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Saturday 17 December 2022


Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

'You have no control. You need no control. Surrender it. Find out who you are.'

    The aurochs fought again to relax the tension in her face. It just moved deeper into her shoulders instead.
    The high, mossy platform should have been a point of calm, a place to breathe, rest and recollect herself, a small, private island above the forest overlooking the shelter she'd claimed beneath it. But a familiar thread of doubt ran through her spine, as always, and one she was sure had become entwined with her nervous system.
    Feeling that itch down her back, she straightened herself in determination rather than comfort, and sat a little taller beneath the single, gnarled rowan tree. It seemed just as uncomfortable and out of place here as she was, growing out from a rocky cleft on the side of the cramped platform, and had too lost its identity in the faded runes in its bark. The dulled carvings of her own horns rolled through her mind, but she didn't raise her hand to them. She didn't need to check again how shallow they were. She knew. She knew.
    Once more, she failed to relax her muscles.
    The dying light of dusk leaked in between the encircling standing stones. Amethyst bled into the sky. The cold air didn't move. Crickets chirped below, an owl hooted. Twilight was descending.
    A deep and forced breath lightened her body, thick with juniper smoke and the scent of recent rain. But in spite of it, the thread of conflict burrowed deeper into her system.
    The need to run was overwhelming. Adrenaline surged, pure power, enough to flee this place and its purpose and return to hiding down below where everything was safe, and the strange, new world was shut away.
    But her rational mind was still there; escape had brought it back to the surface, and as it slowly broke through, it reminded her that her familiar little shelter held nothing for her but stagnation and exhaustion. She didn't want this towering isolation, but she needed it. This was how she would truly reclaim herself, how she would shed her perpetual defence and become One again. Another deep breath. The smoke began at last to soften her mind, and finally, her shoulders loosened.
    'Give up control.' She'd been surviving for so long, an endless state of fight or flight. But now, finally, she could ease. Finally, she could drop her armour. No more wasted energy. No more stifled breath.
    Again, she forced the tension in her face away.
    Smoke swam in her head. She fought the panic of lost control and concentrated. 'Look inwards without turning.' Don't move. Don't slip. Just look.
    She closed her eyes. Her fingers dug into the moss, grounding herself to her surroundings. 'Stay in the Now.' Reflect, don't revert.
    The soft grunt of the sleeping bear down below acted as a gentle anchor, and the flap of swan wings on the reedy lake. Allies the both of them, and the knights passing in the distance, but none of them could help her now. This, she had to do alone. And each of them knew that; not one tried to intrude.
    Smoke filled her.
    And darkness rose to her surface.
    Terror snaked around her throat, but she continued taking breath after careful breath, separating herself from it and letting those wretched shadows rise. Higher and higher they came, and with them the growing suffocation, moving deeper from throat to chest.
    The aurochs steeled herself. She remained grounded, eyes closed. The darkness had to come out. She couldn't rid herself of it until she faced it, and merge with what genuine light remained.

"Horn of Uruz,
Hold of Algiz,
Infuse me, force and flame,
As darkness seethes
And devils rise,
Weave blood and bone with steel.
Bring heart and soul to heel."

