The wheel had turned once more, and the cycle began anew. The family stood together in the thicket at the edge of the wood, taking in the air. The sky was heavy today, pregnant with omens and signs, ready to let out the tears it had been storing these last few days. Papa looked back at the field they had cut through, wincing inwardly at the single, narrow, highly visible track they had left in their crossing. The weeping of the dying plants had soaked their legs, and once the vegetation was trampled down, it lacked the heart to stand again. Food for the Silent Ones, thought Papa. Everything in its place, nothing wasted. Little One picked at the dewy crop, and Mama chastised him silently.
“Hungry,” he signaled.
“I know, Little One. Soon.”
Papa stamped softly, urging them to be quiet. Uncertainty warred within him. The summer had not been kind to them. The crops were guarded more fiercely than ever, and the orchards had borne little fruit, even less than the last bright season. Mama had never complained of hunger, even through the shortening days and the changing of the canopy. What meager food there was was reserved mostly for Little One, and it wasn’t nearly enough. He was growing faster than they had imagined. Already he was losing the markings of childhood upon him, Papa had seen with sorrow.
Home had become too dangerous. The woods had shivered off their garments of tangled leaves, and Papa felt too exposed to stay. The wind cut keenly through the naked trees, and they had nowhere to lie hidden. It was the time of the turning that the elders had spoken of, and now it was safer to move.
He kept them on a meandering course, moving when he sensed no presence of danger, stalking the hollows and hills of the barren fields. Their days were listless, lifeless, gray and brown, blurring together. Less ground was covered each passing day. They grew weaker, lean but not strong, continuing to let Little One eat what little there was while Papa and Mama kept watch. On occasion they met others like them, fleeing their homes, and they exchanged news. Always there was a thread of fear woven through the tales they told. And always, they parted ways with the same admonishment, “Beware the woods.”
“Beware the woods.” They intoned it the way their fathers had, and their grandfathers before. It was solemn, like a prayer, talismanic in quality. It was etched in the genetic memory of their kind the way lightning inscribes its unreadable words in the night sky, written like the runes carved by the creatures hidden beneath the bark of trees. Invisible, immutable, brimming with power.
Three simple words, lingering in the air.
In the dens of Papa’s youth, the elders would tell tales in the night. Starlight and moonlight mirrored off their dark eyes as they laid out the stories. Stories of the proud, strong ones wearing their crowns of bone, who did not heed the warning, and ventured into the forest during this part of the cycle, never to return. Depending on the storyteller of the night, it was sometimes embellished with gory, horrifying detail. How sometimes all that was left was a pile of steaming offal, or how only the head had been taken, the body left to rot. Most often though, they just vanished into thin air.
“What made them go into the forest?” Papa would ask, confused. What could drive a strong one into that maw of darkness that they had been told to avoid?
“Hunger.” The elders would inevitably reply. “When the crops have withered, and all light has fled in the turning, only the woods remain, and they are filled with the Ones Who Hide.”
The Ones Who Hide. Papa’s kind knew so little of them. They dug up the earth and stole the bone and blood from the soil, and built fearsome machines with what they took. They hid themselves from Sky with walls and canopies of wood and stone, and rarely ventured beneath the stars. And when the leaves burned and fell, the Ones took to the woods and hid, and watched, and killed.
So Papa grew, hearkening to the words of his forebears, and when the wheel turned to the dark, cold seasons, he kept his head down, and eyed the forests with distrust. Distant cracks of thunder would sound during strange times of day, when Sky was clear and the Eye shone merrily above, and they would quail at the unnatural sound, and hide. Word would spread that a strong one had disappeared. He vowed that he would never be so foolish to bow to his hunger like that.
When he had met Mama in the previous dark season, she was not a Mama then but a strong young one, and they had taken to each other immediately. The dance was danced and the ritual completed, and in the spring she had given birth to Little One.
He was quick to stand and quicker to walk. He had the strength and bearing of his father and his ancestors, or so he was told. He was lucky young one. Mama would wander far afield to bring him the increasingly rare fruit from the distant orchards, and Papa taught him the ways of the wild. Under his tutelage he learned how to move swiftly and quietly through the underbrush, how to avoid being seen, and the secret ways around the ground-stone paths, where many had met their end at the hands of the machines.
Little One had also heard the grisly tales and he knew to beware the woods. But now he was hungry, and weak, and they had been on the move for many days, and were far from home. He had begun to doubt the tales of the elders, and doubt his Papa too. The bearing of his ancestors could only stand so long against the ache in his gut. He knelt to pick again from the dewy grass at the edge of the wood they had come upon. It was coarse and tasteless, but his stomach hurt from hunger, so he ate faster, clipping his teeth over the blades and following the tufts that led beneath the still arms of the trees. He heard Papa stamp angrily behind him, but he couldn’t stop. Papa’s soft steps sounded, coming closer to round up his son, and Little One cried out, a plaintive mewl, primal in its pain.
Papa looked around in panic, his eyes rolling, and saw too late the slow movement high in the trees, smelled the stink of the Ones Who Hide. There was a sound of thunder. Papa fell with a huff, his breath pluming in the frigid air, his legs giving out with no resistance. Mama and Little One stood frozen for a moment, and did the only thing they could do. They ran. They ran despite their flagging strength, despite their gnawing hunger, their shock, their sadness. They ran to survive, so that one day in the far future, in the darkened hollows of the vanishing wild, there would still be heard a whisper, “Beware the Woods.”