A breath went through the pines. Uncounted millions of gold-green needles quavered, heaved; pressed by a mild and resinous sigh. The air thickened, yellowed with cloying dust shed from boughs' young cones. Great beards of hoary moss wavered, licked their trailing ends to the forest floor, stilled. The breath passed.
In the ensuing hush, not one beast dared more than whisper. Crickets put up a rarefied, hesitant sawing. Crows croaked only briefly, distant. The chewing of green caterpillars, long and fat as forearms, was louder than even they. No beast let their paws crackle the ember-needled mat of soil. No paws, but two sets of boots.
Black, soldiers' boots. Two soldiers, women in red uniform and cuirass. One hobbled, supported by her shieldmate under torn shoulders. Her head lolled. Dark specks dribbled from one ruined eye socket, rolled down her collar and dirty plastron.
"Lydie?" she mumbled, feet dragging. "How long've we been walking?"
Lyd grimaced, adjusted her burden. "Been a time. Can't really see the sun to tell."
"S'all yellow. Where are we?"
"In the woods, Suse."
"Can't hear the fighting."
"Haven't heard it for a while. You've been a spot out of it." Lyd looked to her friend. "How's your head?"
Suse took a moment to respond, slack-jawed. "Hot," she said, finally. "Shou… shouldnt'a pulled it out."
Lyd pressed a palm to her friend's forehead, felt the sweat and fever neath her palm. She frowned. "Shite."
They stumbled on aways. Now and again, a rush would go through the pines. All would bend and sway. Needles would shake free and spiral down, uncounted. Gouts of yellow pollen choked the air, clung to sweated skin, stuck musty-sweet in the soldiers' lungs. They coughed up wads of the stuff.
Suse halted, stumbled, slid to her knees, hacking weakly. Lyd guided her down, proffered a warm canteen. "Drink up."
"Thanks," gasped Suse, dribbling
"Lemme look at that eye." Lyd pulled sticky hair from her shieldmate's brow, revealed the wound. She stifled a gasp.
"Aye, s'bad" commented Suse. She slumped back on the carpet of needles. Her good right eye fluttered sporadically, closed. She sighed. "Go scout ahead, yeah? Not much left in me."
"Don't wanna leave you."
Dismay wrinkled Lyd's lip. She surveyed Suse where she lay, cushioned by amber earth and tired breath.
"Alright," Lyd sniffled. She backed up several steps. "I'll be back soon, aye? Don't ye be dying. Aye?"
"Get, y'silly tit.
Lyd smiled at her comrade, miserably, rubbed away pollen and tears. She departed. Her black boots receded into the amber wood.
Suse was alone. She breathed deep tendrils of yellow air, sighed, blinked slow and heavily. Her good eye stilled, faded.
Before she succumbed to sleep, the soldier spied a flutter of wings midst the amber pines.
Suse awoke in a darkened wood. A murky place, scarcely lit by moonlight cracked by crooked boughs. Striped cream and gold moths flashed midst the pines, wings wide as bushel-lids. Thick, gelid mist flowed over the dry needles, round Suse's fingers and limbs. She shivered, rose from the wash of fog.
The soldier stretched, groaned. Her lips were dried together. An inch-deep layer of twigs and needles fell from her. As she rose, her red coat split about the elbows, rotted. It carried the damp, cold smell of earth.
Suse brushed accreted needles and moss from her. She squinted, rubbed her eyes, abruptly stopped with a jolt of recognition. Tentatively, she probed the left socket with shaking fingers, felt naught but fused and mangled skin.
"Lydie?" she called, hoarse. Not a voice answered.
Suse turned about slow, peered through the grey spaces between black trunks. Thousands of pillars in a canopied hall of sticks and needles. Pillars, spotted with hollows and holes, wherein uncertain illusions of eyes crouched.
Suse startled: Round one bole, she spied something pale in the moonlight. She squinted, focused, cried out.
It was a face. Like a white heart pulled round the trunk by long, white fingers. Eyes like pots of ink. it fixed Suse with a look of pursed intent.
"Hello?" rasped Suse, loud with fright.
"Hello," said the face, quiet. Accented, drawing out its uncertain words. It stepped round the tree, revealed a lissome frame clad in gossamer. It stood barefoot, near-inseparable from the crawling mist. "You slept for a long time."
Suse stammered, took a step back. "Y–yeah?" She pawed for her dagger, found it and her munitions cuirass were missing. * She found that her clothes, sodden with rot, were sloughing from her frame. "What did you bloody do to me, älf?"
"We didn't do anything," said the creature, amusedly. "They did." He indicated the moths overhead
"M-moths?" said Suse, frowning, darted her gaze up and about. "Wait, what do you mean 'we?'"
