The Forest

The large pack weighed heavily on the traveler. He leaned on his walking stick with every step. He considered, for a moment, slinging it over the saddle of his horse. This thought was instantly abandoned as the horse was moving even slower. The traveler glanced up at the sky, the sun was low, but not quite low enough to stop. He ignored this. 

“Might as well rest here, eh Charlie?” said the traveler, addressing his horse. The horse answered by lying down on the soft grass. “Guess that’s settled,” muttered the traveler. He slung his own pack off his shoulder and let it drop to the ground. He made his way over to the horse and slowly dragged the items out of its saddle. Charlie took a few bites of grass and the traveler rummaged through the large sack. He withdrew a rather unappetizing looking piece of bread and a waterskin. He reluctantly took a little of each and then laid down in the soft grasses, looking up at the darkening sky. “Ol’ Dawson is getting too old for this,” he said, Charlie continued to munch on the nearby plants.

The sun rose and Dawson, occasionally irritable in the mornings, struggled to his feet. Groaning, he pulled the pack back up onto his shoulders and reloaded the saddle.

“Come on, Charlie,” he said with a heavy sigh, and began to walk. The horse obediently fell in line behind him. “You know, we’ll be reaching the Forest in a few days.” The remark was nonchalant but mentioning such a place made Dawson instinctively shudder and look over his shoulder. There was nothing there of course, only the plodding horse. The horse felt it too. It took several minutes of the bright sunshine to remove the grim shadow of those words.

The day moved its way along; Dawson humming a little now and then. However, the calm mood turned sour when Dawson saw the sun sinking behind a dark mass of trees. As soon as Dawson stopped, Charlie was laying on the ground. Dawson rolled his eyes and sifted through his many bags until he found his map. On it was clearly marked the road on which he stood, and the Forest. He did a few mental calculations.

“Sorry, Charlie. We won’t make it in time if don’t head into the… there tonight,” said Dawson.

The look on the horse’s face was something akin to “make me.”

“Don’t be like that, Charlie,” said Dawson, shaking his head, although he was just as nervous. Dawson pulled an apple out of his pocket and held it in front of Charlie’s face. The horse raised an eyebrow. Dawson began to walk slowly away and Charlie, who was rather sick of grass, begrudgingly got up and followed. Dawson held out his hand and Charlie eagerly crunched the apple. Dawson laughed and led the way toward his greatest fear.

The creeping darkness and the ominous trees forced Dawson to relive the countless tales and fabled horrors of the Forest. He couldn’t help but wonder if he too, would one day become a cautionary tale for avoiding these grim woods.

The sun quickly vanished and, as the sky grew darker, Dawson had to nearly drag Charlie toward the Forest. Finally, once a thin canopy of leaves formed above their heads, Charlie seemed to get more comfortable. The trees were spread out, with one every ten feet or so, but their trunks scowled down at the travelers. The meandering breeze, which outside had seemed so calming, became a gruesome hiss of foreboding. Dawson slowed his pace until he was walking beside the horse. He reached into one of the saddlebags and fished blindly around, his eyes glued to the surrounding trees.

Finally, his fingers found the item they sought and his fist tightened around it. He pulled out a fat shortsword. Its steel blade seemed the only thing not a dull shade of gray or a terrifying hue of black and green. Its hilt was of a sturdy wood and the handle was wrapped in a worn, gray leather. Feeling this weapon in his hand, Dawson felt a good bit more confident.

A few notes of song whistled out of Dawson’s lips and seemed to shatter everything around them with their noise.

Charlie’s large eyes bore into Dawson, a frightened look saying something between “Ssssh!!!” and “are you trying to get us killed?” Dawson took the message and fell silent. The threatening trees on every side lurked like massive beasts, ready to pounce on the man who broke their tranquil rest. Dawson kept his hand on the hilt of his sword. Against the terrifying and ominous power that was the Forest, the sword felt like glorified kitchen knife in his hands.

Dawson nearly jumped out of his skin when Charlie accelerated and sped past him, tearing the lead from Dawson’s hand. Dawson drew his weapon and whirled around to face a possible enemy. He saw nothing on the dark path behind him but his own footprints. When he turned back, he saw Charlie, standing in a small circle of moonlight. The three trees grouped around the spot seemed different. Their bark was a gentle brown and their leaves a cheery green. The moonlight seemed almost golden. Dawson’s nature drew him to suspicion immediately.

“Psst! Charlie, get out’a the light” said Dawson in a sharp whisper. The horse glanced at him but, instead of obeying, sat down. Dawson shook his head and crept closer to where the horse lay. Dawson drew another apple from one of the many sacks he had slung over his shoulders. Charlie looked at him sniffed the air a few times, but didn’t budge.

