The Stone Circle

 I had decided to attempt the walk from Lofthouse to Masham in two stages stopping off at The Bluebell in Leighton overnight. I had my maps and an approximate route but I suppose I was happy enough to wander a broader path

As I set off along the, strangely named, ‘Old Corpse Road’, the day was outstanding; sunny but with a gentle breeze supporting a lone buzzard circling lazily overhead. A curlew zigzagged across the sky and though the moors usually make for a lonely spot, today they looked almost benign. The day was the perfect antidote to the problems I had left behind. Throughout the day I walked relaxed and happy with only the occasional thought that this was just too good to be true.

I was near the end of my first day’s walk and just beginning my descent from the moors to Leighton when I first began to sense that all might not be well. Even from a distance there was something odd about the copse of trees. They stood boldly alone on the horizon in a spot where it felt no trees should exist. They resembled a set of artificial trees not out of place on a Hollywood film set.

Given the trees were not on my direct route I cannot say what drew me to them. Probably nothing more than the thought that they would offer a pleasant spot to sit. I had plenty of time before arriving at my booked room at The Bluebell a mile or so further on.

As I drew nearer to the grouped trees I was amazed at how closely they grew and how dense the undergrowth intertwining them was. I thought I had a fair knowledge of the local flora and fauna but I did not recognise either the trees or the venous, entangled plants at their base. There appeared to be no obvious opening into the wood and I walked rapidly around the circumference of the group several times before I noticed a gap. It was odd that I had not seen it before. Odder still, the more I studied it the more obvious it appeared to be.

I had not penetrated more than a few feet when I noticed a change in atmosphere. There was not a sound. The chattering magpies, the distinctive call of the whinchat and the distant hum of a tractor had all evaporated. I shrugged and pushed further into the pressing trees. The light grew dimmer and I could not see further than two or three feet in any direction. The wood seemed much bigger and more oppressive from the inside than from its perimeter.

After several minutes of pushing and pulling I decided I could go no further. But as I started to turn back I noticed, what appeared to be, a light shining through the trees ahead. Perhaps, I thought, just ahead is the other side of the wood. A little more commitment and I would be through to the other side. I pushed forward once more. I should not have.

In an instant the trees ceased and the undergrowth disappeared. I had not broken through to the other side of the wood at all but merely into a small clearing. At first I felt a great relief at having escaped the clutches of the trees. This sensation of pleasure was immediately replaced with a feeling of complete dread. In the clearing stood a circle of what appeared to be headstones. I counted them. There were twelve in all. Immediately I had a powerful sense that this was an evil place. I noticed, with something approaching panic, that the light was beginning to fade.

A feeling of desperation overtook me. I almost ran around the edge of the trees and then again and again searching frantically for a way of escape. The wood was completely impenetrable. With my face to the wood I sensed the stones at my back. I turned to look at them and as I did I was pulled towards them.

Each stone, except one, had a name upon it. No two names were the same and the dates, of presumably each death, were spread over a period ranging from 1893 until 2003. The pattern was clear although I did not spot it at first. It seemed that somebody had been buried in this God-forsaken spot every ten years

At first glance I supposed the twelfth headstone had no date but as I stared I swear the numbers 2013 appeared. I remained transfixed as once more the stone began to give up more of its terrible secret. Letter by letter, with all the inevitability of the incoming tide, it spelt out my name. I screamed and covered my eyes. When I opened them my name and the date had gone.

I do not know what first made me realise that the gloom had lessened. At first it was no more than a slight feeling of lightness. As I looked more closely I saw to my amazement that the trees and the dense undergrowth in one part of the wood seemed to actually be getting thinner.

My joy, however, gradually turned to horror. Through the, now quite clear, passage in the trees I could see across the barren landscape. At first I saw what I thought was a blackened tree stump. I rubbed my eyes and stared at the object. As I did I realised it was moving slowly towards me. For some reason I cannot describe far from seeing the opportunity to escape I was rooted to that spot. Then the moment was gone. I looked again and then again because now there was not just one blackened stump but several. All were moving remorselessly towards me.

I counted nine. No, two more appeared, as if from the moor itself. Eleven in all. No sooner had I counted them than I realised they weren’t objects at all. As I sat trapped in the malevolent glade I saw that moving towards me were eleven hooded figures. They slid across that barren, lonely moor and, as I stood and watched, one by one they filtered through the passage in the wood and into the circle of stones. Each one assuming a position behind a stone with long-practised ease. I could see nothing of their faces but from their hooded faces came a dreadful wheezing sound.

I now tried to run but, as if in a terrible nightmare, I struggled to move. My lungs and heart were bursting as I gave everything I had to burst through their hooded cordon. I was completely surrounded by them. Their smell was like no other I had ever experienced. I felt their collective weight smothering me. I tried to breath but my breaths became ever more shallow as the enveloped me from head to toe. I sank deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit. As the remaining light above me faded to grey I summoned all my remaining strength to break free. It felt useless, was this what my death would be?

The night was dark and cold. I lay on the now damp ground. I became aware of a face above me. I screamed although I could not tell whether any sound came from my mouth. The voice spoke to me from far away.

“Take it easy. You’re alright. They’ve gone back to where they came from.”

“Who, who are you?” I croaked.

“I’m the landlord of The Bluebell,” the voice replied. “You’re a lucky man. When you didn’t arrive I came looking for you. You’d said roughly which route you’d be taking so I came on the off chance. You’re not the first to disappear up here or at least so legend has it. But you said you’d be here much earlier so I said nothing to you. We don’t like to scare the tourists.”

We sat for a while until my breathing had returned to something like normal. I had not dared to look behind me. Jim Bartrum tried to explain about the spectral figures that appeared some time every tenth year trying, local legend had it, to complete their group and pass through to another world. Nobody knew the truth or if they did they did not admit it.

“And why the trees should appear to you I cannot say. Except it’s the tenth year. They seem to appear to people in trouble, low in spirits. I suppose they think you’re somehow more susceptible. That you’ll go through the door without resistance. I think when you made your booking and hinted that you were looking for some kind of refuge from your problems, that stuck in my mind. I found you here on the ground writhing in agony”

It took me a moment to realise what he had said.

“You mean there’s no wood?”

I looked back. The landscape was silent and empty. After a few moments I spoke again. “I suppose I had a lucky escape then.” The landlord did not respond immediately. “I did escape, didn’t I?”I laughed.

He turned to me and smiled. The smile turned my legs to jelly.

“For now,” he said.

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