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I was born in South East Asia at the end of the century. Due to the nature of my father’s work, I spent my boyhood visiting so many different countries, while living in a single country in Africa for more than 10 years. I felt like I was missing out somehow, to travel nearly everywhere and live out of a suitcase, only to return to the same place to do the same thing every school year. Being surrounded by boys and girls who had likewise lived in so many places and had so many memories didn’t do much to lift my spirits.
But taking courses like geography and humanities definitely fed my imagination and made me think beyond what was happening in my own little world. When I finally left my parents to go to university, I breathed a sigh of relief. Now, nothing could stop me from seeking adventure on my own. I was free to walk in the woodland that I hadn’t seen for so many years. Every so often, when time and money allowed it, I would take the train and the bus to the towns nearby to explore what lay beyond the sleepy medieval town I inhabited.
It was a winter evening, and my restlessness forced me out of my shared lodgings at the university. I took a walk through a public footpath that lead from the town centre into the woods nearby. I only meant to walk as far as the next signpost, to figure out where the path would take me had I began my journey earlier in the day. But for more than an hour, I plodded on, my boots squelching under the thick mud that lay hidden from view making grass stick to the soles.
All the while, I blundered forward into the darkness between the overhanging trees that formed a threshold over me. The glacial air hung heavily on me like a mantle and from the gap in the trees I could still see the moon, shrouded by a smoky screen of mist in the sky. I continued further still, only to find a broken signpost leading to yet another public footpath. The coldness that enveloped my face made my cheeks sting and my feet were hurting, so I decided to call it a night and try again some other time.
But as I began to turn around, I heard a screeching howl. I turned my head around with a jump, trying to find out where the sound came from. Through the thin beam of moonlight, my eyes followed the path of a barn owl flying towards a branch. No doubt it had left its perch to look for suitable prey. With a sigh of relief, I continued to walk down the path that would lead me back home.
I had barely gone twenty paces before I heard a different noise; one that no animal could produce. It was deep and low-pitched, and it sounded as if it came from afar. It sounded much like a hunting horn.
I stopped in the middle of the path. No one in their right mind would hunt at this hour, I thought, it’s far too dark. So why then, did I have a strange feeling of foreboding in my soul? My mind struggled to reconcile the primitive reflex of running for dear life with my more rational tendencies, tempered by countless lectures in secular philosophy and being surrounded by schoolmates who excelled in the natural sciences. And yet, there was still something very sinister in the air. I had no idea why, but I knew I had to run for cover.
I turned back and proceeded to walk away from…God knows what. My pace quickened and I broke into a sprint. At length, I stopped to recover my breath and my bearings. The sound had disappeared. What was so frightening after all? I wondered. My breath became even and the muscles in my body loosened. Maybe my imagination was getting the best of me.
Then I heard it again. It was the same hunting horn noise, followed by the sound of thundering hoof beats that could still be heard across the muddy path where I stood. The anonymous terror clinched me again, followed by the sound of the barn owl whose shriek matched my mood. This time, I ran without care. It didn’t matter anymore that I was deviating, and slipping farther and farther away from my sanctuary at the university. I only knew that if I stopped for even an instant, I would be done for.
My pace quickened, as did my heart. I staggered forward again while the soft mud under my boots hindered my progress and threatened to swallow me like quicksand. And in my feverish terror, the roots and thorns under the moist earth that gripped at my ankles seemed to me like the hands of the damned in Hell. They seemed to clench at my clothes, tearing the fabric of my trousers and making rags of my modest finery. I could even hear disembodied voices, wailing and beseeching me to join them in their infernal abode.
But I persevered, with nothing but pure fear as my fuel. I continued forward, my eyes searching wildly for a chance to escape. The faster I ran, the faster the hooves thundered behind me and the clearer I could hear the sound of the hunting horn. My desperation came to a halt when I tripped and fell into an ancient irrigation ditch that snaked under the dirt road. The darkness of the night and the wild bushes and shrubs concealed me well. I believe that many highwaymen such as the notorious Richard Longfellow made good use of the old canal before. But I still crawled closer to the dark to make sure I was well out of sight. In my hiding place, I still had a clear view of who was on the road. But the moment I laid eyes on the reason for my fright, I regretted my curiosity dearly.
