She could not remember how she had come to wood. It was gray and green and there was a gentle dripping sound. Patches of snow and dirty ice rested over the ground in divots, surrounded by fresh moss. It was a battle between winter and spring. The chill in the air told the young woman that there was no clear winner yet. All she knew of the wood was that people were taken here randomly and so she must have been dumped here.
Her name was Eva and she checked the back of her head for lumps. She found none. Perhaps she’d been given a draught or drug that put her into a deep sleep? Had she walked a little too deeply in the Greenwood and wandered into this place by accident, without recollection? It was people on the margins of the world who were driven here or dumped in the Graywood. Her appearance is not important, nor is her exact age. Eva is Eva and can be of any complexion or build that the reader wishes to imagine her. She does not know how she came to be in the deep forest, only that she came to be there. It is only the fact that she awoke among the moss, the trees and the dirty snow that is significant.
Eva knew that she was about to be pursued.
The girl knew the tales of the survivors. Most men who entered the woods did not leave, but the few that did had their stories. Some had seen the demise of others, friends, family or strangers. Others had come to the Graywood alone, like she had. Those that had made it out told of a creature that came for them – an entity that would devour a person whole. Few got a good look at it and lived to speak of it. It had a different approach to each person. Some saw a great monster. A few spoke of a tall, chalk-skinned, faceless, black-winged angel. There were tales of fire that licked at its heels or of a black smoky Void that followed it. One survivor said that it was a little white cat with soft white wings, not in the least bit imposing, and that it had spoken to her very gently when it had caught up to her.
Eva wandered, looking at the tangle of trees around her. The problem with forests this time of the year is that they provided little potential food for human beings that she was aware of. Eva knew of a few kinds of berries that were safe to eat, but the raspberries and blackberries just didn’t grow when the weather was still icy – if they ever grew in the Graywood at all. She decided to avoid fungus altogether, for she did not know what kinds of mushrooms made good food and what would cause her a writhing death. The young woman wasn’t hungry at the moment, but knew that was bound to change. She’d never hunted. She’d fished a bit in the past, but had no equipment for doing so and did not see or hear a stream anywhere nearby. That was another consideration… water. At least there was some snow on the ground. Eva found a shelf of stone with hanging icicles. She snapped off the longest one she could find and slowly licked it, heedless of the tiny detritus trapped within.
Fog rose up from the ground everywhere. It was the kind of thick cloud that came from a conflict between warm, wet air and ground that was still frozen. It curled like steam up from patches of white.
Eva was underdressed and terribly cold. At least she had a light coat. Still, her arms were goose-pimpled beneath it. She could hear her own teeth chatter. They felt like they would break.
“Is there anybody out here?” she managed to call into the cold. She was answered only by the steam on her breath.
That was when she first saw it.
A large animal burst out of the underbrush and from behind the trees. Eva thought it was a bear at first, with hair all golden standing up at the shoulders. It was more the size of a very large dog and was canine in structure. As pale sunlight combed by pine needles struck the beast, the blonde and black fur shimmered with little flecks of blue-green iridescence, like spots on bird-feathers. It came running for her, snarling lowly and snapping its barren jaws. Its face sent a shock of fear through her as much as the sudden attack.
The beast’s head was a clean white skull. It had eyes, yellow-green like citrine, like the eyes of a cat. They were clear eyes.
It had come for her flesh, her heart and her soul. She dodged through the trees, running pell-mell through the mists. She tripped and tumbled down an embankment. It was a fortunate fall. The clear-eyed creature vanished into the fog, apparently suddenly disinterested in her.
Eva knew with her very spirit that this was the fabled “Beast of the Graywood” that swallowed people up. If it made a different appearance to everyone, this was apparently how she saw it.
She didn’t like it one bit.
She cleaned off her scrapes and walked on, wary of the clear-eyed creature. Somewhere along the way, the woods became golden and yet the air retained a “gray” character. Eva noted the bronze and copper leaves beneath her feet as well as dry leaves like pale brass that stubbornly clung to some of the trees when most had been stripped bare. She came upon three people huddled around a campfire. She approached them and they told her to go away.
“I am hungry,” she said.
“Hunt up your own food!” one of the group said to her.
