Ash and Bone
A baron woodlands, devoid of colour and life.
Yet, there is still something to be found. Something ancient lives here.
Care for it as if it were your own, or watch it melt to ash and bone. Words that echoed in my mind as I edged my way through the forest. The trees were spread sparse, and lay bare. Their dark, silvery trunks clinging to the ground through exposed roots; roots that wove their way across the grim, grey dirt. I had to be careful not to trip as I walked, the entire forest floor was laden with them.
The air was still. Not a sound floated through it, save the crunch of my boots on the dry, dead ground. And that’s what this place was, or at least seemed: dead. There was no colour, no life. The forest seemed empty, devoid of anything you might expect to see in a woodland. No animals, no water, no sunlight breaking its way through the canopy. The lack of leaves would have left the whole forest to bath in the warm glow of the sun, were it not hidden beneath perpetual cloud.
I came to a steeply crested dirt mound. Either side were trees, jagged roots and felled decaying logs. It seemed to be my only way forward. In my attempts to scramble up, I lost my footing and fell forward. I wasn’t quite sure how, my foot felt planted one second, then as if the ground was gone the next, but it didn’t matter. I had made it over the rise but landed on my stomach in the dirt. Peeling upright as quickly as I could, I frantically checked my pocket. To my relief, there was no harm done. My prize was safe. Dusting myself off, I continued onwards, heading deeper into the forest.
“Nasty isn’t it…”
I flew around, a haunting voice catching me by surprise. My heart in my mouth, my breath caught in my lungs, I found myself peering down at a haggard old woman, head spun with dry and curling white hairs. She was sat against the base of a tree, wore a tattered old white dress down to her feet, no shoes and a crooked smile.
“To be caught off-guard by a scary old woman in the middle of a forest” she continued, her smile broadening. I nodded frantically in agreement.
“What brings you out here?” She pressed. “Alone”.
Her expression was warm but her eyes were cold. They were like the forest around me. Lifeless and empty.
“Nothing?” She replied, sceptically. “I doubt that very much.”
“What are you doing out here?” I asked, trying to turn the conversation to her.
“Hmm? Oh, just sitting.”
We looked at each other, an eerie smile on her face, what I imagined to be nerves on mine.
“I better head this way,” I said after a pause, edging away from her.
“Oh yes, you better had.” The old woman croaked. “It’ll be getting dark soon.”
I nodded awkwardly at her, scurrying away. Before I could move out of earshot, I heard her call.
“Must be very valuable, whatever is in your pocket.”
I turned back to answer, to lie or question her knowledge of what lay beneath the fabric of my clothes, but there was nobody to respond back to. The woman was gone.
With every hair on my body stood on end, I carried on. I had to be there soon, or must at least be getting close. She was right, though, it was getting darker. It was impossible to know how high the sun was in the sky. Between myself and the clouds was a high floating mist that wafted through the treetops. It scattered what little light crept its way through the clouds, destroying all indication of the placement of the sun within the sky. All I knew was, I was losing light. I shuddered at the thought of being caught out here in the dark. Waking to a wrinkled old crone standing over me, fumbling at my pocket and scared me half to death. She’d already done that once, I suppose if she came back and did the other half she’d finish the job.
I could feel the fear etching its way into my body. A strange sensation of heat on my skin, despite the cold. A feeling of movement in my stomach, without any food inside it. And a distortion behind my eyes; the world was the same as how I always knew it, but somehow looked different at the same time. Like I was seeing more detail, my unconscious mind looking for things it normally wouldn’t. Like creepy old ghost women.
I didn’t want to be here anymore.
The only way out was forward. I marched on, watching my footsteps carefully. I would seemingly trip every time I looked up, like the roots beneath me were tricking my eyes. Where I thought was clear was suddenly not. This forest was shapeless, aimless, it just kept going. But then, my heart sank, as I came to a familiar sight. A crested dirt mound, this time with scrapped boot marks down the rise. I approached it cautiously. To either side were trees, felled logs and jagged roots. There was no mistaking it. Carefully, I climbed, watching my feet as I went. With a hop I sprang over the ridge and immediately cast my eyes around the trees, turning back to check for old, haggard strangers. But there was nobody.
“Nasty isn’t it…”
I gasped as a jolt of shock struck me deep within my chest.
“To be caught off-guard twice by a scary old woman.”
Slowly, I turned back around. There she was, stood barefoot in the dirt. Hunched over, neck twisted, peering up at me through the spirals of hair falling down her face.
“What’s going on?” I demanded, eyes darting around the forest for other potential surprises. The woman had not been there mear moments ago, and the trees were spread so far apart around us that there was no way she could have appeared from behind one of them.
“I would like to see the treasure you carry”. She said softly, wearing the same broad smile.
“It is not for you,” I said, trying to strike my tone with some form of confidence while carefully shielding my pocket with my hands.
The woman’s smile dropped to a sneer. She folded the hair out of her face to reveal a harsh and angry expression, yet those eyes still held nothing but emptiness. No emotion, nothing. “There is only one reason people visit this forest. Only one reason they travel so deep.”
