He was beginning to think it hadn't been such a good idea to cut across the moors.
The landlady back at the pub had advised him to stick close to the roads, but he'd been looking for a set of standing stones that were supposed to be nearby. As he'd soon discovered on this trip, the moors coughed up their secrets without ceremony, ancient monuments unsignposted and often half overgrown; after walking all the way to the next village without seeing any sign of them, he'd decided he'd have better luck if he cut across country on his way back.
Besides, even if he didn't find the stones, the whole point of going on a walking holiday was the journey. The moors were bleakly beautiful, great desolate stretches of open space under a misty grey sky, and it had seemed a pointless shame to stay anchored to the few remaining trappings of civilisation that spoiled the view.
But now the rain was really coming down, bringing twilight on early, and he was starting to get worried that he'd overshot the pub. He'd left all his camping gear there, and he didn't fancy having to backtrack miles along the narrow, twisty local roads to find the place once it got dark - not least because the landlady had warned him that they stopped serving hot food after six. The novelty of feeding himself on a camping stove had thoroughly worn off, and he'd been looking forward to a proper home-cooked meal for days.
Maybe he'd just crest this rise ahead of him and see if he could spot the stones from higher ground. If not, time to abandon his search and just head back to the road.
He made his way uphill over the tufts of springy grass, the wind driving the rain into his face. There was nothing out here to break it; he felt like he hadn't seen a tree for miles. As he reached the top of the rise he stopped to look around, shielding his eyes from the drip of his hair. The rain hadn't seemed heavy enough to be trouble at first, but it was cold and miserably relentless. It gave the moors a misty aura that made it hard to judge distances.
But then he spotted something jutting up some way ahead. The standing stones at last? He hurried on towards the sight.
Not quite, he realised as he drew closer to the scene, but maybe something else of interest. Ruins of some sort, perhaps of a building - or maybe just a wall? There must have been a paved road leading up to the place once, though now only the odd few stones remained. There was even still a wooden gate between two upright posts, but nothing of the wall to either side survived.
He approached along what was left of the ruined path, trying to see it in his mind as it must once have been. Something had stood beyond the gate, that much was clear from the few remaining stones. But as to what kind of structure it had been...? He unlocked the gate and stepped through - strange that it should be locked on this side, perhaps to keep livestock out? - trying to get a good feel for the space beyond. Hmm. Perhaps a doorway here? And that stone there could have been the far corner of the building... A storage barn? A shepherd's hut?
But he knew that he was only telling stories to himself. There must have been something here once, but it was gone now. Maybe he should ask the pub landlady; she might be able to tell him a little bit about the local history.
The gate gave a low, mournful creak behind him, and he turned to see that it had swung back open of its own accord. He smiled a little at the sight of the KEEP SHUT sign still fixed to this side. A bit redundant now.
A dark shadow flashed somewhere at the corner of his eye, and he half turned to follow it, but saw nothing. Must have been a darting bird - or his hair getting in his eyes. He swiped it back. The rain was getting worse, and now that he'd stopped, he was suddenly conscious of just how cold the day had grown. The wind was like an icy breath on the back of his neck, making his shoulders jerk in a spine-tingling shiver.
Time to try to find his way back to the pub. He turned his collar up and stopped to zip his coat, leaning the branch he'd taken as a walking stick against one of the stones. Now, where to go from here? He stepped forward a few paces to survey the misty moors. Veer left, hoping to find his way back to the road, or follow the ghost impressions of this old track through the grass? It had to have led somewhere at some point.
A sudden sharp crack sounded behind him, and he flinched and spun around, half envisioning some angry farmer with a shotgun. Instead, he saw his former walking stick had fallen to the ground - and somehow broken in half in the process. He bent to pick the pieces up from the wet grass and compared the broken ends, baffled.
How had that happened? He'd picked it out as a suitably solid, sturdy branch to lean on, almost as thick as a proper cane, and he hadn't noticed it starting to split as he was walking. Maybe it had somehow become wedged against the stone...?
Well, it didn't matter, he supposed. He tossed the useless pieces down, and glanced back towards the old gate behind him. The fog seemed to be spreading, coiling in thick tendrils between the posts. He had a whimsical urge to go back and close the thing - that was what the sign said, after all! - but it seemed like a pointless faff to fiddle with the stiff old bolt with his cold-numbed fingers. It wasn't as if anyone was going to come after him for letting livestock through.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and started forward along the route marked out by the old former road. Though the stones soon petered out, he thought he could still follow it by the subtle furrow it had left across the land. At least it ought to help him to keep his bearings and avoid getting too turned around. It already seemed as if the sky was starting to get dimmer.
