It was the strangest holiday I've ever taken. It was supposed to be a chance to get away. To give me a chance to get out in nature and recharge my batteries. A change of pace from my usual life in the hustle and bustle of the city. Allowing me to go back refreshed to face new challenges.
I had never really done a lot of outdoor pursuits as a child. I had never been a scout, or in one of the religious outfits like boys' brigade. The only place I had camped had been the back garden of my parents house with my sister in our small tent.
One year I decided, out of the blue, to go camping for a week instead of my normal city breaks. It was not very comfortable and lacked the luxuries of staying in a hotel. Still I found it wonderfully refreshing. Soon I began taking all my holidays that way. I'd pick a spot and go there to camp, for a week or longer. Camp sites can be noisy places and I soon began seeking out places that were more remote and going wild camping, a practice that was usually illegal. This reduced the facilities and my potential holiday destinations even more, but the freedom and peace that came with it was magnificent.
I taught myself to fish and catch game, but I found I didn't have the stomach for catching my own food. The whole macho "I'll eat what I killed with my own hands" thing didn't really interest me. Killing animals in order to eat seemed contrary to enjoying the holiday notion of getting some peace and enjoying nature. So I lived off dehydrated camp food and tins for a week, not that different from what I ate in the city I'll admit.
That time I had been especially in need of a break. My job at a test house was very stressful leading up to a release date. I had spent long hours working on seeing that the team rigorously tested the current product. Testing is a bit of a funny game, not many people want to do it because it can be soul-destroyingly boring, but it is desperately needed so there is good money in it. It is the realm of two types of people: young kids earning a bit of cash on the side during the holidays and the hardened veteran. I guess I fall into the later category. I got into it after a friend recommended me for the job. I had been having trouble finding work. My mix of qualifications were somewhat esoteric and as a result most of the firms I approached for IT work turned me down. Once I got my foot in the door and got stuck in, it was a whole different story. A tester with a proven track record was much more employable. I soon moved up from lowly test grunt to now at the age of twenty six the post of team manager, writing the test specs and overseeing the work. It could be boring work but it was also rewarding. We made sure that when the customers got their hands on the final widget they would not suffer too many annoyances with it.
The last job I had worked on had been a real nightmare and after months of long days and weekends working I needed a break. So when the final version was out the door and didn't show any signs of coming back, I booked off a week, grabbed my tent and headed into the country side.
It was one of the advantages of that sort of holiday. It required very little prep time just throw your stuff in the car and away you go. I grabbed my provisions, my tent, sleeping bag and tools, then set off up north. I had in mind one of the larger forests, perhaps near one of the lakes. They were wonderful places to camp, offering glorious scenery.
As I got out into the country away from the city, I felt the tensions inside me start to unwind. I was sure this was going to be an excellent holiday. I could feel it working already.
I found a camp site for the first night and paid for the week. This would give me a backup place to stay if I needed it, as well as somewhere to park my car without it getting towed. I pitched my tent and then took a stroll.
The area was lovely, the forest was green and lush stretching into the distance wrapped around a lake that glittered in the evening sun. There was a small village nearby a sort of rustic place with drystone walls and old slate or thatched roofs. Once I was set up I headed in to the local pub for a beer.
It was an old school pub, not one of the newer chain places that had become the norm in cities. It was a real slice of old England with a thatched roof, exposed beams and a traditional interior. They offered meals so I took the opportunity of a proper hot meal. I enjoyed a very decent shepherds pie with my pint of bitter. I was returning to the bar for another when I overheard an old boy at the bar talking.
"I saw it! I tell you, the black beast!" he said to a few of the other regulars, "Tall as a man, black as pitch, with claws, dark eyes, and horrific tail!"
"Oh yeah, how much had you had Bob? We all know you like to take a little refreshment on your little trips," laughed one of the men at the bar.
"It's true I tell you! Not a word of lie! I saw the monster that stalks these hills! We've all heard the stories. I didn't believe them either! Not till I saw the monsters dark form with my own eyes!" said Bob. He looked as if he was telling the truth, as if he were genuinely afraid of this mythical beast. He was either a very good actor or had been seeing things as the other locals suggested.
