I felt a bit dragged down and unexcited about a story I’ve been tinkering with for a few days and read somewhere about a published writer who’d dropped the story that had similarly bogged him down and just sat down to write whatever came into his head about a certain theme.
I decided to try the same and over an hour and almost 3000 words later I had a draft for a short story. I tinkered with it some more and now feel it is good enough to publish here. 🙂 I encourage anyone struggling like I did to try the same thing! It’s a fun experience to feel the story forming as you write.
The horse whinnied nervously as they entered the deepest part of the forest.
Before he could see the signs of what awaited them there he could smell it, a deep pungent odor of musk and earth and blood. He could hear the voice of his father inside his head, that this is what he’d trained him for. And that until he had successfully completed this task he would not be a true man.
He liked to think that he was braver than his horse, but as he felt the cold sweat trickle down his back and soak into his linen tunic he began to wonder. At least it became a nice distraction when he had to exert himself more to keep the horse under control.
The horse could smell the beast and it knew it was foolish to be even this close to its lair.
“Easy girl”, he hushed and stroked the animal’s trembling neck. The horse whickered in response, as if it was assuring him that it would keep going for now.
The forest had been nothing but a thing of beauty and serenity when they’d first entered it, fresh green leaves and fragrant flowers, small animals moving in the underbrush and birds singing in the trees. Now, as they drew nearer to their goal their surroundings seemed to change. The birds quieted, the animals were not seen, the flowers seemed more subdued and the trees appeared a darker, grim color.
Or that could be his mind playing tricks with him.
His mind slowly filled with what he had to do, what awaited him at the end of this journey. He cursed his luck, cursed the fact that he’d been born into such a family, a family dedicated to fighting the things normal people had the common sense to flee from at first sight.
But then, if not for people like him, there would be no stopping those things that lurked in the dark corners of the forest, no destroying the creatures that plagued the nightmares of men.
So he supposed he should take some pride from that. If only that would make him feel braver than he did right now.
To be honest, he’d always been somewhat cowardly, always been the last child in his little village to attempt to climb the highest tree or to challenge the others to a game of “Lord of the Snow Hill” in the winter. He’d always assumed that bravery would be something that he’d grow into, like a hand me down tunic from his elder brother that was much too large.
Alas, even though the tunic fit him now, he didn’t feel any braver.
He suspected that his father knew this and that this was why he had sent him off, instead of one of his brothers. His father hoped that by sending him into the jaws of death, he’d have to be brave or die trying.
It was no secret that he’d never been his father’s favorite, even though he’d always tried his best to please him and be strong like his brothers. But sometimes effort was simply not enough.
Suddenly his horse started, backing up a few steps, nearly knocking him off its back by brushing against some low hanging branches.
He tried to calm the animal, stroking its neck. It was slick with sweat. As he looked closer he saw the poor horse showing the whites of its eyes and it chewed frantically at the bit, trying to get a grip on it.
That’s when he saw it himself, the broken branches and the claw marks on the trunks of the nearby trees. He saw the tree that was knocked over blocking the path, with its deep and terrifying marks torn into it. Even though his heart was pounding like the wings of a startled bird in his chest he tried to make the horse jump the tree, get past this one last obstacle in their path.
It was impossible.
The horse danced and wheeled, refusing to get anywhere near the marked trees. Was it just his imagination, or was the stink all the fresher here?
He was not supposed to feel this afraid; he was supposed to be brave.
For some time he struggled with the horse. When he’d imagined himself reaching his goal it had always been on horseback all gallant, looking imposing with his sword drawn. He could not abandon the horse; he could not get off it.
He had to get off his horse.
It simply refused to obey him and he began to fear that the poor thing would run straight into something and injure itself severely. Even though his entire body was screaming in protest he somehow managed to get off the terrified horse and lead her off a ways to where the path split in two, where there was a small brook bubbling happily in the shade of the trees. The horse had water to drink and grass to eat, so she would be fine in his absence. And if he did not make it back…
No, he must not think like that, surely he would make it back. He must. His father would be waiting for him to return successful, his brothers would be waiting to congratulate him on his first solitary mission and his mother…Hopefully his mother would still be alive to see him safely home. It might end her in her frail state to hear that her youngest child was dead.
He tightened his sword belt, though it was already tight enough, but it helped to ground him in reality and he began to wander towards the terrifying smells, the alarming scratches on the trees and the growing gloom. It seemed to him as it the very air inside the forest had grown dark and grim.
With the blood rushing through his ears he started at every sound, every crackling of a branch or rustle of leaf and he felt his face flush with shame. Was he truly this much of a coward?