“Get away from me, crone!” I wailed, sprinting round her, my hands still covering my pockets. I ran deeper and deeper into the forest, zig-zagging between the gnarled roots as fast as I could. I kept the pace for as long as I could, constantly switching between tracking my movements across the floor — careful not to trip — and looking up for signs of repetition. Eventually, after a fairly lengthy, yet cautious run, I started to tire. I wasn’t the most physically fit of individuals. I came from wealth, I didn’t have to be.
Panting, exhausted and pleading with my own head for signs of the creature that I sought, I came upon a particularly dangerous looking patch of roots, stretching on ahead of me into the far distance. They spun up in all directions, curved and twisted, some even looping twice over before burying themselves back into the ground. It seemed like they were fleeing the very earth itself.
I looked around the desolate landscape. No sign of women, or crests or anything familiar; except a brutally grey and unappealing forest. I broke off my pace and opted for a slow walk through the entangled roots. Eyes firmly at my feet, I made steady progress for all of thirty seconds, then I glanced up.
There is was. The crested dirt mound. Right before my eyes. How? What had happened to the swarming roots? There was no way I’d made my way through them. Shaking, but with anger and fear, I put my hand forward and climbed. Eyes darting about the place, I kept myself moving, circling as I went, looking for the old woman. I didn’t want to be surprised again.
But she wasn’t here. I couldn’t see her anywhere. I stood for a good few minutes, in the dead silence of the forest. Waiting for her to appear. She didn’t come. I could feel my mind slipping away from me. I was becoming desperate. The sun didn’t appear to be moving. It was still fading, and had been for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t see a way out. How could I escape a forest that could change its shape at a moments notice? Nobody had warned me this forest played games with you. That a witch lived between its deathly edges and tangled roots.
Slowly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my prize. A mottled green egg, slightly larger than a chicken’s, lay in my palm. I held it out before me, gazing at its smooth shell. I felt a coldness behind me. Not a breeze, more like that cold feeling of placing your hand near frozen water. An aura.
The woman appeared. Shuffling past my shoulder, she came to a kneel in front of me. She too gazed at the egg. Again she wore that same smile. Again her eyes, though wide and fixed upon the egg, were lifeless.
“Leave it here, and I’ll let you go”. She whispered, eyes still fixed upon the striking little egg.
“I know what happens if I let go of it.” I whimpered. I was afraid, but not more afraid than I was of dying, cold and alone in this forest.
“Do it.” She urged.
“Go on. Take it from me.” I said, a pleading note clear in my quivering voice.
“Just put it on the ground.” The witch breathed with a gesture towards the floor.
“Why don’t you just take it?”
“Put it on the ground.” She was becoming agitated again. The smile wiped from her face. Her anger was building. “Put it on the ground and leave!”
I watched her for a moment, wondering why she wouldn’t just take the egg. Then, cautiously, I reached out with one hand. As I slide my hand towards her skin, it floated away like mist. She really was a ghost; an apparition.
“You have no power here,” I said under my breath. “You can’t do anything to me.”
“I can trap you in this place until you’re too weak to carry on.” The witch screeched at me. “I’m giving you a chance to leave here alive.”
But the wheels were turning in my mind. I was starting to piece it together. What was happening. Not how it was happening, mind, that part still eluded me, but what was causing my confusion, my lost sense of direction and inability to avoid the crested dirt mound. I could see the witch growing anxious, she twitched as she crouched before me, watching me intently.
“You can only control what I cannot see,” I said finally, cracking a small smile.
She gazed at me, blankly for a moment, seemingly lost for words. When she spoke, she didn’t say what I thought she might. She didn’t question what I knew, she didn’t ask me why or how I’d figured it out. No, instead, in the softest, and weakest of voices, she just said: “Please don’t.”
I rose quickly. I kept my eyes on the horizon and I walked onwards, straight through her. I did not let my vision waiver from the direction in which I walked. I stumbled, I tripped and fell. Cut, bled and bruised. But she couldn’t trap me if I didn’t take my eyes off the path.
“Wait!” I heard her voice behind me. “Look!’
“No!” I called out, not turning my head even an inch.
I had a newfound sense of confidence. I’d beaten her, I’d beaten her magic and her tricks. I felt a surge of energy within my body, my fear turning to determination. From behind a tree ahead of me, she came into view. She appeared to be sobbing, or at least, sad. I refused to look at her directly, my eyes were looking nowhere but dead ahead. As I walked past her, she started to scuttle along beside me.
“Please!” She begged. “Please. Drop the egg and leave. You are making a mistake.”
“This is my task. This is how I look after my family.” I replied firmly, shaking off her feeble attempts to sway my decision and pull me off course.
“I cannot take it anymore. Please, don’t do thi-” But she was cut short. We’d arrived. I had been so close for so long.
