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There is nothing quite as unsettling as being lost. It’s an oppressive feeling where the world seems to stare down from the sky, maliciously following your sad progress like a kid with a magnifying glass.
For Lucile Bradle it was her first encounter with hell on earth. She was sixteen years old, bright and pretty in a way which kept her harassed by the somewhat younger boys. She was the sweet one who knew all about being polite, worked hard and occasionally brought home a wounded animal she’d found on the road. In other words, she was the girl everyone loved just slightly more than the other brats around the village.
Each year of the harvest, which was around mid-summer in Cardenholme, the village of Shallowbrooke organized a small feast. It was especially looked forward to by the young ones, as it wasn’t the kind where the adults ended up drinking themselves senseless; falling asleep in their food while the maid and the farmhand snuck off in the forest. It was a pleasant evening where the children could stay up for as long as they wished; join in on barn dancing, games and play until dawn slowly drenched the world in light.
The day after the harvest however, a hunt was put together for good sport. Not many in the village had access to either pistols or rifles as Shallowbrooke was remote and depended on other sources of income than game. But there were a few, and those who owned them were madly proud of them too. Lucile of course had never been one for hunting. But in the dying hours of the day, as the sun drenched the thick crowns of the trees in its feverish red light, the thought of riding through the woods with the warm summer breeze in her hair and the smell of nature in her nose just couldn’t be resisted.
Shallowbrooke has its secrets, however. It is a homey township with few outsiders, secluded and ever unchanging in its silent slumber. It flows fresh green in the summer, buzzes with life and children’s laughter as the farmers toil on the generous fields. In fall it’s bright gold, the leaves casting their dying radiance across the woodlands, and the brooke snakes its way through the underbrush, casting prisms of reflected light as it sparkles in the sun.
The people here live, love and work together. Everyone knows their neighbor and gossip in good humor about the new baby or the blacksmith’s pretty daughter. It’s an idyllic life of isolation which timelessly rolls by in sweat, smiles and love.
But no one gossip about the caravan which never arrived or the hunters who traveled into the woods and never returned. As darkness rolls over the land, strange cries can be heard from the depths of the surrounding forest, cries which probably don’t belong to wolves or owls. No one comments, no one asks. In unspoken consent the villagers fearfully and, to outsiders, oddly ignores all these sinister predicaments. But why wouldn’t they? After all, everyone ignores the grass they walk upon as well, and no one comments why the clouds in the sky are as white or grey as they are. It’s the way the world works, and there is no reason to interfere in what you cannot change.
But when Lucile wanted to go hunting, parental concern overruled the silent consent. Her mother, who was a brilliant beauty even in her mid forties, stomped angrily into the earth and almost shrieked;
“By absolutely no conditions!” Her eyes glared wildly with a desperation which frightened her daughter slightly. It was the look of a mad woman who preaches about the end of the world. “You are not going into the woods, young lady, and that’s final!” She pointed a finger at Lucile’s chest, the desperation on her face transforming to an anxious terror. Now, what we must understand is that Bertha truly loved her daughter. But as aware as she was of the horrors of the woods, she was not very proficient in reversed psychology. If she had been, she’d most likely never forgive herself for this moment in her life.
The rivalry between women is much greater than that of men. Males constantly test their mettle against each other by show of force which usually puts an end to any disagreement. Female rivalry can proceed for many years, and none is quite as strong as that between mother and daughter. In other words, lovely Bertha did everything but pack Lucile’s bag on that beautiful evening.
She only stared at her mother. Her lips were pressed into a thin white line on her face and the deep blue eyes she inherited from her deceased father sparkled with anger and annoyance. There was something radiant about her, and one day she’d most likely grow up to put her mother’s beauty to shame.
“I’m going!” She said, determined to defy her mother’s anger which unconsciously she accepted as a challenge.
“No you are not!” Bertha shrieked and reached forward to grasp her daughter’s arm, but it was too late. Lucile darted out of the way and turned, moved with the speed of youth and escaped the homestead. With her hands clutching her skirts, she ran with the evening sun in her eyes and the summer breeze in her hair, up the slope and into the stables. She heard her mother coming after her, crying now as well as screaming.
