Hey guys, apologies, this should have been up yesterday, just had a few things all hit at once. This is the second part from last week’s story.
Don’t Go Down To The Woods Today - part two
The thunk of the axe embedding itself in the tree trunk halted Mariana’s thought process in its tracks. Wood chopping had always been the sort of repetitive chore that she could let her body take charge of while she disappeared into her own mind, and she had chopped enough in her life to not need be constantly attentive; she knew how to balance the minimum amount of attention with the common sense not to put herself in harm’s way, and still find time to mentally wander off into the forest.
But she had never struck a piece of wood so hard as to split it and drive it into the stump that she used as her base before. She flexed her grip on the handle of the axe, and pulled. The tool did not even wobble, nor did it budge as she hefted her weight against it, pushing from below. She took a step back, hands on her hips, and breathed deeply. The axe stood out an angle, and after staring at it for a considerable time, Mariana found it difficult not to feel that it was mocking her. As the thought crossed her mind, she caught herself, and decided this was probably time to move on to another chore. She bundled up the firewood she had made, and headed back towards her house. She had to stop herself from throwing the axe an angry glare as she walked away.
Mariana sometimes worried a little about whether living alone in the middle of the forest was good for her mental health. She had never found herself in desperate need to be surrounded by people, and as a child had been more interested in tasks she could undertake alone, watching her father mend clothes in his shop, and then copying his actions late at night on her own garments. It was in her own company that she often found herself feeling the most sane, as the villagers that she met at the market seemed quite an odd bunch, full of superstitions and distrust of one another. But she could not deny that every once in a while she would find herself personifying inanimate objects in a way that made her think that it might be time to talk to another person again.
Dropping the firewood in the basket she kept by the door to her cottage, she leaned into the house and inhaled deeply. She caught the strong aroma of cooking herbs, and wrinkled her nose as she tried to judge how far along her supper was from being ready. It was a skill that she had honed over many nights of practice, and found it a more useful timekeeping device than the various clocks that adorned the walls. She had inherited them along with the cottage itself, but had not the heart to take any of them down.
Deciding that she still had some time before it was ready, Mariana opted for one more chore from her list, which was always never-ending. She had found some while ago that she could tackle the subtle strains of loneliness and cabin fever by keeping herself consistently busy, and had developed a system of balancing her emotions and calming herself by methodically running through that list. As she rifled through it in her mind, she remembered that there was that tree branch that was beginning to push its way through the roof in her bedroom, and decided that tackling that was the best course of action.
With her leather apron laden with tools, Mariana scaled the side of the building, and manoeuvred herself onto the roof. Carefully choosing her footing based on where she remembered the rafters being, she gently made her way to the thatched area that covered her bedroom. The tree branch was one of many that had begun winding itself into the roof of her house, and in some places she had found additional protection from the weather by incorporating them into the thatchwork. But this branch was prising holes in the ceiling above her bed, so it had to go. Finding a secure spot, Mariana made herself comfortable, and began pruning back the leaves.
As evening closed in, Mariana found herself working more by instinct than eyesight, but when her knife slipped from her hand and rolled off the roof, she resolved that it was probably time to call it a day. She had worked by starlight before, but she had pruned back the branch, diverted it away from her bedroom ceiling, and fixed the larger holes, so she considered that to be enough for one day. She swung herself over the edge of the roof, and climbed down the side of the house with practiced skill. She had a cursory look for the knife in the grass but quickly realised it was probably a job for better light, and went inside.
She was greeted by the smell of the stew slow-cooking on the fire, and a feeling of comfortable warmth spread through her tired limbs. Her stomach perked into life, rolling and growling at her like a neglected puppy begging for attention. She patted it gently with one hand, and realised that she had got lost in her work again. Without removing her gloves or her boots, she went straight to the pot hanging over the fireplace, and began to fill her bowl with stew. The smell was heavenly, and she was more than ready to eat. She took a spoon from the drawer and attempted the first mouthful. But her dainty spoon was difficult to hold in her thick gloves, and, whilst trying to scoop up some stew, she slipped, sloshing stew over her boots. Mariana took a breath and stopped herself. She placed the bowl and the spoon down on the side, and went through to the living room. It made more sense to take off her work clothes first, and she could hear her grandmother’s voice chiding her about haste and speed in her head.
The cottage had belonged to Mariana’s grandmother, and her mother before her, and so on and so on, as far back as Mariana had been told. It had been her own mother that had bucked the trend, running off with that bloody tailor’s boy, as Mariana had often heard her grandmother say, particularly after her second brandy. Mariana had never quite worked out what her grandmother’s objection with her father’s profession was, but it had not stopped her from being fascinated by her hermit-like ancestor, living deep in the heart of the forest, away from the bustle of people up at the castle and in the village.
Mariana descended into her chair, enjoying the sensation that the cushion had on her aching back. She let out a deep sigh to exorcise as much of the tension in her muscles that she could muster, and closed her eyes. As she inhaled, her nose picked out the smell of her stew wafting through the house in amongst the other scents that hung around the cottage. Her stomach gurgled an insistent reminder to her, and she absently rubbed it with one hand.
