By: Eric Anderson
*Autumn – Second Moon – Seventh Year*
“The red ones are Mother’s favorite,” he said, plucking a flower from the ground. “What do you think, little twig? Do you think we can find some more for her?” Ethan handed it to me gently and tousled my hair.
“Yes,” I answered, pointing to a bush of them in the woods.
“No, little twig. You know the rules. That’s not allowed,” he said with disappointment in his voice. He turned to my little sister. She did not yet know how to speak, but clutched my hand harder because even she knew the rule, although not old enough to fully understand. “Don’t fret Kat, there will be more elsewhere,” he cooed, tickling her belly to make her giggle.
We walked along the grassy fields outside the village for the rest of the morning, collecting flower after flower until my hands couldn’t hold any more. Mother would be happy, but I wished we would have found more of her favorite kind. We walked back to find Father gathering the rest of the village children for our daily lessons.
“Ethan! Bring the girls. Come now, we have a lot to learn today,” Father yelled.
“Yes, Father,” he said, picking Kat up and placing her on his shoulders. Ethan was big for a twelve, bigger than any twelve I had seen. I used to ride on his shoulders like that, but now that I was a seven, I was too big for such things. Maybe one day I would be as big as Ethan. Mother had just cut his hair yesterday. It was lighter than mine, almost blindingly so when the sun shone on it. It was nearly as bright as Kat’s, but hers was cotton-colored. The other children sometimes picked on me, saying my hair looked like mud compared to my siblings. I say sometimes, because I’d throw mud at them to teach them not to say such things. It’d be many moons before they’d try again. Father would scold me every time, but I could tell he was secretly proud.
Mother and Father walked toward us, the children of the village following closely behind. Father carried the chalkboard and easel he used to teach outside. There were maybe thirty or forty of us, though children of nearby villages would often visit, so ours didn’t seem as small as Father often told me it was. I rushed ahead and presented the flowers to Mother.
“Oh, thank you, Alexandra. These will be lovely for the table tonight.” She grinned, taking them up in her hands and giving them a sniff. “What’s that I smell? You found some of my favorites too! Oh, thank you, sweet child.” Mother was happy. She patted me on the head before kissing Father on the cheek and returning home to prepare supper.
“Come along now, children. There is much to teach today,” Father said, hurrying us along.
We scurried across the grassy fields, over to the edge of the pine grove that sat just before the greater woods. Father taught us that pines kept their greenery year-round, but otherwise the rest of my surroundings were orange and yellow. When the weather permitted, Father would teach the children outside, instead of the schoolhouse we used in winter or when it rained. The children sat around in a semi-circle as Father set up his chalkboard. Not long into his teachings, I grew bored of arithmetic. My gaze turned to the forest. A few feet of grass separated the grove from the greater woods. And there it was again, the bush of flowers Mother liked. I stared at it, thinking of how happy Mother would be if I were to bring them to her. It wasn’t far into the forest. Surely that wouldn’t be too bad. When Father’s back was turned, I got up quietly, snuck out of the grove, and across to the bush of flowers. I started to pick them, hoping to gather up several before Father would notice I was gone.
“Ah, and something else. Today is a special day,” he began, speaking louder with enthusiasm, “on this moon, seven autumns ago, one of our very own was born. Alex, my daughter, happy—” he paused.
I grabbed at the bush in haste. Mother’s favorite flowers had to be picked gently, otherwise thorns would hurt your hands. But I did not have time to pick them gently. My hands stung as I hurried to pluck the last of the flowers.
“Alex?” he yelled. It wouldn’t be long before he found I had entered the bad woods. I bunched up all that I collected and ran back toward the grove. My hands were red, the stinging wouldn’t last long, but it was still painful.
“Alex?” he yelled again.
I ran as fast as my feet would move. He knows I left, but with luck maybe I could—
“Daughter.” There, glaring at me just before me on the edge of the woods, stood Father, his voice stern with anger.
“I’m sorry Fa—” I began, before he grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward him. The flowers Mother loved, the same color of guilt as my hands, fell to the ground.
“There are wolves in the woods,” he hissed. “You must never enter there. You should know better, child.”
“I just wanted to… to…”
“You are never to enter the woods.”
“Yes, Father…” I mumbled as we walked back to the pine grove, my hands empty, red, and stinging.
“Now children, why is what Alex just did not allowed?” he spoke as I sat back down.
“Because we’ll get lost!” a boy shouted.
“Because we’ll get cold!” said a girl.
“Because it’s forbidden!” another yelled.
“All true,” Father began, “but that’s not the whole truth. You see children, the villages are very safe. Life was not always this way. As we know from tellings passed down through generations, there was a time when our ancestors did not live in the villages. It’s hard to imagine, I know. Our village is the only place most of you have ever known. And if you’re lucky, you may get to see others as well. The villages are vast—yes, and sprinkled within the grasslands and groves such as this one, but that is all the world of which we know. There is much that was lost over many years, but what we do know is this—life beyond the villages was not safe. Our ancestors came to this place and discovered it was different, it was safe, and it was fruitful beyond measure. And that is how the villages came to be. As you can imagine, people once grew curious and tried to leave the villages, but this was not a good idea. Groves such as these within the boundary of the Flamering are safe, used for wood and carving, but why are the greater woods outside it specifically forbidden, children?”