    Her voice trailed off. She finished the third iteration before the suffocation became crushing, and barely controlled her panic as her eyes tore open.
    Darkness spilled before her.
    Her already thundering heart almost burst.
    Oily black smoke hung between the standing stones. Long, grey, gnarled fingers clawed out towards her from the clouds, turning the moss black where they touched like the creeping stroke of death. Once-effeminate silhouettes hunched and lurched where the darkness thinned, bodies too long and heavy for their limbs, and huge, white, glowing eyes stared back when the moonlight caught them, like ghastly pools of nightmare.
Countless mara crept into the circle beneath their cloak of shadow, their blind sights fixed on her. She could hear them wheezing, smell the nightshade, taste their malice. She fought to keep calm and let them approach, in spite of every fibre of her being screaming to get up and run.
    But she'd survived so much. What was one more struggle?
    Getting air into her lungs had become a challenge of its own, but still she sat, tall and determined, watching each demon's slow advance. She didn't flinch even as one of them screamed a guttural hiss and leapt onto her chest, nor let alarm get the better of her as the cold, heavy paralysis set in. But she was not unarmed. The stones, the smoke, the rowan tree, all worked against the mara, and the mara themselves were desperate. The night hadn't yet set in; they were not at full power. This time, the aurochs would face them on her own terms.
    In a single, smooth movement, she reached out and seized its bony wrist, and with that tight clutch, another scream, air-rending and ear-piercing, ripped from the mara's throat. The demon immediately disintegrated into a pile of twigs.
    Then the next came, as if blind to witness, and suffered the same fate.
    The third was quick to learn and changed its attack, climbing upon her shoulders instead, and another followed on the other side. Neither made it. One she speared calmly with her splintered horns, and the other she grasped just as smoothly by the throat.
    Her solid touch eradicated every mara as they came, and her mind stayed as steady as she could make it despite the constant battle for breath until the smoke and suffocation finally dissipated, and the foetid mara were no more.
    It took a long moment before her hands ceased to shake and the race of her heart began to slow. But that battle, brief as it was, was only the beginning. The worst was still to come, and that knowledge hitched a snarl in her lip.
    Again the aurochs steadied herself, even as she gasped for breath - not even the dust of her demons would get the satisfaction - and her eyes sank to the shadowy twigs scattered around her.
    Hesitation pinned her hands to her knees for only a moment before she reached out and gathered them. Some, she threw into the juniper fire; others, she clutched in her hands. She hesitated again as the noxious smell of darkness, a strange odour now not of nightshade but of too much aniseed, twisted her face.
    She closed her eyes as sour tears filled them, sat straight again, and sang.

"Bone, shadow,
And echo shorn.
Discard the dead to Ing,
Reforge the ashes,
Rise through flame.
Through sacrifice I soar.
Through seed I restore."

    She raised the two handfuls of twigs to her mouth, clamped them between her teeth with resignation, and bit down, hard. The pieces scattered. Much stayed on her tongue. She didn't spit them out. Instead, she reached out for the flask set on a stone before her, unstoppered it, held her breath, and drank. It took all of her strength not to heave it all back up. The flask suffered instead.
    Shards of glass dropped from her hand as her muscles loosened, and she gave herself over to the magic.
'Let it go. Surrender to it.' Everything she'd held onto so tightly, every black and white thing she'd held for so long, was released in that single draught.
    Pain set in quickly. Her throat burned, her stomach, her fingertips, her eyes. She hadn't expected it to be this strong.
    Then panic flashed in, or something more potent, wiping her mind clear while alarm ripped her eyes open. All she could think of was escape. But it was too late. She knew it was too late. It was too late the moment she'd sat down beneath the rowan's shadow. By coming here at all, she had committed.
    She stifled a cough in an attempt to regain control, but it tore its way out anyway. Flecks of blood spattered her lips and the heat in her chest redoubled.
'You have no control.'
The words swam in her mind, and she fought back another cough and the maddening spin of her head. She had committed. Committed, knowing there were only two ways this could go.
'You need no control.'
She slipped off of her knees and fell to her palms, bloody saliva streaming from her lips, stomach churning with the threat of purge. She barely felt the small hand resting on her shoulder, or registered through burning, teary eyes the shadow of elk antlers on the ground before her.
'Surrender it.'
But it was enough. She seized the wrist for comfort just as her stifled, desperate cough became a choke.
'Find out who you are.'
Thick blood splattered over the moss. She lost the hand, lost her balance, tipped head-first to the ground. Her broad horns speared the moss, sparing her a face full of dirt as she suffocated in shallow, bubbling breaths.
     Her skull hurt. Something was trying to break out of it.
     Her skin tingled. Something was trying to rip free.
    Her head rose from the ground, pushed higher as her horns began to grow. And in that moment, between broken breath and a screaming agony she couldn't express, she felt relief.
    It was happening.
    Haze set in.
    The roar of the bear, the honk of the swan, the horns of the knights, all of it played distantly against her eardrums.
    And she convulsed.
She let the change happen.
    It was the only way she could be One again.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Wednesday 30 November 2022