His brothers had been braver than this surely. When he stepped over some smaller branches in his way, he almost stumbled over something large and round.
He nearly wet himself when he saw that it was a human skull, picked clean. Its pale color made it stand out sharply against the dark moss and earthy detritus on the ground.
His throat was dry as he neared what must be the creature’s den. He tried to swallow, but his Adam’s apple bobbed uselessly. His tongue felt large and swollen, making his breathing come out in short gasps.
The whole situation felt unreal, as if it was all a waking dream. That this would all vanish in a second as his brothers shook him awake so that he might go fetch a pail of water or start the fire in the common room.
The smell got worse, pungent and cloying, making his stomach churn. He called it a small victory when he did not stop to empty his stomach then and there.
The den was close now, merely a few steps. One step, two…
There was a rustling sound coming from inside, coming closer and he had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from crying out.
He unsheathed his sword, its finely honed edge gleaming in the dim lighting and…
A ball of fur rolled out in from of him. Then another and another.
Three sets of ears, three sets of three tails wagging back and forth. Three sets of large, green eyes, curious and intent.
“Whot are you?”
It looked like a large fox cub, with some extra tails and fur that seemed to crackle like fire as it moved. And it spoke in the voice of a small child.
He had not expected this. He had certainly not expected the creature to have cubs hidden away here.
His mouth moved soundlessly as he watched the cubs observe him with their innocent, childlike eyes.
“Is he a bad man?” another one of them said.
“He don’ look like a bad man”, the third said.
“He look plenty ‘fraid to me!” the first one added.
His legs finally buckled and he slumped to the ground, hugging his knees to his chest. His sword fell from limp fingers to land in the leafy blanket outside the den.
What was he supposed to do now?
He could hear his father’s voice inside his head. That it would be his duty to kill these young demonlings, lest they grow up to be as dangerous and fierce as their mother was. To save the lives of many, he must kill these few, even if they were just children.
The cubs watched him for a bit, their heads tilting this was and that as they took him in. After that they proved themselves far braver than him by approaching him. They pawed at him, at his tunic and boots, they sniffed the discarded sword. One of them even reared up on its hind legs to snuffle at his hair.
He laughed as it found that spot his brother always seemed to take advantage of, that which would make him collapse into a heap on the floor in a fit of giggles.
The cub started at the sound then let out a laugh too, a mixture between a bark and a human laugh.
“You’se funny!” it said and licked that spot again, eliciting some more giggles from him.
“You should play with us”, another one of them said, pawing at the ground.
“It is boring with mother away”, the third added with its head bowed.
“He’s no good for eating anyway”, the first one said with a nod. “He smells wrong.”
He started at the last comment, but reminded himself that if the cubs had made their mind up about eating him they would have jumped him right from the start. If they were no danger…They did look rather cute for demonlings.
The fox-demon cubs were not all that different from puppies he discovered. The same things that the family dogs had found amusing when they’d been small and growing up together worked for these intelligent magical creatures as well. They romped and ran and wrestled. They played tug of war with the scabbard of his sword and they ganged up on him to tickle that sensitive spot, reducing him to tears.
And somewhere along the way, he began to find it that he was enjoying himself just as much as the cubs.
Finally he found himself collapsed by the wall of the den, with the three cubs piled on top of him, their warm fur radiating a comfortable heat.
“When your mother comes back, you have to tell her to move away from here”, he said, his fingers tangled up in the fur of the cub nearest to him.
“Why?” one of the cubs said.
“Because men will come to kill us, right?” the other cub said, lifting its head off its paws.
“You were suppos’d to kill us too, right?” the third cub said solemnly.
He swallowed, suddenly feeling very nervous.
“It’s okay, we can’t eat you…We don’t want to eat you…We would’ have anyone to play with!” the first cub said, wagging its tails lightly and sending small sparks into the air.
“My family are all demon hunters”, he heard himself admitting. “This was supposed to be the mission where I prove myself…Prove that I’m brave enough…”
“Oh, but you’se plenty brave”, the other cub said and did a little jump, which sent more glowing sparks flying from its tail.
“Your mother…She….” he began, thinking about what his father had said about this mission.
He had said that there was a demon had recently taken up residence in the forest and that no one that had entered it had ever returned.
He remembered how ferocious their she-dog had been when she’d had her first litter. How she’d snapped and growled at his hands when he’d tried to pet her puppies.
“Mother said many bad men came here when we were smaller, men that wanted to hurt us”, the third cub said, pawing at his tunic.