“No, Lucy! Please!” There was a terrible desperation in her voice which broke Lucile’s heart, but she was her father’s daughter as well, stubborn on the verge of pig headed. She jumped up on her horse with the agility of someone who’d spent most of their life in the presence of livestock. With her skirts hanging over the saddle, she rode out of the building and onto the small path by the edge of the meadow. Somewhere behind her she still heard the sobbing of her mother and almost gave in and turned, knowing she was punishing her too harshly. But we must remember that Lucile was only sixteen years old and still possessed by the arrogant stupidity commonly found in the very young. She chose to continue her course and disappeared into the bowels of the woods.
Lucile knew the path, and she knew how to reach the main road. The band of hunters would follow it for a short while before swerving off to the east, taking a small path towards the brook and proceeding north from there. Lucile knew she could catch them just before they turned, and proceeded in a slow gallop towards her goal.
The guilty emotions of hurting her mother slowly faded as the brilliance of the setting sun painted the world crimson. It was as if the land was bleeding, the trees and the moss seeming to glow with faint reddish light. She slowed the horse down and proceeded to trot along the path while humming an old tune, yet there was an odd feeling haunting her. It was ominous and wrong somehow, as if she was closing in on something she was forbidden to see. But the world around her was peaceful and inviting, buzzing with the life of summer and youth. She shook her head and attempted to quell the feeling. She didn’t succeed and proceeded to simply ignore it.
When she reached the end of the path, without the main road anywhere in sight, she knew something was terribly wrong. She tugged on the reins and her horse came to a stop, snorting in good humor and began to sniff the ground for something edible. Lucile pulled up her skirts and hopped from the saddle, the first seeds of panic already planted in her heart.
The path ended suddenly and naturally, simply thinning into the underbrush. But it couldn’t be; this path had always lead straight to the main road, without any turns or confusing byways. But as she gazed ahead there was only forest. Thick lines of oak and pine stretched out in random patterns endlessly towards the beyond.
Lucile had never been lost in her life, and her father had shown her these woods. She should know exactly where she was, recognize every stone and branch on the ground. But she hadn’t the faintest idea. She turned on her heels, gazing back the way she came as her panic was beginning to grow full and violent in her chest. To her horror, the path she had been following wasn’t a path at all, but a small trail that faded into nothing just a few paces ahead. The hill she had descended just a few minutes ago looked entirely different from how it should. It was rocky and steep, dead trees protruding from its side like grasping fingers.
She must have wandered off the path without noticing and ended up in a part of the woods she’d never seen before. But how was it possible? She couldn’t even remember taking any turns. Her mind whirled; reaching for any point of logic it could cling to. There was none, no explanation to be had. She shoved her hands into the thick mane of blonde hair on top of her head, her face contorting into a forlorn mask of anxious bewilderment.
What was she to do next? Well her choices were obvious really. She could either keep on forward and find the edge of the forest, or turn back from whence she came and attempt to find the path she must have wandered off. She breathed heavily and stroked the mare, reminding herself that she was not alone. It helped, if only slightly. It was only a horse after all, and if anyone was going to do any thinking it was going to be her. She got back up on it, took a deep breath and turned her around. It obeyed instantly and casually started trotting towards the steep hill.
But as she came closer another devastating realization struck her hard in the gut. The fabrics of reality seemed to sway and unfurl around her as she realized something beyond her logical ability to comprehend. The hill was far too step for her horse to manage, and would absolutely have refused even attempting to descend it. It was not a flat wall of gravel and stone, but it was not far from it. But she had ridden down that hill, without a doubt, the memory was fresh in her mind and fifteen minutes old at most. What was going on?
She felt her lips begin to quiver as her panic, fully grown and ravaging her innards like a beast, overwhelmed her. She leaned forward and stroked her mare with shaking hands, her throat almost clenching together as she began to speak;
“You… You know the way home, don’t you, love? Go home, Felicia. You hear me? Go home to mom.” The mare flicked her ears and stomped restlessly on the spot, but didn’t make any indication to move. In a calm and casual demeanor, the horse began to prod the ground for something tasty to scoop into its mouth.
Meanwhile Lucile had begun to cry; heavy crystalline tears rolling down her pale cheeks. Without much thought except for the wild guidance of panic, she turned the horse around and galloped in the direction she was headed before. The horse kept an even speed as it darted between the trees, jumped over fallen logs and mossy boulders like a spirit of the woods.
