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Faint Dark (Part Two)

Title: Faint Dark
Author:ciaranbochna
Disclaimer: This is a creation of my own feeble mind. All rights reserved
Length: 7203 (posted in three parts)
Rating: PG

A/N: A gift forlurkingwombat Vaguely based on something that happened to me as a child. Thought I would post it today, as it is a little dark. Beta is the ever-patient caffienekitty


The knights don’t know how long they stay on the path. They cannot see the sun through the ancient trees. It is too quiet in the wood, but none of them want to break the hush, or their promise.

A hole opens on the path directly in front of the lady. The trees on either side of the path move back.  The knights feel the earth rumble under their feet, and they stumble as if they are on the deck of a ship. The path is swallowed by a rolling wave of vines.

The knights stop, watching the vines swirl over their boots.

The lady turns and beckons them with one hand. “There is nothing to battle here. Come.”

They step into the trees, moving behind and beside her.

She smiles and raises an eyebrow, inviting the knight to speak.

The youngest knight shrugs slightly. “We cannot cast aside our instincts my lady. We protect whether you wish us to or no.”

“Yes. But this place has its own protector, and while I appreciate your gesture, I am in no danger.”

The branches of the ancient trees around them shudder, and the lowest boughs bend toward the earth, as if humbling themselves.

The hart appears in the middle of glade. None of the knights see the trees part to let him in. The hart makes no sound as he crushes the fallen leaves.

The knights tremble. Men who fear nothing feel the earth rumble beneath them, and feel like children who have lost the right to speak.

The air around the hart shimmers, and a man now stands where the hart appeared. A man with antlers that reach toward the sky above him. His skin is golden and brown, he is naked, but the knights see no weakness. They feel a coiled energy that makes the hair stand on the back of their necks. They look up as the hart approaches. They knights feel smaller as he moves toward them, and the hart grows taller as he walks, stopping before the lady.

She bows her head to the hart, and he inclines his head to her, flashing teeth as white as bleached bone.

***

Cassie crosses the road, walking past the neighbour’s house on the other side. She grabs some raspberries from the garden in the back yard, and steps onto the overgrown path into the trees. She picks huckleberries and blueberries from the bushes as she walks, leaning down to touch a trillium flower growing under an ash tree. Cassie had tried to plant one in the flowerbeds in front of her house, but the flower had died a few days after she dug it up. She hadn’t tried to plant anything from the woods again. Things belonged where they start, and maybe the Trillium needs the company around it.

There is a huge fallen tree off the path. It is four times Cassie’s height, but she climbs it anyway. There are berry bushes growing on the top of the fallen trunk, and she can watch the birds in the trees from this height. Sometimes she almost falls asleep in the patches of sun coming through the branches. Once, Cassie found half a robin’s egg below a sapling leaning against the fallen tree.

Cassie can hear a deer in the brush, snapping twigs as it passes. Mom always chases them out of their garden, but Cassie loves watching them. The careful way they walk, the way their feet hang in the air when they hear a noise, and the way they fly, as if their feet push against the air when they leap.

Cassie pulls bits of bark from the fallen tree, making little piles beside her. She arranges them in a circle, adding tiny white daisies, huckleberries and blueberries to the centre. She picks up the daisies, tying the stem of one flower to the next, until she has a chain. Cassie ties the last two together and slips the necklace over her head.

Cassie drapes the daisy necklace over her bedpost when she gets home. The tiny knots in each stem give her an idea.

She pushes the catch on her hope chest at the end of her bed and lifts the lid. Grandma had given her yarn to practice knitting – a ball of blue and black, and one of green and silver. Cassie picked up the knobby ball of green and silver and rolled the string between her fingers. She pulls one of the daisies from the necklace and lays it on the quilt, on the blank square where the mask had erased the tree.

Cassie spreads her hand over the white cloth for a moment. She wonders where the shadows have taken her grandmother’s embroidered tree, and if they are taking care of it. She pulls the end of the yarn out, and ties a loose knot in the end of it. She picks up the daisy and pushes the stem through the loop, pulling it tight to hold the flower in place.

Cassie remembers looking up at the sky through the branches in the afternoon, the sun on her face, and the tartness of the huckleberries on her tongue. She picks up another flower and ties another loop in the yarn, pushing another flower through. Cassie feels the wind in the top of her tree, the trunk moving slightly beneath her.

When she picks up the next daisy, the stem is limp in her fingers. The little white flower flops to one side. She ties the string across the centre of the petals, over its yellow heart, remembering the slump of dad’s shoulders when he walks in the door after work.

Cassie thinks of the deer in their garden, and the hart in the story, and whispers the story into the three knots tied in the string. She remembers begging her mother to read more every night, and dreaming of ancient trees and a man with the horns of a stag. Cassie knows the story by heart, and corrects her mother if she misses a word.

