Monday, October 31, 2011

A Shadow In the Woods

The shade had been following me for hours.

It wound through the woods next to me, twisting and contorting its form around the trunks of trees.  It darted ahead of me, and then fell back, ahead again, and then it sank deeper in the woods, no pattern discernible in its movements.  Then it moved from the woods, following me step for step, my shadow gone mad.  It slithered between my legs and danced across the road ahead of me.  It twisted itself into inhuman shapes, some horrible avatars of woe, some I did not recognize but for the sense of dread they inspired in me.  I had yet to acknowledge the creature, feeling that it would only savor my suffering all the more if it knew the extent of my fear.  Not that I believed that I could hide my torment from the creature, but if all acts of defiance are taken away then what is there left to buoy hope?

An armored soldier passed me on horseback offering a pleasant nod.  I returned it, wishing I could remain in the glow of his torch.  I debated asking him for assistance, but thought better of it.  The man was not a holy warrior and surely had little in the way of training to combat the supernatural.  The last two soldiers I had passed had offered what they could quite earnestly, but had been utterly unsuccessful and afterward the creature had hounded me with a frenzied zeal, punishing me for making it retreat, however briefly.  More worrisome was my own ignorance of the creature’s ability to interact with the corporeal world.  Some shades were unable to do anything but exist, others left mangled bodies in their wake.  If this monster became too irritated with me, I could not imagine it sparing my innocent would-be guardian. 

Lost in thought, I had not noticed the soldier dismount and approach me until his hand grasped my shoulder.  I was grateful that his hands were bare, for the weight of a gauntlet clasping my shoulder would surely have toppled me. 

“Sir, is everything well?”

The strange, almost hesitant intonation on the word “well” made me shiver.  The world was silent but for the warm crackling of his torch and our breathing, his steadier than mine and almost inaudible.  No branches broke, no birds chirped, and no crickets sang.  Animals had a measure of survival instinct that humanity had left behind years ago.  When the unnatural was about, they fled for safety. 

Realizing an answer was still expected of me I coughed, the dryness of my throat a sudden burden.  I touched my hip flask to my lips and let enough water trickle down to allow speech.

“Well as it may be travelling at this hour.”

He paused at this.  Considering his options, I assumed.  “Where are you off to?”

A shiver raced down my spine as I started speaking and I had to begin again, conscious of the shade’s presence somewhere near.  “Newton.  My wife is ill and I could not think of stopping for the night when Newton is but hours away.”

This answer brought an expression of open worry to the soldier’s face.  My impatience was obviously outweighing my common sense and would end this conversation before the man could gracefully reach his point.  He stated it plainly instead.  “You are aware that you are being stalked.”

I could not hide my knowledge, but nor did I wish to involve this Good Samaritan in my own peril.  “I am afraid I have no time to worry over such possibilities.”  I repeated my urgency lamely.  “My wife is ill.”

The soldier’s face tightened not unsympathetically.  “Your haste does you no favors and a dead man cannot tend to an ailing woman.”  His hand came away from his sword’s hilt, only then did I notice it was there in the first place, and from his neck and took a medal, offering it to me.  His insistence was touching.  I would have his assistance one way or another.

I held my palm underneath his outstretched hand and let him pour the length of gold chain into my hand before letting the medal fall atop the pile.  It was warm to the touch.  The medal showed a robed monk standing amongst a forest watching a traveler make his way along a path.  The reverse side held an inscription, Not all who wander are lost

I turned my head to thank the soldier and found him throwing his leg over his horse’s saddle, his back to me.  I lifted the chain over my head and attempted to verbalize my deepest gratitude, a woefully ineffective gesture in my current state I am sure.  His shadow flickered in the torch-light and I felt sure he had crossed himself for my sake. 

I was no more than a dozen paces down the road when the shade returned to my side.  I did not lay eyes on it, but an icy hissing filled my ears and nearly drained my remaining courage.  The creature was somehow more terrifying for its remaining out of sight.  By all established patterns it should have been cavorting and capering madly in front of me, desperately searching for my direct attention.  Instead naught but the hideous hissing announced its presence.   I was losing feeling in my fingers and toes, a chill had crept up on me so rapidly that I feared frostbite in autumn.  My fingers felt for the medal, fishing it clumsily out from under my vest where it had nestled itself.  The medal itself was unconcerned with the sudden chill, deliciously warm in my numb fingers.  The warmth was a contagion, spreading itself into my fingers and up my arms, settling the goosebumps across my body.  I quickly pulled the length of chain out from under my collar and let it rest against my bare neck, desperate for its warmth.  The hissing receded.  Still the only sound in the night, it no longer rolled around inside my mind.  I clutched the medal tighter, letting the thin edges press into the flesh of my hand, relishing the sensation. 

All sense left me when liquid fingers brushed softly against the back of my collar.  Cold, ethereal, the fingers plucked at my collar more firmly.  I am unaware of what to address as mutinous when neither mind nor body obeys the ingrained imperative to flee for survival’s sake, but I suspect that all sense of reasonability dissipates upon the arrival of malicious supernatural fright. 

A lock of my hair was curled around one of the fingers and a sob escaped my lips.  The fingers went rigid at the sound of my acknowledgement and I knew I would not see my wife again.  Still toying with my hair, a shadowed hand reached over my shoulder and stroked my face, a lover’s caress.  Intimate.  Revolting. 

The sensation vanished.  The hands lifted.  The cold abated.  I ran.

I ran through down the road and would have shrieked like a thing possessed had my throat been released from its paralysis.  Urine soaked my leg, tears stained my face.  I ran until my muscles gave up and I pitched forward onto the ground.

The sun rose to find me barely strong enough to curl up into a ball.  Footsteps approached and I prayed that I would not be robbed or beaten after the torment of the night.  Instead a warm, soft hand stroked my hair kindly.  I allowed myself to gaze upon the creature sitting cross-legged at my side.  Ethereal as the shade, he was a pleasantly round man in a monk’s robe.  The hem of the robe flowed airily, disappearing into the air around it so naturally that I barely noticed the phenomenon.  His voice was firm and loving.

“Stand up.  Your wife has need of you.”

The spirit disappeared into the breeze as easily as the hem of his robe.  I pushed myself from the ground and heard a man dismount from his horse.  The soldier approached me and sank down on his haunches, occupying the space the monk had not a minute earlier.  He offered me his hand.

“Sir, is everything well?”