This is part three of the four-part story flash fiction challenge Herr Wendig over at Terribleminds put fourth nearly three weeks ago now. This story was started by Peter MacDonald and continued by Richard (aka PoorDick) from just over the bridge here in Seattle. You’ll note that each part of the story references a Robert Frost Poem, first Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, and then, The Road Not Taken. For my part in this collaborative effort, I chose Frost’s Storm Fear. Those verses are in italics in the text. I believe the use of all of these falls under fair use. If you feel their use is inappropriate, please contact me and let me know. In the interim, please read, comment. Thanks to Peter and Richard for the fun. I hope you like my additions.
The snow was up to Jake’s knees and still wasn’t quite done falling. While most of the snowfall had passed, there were still a handful of wayward flakes drifting down from the heavens, belatedly joining their brothers and sisters on the ground. It was the first real snowfall of the year, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last; before the month was out, the passes leading into the mountains he called home would be completely blocked up, and he would be alone until the spring thaw.
He bent down to check the last trap on this run. It was, unsurprisingly, empty. Game had been scarce for the past week, which boded poorly. If this kept up, he would have to dig into his stores, which might mean a lean winter. With a dejected sigh, he stood up, brushed the snow off of his knees, and started down the mountain towards his home. As he walked, he began to sing out loud a poem his father had taught him:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
He took a deep breath between stanzas, and the crisp winter air chilled his lungs. The warmth of his breath had fogged up his glasses, and he took them off for a moment, cleaning them with his shirtfront. He’d been wearing the same pair for three years now, and they were starting to wear thin; one of the legs had been clumsily repaired with bailing wire two weeks ago, after he’d taken a nasty fall on some frozen ground. Hopefully, a trader would come through with a new set before the pass closed.
If any more traders came through at all. It had been more than a month since he’d seen one.
My little horse must think it queer
to stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
the darkest evening of the year.
As he finished the second stanza, a distant rumbling made him look up, and see the black storm clouds moving in from the distance, the setting sun resting behind them. It seemed he’d misjudged the snowfall; it was letting up now, but it was only a brief reprieve before a true winter storm came down upon him.
I should cut through the woods, he thought. He normally avoided the deep woods whenever possible; he’d lived around them his whole life, but he still got turned around in them sometimes. Plus, the woods were full of unfriendly animals. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally stumble into a bear’s den, or get surrounded by a pack of wolves. But he wanted to get caught by that storm even less, and taking the direct route through the woods would get him home a lot quicker than walking long way around.
The woods were dark and twisted, and as he peered through his broken spectacles to keep track of the path, he sang the next stanza to keep his spirits up:
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.
As he spoke the final words, he stepped into a clearing and stopped short at the sight in front of him. The snow – including, he slowly realized, the very snow he was standing on – was stained red, and covered in the bodies of…creatures. There was no better way to describe them, but they were unlike anything Jake had ever seen in the twenty-three years he’d lived on the mountain. They were messes of tooth and claw, amorphous masses of limbs and mouths and eyes and tendrils. There were more than a dozen of them, but no two of them were alike, except for the one thing they had in common: they were all dead, rent apart by deep gashes and still slowly oozing blood.
The smell came upon him suddenly, and he doubled over with a sudden rush of nausea. His mouth filled with the taste of iron, and he nearly threw up onto the snow. He stepped forward in a daze, compelled to investigate. The creatures’ forms sickened him, but they fascinated him as well. He had to know more. Had to see more.
There were only a few of the creatures at the clearing’s edge, but the center was a solid mass, bodies piled together and on top of each other until you could barely tell where one ended and the next began, all of them coloring the snow with their ichor. Jake approached slowly, suddenly acutely aware of the sound of his boots crunching against the snow, of the fogging of his breath, of that terrible, terrible smell. He extended a hand to touch one of them. It was still warm. It had not been dead long. Its skin was thick and rubbery.
Jake jumped backwards as he heard a groaning sound. Panic made him clumsy, and he tripped over his own feet, falling down to the bloody snow. A moment later, another, louder groan could be heard. Jake lay very still for a moment, and then slowly rose to his feet as he realized that none of the creatures were moving. They were not the source of the noise. He stepped forward again and peered over the very top of the pile.
At the center of the clearing, at the very center of the mound of flesh, lay a woman, no older than he was. Her hair, blonde, her body, slim. Her cloak was stained with blood, and he could see that her clothing had been torn by tooth and claw. Her shoulder was a horrific mess, covered in what looked like teeth marks. But she was breathing. She was alive.
