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Rules of the Forest.

He hated that room above anything else he could ever remember, everywhere he turned in that accursed room his eyes would fall on yet another reminder of the old man. The only thing that came anywhere close to rivaling his hatred for that room was the old man himself, that quivering bag of bones that clung to life with such determination. Everything about the old man made him sick to his very soul, what especially infuriated him was the esteem and adoration that the old man was held in. Tobias could not even visit the local village without people accosting him in the streets asking after the old man, gushing with praise of their great benefactor, teary-eyed at the thought that they would lose such a great man. Well as far as he was concerned, the sooner the grim reaper came and took old Edgar Horris from this world the happier he would be. As the only living male relative of Edgar Horris, Tobias would inherit the vast estate of his uncle. Once the decrepit skeleton in that room gasped his last breath, things would change dramatically in this parish.

The sound of footsteps coming towards the door dragged Tobias from his muse, and he settled his facial expression to what he believed was a suitably concerned look. The door to the bedroom swung open and the two men joined him in the hallway, Edgar’s physician and solicitor both appeared to be on the brink of tears. The elderly doctor met Tobias’s stare and shook his head in a glum fashion. “It won’t be long now Tobias, your poor uncle is growing weaker by the minute. Soon God will take him to his well-deserved reward; his kindness will always be remembered by us all”. Tobias looked at the sorrowful expression on the idiot doctor’s face, and it took every bit of willpower he possessed to prevent him from laughing out loud in the old fool’s face. Still, he managed to keep up the sorrowful appearance until both men had left, even though inside he was dancing with joy.

The room he hated so much was dimly lit, the heavy drapes were drawn and the lamps were low. A small fire in the grate threw out a small pool of light that only served to cast strange shadows on the ceiling, at least he would be spared the pain of looking on the things his uncle held dear. The stuff Edgar had accumulated over his extensive travels, things that Tobias was forbidden to touch when he was a child. Well just as soon as the old man popped his clogs, Tobias would sell off the valuable stuff and the rest he would destroy. This thought brought a smile to his face; once as a child he had broken some figurines that were kept in this room, and his uncle had scolded him and forbade him touching anything in the room again. Well, he was going to have the last say in that matter; he only hoped his uncle could see his precious collections destroyed from wherever he was in the next life. At the far side of the room, he could hear the old man struggling to breathe, his body scarcely making any impression on the big four-poster bed.

Tobias stood in the shadows watching the concave chest of his uncle, his shallow breathing barely lifting the bed covers. The rattling sound in the old man’s lungs heralded the visit of the grim reaper, and the sooner the better as far as Tobias was concerned. He moved silently towards the foot of the bed and gazed down at the man he despised. Edgar had never been what you could call robust, but now the skin stretched across his skeleton had a strange parchment-like appearance. A corpse that refused to stop breathing was how he saw his uncle, even though his uncle had paid for his education and given him a small allowance; Tobias felt nothing but disdain for the man. He remembered all the slights going back to the time he had smashed those figurines against the hearthstone in this very room, the times he was forced to work his summer breaks on the estate like any of the common field hands. The old man had treated him no better than his servants; Tobias winced as he remembered the sting of his uncle’s horsewhip on his bare buttocks. Flogged like a thief just because he tried to have some fun with the scullery maid, the silly bitch had screamed the house down until his uncle came and found them.

He felt a stirring in his breeches as he thought of that bitch, crying like a baby, and she fourteen years of age. He had been in his final year at college just shy of his twenty-second birthday, a man, and his uncle had humiliated him, thrashed him like a bold child. A violent urge came over him to take the pillow and smother the dying man, smother him, and be done with it, he thought. However, Tobias could be described as many things, but a fool he was not. He realized that one moment of foolishness and he might lose everything, the old man had one foot in the grave already. That scullery maid still lived and worked on the estate, she had married a tenant farmer that had passed away shortly after the birth of their first child. When the old man was in the ground Tobias would pay that bitch a visit, he might even have her dragged here and he would rape her on the old man’s bed. The images in his head were vivid now; he could see her as she was twenty years ago. The tightness in his breeches grew, and his breathing became raspy.

