I was Eight years old when I first learnt the truth about the Forest
I was young, full of energy, always off exploring
no one ever went near the Forest, I had never known why. One day I ventured too close, and a voice called out to me.
"Boy!" Said the ancient voice, like carving the words into the bark of a tree.
I turned and saw the Old Crone, clothed in a grey hooded cloak, her face ancient and wooden, with a long pointed nose with a hideous wart bulging on the end, one eye and the other nothing more than a huge scar, teeth missing from her mouth she waddled up to me and stared down upon me.
"You don't want to get too close to that Forest," she croaked. "Not yet anyway."
She smiled it was the sort of smile at that age you didn't fully understand, but it scared you anyway.
"No, no," she said. "Do you know the story of the Forest, boy?"
I looked towards the vast Forest, the thousands of trees stretching out into forever, Birch and Yew trees as far as the eye could see, a few Oaks spotted, and I knew following the river in the entire river was lined with Willows.
I was standing under a Hawthorn near a little pond a short distance from the tree line, I knew adult ceremonies took place here but at that age I didn't understand them.
"No." I whispered, shy around this Old Crone.
"Thousands of years ago," She said, power growing in her voice. "There was an ancient war. Men fought Men over the Gods, each Man fighting for the God they believed to be right. Thousands upon thousands died. Then Men who buried the dead waited, until the blood in their bodies no longer flowed like a river, but dried. A hole was cut through their stomach, and when they were buried trees were planted inside them. Years past and the war was devastating, soon Men forgot exactly what they were fighting for, only remembering how to bury their dead, the world was decimated and thousands of years have past since then. All these trees boy? They are the dead. That Forest is a vast Graveyard stretching on forever; those trees contain the souls of our ancestors."
I looked deep into the heart of the Woods, it was still, almost like they knew their story was being told, as if they were listening.
Suddenly her hands were on my shoulders holding me, looking right into my face with her one eye.
"The Trees are alive boy!" She cried. "Some of the trees are the fallen of the wrong Men, these trees are evil, and wish you dead!"
I ran, far away from the Crone and the Forest, and hid in the stable by my families Cow, Betsy.
That night around the dinner table with my Mother and Father enjoying Duck cooked with lemon and honey, I told them what the Crone had said.
"Magda is old," My Father told me. "Some says she is hundreds of years old, the last in the line of her family, all who lived unnaturally long lives."
He told Me they were the keepers of the story, telling generation after generation the legends and history of the Forest.
"You need to know about that Forest, Son." My Father told me, his voice solemn. "When a Boy comes of age, he must go into the Forest on his own, he must try to survive out on his own, as long as he can, and if he can, he must try to make it to the other side of the Forest.
"Has anyone ever done that?" I ask with intense curiosity.
"No. Within the Forest lie dangers unimaginable. There are more than Wolves in there, Son."
Wolves sometimes ventured out of the Woods, hunting Chickens or Ducks. Sometimes, they ate small children who'd wandered off on their own. There was a group of men, who had lasted long or survived well at their trials in the Forest, they protected us from the Wolves, sometimes going into the Woods to hunt when food was scarce. They were the keepers of the Old Way. Each had spent time with the Old Crone, learning the stories intensely. When Winter came, and wood was needed for fires, they would go into the Woods searching for the evil trees. But sometimes they could not be found, or they hid well. The Old Crone had taught them the words to the prayers needed to be said to cut down a tree. The words were in an ancient tongue, that only the trees and the wind understood. They gave the tree peace so we could use its wood. So its soul could give us warmth.
My Father removed his shirt. There was a huge scar running down his back. I had seen him without his shirt before, when he was working at making instruments for protection for the Guardians, and I had always wondered about the scar. I had never asked.
"This scar," he said "Came from a creature 6 times the size of any Wolf. It was creature that roared, big and mean, with shaggy brown fur. There are creatures in those Woods, Son. Monsters."
I remember sitting there, the wind howling outside my windows, I remember imagining the beast my Father spoke of. I imagined evil glowing red eyes in the dark, stalking me as I stumbled through the Birch trees in a howling Winter's night. My heart was racing, even at the table, by the warmth of the fire.
"Magda knows, all the children in her family, even the girls must go through the trial when they come of age." My Mother cut in. "Magda lasted the longest of any known person. Four Winter's they say she lasted, determined to make in through the Forest. On her second Winter, cold and hungry knowing only death would come if she kept going, she turned back. She stumbled out of those Woods delirious, muttering, starved and near death. She is the wisest and most learned person in this village."
The hut fell silent, and we resumed eating our dinner, my thoughts plagued with images moving in the dark, of the Old Crone as a young girl sitting in the snow by a fire, freezing to death, fearing that when my time came I would scarcely last
or I would perish.
For years I kept an eye on the Old Woman, listened in when I heard her speaking to others. Sometimes she spoke to the trees. I wondered if they spoke back to her. If they did, I couldn't hear them. But she talked to them like old friends, had conversations. Her face was like the crinkled bark of a tree. Sometimes I wondered that she'd spent so long among them she was becoming one.
When I could I spent us much time near the tree-line as possible, staring in. I watched the Guardians fight when the occasional wolf came to steal a chicken. I practised the movements they used with a long stick. My coming of age was close approaching. I'd need all the knowledge I could get. I had become determined
infatuated with the idea of making it through the Forest. I dreamed of what lie on the other-side. For me it was always some kind of paradise. Warmth, and a treeless clearing stretching for miles. Hills of grass as far as the eye could see.