“Holy shit,” he gasped, clambering over the dead to get to her. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” His mind seemed to be stuck, unable to process any more than that. He knelt over her, quickly stripping off his gloves and then doing the same for her furs, wincing at what he found beneath them. Whoever this woman was, she was badly hurt.
His eyes fell on something bright: a pendant, hanging around her neck, which seemed to glimmer in the non-existent moonlight. For a moment, her injuries were forgotten. He reached out carefully to touch it, then lifted it up to inspect it. It was made of wrought silver, and shaped into a complex spiral of loops and whorls. He lifted it higher still, captivated by its light.
A sickening noise lifted up from the other side of the clearing, shocking him out of his stupor. He dropped the pendant and sat up, looking fearfully in its direction. One of the things – almost in the shape of a wolf, but with too many arms, too many jaws, and a body of roiling tendrils – was moving. It let out another sound, a rumble which got right into his gut and churned it, and then to his horror it sloughed up off of the ground and started coming towards him. Its legs were broken, its body covered in cuts, more than one of its limbs ended in stumps – but it was coming, leaving a blood red trail on the ground as it dragged itself towards him. It made it two, maybe three paces, and then with a keening moan it slumped over and died.
Jake crouched fearfully for a moment, waiting to see if it would start moving again.
That moment stretched out for what felt like an eternity. He stooped there, frozen. Adrenaline surged through his body while it prepared to possibly fight or fly. He could feel his blood thundering through his veins and hear his heart thumping in his ears. He could see every breath he took as it condensed in the bitter winter air.
As the moment started to slip away and the tension started to leave his muscles, his eyes glanced over to the prone young woman and he whispered
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The eldritch chimera Jake had been watching roared to life. Its chittering howl resounded throughout the clearing as it erupted forth in a splattering of fresh gore. Deep in the most ancient parts of the young man’s brain; a simple command was issued:
Scooping the distressed damsel up in his arms, he pivoted away from the many mawed beast that lunged at him and immediately felt his world give way underneath him. His feet had not been able to find their footing under the combination of half melted snow, oily ichor, and rubbery flesh.
Tumbling down the mound of bodies, he felt the pile shift. The malformed mutant struggled its way to the place where Jake had just been, and he heard the snap-crack-crack-snap-snap of its many jaws. Holding the woman close to him as he fell, he did his best to protect her already wounded body from any further harm.
While the nameless terror glibbed and roared from atop the mound, Jake felt himself slide into the fresh, soft snow at its base. He wasted no time gathering himself to his feet and scanning tree line. Without even thinking, he began to susurrate another poem his father had taught him.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Jake didn’t notice the silver pendant around the woman’s neck start to shimmer again. He didn’t notice the thousands of brilliant sparkles that formed in its endless, Escher-esque loops and whirls with each of his words. His eyes were fixed the edge of the forest – at the path in the snow he had made to reach the clearing.
There’s no way he could make it back to the other side of the glade. Not with that thing chasing him. Looking down, he saw a small trail of fox prints leading off into a thicket; only a few feet from where he stood. If he was lucky, the underbrush would be thick enough to slow or stop the nightmare behind him.
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Congealing blood, melting snow, and liquids perhaps better left unknown had seeped into his boots; mixing into a sickening, thick slurry that now encased his feet. The biting cold of winter had seeped in too, and the chill worked its way up his legs and into his bones. The riotous chattering of teeth rang in his ears. He covered his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound, but the chattering continued.
A shower of severed limbs and bodily fluids exploded over his head and were accompanied by an explosive whickateracking. Not sparing even a second to look behind him, Jake forced himself forward; ducking down under the low hanging branches. Hunched and cradling the unconscious woman, he trudged with as much speed as he could muster through the knee deep snow.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Above him, the empty boughs had grown to form an impenetrable canopy, yet the knee deep snow still seemed to be piled just as high as it had under open sky. Behind him, he heard a great cacophony of crashing, snarling, galumphing, and tchixicoring, but he dared not look back, even as the sounds grew more and more faint.
He pressed on into the dark, thick underbrush for what felt like hours. His thighs and calves burned from being forced to hobble swiftly though the thick snow, his back groaned and ached from being hunched over, and his arms felt so weak under their load; but that the least of Jack’s concerns. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes anymore. It wasn’t that they were cold. He couldn’t feel them at all.
He knew this wasn’t good. He needed to get home to his cabin, and fast; but he didn’t even know where he was at this point. He didn’t want to look down; to see the state of his unprotected fingers in the cold. Yet, he glanced down anyway, and saw the woman’s silver pendant twinkle.