The croaking sound of the dying man trying to speak ruined his daydream and fury raged through him again. His uncle had once again spoiled his fun with the wench, even if this time it was just in his mind. Edgar raised his stick-like arm and beckoned Tobias to draw near; the thought of getting close to that corpse-like creature was repulsive. But Tobias had played the adoring nephew for a long time now; a few more hours would not make much difference. Up close the smell of sickness was overpowering, he took a scented handkerchief from his pocket and held it near his nose. Edgar’s eyes were open but they stared blankly at the shadowed ceiling, he was babbling on about a great debt the Horris family owed, and how everything they had was only held in trust. Over and over, he rambled on about how they must always follow the rules laid down by the owners of this place, an involuntary snigger escaped Tobias’s lips at this. The old fool had completely lost his marbles, there would be only one owner of this estate and that would be him, Tobias Horris. He alone would make the rules, and there would be hell to pay for anyone breaking those rules.

Edgar’s voice faded until Tobias could no longer make out a single word, once again his eyes closed and he seemed to slip back into unconsciousness. Each breath now sounded as if the old man was trying to breathe underwater, Tobias could imagine the fluid building up in Edgar’s lungs, slowly drowning the corpse-like figure. Tobias withdrew from the objectionable stench of death that shrouded his uncle; it was perhaps time for him to visit the local taverns. His earlier musings on the scullery maid had left him feeling extremely frisky; he might just pick up one of the local harlots to sate his passions. It would be a pleasant method of whiling away the hours until the old man died, this whole situation was beginning to become tiresome and the house felt suffocating. He had just reached the bedroom door when the dying man spoke again. “The Rules! We must always follow the rules, or all will be lost.” Tobias stopped with one hand on the door handle, before turning to the dying man and hissing. “Just hurry up and die Uncle, and leave worrying about the rules to me.”

The sound of whimpering awoken him from a pleasant dream, he had been dreaming of chastising that scullery maid for getting him into trouble. The grey light of dawn barely illuminated the dingy little room, his head throbbed when he lifted it from the pillow and his throat felt parched. Tobias had no idea where he was or how he had got there, the continuous whimpering was hurting his head and making him angry. He swung his legs out of the narrow cot and his feet met cold bare floorboards, there he sat waiting for the throbbing in his head to cease. Slowly it dawned on him as snatches of last night’s events slipped in and out of his mind; he had left the house and gone to the village. Yes! He had gone to the village and visited a couple of taverns; the whimpering sound was making it hard to concentrate. Tobias got unsteadily to his feet, naked he walked to the corner to relieve himself in the chamber pot. Once his bladder was empty, he turned and discovered the source of the whimpering, the plump naked girl was cowering between the narrow cot and the wall.

The girl had drawn her knees up to her chest and had her arms defensively wrapped around her. She starred at him with puffed and bruised eyes; her pale skin was covered in dark blue bruises. Dried blood smeared her cheek; Tobias could feel his member begin to stiffen at the sight of her. However, when he attempted to approach her, the whimpering became louder; a memory came back to him now. He had picked her up in the tavern; she had agreed to pleasure him for two shillings. Perhaps he had been a slight bit rough with her, but it was not as if he was refusing to pay her. The whimpering of the girl was drilling into his brain now, and he had lost interest in her body. He found his breeches and took a half-crown from his pocket; he threw the money on the floor beside the crying whore. “The extra sixpence is by way of compensation for any accidental injuries you may have incurred.” By the time he had dressed she still had not attempted to retrieve the coin from the floor, he half contemplated picking it up and putting it back in his pocket. But in the end, he settled for spitting in her direction before leaving.

The ride back to his uncle’s estate was a painful experience, his head throbbed and his stomach felt queasy. He could not wait to have a hot bath and go to bed for a few hours, his groin felt tender and he smiled at the thought that he had used the harlot well. Once the huge house came into view all effects of the hangover disappeared, a carriage was parked outside the main entrance and he recognized it as the doctor’s rig. He hastily dismounted and ran up the steps leading to the front door, when he went inside the wailing of the servant girls was like music to his ears. Tobias hurried across the entrance hall only to be met at the foot of the main staircase by the elderly doctor, one look at the old fool’s expression told him all he needed to know. There were tears in the physician’s eyes, which almost caused Tobias to laugh out loud. “I am sorry to have to tell you that your beloved uncle passed away not an hour since. You are the new squire now Tobias and the title brings great responsibility with it”. Tobias ignored the outstretched hand of the doctor and sprinted up to the room, he wanted to make sure for himself that the old man was finally gone.