Finally a new year dawned. All the children who were to come of age travelled a mile in the opposite direction of the thick labyrinthine Forest, here trees grew sparsely. I saw ponds of Geese. Cats and Dogs running about, and a larger village built on the side of a wide river. I could not see the other side, but men on small wooden boats sat in the still river holding sticks with lines entering the water. I knew what they were doing. My Father had often spoken of fishing as a child. This was the village he had came from, he had moved closer to the Forest when he returned injured from his trail the huge cut on his back. My Mother had nursed him back to health. That was what she did, she knew medicines, she knew what herbs and plants were used to help the sick. Even Old Crone came to my Mother when she was younger, they had learned together for a bit, learning the way of the herbs, when Old Crone has learned what she needed she walked off into the Woods. She came back weeks later with vast supplies of Mushrooms and other plants that my mother could use. Even teaching my Mother knew things. She truly was the wisest of the village.
When my Father was nursed back to health, a feat that had seemed impossible, he began courting my Mother, marrying her under the Hawthorn. He hadn't left since.
"Do you see it!?" A boy called out next to me, he was a boy from a village nearer ours than this, still along the tree line.
I looked where he was pointing. Towards the middle of the village was a huge Oaken Citadel, built hundreds of years ago. Craved into the wood of the halls where pictures of the Forest, and some of the strange creatures inside it. I saw Wolves, and the large monstrous creature my Father spoke of. I saw pictures of Butterflies and other creatures I was familiar with. The Forest truly was a wild place.
When I and the other boys had all sat down inside the huge citadel a voice called out.
"Men. That's what you will become this year. Each one of you will pit yourself against the wild of the Forest. Those of you that survive will come back men, and be assigned a post based of how well you did."
I see the Old Crone walk up behind him, hunched and hooded in the same grey cloak.
"Magda will provide you with a week of training with her before you venture into the woods."
He pulled out a piece of parchment, something Old Crones family line had passed down how to make through the generations.
"On this list is the order your days of birth. The order of which, you will enter the Forest. I will call the names out, but first enjoy your coming of age feast!"
Women come out dressed in beautiful green gowns. They are our age, and I imagine they set this up as a way for us to find pairs. The place beautiful clay plates with swirling carves cut into them in front of us, with a beautiful dark meat, dripping with flavour, a side of cooked river fruit, and a goblet filled with red liquid. I've seen the liquid before. My Father had drunk it on oft occasions. But we were to be Men, now we could drink it.
I bite in to the meat, it's succulent and juicy I can taste that is has been flavoured with garlic, and something else I can't put my finger on.
I finish a mouth full and wash it down with the Wine my Father had forbidden me from drinking. It was rare he had said, and difficult to make, until Summer.
It was beautiful. Sweet and made Me feel dizzy, but happy, like I could do anything. I knew the flavour on the meat now. It was wine.
The feast felt like hours, as we drank ourselves into a stupor. Some boys ending kissing the serving girls. The man came through, eyeing people off with his stern face and big grey beard, telling them it was time to be quiet and to sit down, I finished off my tenth goblet of wine by the time the halls were silent.
"When I call your name I want you to walk up those stairs to the right, and young Saiben will lead you to your sleeping chamber for the night."
He unrolled the parchment and cleared his throat.
"Rose of Hazelton"
Whispers filled the hall, all of us looking around. A young red head with short boyish hair walked past me, dressed in boys clothes. Looking at her face I saw she was a girl, and seeing her body shape, it was obvious. But girls don't do the trial. Only Magda's family line. And she was the last. As the girl vanished up the stairs silence filled the hall, eagerly awaiting an explanation. None was given. The man called out the next name.
"Euan of Hawthorn"
It was me, stumbling to my feet due to the wine, I steadied myself and walked as straight as I could to, and up the stairs as a young man lead me to my chamber. Beyond the burnt black door was a small fire, a small wooden table with two chairs, and two beds on opposite sides of the room. On the bed, on the right hand side of the room, sat the red haired Rose, her beautiful white face sullen looking.
"I didn't think they'd make me share a room." She said, spite in her voice.
"Sorry." I responded and dumped my clothes at the end of my bed.
I was too tired to talk. I wanted to sleep.
My dreams where strange that night. Normally your dreams are forgotten, but I remember those dreams.
I was by a pond, reeds surrounded it, I moved them aside, looking down in the pond, the water moved like a flowing river, slowing down and stopping, changing and become a complete reflection, I saw myself and heard the sound of Ravens I looked around me and saw only trees, looking back to the pond there was nothing there, just snow, snow and trees all around me, and the crying of Ravens. I looked around the birch trees and snow fell and melted on my naked flesh. And still the Ravens cried. Darkness was falling. I ran, naked and cold through the forest, falling face first into the snow as darkness fell, I huddled against a tree for warmth. Still the ravens cried. "Help!" I screamed. "Somebody please help!" I heard a blood curdling laughter from behind and jumped up to see the face of the Old Crone reaching out from the tree.
"No help will come." She mocked. "Only death comes in Winter!" She burst into a fit of laughter and I ran.
Running as fast and far as my legs would take me, my body freezing from the cold. Seeing a small rocky cave I hid myself inside.
"The trees are alive!" I hear the Old Crone call out. "Alive and hungry for souls!" She calls.
I cried and the tears froze on my face. Dying of the cold, my naked body huddled against a wall.
"Here." I hear a voice say, and look up. It's Rose, she's coming towards Me, dressed in the fine green dresses of the serving girls. "Let me warm you." She says removing her dress and pressing her naked body against mine. My body heats up in a way it's never done before. And the laughing of the crone changes into the cracking of a fire in the cave, and the Ravens crying silences to the gentle buzz of Summer bees. The warmth of Rose against me is heavenly and she moves her hands through my brown hair. My green eyes gazing into hers, I look at her soft milky skin and fiery red hair.
I get a feeling of intense warmth and dizziness, before I wake up.