November Challenge: Day 2

Alrighty. Here’s day 2 of my personal writing challenge done. Sorry it’s so late. Today and tomorrow are my first real challenges in the month. I worked a 7 hour close shift tonight and I work an 8 hour open shift tomorrow, so what with sleep and laundry and work and drive time, I will still have time to write, but I’ll be tired. But that’s why I’m doing this, to test my discipline.

Anyway, Here’s today’s bit. It isn’t a full story. Let me know if you want me to continue this one though and I will do so in a few days. If not I may come back to it anyway if the mood strikes me. Thanks all.

 

Writing Challenge Day 2 (Untitled)
By E. W. Morrow
Word count: 2019

 

Felix Gunderson hefted his ax again and brought the blade down in a steady, fluid arc. The split halves of the log fell to the side, clattering as they landed amongst the small, disorderly pile already lying around the gnarled stump Felix used as a chopping block. With the back of his hand he wiped away the sweat from his brow, stopping it from reaching his eyes. Then he stretched his arms out wide and arched his back. Cracks and pops cascaded down his spine as he did so. Felix gave a satisfied grunt as the brief flares of pain subsided into blessed relief. He rolled his neck and tried to shake a little more life into his arms. He was almost done with the stack of unsplit logs and he wanted to finish before the sun dipped even lower in the sky. He had less than an hour to go before it hit the horizon. Dusk didn’t last long in these parts, especially this late in the year.

Felix reckoned he could take a short break though and he swung the ax one more time, letting it bite in to the chopping block with a thump and then stay there, handle raised for when he’d need it later. He strode over to a corner of fence that overlooked the front and western side of his little cottage. Calling it a fence was being generous. It was just a simple post and rail fence, and over the past few years Felix hadn’t found the time or energy to fix it when one of the wooden rails rotted through or got damaged in a storm. Roughly a quarter of cross beams were gone or propped up against a post to give some semblance of cohesion. But it hadn’t been build as a barrier and, disheveled as it was, it did what it was supposed to do. It was still a clearly marked boundary.

The corner was still pretty much in tact, though, and Felix leaned up against the chest high post and put one of his feet on the lower section of rail. He rested his arms on the top of the post crosswise, one on top of the other, and breathed deep of the autumn air. Even though it was growing late in the year, two months since the equinox, the air still sat heavy with latent heat. Harvest had been good this year, and the grain silos were full for the winter. Down the dirt lane, off to the west, Felix noticed that the trees were already looking a little bare, but many were still covered in bushy clumps of red and orange.

Felix was often asked why he hadn’t moved to town years ago, after his son was lost and his wife had taken sick. He’d always shrugged the questions off. Men called him stubborn. Their wives called him foolish. Felix never said anything to correct them. This was his home. All that he’d put into it over the years, even the sadness over the things he’d lost, had made it his. It was in his bones, just like he was in its down to the bedrock. Maggie had never complained, and even though she was bedridden and weak, Felix knew that she would never want to leave this place either.

As he watched, a figure burst from the treeline and fell to the ground. Though the figure was still some distance away Felix could see that, whoever it was, they were flailing desperately, doing whatever they could to put distance between themselves and the forest. The figure struggled to it’s feet and staggered onwards, no longer sprinting but trying to none-the-less. Felix rushed over to the pile of wood beside his cottage, grabbed the handle of the ax and jerked it free from stump. Then he rushed over to the rickety gate in front of the cottage and swung it open just as the figure crested the hill.

The man was close enough now for Felix to get a good look at him. Even though his faces was covered with dried mud and grime, Felix recognized him. It was Simon Tailor, one of the farmers from the other side of the village. His hair was a tangled mass of twigs and grime and his clothes were tattered and bloody. In one hand he held the mangled remains of an old hunting bow that had been shattered in the middle. The bowstring still dangled loosely from the end, but the rest of the wood had fallen free at some point.

Simon Tailor looked like he’d seen Hell.

“Ho, there!” Felix called, stopping himself just in time from waving with his ax hand. “Simon! What’s wrong. You look bad a death.”

Simon clambered to a stop just even with the gate. His whole body shook with exhaustion, as if the simple act of standing upright was the hardest thing in the world. His breath was ragged and uneven. At any moment Felix expected the man to either bolt or collapse. He wasn’t sure which one was more likely.

“Why don’t you come inside, let me have a look at you,” Felix said in what he hoped was a soothing voice. “Eh? I’ll put on the kettle and we can get you cleaned up. Have a rest, how bout?”

Simon turned back to look down the path behind him, toward the trees. Then he looked up at the sun just above the treeline. It was low now, maybe a half an hour from setting. Simon looked at the cottage, tiny but inviting. Then he looked down at the ax in Felix’s hand. He did this a few more times, trees, sun, cottage, ax, and seemed to come to a conclusion.

