Fiction logo

The Old Wood

Some things are older than names

By Kevin McLaughlinPublished 3 months ago 5 min read
(image generated with AI)

It is safest to keep to the old paths that wind their way beneath the canopy of the Old Wood. Those trails are left behind by the deer and foxes that carve their way through the underbrush in patterns unseen. For the animals only tread where the trees let them, whispering to them, guiding them through the maze. Straying from these paths and you may find yourself at the mercy of woods, timeless and unforgiving.

This is the first of many lessons my parents taught me when they first bring me to the edge of the Old Wood beyond the furthest hut of our village. Even now I can hear my father’s voice, speaking in a hushed reverence I do not yet understand. Many cold winters and flowering springs have passed since then. Now that I am older, I understand. For the laws of this ancient land are many and deserving of respect.

The gentle puffs of my breath are visible in the soft, morning light that rises from the eastern sky. The branches above are barren of leaves. Only the pines and holly trees remain covered in green. A dusting of snow coats the ground around me as I walk but the trail, I follow is fresh, only hours old. I walk slowly, my axe hanging from my belt, my hands free, and the world still.

This is my first time in the Old Wood alone. My father has become too frail as the years pass by and the cold now seeps into his bones. My mother is too busy keeping the others of our family in line. Still, I hear their voices, reminding me of the lessons of the wood.

“Never break a branch that has not fallen from a tree.”

“Never flip a moss-covered stone.”

“Never take all of what you find, always leave some for the forest.”

“If you hear a dog bark three times, leave as fast as you can,” one would say.

“But never, ever run,” the other would reply.

“If you cross a stream, never touch the water.”

“Why?” I ask when my father first tells me of crossing the streams. Just like I ask each time before when I learn a new rule.

To this, my mother answers heavily. “You’ll wash the way home from your shoes,” she says, “and you’ll never leave the Wood.”

“There are old spirits who dwell out there,” my father often says. “So old, their names are forgotten, and the names men gave this land are younger than they are.”

I shiver at the thought. Eventually, I learned to stop asking why.

It does not take me long to find what I am looking for. A thin, withering tree. Not too young. Not too old. One that will not make it through the winter. I reach for my axe, hesitating slightly.

“Speak to me,” I whisper to the emptiness around me. My mother always says it is best to ask permission.

A breeze so slight it could have been a whisper rustles through the branches overhead. It is like a gentle nod of ascent. Subtle, somber, and resigned. I open my eyes. My axe is in my right hand. Four seeds from my pocket in my left. Using the butt of the axe hilt, I dug four holes, placing a seed in each, and reciting the words my father always has.

“One to replace what you take.” I cover the seed with soil. “A second to ask forgiveness.” I move to the third seed. “A third so that the trees may know me as a friend.” I take a long, thoughtful look at my fourth seed. Snow begins to fall around me. My father only ever brings three, what else could I say?

“And a fourth for good luck.” I smile as I place the seed in the earth.

It is only then that I notice the wind. It is stronger now and blowing northward. The snow blows with it but does not melt when it touches my clothes and skin. It is not white, but grey. The smell reaches me a moment later. Smoke. It is not snow. It is ash.

I look in the direction of the wind. Grey-black plumes of smoke cover the horizon to the south, from the direction I had come. My heart sinks, and fear fills me as my thoughts turn to my family, home, and village. In that moment, all the lessons of the woods, all the words of warning from my mother and father leave me. Before I can stop myself, I run. My axe is still gripped tightly in my hand, and the safety of the trail is left far behind.

Trees blur on the edges of my vision. No longer do I recognize the forest around me. It is denser here. The trees huddle closer together, seeming to move to block my way as I run. Branches snap against me. I raise my hands against them, and they catch on to my clothes and on my skin. I can hear screaming now, I am close, I should have come out from the trees by now, but somehow, I am still so far away. I cannot see ahead of me. My foot catches on a root. I slam to the ground. The world goes black, and my ears ring for a moment. I try to shake it off.

Between the bushes, I can see the houses engulfed in flames. Vibrant orange and red, the tongues of the hungry flames lick the sky, sending smoke and ash into the wind. Then I see my father, he is kneeling, half-huddled over another figure whom he holds tenderly in his arms. Mother. I cannot see her face, but I can see my father’s shoulder heave with his sobs. His shirt is stained red. So is the snow around him.

A man dressed in furs with a long-ragged beard strides towards my father. He carries a spear in his hands and a smile on his face. There are others like him, twenty or more of them. All dressed in thick layers of pelts and furs. All armed. All smiling.

I try to shout. A gust of wind drowns out my voice. No one hears me. I try to pull my foot from the root, and I can’t. I reach for my axe where it lays fallen from my grasp and it seems to move further from my hand. I see my father hit the ground. His cries are over, replaced by the bearded man’s laughter and the shouts of the others like him. They have sacks full of food, goods, and gold. Stolen from the homes of my friends and family, leaving the dead and the blaze behind, they walk away, laughing as if nothing happened.

Suddenly my foot is free, I grab my axe and I run after them. I do not make it far. I fall to my knees beside my mother and my father. They lay together in the snow, holding each other, like they always have, with tenderness. My tears feel cold on my cheeks, and I look to see where the men have gone. I can still see them, walking confidently under the edge of the Old Wood on the other side of the village. I watch them go, unable to will myself to move. Then ever so slowly, I see the trees slide close around them, blocking my view of what is to come. Then the screams start again.

thrillerShort StoryMicrofictionFantasy

About the Creator

Kevin McLaughlin

Enjoyed the story?
Support the Creator.

Subscribe for free to receive all their stories in your feed. You could also pledge your support or give them a one-off tip, letting them know you appreciate their work.

Subscribe For FreePledge Your Support

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights

Comments (4)

  • Esala Gunathilake27 days ago

    Very Heartfelt one Kevin! Thanks for sharing.

  • Shirley Belk3 months ago

    I love your story...even though it is sad. I was hoping the trees would bring justice. What a beautiful lesson in love and nurturing and respect.

  • Novel Allen3 months ago

    Ah, we reap what we sow is so apt here. It is about time that the trees rebel and give like for like. I like the idea of planting a seed for every tree cut down. How great if that actually happens.

  • ROCK 3 months ago

    This was a cleverly plotted story; to give the Old Wood power in the end gave me hope for some redemption. This needs to be read by more! I really felt engaged with every word. Great story.

Kevin McLaughlinWritten by Kevin McLaughlin

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.