A creak from the kitchen made her ears prick up and her eyes flick open. She knew every groan and shudder the house could make, and this was undoubtedly her back door being opened. Standing slowly to make as little noise as possible, Mariana made her way towards the kitchen, placing her feet as lightly on the rug as she could manage in her hefty work boots. As she approached the doorway, the room beyond began to open up, and she saw a figure moving in the light from the fire. She moved to the doorway, taken aback by the gall of this stranger to just start wandering through her house. He was a young man, maybe still a teenager, and looked as though he had been constructed from twigs and string. He did not appear to notice her, so she shifted her feet heavily, her boots clicking on the stone of the kitchen floor.
The boy still did not turn round. Mariana rolled her eyes and coughed theatrically. This was enough to rouse the boy’s attention, his head whipping round to stare at her with big, fearful eyes. In doing so, however, he bumped into the table, and several of the books fell to the ground with a heavy thump. Mariana clucked her tongue involuntarily, but caught herself before she could do it again.
“Oh,” Mariana said, staring at the intruder in her kitchen. “Hello.” He did not move when she spoke, so she stepped in through the doorway, and tried again. “Can I help you?”
Her question had a very strange effect upon this stranger standing in her kitchen. Rather than answer her, or even attempt to beat a hasty retreat, he started to speak, but it was as though he were attempting six different sentences at once, and they had all become caught just behind his tongue.
As the boy rolled his eyes and puffed out his cheeks, half-gesturing with his hands as if starting a sentence and then giving up halfway through, Mariana furrowed her brow, unable to make sense of what she was seeing. She took off her gloves, wiping the sweat off her hands onto her apron, and looked at him still trying to perform in front of her. Offering him a lifeline, she gestured towards the door, adding, “Did you come from the village?”
But her efforts just seemed to make him worse, and the cycle of eyebrow raising, hand waving and stuttering began again in earnest. Mariana frowned, unsure of how exactly to deal with this person. He did not look like he was trying to rob her, but he was not exactly a passing visitor. He looked as if he’d lost a fight with a privet hedge, his clothes tattered and shredded, and as he nodded, the exact nature of his journey clicked in her mind.
“Through the forest?” she asked incredulously, stopping herself at the last second from slapping her forehead in disbelief. Why someone would try to travel directly through the woodland instead of the mountain path that led around to the castle seemed insane, and yet this boy had done it.
As she watched him struggle with the words, which was beginning to become like an unfortunate pantomime, Mariana had to struggle to keep from laughing. She silently thanked her luck when he settled with a nod instead.
“That’s … well, you must have been determined,” she offered, committing all her energy to composing herself. She busied herself with retrieving the books he had knocked to the floor, and placing them on the table, taking deep calming breaths as she did. She considered trying to relieve some of the tension in the room, and opted for a joke: “You running from something?”
She was dismayed to see the joke fall flat as the boy went rigid. What had she said? Were people from the village really this anxious? As he made obvious efforts to avoid meeting her gaze, she racked her brain for a change of subject, when she was answered by a growl from her stomach. She clapped her hands at this stroke of luck, which she later realised had been a little overzealous.
“Where are my manners? You must be hungry!” she said, in the closest she could manage to sweetness. She pulled out a chair for him and grabbed her bowl from the counter, sliding it in front of him. Her stomach growled a mutiny at her, but she ignored it, desperate to stop the boy staring at her with such trepidation. It unnerved her, and she found herself unable to settle, shifting her weight from one foot to the other constantly. Maybe if she fed him, he would calm down, and then she could send him on his way.
The smell of the stew hit her nostrils and the echoes of her rumbling belly reached her mind again. Grabbing a jar from the mantelpiece, she threw a handful of scented leaves into the fire. It crackled and sparked in tones of red and blue, shading the smoke purple as it wafted up the chimney. The room filled with the calming smell of jasmine and lavender, and Mariana took a deep breath. It washed pleasantly through her system, and it allowed her to relax a little more, as well as trying to take her mind off the stranger in her house eating her supper.
She started to run through her errand list for the rest of the week, readjusting some of the more precarious towers of jars, and returning some errant books to their proper places. She mouthed the words to herself as she went, listing the order that she would do the jobs, shuffling them based on how long they might take, or what she would need to find to complete them. Fixing the pulley on the well could take precedence over planting a new batch of sage in the garden, but what about retrieving that damned axe from the stump?
She glanced over her shoulder to see if the boy had finished, hoping to usher him off to wherever he was planning to go next, to find him staring at his hands. Her list-making slowed to a halt as she watched him begin to hyperventilate as he wiggled his fingers. A chord of panic chimed in Mariana’s mind that this stranger might be more dangerous than he first appeared. He was now wiping his face with his hands and sobbing gently to himself. She had to slap a hand over her mouth to herself from gasping, when he looked up at her from between his fingers.