It had grown dark, and with the tears still in her throat, Lucile had no choice but to reign in the horse. It stopped self consciously in a small clearing by a huge oak. It was lined with beeches which drowned the area in a thick blanket of shadow; inviting a sinister sensation of isolation.
Lucile slid from the back of the horse, weary from the ride and the panic. With the tears still drying on her cheeks, she looked up at the endlessness of the sky, trying to find comfort in the beautiful pictures painted there by the god Aeren.
She remembered her father saying the stars were Aeren’s diamonds, each larger than the entire world and more brilliant than anything humans could imagine or comprehend. She conjured an image of her father’s face in her mind, scruffy with beard and unkempt hair. Yet he had been handsome in the weather beaten way women seemed to like. Lucile remembered his eyes the most vividly, deep blue and shining with a curious intelligence. He had enjoyed the forest and been fascinated by the unknown, but his family had been his one true passion.
When he disappeared in the mines underneath the village, Lucile and her mother had never fully recovered.
“I miss you father.” Lucile whispered to the sky, fresh tears trailing down her face. Less than a second after lying down in the high grass in the middle of the grove, still gazing at the brilliance of the sky, she passed out from exhaustion.
She awoke less than three hours later from the horse neighing anxiously. It flicked its ears and strode around the glade, turning and stomping in the ground with its hoofs. Lucile quickly got to her feet, cursing herself for forgetting the horse before she passed out. It was a wonder it hadn’t wandered off on its own.
She approached the mare carefully and placed her hands on the silky skin around the muzzle, stroking it carefully while whispering soft words of comfort. The horse calmed down after just a few moments and scoffed against Lucile’s hands, the warm breath reminding her of the cold and prickled her skin with goosebumps.
As she stood there, almost forgetting about the seriousness of her situation, it came back to her in a flash as something cried from the surrounding forest. It was faint and ghastly in its distant moaning, bleeding in the air upon the threshold of hearing before slowly fading. With a sense of rising horror, her feet frozen in place and her breath instinctively slowed, she recognized the sound.
She’d heard it plenty in the village after all, especially around the break of summer when many mothers seemed to be due. It was the balling of a baby, an infant child lost somewhere in the depths of the forest. Yet the cries were different in a way she couldn’t quite define. While the screaming of the newly born in the village was the sound health and life, this had a sinister cling to it. It was the cries of abandonment; an infant freezing to death in the dark, embraced only by the cold fingers of shadow and despair. But then why, she wondered, was she so terrified?
The horse grew restless once more as the ghostly cries eventually faded out to nothing, leaving the night still and forsaken. But the silence was deafening, and somehow worse than the strangely evil cries of the lost child. Adrenalin pumped through Lucile’s veins, and her heart banged in her chest, seeming almost to pummel her ribs in panic. She was suddenly convinced she was not alone. The forest seemed unnaturally dark, the large oak casting the glade in shadow suddenly foreboding and sinister. She noticed something then, a revelation which caused her heart to freeze and soul to cry out in fearful agony.
The oak hadn’t bloomed. No leaves adorned its crown, only a patchwork of skeletal branches reaching towards the sky and the surrounding forest like deprecated tendrils. Decayed ropes hung from its grasping fingers, rotten and moldy from decades of exposure. As the clouds of the sky rolled on, the full moon pierced the woods to illuminate the blackened hellhole poor Lucile had chosen as her refuge. What she saw sent shivers running through her spine.
The forest floor was littered with skeletal remains. Human skulls, arms and torsos shone pale in the bleak moonlight, decayed faces leering at her with shadowed eye sockets. She had mistaken the ropes for vines in the dark, and the glade had been in too much shadow to reveal its skeletal inhabitants.
As she stared at the tree, seeing it as a graveyard rising towards the sky, the mark on the trunk became visible to her. It stood out in her mind, and as she regarded the nightmarish symbol something surfaced from her subconscious. It was a word, one she had never heard or read before in her life, and yet it rose in her consciousness like some malicious idol; Atuteran.
Her courage snapped and she ran.
At some point she passed out, or maybe she fell and hit her head. She only remembered running through the dark woods as fast as her legs could carry her, completely forgetting about the child, her horse and any perils which might linger in the depths of the dark.