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. - William Shakespeare

    Hazel eyes wandered out over the water. Stars glittered and danced across the boundless surface, like diamonds unobtainable. It was a night preserved, a night in glass; a timelost thing of silence.
     Alone beneath that smothering magnitude, there was nothing at all to ground her.
     Unbidden, her heavy gaze returned to her reflection. And again it stared back, not haloed or graced by the mirror of stars, but threatened instead by crystalline shards of ice hanging suspended at its back. And though she recognised herself, the face was unfamiliar. There was something in it she hadn't seen before: lines, a wild darkness in the eyes, a rounding of the shoulders that still somehow stood as tight as her own.
     Rogue wind lashed hair across her face. The reflection, too, was whipped by its own. But it didn't blink. It stared back at her. It saw. It watched.
     It was unreasonable. Irrational. Impossible. But the twist of something in her mind under that debilitating glare closed her throat, and the smell of saltless water became almost toxic.
     As the freezing touch of panic skittered up her spine, she tried desperately to turn and run back to solid, opaque ground. But all she could manage to do was avert her gaze. And when it inevitably pulled back just a heartbeat later, the naive hope that the face that Should Be would be there instead was crushed. And her heartbeat went with it.
     The broken, haunted, silent girl stared on.
     No reflection belonged to the water. Only to those who viewed it. What she saw was no trick of the night, and that fact throbbed painfully beneath shuddering ribs. And now, she couldn't even turn her eyes away.
     The reflection rose, growing closer, coming for her, the water itself rising behind it.
     Still, she couldn't move. Only her eyelids obeyed, and even that came too late.
     They shut tight as the water crashed over her shoulders, enveloping her in a deathly cold, shocking her mind empty until the roaring surge plunged suddenly into a dull, thrumming silence pounding numb against her eardrums. And when she dared at last to open them again, heart thundering in her throat, hair drifting around her head like kelp, she found the stars still hanging beneath her feet upon the water surface. But now, she discovered in horror, she stood on the other side. The world had inverted.
     Her head snapped back up, but rather than stare on through the water, she found herself just inches from the face of her reflection. It flickered with darkness, as if the whole being was suddenly enrobed in shadow, and this time, she stood in front of her, the same way up, feet fixed to the underside of the water just as her own were.
     The two stood alone in the same dark, suffocating realm.
     Panic's claws gripped her throat, but the overwhelming need to run, to close her eyes, to refuse what stood in front of her was denied. Something inside her made her stare on.
     No. No, not inside her. The reflection itself. The shadow. Those tormented eyes had seized her with the grip of the grave.
     Paralysed, she stared back and fell victim to silent declarations, deafened already by the muffled gurgle of water in her ears, simultaneously aware and unaware of everything spoken inside the lock of those eyes. Destruction. Accusation. Fury. Those hurting eyes screamed the desire to rip her to shreds.
     But this time, she didn't look away. She didn't even think to. Watching the figure, she suddenly felt her own pain, her own alarm, the darkness that came to her in the night, in moments of isolation, in certainties that the world itself had betrayed her... And all of this, she could see on the reflection's shoulders too. It carried those same burdens, cast the same shadow - it wore that shadow. It felt the same, identical, all but for one crucial, crushing difference: it had also been betrayed by her.
     She had been betrayed by her.

     No reflection belonged to the water. Only to those who viewed it.
     But while a reflection could be avoided, the shadow would always follow.

     A deep, cold, shuddering breath filled her lungs. Water moved alive around her. Her eyes closed calmly.
     She felt the motion before it reached her. But even as the shadow threw itself violently against her, she opened her arms and embraced it.
     Those stiff, rounded shoulders immediately began to shudder. And she hushed it. She stroked her shadow's hair as it sobbed, rubbed its back as it trembled, and felt her own darkness rise to the surface. And there, that immense and neglected darkness settled.
     But it didn't overwhelm her. Not this time. It didn't try to crush her. It didn't try to rip her apart. It just sat quietly beside everything else, intertwining, existing as a fact rather than a burden.

     Time passed, seconds or minutes. Her eyes opened. Her arms were empty. The shadow was gone.
     Then a gasp leapt from her throat.
     The stars hung all around her, glittering throughout the water; diamonds, ice, all mingling together, as dangerous and as beautiful as each other.
     She breathed, barely aware that she hadn't yet drowned, but though that breath still came ragged, the weight on her chest was less. And she looked around, marvelling at the drowned realm. Her realm. Her gaze didn't drop to discover what surface she stood upon, nor did she try to walk; she didn't fret falling, or drowning, or sinking, even as her mind slowly began to work again. Instead, it all drifted away, and she sat herself silently down on the underside of the water, staring up and around at the stars.
     Her shadow was beside her, somewhere. Where it had always been; unnoticed, but ever there. And though she knew it would continue to weave its trials and present her with hurdles by its very nature, she also knew it was better to have a co-operative weight than a resistant one. And the co-operation would come.
     Lying back, she would leave this place when she was ready. And she would cross the next hurdle as close to whole as she could be.

