blew through.
The late afternoon sun, filtered through the treetops, lit up the forest in a golden green glow, creating deep shadows in every direction.
Morris stopped to rest in the middle of a bend in the road. From the sweat he'd worked up under his traveling clothes-- and the pleasant soreness in his legs-- he estimated that he'd been walking for at least three hours.
He heard the rustling noise again just before he was ready to resume his walk.
He tracked the sound as best he could, moving into the underbrush, but found nothing.
The unseen creature moved once more, deeper into the woods. Morris, his curiosity piqued, followed, determined to have a glimpse of it before continuing on his way.
Some time-- and several dozen turns-- later, he arrived at a clearing.
The sun had set, leaving the sky the shade of pale gray that often precedes full dark.
He heard the rustling in the trees on the opposite side of the clearing and looked up in time to see his quarry slip away-- a white shape that carried the unmistakable silhouette of a woman's body. The upturned sole of her bare foot caught the very last of the daylight as she disappeared into the darkness.
The sensible side of Morris told him to get back to the road and return to Lord Bonnett's hearth. He knew straight away that he would ignore such counsel. An irresistible urge to find the woman overtook him, all other thoughts banished from his mind. He wasted no time in plunging into the woods after her.
The chase took him through the trees, down many a winding forest trail.
A wisp of white stayed in front of him, leading him deeper and deeper into the woods.
She climbed to the top of a slight rise and paused before continuing on.
The woods thinned out as he clambered up after her. More light penetrated the tree canopy where she had just passed.
He hurried over the rise and stumbled out of the woods, onto a moor.
The fog held enough moonlight to allow him a clear view of the landscape.
The lone landmark-- a thin, leafless tree-- served as his starting point as he scanned the gray expanse for any sign of the mysterious woman.
He looked for some time before spotting her. She stood, facing away from him, next to the tree.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to her as he started across the moor.
She didn't move.
He closed to within ten feet of where she stood and was rewarded with his first good look at her.
She was taller than he'd first thought, and appeared solidly built, strengthened, no doubt, by a life of hard work in rural England.
He admired the curves of her body, evident despite the billowing white nightdress she wore. Her long black hair fell unrestrained to the middle of her back.
“Hello there,” he said, crossing into the shadow of the tree. “That was quite a run-around you gave me.”
He continued to walk toward her, though she failed to so much as turn around. When he got close enough, he reached out to place his hand on her shoulder.
She stirred, offering him the slightest glimpse of her face in profile, then disappeared.
Morris blinked and shook his head with considerable violence.
All he saw before him was that lone, leafless tree, one long branch reaching out like Charon's spectral arm on the bank of the River Styx.
He leaned against the knotty trunk for a full five minutes, doing his best to convince himself that he wasn't mad and hadn't been seeing things.
The flask of bourbon he carried in his coat pocket-- bourbon untasted to that point of the day-- called out to him and he answered its call. He allowed himself one long pull, then put it away.
He looked out at the moor. The fog had thickened. He could not see the forest he'd come out of.
“All right, then,” he said, “back to Bonnett's.” And with that he set out to return from whence he came.
Before he'd made a hundred yards, Morris admitted what he already knew deep in his adventurer's heart. He was lost. Utterly, irretrievably lost.
He took another drink from his flask and picked a point on the horizon, determined to march in that sole direction until he found something resembling civilization.
Wind joined the fog over the moor, threatening rain that never quite developed. The result was an uncomfortable damp that sapped Morris' strength as he trudged on.
Hunger began to set in after a long stretch of walking that seemed to get him some little distance from the solitary tree. He cursed himself for a fool for not thinking to bring along provisions and blamed his increasing disorientation and fatigue on the empty condition of his stomach.
He groaned as he made his fourth pass by that now-hated tree.
“God damn it!” he roared. The oath carried far over the empty moor.
Something snarled in answer.
Morris spun, looking all around, but saw nothing. Fight and flight warred within him.
Another snarl, from much closer, decided the contest.
He took off running, fast as he could, heedless of direction and obstacles.
The unseen beast stayed close behind him, stopping only when Morris crashed into the woods.
He continued to run, bloodied by a dozen missteps and collisions as he went.
The rain that had held off while he was on the moor held off no longer, soaking him to the skin.
Morris ran through it, staggering out of the woods and onto a well-used, rutted road.
The wind carried the sound of voices, singing voices, on it.
His heart fluttered with joy.
He gathered himself and lurched toward the music.
The inn stood at the end of a deep bend in the road.
It was a simple back country drinking house-- thatched roof, rough stone walls, and a heavy wooden door.
Candlelight glowing from within, seen through the inn's partially shuttered windows, filled his head with images of a roaring fire and a bowl of hearty stew.
The sign hanging over the door depicted, to Morris' momentary dismay, a single leafless tree.
The door yielded to his push, swinging open far faster than he anticipated, and he fell into the inn.
The warm, candle-lit room churned around him.
Song and conversation ceased.
Morris shook his head but failed clear his clouded vision. He attempted to both stand and speak and found he could do neither.
A large male shape, with a face pale enough for Morris to make out impressive mutton-chop sideburns on, shambled over and lifted him off the floor.
“Must be that Yank friend of Lord Bonnett's,” said the big man. “Someone should run to the estate and tell his Lordship we've got him.”