If anything, the old man had grown even smaller in his last few hours, the cadaver could easily have been missed by a casual glimpse at the big four-poster bed. A heavy sheet might have disguised that the bed was even occupied, his presence was so slight. Tobias stared down at the body and a mixture of emotions flip-flopped in his mind, first, there was the joy that he would finally gain his inheritance. Then that was replaced by anger that he had to wait so long and that he had not been given the pleasure of watching the old man take his last gasp. However, another even stranger emotion was in the mix, and it was an irrational fear. A fear, based on the incoherent ramblings of the dead man the previous day, what had the old man meant by following rules, and the real owners of the place. Tobias did his best to shake that irrational fear from his mind, but somewhere at the back of his mind, that seed of fear had taken root. To drive that fear from his mind, Tobias walked to the bedside and leaned over the fresh corpse. “Well, I guess I will be making the rules from here on in uncle, soon you will be nothing more than a memory, food for the maggots.” In a show of bravo that was not there, he leaned over and pinched his uncle’s cheek. The old man’s flesh had the texture of playdough and it bunched together, it now looked as if his uncle was sneering at him.

That sneer made the blood run cold in his veins; Tobias lost all pretense of bravo now and he jumped back from the bedside. The atmosphere in the room took on an ominous feel, and Tobias shivered. He made his way from the death room as fast as he could, and as he closed the door behind him, he could have sworn he heard laughter. On the landing, he stood for a long time trying to regain some composure, until after a while he managed to convince himself that the hangover was the cause of his jitters. However, when he walked downstairs his usual swagger was conspicuously absent, he had intended to give the servants a stern talking to for their crying and wailing, but in the end, he just locked himself in the study. There he poured a good stiff brandy to ease his nerves, one drink led to another until finally; he faded into a drunken slumber. A slumber that did little to ease his troubled mind, for it was haunted by disturbing dreams. Vivid images of half-seen creatures pursued him in his dreamscape, and when he finally awoke, he was exhausted and the fear had grown inside him.

Despite the inclement weather, the small cemetery adjoining the church was packed with mourners. It appeared as if the world and its daughter had turned out to bid farewell to old Edgar Horris, the site of the sad-faced crowd only served to infuriate Tobias. Deep in his heart, he knew that few would turn up at his funeral, and no one he could think of would shed a tear. The decrepit vicar had to pause to dry his eyes on more than one occasion during the graveside oratory, his glowing praise of the deceased man only serving to fuel the anger inside Tobias. The brisk breeze that had been present while the coffin was carried to the graveside had grown in strength as the box was lowered into the ground. Now it was a howling wind that drove the rain horizontally into Tobias’s face, the old priest droned on and on about the virtues of their friend and benefactor Edgar Horris. Well, those present could get it out of their head now; if they thought that the new squire would be beneficial to any of them. This thought brought some amusement to Tobias on what was otherwise a dull day, now all he wanted was for it all to be over, cover over the old bastard with the wet clay, and be done with it.

The graveside ceremony finished and the vicar hurried away, a young altar boy held an umbrella doing his best to keep the driving rain from wetting the holy man any further. Tobias watched in silent amusement as the young boy struggle to keep the heavy umbrella above the vicar’s head, as the wind threatened to take it and him skywards. The thud of the wet clay striking the coffin drew his attention back to grave, thump, and thump, it sounded as if a child were striking a bass drum. The sound should have given him more pleasure, but for the last couple of days, his nerves had been on edge. Once this debacle of the funeral had finished, he could get down to the real business at hand, his inheritance, then perhaps this feeling would finally pass. Tobias lifted his head and watched with relief as the mourners filed out of the cemetery, at least he would not have to feign grief as they sympathized with his loss.

The grave diggers finally shoveled the last of the saturated earth onto his uncle’s grave, and the two dour-faced men stood disconcertingly watching him. It was a few moments before he realized they were awaiting payment, and he had a good mind to keep them waiting in the driving rain. But in the finish, he fumbled in his wet breeches pocket and threw each of them a shiny shilling, neither man seemed overly impressed with their compensation, and they shuffled away muttering beneath their breath. Now that he was finally alone, he moved to the fresh mound of wet clay, he had intended to do a little dance on that grave but the clay was too wet. Instead, he had to be satisfied with honking up a globule of phlegm and spitting it onto the mound of flowers left by the other mourners. This indignation did not go unnoticed, by the lone watcher which Tobias was unaware of. At the far end of the cemetery beneath the old sycamore tree, a small stooped figure observed the desecration of the fresh grave. When Tobias finally took his leave of his uncle’s grave, the stooped figure followed in his wake, moving through the headstones with speed and agility that belied its appearance.