In myths, the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both must deal with the same dragon. And he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if once he saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing.
- Carl Jung

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Thursday 10 November 2022


 Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

     Grim hazel eyes roved the sky. The iron bars cast black lines over the dark, bleak landscape, but the storm's shadow at least concealed the worst of the barren scrubland. The valley's grass was completely dead. The river dry as bone. The mountains themselves stood like the teeth of a huge dead beast, its final, cold breath raging out through the crevice, shifting the rain itself.
     But whatever beast she could imagine it had once been, it held nothing at all to him.
     Her bitter gaze drifted through the other side of the cage. He was out there, her 'master', staring into the sky, oblivious to the rain hammering into his face and the gale snatching his breath away. He was too busy absorbing a sun of his own creation. How very like him to ignore what was really there.
     The aurochs' lip curled scathingly, and she turned her stare back to the distance. She could no longer stomach more than a few seconds of his face before her rage got the better of her. And her heart was already racing.
     Calm. Clarity. That was what she needed.
     She closed her eyes and breathed deeply to steady herself, and the fresh smell of the long-awaited storm provided it. Even the faint smell of burning redirected her enthusiasm - though still, she couldn't help smiling. Minutely. Undetectably.
     Her eyes calmly opened. She rose to her haunches.
     The time, at last, had come.
     Lightning split the ominous clouds. The deafening crash of thunder came a moment later.
     The instant it erupted, she threw herself against the cage.
     The wind stole the clattering sound away even beneath the cover of thunder. But, as expected, it hadn't been enough.
     The aurochs pulled herself back, shaking off the pain that shuddered through her ragged bones, and watched the sky again.
     Flash. Wait. Crack.
     She threw herself again.
     For months, she'd been grinding down the lock and hinges whenever 'Master' had been away. Her horns were no longer just blunted, but cracked and scratched from the effort, and the carvings that had once been so proudly etched into them had been worn away.
     But they could be re-etched. Her identity could be reclaimed.
     Flash. Crack. Thump.
     Her heart was in her throat now, and creeping higher with every strike.
     Flash. Crack. Thump.
     She'd bided her time for months, and finally the opportunity had come. And she was as ready as she would ever be.
     Her heart hit the back of her teeth. She threw herself again.
     The storm was no ally. She knew this. It would destroy her as readily as it helped her - and if she didn't get out of that cage soon, she would feel its punishment directly for daring to take advantage of it.
     Again, she threw herself against the weakening bars, timing it as best she could before the storm could reveal her, and barely bit back the yelp of fright as lightning struck the ground just paces from the cage.
     'Master' barely reacted. 'Master' didn't notice.
     She grit her teeth and returned focus to the sky while the fire erupted, growing from a candle to a pyre in moments despite the thrashing wind and rain. When the storm deigned to strike again, she gathered herself and threw both her strength and panic at the bars. And finally, it gave way.
     The aurochs stumbled out of the cage while a flash of disbelief numbed her senses, wrenching herself free of her rotten shackles in the same instant. But she didn't dare to waste a moment in shock. Rain soaked her bare skin, wind chilled her already frozen bones, and she could barely find her legs from years spent kneeling. But she couldn't afford to wait.
     Because this, she discovered with a glance through the flames, he had noticed. And his eyes were wild.
     She staggered backwards immediately, vanishing in between streaks of spreading fire while his poisoned bark competed with the howl, crack and roar of Nature. In the noxious smoke, she fought for control over herself, and though she was oblivious in that moment to her lack of fear, adrenaline still tried to overwhelm her.
     His toxic voice swirled through the flames, teased like the fire by the wind. Ahead of her. Behind her. To her left, then behind again. The smoke, too, whipped around her, diffusing the chaos into a single sheet of raging light. She could barely even make out his silhouette.
     And there was no time to look. Her lungs were already burning.
     Covering her mouth and nose with her arm, the aurochs stifled her chokes and fought the confusion of noise, picking a direction to move without the taunt of his disembodied demands to confuse her. But as she steeled, turned and started away, he appeared. Of course he appeared.
     Her stomach sank as he stormed through the fire, his clothes and skin both soaked and smoking, rusted knife in hand, deranged look in his eye. It took every mote of energy she had to stand her ground. But it dawned in that moment, as she watched him move wildly, just how much stronger than him she was.
     She grounded herself. She lowered her horns. And though she could feel her weakness, the waver of her legs, the dizziness of lost sleep, she charged.
     It was survive chained, or thrive free.
     There was only one choice. She would gain her freedom, by force or by death.