She stares at the length of yarn—blue, black, yellow and white. She imagines she can even see words shining from the last knots before she ties the ends together in a circle. Cassie hangs the necklace from her bedpost, hearing the door slam and her father’s voice downstairs. She is ready for tonight.

The man with antlers and the lady stare at each other. The knights try not to move; try not to break the spell laid between the figures in the centre of the glade.

“You wish to end the drought.” His voice is dark as the path under the trees, dark as pools that never see the sun.

The knights taste blood on their tongues. Their hearts race, as if they are the hunted.

“These knights have asked on behalf of the king, who begs for the land and his people.” The lady spreads her hands, reaching toward the man before her.

“His people. The same who left us with pockets of land, where once the wood reached for fourteen days’ journey? The same king, whose knights have soaked the earth in blood, because he is not content with what he has?”

The knights stumble as the earth rolls beneath their feet. The air around them thickens, and they gasp for breath. They realise that this man is no shape shifter. He is a god of earth, who protected the land long before they began serving the king. Before boundaries were set between kingdoms, when loyalty was decided beneath the moon and stars, and creatures paid their tribute in circles of stone.

The lady does not bow her head before the god. The youngest knight sees a trail of blood flow from her eyes, but still she does not bow.

“The king has realised his error. I have come to pay you, as it was done when these trees covered the earth, and we worshipped in the fire and the dark. I have come to give a gift, freely, a gift which has not been offered in a thousand years. Will you take it and heal what has been done, and save the people who live here now?” She reaches into her bodice, pulling out a shimmering web. It pulses in her hands, climbing over her palm, reaching toward the forest god.

The land stills in the glade around them. The knights wait, unsettled by the sudden quiet.

He steps closer to the lady, bending his antlered head toward her. He breathes in the scent of her hair, smells the king’s blood bound in the thread of her web. The king’s blood - and hers. He whispers to her, and the knights smell fire and smoke.

“You do this for them after they abandoned you? When they scoff at your wisdom?” He pulls a lock of her hair, and the knights see flame curl along the black strand – but she does not burn.

“I do this for them, in part. They are children; wanton destruction is what they know. But they can learn. No, my lord, I do this for the land, and I do this –“She runs a finger over his lips. The god’s eyes are bonfires, and the knights fall back.

“—for you.” She steps away and he follows, catching her hands and the web within.

“You give – freely? He voice is longing, lost.

“Always.” She smiles. The air around them blurs.

The trees lean toward them, but now there is only the hart and the hind. He is black with shades of red; she is black with flames of russet beneath her eyes. They stand before the knights, and for a moment the warriors see a man and woman embrace, and then they are gone.

“The land needs more than blood. Remember, and tell the king that there is more than the hunt, more than his wars. There is nothing without mystery, and what lies beyond your paths.”

The knights hear the god and goddesses voice as one, beneath their feet and in the branches above them. They begin to turn, stumbling as the feeling returns to their legs. Their chests ache, as if they have run too far, as if there are stones in their hearts. They follow the path from the wood, and soon the trees grow smaller, and the sun pierces the branches above them. Soon, the ancient wood has passed them by.

The knights tell the king their story, and the warning they were given. The wood is left to the spirits that hold it, and the ancient trees that circle them. And when there is a drought (which even spirits cannot prevent), then the king or queen will ask a man, woman, or child to walk the path in the wood. And they will walk the path until the trees are larger than the castle, and the sunlight will not reach them, until they find the glade at the wood’s heart, and offer their gifts of old.

Cassie is nervous at dinner. She kicks her feet under the table, knocking her foot against the table leg.

“We don’t need dinner music Cassie.” Dad raises an eyebrow at her. He is wearing a faded grey t-shirt. It’s one of her favourites, because when he tucks her in she can feel the old cotton against her face when he hugs her.

“Sorry.” Cassie pulls her foot in, but keeps swinging it under the chair.

“Did you have fun out in the woods?” Mom passes her the carrots (fresh from the garden) and Cassie nods.

“Picked some flowers on the fallen tree.”

“I saw the garland on your bedpost. You know they don’t last long once you pick them.” Mom pokes Dad in the shoulder.

“You didn’t pick me; I harassed you until you gave in.” Dad grins and kisses mom on the cheek.

Dad doesn’t look so tired today. Cassie rolls her eyes at them, but she can’t help smiling back.

After dinner, she helps mom dry the dishes, and wanders back into the living room. Dad starts arranging kindling in the fireplace, and soon the room is filled with the sound of crackling logs. They don’t really need a fire in the summer, but dad is always cold lately, and Cassie doesn’t mind.