“Charlie, get over here,” Dawson muttered, a little louder. He turned to face the vicious trees behind him, aiming his sword as if to fight them off. He felt drawn to the spot and unconsciously began to walk backward. Charlie nodded his approval, but Dawson didn’t even notice; his eyes scanned the trees. Dawson felt something solid on his back. He turned around. Startled, he found himself in the center of the moonlit patch of forest. It felt like a different land. A sense of warmth and safety filled him; the sword fell from his hand and hit the crisp green grass.

“Suppose we can rest here for the night…” said Dawson, putting his back to one of the soft, welcoming trees and sinking to the ground. Charlie was already dozing off. Dawson felt sleep creeping up and, with a final burst of energy, rolled the apple Charlie’s direction. His eyes shut and he was deep in the restful, calm darkness within a second.

Dawson sat bolt upright. His hands reached out, desperately searching the ground for his weapon. He grabbed it and put his back against the tree. As the fog cleared from his mind and eyes, he remembered the events of the past night. A few pieces of apple core sat on the ground near Charlie. Dawson looked up through the gap in the trees above and saw the blue sky. He sighed relief and pulled his pack back on. Charlie seemed reluctant to leave the safety of the sunlight but obliged Dawson’s pleadings. They stretched their legs as they walked, expelling every trace of sleepiness.

“Shouldn’t have doubted you, Charlie,” said Dawson. He felt well rested and was setting a rather quick pace for the two of them. 

Charlie’s eyes seemed to say, “Have I ever led you astray?” 

Dawson shook his. “That you haven’t,” he said.

After about an hour of marching through the trees, which seemed barely more receptive to company than in the dead of night, Dawson stopped. A short distance ahead, the road was cut in half by a stream. Something was off about the water. Not its pitch black color that seemed typical of the forest, but its silence. The water was rushing down at a great speed but made no sound at all.

Arching over the icy waters was a bridge. Like the water, it appeared normal at first glance. Its floor was made of wood planks and it had a handrail. However, the wood had rotted to its core. Dawson motioned for Charlie to stay put. Charlie, not being especially fond of water in general, was happy to comply. Dawson thrust the pack off his back and moved carefully toward the bridge. He tapped a few planks with his walking stick, testing their strength. They seemed sturdy enough. As Dawson inspected the bridge closer, he noticed something about the wood.

“They must’ve cut down a few of these trees to make this bridge” he commented under his breath. Looking around, Dawson noticed a few tree stumps near the bank of the stream. As if in revenge, he also saw roots from nearby trees uprooting and undermining the bridge on both sides. The thick, study roots must have been all that was keeping the bridge together. Bright green vines twisted in and out of the rotted holes in the bridge. Dawson, semi-confident that the bridge could hold him, retrieved his pack.

He walked forward to the edge of the wood beams. Cautiously, Dawson placed his foot on the wood. It groaned in protest but held firm. As he walked, Dawson couldn’t help looking down into the black water. He thought he saw something move between the currents. A streamlined shape, its outline somehow even darker that the waters surrounding it. Dawson shuddered, considering what evil sort of creature would enjoy these waters. These thoughts escorted Dawson the rest of the way across. He gratefully put his feet down on solid ground, took the pack off and leaned it against the nearest tree. Dawson, careful to avoid extra weight, dropped his sword down next to the pack. Slowly, he made his way back across the bridge.

Charlie was waiting patiently on the other side of the stream. He had watched Dawson cross the bridge and was beginning to realize that he would have to make the crossing as well. Once Dawson returned, he pulled several bags off Charlie and carried them back across, stacking them with his first load.

“It’ll be easier for you to cross without all these bags,” said Dawson, removing the last load. “Follow me,” he added. Charlie got up and picked his way up onto the bridge. Dawson was checking the contents of this pack. Halfway across the bridge, Dawson heard something. He whirled around at the sound of wood cracking behind him.

As Dawson turned, he saw splinters of wood explode from the bridge and boards go collapsing into the black waters. The entire bridge began to crumble. Charlie had completely vanished. Dawson was paralyzed. He looked behind him at the pile of goods and packages that held in them the keys to his future and down toward the water. The forest decided for him. The board on which he stood snapped and Dawson went tumbling into the ice cold water.

He struggled to take a breath before his head was engulfed into the darkness. A few seconds later Dawson returned, sputtering, to the surface. As his head came up, not a ripple disturbed the horrifying tranquility of the water. Dawson spit as he broke the surface. The water had filled his mouth as he crashed into the depths. It tasted rotten and sickening.

Dawson looked around but his eyes couldn’t penetrate the inky darkness that was the river. With sudden terror, he realized that the remains of the bridge were no longer in sight. He found himself being whisked along by the currents in a nearly imperceptible way. The water remained quiet and even.

Dawson tried to think. He had a small pack on his shoulders; with luck it had a little food and water. He attempted to catch onto a branch and lift himself free of the river. His fist wrapped around the wood. For a second, he was still as the water sped around him. Dawson heard a creaking sound. As the branch snapped from the tree, Dawson’s body was hurled head-first into the water. Dawson struggled against the rushing water, desperately searching for a precious breath of air; he felt something touch his leg.