“Go on, eat up. It’ll do you good,” she said, attempting the brightest smile she could muster. The look he returned to her suggested she might have missed the mark.
She tried not to stare at him, but his behaviour was becoming more erratic, and she found it difficult to tear her eyes away in fear of what he might do next. After inspecting his hands for a protracted time, he looked into the bowl and pushed it away with a finger, accompanied with a single petulant word: “No”.
Mariana inhaled another lungful of the sweet smoke from the fire, trying to draw as much calming influence from it as possible. She fought herself not to employ the tone she used on her niece when she displayed such stubbornness, but found it almost too much to avoid. “What’s wrong with it?” she asked, trying desperately to veil her frustration.
The boy’s gaze flicked down towards the bowl, and then looked back up with a look of defiance. Mariana could not fathom what the problem could be, especially with the rumbling in her stomach, but as he shook his head at her again, she felt her patience waning.
Mariana tried to balance herself, but could not stop gritting her teeth as she exhaled. “It’s good stew,’ she offered again, desperately holding onto her last vestiges of hospitality. “Eat it.”
The boy grinned at her inanely, a wild look in his eye. It turned the discomfort Mariana was feeling into something angrier, and she found herself clucking her tongue at him.
This frustration, her tiredness and her indignation at being treated in such a way after the hospitality she had tried to exhibit had banded together in her mind, and betrayed her attempts at remaining a magnanimous host. “Eat the damn stew!” she barked, slamming a hand on the table. The moment she did it she regretted letting her temper get the better of her, and tried to calm herself before she could apologise.
But she did not get the chance to do so, for the force of her words must have startled the boy, and he leapt up with such force that it knocked his chair aside and sent it clattering to the floor. Mariana sighed instinctively, feeling her frustration start to scream through her bones. She folded her arms to stop herself from gesturing and stared at him. But she instantly regretted that too, as this only seemed to make him more upset, his chest rising and falling rapidly, his eyes darting around manically. In that moment, Mariana decided that she had to get him out of her house, hospitality be damned. She raised her hands slowly, palms up, to try to not irritate him further, but it was in vain, as he scrabbled backwards and knocked her reading table over.
“Hey!” Mariana sighed, throwing her hands up in the air. She rarely had uninvited guests, but in a single afternoon, she was seriously beginning to reconsider whether she wanted any more visitors again. She was about to show him out when he raised a hand to point at her melodramatically.
“I see what you are!” he shouted, his finger stabbing the air at her. This boy was severely trying her patience, and Mariana was finding herself less and less interested in being polite to him.
“You do?” she threw back, folding her arms, her frustration painted on her face. “And what is that, exactly?”
The answer he gave her was so unprecedented, so far from what she expected, that upon first hearing it, she had to stop and turn it over several times in her mind. “A bride of demons! A mistress of shadow!” he cried, and suddenly the world stopped making sense. However, he chose to follow this up with, “Stay back, I refute your evil magics!” and the world dropped back into focus.
Mariana burst out laughing, losing sight of the boy entirely as she doubled over. She shook uncontrollably, fighting through the pain in her ribs and the tears in her eyes. “Is that what you think?” she managed through her mirth, and raised her hands to her face to clean her cheeks. She tried to speak again, but it was broken up amongst her attempts for breath. She was still giggling when she looked up and realised the boy was gone, leaving only the door swinging in his wake.
Catching the door and killing its momentum, Mariana looked out into the clearing. The boy beat a hasty retreat back towards the treeline, and Mariana groaned as she realised he was heading back into the undergrowth. “Hey! At least take the bloody path!” she shouted after him, theatrically pointing towards the path that wound away behind the cottage. But it was in vain, as the boy did not look back even once. She sighed as he dived back in between the trees, shaking her head with disdain.
Mariana stared after him for a while, still confused by the entire episode, wondering whether this was what her grandmother had meant about the people in the village. She turned and went into the cottage, surveying the mess that the boy had left behind. Righting the tables and returning the books that had spilled to the floor, she started to run through her list of chores again, reciting the mantra to settle her nerves.
When she was finished, Mariana retrieved her bowl, went straight to her favourite chair and slumped heavily into it. She had had quite enough for visitors, and she swallowed a mouthful of stew. She baulked as realised it was cold.
In the following weeks, Mariana strongly considered blocking the path back to civilisation. She had no interest in suffering a repeat performance, and certainly did not want the boy returning, and it was only when her friend Connie had come to visit her, with a basket of supplies from Connie’s mother, and tales of the idiocy of one of the castle hands, that she was reminded that not all company was bad company.
Waving Connie goodbye, Mariana went back to the stump to stare at the axe. It was still in the place that she had left it, jutting out at an angle. As the sunlight caught it, she had the same distinct feeling that the axe was mocking her. With a hand gesture and a few choice words, Mariana cast a spell on the stump, splitting it with an almighty crack. She grinned as she picked the tool up and returned it to her woodpile.