Suse's eyes went wide. A dozen or more älves sprouted from the cold mist, lifted from their hidden repose. Pale as vapor, save for black pits of eyes.
"Listen" said Suse, shivering. "I just want to find my friend. She's a soldier like me. We were lost."
A tittering chorus of cruel, musical laughter momently sounded. "We're all lost, here."
"Where is she?" insisted Suse.
"I told you, you slept for a long time." The lead älf was abruptly serious. "She's far away."
"How bloody far away?"
One by one, the älves began to vanish, slip behind pines. Suse frowned, tried to keep them in her sight. They slipped away like so much dissolving mist. Only the first remained.
"How far?" said Suse, whispering.
"Two hundred years" said the heart-shaped face, soft. It, too, vanished.
Suse was alone.
From their very earliest age, children are taught an imperative set of lessons: Do not go into the woods at night; do not go alone; and do not go too deep. Elsewise, you'll never be seen again. Though such lessons are certainly superstition, they are not without merit, for there is no place so trepid nor so close to home as the darkness neath forbidden woods. **
Fear of the forest is no outdated superstition. No outdated terror. Some years back, Lord Ardyce of Flué, Chief Coroner to the Crown, compiled a study of deaths in outlying Firlish villages. His findings showed "disappeared in forest" to be among the leading causes of presumed death in most wilderland counties.
Precisely how folk come to meet their woodland vanishment is a matter of myth and awful reality combined. In every old-growth reach of green, where sun and air filter tenuously through oak and pine, there are surely carnivorous ragwretches and wolves, ready to snatch a wayward traveler from their path. *** Deeper, the monsters are worse. Stryge, troll, and witch. Sorcerous monsters, crept from Tombs long ago overtook by the wood.
To disappear within depths of trees by no means assures a carnivorous and violent end, though. Even confronted with the lurking presence of very real beasts, folk still confidently ply forests' edges in the day; travelling, collect wood, and gathering the fruit of the woods. They have worse to worry about. Monsters are merely the most tangible of their fears.
Every forest of legend, be it Basatine Wood, which divides the Alagóran Peninsula from its wilder mountains; Oldaren, East of Firlund; or the endless pines of Anghenfeldt, is defined by a remarkable trait, more terrible than even the monsters within: Endlessness.
It may seem a simple thing. A fluke of direction caused by massive scale, for indeed the shores of such forests are immense. It is no fluke. If one enters a forest, they will never find its end. Never, at least, an end in the world they started from.
To be lost in the woods is to risk stumbling from one world into another. They are liminal zones. Spaces between the world and the Other. This is what folk fear the most, for once lost in the Otherworld, there is rarely a chance at return.
Though legend tells of braves, magicians, and knight-errants who ventured beyond the fold of the Other and returned, such a return is nigh-myth to real folk. If in the event they do return, they will doubtful come back unchanged.
How one comes to slip beyond the world, or avoid doing so, is woefully unclear. Most reliably, folklore advises never to tread the deep woods at night, for the Other is closer in nocturnal hours. Mist and storm, they say, will also thin the boundaries. Some forests exhibit observable and reliable gateways, beyond which none can turn back. For instance, some five miles into the yellow pines of Tiaga, few can return after nightfall.
Where the Other comes closest, its denizens slip without. Älves dwell there, foray from their alien fastness into the realm of Littorans. They are said to possess an uncanny ability to slip from the Other and back again, to fade into unsight where it saturates the world.
Many älves prey the line between world and Other, hoping to find some amusement in the lost and the wayward. They are cruel observers or deadly, predatory tempters, apt to lure Littorans to a sad end. Their depredations are more terrible, more dismaying than any monster.
For fear of the Other and its children, folk shun its threshold, the deep forests: The fearful spaces between.
This will serve as the first of articles on a yet-undeveloped theme of Incunabuli: Imperative Destiny (as mentioned in Spriggan) and the conflict between Coast and Other. Littorans must push back the Other, lest it subsume their tattered world.
* All creatures of the Other, älves included, are fatally allergic to iron and its products. They will covertly remove such threatening items. Piles of metal goods found at the bottom of lakes and ponds are dubbed "nymph caches," for they are thought to be items hidden and flung by angered sylphs.
** Of course, few will venture too deep into a forest, even in daylight. Those that do are certainly desperate, inhuman, or embarked upon some adventure.
*** Not to mention the smaller horrors of the wood. Spriggan, mandrake, and varied otherworldly invaders dwell within the dim edge of any sufficiently wild wood. While less toothy, they are no less distrusted and avoided.