He’s sweating though it’s cold, the exertion from the digging winding him and keeping him warm. Tonight her name is ‘Phyllis Bagshaw’, and even though he knows her family will be upset when they find out, he can’t afford to care.
The voice in his head sees to that. An animalistic growl repeating the command to ‘DIG’ that he’d carried all day. At first, he’d tried to sleep through it, but it had been too loud, too distracting to him as he huddled in his shelter. Then he’d taken to running through the woods as fast as he could, as though he could leave the voice somewhere behind him. He’d known what it had meant too, where he was supposed to dig, and why; his dreams had seen to that. In the end he had simply sat, watching the trees watching him.
They had known, he could tell by the way they shifted around him in a weird mixture of nervousness and excitement. They knew whose forest they resided in, and although the birches often protested it, they knew there was nothing they could do; unless of course they picked up their roots and found somewhere new, and that could take YEARS.
So they stayed, just as snared as he was, equally prisoners to the horned one.
He’d been coming to these woods ever since he was a child, he knew the stories, and he’d seen the bloodstains of sacrifice painted on the rocks by the waterfall. He’d never dreamed he’d become one to put the stains there.
But one day in the dead month of February it had all changed.
He had been hiking alone when he first heard them – those steps, those steps that sounded both like hoof and foot fall all at the same time. Putting it down to his imagination, he’d carried on, ignoring the growing sense that he was being followed, and that somehow, the trees themselves were changing positions.
Not that *that* was a surprise, people had told stories about the trees on this hill for years. It wasn’t even told in the hushed tones of people that were afraid they’d be laughed at were their story heard by the wrong people – but openly. It was an accepted fact of life for them.
They’d never been known to harm anyone, but he didn’t know he could say the same about whatever was following him. Hurriedly making his way down the other side of the hill, he’d breathed a sigh of relief when he came to the tarn and the feeling vanished. Later that night on his way home, he’d taken the longer way round home – round the hill, unsure he wanted to go over it in the dark.
But the steps had followed him into his dreams that night.
Gradually, he began to think about the nab more, in the same way a smoker thinks about cigarettes, and became braver. When he went up the nab, he’d try to turn around quickly to catch the steps, or even run after them through the ever-moving trees. The more he chased them in the woods, the more he thought about them when he wasn’t there, and the more they became the soundtrack of his dreams.
Over time, his family became alien to him, and the entirety of his spare time was spent chasing the footsteps. Eventually, he’d simply stopped going home and just stayed there on the nab. Survival wasn’t an issue - he had his shelter, his supplies and his snares, and his days of near endless running had made him fitter than he’d ever been.
But for all his speed, he’d still never caught the steps.
One night though, while settling into his shelter, he’d heard a voice, the voice that came to plague him, “COME”, it had said, and he had. Making his way down the hill to the place with the blood stains, he was met by three men and the voice in his head fell suddenly silent.
“Who are you?”, he’d asked, almost afraid of their answer. Looking between themselves, the oldest had stepped forward, “You are the one he has chosen.”
As if by wordless cue, the men had circled him, drawing closer. “You are his priest.”, said Oldest. “You are the one who must dwell.”, said Not-So-Old. “You are the one who must sacrifice.”, said Youngest.
Confused, he’d looked wildly about him, at the men who circled, the trees that moved, and the darkness that held only hoof steps. He was losing his footing, disoriented by the charged atmosphere, “WHOSE PRIEST?!”, he’d cried out.
And then a chant had risen up, the steps were getting closer, and the man was unsure he wanted to catch them anymore. Breaking from his brothers, Oldest approached with his hand outstretched and palm open, his voice full of reverence as he spoke.
At the touch of hand to head, he’d fallen back, the men and trees fading as he lost consciousness, and his mind filling with images of a horned being with goat hooves. Now he knew who ‘he’ was, he’d finally caught the steps.
From that point onwards, he’d joined them at their rites, the blood of small animals staining his hands as much as theirs. He was their unholy ascetic, their wise madman, the possessed one that ran through the trees that move. He thought no more of his family, nor of the job he’d had, or the friends he used to meet in the pub. His world was now the trees and always the steps.
He’d never minded killing the animals, nor spreading their blood upon his and the faces of his congregation. He killed to eat anyway, but this, this was different.
This was someone’s family, a loved one.
But still, the horned one wouldn’t let him rest and so he’d acquiesced. He’d made the first trip home in months for a shovel and lantern, then headed to the town cemetery to do as commanded.
He’d been digging for hours when they found him, the cemetery becoming unusually light as his shovel hit coffin and the ghastly scene was illuminated by the headlights of police cars and flashlights. Phyllis Bagshaw would continue to rest in peace, while he would know no such thing as the voice screamed at him, telling him to kill, to take their bodies instead and finish the rite. But they were too many, and he was dragged off in cuffs, his final strand of sanity breaking and the three observers in the distance going completely unnoticed in his fugue state.
“What now?”, says Youngest. “Another must be found.”, says Not-So-Old, a pensive note in his voice.
Oldest simply smiles, “It’s ok, he has a son.”