     Hornsong rose beyond the fire.
     Hooves shuddered across the earth.
     The sky flashed and bellowed.
     Something knocked her aside before her horn could rip its way beneath his sternum. Instead, she pierced him between the ribs and shattered several more on her way out.
     She cursed and turned to charge again while he spun on the spot, watching something beyond the fire with eyes wide and haunted. She didn't glance to find out what. She stole the opportunity instead.
     Until four enormous, glinting shapes clattered and rumbled across her path.
     She barely missed spearing one, and again she was pushed back from her target. But this time, as lightning split the sky, shock seized her tightly.
     Knights. Four of them. Huge beings in powerful armour stained orange by the flames, steering four equally powerful horses. And though her heart leapt and mind blazed with questions, she knew she wasn't their quarry.
     The path between her and 'Master' had been cut off by these circling figures, and the foetid wretch was pushed backwards into the flames. Neither horse nor rider seemed troubled by the heat, nor the thick smoke, ripping wind or smell of burning skin. And she, too, barely gave it another moment's thought before leaping onto this newest opportunity.
     She turned from the chaos, fighting for breath, and began snatching up food, blankets and anything else that could be useful, every piece soaked, seared and spoiled, but crucial.
     She barely avoided being trampled several times as the horses steered around, bringing 'Master' back in check the few moments he managed to steal an opening. But the riders were adept. She would never have been trampled. And while they passed, they, too, began slinging things over the backs of their horses. Including the pieces she'd gathered.
     Smoke was filling her lungs. She had slowed down. She stumbled, she dropped things. And when her head began to spin, the ground fell away from her feet and the world began to jolt.
     "I have you," a voice said from in front of her while she struggled to find her balance. She looked hard through the haze behind her eyes. A knight. She looked down: a horse. And ahead: the end of the valley.
     Her heart leapt, sending another crashing wave of adrenaline through her blood, and held onto him just long enough to reclaim her senses before she heard the others gallop up behind.
     But she didn't look back. She had no desire to. No compulsion. No need.
     Fire and smoke hid their path, and the howl of Nature drowned out the wretch's begging in the distance. And a laugh, musical and unchained, rose from her own shredded throat.
     A cheer erupted around her as she grinned, and bellowing hornsong followed it. Adrenaline coursed through her. Excitement. Enthusiasm. Hope.
     She leaned up as close as she could get to the giant knight's helmet. "Thank you," she said, and he bowed his head without turning.
     Then she leapt from the back of the horse, her eyes blinded by tears, cheeks aching from grinning, shoulders round with relief, and she ran. She stampeded ahead, yielded the lead by the knights who reined in just enough to follow behind her. And though she had only a vague idea of where she was going, there was so much clear, star-studded sky ahead. And she knew, come morning, she would be facing into the sun.
     Enthusiasm. Hope.
     She roared ferociously into her freedom.
     This was the beginning of everything.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Thursday 15 September 2022


Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

     A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words. - Unknown

    The forest was haunted. Ghostly wisps of smoke rose from the husks of trees, themselves reaching out like the fingers of the dead, while the stinging miasma of charred wood and sap soured the air. Smouldering cracks still burned in the trees like doorways into Hell itself. The woods were dead, the forest was lost, and the sun above had forgotten it.
    But the spirit that haunted that clouded wasteland had not been born of it. Small, pale, smudged with soot, the bedraggled girl was displaced, just as lost and abandoned as her surroundings.
    She remained there alone for some time, wishing, crying and muttering, until, hours, weeks or years later, a twig finally broke beneath another's foot.


