(IP) The Witching Woods
He’d heard stories his entire life about these woods. They’d held a dangerous sort of allure for him, full of secrets and the one of the biggest plot points in every story he’d spent his childhood hearing. The elders had begged all of the children to exercise caution, for the trees hid creatures of every sort, legends given life. Now that he was of age, his desire for exploration brought him here, to the edge of the woods, to discover just what mysteries lie inside of them.
To say that he wasn’t afraid was a lie; anyone with sense the gods gave them knew to be careful, for in the days that the village had been established the body count had begun to climb, bloodied corpses found scattered throughout the forest, some so mangled that they were well beyond identification. Of course, it was necessary to brave the forests for food, water from the river that cut a gleaming line throughout, and wood to fuel their cooking fires. But they’d always remained respectful, for those forests had been before them, and would surely remain afterwards.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, he shouldered his pack, stuffed with food, a canteen, blankets, several knives, a bow and arrows, a warm cloak to battle the autumn chill, flint and firewood. He’d packed only the essentials, the sole exception being a book of lore that had been passed down to him by his older sisters before they’d married and went their own ways, to start families and livings of their own.
As he walked into the woods, thoughts of the past lingering in his wake, he was greeted by quiet birdsong, and the wind caressed his face, as if in welcome, in greeting. He smiled, lifting his head to the sky, and he spread his arms wide, as if to encompass the forest who’d fueled his imagination all his life in an answering embrace. “Hello,” He said quietly to it all, eyes on the sky.
There was so much life around him, so much to take in, and he wished that he could grasp the feeling inside of him, this soaring exaltation that made his heart feel like it was lodged somewhere in his throat.
Seized by a rush of restless energy, he began to run, the sack of supplies bouncing against his back; the beaten brown earth of the path dipped suddenly, and he lost his footing; he skidded to a stop at the base of the slope, and landed on the ground so hard that he lost his breath. He coughed heavily, hoping that he hadn’t lost any of his supplies.
When his vision stopped swimming, he sat up, holding his head in his hands. He stood up, and nearly fell again; the ground was wet, moist, and he followed it, the sound of water flowing spurring him forward. It might be a good place to make camp, near the water source.
After he walked for a while, he found the river, and he knelt before it, examining his reflection for injuries. Luckily, he’d gotten away with a purple bruise that was blooming above his left brow. Part of him wanted to set up his campsite, but the more rebellious part wanted to explore; it was late afternoon, and it would still be a while before sunset.
Hadn’t he spent his whole life wanting to see what secrets these trees held within them?
With that in mind, he opened his pack and removed a ripe pear from it, taking a bite out of it, juice running down his chin, and he started off, in the eastern direction. He felt like his ears couldn’t properly hold all the sound that was taking place around him: birdsong, animal shrieks, some of the dying and the living, the river gurgling merrily in the background, the angry scolding of squirrels and chipmunks, the vicious, indignant barking of a fox, and the bellowing of deer and elk that he couldn’t see for all the cover provided by the trees.
He understood being afraid, being respectful, but this place felt more like home than the tiny village he’d departed from. He felt as though he belonged, and he couldn’t shake it.
Something just felt… right.
He spent the last of the afternoon exploring, fortifying himself with fall fruit, dark bread and seeds, and the last of a miniature cask of wine in his pack. When the sun began to set, he returned to the riverbed, putting up his tent of canvas a few feet away. Thanks to all the trees, he was mostly hidden, and hopefully no predators would visit him in the middle of the night. He was mostly full from his earlier meal; it had been quite a walk to get to the forest.He didn’t set a fire; the autumn night was cool, but not enough that he was uncomfortable. He went into his tent and covered himself with the blanket, soothed by the sounds of the world around him. He might not have had any dwelling established yet, but he felt safer than he ever had.
He was awoken in the middle of the night by a loud crash; he bolted up from his bedroll, the fog of sleep still sitting heavy over his mind.
He hadn’t even set up a fire; what animal would have come into his camp in the first place? He stood up and approached the canvas walls of the tent, momentarily blinded by the silver, liquid moonlight that streamed through them. He strained his ears, fighting to hear just what had entered his campsite.
When his vision cleared finally, he could make out six shadows, all of different sizes. One was the size of a bear, and seemed to speak in low, plaintive grunts, and there were two tiny ones that seemed to float above the ground; he could just barely make out shadows in the form of tiny, flapping wings, and there was one that was roughly the size of a human child, reaching out for something, though he couldn’t say what it wanted. What they wanted.
The last two of the group were the size of two men, stretching tall in the moonlight, and they spoke in a language that he didn’t recognize.
“Bring the intruder. We need to have a word with him,” One of the voices said; it was the dry, hoarse rasp of stones scraping against one another, destined to create a spark.