Topened my eyes to a dismal scene. Shadows of a thousand trees reached towards me, their thin fingers stretching out into the gloom. It took but a moment to recollect how I had come to be in my present situation. That confounded horse-always a nervous one-had sensed something moving through the underbrush, become incredibly agitated, and eventually taken off at full speed, leaving me helpless upon its back until I was left with no option but to dive off. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the velocity of my steed’s wild pace and struck a tree at full speed, rendering me unconscious.
How much time had passed between then and now, I knew not, only that the darkness was becoming thicker with every passing minute. Finding the group had been separated from would not be possible at this point, as I was sure that enough time had passed to distance us a considerable amount. After collecting myself, I forced myself to stand, but noticed that many of my possessions had been scattered about, likely having fallen out of my pockets as I leaped off the horse. I stooped down to pick up the few coins, the stale piece of bread, and the now tattered piece of paper, which I smoothed out and carefully folded before returning to my pocket.
Utterly lost, I started off in a random direction. The towering trees had a terrible effect, creating a mysterious atmosphere that left even the most rational mind conjuring up twisted images of things less than natural. After wandering for what seemed like-but was surely not-hours, I noticed something peculiar a dozen paces ahead of me. The ground and trees continued as they had been, then abruptly ended, seemingly consumed by a sudden black void. Curious, I cautiously stepped forward, careful to avoid moving too near the abyss for fear of it taking me as it had done the forest.
Eventually, I came to realize that it was in fact a small cliff with nothing visible below but darkness. Unnerved, I turned in the opposite direction and attempted to retrace my steps through the dismal foliage. When my surroundings became entirely alien, it was obvious that my attempt had proved futile, sending me into a fit of despair. I violently seized multiple twigs and stones and hurled them haphazardly, watching them sail away until they disappeared into the darkness. Without warning, something crashed in the distance.
Pulled abruptly out of my childish fit, my senses sharpened, but could find nothing but silence. I moved stealthily toward the source of the commotion and found there what must have previously been a pile of wood. Upon further inspection of the area, I found myself in a gloomy clearing, and looked up to see a full moon glaring down at me from its place in the black sky. Looking around once more, I noticed another pile of wood opposite me, a good distance away, and much larger. Striding towards it, I came to realize that it was not a pile of wood, but the back of a hastily assembled but enormous lean-to.
The sound of a twig snapping came from the other side of the structure. Blood draining from my face, I stood there petrified, helpless to whatever came out of the lean-to. A hooded figure emerged slowly from the shadows, his eyes casting an eerie gleam in the darkness, but the rest of his face covered. Unable to cope with yet another shock that cursed night, I fell into a swoon. As my body hit the ground, my eyes were jolted open for but a moment, allowing me to discern the the shape of the figure running towards me, his hood falling down in the process.
Soon after, a strikingly familiar face swam before me, then all faded to black, but not before a faint smile could surely be seen playing across my lips. I started awake, my eyes shooting open and my hand dashing to my pocket, feeling for the crinkled sheet of paper. After finding it, I sprung up, only to be met by an overpowering dizziness, rendering me sightless. A powerful hand clasped my arm in support as I waited for the spell to pass. As my vision cleared, it was again met by those eyes, whose eeriness had been replaced by a dark, but kind gaze.
Although his face had been reconcealed by some coarse material, his eyes I had undoubtedly seen before. Once I had regained my balance, he stepped away as quickly as he had come, turning around to exit the lean-to. Wishing to express my gratitude, | quickly strode out of the shelter and into the sunlight. Blinded by the sudden brightness, I shielded my eyes and scanned the clearing for the figure, but found nothing but the brown deadness of the forest surrounding me. My only hope had escaped me in but a moment!
I sprinted off in the direction | believed he had gone, but to no avail. Eventually, I reached something I had not expected whatsoever. A wall of rock towered before me, extending miles in both directions. Upon further examination, a large crevice, size enough for a man, extended from the forest floor to halfway up the rocky wall a few paces from where I stood. With absolutely nothing to lose, I decided to enter. The cramped passage led to an open cave, tolerable in size, but damp and cold. It only took a moment to notice a huddled figure in the corner of the enclosure.
It looked up at me with round, melancholy eyes and a solemn frown formed by full, blood red lips. The young woman stood up, revealing clothing that obviously did not belong to her-she was practically swimming in a large brown coat. I knew not who she was, only that an overpowering feeling of grief seeped from her being. She seemed one who had nearly lost hope, as her eyes lacked the usual flare of a young person. Suddenly, they averted away from my face and rested on something behind me. I froze, then slowly turned around, wondering what mad situation I could possibly be met with next.
