I’d like you all to have a read of this and tell me what you think. Is it properly creepy, or does it need a bit more chill?
Let me explain. This is an inset story in Aiella, and replaces the original version, which was a) not very good b) somewhat derivative and c) irrelevant to the setting.
To set the scene, Aiella and Dartea have been commissioned to escort young Lady Talia D’Inverno on a secret trip across the mountains, and they take the first part of the journey by boat up the river. Our heroines soon discover that Talia is what Dartea describes as a ‘flouncy little whatsit’, spoiled and arrogant, and a sore trial of their patience. One night they camp in a forest glade by the river. As a form of mild revenge for all the trouble Talia has caused them Dartea decides to wind her up by telling a creepy story.
It is an evening in late summer, it’s getting toward dark, the trees stand tall around them, seeming to move slightly in the haze from their campfire, and this is the story Dartea tells:
The Pathless Wood
Long ago, before any of our grandmothers were born, there lived in the land of Corbihan a young lord, Berriar by name, who dwelt in the vale of Talanec. He lived in no great style, for he wasn’t wealthy, and for that reason had as yet taken no wife. But on a day it happened that he received a message that his uncle had died, and Berriar was his principal heir. Now this uncle had lived in the old castle of Corbihan, high up in the hills and miles from anywhere, a fair step from Berriar’s home. It was late in the autumn, and winter was set to come in, so Berriar made haste to journey there and take up his new lands, and use his inheritance to set himself up with a wife. So he packed up what he could carry, and set off on foot, for a horse was beyond his means.
On the fourth day of his journey, and the weather getting colder all the time, he came in the evening to an inn, and stopped there for the night. He fell in with some other young men that were there, and passed the night drinking with them. He told them his errand, and asked how far he might yet have to go. “Not far,” says one, “as the ravens go, maybe thirty miles or more, but as the road winds it’s easily three times that.” “Aye,” says another, “and rough going too, uphill for the most part, with neither cot nor barn to sleep in on the way. And snow like to come down from the mountains any day now.” Berriar made a face at that, for he had no mind to be snowbound in the inn for days – for one thing, he couldn’t afford it. “Is there no other way?” he asked, “No shorter road, across those scant miles?” And then a silence fell on the company, until one man at last spoke up. “Aye,” said he, “there is one shorter way. But it lies through the Pathless Wood.” And all the company shook their heads, and some made signs to ward off evil. “The Pathless Wood,” says Berriar, “what is that?” “A forest it is, but not of any pleasant sort,” the man told him. “A darkness lies upon it, and it’s said that few who enter it ever return, and of those who do, none are the same after.” “Why, what is in this wood?” The man shrugged. “None can say, for of those who do come out, none will speak of it, and none will go back in, not for any gold.” “But it will save me a long journey, will it not?” “Oh, yes, if you went straight through it. But it might lead you on a still longer one.” Berriar laughed, for he cared nothing for old tales, and when he left next morning he was resolved to risk this perilous forest. The goodwife of the inn took him aside, and warned him of the danger. “My father went in that wood, to win a bet, and it never did him no good. There was times after when he was as mad as a Spring stoat, and had to be tied down, sometimes, to stop him raving.”
And for the first time Berriar had a misgiving, but he was a brave man, and young, so he smiled at her and said he was sure it was all nonsense, and set off down the valley toward the forest. He was soon among the trees, and at first all went well, for despite its name there was a clear path through the wood, heading straight for the hills of Corbihan. He marched along as fast as he might, and began to think the folk at the inn had been making game of him, until he suddenly heard a crack! from behind. He stopped to look around, and saw a fallen branch laid on the path. He laughed a little at himself, for having given such a start, and turned to go on his way … and the path wasn’t there.
For a space he stood there, baffled, seeing only trees before him, and no sign of any path at all. A black crow flew by, landed on a branch, and cawed at him. Berriar turned round again, and to his relief the path he had come by was still there. He saw no way of hacking through the trees, so he retraced his steps, and walked back the way he had come. But as he walked, it came upon him that surely the path was not heading the same way as it had before; there was no sun to steer by, for the clouds were grey and low, but nonetheless he felt sure his road was different. He stopped again, and looked back, and just as before the path he had just walked along was not to be seen, only trees, tall trees, close together, with nary a gap between them. And again a crow sat on a branch, cawing, and it seemed it mocked him. And then, despite the cold, he had a sweat on him.
He walked faster now, hoping the path would at least take him out of this cursed forest and back to treeless lands, but it led him on through the wood, with no sign of the trees thinning, and it seemed he been walking back for much longer than he had walked in. Then as the path turned a corner, he came upon a blasted oak, and he knew he had marked it before – and that after he had turned about. The path was leading him in a circle. Weary all of a sudden, he sat down, and leant against a tree. It was just to rest his legs, he told himself. He’d up and off again in a minute, and out of this benighted wood.
How long he slept he never knew, but a caw from a crow, whether ’twas the same one or another he couldn’t tell, woke him. He opened his eyes, and saw he was sat in a clearing not two yards wide, with trees fencing him in on all sides, and nary a sign of any path in or out. For a minute he was so afraid he could hardly breathe, and then he got up, and tried to force his way through the brush between the trees, trees that stood so close together he could barely squeeze between them. Twigs and branches hit him and scratched his flesh, but still he battered his way on, pushing them back with his arms, taking one slow step at a time, scrambling desperately through the thick and pathless wood. He was mortally afraid that if he didn’t get out before nightfall he’d never get out at all.
On he pushed, so slow he could hardly tell if he was gaining, and ever and again he heard the crow cawing, and no other sound at all, until at length a new noise reached his ears, the sound of someone – or something – crashing through the wood behind him. For a moment hope sprang up in his heart, that this was some other traveller caught in this forest, and he cried out for help. But as he stopped and listened, no answering cry came, only the sound of brush being trampled, and cracking timber, as whatever was following him forced its way through the trees. The crack of timber alarmed him, for it was clear that his unknown pursuer was far bigger and stronger than he, and was shoving the trees aside with ease. Nothing could be seen through the trees, but now the sound of a heavy tread could be heard, doom, doom, doom, as great feet trod down the undergrowth toward him in a steady, relentless and unvarying pace.
Filled with dread, Berriar redoubled his efforts to push through the trees, hacking at branches with his knife, and wishing he had a sword, or better yet an axe. The giant tread came closer as he pressed forward through the tangles desperately, his arms and legs aching with the effort, the task becoming harder with every inch, his panic hindering him, and his hope failing, until at last he could push no more, and fell forward onto his face with a cry of despair.
He lay still for a long moment, waiting for whatever was following to take him, but he heard nothing. Berriar pushed himself up with his arms, and light fell on his face, for in front of him there were no trees, only the road, and the hills on the far side of the valley, and a lone crow, circling in the sky and cawing. Greatly daring, he looked behind him, and the trees stood tall as before, with no sign that this was anything but an ordinary forest. And then at last his travails caught up with him, and he swooned in weariness, and knew no more.
And that’s how travellers passing along the road next day found him, and they took him up, and carried him back to the inn. He rested there, and won back his strength, and after some days went on to the castle of Corbihan by the long road. There he took up his inheritance, and lived in peace for many years. But he never took a wife, or spoke to anyone about what had passed in the Pathless Wood, save that he would not suffer any tree to stand in sight of his castle, and he never walked beneath the eaves of any wood again.