As she ran the trees seemed to bleed, evil in their cold and frozen places, hoping to trip her with their tangling roots. She felt tears running down her cheeks as panic were replaced by dread and hopelessness. Even the mossy ground seemed to rumble and churn as she sped across it, opening and closing to invite her into its moldy hell.
Her legs eventually gave in as the taste of blood dominated her tongue and her lungs felt filled with lead. The world spun and twisted around her, and then all was silent and devoured by darkness for a few merciful hours.
She woke from the sun pressing against her eyelids and the sound of birdsong filling the air with its lovely chorus. She opened her eyes only to stare at a brilliant sky, ocean blue and devoid of clouds. Tall grass surrounded her vision, and she sat up slowly to get her bearings.
She was in a beautiful clearing surrounded by the deep woods, now inviting and peaceful in the illumination of the sun. The clearing was actually more of a small meadow, well tended and cared for as a garden. Confused, she inspected the area closer, and was met by the welcoming sight of a small cottage in the middle of the glade.
A gnarled but handsome apple-tree grew a few yards away from it, large green apples sprouting upon its branches. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the chimney of the hut, filling Lucile with a throbbing yearning for home, but also hope. She looked down upon herself and saw the torn and muddy fabric of her dress, once rose red and now mostly black.
She felt her hair and grimaced at the cakes of dirt and moss sticking to the strands. A bath would have been a blessing, even in a cold spring.
It was amazing how a quick look of resembled civilization could bring back all the insignificant cares of a mundane life. Are my clothes fresh? Is my hair alright? Do I say aye and ye, or do I make a more city-girl accent? Trivialities which all fell away in the face of what truly mattered, the question which comfort hid when it fabricated the meaningless cares of a modern existence. Desperation and exposure had brought it back to her, or even revealed it to her as she had always dwelt in a protected township; how do I survive?
She got to her feet and remained so for a brief moment, scouring the meadow and the inviting cottage at the center. A mild breeze caressed the land from the east, bringing smells of summer blossoms and climaxing life, yet something was strangely off. Lucile could not define just how or why, but the homestead up yonder made her feel just as uneasy as it did hopeful.
Maybe just due to its isolation, she rationalized, and started making her way towards the front door. As she neared, she heard the familiar sounds of goats from the other side of the building, and a fenced in triangle beside the door held a small flock of hens. Lucile knocked twice, the sound reminding her of a fist on a coffin. She shivered.
There was a pleasant smell of something cooking from inside, but something hid underneath it; the stench of something which had been left to rot in the sun. Footsteps approached the door from the other side and Lucile took a hasty step backwards, suddenly filled with a senseless wish to flee. Just what in the blazes was wrong with her?
The door flung open, the smell of sweet cooking intensifying to drown the reek underneath. Lucile stared into the beautiful face of a middle-aged woman. Her eyes were cold blue, like winter frost on a blade, and long curls of raven hair framed her features. She was tall and slender, full lips and high cheekbones. She might just have been the loveliest woman Lucile had ever seen in her life.
“Oh?” The woman said and smiled cautiously, her cold eyes seemingly boring into Lucile’s soul. “What is a lovely young girl like you doing out here? The forest can be dangerous you know.” Her smile grew wider as her face softened.
“I am sorry.” Lucile stammered, her lips going numb. “I went lost yesterday and I’ve been in the woods all night. Could you please help me?” Her eyes pleaded to the woman, the desperation unspoken yet unmistakably relayed. The woman’s eyes widened into a oh-you-poor-thing look and her hand stretched out towards Lucile, almost motherly.
“Of course I can, sweetheart. Are you hungry? Of course you are.” Lucile reached out and gently took the woman’s hand. Her skin was smooth and invitingly warm, like silk by the fire. She ushered Lucile in and sat her down by a charming little table next to an ornate window.
The indoors were deliciously homey; cozy in a fairytale manner. The floor was oak, elegantly veined and naturally colored. The walls were high enough to cause a brief sensation of vertigo, sturdy and well fitted to keep out the cold. In the corner of the one room the oak gave place to a rectangle of smooth stone.
A pot brewed there upon thin spidery legs of iron, and a burning furnace with a steaming kettle resting upon it. The window overlooked a small garden were roses, sunflowers and other colorful plants painted the world. It was an extremely comfortable homestead, smelling exquisitely of spices and flowery perfumes. Lucile immediately felt at ease.