“Fine,” he croaked. With great effort he moved his legs. He brushed past Felix with hardly a glance and shoved aside the gate with his entire body rather than expend any energy moving his arm. Halfway across the yard he called back in hoarse voice “And bring the ax.”

The door to the cottage slammed shut a second later. Felix stared at the door in puzzlement for a moment before heading inside himself. He spared a glance at the tree line as he walked, but all he saw there were deepening shadows that flickered as the trees were rustled by the wind.

Inside his cottage Felix found Simon pacing around the main room that served as kitchen, dining room and living room. The windows had all been bolted and the curtains drawn tightly shut. The darkness that had already been creeping in to the tiny room was doubled as a result, and Felix fumbled in a pantry for some long stem matches. He lit a pair of oil lanterns and hung them on hooks at opposite ends of the room. Then he began loading a few blocks of wood into the stove, noticing as he did that the pile of wood inside was startlingly low. He’d meant to bring in more after he finished chopping, but had forgotten in all the excitement. When he had the fire going he filled a tea kettle in the water barrel by the wash basin and set it on top of the stove. It would take some time to come to boil, so Felix decided he might want to bring in some more wood before the sun finished setting. He had his hand on the door knob before Simon gave a startled cry.

“Raaagh. No! Don’t open the door.” he yelled.

“Need more wood,” Felix stated calmly. “Won’t be long.”

“No!” Simon shouted, throwing himself toward the door and wedging himself between it and Felix. “Do not go outside!” The stench coming off the man caused Felix to gag and back away. Dried blood and grime and sweat mixed into a deathly miasma, like the horrid stench of an open coffin. Simon’s eyes were wide with panic.

“Okay,” said Felix, slowly. “That’s fine. Just calm down. You’ll wake Maggie.”

“What?” gasped Simon. For a split second the terror in his eyes faded for the first time that evening, replaced by confusion.

“Don’t need to be shoutin’, you’ll wake Maggie. Come here, sit down.”

“What are you talking about?” groaned Simon.

“Come on, Simon,” Felix said sternly. “You ain’t been here in a while, true enough, but surely you remember Maggie ain’t well. She’s sleeping and I can’t have you hollering like this and waking her up.”

Simon groaned again and pinched the bridge of his nose. Whatever he’s been through, Felix thought, it’s got him mighty mixed up. He’s all kinds of unhinged. Felix gestured toward a cushioned rocking chair a few feet away from the stove and placed a hand on Simon’s shoulder. He led the man gently, but firmly, to the chair and then pressed down on the man’s exhausted frame until he sank into it. Simon’s eyes fluttered as though he was about to fall asleep right then and there, but he stubbornly clung to consciousness.

“You want to tell me what happened?” Felix asked as he sat in the chair opposite. He looked at Simon intently but didn’t press him further for details.

“Me and a couple of lads from town went hunting in the Westwoods last night.” Simon said after a lengthy silence. Felix sucked air in through his teeth loudly and let out a whistle. “I know what you’re thinking, but nothing had happened there recently and we thought, well, maybe it was okay. I mean, just last month that caravan of peddlers made it through just fine.”

That was true, Felix thought. With his house on the edge of the forest on one of the main roads in to town, he’d been the first to see the ragged train of carts trundle past. He’d made a special trip in to town later that day to peruse their wares but had left empty handed, disappointed with the trinkets and baubles the gypsies were peddling.

The problem with the Westwoods was that they weren’t dangerous. Not exactly dangerous. They were no more perilous than any other stretch of woods in the surrounding lands. It was just that people died there, or disappeared, or got lost and stumbled out weeks later in a daze, and so people tended to avoid them whenever possible. Most folks even avoided thinking about them with undue intensity. Perhaps at some point in their past the locals had given them a proper name, but if so then it was long forgotten. Everyone just called them the Westwoods now, the woods to the West, and left it at that.

Simon stared at Felix, fear and confusion replaced with genuine concern.

“Sorry, Felix,” he said after a moment. “I know you lost your boy out there. I didn’t…”

“S’fine,” Felix grunted. He was not, by and large, a superstitious man, and he didn’t begrudge the man for hunting in a stretch of wood men usually didn’t tread. He turned his face to hide the tears in his eyes from Simon. “What happened?”

“Nothing. Not at first. We set up camp two nights ago. Everything was going fine. Ol’ Sam Findle brought his sling shot along and managed to kill a couple of rabbits. We tossed them in a pot and made us a stew while some of the boys played some tunes. You know how Sean always carries that banjo around with him, and Johnny Gaskin is getting real good on his flute lately. Well, them boys played a bit and we sang some songs and then we went to sleep. Wanted to get up early, ya know, get a good lay of the land before we started hunting proper.”

At this point Simon’s voice caught in his throat. He wasn’t at a loss for words but rather struggling to say the words he needed to. Felix watched him in silence, not wanting to pressure the man any further.

“When we woke up Sam Findle was gone.” Simon finally managed to say.

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Just….gone. Like he’d never even been there at all.”

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