The moonlight revealed what appeared to be a pitch-black stallion, with a black figure on its back. Even with no rider, the creature itself was born of a nightmare. Its dark skin made it look more like a shadow than a valiant charger and flames sprang up from the ground with every hoof beat. The white breath that escaped its nostrils was icy and I found myself shivering despite the distance between us. And when the horse’s pallid eyes met mine, I feared somehow that they would expose my hideout. But as sinister as the mount was, what sat on its back was even worse.
The rider was a gigantic brute, clad entirely in black. Were it not for his blood red eyes that blazed under his skull of a helmet, I might have confused him with the night sky. The skull seemed to sneer at me, the way a crocodile sneers at a gazelle drinking from a lake. The white light of the moon revealed that a crossbow was slung across his back, while an evil looking-sword hung from his side. The hunting horn that I heard not long before hung from one shoulder and a long black cloak flowed behind his back like the tail of an extinguished comet. It could not be any clearer that this being was not of this world.
He reared his horse while drawing his long sword, brandishing it while the horse let out a whinny that sounded more like a shriek of fright than the proud cry of a dignified steed. The rider’s eyes flamed like coals and he opened his mouth to utter a horrific battle cry before his ride placed its hooves on the ground. I held my breath and dared not move, for fear of betraying my position. I soon breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the horse advance, and the rider disappeared from my sight. Now was my chance to escape. I slowly inched my way upwards, gripping at the rocks and roots that were embedded in the thick earth. I slowly reached for the edge of the ditch, hoping to break down the path before the horseman could turn his back and notice me.
A thud resounded near me, and I lowered my head just in time to see that the giant had dismounted, and was walking towards me!
Walking in my general direction, his hands thudded down on the periphery of the canal. His blood red eyes scanned both sides of the darkness, and I cowered away from him. For a long time, it looked as he had found me. He stared at me intently, and noiselessly slid a hunting dagger from a sheath that hung upon his belt. What do I do? Where will I flee? I thought, biting my lip to prevent me from asking the question out loud. The end was near. There was no escape now, so I closed my eyes as hard as I could. I waited for the coup de grace for what seemed like an eternity, until I heard a loud and boisterous yell coming from afar.
The ogre turned his head in the direction of the sound. I could hear a high pitched sound as he slid his dagger back in its sheath and stood up. I opened my eyes and listened to his footsteps thudding heavily on the ground as he walked back to his horse. Climbing up as discreetly as I could, I peered over the edge of the crevice and watched him straddle his horse. He uttered another heart-stopping battle cry before he dug at his horse’s sides and urged forward his steed. He galloped away towards the direction of the yell, where the sounds of Friday night pub crawlers could be heard even in the dark of the forest.
I waited for the thunderous hoof beats to subside before I clambered out of the ditch. I peered away at the dark path in the opposite direction, and I dashed down the path. I ran as only I knew how, only breaking my pace as I turned the corners that led me back to the high street. Even in the relative safety of the familiar city lights, I still ran for dear life. The image of the demon huntsman was still fresh in my mind and no matter how tired I felt, I could still see his blood red eyes. I continued to run until I finally reached my room in the halls of residence. After locking the door in frenzy, I rested my back against the door and slowly sat down, panting in exhaustion.
In the weeks that followed, I barely slept. The horseman in the forest appeared as in the darkness every time I closed my eyes. My breath quickened each time I went into a dark room or corridor, and I jumped at every shadow that appeared in the shafts of light that still prevailed. My lack of sleep began to manifest in my face, and I grew noticeably gaunt. I dragged myself to my classes in a somnambular state, wondering how I could still have the strength to carry on after my terror.