Morris woke up warm and dry.
The bed he languished in was rustic but comfortable. He didn't mind the feel of the straw in the mattress at all.
“Good morning, sir,” said a soft, female voice.
He opened one eye and then the other, focusing on the woman seated on the edge of the bed.
She held a bowl of cool water in one hand and a damp cloth in the other.
“Let's have a look at that cut,” she said, dabbing his cheek with the cloth.
He blinked the last of the sleep away and took a good look at her.
She wore a simple blue and white dress, the colors of which were made more vivid by the bright sunlight flooding the room.
Her long black hair fell, unrestrained, about her shoulders.
She turned her head to look out the window.
He gasped and sat up in the bed, upsetting the bowl of water.
“It's... it's you!” he wheezed. “On the Old Forest Road... in the woods. I saw you last night.”
“You must be mistaken,” she replied, staring at the headboard instead of his face. “I spent last evening here at the inn.”
“It was you. I'm not a madman. I know what I saw. I followed you for hours. You finally gave me the slip on the moor.”
“Be silent!” she said, pressing her fingers to his lips. “I tell you truly, sir. I was here last night. If you believe otherwise... you would be well-advised to speak no more about it. Please, sir. I am trying to help you.”
She hurried out of the room before he could say anything else.
A huge shadow appeared in the open doorway.
Morris heard the woman's footsteps stop in the hall.
“You heard what he said,” grumbled a low male voice. “He saw her. He's the one.”
“Keep your voice down, father,” she hissed. “The poor man's injured, not deaf.”
“It does not matter,” said the man in an almost comical failed stage whisper. “He is the one. Gives me no joy to say so but his own words condemn him. He must go to the beast. He must, daughter.”
She uttered a very unladylike oath and ran down the stairs.
“It is our way,” he called after her.
Morris lay back down and thought over what he'd just heard.
The big man with the mutton-chop sideburns moved into the doorway, peered into the room, then shut and locked.
Morris launched himself out of the bed.
His traveling clothes sat spread out on chairs in front of the fireplace.
He shucked the nightshirt he'd been provided and pulled on his still-damp garments and boots.
“Damn them,” he groused as he crossed the room to the window and looked outside.
The ground seemed very far away from his second floor bedroom.
He cursed some more, then tried to force the door open.
The result of his efforts was two very sore shoulders.
He pounded on the door with his fists.
“Let me out of here!” he bellowed, and followed that with profanity and more pounding.
“Settle down, lad,” said the big man. His voice cut right through the door, filling the room. “You'll get yourself worked up over nothing.”
“Nothing?” barked Morris. “Nothing? Going to the beast sounds like something to me!”
“Can't be helped. I'm sorry, son.”
Morris growled and went back to the window.
Four local men, dressed in hunting attire, looked up at him. Each of them held a rifle.
He cursed and sat down on the bed and tried to calm himself by taking slow, deep breaths.
The scraping of a key in the lock interrupted his meditations. He leaped to his feet as the door opened.
Lord Bonnett entered the room.
“Bonnett,” said Morris. “Thank God.”
He rushed forward and embraced his old college friend, pulling back when the embrace was not returned in kind.
“Morris, old boy, this is awkward.”
“Don't tell me you're with them.”
Bonnett, eyes cast at the floor, said nothing.
“This is madness!”
“What did you see, Morris? Tell me exactly.”
Morris told him the whole story, from the hour he left the Bonnett estate to when he awoke in the inn.
“It's no good, Morris. You saw the girl.”
“I saw a ghost, Bonnett. Nothing more.”
Bonnett shook his head and removed a flask from his jacket pocket. He offered it to Morris.
“You heard the beast as well.”
Morris looked at his friend with astonishment.
“You're insane. You're all insane.”
He grabbed the flask and took a long pull.
“If only that was true,” said the big man with the mutton-chop sideburns. He stood in the doorway with his arms crossed. “The beast has been a part of this area going back generations. Once per year we must make it a sacrifice. One soul for a year's peace. Last year, my own daughter-- twin to the girl who tended your wounds-- was chosen. She had the misfortune of seeing the ghost of the previous years' sacrifice. We left her by the dead tree on the moor. And now it falls to you. He who encounters the ghost becomes the sacrifice.”
Morris began to pace.
“I stand by my statement. You're all insane! Bonnett-- you're lord of the manor. Can't you put a stop to this?”
The big man spoke up first.
“His lordship is one of us above and beyond anything else.”
The four men with the rifles appeared in the hallway behind the big man.
Morris drew a deep breath, ready to unleash a torrent of belligerence on everyone in sight, but found his ability to speak much impaired. He saw three Bonnetts in front of him when he looked.
The flask slipped from his fingers.
The big man rushed forward and caught him before he fell.
“It's time,” he said.
Lord Bonnett leaned in close to his friend.
“I cannot stop this, old boy. I am not required to participate, but I cannot stop it. I will grieve for you, Morris. As will everyone. You are doing the people of this burgh a great service.”
Morris cast one final, pleading glance at Bonnett as the villagers led him out of the room.
The Englishman retrieved his flask from the floor and put it back in his pocket.
“I did implore you not to leave my estate. I can't help but wonder who will see your ghost this time, next year.”
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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.