I was walking along, thinking of nothing in particular. It was an odd day but I couldn’t pinpoint why, things just seemed somehow out of balance. The sun was high yet the temperature was unseasonably chilly. I was flanked by a vicious pincer movement of arable boredom. Even the hedges seemed fed up as they leaned with the prevailing wind, as if they’d given up the will to stand tall against such a constant onslaught. The path was leading me towards a mysterious looking woodland. It sat in a hollow at the far side of the field, I could see none but the tops of the tallest trees in the canopy, it looked intriguing, old, ancient. In fact some of those broad oaks must be three hundred years old, I pondered to myself. Across the field there was a big scarecrow, his silhouette black as coal against the panoramic sky. I was watching him casually as I walked for twenty minutes or so. He looked big and strong as he stood stock still bracing hard against the wind, not even his jacket fluttered in the steadily rising breeze. As I watched and walked I considered the strange climatic conditions. The sun, as I mentioned, was high and bright, yet there were insipid tendrils of cold piercing my bones. There were clouds in the sky swirling round and scattering across the expansive sky. Clouds aren’t unusual, however the shadows they cast were so dark, almost like the lights had been turned off. I’ve been out in all sorts of weather, brocken spectres and rain that drives almost vertically upwards, defying gravity to name but two. When you’re outdoors you become the weather, it’s easier to accept your getting wet that way, so I marvelled at the oddities. They didn’t worry me, they just added to an already strange day.
As one of the swirling, inky black shadows sailed over the scarecrow I swear it moved; not just a twitch, but a very deliberate raising of the arms. I instinctively crouched on one knee – an old military habit – not that it mattered, I was a sitting target and the only thing taller than six inches for a hundred acres in every direction. My heart was pounding; my eyes throbbed, as I watched not daring to blink. Did it move? Was I imagining things? Was it a shifting of the shadows, an optical trick? I just didn’t know, but as I watched in perfect stillness nothing happened for as long as I stared, nothing happened. I shook off my doubts “you’re a combat veteran for Christ sake” I chastised. I’d not long come back from a dicey black bag mission that had FUBARed cataclysmically. In fact I was on medical leave right now, as I couldn’t separate the living nightmare I’d experienced from my sleeping ones. But this, this was different. I just couldn’t shake the fact that something wasn’t right and that scarecrow had definitely moved! I had to do something; I couldn’t just crouch there paralysed with an irrational fear. I made my move. I raised up slowly battling with myself and decided to push on. My first thought was bug out, run like hell and get back to my car, but how would that help? I was once pride of the regiment and here I am spooked by what was clearly a trick of the mind… wasn’t it?
I pushed on, determined to conquer my demons. I wasn’t sure what they were but I figured any progress was positive. I kept walking. Sometimes I’d break into a steady jog but I slowed myself up, acutely conscious of the fact I must look a complete idiot to anyone watching, not that anything was, the whole area was devoid of life. Not a bird, a mouse or even a breath of air, this odd day was rapidly getting out of hand. My palms sweated cold, sticky, perspiration. Looking down my hands were deathly pale and shaking. I clenched my fists and started to run. I didn’t really have a direction or an objective, I just needed to get away from that field. Straight as an arrow I charged, across the crops. I just didn’t care, I needed to escape the oppression, to shake off the numbing fear which gripped my throat. As I approached the hedgerow I had to slow and turn towards the devil, my nemesis, the scarecrow. I’m not one for looking back. Until this day I’ve always advanced forth, the enemy within my sights, but today I was nervous. I didn’t want to look up, if I could have done I would have turned the other way but with Christ knows how many clicks of open scarecrow riddled country before I reached a road it wasn’t an option. I looked up briefly and saw him. Shit, shit, shit! He was watching me! He wasn’t looking that way before, I swear, and oh my god he’s so close, almost like he’s standing sentry over the very path I need to take. My heart was trying to rip itself through my chest, my breathing was shallow and rapid, my mind cloudy and I was no longer thinking straight. My only plan was to run, beat my foe to the gate and then just keep running without looking back.
