Wednesday, 5 November 2008
A dread autumn (part 3)
The hermit stepped with care and precision along the woodland route down into the valley. Lord Winstanley and Father Seddon followed cautiously.
Choosing a path that followed the river, the hermit turned onto a tree-lined corridor in the wood, walked until the troupe were equidistant from each end of the path and then halted.
“They will not surprise us here,” said the hermit with more than a little glee and confidence.
“This is madness,” cried Winstanley. “Why, they may approach us any route they see fit and drag us into the forest.”
“No,” said the hermit softly. “They will stick to the lanes, for there people go. We will see them approaching, one way or another.”
“Well enough, but have you weapon to face them? The priest has a crucifix and I but a pocket knife. How shall we defeat these fiends, then?” enquired Winstanley.
“My Lord, you are free to leave if the fear is too great. The priest and I will stand alone, with faith in ourselves and in the greater powers that built this world.”
Winstanley gritted his teeth at the hermit’s chide, but his resolve stiffened and his hand moved to grip the hilt of his hunting blade.
“They are upon us,” said the priest and the hermit nodded gravely as the three kindred of the soil appeared ahead, moving effortlessly along the dirt path. As they neared, Winstanley noticed the dead leaves being blown and brushed from the creatures’ path by unseen forces. Every sinew strained in him not to flee this ghastly scene or else take his knife and rush headlong into battle and likely doom.
It seemed to him the creatures flickered and oozed, as if lichens and fungus grew and then died upon their bodies; living out entire existences within seconds over their childlike torsos. And as they came to the place where the three men stood to face them, the trees bowed and bent as if to flee the unholy and most powerful presence of those green beings.
Winstanley heard them speaking as they passed through the avenue of trees. At first he thought they spoke to each other, but soon he heard them calling his name, asking him to step forward and lay himself down before them, though their almost formless faces did not seem to have mouths to speak.
Leanlo touched his mind then, speaking deeply to him and her arm reached out, beckoning him forth. Winstanley closed his eyes and began to step forward. The chill in the air was gone and his mind felt only the lush green of summer as the girl invited him to roll upon green grasses forever.
As he stepped forward he was aware of a temperature clinging to his bones, a coldness more deathly than a winter’s frost on a flower’s stalk. And just as soon as it had gripped him it left and he came to with the hermit’s dirty and wrinkled hand holding him by the shoulder. He saw that both he and the priest had taken two large and unwarranted steps forward, almost into the reach of the green ones, but the hermit had saved them, for now.
From the look of intense concentration on the hermit’s face, it seemed he was attempting some complex equation, or else arguing within his own head against some unshakable principle of the universe. But Winstanley was taken with the possibility the hermit was locked in unspoken conversation with the green witches, or perhaps some unseen battle of minds and wills was taking place high above the auburn trees and the greying fields around about them.
If the hermit was locked in combat then, perhaps he could have bested them had not Father Seddon ultimately screamed and then fled the terrifying scene, into the forest. His concentration broken, the hermit shouted to the priest in vain before collapsing upon the ground, the green ones departing the scene in seconds to give chase to the priest. Winstanley wheeled around in confusion as things unknown to his mind weighed so heavily upon him that he too collapsed beside the spent and broken body of the hermit.
And as he watched the hermit’s breath shallow and his eyes twitch and then close forever, Winstanley knew all was now surely lost. He lay there on the hard ground and looked up at the forest canopy, spinning up above him, and awaited the return of those fearsome children to feast upon his vitality. As he lay there, in sorrowful defeat, he realised that, while many of the trees were skeletal and bare, some of the trees remained defiant, some of the trees remained green. He held that thought with him as he lay there in painful defeat, just waiting for the chill to kiss his bones once more.
(to be continued)
This story is a continuation of ideas from earlier tales, including:
Winter Quakes, Spring Awakens, and The summer meadow.