“My name is Celeste Lily, by the way.” Said the raven haired woman lightly, now shuffling around the stove area for plates and spoons.
“Oh, I’m Lucile Bradle, miss. But everyone calls me Lucy.” Lucile said somewhat awkwardly, her head spinning with contradicting emotions. She felt like she needed to escape, yet she had no idea why. She also felt like staying forever, like asking the stranger if she could move in and forget about Shallowbrooke.
“Call me Lily, please. It’s my last name but it’s what I’ve always been called anyway.” The woman turned and smiled, her eyes lit with warmth.
“Lily, sorry.” Lucile said hastily. “How far is it to Shallowbrooke from here?” Lily seemed to consider the question for a few moments before she smiled and said;
“About an hour walk straight through the woods I believe. If you go around my hut and continue straight on, you’ll see a small path in the underbrush. Follow it until you reach the main road and then travel west along that until you reach Shallowbrooke.” She smiled brilliantly, and Lucile thought again of how she must be the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.
“Thank you!” She said and tried to rise, anxious to be off. Lily put a hand on her shoulder and said;
“Nope! You’re not going anywhere until you’ve gotten something to eat.” Lucile sat back down, half glad and half annoyed with the strange woman’s care. When Lily put a plate with steaming soup in front of her face though, there was no hesitation. She was ravaged, threw herself at the food and stuffed it into her mouth. Lily smiled at her, amused, and gently sipped from her own bowl as she regarded the charming scene.
The soup wasn’t the best meal Lucile had ever had in her life. Her mother’s pies held a private place in that regard, as well as the chocolate cake Mrs. Thompson made each year for her birthday. But after almost two days since just oatmeal and some eggs for a shallow breakfast, the soup was definitely exquisite. To be fair, it was more of a watery stew. It was filled with spices, tender pieces of sheep meat, cucumber, carrots and some sort of mushroom Lucile couldn’t place. She helped herself twice out of the steaming iron pot, and washed it all down with cold water.
When she’d finished, she leaned back in her chair and clasped her hands in her lap. She regarded Lily cautiously, waiting for her rescuer to speak first. She eventually did.
“Was the mushroom stew to your satisfaction, child?” She tilted her head to the side and smiled warmly, her crystalline eyes glimmering in the light of the furnace. Lucile felt a pang of unease, as if something was horribly wrong, but she couldn’t see why. Everything was perfectly ordinary, neat and tidy.
The floor was swabbed and clean, the books on the shelves ordered alphabetically; the ingredients on the stove neatly stacked or put in named jars. Lucile gazed back at Lily, who still smiled brilliantly at her.
“Thank you so much, Miss Lily, you truly might just have saved my life. But I am very anxious to get home.” She gave the woman a pleading look, not wanting to be rude or rush out even if her instincts told her to run until her bones snapped.
She tried to hide her distress, and must have succeeded as the strange woman didn’t seem to be faced by it. She rose from her chair and took Lucile’s plate, walked over to the stove and put it in a basin of water. Lucile half expected her to cover the doorway, pull a knife and laugh manically as she transformed into a hideous crone, just like the ghost stories told would happen if you came upon Scathe in the forest.
But Lily merely sighed pleasantly and turned her head to gaze at Lucile, her eyes displaying a mixture of forlorn complacency and genuine sadness.
“Yes, I understand, dear. But it just gets so lonely out here sometimes.”
She hummed a tune, appearing to contemplate something, and then opened a small box on the counter next to the stove. She produced two pieces of delicate meat, kept in salt and still exquisitely fresh. She wrapped them in a thin piece of cloth and brought it over to Lucile, smiling as if the girl was her own child.
“Take this.” She said and held the package out to her. “You’ll need it more than I do, and you could always spare me a thought when you ask your mother to cook it.” Not daring to refuse, Lucile took the package gratefully.
She thanked the woman many times before stalking over to the door, placed her hand on the doorknob and walked outside. Lily didn’t stop her, just smiled faintly from where she stood by the stove, her eyes glinting as if she had a secret Lucile just missed. Well out in the open with the smell of summer blossoms surrounding her, she felt free and safe once again.