Tobias sat alone by the blazing fire in the drawing-room, outside the inclement weather had grown even worse, and the driving rain played a tattoo on the window panes. Apart from the crackling of the burning wood, the only other sound was the moaning of the wind and the sound of the rain. Like many others of his ilk, he was wont to bouts of self-pity; this evening’s bout of self-indulgent sorrow was brought on by the fact that he was celebrating his newfound wealth alone. He had given the servants the remainder of the day off after the funeral, and the only reason he had, was the fact that he couldn’t bear to look at their forlorn faces. Not that he would be at any loss, for he intended to terminate the employment of most of them by the end of the month. When their severance pay was calculated, he had every intention of deducting today’s wages from their lot. This thought brought some bit of satisfaction to him, other than this, a day that should have brought him great joy was somewhat miserable.

The frigid conditions finally awoke him from his drunken slumber; the fire had long since burned to ashes in the grate. An icy breeze brought goosebumps to his flesh; the room was in darkness, as he had passed out without lighting the lamps. A strange scent pervaded the room. It was familiar but he could not remember where he had come across it before. Standing up from the chair Tobias fumbled about in the dark searching for a lamp, he stood on the empty whiskey bottle, twisting his ankle and sending him headfirst into the darkness. An explosion of light in his head was closely followed by utter blackness. The light of a new day illuminated the drawing-room when Tobias next came around; he was lying on the floor by the oak sideboard. Throbbing pain in his right temple marked the spot where his head had collided with the stout oak and congealed blood had stiffened his sidelocks. With great effort he managed to haul himself to his feet, but when he attempted to walk a searing pain emanated from his ankle. The French doors leading out onto the lawn were wide open, and this explained the frigid breeze he had awoken to during the night. It took five minutes of frantic shouting on his behalf before the butler came to his aid.

Five minutes into the reading of the will, boredom had set in. His ankle still smarted any time he shifted his position in the uncomfortable chair, and the glum-faced solicitor’s droning voice was threatening to put him to sleep. Nothing the man behind the big desk had said so far had any relevance to the important matter, how much did he inherit. Tobias fiddled with the silver wolf’s head that was the handle of his walking cane, and all the time he bit his tongue to prevent him from screaming at the solicitor to hurry up and get to the point. Finally, he heard the words he had been waiting for. “Now I will read the list of bequeaths for the will of Edgar Horris ESQ, late of Wood view house in this county. A long list of small piddling bequeaths followed, that ranged from the grazing in a certain pasture to small sums of money. Tobias sat through this with rising impatiens, until finally, the solicitor got to the meat of the bones. Tobias was to inherit Wood view house, all surrounding lands, complete with sitting tenants, both on the land and in the village. But far more important he was to inherit the contents of Edgar’s bank account. A sum of 3000 Guiney’s, Tobias suddenly sat up and snatched the will from the solicitor’s hand. He was shocked and furious; he had been expecting ten times that amount.

The best part of the following week was spent sifting through the old man’s private documents, the fury and indignation Tobias felt was almost indescribable. Edgar Horris had owned and run an extremely profitable shipping business, and when he retired several years back, he sold the company for a very substantial sum. Together with shrewd investments, Edgar had always managed to acquire, there should have been a much larger sum of money to inherit. The only major investment the old man had made was the house and land, and that was over thirty years ago. Over those thirty years, the Horris family fortune appeared to have dwindled, despite the gold-plated investments and the sale of the business. Something had gone wrong and Tobias would not rest until he got to the bottom of it, no one was about to get away with stealing from him. The old solicitor turned out to be worse than useless when it came to shedding light on the matter, and Edgar had always chosen to keep his accounts. So, the only choice left to Tobias was to sift through every piece of paper he could find, and the huge old house was filled with papers.

Tobias had turned the drawing-room into a giant office; here he spent his every waking moment forensically going through the life records of his uncle. He took his meals there and slept there, only leaving the room to use the privy, or on an expedition to search the house for more paperwork. What little sleep he got was haunted by strange dreams, and on several occasions, he awoke to find the French doors open and leaves and twigs trailed from the open door to the couch where he slept. Towards the weekend of the second week, a strange occurrence led to a discovery, which at least shed some light on where the money had gone. Tobias had been searching through his uncle’s bedroom, when in a fit of frustrated rage; he smashed the handle of his walking cane through a painting hanging on the wall. The heavy silver handle smashed straight through the large forest scene, and a hollow was exposed behind it. There he found the concealed ledger, a huge dusty volume filled with his uncle’s neat handwriting.