He sat up suddenly, causing the remaining cubs to tumble to the ground around him.
Of course. Any mother would be defensive and aggressive if it had young to protect.
As if on cue, he heard the deep growl of a large animal approaching. That strong smell of musk and blood.
The mother demon was here.
She filled up the entire clearing, with her shimmering and flickering mane shooting up towards the sky like the fires on Valpurgis night. He thought he could see the fur moving on its own, move like flame and fire. Her fangs were long and sharp, and her claws were digging deep gouges in the ground.
She roared, she howled and it echoed between the trees, sending flocks of birds scattering.
He finally wet himself.
Just as he’d resigned himself to being torn apart by this vengeful creature the cubs suddenly leaped in front of him crying to their mother.
“Don’ eat him, mother! He is nice! He only played with us!”
In an instant the rage melted off the mother demon’s face and her multitude of tails stopped whipping about her to settle on the ground.
“Is it…true?” she said, with a voice as ancient as the large oak tree growing by his family home, born from an acorn planted by his ancestors hundreds of years ago. Her tails twitched like an angry snake.
He managed a nod, flushing with shame.
“Humans…You think you rule the world.” the mother demon spat, turning away to greet her cubs properly with tongue and muzzle.
“My father…He said you were dangerous”, he squeaked out, then quickly added: “But I see now…That he was wrong. You are no more dangerous than any other beast that has children to protect.”
The mother demon fox smiled a wide smile, showing a bit of fang.
“I can see humans don’t value their young as much as we do”, she said, her eyes on him. “…Unless it is the human custom to send their most intelligent offspring off into danger.”
One of the cubs had begun to play with the edge of his tunic again, letting out content squeaks and whines.
“I would happily leave you and your family alone”, he said, absentmindedly scratching the cub behind its ears. It felt warm, like the hot water in a bath. “But I am afraid to go back empty handed.”
“You can stay here and play!” the cub chirped happily, nuzzling his hand.
“No, the human cub must return to his human parents” the she fox said sternly, nodding to herself.
She looked at him intently, the glowing embers of her eyes making him feel naked and exposed. Like he was trapped inside the flames of a fire and unable to escape.
“If it means that we are left alone until my cubs are old and strong enough to hunt on their own, then I suppose I must make a sacrifice”, she finally said, bending her billowing tails forward. The heat of them made him flinch slightly and take a small step back.
The she fox bit down on one of the glowing tails and pulled, wincing in pain. Finally there was a crackling sound, like a burning branch collapsing and one of the long tails was dropped in front of him.
It did not feel as hot as he thought it would, but it was impossibly soft. Like a mother’s caresses and the warmth of a summer wind.
“That will diminish my magic”, the she fox said and bent down to lick her cubs thoroughly.
“Know that and know very well what it means to be left in peace with my cubs. There are so few of us left in the world…”
The she fox gave him a mournful look and he wondered how he ever could have seen her as an unintelligent monster.
He wrapped the long tail around himself then bowed deeply and respectfully.
“I will tell my father that I slayed you and your cubs and that this part of the forest was utterly destroyed in the process. You will be left alone.”
The she fox smiled again and nodded.
“Perhaps in another time we could have been friends, human cub.”
He quickly left, without a second glance.
His horse was where he had left her and after a short delay to make himself truly look as if he’d had a hard fight he rode her hard for home. They all believed his story and he tried to take pride in it, as his father complimented him and his brothers patted him on the back. He tried, yes.
His mother held him close and whispered in his ear that she’d be proud no matter what he did.
He wondered if that was true.
The tail was proudly displayed on the wall with the other trophies and though the others must surely view it in a different way, what he remembered was what he’d learned there in the clearing.
He had seen that our enemies are not so different from us when you get right down to it. And that we all want to keep our loved ones safe, no matter what.
It was not until many years later that he thought about that event again.
He was out ranging in the mountains, many miles from his birth home when he saw some large tracks in the snow. Paw prints.
Though his horse acted skittish he willed it to go on.
And there, in the clearing between some large pine trees he saw three large fox demons, the glow of their fur reflecting off the white snow.
As they wandered off, out of sight, the last one turned its head and saw him.
Their eyes met for just that one instant, but he saw the recognition in those green depths.
The fox demon closed its eyes and bent its head respectfully towards him. Then it smiled at him.
As it finally turned to follow its siblings he raised his hand to wave at it.
Nothing else he’d done in his entire life had filled him with such contentment…such joy than that moment he saw those cubs grown and free.
All because that day, when the sword had fallen from his hand.