     The bear ambled along between the trees, snuffling and pawing through the ash in hunt of new growth. He found nothing, but wasn't discouraged; the hunt was as good as the victory. So on he trundled, on he sniffed, nudging the ash aside at any worthwhile scent to help the eventual regrowth along - until a small, wheezing sound caught his attention ahead.
    His huge, shaggy body stopped mid-stride, and sharp, sunburst eyes scanned the distance. His nose needn't have twitched; he found her quickly enough: the young woman kneeling among the roots of a charred ancient, so covered in soot and ash herself that her scent was almost completely lost in the surroundings.
    But she had spotted him just as quickly, and stared back now in anger. In pain. But she made no move at all to run.
    The bear grunted and watched her a little longer, searching for her injury. Perhaps it was her leg, and that was why she didn't flee. But her legs appeared to be fine. Perhaps her head, then. But she didn't seem dizzy. Maybe her chest. But her sobbing was regular.
    The bear grunted and stood on its hind legs, sniffing the air and looking closer, working out the pieces of this puzzle, unsure to some degree if she was even truly there. But she was. She had to be. Her injuries were too bold. Not on the outside, perhaps, but they were certainly there.
    With a grunt, the bear dropped back to his paws and began to approach. And now, the girl panicked. Shuffling backwards deeper into the roots, she grasped at the earth and threw everything she could find towards him.
    The bear yelped and flinched back, but the charred sticks disintegrated before they could reach him. And even had they, neither they nor the rocks could have truly harmed his hide. And so, warily, he pressed on through the short-lived assault until he reached her. And still, she fled nowhere.
    Curiously, he sniffed the hand that clutched her knee to her chest as she curled up tighter into a ball, then along her arm, her shoulder, to her head. She smelled just like the woods. All the way through.
    The bear snorted. That was strange. Animals that spent their whole lives in the woods always smelled like more than just 'forest'. They had identity of their own. But somehow, this one didn't.
    But she really was there.
    Puzzled, he sniffed further, but she didn't react. She stayed as still as stone despite his warm breath gusting over her, even when his nose touched her skin. It was only when he licked her cheek that he was sure he wasn't dreaming.
    Slowly, her head turned until one amazed eye peered over her arm towards him. Then, as he sniffed that eye, her clutch on herself loosened, her arm rose, and her shaking hand rested both daring and gentle upon his head.
    For a long moment, the forest's silence intensified as the pair looked deep into one another's faces, each sure they were reading the other's soul.
    The bear was the first to turn away.
    The smallest noise of desperation peeped from the girl's throat despite her fear, but while the bear had turned, he hadn't left. His great weight flopped down onto the ground beside her, and his breathing began immediately to deepen.
    And the girl, after a moment of surprise, crawled around and lay down against him.

    The world had darkened when she woke to a tugging on her blackened dress, and despite her fright, one quiet look from the bear as he dropped the hem from his mouth calmed her spirit.
    She watched him turn and walk a few leisurely steps away, then throw an expectant look back toward her. She understood quickly enough.
    The girl followed him on through the endless forest, navigating one tree at a time. She watched his footing over the tangled roots, repeated his steps around the widest trunks, and waited while he stopped to dig with his immense paws. She was sure he wouldn't find anything in the ash, but he repeatedly proved her wrong. Berries, roots and even mushrooms were uncovered and shared, and when night fell and a chill invaded the skeletal forest, the bear curled up around her to keep her warm.


     After a week, they were inseparable. The girl had grown calm in Bear's comfort, and felt safest when he was around. Whenever she felt lost, or the world felt like it was closing in on her, Bear would grunt and nuzzle her, and whenever he seemed to be the same, she would grunt and nuzzle him.
    The forest, too, had changed with their wandering; the ash lay behind them, and ahead only the darkness of leafy crowns. The trees here lived and thrived, fruit was plenty, and other creatures could be heard going about their lives all around them. Breeze moved warm, water trickled cool, the sun shone golden and the moon, when it took over, glittered the purest silver.
    Bear had shown her so much beauty and comfort, and she could feel her soul shining. And side by side, they continued to take the forest one tree at a time.