My legs ached, being out of condition. The veins in my neck strained, trying to force some oxygen to my brain. My shoulders ached, my day sack weighed heavy. I just keep striding out with all my might. I could barely see, I was looking down a dark tunnel.
I’d been there before. I remembered the scene well. There was gunfire all around us, my team was seemingly exploding with blood and viscera as we ran, there was no option: we had to cross that bloody killing field as lead spat from hidden emplacements. We just kept running, at that point all our training stood for nothing; we were next year’s fertiliser. As body parts scattered the ground all I could see was this dark tunnel. I was distantly aware of bodies moving with me. Though at that point there was no team, not a man alive would have helped you. If you went down it was tough and you were on your own. It was a living nightmare, a proper and very real incarnation of hell and this was just the beginning. With every spit of fire I was starting to realise that there may not be enough men to execute the Op. This turned out to be true and I found myself stuck is a stinking drain (could it be the river Styx?) with four other men. I pressed myself into the festering sludge praying I wouldn’t be found and that if I was I would be mistaken for one of the many dead. There was no way of knowing how many had fallen, but then there was no way of making our way out. Assuming our mission was successful the threat would be neutralized and we could all have a nice heli ride out but as it was we had no men, some ammunition, no explosives and no chance. Getting out meant running back across the field and it would soon be dawn.
So I escaped, but it seemed the nightmare wasn’t over. Back in the present, I ran until I was on my knees, I lay gasping for breath staring at the sky as it span rapidly around the trees in my oxygen depleted state. It took a while to calm down physically, and although my nerves were still jangling they did steady with my breath. Where was I? How far had I ran? I stood up to take in my surroundings. I wasn’t at all looking for the scarecrow. I was stood in the ancient woodland, I must have run three clicks to get here and it really was an old place.
You could feel the history dripping from every branch, everywhere I looked there was thick undergrowth. I could see that this place had seen men before but not brutally; this place had been delicately caressed by a gifted woodsman. Within the tangles you could still make out where the trees had been coppiced. It was as I looked around that it occurred to me that I had no idea where I was, my heart rate started to creep up as I realised quite how closed in everything felt. I’d totally disorientated myself and couldn’t even see where I’d entered; yet another military technique, I’d disturbed very little ground. If I looked hard enough I’d be able to find my trail but I just wasn’t thinking clearly. I was starting to panic again, A mist was rolling in as if this place wasn’t already a heavyweight contender for oppression, It was as if the life was been sucked out of me and I was being pinned down. A twig snapped behind me. I let out a distinctly feminine squeak, what the hell was wrong with me? I don’t squeak. I wanted to run, I wanted to hide, I wanted to do anything but wade slowly through the scrub, how I got in there so fast was beyond me as I was damn near stuck. I struggled on. I had to get out of the woodland, the mist seemed thicker still, or was it smoke? I just couldn’t tell, my senses were been overloaded. Eventually I burst into a small clearing. I dashed across it, relishing the freedom, I was aiming for the fallen tree. I leapt over it and buried myself into the massive root ball, waiting to see what was seemingly chasing me. There were more breaking twigs and a snuffling, shuffling sound. Every single hair on my body was stood on end, and electricity was seemingly coursing through my veins. I was watching for ages, the tension was unbearable, until finally at long last and to my sweet relief a wild boar blundered out from the undergrowth.
Despite the long day I couldn’t help but chuckle, a pig had made me squeal like a girl. I was just calming, rationally thinking through where I was and planning a more relaxed exit (the old pollarded trees suggested I was possibly near the old extent of the forest and near open land), when there was a sharp bony tap on my shoulder. I swung round just in time to see the pitchfork drive deep into my abdomen. It quivered powerfully from the force as I looked up and saw the big, black, looming mass of a cape sheathing a stoat oak frame, almost human except for the smouldering mass of an indescribably evil head. Its eye sockets deep and empty, yet so full of malice.
In my dying moments a calm, which had been missing all day, washed over me. At least I hadn’t imagined things.