The Shrine

A boy and his mother were on the road, traveling to see the boy’s father, who had, by necessity, taken work in another town. After many hours they found themselves on less commonly used paths. The road wandered wildly between the hills, with grasses growing in the path and young trees beginning to encroach upon the roadside. The fork in the path, when it came, was a welcome landmark, showing they had remained on their route and not wandered down some well-beloved hunting track instead. 

Where the paths diverged, at the foot of a large ash, was a small shrine, built with haste by some traveler before them. The ramshackle little structure was pushed between two of the great tree’s roots, which had grown up and around it, until the little shrine was made a part of the tree. The boy, full of energy and excitement, ran ahead and scrambled up the tree, stepping up on the fragile roof to reach the lowest branches. The woman winced at the loud “crack!” and called to her son to be more careful. 

She made her way to the little shrine and knelt before it. She offered her apologies to who or whatever might be its subject and did her best to right the roof and tidy the humble little structure as her son clambered through the branches above. She took some scraps of food from her pack and made an offering of it and then sat for a while to let her son tire himself out. 

When he eventually came down, now cautious of the shrine, the two moved on, the roots of the ash tree spreading wide and shallow, making ripples of the path under their feet. They traveled on a while longer and came to a pass between the rocky hills. The sound of their footsteps echoed off the stone, and as they walked both the boy and his mother kept looking behind, convinced they were being followed. They fell quiet, anxious as rabbits. As the sun lowered behind the hill, they heard the skid of stones, the sounds of something moving. The echoes seemed to shift, like a speeding heartbeat, quicker and uneven and then a shriek shattered the night. It was a tearing cry of someone in agony, or else the angry scream of a cougar. 

The sound broke the spell of anticipation, and the woman swept her son into her arms and ran. Behind her she heard the warbling screams and snarls of some bestial battle. She didn’t stop until the sounds were far behind, her legs shaking. In her arms, her son had fallen to hysterics as she ran and now, as she fell to her knees, he clung tightly around her neck, afraid. Unable to continue, the woman huddled against the fallen stones and wrapped them both in a blanket from her pack, too tired and afraid to make any proper camp. As exhaustion took her, the sound of footsteps echoed in her ears. 

The two slept badly and woke early, nervous and flinching. They set out again, tired, but knowing that they should reach their destination within the day if they moved quickly. The boy walked close to his mother, holding tightly to her skirts. The echoing steps haunted them all the way to the end of the pass.  

The reassuring quiet as they returned to the woods, cut by birdsong, made a bad dream of it all. A certainty settled in that the eerie sounds of the night before were a combination of their own nervousness and a near run in with the local wildlife. Tired and sore, but in better spirits, they finally began to calm. 

Stepping out from the cleared edge of the forest, the sound hit them like a wall. Screams of horses, of men, the clashing of iron, the whistle of some missiles flying past, and the thud of erupting earth here and there, but despite it all, there was nothing to see. No men or steel, no horses. Only shattered earth and the sound of bloody murder. Still and stunned, faces pale in horror, the two stumbled back toward the wood, only to feel a hard grasp on their clothes shove them forward onto the empty, broken road. 

Terror seized the woman, and she pulled her son from the road and ran, her fingers numb and mind blanked by fear. Her legs pumped hard, lungs heaving like a bellows. The gates of the city loomed ahead, but so far away. She didn’t feel the blisters on her feet. She didn’t see the gates ahead of her, closed tight. She didn’t hear the guard calling for her to halt. All she knew was the sound of death on every side, the need to move, and the feeling of something that wasn’t there, tugging and pulling as she stumbled and ran and — 

Just.  

Kept.  

Moving. 

The sound faded. The unseen touch disappeared. The panic cleared. As she fell to the ground, it finally came to her that she was somewhere new. The gate that had been her target was behind her. The path before her was a street within the walled town. The footsteps she heard belonged to the blessedly visible feet of what was unmistakably the town guard. 

They looked as stunned as she did, there on the ground clutching her son. The first to sort himself crouched down before her and asked if she was hurt. Crying, but slowly calming, she shook her head, and began to tell her story in earnest. She spoke of the footsteps in the hills, and the screams, and the invisible hands and the impossible ghost of a battle that had driven her hysterically through the gates. She told them about the little shrine and how she wished she’d never laid eyes on it. The guard looked to his comrades. 

He helped her to her feet and, delaying explanation, he led her to the wall. She looked out, the sounds again echoing in her ears as she looked in confusion and fear on a field of battle in full chaos. Horses, men, flashes of steel, arrows shrieking through the sky, and then, a soft whisper on the wind. “Be well.”

Published by

Mal McInnish

Professional public library goblin, hobby-hoarder, and writer, located in Texas, USA.

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