The forest runs through the veins of all stories once they come to life, just as nature itself is life. The forest breathes that life into the mundane, and ensures that there is always an unknown, a mystical, and a darkness. There are many reasons for this, but without doubt, the forest embodies those elements. If dark magic were to enter this world, it would happen where there were no people to know. Only in the most hidden recesses and secluded undisturbed corners could shadows go unnoticed and unnatural whispers go unheard. Few people have ever placed a foot into the forest or let their eyes adjust to its dim and damp lighting, and those that have, did not do so again.
Getting to the forest- the real forest- is hard, pushing into the forest is difficult, surviving it is nearly impossible, but becoming a danger within is akin to being buried and attempting to command the dirt to let you out. She is currently buried, but she is also about to speak. Today has been a long day. They all are. Aran sat hidden in a small thicket of briers on the east side of a small rocky overhang where the rain had washed away the dirt over the years. The rock-face stood more than twice her height, and provided a wall to put her back against- one direction she doesn't need to worry about.
Here, there is no predator without fear, even if it may not be prey. Aran was both, and just getting here had been severe. She was covered in smeared mostly-dry blood, sap, and dirt. Hoping there was nothing keen to smell her out, although knowing everything was, she sat wiping and wrapping small cuts from the briers while keeping her head up. She rubbed some more dirt into her arm where some blood was still drying. Mask the smell.
I need to move. It won't stay long.
She had spent the past two days waiting and listening. During that time, she had been shaving the thorns off the bush she was in. Spending two days in a thorny bush gets remarkably better when there aren't thorns. This was also a good distraction. She didn't want to be here, and she didn't want this burden, but it was hers, and so she was here. Now was the time she had prepared for.
She had spent this time brooding over the fairy tales and legends. She knew them all by heart and believed they all held a grain of truth. She knew the stories with dark magic were true about her prey, which could only mean the others had truth at their core as well. This terrified her.
Focused and calm, her training kept her in the moment and on task. As she began to move out of the thicket, she watched carefully for any movement around her while gingerly placing her feet to avoid more cuts from the briers. She cursed under her breath at every thorn that grabbed her, but luckily there were only a few. Her work at dethorning had not been in vain, and she would come back afterwords.
As she took her last step out, and slowly lowered the branch back down that she'd been holding out of her way, she heard another sound and froze. Slowly, slowly, slowly she scanned with her eyes while her ears continued their attention. She kept one hand on the branch, and the other held the knife - ready to jump back in the bush or fight whatever came out of the dark undergrowth. Her heart was beating so loudly she was afraid she would miss any sounds she shouldn't. When the noise hit her again, her adrenaline jumped so high she almost took off running, her eyes though, finally caught the culprit on a tree just a few meters from her.
A small scarin, a furry tree rodent, was scraping some bark on a lower branch on a tree a few meters away. Just breathe. The animal seemed to also notice how loud it was, paused, then scurried quickly up one of the branches into the dark canopy.
When her grip was steady and relaxed again, she continued. Moving in the forest is a tedious slog in near darkness. She wouldn't dare risk a torch. The way of the forest is to become part of it- silent and unseen. As part of the canvas of deep greens and browns and pools of shadows, she edged towards the lumbering heaviness that wafted over her in occasional audible gusts. Every one stopped her, froze her, made her breath catch and her heart pound. Only when her heartbeat was no longer deafening would she continue.
The slow movement wears on you as you wade through the thickness. When trying to be invisible, movement becomes stagnant. Every new step requires planning. Aran had to cut through several thickets and avoid getting tangled in vines and undergrowth that had not been trespassed on before. More than one step was taken on faith that no animals were there and that the ground was true. Every bit of progress seemed to require a sacrifice- more cuts, scrapes, stabs, and tears. She was not carrying much, but it was made of the toughest leather she could find, and her clothes were adorned with leather pieces to minimize the shredding, but there was no stopping it completely, and what didn't get torn was still splattered with blood.
After nearly half an hour of laboring through the undergrowth without disturbing it to the distaste of the forest, she had made up the few hundred meters. The noise was easy to follow, but the most noticeable evidence of the approach was the smell. It's not that it was putrid, but a distinctive smell of body odor combined with rot. In the still, it carries easily.
As close as she was, it still took several minutes of peering into the dim shadowy forest to pick out her prey with the faint light. A troll. It was around 10 feet tall with scars all over its arms and chest. His back, however, seemed to be clear. He looked as expected: hideous and strong. The thing had clearly been living in this area for a month or so given the number of bones and broken trees into trails in the area. She gripped her knife and attempted to settle herself. She hated this. Someone had to do this though. Her mind stayed focused on her son and husband, her longing for them, and what she had lost. The fact that she would lose her son again. She will honor him.