With the package of meat in hand, Lucile strode around the corner to the back of the hut. She paused a moment to greet the sheep held in a pen just behind the cottage. Yet, something about them made her feel uneasy, just as the woman had before, and she quickly sped up her pace towards the edge of the woods on the other side of the meadow.
As she reached the tree-line, she spied into the underbrush and quickly found the path Lily had spoken of. With a wide smile of relief on her lips, Lucile was just about to leave the meadow behind when a gust of cold wind had her shivering. It was odd, as the wind had been warm and comfortable earlier, a caressing stroke rather than a cold breath. The world had grown dark as well, something which unsettled her further as the sky had been cloudless. But it was the bickering of crows which forced her to turn, and what she saw froze her heart and chilled her blood for years to come.
The sky was dark, covered in a misty cloak of black clouds, rippling and unfurling sinisterly in the cold breath of the world. The mischievous wind whistled through the crowns of the oaks and beeches surrounding the meadow, tugging at their branches, forcing them to squeal.
The charming cottage in the center of the field had been reduced to a moldering ruin, rotten timber littering the ground along with burnt pieces of wood and stone. The part of the building which was still standing peered at the world with one black window, the glass smashed to pieces and reduced to a hollow socket of cobwebs and death. The sheep lay dead in their pens, their flesh black with rot and eyes staring milky white into the darkened sky above. Flies and other insects made their homes in the deteriorated carcasses, buzzing and working hellishly in the nightmarish husks.
Something creaked slowly from above her and Lucile turned her horrified glance to the branch above her head. A corpse hung there, swaying slowly in the wind, the old rope creaking with each gust.
It was decayed and at least a decade old, long hair clinging to the balding scalp, moldy and covered in thick cakes of moss. The face was hideous and deformed, a disgusting mix of rotten flesh and bone coming together to form an evil leer with gouged out hollows for eyes. Crows gathered by the corpse, cawing their foreboding songs and pecked at what pieces of flesh remained. Lucile saw it had been a woman, its dress tattered and rotten but unmistakably there. A sign was hung around her bony neck upon which someone had written;
With her hands shaking and lips parted to release tiny puffs of breath, the smell of spoiled meat struck her like a slap to the face. She looked down upon the package in her hands and almost spilled the insides of her bowels. The cloth was gone and so were the delicate pieces of meat within. What she held was the rotten worm-ridden leg of a goat, crawling with maggots and blackened just like the corpses of the sheep up yonder. She dropped it and stumbled backwards, a deep whine escaping her lips.
Her sanity desperately clung to what little memories she had of reality, struggling with all its power to remain intact. Just as she thought she was incapable of sustaining anything more, she gazed into the hollow eye of the ruined building, and saw something shift in the darkness within. Something had moved there.
Lucile turned and ran for her life.
She ran for almost half an hour. The woods had by then had its oaks and beeches replaced by pines and thick moss. The path lead where it was suppose to, all the way to the main road, upon which a frightened, cold and near insane Lucile came straggling an hour later. Her golden hair was a rat’s nest of dirt, leaves and branches. Her lovely Sunday dress was tattered, her young beautiful face smeared with mud and filth. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, just underneath her bosom, and when a rider came and swept her up on his horse, she passed out for a few merciful hours.
Lucile was taken back to Shallowbrooke. There she was greeted by her mother’s warm embrace and tears of happiness. The village welcomed her home in their own neighborly sense. The baker gave her bread, the blacksmith a few new horse shoes and the seamstress made her a new dress to wear on Sundays. All free of charge. She was greeted by her friends in embraced longings, a few tears, and even admiration for her defiance. But Lucile never forgot the nightmare or the questions which never ceased to stir within her mind.
What had awaited her inside the cottage, and what had she really eaten?
Shallowbrooke is a peaceful township. It’s a place where the adults work slowly in good cheer; everyone knows everyone and the children often grow up as siblings. It’s a small community without cruelty, mean gossip or deranged individuals.
But it is also a place where men and women sometimes go missing; where strange cries come from the woods at night, caravans don’t arrive and some trees never bloom. There is a shadow preying on the lands of Shallowbrooke. A shadow which engulf, devours and rolls around every window, threshold, path and stump. It’s its own kingdom of nightmare and despair, a place from which some never return.
And whatever walks there, walks alone.