In the meadow outside the walls of Almeria, where purple Lanterns flower and stags graze in the early morning, little Henry was running in front of Elizabeth through the tall grass. Her skirts swished around her legs as she huffed to keep up. She had beat him up the hill, but when it plateaued he quickly overtook her.
“Come on, Liza! Last to the tree line has to go into the woods!” His hair danced wildly even in the absence of wind. Oh what his mother would say when she sees how he ruined what she had spent half the morning combing.
Before the children loomed a wide wood of tall cedar, elder, and pine trees. The shed needles of the pines made the soil acidic and practically deadly, so no plants grew on the outside of the wood. Just soil. The canopy was so dense that sunlight could not penetrate it to the floor. The unmoving shadows were as dark as the depths of the rivers.
Henry let out a victory laugh as he hurtled over a rock and reached the tree line. Elizabeth stomped her feet as she joined him. Her blue skirts had grass stains and yellow pollen marks. She patted them with her hand and shrugged.
“It was just a race anyhow.”
“You have to go into the woods,” Henry stood with his back to the trees.
“I won’t,” Elizabeth crossed her arms.
Henry frowned, “But, you shook on it.”
She shrugged and turned away from him.
“Liza, you have to follow the rules of the game!”
He watched as the blood drained from her face and eyes widened. She stood staring down the tree line, unmoving and not speaking. He turned and followed her gaze. Halfway down the tree line, on the edge of the plateau overlooking the walled village below, an elder was sitting on the split trunk of a hazel tree.
Scorch marks outlined the dead wood of the tree. The lady was sitting on the trunk laid across the ground, grown over with mushrooms and rotting underneath. She held her gaze with Elizabeth’s. The longer Henry looked the more he noticed about her. Silver hair outlined her face, pinned up despite the loose strands. She wore a cloak, which struck Henry as odd seeing it was well into the springtime, which was dark, stained, and ripped. Her aura was earthy with speckles of something else.
“Elizabeth, stay behind me.” Henry moved to stand in front of her.
The woman didn’t stand, but beckoned the children nearer with her hand. Her eyes were slits that Henry couldn’t see.
Elizabeth took a step backwards and turned to flee, but she didn’t get any farther than that.
“Children,” her voice was no more than a whisper but it hit them like a sudden rain storm. “Come here.”
“Who are you?” Henry shouted back.
“Come here and I shall answer your questions.”
“What do you mean?”
“The woods, boy.”
Henry turned his head to meet Elizabeth’s gaze. She shook her head and grabbed his wrist.
“Let’s get back to the village. Mother will be terribly angry once she finds out I left the walls, if she knows I spoke with a strange elder I would never be able to play again.”
“I think we should speak with her.”
“What! Has the run made your mind mud?” She dropped his wrist.
“She has answers that nobody will give us. Haven’t you wondered why nobody mentions the woods? Hunting parties avoid it, when we need wood they prefer to travel south instead. Are you not curious?” Henry gestured to the trees next to them.
“I have heard the stories whispered in the dark to children when they act up. Of noises heard from the trees when the moon is full. Of eyes that gleam in the shadows. Of trees that are gnarled and grow despite being dead!”
“They are just stories told to make sure children act right.”
“But how do you know?” Elizabeth stomped her foot.
Henry turned back to the elder, who hadn’t moved or averted her eyes. He set his feet and began toward her. Her heard Elizabeth huff and scamper after him. The closer he got to the elder the more he saw how frail she was. Her skin was etched with veins. Her fingers were nearly clasped shut. The hazel tree trembled and drooped.
Henry stopped a ways from her. “Who are you?”
“Just an old woman.”
“Where did you come from?” Elizabeth piped up, “I haven’t seen you in the village.”
“It is a large village. You don’t venture into the slums, with your new dresses and protective parents. How would you see what you are not looking for?”
Elizabeth turned her cheek to the elder.
“What are you doing here?” Henry asked, gesturing to the tree line.
“I sit and watch the days go by. My hands have become too old to cook, too cramped to make needleworks. But my mind stays curious. Now, having a race, were you? Just then.”
“Oh, yes. We were racing. Loser must go into the woods. Liza lost, but she won’t go into the woods.”
Henry looked at the shadows, “Well…”
“You would not, so why must she?”
Henry said nothing, but hung his head and shuffled his feet.
“There is only one way to find out what is true and what is not.”
Elizabeth took a step closer, “Are you saying we should go into the woods?”
“I said no such thing. The woods are a strange place. Going deep into the shadows is sure to lead to heartbreak. The secrets they contain could be nothing more than old wife’s tales meant to keep children home.”
“Or they could be true,” Henry whispered.
“Henry, don’t think about it.”
“She is right, boy.” The old woman leaned forward. “Don’t think about it.”
Henry turned toward the woods. A great sycamore towered in front of him, deep within the woods.
“Just do it.”
“Henry, no!” Elizabeth pulled him backwards.
“Don’t be stupid, Henry.” The old woman spat.
“Listen to her, let’s just go back to town. Come on,” she tugged on his arm.
“Liza, I decided I won’t make you go into the woods for losing.” Henry pulled his arm free. “But, someone should. We made a promise. I’ll go in your place.”
Henry walked forward, over the tree line, and let the shadows wash over him.
“Henry!” Elizabeth screamed and lunged forward. She caught the back of his shirt, but lost grip as she stopped before the tree line.
“I’m getting your Da!” She turned, her skirts swishing, and fled.
The old woman watched her blonde braids bounce through the tall grass, trampling flowers and bounding over rocks. The sun was starting its descent into the horizon, spreading streaks of red into the accumulating rain clouds. She turned her attention back to Henry, who had reached the great sycamore. He ran his hand along the bark as he gazed up through the branches.
“You shouldn’t enter the woods, boy.”
She smiled as she stood and stepped over the tree line.