Friday, 21 June 2019

Moonstruck

   A shaking, mournful howl rolled hollow through the night.
   The forest blanched. The undergrowth quaked and cowered.
   The groan of the wind bellowed like the cries of the ghostly moon, hunting and hounding ceaselessly through the trees. Branches shook, leaves trembled, and the clouds above dashed and darted in panic; the moonlight flickered into the dense forest like a frozen, silver fire.

   The girl ran as fast as she could. Her dress billowed around her, snagging on clawing branches while roots rose up to catch her nimble feet. Alarm swelled in her throat, but her eyes were fixed intently forwards.
   The moon was full that night, and the power within its light was potent. One brush over bare skin, one look in the eye from the moon-beast itself, and she would lose her mind. And here she ran with no cloak to cover her arms, no hood to shade her face, no shoes to cover her feet, while the silver pools shifted and writhed at random all around her. And home...home was yet so far away.
   She dashed from shadow to shadow, holding her breath with each frantic movement, slipping down into the towering rock maze when the trees bent too far. Her heart hammered. She could feel it in her ears.
   She ran when the moon was hidden, taking advantage of the passing cloud, but it leapt out again all too soon, casting its maddening glare. She could feel its eye, wide and unblinking, relentlessly seeking her out. The hairs along her neck stood up, reaching up towards it as if lured by its perilous charm.
   But she was not so fooled.
   The tree trunks were thick; pressing herself against them, the glance passed over her and across the sheltering leaves, then she darted swiftly across to the next, the wind all the while tugging at her curls and casting leaves into her rosy face.
   It was only when she reached the edge of the thick boughs' protection, her breath burning in her chest, that her feet finally stumbled to a stop.
   A break in the trees.
   Her heart sank as her eyes passed helplessly over the broad, forest clearing.
   Quickly, she bowed her head, hiding her face behind her curls, avoiding the lock of the silver gaze, and watched the light blazing across the grass ahead of her. She steeled, and waited.
   Slowly, it dimmed. Then it vanished altogether.
   She broke away like a bull out of a pen.
   Her bare feet stampeded across the ground, scarcely avoiding the breaching, knotted roots, and dove without a glance around her into the safety of an elm. No sooner had she crashed into its trunk than the moonlight ignited the clearing once again.
   There was no time to waste in relief.
   She pushed off immediately, surging onwards through the shadows and battling once more against the flickering assault. She barely flinched against the blood-curdling yowl of a distant fox, nor glanced around at the hoot of a high-perched owl. Neither creature were prone to the madness of the moonlight; they did not share her trial, and neither could they help her.
   The girl hurtled on through the forest, and down into the maze again when the clouds became much too thin. When she came across another break in the trees, identical to the last, she didn't hesitate at the darkness. It was behind her in moments, with a heartbeat to spare, and this time no knotted roots betrayed her path.
   Her success only hastened the backlash.
   Fatigue soon set in; her movements became slower, duller, clumsier. By a single misjudgement, her bare foot glanced a silver pool.
   Her heart collapsed into her stomach. There was nothing to feel - no ice, no weight, no numbness - nothing at all to confirm it. But she knew it had happened.
   She ran on frantically anyway, hoping she was mistaken, but wondering all the while and with every frantic step just how it would happen if she wasn't, wondering if she would feel it, wondering how quickly her mind would be burned away by the moon.
   She heard again the cry of foxes. She spun this time, wondering as she stared through the flashing darkness if they were even real. Then she was suddenly upon a clearing. But she didn't stop to calculate.
   Despite the snaking roots, it was her own feet that finally tripped her.
She crashed, winded, to the ground, the heels of her hands digging into the earth, grazing across thinly buried stones. Her skin was unbroken, but blood didn't matter.
   Moonlight poured down upon her like a silent blanket of frost.

   She lay, unmoving.
   Defeated.
   Her tongue lolled out from the side of her mouth.

   Slowly, a shadow fell over her still form, and a face appeared before her eyes, darkened by the haloing light of the moon. "Moonstruck yet?" It asked conversationally.
   But the girl neither moved nor blinked.
   The face waited patiently.
   "I can't talk," she finally said, quite without moving her lips, "I'm mad."
   "Mad," it agreed, "not dead." The face withdrew, then a great hand closed around a single dainty wrist and she was dragged easily back up to her feet. "Up you get, little one. You've been running circles around the house for twenty minutes. Dinner's ready."
   At the mention of food, life returned to the little girl's eyes, and she dashed off towards the irregular stone house that stood all alone in the forest, giggling maniacally into the night.
   Rathen shook his head to himself and followed along with a helpless smile. "I'm quite sure you've been mad for years already..."



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