He would want this.
As she crept closer, her view improved and she was able to see his face for the first time. She wondered how long he'd been alive. They can't die from old age, and there have been trolls that were known to be hundreds of years old. She wondered about this a great deal. How old would her son be now? Trying to put these thoughts aside, she reflexively used her forearm to wipe her eyes, which had become hazy with sadness. This only helped marginally as her forearm had been a mix of sweat, dirt, and blood. This left a smear across her eyes and face that made her look like she belonged in the forest. She grabbed a bit of her shirt and actually wiped her eyes, and then she returned her focus on him.
Aran had thought through her attack extensively over the past two days, but now she had to take her surroundings into account. Attacking from the front is too risky, and too hard to hold the knife. From the back, as always, she would have an advantage. She needed to be sure he couldn't fall back and crush her though. He wasn't wearing anything, so actually stabbing him would not be hard. The crucial elements were where could she catch him by surprise at his back, and in order to get to his heart, she needed him to get lower. She was hoping not to need to jump from a tree.
As she surveyed the trees that she could see, the troll made the decisions for her. He sat down amongst some broken tree branches and bushes in a nest-like area of shrubs and limbs. Clearly, his area to rest. She considered waiting until the troll went to sleep, but decided the risk was too great. In the darkness, it would be harder to attack and she was more likely to alert him with noise from a mistake. She would be unable to see if he took the knife out or was about to crush her. No. It needed to be while she could see that he was dead.
Aran knelt slowly and picked up a small fist-sized rock from the ground. She took a final slow deep breath. Moving swiftly, she simultaneously tossed the rock to the other side of camp and glided as fast as she was able along the treeline in the darkest shadows. When the rock hit, the sound was softer than expected, but no doubt audible. The troll perked his head up at the faint rustling and the thump from the rock. The rustling stopped, and he peered into the direction of the noise as Aran appeared behind him.
She lept onto his back and threw the strap of her bag, which was over her shoulder, over his head. He had already stood and was trying to reach back to her. Sliding her arm between herself and him, the knife slipped smoothly into his back. She hit the heart. She pulled her arm back out and held the stap tightly while keeping the knife in place with her stomach. The knife was in and she was crudely tied to him. Now she tried not to let him tear off any limbs while she held on. The amount of blood was always surprising, but the deafening roar and flailing were not. The handle was pressing painfully against her stomach as she desperately grabbed his neck and shoulders, trying not to fall. She expected this, and the leather covering her stomach was thick. The handle was wide and flat on the bottom.
This troll did not fight as much as they usually do though. After two or three minutes the troll had fallen onto its side trying to reach around its back, and after a few more, had stopped trying. Aran unhooked the leather strap from around her. She took it and wrapped it twice around the handle of the knife then pulled out the slack in the buckle. It wasn't going to move. She slowly stepped around to the front of the troll. The troll began to cry. Aran sat down with her legs crossed near the head of the troll and pulled his giant wet head onto her lap and cradled it.
As the troll cried it began to moan, and soon that moan became a word: ``Mom.'' It wasn't just a cry of pain, but of confusion- a question. Aran hugged the head of the troll as its features began to smooth and the words became more audible. A hand was on her back, but it was smaller than a troll's, and it continued to shrink. The massive crying head was also not massive, but smaller. She continued to adjust the buckle. When she tightened it, she hugged his head close with affection. Within a few minutes she was holding a small boy of about eight.
``Mom? Mom?'' and his sad, confused, and frantic cries were cut off by coughing and spitting as he struggled to breathe.
Aran's tears were more fierce than the boy's. She was not his mother.
``It's okay, baby. I'm here.'' and she choked down the sobs feeling like that rock was in her throat. She struggled to say ``I'm sorry.'' and held him closer- pulling most of him up into her lap, and his head to her chest.
She wanted to take the knife out, but her hand stayed steady on the handle and strap. She could not remove it. She would not. Not again. %If she removed it, he would turn again.
So she held him as a mother, and hoped it was some comfort.
A minute later, his cries stopped. An hour later, she was still weeping with him in her arms.
The forest continued to remind her of the danger by allowing the quiet to permeate the area. The residual smell should keep her safe for a while, but the amount of blood would also attract certain dangers. He had not moved in an hour; the boy was not coming back. Any magic was now in the forest where it belonged, and the boy's spirit was free to go where it belonged. She undid the buckle and winced as the knife slid out. She slipped into his nesting area and cleaned off the blade before returning it to its sheath.
It was fully dark now. She would not be able to make it back to her hiding place. Aran moved the boy into the nesting area, and sat with him waiting for daylight- trying to keep her emotions from causing her to make a noise. When light finally came, she buried the boy, and then walked back into the shadows of the forest and became part of the stillness.