It was even colder than the water. The icy touch forced its way through Dawson’s heavy boot. Dawson instinctively jerked his leg in the opposite direction. He reached down to where his sword was sheathed. Fear clutched Dawson’s heart as he remembered that the sword, along with the rest of the supplies, were on the other side of the bridge.

“It’s probably nothing,” muttered Dawson, stabilizing himself. Then he felt the same cold clutch his ankle and it yanked him upstream. Dawson snatched a heavy root hanging over the river and held on with all his might. The cold seemed enraged by this struggle and began to pull harder. Dawson, in a burst of luck, felt his boot begin to loosen. He started to crawl up the root, attempting to loosen the boot. It was almost impossible to resist the creature, let alone move.

Dawson shivered as the boot slipped off his foot and the water hit his skin. He forced himself up the root and struggled up onto a patch of land. Dawson sighed and peered down at the water. He recognized the black shape he had seen from the bridge swimming with lightning speed up the river. Dawson decided that his best chance was to follow the river. It was his only hope of navigating out of the forest and, hopefully, to Charlie. He cast a last look back up the river to where the heap of goods and supplies sat on the other side of the bridge. Dawson cleared his head and steeled himself for the journey ahead.

He began to pick his way as well as he could through the dense and angry trees. Dawson unslung the pack and looked inside. There were a few soggy pieces of bread and an intact waterskin for supplies. He sighed and continued to move forward. The tree roots shot up from the ground; even the forest grasses were knotted and tangled. Every low-hanging vine was an invitation to trip and send Dawson spiralling back into the icy waters of the river.

Dawson climbed along the trees. He was moving blindly through the forest, his only hope being that the river led to the outside world. After what seemed like days of hard hiking through treacherous and uneven ground, churned up by the powerful roots, Dawson found himself in front of a massive, rocky hill. He saw it vanish among the forest canopy.

“Might as well have a look ‘round,” mumbled Dawson as he began to climb. As his feet struggled against the steep and gravelly side of the hill, Dawson remembered his old walking stick. It had vanished somewhere at the bottom of the stream along with his sword but it would have made a helpful addition to the climb. The jagged group of stones cut at Dawson’s bare foot, making every step that much more difficult. The rock became steeper with every step Dawson took. Not long into the climb and Dawson felt as though he was making his way up a solid wall of rock. Dawson nearly lost his balance when he felt something touch the back of his neck. It felt like sandpaper against his skin. Dawson turned as far as he could to look behind and found himself among the tree branches. Dark green leaves repelled any sunlight that might have been shining above. Dawson noticed another one of those bright patches of golden light a little distance from the river. He climbed further, forcing the heavy branches and sharp leaves out of his way and moved higher and higher. The higher he climbed, the less rough the leaves became. Near the top, they even felt soft. Finally, as his hand pushed a large leaf out of the way, a warm feeling hit his skin. A flood of sunlight and morning air hit Dawson’s senses. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, feeling the glow of the sun and air that didn’t smell of damp leaves. Dawson looked behind him and saw the massive, twisted form of the forest stretch out behind him as far as the eye could see. In front, there were still a few feet of rock to ascend. Dawson reached his hand up and felt a sturdy stone to grab onto. Using this, he pulled himself up to the rough plateau.

With a gasp of joy, Dawson saw the forest seem to melt away before him. The tightly packed trees separated and turned into a wide, grassy plain. In time, the plain met with the blue sky and calming light of day. A few other trees remained, spread far across the plain. Far in the distance, a few pillars of smoke heralded a settlement. Dawson dropped to his knees. He had no idea if there was any sort of civilization in this direction. He breathed a sigh of relief. As Dawson looked, he noticed the black waters of the fearsome forest stream soften into a shimmering river, snaking across the countryside. Dawson yearned to reach this freedom and hurried down the other side of the mountain.

The short distance he had to walk still inside the confines of the ferocious trees had no effect on Dawson’s new and joyful attitude. He walked at a quick pace, ignoring the scowling faces of the towering wooden figures. As he made his way through the forest, the trees began to thin. It happened slowly at first, but one by one the trees began to get further apart. Their powerful roots, causing upheavals in the ground, became less frequent. Their thick canopy was no longer strong enough to hold back the sunlight.

Then, at long last, the trees fell away and Dawson was standing in the plain. It felt strange, not being surrounded at all times by the frowning trees. Dawson found himself starving, and not in the mood for the soggy bread that was left in his pack. He looked around and spotted a few orbs of red lying beneath one of the remaining trees that dotted the landscape.

Dawson broke into a run as he sped toward the tree. As he got closer, his jaw dropped. His swift run began to slow until Dawson was just standing still. Sitting lazily under the tree surrounded by the remains of a few apples, was a horse. Dawson looked at the horse’s eyes, which seemed to say, “You could have just stayed in the river, it would have been faster.” 

“Good to see you too, Charlie,” said Dawson.

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