“Ha! I knew it!” Michael said. He set off running through the meadow to the tree line on the other side, kicking up mud as he went. David followed as best he could, feeling his boots stick in the mud. On the other side of the meadow, the trees looked stunted and sickly. Long limbs, grey and leafless hung down from willows whose bark was peeling from an inner rot. Above them a few gnarled pines drooped down brown and grey limbs. Only the tops of the trees seemed to hold any green to them.
Michael pushed away the dead branches and went forward. The grove contained a distinct lack of undergrowth. Grasses and weeds lay dead in a few places, choked by a black, sticky mud. Here and there orange mushrooms sprouted along the bases of trees, spreading out thin caps in many layers. A few yards past the detritus and weeping trees, they saw sky again, with spots of blue among the grey. There was a small clearing there, devoid of shrubbery or any life save the mushrooms, and in the middle of it was a large, brown stone stuck in the ground, with many smaller rocks spread neatly around it.
“Wow, it really is big,” Michael said.
“I thought you’d been here before.”
Michael cracked his devious smile and said, “Well, I was as good as been here. Ben was here. I think. He got directions from Sam Smith, down at the butcher shop.”
“Sam Smith is a drunk,” David said.
“Not so drunk as to forget the way here, eh?” Michael said.
“I guess not.” David looked around and took it in. The glade had a still air to it, but not one that was by itself unwholesome. Other than the solemn row of trees that encircled it, the clearing seemed unremarkable.
“I dare you to touch it.”
“What?” David said.
“I dare you to touch the gravestone.”
“Yellow.” Michael smiled.
“So are you,” David said.
“Nope. First dare is yours.”
“Fine,” David said, and stepped lightly up to the stone. He stuck his hand out and froze, letting his palm hover just above the surface of the monolith. He glanced at Michael, then touched the stone. It felt cold under his hand, but little more than that.
“She whispering to you?” Michael said, smiling.
“It’s just a rock,” David said, and then withdrew his hand. “Now it’s your turn. I dare you-”
“Have to catch me first!” Michael shouted, and before David could react, his brother was racing out of the grove, his heels kicking mud and dust.
David pursued, chasing Michael through the hanging dead limbs of the willows and over the meadow, but the older boy was taller and faster. Before long, David had lost sight of his brother and found himself alone at the edge of the tree line. He shook his hands in frustration, but after a quick look around, he felt a twinge of panic. He had not been paying close attention during the journey out to the old tomb and he could not remember which of the many game paths they had crossed he needed to take to get back to the main road, or to the plantation.
He kicked the ground, sending up a clump of turf and collapsed down on his haunches. He suppressed the impulse to cry; his brother had been doing things like this for a long time, and David was ever the butt of his malicious pranks. Still, though, he trusted his brother to a certain extent, and believed he would return to show him the way home, and so he sat back under the clouds and waited.
After an hour or so, another light rain began to fall and David had to move back under the trees. It let up quickly, and David decided for himself that this time his brother was not coming back to rectify things. He stepped back out into the meadow and struck out down the game path that he could best guess Michael had disappeared into. The limbs were low and dripped fat little drops from the rain into David’s hair, and his shock was soon falling limply into his eyes, frustrating him further.
After some time, a tense worry began to grow stronger in the pit of his stomach. He was sure that this path had run off the larger course at a much closer interval than what he had traversed. The trail was also becoming wider and more beaten, even as the trees closed in. He paused and considered going back, but reluctantly pressed on. Smaller tracks began to cross the path he was on, and he became more sure that he was going the wrong way; he remembered nothing of where he was.
If you are enjoying this story, please consider heading to Amazon and buying my Historical Fantasy book, Muramasa: Blood Drinker. I appreciate it!