The other patrons just laughed and rolled their eyes going back to their pints.
I was intrigued. I had often heard such stories of beasts lurking in the hills or forests on my travels. Pretty much all of them were made up to snare the tourists. Still I liked to hear them they gave colour to the area made the places more mysterious.
I approached the man and asked, "What beast do speak of?"
He swung round, eyeing me suspiciously, "What's it to you stranger?"
"Just curious," I said.
"Well take your curiosity else where! I've no time to be story teller to the likes of you!" he said turning back to his nearly empty pint.
This intrigued me even more, usually you had to fight the locals off with a stick to stop them plying you with tales of the local monsters, "Well perhaps I could offer you a refill in exchange for the story," I said gesturing to his nearly empty pint glass.
The man glance at his drink and unconsciously licked his lips then turned back to me, "Alright stranger get me another and I'll tell you of the horror that stalks these hills. Though I'll warn ye it will stalk your dreams as it stalks mine!"
He was really selling it. He almost had me believing him. I ordered him another drink and one for myself. The barmaid chuckled at the city boy taken in by the village drunks stories. I smiled back and gave her a wink which caused her to giggle and smile.
Soon the old man turned to me and after staring into his pint he took a swig to fortify himself. He looked at me with deadly serious haunted eyes for a moment and began his tale.
"There is a legend in these hills of a monster born of darkness! A twisted creature that hides in the forest and preys on the unwary. Some say it as a dear or some other creature twisted by the dreaded infection, others say it is a man who was cursed by some evil demon to stalk the forests for the blood of the innocent. I don't know what it truly is; except it is a hideous monster of dark appetites and terrible fury," he paused to knock back most of his beer in a single swallow and gestured for me to get him another one. I was beginning to suspect the other men of the bar were right that this man's visions of monsters had more to do with his prodigious consumption of beer than anything he had seen.
I ordered him another and waited while he stared into the distance shaking slightly. When his new drink arrived he held it in front of him staring into the dark liquid as if he could see answers in there. He haltingly continued, "The stories go back a good few years. People seeing this dark shape, like a man but twisted and evil. I paid them no mind at the time. Thought it was just stories made up to impress the tourists. That's probably what you think now. Last night I was out in the forest late sleeping out under the stars as is my custom."
"Ha custom he says," chipped in the barmaid, "His wife kicked him out for coming home drunk again no doubt!"
Most of the bar roared with laughter and the old man glared at the barmaid angrily but said nothing. He took another swig now halfway through his third pint that I'd seen. It was no wonder he was seeing things at the rate he was quaffing down the booze.
"I was out sheltering under some rocks when I saw the beast. A dark shape moving through the forest, not making a sound. I thought I was dreaming this thing was as tall as a man with claws for hands and a terrible curved tail. I saw it kill I'm not sure what, it sat there in the dusk not moving its body only visible as a dark shape. Without warning it pounced grabbed something with its nightmare claws. That's when it heard me, I must have made a sound when it killed. It swung in my direction its nightmare shape gleaming as if made of some polished black stone. I saw its claws," he said and held his hands out in front of him demonstrating his hands were shaking, "They were dripping blood, I scrambled back against the rock as it took a step in my direction. I could see its black eyes staring at me boring into my very soul. I just knew I would be the next victim of its blood-lust. My mangled corpse would be found in pieces after it satisfied its dark hungers. Then there was a noise that startled the beast. It leapt to an incredible height and disappeared into the night. I ran as fast as I could in case the beast got hungry for human flesh and came back. I made it out but the horror of that night haunts me still."
"Oh come on you old fool you probably saw a dear and were so drunk you thought it was some monster," laughed one of the locals.
"NO! IT'S A MONSTER! I'VE SEEN IT AND IT WILL COME FOR US ALL! NO ONE IS SAFE!" the man shouted staring wild eyed around the room, then ran at breakneck speed out the door screaming.
I stared at the still swinging door that the man had just leapt through. It was an interesting performance and well worth the two beers I had paid for it.
"Don't mind old Bob he drinks too much and gets excitable," said the bar maid.
"Well it was certainly an interesting story. Is it a widely held local legend or something?" I asked.
"Tell the truth love, it's not one I've heard before and I've lived in the village my whole life," said the bar maid, "Though there's always a few rumours of wild beast flying about to scare the kids. It keeps em from straying into the forest."
I smiled and ordered another drink then spent the rest of the evening flirting with the bar maid, come last orders I was fairly merry and decided I'd best be on my way while I was still able to find the camp site. I waved goodbye to the bar maid and headed off staggering back to my tent.
Come morning I was a little the worse for wear, but I started bright and early. Packing my stuff up and headed off for a hike in the forest. The landscape was beautiful and the fresh country air did wonders for my hangover. I walked down to the lake and the along its shores, then deeper into the forest. The sunlight filtered through the leaves in a dappled spray of light illuminating the leaf covered floor. The fresh breeze causing the leaves to rustle and trees sway in a wonderfully calming manner. I felt all my troubles wash away. I took the opportunity to stop for a cup of tea boiling the water on a little stove. I sat on a log mug in hand just taking in the scenery.
I saw relatively few people the entire day. The few I did see offered a cheery wave as they passed. I didn't speak to a single person all day. As dusk began to set I decided to find somewhere to pitch my tent for the night. Strictly speaking I wasn't allowed to camp in the forest, but so long as I was unobtrusive and didn't go messing the place up most of the time I could get away with it. Some places allowed wild camping but this wasn't one of them. In England where every piece of land was owned you technically needed permission from the land owner to camp on it. Most of the time that was hard to obtain so you either stayed in established camp sites or risked it. The worst that happened was a few stern words and having to move on so long as you didn't make a mess.
I set up my tent and then got out the little stove and cooked myself some sort of curry. I sat on a rock eating my meal as the stars came out. I heard a rustling somewhere behind me I spun and had a look. I thought I saw a human like shape in the distance! I grabbed my torch to take a look but when I aimed it in the direction the noise had come from I saw nothing there. It was probably a small animal or something. Still it took me a while to shake the feeling that I was being watched. I spent a time jumping at every shadow or noise and aiming my torch trying to see what it was. Eventually my heart stopped pounding and I relaxed. It was probably that old man's tales the other night making me jumpy, putting ideas in my head. It could be a little spooky at the best of times out here alone I shrugged off the worries and relaxed enjoying the sounds of the forest. Soon I settled in for the night snug in my sleeping bag.
During the night it rained pretty heavily, I woke in the morning to find everything glistening and smelling fresh as it was after a good rain shower. The greenery looked even better after a bit of rain. I tidied up my camp and stowed my stuff then set off. The rain had left the area a bit slippery under foot. I was glad I was wearing some fairly good walking boots, the extra grip they offered saved me quite a few times from going all my length in the mud. I trekked up to some rocky hills I had seen to get a better view of the forest. It was a hard slog up the steep incline but the view was worth it. I could see the lake and a lot of the forest from that lookout.
I walked along the ridge for the rest of the day marvelling at the views. The forest stretched out below like a green carpet with the lake a dark blue rippling in the wind. As it got towards the evening I was thinking about finding somewhere to camp for the night. I was idly surveying the area and not really paying attention to my footing when I slipped on some loose gravel. I went tumbling down a slope end over end, the wet ground not offering much resistance to the slide. I rolled over to try and dig my hands in and slow myself it seemed to help a bit but I was still moving quite fast. In the process of trying to slow myself my back pack was torn from my shoulder and tumbled along in front of me. I saw it disappear over a lip ahead of me there was a loud crunch shortly there after. I realised I was heading for the edge of the ledge with a shear drop down to the forest below! I scrambled and tried to stop myself knowing that it was a fairly long way down from where I was to the floor below. Just as I got to the edge I managed to hook a trailing branch and stop as my legs fell over the edge of the cliff. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to find a footing to climb back up. I found some sturdy rocks in the wall and tried to use them and the branch to pull myself up onto the ledge again. I got most of the way up before one of my footings gave way, probably loosened by the rain. I fell back a bit and this extra strain on the branch caused it to snap. I fell down the drop, bouncing off the wall painfully to impact the ground, loosing consciousness almost immediately.
Science Fiction /