He missed his walking stick as he increased his pace, trying to outrun the icy cold. It was supposed to be summer; he'd been walking with his coat unzipped even despite the rain, but now he just couldn't seem to get warm. It was this miserable fog that had crept up, wrapping around him like the clammy coils of an eel.
He looked back at the ruins to see how far he'd come - and faltered as he thought he saw a dark shape in the rain and mist some way behind. He blinked and it was gone, but he was sure it had been there: some low-slinking, predatory thing, winding its way through the coarse grass on his trail. He swallowed and stared, eyes wide, his heart racing.
What had that been? Some wide-ranging farm cat that considered the whole of the moors its territory? But it had looked so much bigger... He thought of tales of the Surrey puma and its ilk, and huffed a quiet laugh - then wished he hadn't as it came out small and weak.
There were no big cats in this part of the world, whatever the tabloid stories said. But feral dogs, maybe... Even in the brief glimpse that he'd had of the thing, it had looked gaunt to his eyes, all ribcage and no flesh.
And really not so very much like any kind of dog, the more that he thought about it.
He forced a shaky breath. Whatever it had been, however hungry it might be, it wasn't going to try to attack a full-grown man. And was he really sure that he'd seen anything at all? It could have been a trick of the shadows.
Even so, he scanned the moors behind him one last breathless time before he turned to hurry on.
He was moving faster now, exchanging haste for outright recklessness. He'd lost the line of the old road, if it had ever been there, and now he was just stumbling blindly across the moors. His breath was coming in shivery huffs, only partly the cold. The sense of something behind was such a pressing force that he kept twisting to look back.
"Shit!" His foot went down on wet grass, and he went with it, skidding to sprawl over on his side. Panting, he rolled over, first instinct to look behind.
He saw something crawling, low over the ground, white eyes glinting out from behind what looked like a mop of long shaggy black hair.
Another curl of mist, and it was gone.
He forced himself back up, right leg wobbling under him. He'd twisted his ankle, but there was no time to nurse it. He turned and broke into a sprint, the nauseating rush of adrenaline thick in his throat. If he could just get to the road, a farmhouse, anything...
The moors couldn't go on forever. They had to come to an end.
He glanced back again, couldn't see the thing behind him anywhere. That only made it worse. His breath was burning in his chest as he ran on. He tripped over a jutting rock, and almost went down again, a new spike of pain through his ankle. There was a guttural sound behind him, almost like a snickering laugh.
It sounded way too close.
But as he raised his head again, he realised that he could see lights in the distance. Was that the road? Or was it just the setting sun, hazed through the water in his eyes?
He forced himself onwards with a new burst of desperation. The hazy lights resolved into the separate orange glows of widely spaced streetlights. It was the road. And there, the shape of a building emerging out of the murk, lights still in the windows. With a flare of fragile hope, he realised he'd managed to find his way back to the pub at last.
There was a hungry snuffling sound behind him, and his stomach shrivelled as he let out a near sobbing gasp. So close, so close... His leg was starting to give out, and he was half hobbling now, but it was downhill all the way from here.
He could swear he felt the thing's clammy breath right on the back of his neck. It was toying with him, stalking him for its own amusement, and any second now...
He slammed into the pub door at a run, hard enough to jar his outstretched arms. He hammered on it with his fists in desperate panic before it even sank in he could open it himself. Wrenching at the handle with numb ice-fingers, he lurched through and pulled the heavy oak door shut behind.
Everything suddenly seemed silent and still.
The main room of the pub was empty, lit by the cosy light of the log fire in the grate. He glanced towards the windows, swallowing fearfully, but the lit room made him blind to anything in the glass besides his reflection. He sagged back against the door, ankle beginning to throb in earnest now that he had time to stop and notice it.
But he'd made it back indoors. He'd reached safe ground.
He heard a thump and rattle from the kitchen at the pub's rear, and spun towards it, panting, senses still on high alert. Then the cracked voice of the elderly landlady emerged. "Is that you back, love?" she called. "I was starting to worry. You're just in time to get a bite to eat."
Not even six o'clock. Jesus. It felt like it was the middle of the night. He closed his eyes in weary relief for a moment before he staggered towards the kitchen doorway. What was he going to say? How could he even explain what he'd seen out there on the moors?
He didn't care. He just wanted to see a human face. As he left the warmth of the fire, the draft under the kitchen door made him shiver again. He shouldered it open and stepped through into the room - and saw that the back door was standing open to the night, damp tendrils of mist slithering in. His heart stuttered.
And then cold, clammy shadow-black hands wrapped around his neck, lank hair like waterweed brushing his cheek. "Just in time to get a bite," the thing said in the same cracked voice, and let out another wheezing laugh.