She takes the decks of cards out of the cabinet and sits on the carpet. Cassie makes a row of triangle shapes, and lays cards flat along the top where each set of two meet. When she has a long enough line going, she starts stacking cards on top until she has a wall four levels high. Cassie can hear the TV, but it sounds distant even though it is right behind her. She stares into the shadows between the cards, and wonders if the shadows ever get tired of visiting her, and if they have somewhere to go. She is still afraid of them, but they don’t seem as important as they did yesterday. Cassie blows sharply on the end of her card wall, and the cards scatter around her feet.

“Going to start over, honey?”

Cassie sorts the cards into piles and stuffs them back into their boxes. “No.” She climbs up on the couch between her parents and watches TV until it’s time for bed.

“So what should it be tonight honey?” Cassie is tucked in the middle of the bed with mom and dad on either side of her.

“The hart and the lady.”

Mom smiles. “You sure you don’t want anything new? I think we’ve worn that one out.”

Cassie shakes her head.

Dad looks at mom and shrugs. “Knights and ladies it is then.”

Cassie stays awake until the very end of the story. When her parents leave her room feels smaller, and the corners are darker, though there is nothing nearby to cast shadows so deep. Her mother’s voice is quiet as she shuts the door, like something has hushed the room, leaning in to listen.

“Do you remember before?”

“There is nothing before. There are only the children. But – “

Cassie is shaking. She can feel the air above her face shiver as one of the shadows leans over her.

“What has she done?”

Cassie peels her arms away from the sheets and rolls toward the window with a sigh.

“We don’t need flowers, or knots tied thrice.”

Cassie hears a rustle, and the shadows move away. Her chest stops aching and Cassie feels like crying.

“There were flowers larger than this in my wood.”

“I can smell the sun, and feel the tree swaying. That story the older one told –“

“Familiar, but not important now. This garland is just a child’s fancy.”

“Do you remember the dance? The way the moon and fire lit the trees?”

“There was nothing before the darkness.” Cassie hears a tearing sound.

“Come. She can wait another night. Do you want to take it?”

“Yes. I shouldn’t. It is worthless, but I need to unravel it. Somewhere in these knots I will find it.”

“Find what?”

The shadow’s voice reminds her of her dad for a moment.  When he whispers something to her mother that she can’t quite hear, and they laugh like they have a secret.

“Leave her. Tomorrow is soon enough.”

When the room goes silent Cassie opens her eyes. She turns her night table light on. There are no deep shadows in the corner. She leans over the bed. The garland is gone but there is something on the carpet. Cassie gets out of bed and kneels down. A little tuft of red-tipped black hair stands out against her cream carpet.

Her neck hurts. Cassie realizes she is shaking her head over and over. She remembers the story about the lady and the forest god, and how they both changed into deer. Cassie grabs the edge of her bed and pulls herself up. She waits a moment until her knees stop wobbling and walks to her door. She wants to curl up outside her parent’s door, like she did when she was little. But Cassie is eight now, and the shadows haunting her rooms aren’t just nightmares, and they won’t go away on their own. She wonders why they’re here, and not in the forest. She can bring them more flowers, or berries, but Cassie doesn’t think that’s what they want.

If they really are the people in her story, then they need to be in the woods, not lurking in her bedroom. She doesn’t think they mean to kill her though, just take her away. Cassie rubs her thumb over the notches on her door frame. She was a quarter inch taller last week. She wonders how tall the god is with his antlers. Her ceiling probably isn’t high enough to hold him if he stands up.

She remembers the trillium flower she planted in the front flowerbed and frowns. The lady and god shouldn’t be trapped here, or wherever they disappear to in the morning. Cassie remembers the mask (still there when the light started coming in).

Cassie pushes open her parent’s door, lifting the edge of the quilt on her dad’s side of the bed.

He jumps and blinks at her. “Cassie? Did you have another nightmare?”

“Yes. Can I sleep in here?” Cassie shivers slightly. Her parent’s room is darker than hers, but the shadows are empty.

“Alright. Just this once.” But he smiles and shuffles back so she can climb in the bed.  Her mom mumbles and moves over on the other side.

There isn’t much room with three of them in the bed, but she doesn’t care. Dad throws an arm over her and falls asleep again. The weight on her chest lifts. Cassie closes her eyes. The room is quiet. Before she falls asleep Cassie wonders if the shadows went exploring a long time ago, and got lost. Maybe they don’t know how to get home. Maybe if Cassie makes them a path…

Cassie wakes up and pushes off the quilt. The sun is warming the side of her face. Mom and dad are gone, but she doesn’t care. She rolls over and buries her face in her mom’s pillow. It smells like the spicy perfume she wears, and a little bit like coffee. Cassie wrinkles her nose and stretches.

She is going to need both balls of yarn, flowers, and leaves.

She leaves the house right after breakfast, grabbing the blue backpack from behind her bedroom door.

“I won’t be late.” Her mom nods absently, frowning at a bunch of papers in her hand. Mom tugs on her ear – something she does when she’s worried. Cassie walks over and hugs her, then races down the stairs.