Before me was a clearing in the forest. Within it lay deep crater entrenched by roots and fallen trees; within the crater itself, was what I set out to find. The creature hummed softly. A low, baritone noise. It was an almost perfect half-sphere, about the size of a small cottage, sitting dead centre, in the heart of the crater. Its skin was a harsh pink mixed with tinges of brown, and all over its body were placed long, barbed spikes. It reminded me of a more jagged looking sea urchin; a delicacy we often treated ourselves back home. It had no face, eyes, nose or anything else you’d normally associate with an animal. I supposed they may be under its striking shell.
A quick glance at the witch told me she was devastated by my find. She shrank down onto all fours, clutching the lip of the crater, looking down on the otherworldly beast in the pit below.
“I can’t…” She moaned. “I can’t go through this again. Please don’t make me”
“It is not for me to help you,” I replied harshly, fed up with the trickster’s tactics. “I am here for a reason, and I will see it through.”
I left the sobbing woman on the edge of the crater as I slid down its ridge, towards the animal. It made no movements towards me, nor did it react to my presence. The smell was horrific. Like rotting food and gone-off meat. As I reached its massive form, I placed the egg on the floor beside it. The egg shattered into a pile of ash, the small bones of the chick that had laid inside spilling out onto the ground. The creature seemed to sense this. With a rumble, it crept towards the pile of ash and bone, its swollen body contorting in and out as it went. Within moments, it had engulfed the remnants of the egg. All I heard next was some rather unpleasant sounds of sloshing and gurgling, presumably as it ingested the remains in a mouth that lay somewhere beneath its hulking shell. There wasn’t a lot about this journey that I had expected to happen, but I knew all about this bit. My family, those that had heard tales of trips made before, had told me in great detail.
The creature started to glow, its pink skin hews turning a deeper red. Beneath the skin’s surface, a fiery orange seemed to be erupting, flowing its way around the beast’s body like lava. It glowed a vibrant glow in this dark, desolate place. Then, it seemed to latch itself to the floor, and the ground began to shake. Around me, I could see the roots of the trees twitching, starting to twist and turn even more so. They made their way further and further out of the ground. The trees that stood on the edge of the clearing began to crumble and fall helplessly into the crater, yet so weak and hollow, they didn’t roll or come crashing down the ridge, but instead gently slid, crumbling into smaller pieces as they went. The crater itself was growing in size, as the dirt ridge collapsed around us. I had to watch my balance, careful not to fall as the vibrations grew in intensity. In the frantic scene, I took a quick look around.
The witch was gone.
A few minutes after it began, it all stopped. In that time, the crater had grown, the roots had leapt further from the earth and trees had fallen into the pit all around us. The creature itself was much larger as well. It’s vivid red and orange skin returned to its normal pink state. Again, it was humming softly. I stood, watching the animal. Waiting for what I knew must come next. It had to… it couldn’t not. It took some time, time enough for me to grow increasingly nervous, but eventually, the giant started to convulse in and out again, as it very slowly crept away from me.
The patch left behind was drenched in a thick white mucus which billowed from the ground like steam, evaporating into the air. With no wind or breeze to speak of, it rose straight up into the mists above. And there it was, laying in the thick of the slimming mess, a gleaming blue stone. Clambering into the ooze, my shoes sticking to the ground as I went, I grabbed the mucus-encrusted stone and made my way swiftly out the crater, using fallen trees and roots to haul myself up to the edge. Sitting on the lip of the enormous pit, I wiped the slim off the gem with my clothes. It was a perfect circle, a glowing blue pearl. The size of my cupped hands, it shone without any light reflecting into it. I couldn’t have asked for anything so stunning. This gem was perhaps the most valuable single item anyone could get their hands on right now, and it would keep my family in great wealth for a century.
I left the forest, nearly skipping, overjoyed. The gem was hidden beneath my clothes, I couldn’t let anyone know I had it. Not until it and I were safely home. Nobody but the inner circle of my family knew of this place. If anyone were to discover it, our fortune would be ripped from beneath us. Soon, I came to the crested mound, but this time I was facing the other way.
“I used to be young and beautiful you know.” The Witch was waiting for me, on the other side of the crest. Some of her silver hair had fallen out since we last met. She looked more wrinkled, was hunched over in a cruel arch and spoke with a very weak and croaking voice. “You’ve taken this all from me.”
“Everything must have an end”. I replied, matter of factly, now very much unafraid of the deathly figure before me.
“And what will you do when I’m gone. When this is gone?” She gestured to the forest around her. Decay hung in the air, the trees were looking wilted, the bark of the roots cracking. “I cannot take much more.”
“I don’t care,” I said honestly. “What I care about is getting what I need right now. And I have what I need. You’re still here, aren’t you? The forest still stands. We’ll try and give you longer to heal this time… Maybe that will keep you going a little longer.”
“It’s not enough.” she sobbed.
“It’s all I can give you.” And with that, I left. I walked away from her. Hoping I would never to hear from her or see her again. Somebody else would have to come back here, of course, but I wasn’t going to be me. I’d be long dead.