It appeared that not only did Edgar Horris continue to hold very lucrative investments, but they had been bringing in healthy returns every month. The entries in the ledger had continued right up until the old man had taken to his sickbed some weeks back. Tobias took the book down to the drawing-room and began to study it, month by month the income from his uncle’s investments was duly recorded on one side and a corresponding outgoing for the same amount was duly recorded on the opposite side. His uncle had been giving his money away, now all Tobias had to do was find out who had taken that money. It took almost another full day searching the bedroom before he found documentation that pointed him in the right direction, hidden behind some books on a shelf, Tobias found a box containing some more paperwork. He stood amidst the wreckage of his uncle’s bedroom and laughed out loud, the floor was strewn around him with Edgar’s prize possessions.

The box containing his latest discovery had been handcrafted from dark deadwood; it appeared at first glance to be roughhewn. But on closer inspection the workmanship that went into it was exceptional; the surfaces were inlaid with intricate forest animals and fauna. Tobias took the bundle of documents from inside and carefully left the box to one side; he was conscious that such a crafted item might fetch a good price at auction. Once he had time to digest the contents of those documents, he did not know whether to laugh or cry. His emotions ranged between bewilderment, disbelief, and not a little anger. That old fool Edgar had signed an agreement to give the majority of his fortune away, to some imaginary creatures that lived in the forest. All of this by way of compensation for killing a creature while hunting in the forest on his land, the diary included with the papers told the story and described the imaginary creatures as the real owners of this land. The old imbecile had even signed a contract agreeing to all this; so here were the rules the old man had been babbling on about. Month after month, and year after year, Edgar had taken a fortune to a cottage in the woods, where an old woman took it on behalf of the imaginary creatures.

The diary also stipulated that as long as a member of the Horris family resided on this land, the forest creatures would be entitled to their compensation. This particular passage was the final straw as far as Tobias was concerned, not only did he have no intention of complying with this, he also had every intention of recovering as much as possible from the old woman. Just after lunch that very day, he went to the armory and selected two of the finest pistols from his uncle’s collection. It was late afternoon before he found the cottage; it was nestled by a brook at the edge of the forest on his land. The woman was stooped from the waist and appeared as ancient as the oak forest, yet her eyes burned with peculiar ageless energy. If he had expected her to be cowed by his arrival he was mistaken, she stood at the door of her cottage defiantly. “Rules are rules” she repeated over and over with a creepy smile on her wrinkled face. In a fit of rage, he took a pistol from his waistband and fired at her, the ball striking her high on the right shoulder. To his utter amazement, the old crone bolted past him with speed and agility, by the time he realized what was happening she had disappeared into the forest. He spent a while searching for her but it had begun to get dark among the trees; Tobias went home intending to resume his search at first light.

Once again in a drunken stupor, he slept on the couch in the drawing-room, a troublesome night’s sleep, haunted by frightening dreams, turned into an even more troublesome awakening. Immediately on awakening, he was aware of the strange scent, this time he eventually recognized it. It was the smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation, he had smelled this very scent yesterday in the forest. The room was frigid as the French doors were wide open, but much more disturbing was the fact that the forest had come to visit him. The glass panes in the French doors were covered in living ivy, moss and lichen had appeared in patches on the walls. Beneath his feet, the floorboards were warped with moisture, and bramble shoots appeared through the cracks. Witchcraft was his first thought, the old crone was a witch and had placed a hex on him. But, witchcraft or not, he intended to find that old woman and retrieve what she had stolen from him. Tobias was not weak like his uncle and he would fight for what was rightfully his, he armed himself again and rode in search of the witch.

The forest was enormous, far more expansive than he would have thought, after the first couple of hours he was hopelessly lost. However, the anger inside kept him going, and towards mid-day, he caught his first sighting of her. At least he thought it was her, a movement through the trees and a blurred image, but if it was her, she moved with incredible speed. Tobias crashed through the undergrowth for miles in pursuit, the trees and brambles ripped his clothes to shreds. In large areas of his legs, the skin hung in tatters and blood dripped from scratches on his face. By late afternoon he finally caught up with her, or at least he came to face to face with her, and the forest creatures that were very much real. The horrible things that surrounded the old crone were indescribable, a strange cross-breed between plant and animal. When they pounced on him the pain he felt was beyond his wildest nightmare, living moving vegetation entered his every orifice and proceed to devour him slowly inside. His last conscious memory was of the old crone leaning over him and crooning softly. “Rules are rules, and these are the real owners of the land”.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery/Thriller