There was no way any light could be shining down from above. No illumination could make it through the thick, interwoven branches above them. Endless, inky black yawned out before them. Just as he was opening his mouth to speak, his eyes caught glimpse of a yellow-orange flicker in the distance. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe only twenty yards way. In the distance, unearthly gnashing and wailing still echoed.
Digging deep inside himself, Jack drew up all the strength he had left and made his way down the last leg of the trail. When he reached the mouth of the path, he peered out from the sheltered darkness. Reaching up, he crudely adjusted his broken glasses with his numb fingers. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
First it was the malformed mutants, now this. Jake’s mouth gaped open. Even though he didn’t go through the woods normally or often, he had been through this place before. This, however, this place, had not been here. He was certain. Jake stared, his eyes moving rapidly over this near wall in front of him. It was a forest inside a forest. Vines everywhere, but within the vines Jake could faintly make out openings, like windows. He blinked, not trusting his broken glasses. From the windows a warm glow of light blasted out onto the path. He strained his neck upwards, and could make out the outline of what looked like a castle turret. Yes, the trees around, the vines, the growth, it all silhouetted a castle turret. He shuffled the unconscious woman in his arms and then moved forward. With ever step he felt a heat, but it wasn’t coming from the …what would he call it? A cave? a castle?
WHEN the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lowest chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
“Sanctuary,” a whisper came from the bloodied waif he carried. Although she was slight, after the chase from the unnatural creatures, she didn’t feel insubstantial anymore. He was aching with the weight of her, his feet and hands still numb from the gore and cold. He needed a sanctuary for sure.
“Hey, you’re going to be okay,” Jake said. “Stay with me.” As he surveyed her condition the pendant on her necklace glowed and was emanating the heat he had been feeling. Inhaling in disbelief, he suddenly felt a wave of strength and trudged in packed-down snow, which made approaching the entrance effortless. He was a mere feet from the lowest level of vines when the sound of stone on stone echoed, followed closely by another unearthly echo of snarling.
‘Come out! Come out!’—
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
A bright light poured out from in front of Jake, enveloping him and the barely conscious woman. The light moved around them, as if in corporeal form. Arms of warmth twisted and turned around Jake’s near-frozen feet and hands. As the golden brightness swirled around him, he began to feel sensation in his fingers first, allowing him to get a better grip on the woman. Then before he could actually wiggle his toes, the light shoved him forward and the echo of stone on stone punctuated his rapid movement. The sounds of the monsters behind him were gone. In front of him was a great hall with a ceiling that rose near the whole height of what Jake thought was the entirety of this jungled turret. Shadows of the vines from the windows were peppered throughout the hall. At the end of the hall sat a woman, much like the woman he still carried, slight, blonde, pale. She raised her hand and motioned toward him. Jake wondered in a whisper if he must be passed out in the snow, the storm already crushing him.
“This can’t be real,” he finally said clearly and loud enough to any and all in the room.
As he got closer to the woman seated on an unremarkable chair, he saw she wore a necklace much like that the injured soul. At that moment, both of their pendants shone and vibrated, and Jake watched in complete awe as the woman was elevated out of his arms and floated to a table to the right of the seated woman. More waves of light swirled and flittered about her. Jake watched as the bloodied cloak became an illuminated ecru, all evidence of the blood, tears, and bite marks erased.
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,—
“Wait,” Jake stuttered. “How?” He gasped as the woman sat upright and smiled at him. Both the creatures before him were ethereally beautiful and he took his now warm fingers and pinched his arm. He was awake. He was living this moment.
The waves of light moved away from the woman he’d found near that pile of blobby-toothed creatures and towards him again. It cleaned the fifth and entrails off of him and warmed him more. He felt completely rejuvenated, as if he could run a marathon without getting winded.
“Where? I mean, Who?” Jake tried to get the questions out, but the woman on the chair shook her head. He watched as the woman in the chair dematerialized and turned into a swirl of light, mimicking the pendant of her necklace and then bursting away.
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away
And my heart owns a doubt
The woman on the table now moved to the chair. Jake watched as she pressed her hand on the armrest and a panel opened and a box of gears rose from within the armrest. He watched her pale finger press one of the buttons. A chair was pressed into his backside forcing him to sit, as if gravity was suddenly a thousand times more powerful. He couldn’t even move his feet or his hands. His butt was planted in the chair.
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.
His breathing slowed. He felt a pressure, like when you’re super sleepy but still need to drive home. He wished he could get fresh air to wake up. The ground beneath him shook and shimmied – an earthquake. But he knew better. They were moving. This turret, covered in overgrown brambles and vines and filled with waves of light creatures, was moving.