The woods are dark.

by Laura Wild

The woods are dark.

They crawl with evil beasts that slither and stalk after prey through the bristling walls of pines and lonely valleys that sink between the mountains. Bones lie blanketed beneath moss and sticky pitch, drawn apart by roots and teeth. The forest is a crypt, and each night its edges unfurl to claim a few feet more of the land men struggle to cultivate.

The farmers hack and burn at its fringes. Ash from the cremated trees coats their lungs, invading the villager’s dreams as it invades the soft tissue of their bodies, so that they stumble every evening through nightmare woodlands bathed in perpetual twilight. When they wake, exhausted, the shadow of the forest has crept over the ruined ground of the day before and the farthest of their crops have withered in its sunless gloom.

The hunter is the only man to brave the woods. His kills are all that sustains the village through those savage winters where the harvest has fallen completely to the encroaching march of the trees. It is his broad chest and dark eyes that captivate the women’s lewd fantasies. The scent of their desire is as distinct to the hunter as the spoor of the creatures he hounds, and his pursuit of them is just as brutal. The husbands and fathers sink filthy nails into calloused palms and say nothing, knowing to whom they owe their full bellies.

There is one woman in the village who does not gaze at the hunter with lust in her eyes. Her disinterest is enough for the hunter to desire her, his thirst for the thrill of the chase is not limited to the game lurking in the forest. But she is also beautiful and virtuous, her laughter lively as she turns away the affections of grown men and roguish boys alike. His beguiling yellow belle. She will be his.

A beast takes a child from the village. It’s mother screams that the creature was monstrous, covered with matted fur and oozing scales. Blood and gobbets of flesh dapple the field, leaving a grim trail to the edge of the woods. The village roils. The advance of the forest can no longer be beaten back, they whisper. Its beasts grow bolder and their children are in peril. They must leave, or be swallowed in the shifting green inferno forever.

The hunter listens to the hiss and wheeze of the village tearing itself apart with panic. His yellow bell presses her gossamer fingers to her mouth. Their eyes meet, and he knows this is how he will possess her. He will cut the child from the beast’s belly and bring its grotesque head back to lay at her feet. She will be his. She will.

His stride falls silent in the decaying litter of leaves and insects. The forest smells always of soil and rot. He imagines the layers of decomposition beneath his feet going down forever, that there is nothing truly solid beneath him. He imagines the dead things that live there. The forest coils itself around him and he breathes in green.

The tracks lead deep into the old growth. He scales mouldering rooftops, homes abandoned to the forest in years past. The skeletons of those left behind are long gone.

Yawning gouges raked from the trunks of trees he cannot name bleed viscous sap, crawling with many legged beetles that click and skitter in the murk. His eyes strain to adjust as each veil of shadows descends where the leaves of the canopy weave too thickly for light to penetrate. He cannot hear birds, but things cough and scream in the labyrinth around him. His finger strokes the carved trigger of his crossbow.

The forest floor disappears. Winding roots and thick vines dripping with moss choke the ground. The hunter ducks beneath branches thick as oxen, pads through a hole in a spiderweb that he cannot see the end of. The path of the beast becomes his only way forward, the flora that surrounds him now is an impenetrable latticework of thorns and foul, waxy blooms that seep sickly smelling discharge. He needs both hands to clamber over and under the wild landscape, battering away tiny flaxen midges that bite at his throat. He shoulders the crossbow.

He does not notice immediately when the sounds of the forest seep away from beneath the ragged pattern of his breathing. Then it comes to him slowly, a persistent, guttural rumble that pulsates through the syrupy air. Sweat slithers down his back. With each step the noise rises, resounding low inside his chest. Ahead, through the curtain of leaves, there is movement. Yellow.

She is on her back, arched in a rigid crescent of exertion. She is barefoot, her toes sunk into the loam as she pushes her body up, up against the mass of mane and scales that throbs above her. The sound, it is the both of them. It’s tail slashes a frenzied beat and the massive creature sinks the scythes of its claws into earth and tree. The air stinks of copper, raw earth, sweat and lust.

Her eyes are half mast, concentrating. He cannot say when precisely she realises he is there, only that suddenly she is gazing at him through her lashes. She does not stop. He does not know if she can. Her mouth is open and she stares at him, daring him. The hunter raises his crossbow.

She is his.

The first bolt hits the beast in one red eye. The second punches deep into its mouth. It rears, spewing founts of gore that spatter hot across his eyes. It’s writhing body smashes into the ancient trunks of the grove, splintering limbs in its rage. The hunter does not see it fall, his eyes stinging with blood and tears, but the crash of its final flail shudders inside his bones.

The hunter pushes himself to his knees. He does not remember having fallen. His eyes stream, the scene before him blurred in red and green. And yellow. He looks up. His yellow belle looks down at him, though he does not know how he recognises her in the form she wears now. It is the last thing he knows.

He is hers.



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