    One morning she sat at the lake's edge, playing with the stones in the glittering water while Bear fished in the river beside her, when a soft splash sounded up ahead.
    She looked up from the tumblestones, and dropped one with a plop as she watched the pure-white swan settle on the surface. But Bear had reacted faster. She realised she'd felt his caution even before she'd heard the noise.
    Her guard rose in response, a wary discomfort threading through her bones that felt familiar in ways she chose not to look at. But even as he reached her side and rose up onto his hind legs to get a better look, the swan was undeterred. Instead, her speckled face turned the girl's way, and her black eyes pierced her own. As graceful as she seemed, floating serene upon the water, there was a blatant power within her. Speed, strength, challenge.
    But, as the pair stared at one another, the girl began to recognise something else within that already familiar presence. Something safe.
    And so, it seemed, did Bear. With a grunt of approval, he dropped back to his paws and sat at her side, making no form of threat to the swan. His closeness seemed to be more to reassure her than to defend her.
    Even so, the girl inched away as the swan drew near, and further again when she straightened her slender, snow-white body and flapped her great wings. But she came no nearer as she settled. There remained a distance, and where Bear had sniffed and licked and nuzzled her, the swan merely bowed her head.
    A smile stretched across the girl's face, and she reached out to touch its brilliant feathers. But the swan pulled away sharply, raising its wings in warning, and while the girl saddened, the swan collected herself and bowed her head again.
    A thought then flickered through the girl's mind. Returning her hand to her knee, she sat taller and bowed her head herself.
    Bear grunted with satisfaction, then rose and returned to his fishing.
    The girl sat at the edge of the water with the swan just out of arm's reach for some time, watching one another and bowing their heads, until the swan finally turned on the water and took off. It was some time before the girl realised the swan hadn't fed or preened or anything else while she'd been there on that lake.


     Weeks became months, and Bear didn't lead anymore, though he was always near at hand. The pair of them merely walked, following one another willingly, wandering together, navigating the forest one tree at a time.
    The swan returned occasionally, honking to her from the water and flapping her wings, while she honked and flapped her arms in response. Sometimes Swan would even lead the girl through mires while Bear navigated his own trees, and when she left, Bear moved them on back through the forest, grunting and sniffing, and she would grunt and sniff along with him.
    And the forest, she discovered, had changed again. It was a place of both light and dark, shadow and sun, knot and hole, and could be a treacherous place if navigated too fast. There were so many trees, some so much bigger than the last, with roots so tangled and wild that she could get no help in moving over them, so she and Bear had no choice but to go their separate ways for a while. But they always rejoined later on, once they'd navigated their own paths through.
    But one day, the world went much darker than usual, and she found a tree she could not pass alone.