The silhouette of a man outlined the entrance of the musty cave. He held a jagged knife, but the way he did so revealed that he lacked the experience of a true fighter. He looked thoroughly uncomfortable wielding the weapon, as if he wanted nothing more but to cast it onto the ground. I raised my hands in surrender, looking again into those eyes, and noticed that he too seemed hopeless in his endeavors. For the first time, he spoke. “Who art thou? ” he questioned shakily, wildly pointing his blade toward me.
Thus questioned, I explained my unfortunate situation, leaving out the information as to who | had previously been traveling with. Upon hearing my tale, the figure pocketed his knife and nodded. He removed the material hiding his face, revealing young, pointed features, recently made gaunt with weariness. My hand unconsciously reached into my pocket, grasping the paper there. The young woman then crossed the cave and took hold of the young man’s hand. Without warning, he then proceeded to explain his own situation, seemingly desperate for someone-anyone! -to which he could communicate his misfortunes.
He explained how he had been raised by a disreputable family in a nearby village, but had eventually found himself in an impossible situation: he and the daughter of one of the wealthiest nobles in the county had fallen in love. The two were tied by an inexplicable bond, allowing the both of them to be made happier than they had ever been. Unfortunately, his status kept him from being allowed her love, so they agreed to run away together, which led to their current predicament. The girl’s father had come to believe that his daughter’s lover had kidnapped her against her will and drug her into the forest.
He then sent search parties after the pair, giving the former orders to find his daughter and ler her supposed kidnapper, leaving them with no option but to remain hidden and attempt to navigate through the insufferable forest and out the opposite side. As he finished his tale, his arms dropped sullenly to his sides, letting go of the young woman’s hand. My fingers unintentionally busied themselves in my pocket, rubbing the tattered corner of the sheet of paper. Suddenly, an idea crossed my mind. “But why dost thou give up hope so easily? ” I asked the young couple earnestly.
After wandering about for quite some time, I know this forest well, and shall readily assist you in escaping this most unfortunate situation. ” Striding confidently outside, I was startled to find my horse tied to a thick tree a few paces away. The young man exited the cave, noted my confusion, and informed me that he had found the horse roaming through the forest as I slept. I approached the animal, giving it a look of reproach, then mounted. Seeking to retrace my steps entirely, I began the long journey through the forest once more, the young people closely following.
Time seemed to have slowed substantially, as the eeriness of the forest made our progress less than pleasant. I sensed the horse becoming uneasy, and I could hear the two behind me breathing heavily with fatigue. Clambering down from my steed, I motioned for the young man to mount, which he did gladly. I was beginning to see the light of hope in his eyes; in fact, both of them had gone through a notable change in the last hour. Their smiles came much more readily to their faces, and their gauntness had been replaced by a youthful countenance. Eventually, I began to recognize my surroundings, and set my plan into action.
I allowed myself to fall slightly behind so as to remain unseen by the two lovers, then watched the horse carefully, observing its every movement, waiting for the perfect moment. When the time came, I pounced, sprinting madly towards the nervous beast in an attempt to frighten it into a sprint. I succeeded, and it took off, just as it had done previously, only now I was not the unfortunate person on its back. The girl whipped her head around to look at me, a look of panic across her features. I gave her a look of pure malice, then returned my focus to the maddened horse.
The young woman watched my gaze, then slowly turned around, surely dreading what she would see. The horse sprinted a short distance more, then reared up in a deranged frenzy, fell, and-astonishingly-completely disappeared from sight. Upon witnessing this spectacle, we stood in awe for but a moment, then ran toward the place of the disappearance, stopping abruptly, for our feet at the brink of the small, rocky cliff. After briefly gazing upon the gruesome scene below, I swiftly drew the young woman away from the edge. She remained completely still, a terrible expression of shock plastered on her features.
I drug her limp form through the trees and down to where the horse and boy had fallen. Tears streaming silently down her ashen face, she stared blankly at the crumpled body at her feet. I made the signal call, and the rest of the search party soon arrived, surrounding the area. At the front of the group was the girl’s father, who soon approached me. Reaching into my pocket, I retrieved the wrinkled paper, now ripped from my most recent struggle. On it was a sketch of the young man, along with a rather large number indicating the reward for the finder of the fugitive.
I showed the image to the girl’s father, then knelt down on the blood-covered grass and held it next to the dead man’s face. The father nodded, reached into his own pocket, pulled out a frayed brown sack, full to the brim with dilapidated gold coins, and handed it to me. Turning around, he gave another signal, and the search party retreated, the young girl by his side. As they rode away, she threw me one more fleeting glance, and upon seeing her face, I could not help but notice that her eyes seemed as lifeless as those of the young man lying dead at my feet.