One day, nearly a month after my encounter, I found myself in the local library. Ever since I was in High School, I loved going to the school library. Almost every day after classes, I would disappear from the turbulence of school and homework by floating into the worlds that were hidden in the pages of the books I read. My mother, a librarian at another school, certainly didn’t object to me spending time there. To be there now, reading a fantasy novel on the couch near the tea and coffee machines, brought me unparalleled solace.
I rose from the couch to put the book I had been reading away, when one of the books on the nearest shelf caught my eye. I walked up to the shelf and found it tucked away between books about mythology and ghost lore. Peering closer, the title read Myths and Legends of the Ash Forest. My eyes widened and I slipped the book out of the shelf. I looked at the title once more before I seated myself at the nearest table. Upon opening the book, my eyes scanned the table of contents. Page 115, Ghosts and Spirit Lore, just what I was looking for.
I hastily read the introduction concerning good and evil ghosts, then turned the page. I nearly jumped as I saw what lay upon the page. It was a drawing of the horseman from the forest, so skilfully illustrated it almost looked real. At the bottom left corner of the page, I saw a reproduced painting of what appeared to be a nobleman. His face was curled into a leering smile, almost a sneer, and he was dressed in a red coat with a red waistcoat. I glanced over at the opposite page, and read the name of the nobleman; Sir Robert Falkner of Kent, also known as Robert Lack-Heart. He was knighted by the Queen for his service to the country during the Crimean War, but was notorious for his love of hunting. He was a hunting virtuoso who quickly grew bored of the sport. He tried his hardest to make his hunts more interesting by travelling as far as Russia and China to pursue more challenging prey. Sometimes, he would even abstain from using firearms relying instead on ancient weaponry against bears and snow leopards. But even then, he was not satisfied with the challenge. He reportedly lapsed into a long period of world-weariness and became progressively more reckless.
Then one day, his hunting partner was killed in a hunting accident. It was the first of a series of suspicious deaths that always seemed to be classed as accidents. But they all had one thing in common; Sir Robert was always present. It wasn’t long before foul play was suspected. According to one eye-witness, Sir Robert was at the scene of a massacre of woodcutters, brandishing a broadsword that was still soaked with fresh blood. And yet, the nobleman was so powerful that the authorities didn’t dare to arrest him.
But his nobility and his weapons could not protect him forever, and justice met him at last. He was hunting one night, and encountered an unfortunate gypsy girl who had made the mistake of straying too far into his lands. He spotted her as she was picking some apples that had fallen from his trees, and gave a horrible cry. He chased the frightened girl through the forest following her to her camp. No sooner had she cried out for help that she was struck down by the bloodthirsty hunter. Her family and friends all rushed to her side, but there was nothing that could be done. While the girl’s mother wailed and clutched at her body, the other gypsies stared at him with such a cold hatred that he kept his distance, raising his sword for good measure. Then an elderly Roma woman approached him and pointed at him accusingly and uttered an unknown chant. According to legend, Robert Lack-Heart was cursed to wander the forest for all eternity, to never rest or be satisfied with his hunt. Most of all, he would never enter Heaven. Ignoring the gypsy woman, he galloped away.
Historians agreed that he died at his estate soon after his encounter, although his body was never found. But there were numerous reports in the early 20th century that a ghostly man on horseback could be seen in the forest, killing many victims who were unfortunate enough to venture out into the woods at night. He was identified as the ghost of Robert Lack-Heart himself and an encounter with him meant certain death. However, the reports were dismissed as the delusions of traumatised survivors by the authorities, and before long, Robert Lack-Heart was reduced to a bogeyman and a myth.
I closed the book and laid it on the table. Though it was fairly cool in the library, I found myself saturated in sweat. I felt shivers run through me as I fully understood what had happened to me. I was one of the few people who managed to make it out of the Ash Forest alive. I had literally stared Death in the face...and lived to tell the tale.