    In the middle of the night, a restless dream carried her off, dragging her from Bear's side and luring her out into the black, knotted wilds. Her feet stumbled through stream and root, hands cut on rock and branch, eyes blind to the world. And when they finally opened and her senses trickled back to her, terror sank its claws in.
    All around her shadows shrieked, noises flickered, wind grasped and branches whistled. Spinning where she stood, her heart shuddering in her throat, she searched desperately through the dark, but found herself staring at the same black surface with every turn. The same, impassable wall.
    The same, impassable tree.
    Everywhere she turned, the colossal trunk faced her; no matter how fast she moved, it beat her. It cornered her, trapped her, stood always in front of her.
    So she resolved in a fit to run backwards. As long as the tree was in front of her, it couldn't also be behind her. Then she could escape it.
    But everything was overgrown here. She tripped immediately, then again, and again; everything grasped at her. And what if she'd chosen the wrong backwards? She might escape it, but end up somewhere worse. Every glance looked right, every glance looked wrong - and every glance, always, was filled again by that tree.
    And, she realised with crashing despair, now she was entirely alone.
    Paralytic fear tremored its way through her bones, even as a tiny voice rose up inside her and cried out promise. But she heard it, as small as it was. She could do this. Bear and Swan had done and taught enough. She wouldn't lean on them again. She didn't need to. She was too strong for that.
    Determination swelled, and she seized it before that wretched fear could crash in on another wave. She chose a direction, and ran.
    Then chose another.
    Then another.
    Then the fear caught up with her, leaping upon her like an excited beast, stealing upon her hasty indecision.
    'What if I'd been close already, and just ran further away?'
    Its words rang like bells.
    'What if I'm on the right path now, but doubt has turned me around?'
    'What if I am already miles away, with no hope at all?'
    'What if I've travelled three days in one night?!'
    She shook her head and steadied herself, ignoring the fact that her hand rested even now against that inescapable tree.
    "No," she told herself, "of course not." She knew that was absurd. And she knew she could find her way back, without help. She could do this. "Just stop. Breathe, and it will come more easily. Move slowly, like Bear. Be focused, like Swan. Slow. Focus. Slow. Focus. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe."
    But even while she chanted this, her mind was already paralysed.
    A flap of wings nearby threw her heart into her throat. She spun, but it was not Swan. The caw was too malicious a chuckle.
    Then leaves rustled behind her and she spun again, but it wasn't Bear's footsteps. Just another crow, wrenching things from the undergrowth.
    Tears filled her eyes, resentment filled her heart, and her self-disgust tasted sour on her tongue.
    "I don't need them!" She bellowed into the dark. "I can do this on my own! It's one tree! One tree! I won't be a burden again!"
    And so she ran on, backwards, sideways, forwards, hit the tree and ran backwards again. She tripped, she fell, she climbed back to her feet. On and on she ran; over and over she fell.
    Then the tree itself came after her.
    Roots rose and seized her ankle, dragging her to the ground at the foot of the tree. She thrashed and cried and tore at the wood, sure she was being pulled under, but she couldn't rip herself free. Panic had twisted her foot in the knot.
    Then, the tree went up in flames.
    "No, no, no, no!" Her fingernails tore at the root, at her skin, she pulled at her leg and moved her foot in the knot. But she couldn't do it. She should have been able to, just turn her foot and crawl free. But her body wouldn't let her. The simple process couldn't break through her panic.
    More flapping came from behind her, and the malicious caws grew louder, as if the crows had shape-shifted into giant, vicious beasts.
    She screamed as they drew nearer, and felt her body tightening into a helpless little ball. She closed her eyes and dragged her hands through the dirt, throwing everything she could find. But small twigs and leaves didn't deter them for a moment. She could hear them advance. The flaps, the rustles, the--
    She shrieked again as one of the crow-beasts tugged at her dress, and managed with her free leg to kick out. Her foot struck something, hard and strong. It barely gave beneath her effort.
    The terror she felt consuming her in that moment was familiar, and dragged with it pains and injuries she'd tried hard these past months to forget. Now, they swelled tenfold, and all grasp on her senses collapsed.
    The crow-beast grunted, growled and tugged again, this time at her collar, and through the noise of her mind, she found a shape lacing through. A comforting shape, freckled with the colour of the sun...
    Her eyes tore open to find Bear standing over her, tugging her collar and pulling her out of the roots, and Swan staring off beyond the tree, gaze pinned to something in the distance, honking intermittently.
    "The way back..."
    Adrenaline flooded her. She relaxed her ankle and turned her foot just as Bear gave one final tug, and scrambled back to her feet as he pushed her towards Swan. Together, they stormed past the tree, Swan at the lead and Bear pushing her forwards, until the ancient was left blazing behind them. It didn't take long before other trees caught the flame. There was nothing that could stop it.
    The girl couldn't help looking back. Even once the glow had faded, she stared towards that bleak, dark spot until Bear made a firm swipe at her ankle. She barely missed the root.
    The forest ahead soon began to brighten, and as the breath left her exhausted lungs, the ground beneath her felt stable and familiar once again. The sun broke through the trees ahead, the trunks around them were manageable, and fruit hung from the boughs. Here, Swan brought them to a stop at last, and Bear panted in exhaustion as the girl dropped to her knees. But as they both looked down at her, searching her for injury, she met their eyes with tears and apologised from the very bottom of her heart.
    But for all her bleeding words, Bear merely grunted, and Swan merely honked. And she knew, from the steadiness of their eyes and the warmth of their souls, the extent of the disappointment in their hearts.
    She smiled despite the tears streaming down her cheeks, and rose back to her feet. "I'm sorry. I know. If there's anything you've taught me, it's that strength isn't struggling alone."
    With a grunt, Bear bowed his head, and Swan touched her beak to her skin. And she embraced the both of them with a tearful smile. "One tree at a time..."

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Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock