Gideon knew these woods.
He had been raised in a village a few miles away, at the base of the hills he lived on today. He had heard every manner of tall tale associated with the dense woodland as a child. Most of the tales were just that, lies to scare children.
But sometimes he would wonder if any of them held any weight. Especially so when some men from his village as a child, who foraged and hunted in the woods, never came back out again.
Of course now he could just equate their disappearances to run-ins with predatory animals; bears, mountain lions, wolves, all manner of creatures that could easily prey on a man that lived in the woodland.
As he grew he learned to respect the wilderness in which he lived and shed childish notions of tricky fairies and hungry forest spirits and other such nonsense. The world was a tangible thing that a strong, crafty man could tame. It wasn’t a mystic source that was untouchable.
Alone, Gideon had lived a peaceful life. As a stubborn youth he had erected a cabin at the mouth of the woods at the top of the hillside. He had been driven out of his childhood home, his childhood village, early in his life.
The reason of which was still very painful and close to his heart. He had ran away from his parents, his siblings. As he had retreated to the woody edge that dotted the hills; everyone had left him alone up there. Whether from the folktales, or because no one in the village needed to have anything to do with him, he wouldn’t know.
As he grew into an adult and reached middle age, he perfected his home, built a chicken coop, and kept other small farm animals. It had definitely been a trial and error process with living on his own and being self sufficient. But, over the years he felt he perfected the art of it.
The chickens were for eggs and meat. The sheep were for wool from which he made most of his winter clothing. The two goats were for milk, butter and cheese. His small field grew wheat, corn, potatoes, carrots and wild berries.
He owned one good workhorse that helped till his small field as well as toted him down the hill when he ventured to a nearby village for any supplies he couldn’t create himself. Luckily, as the years drew on he ventured to the village less and less. Only needing a couple things he couldn’t grow or hunt himself. Mostly the feed for the animals and metalwork from the local blacksmith. He’d trade for what he needed, sell anything excess he had farmed, and then would go back up the hill to continue his solitude up in his cabin.
Now though, he didn’t need to go into the village, but into the forest. The reason Gideon had gone into the forest this time was for meat. It was nearing winter and his stores for the coming cold season were low. He wanted to make a strong supply of jerky to add to his meals as the animals began to migrate away.
As often as he went into the woods, he would’ve counted himself seasoned enough to find his way along. But the further into the forest he went, the more it felt wrong. Like something about it wasn’t the same as it had always been.
The snowy ground, the naked black bodies of trees and the fluffy snow covered bushes normally felt innocent enough; but somehow, not today. He kept walking in deeper only to find nothing. There was an eerie quiet to the wood; not even a whisper of a breeze to rattle the sullen landscape in front of him.
He wandered with a fearful blindness he hadn’t felt since he was a child on his first hunt. The uneasy feeling was hard to shake; especially when he thought he had turned around only to be met with the same clearing over and over again. His footsteps in the snow never overlapped, but that had to be impossible.
Gideon had started to run from place to place, desperate to find something that resembled somewhere he had been before; but he couldn’t find his way out. It felt like the woods were getting thicker; encroaching on him as he wandered pointlessly from place to place.
The morning light waned from noon to evening and finally it started to die completely. The temperature was also dropping degree by degree until Gideon could see his breath and feel the bite of chill on any exposed skin.
He never entered the woods without supplies. He had a backpack full of necessities and he was dressed warmly for the coming winter night, just in case something like this were to happen. But, he hadn’t ever thought he’d actually get lost and be forced to stay overnight.
He shook off his initial fear that came with being so disorientated; he had to think about survival now. He decided to focus on hunkering down for the night. He was an outdoors man; so setting up a perimeter, erecting the tent, and digging out the fire pit didn’t take long at all. There would be no point wandering in the dark since he had been so disoriented in the daylight. He’d just make another go of leaving the woods come morning.
Once his campsite was established he stood up and surveyed the area. The dying light gave him a limited range of sight; but enough to see branches and other broken brush on the ground. He picked up only the driest kindling to use.
He dropped the sticks into the makeshift fire pit, took out the flint from his pocket and sparked a fire. Embers exploded up into the air as the fire snarled and popped to a warm raging glow just as the last bit of sunlight faded completely.
He was lulled into a feeling of safety and calm as he basked in the warmth of the fire. He could see the clearing around him with more clarity, even the once dark tree line had shadows of light dancing from trunk to trunk.
Underbrush behind him broke and he immediately turned. He tried to find movement in the tree line, straining his eyes as his heart beat wildly in his chest. Rationally, he thought it was probably just an animal, but what kind of animal?
Gideon saw the dark outline emerge and he caught the shine of the stranger’s eyes as they stepped into the clearing. The man was tall with wide shoulders and an easy smile.
“Hey there.” The stranger called over to him. “Didn’t expect to run into anyone else here.” The man had an accent, but it was one Gideon had never heard before.
As unusual as it was, that someone else was wandering the forest this late at night, what was more strange was what this man was wearing. From shoulder to ankle he wore a fur lined cloak. It didn’t conceal the fact that underneath he was wearing very old fashioned animal hide clothing. Even for homemade clothing, the stitching was not of the modern style. But maybe it just seemed more unusual because the cloak he wore appeared so new and expensive with a rabbit fur lining and dark velvet base. The cloak was held together by an ornate broach made of copper; the insignia was of a bird in flight being pierced by an arrow.
“Likewise.” Gideon said, gesturing towards his makeshift camp. “Want to join me?” He felt compelled to ask, though he didn’t know why.
The mysterious stranger smiled at the invitation and walked over, as he got closer to the light of the fire, it looked like his eyes were red — but that wasn’t possible, it must’ve just been a trick of the light. “So what brings you here?” He asked, sitting next to Gideon.
“I wanted to stock up on supplies for the winter.”
The stranger looked around the camp area Gideon had created, his eyes dancing with mirth, seeing no such supplies. “How did that go?”
Gideon couldn’t help but laugh, it was obvious it hadn’t gone well, he didn’t have anything to show for his hours of wandering aside from being lost, “Not well.”
The man grinned, “At least we met, that’s something isn’t it?”
“As vast as the forest is, I’d say it is.”
“I was drawn here by the fire you made, I could smell the smoke, and see the light.”
“Were you lost too?”
He shook his head, finally dropping the hood of his cloak to expose his face. He was handsome, especially so in the dim light. His skin was dark, and there were a few old scars that ran from his left cheek over the bridge of his nose, “No, I’m never lost in these woods.” He said with a toothy smile; though Gideon felt it was just the dancing light that made them look so sharp.
“Do you live nearby?”
“I didn’t know anyone else lived up here.”
But, the stranger didn’t respond, his attention now on the popping fire in front of them.
Gideon had never run into anyone else in the forest before. Nor had he ever seen a house, or a hut, or a tent anywhere when he had entered for supplies. He had lived next to this forest for years; so the admission struck him as odd, but he also didn’t feel like he could contest it. The forest was vast, after all, and he had never walked all the way through it. It’s possible there was a village on the other side, maybe that was where this man came from. Something about the stranger made him feel at ease.
“Do you have a name?” The man asked.
“Yes, my name is Gideon.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Gideon,” The man seemed to taste the name on his tongue, something about it just sent a jolt down the blond’s spine, “My name is Clove.” Before anything else could be said he reached into his cloak and took out a fresh rabbit; it seemed to almost appear from nowhere, “I wasn’t as unlucky as you, so we can share my bounty.”
“Thank you.” Gideon said sincerely, “I’d like that very much.” He tried not to be bothered by the fact the man had no visible weapons. Not a bow, not a knife, nothing even seen when he opened his cloak and exposed his waistline and belt. The rabbit was fresh, it was still warm in his hands; yet he had not seen a single animal the entire time he was in the woods.
“The least I can do.” Clove said, “You invited me next to your fire, after all.”
Gideon made quick work of the rabbit; his hands were fast at prepping the meat to roast. He punctured large pieces of it to spit over the fire with nearby sticks. It didn’t take long for the meat to start roasting, the smell of it arousing Gideon’s appetite; the fat falling into the fire and creating emberous pops.
From under his cloak the stranger produced a wine skin; it was stitched in the same old fashioned way with leather that looked the same as what the man wore. Clove took the first swig of the wine skin before he offered the rest to Gideon, “Here, I’m sure you’re thirsty.”
Gideon had water, but he definitely wouldn’t turn down alcohol. He took the wine skin and took a long drink; not expecting the earthy flavor of the liquid. It felt warm going down his throat and almost immediately relaxed his body. “What kind is this?” He couldn’t help but ask, feeling addicted to this strange flavor, he couldn’t help but drink again.
He also didn’t know why he was being so casual with this man he just met. But, sitting together watching the food roast; it felt intimate in a way Gideon had always longed for. It made him lower his defenses; and he knew logically he should be more defensive, he just couldn’t muster the strength to be.
“My own blend.”
“You seem to have many talents.” Gideon said with a wry smile.
Clove just chuckled, “I suppose I do.” He took the rabbit meat from the fire and offered a couple sticks to Gideon.
Next to the hearth the two men ate and drank; the conversation light and flowing as the winter night continued on.
The words, the sentences, Gideon’s mind couldn’t grasp everything that was being said as time passed. His brain felt foggy once the wine skin was empty, but his belly was full and his body was warm.
Eventually his eyelids felt heavy and he had trouble sitting upright. Clove had his broad hand on his back, keeping him steady as the fire started to finally die to smoldering embers.
“Sorry.” He could remember mumbling; just nonsense apologies for no reason. He must just be drunk, and it felt embarrassing in front of his new friend.
Clove just shook his head, plump lips parting but Gideon didn’t catch the words(if there had been any). He grabbed his upper arm with his other hand and helped Gideon get to his feet.
Gideon was guided towards the tent he erected earlier; but all he could focus on was Clove’s face and how close it was. Just hovering there in his space, vaguely aware of when the man had eased him down into the animal furs in his tent and started to help dress him down. He couldn’t help it when he reached out and grabbed the front of Clove’s cloak; pulling him close, forcing their lips together in a desperate drunken kiss.
Clove didn’t indulge him; merely eased his mouth away with a smile and a laugh, “None of that.” He wasn’t offended; but Gideon could almost see something like sadness in his eyes?
Why was he sad?
Gideon wanted to ask, but all he did was mumble. Eventually his eyes closed, and the feeling of Clove’s hands on him(as he helped him get comfortable) faded. He wanted to pull the man back, he wanted to tell him to stay, he wanted to confess to how lonely he was living on the hill and he wanted to tell him how beautiful he thought he was.
“Sleep.” Clove said softly in that deep rich voice of his, right next to his ear; and that was exactly what Gideon did.
The sunlight warmed his face and stung his eyes when he blinked them open. He was briefly disorientated as he sat up, looking around, but this wasn’t where he had been last night.
Gideon was sitting at the mouth of the woods, he could see his farm and his cabin. Around him were his supplies, and even more than that, there were animal carcasses and buckets of water. There was only one set of footprints in the snow and no sign of the stranger from the night before.
As confused as he was, he also felt fear.
His mother’s fairy tale coming to the forefront of his mind:
“Giddy,” She’d say to him as she tucked him in at night, “Remember if you’re ever lost, make a fire. The Hulder are attracted to fires, and if you invite them, and are kind to them, they will look after you and the hearth for the night.” She’d pinch his cheek and say in a stern tone, “But if you’re rude to them, or turn them away, they’ll roast you and eat you right over your own firepit!”
But that was just a children’s story.