“I don’t know how.”
“Why should we care?” said another. “You don’t have the look or the smell of one we’d welcome! Move on!”
Eva sniffed herself. She found no outstanding odor. “If we’re all lost in the Graywood, can’t we survive better together?”
“Leave!” the last one of the group by the fire said, so Eva moved on.
As shadows lengthened and light fled from the land, she encountered the creature again. She did not encounter it directly, but heard it shuffling in the woods, stirring up the dry leaves. She saw its hairy shadow against the milky-indigo sky. She heard screams as it lurched and ran in the direction of the place she had encountered the group.
The next day, at dawn, she found a stream and caught a pair of shimmering trout in puddle near the shore where several fish had been trapped. Being as hungry as she was and with no patience to construct a fire, she ate their flesh raw. Eva caught as many of the other fish as she could and tossed them into the main creek so that they could have a chance at life. She was not planning on staying here. She had to find a way out of these woods if she were to survive.
The air was warmer today than it had been yesterday. Eva had not slept, save, perhaps, in a few short spurts where her memory was fuzzy. She’d curled up against an oak tree last night and had fought to stay awake to fight off hypothermia. The water she put her hands in for her breakfast was icy. She noted the shelves of ice, born of what was once snow along the bank, slick and dark with mud.
Little birds were chattering incessantly. At least they had things to sing about.
Eva did not know what direction she should be going to get out of the Graywood. She figured if she kept going one direction – just forward, she would find her way to the green hills or to a village – perhaps even to her own.
She spent days running from the Beast of the Graywood. She mostly only saw it in shadow, a hump of hair rising up from behind brush. She fell into an exhausted sleep every now and again and gradually began to let her guard down when the clear-eyed creature had failed to catch up to her. Eva found a few precious sources of food besides the fish – plants she recognized. She was given bread by someone she met, a young man dressed for the forest who hadn’t known how he’d gotten there, either.
Eva thought she’d finally found a friend, but the night after she met him, when he had chosen to keep watch, she awoke to find him and her coat missing. She thought that they’d just begun connecting, being the recipients of a common predicament. Instead, she was betrayed and remembered tales of this being a common occurrence in the Graywood.
She was curled up against the bark of a large and ancient conifer when she met the clear-eyed creature face-to-face. She did not run. Eva did not even get up. She just sat there, hugging her knees, regarding the beast boredly. The large animal, for its part, just walked up past the bare-twig underbrush – raspberry bushes waiting to become thorny and leafy and fruitful again. It stared at her, its skull creamy-colored in the stark, branch-filtered sun-shafts.
“I suppose you really weren’t what I expected,” Eva said.
“What did you expect?” the clear-eyed creature said to her in a rumbling voice like rapids over rocks. It spoke her language perfectly, not the kind of feat most animals were capable of. Eva, however, remained unimpressed. Her eyelids were drooping and she was cold.
“Maybe something with wings. Maybe something black. Maybe just a fog made of the Void. Maybe someone with a sword or a gun or a scythe. I don’t know. I don’t know what I expected.”
The clear-eyed creature regarded her with its perpetual smile. Its head was a skull, of course, and all stripped skulls smiled and looked like they were laughing. “Are you afraid of me?” it asked.
Eva shook her head softly. “No. I’m just tired. I’m very tired.”
“Approach me, then,” the creature dictated, “or find a reason to keep running.”
“Is there a reason to keep running?” she asked, lifting her head. “Is there a way out of these woods?”
“You won’t know unless you keep moving,” the beast said.
“It is cold here,” Eva complained. “And I’ve found no help.”
“There are those that wish for your return,” the clear-eyed creature gently replied. “You may not hear them right now, but there are those that are cheering for you to keep running.”
Eva stood up. “Thank you,” she said. “I am not afraid. If I keep walking and if I run, it will not be because I am afraid of you.”
“Aren’t you tired?” the beast asked.
“Yes, but I will keep running.”
The clear-eyed creature nodded its skull and turned to vanish back into the mists of the forest. Eva walked on, knowing that it would be back in one form or another at one time or another. She did not know whether she would find her way out or be trapped in the Graywood forever, however, she walked on her own terms.
S.E. Nordwall, March 2015