Silence. The children turned to look at one another, worried they may give the wrong answer. A gust of wind moved through the grove, scattering newly fallen leaves. The pain in my hands continued, stinging more as the wind brushed across them. Father stared at us, looking for a volunteer to come forth.
“Anyone?” he asked, gesturing to us all.
“There are dangers in the woods.” Ethan answered.
“Yes. Children, we may not have the knowledge of our ancestors who came before,” he began before turning his easel around to draw something, “but we do know one thing is certain, the highest law of our people: you must never enter the woods.”
His strokes moved faster, aggressively clawing at the board with a dwindling stick of chalk. It made a loud scratching noise with every mark. I covered my ears. He drew faster, pressing the chalk harder on the board. The screech of each stroke grew louder and sharper. The noise got more intense until he stopped suddenly. Breathing heavy, he dropped what little remained of the chalk.
“And why does this rule exist, children? For one simple reason.”
He turned the easel around, exposing his work to the class. Girls began to cry. Two pointed ears sprang up from blade-sharp lines scratched together forming tufts of fur. Boys cowered together. Hard lines dug into the surface of the board, encircling outlines of large pupils. Some shielded their gaze. Rows of teeth, a wide-open mouth, carved deep into the board to the point where they might never be erased.
There are wolves in the woods
As punishment, that night Father sent me to bed without dinner. Because it was my birthday, Mother had prepared a special supper. My stomach ached from the smell of the chicken which had drifted up and lingered in the attic all day as Mother prepared it. Kat had fallen asleep hours ago, snoring loudly from the bed across the room from mine. I stared out the window next to my bed. The Flamering torches, sitting far off in the distance just before the woods, looked like tiny stove embers. Father once told me they circled the entire land around all of the villages. One could walk along it for about a week and end up back in the same spot. A giant circle, he told me, with every village inside. It served as a boundary line so we knew what was a safe village grove from the bad woods.
“Hey birthday girl. You hungry?” Ethan asked jokingly, climbing up the ladder into the attic me and my siblings shared to sleep. I buried myself under my blanket and grumbled. “I’ll take that as a yes. Hey, I have something for you.” He poked me lightly. I pulled my head out from under the blanket to see a bread roll in his hand. “Here, I hid mine so they wouldn’t see,” he said, handing it to me. I grabbed it and ate it so fast I barely bothered to chew it. “You know you can chew food, right?” he said, laughing.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You missed a pretty great meal, I have to say,” he boasted somewhat jokingly. I punched him as hard in the side as my little arm could manage.
“Hey! That hurt!” he said with a smile. I punched him again. “Enough of that!” Ethan sat up, opened the window, and climbed out onto the roof. “C’mon, you coming?” he called. I scurried my way out of bed, out the window, and laid down next to Ethan on the roof. The wooden shingles felt cool against my back. The hillside grasses swayed as the wind crossed over them in the night.
“What’re you looking at?” I asked.
“See that one?” he said, pointing to a star, “It’s only in the sky near your birthday. Gone with the first snowfall of winter.” He grabbed my hand and pointed it at the star to show me. “See?”
“Thank you for sneaking your roll out to me. Father was mad.”
“He’s touchy about rules. But you know that. Just don’t go into the woods again. Okay, little twig?”
“Okay.” We laid there for what felt like hours, staring up and seeing who could spot the most shooting stars. I won. Again. But he probably let me.
“You’re a good brother.”
“I try,” he said with a smirk.
*Spring – Third Moon – Tenth Year*
“This moon seems most fruitful, look at all the peach blossoms on the Warrens’ tree,” Mother said, pointing at the house across the main village road from ours. She was trying to distract me. Next to the Warrens’ house, Mr. and Mrs. Howland stood near the window, holding each other and sobbing. Their son, Markus, had died. He was a year older than Ethan. I liked him. He was always hitting the back of his younger brother’s head when he picked on me. If I didn’t reach for mud to throw at him beforehand, that is.
“How did Markus die?” I asked.
“I’m thinking of putting rosemary in the bread for dinner—it’s starting to come back. So much snow this last winter. The village should get a lot of wild flowers soon, though.” She deflected my question. She didn’t like to speak of such things.
Our village was small and simple. Thirty wooden houses, a few stores, a meeting hall, a doctor, and some barns along either side of a dirt road. I left with Mother, every once in a while, to go to larger villages when we needed things ours didn’t have, like oil for the lamps, or cloth and leather for making clothes. Though they all looked about the same, just with more buildings and different people.
“Mother, I’m off to meet with the elder again.” Ethan said, walking out on to the porch where Mother and I were sitting in rocking chairs, sewing Kat a new dress.
“Why are you meeting with the elder so often?” I asked. Ethan and Mother exchanged glances. “What?”
“You’ll…” he began as he tousled my hair, “You’ll understand when you’re older, little twig.”
Ethan patted me on the head, hugged Mother, and walked down the road to the elder’s house.
“He’s always so busy. I’ve only met him in passing. Is the elder nice, Mother?”
“Very,” she said, “he’s a good man. Not every village has such a good leader. Ethan and the other sixteens will value his guidance.”
“Why have all the sixteens been gathering together so much lately?”
“Like Ethan said, you’ll understand when you’re older, Alexandra.”
*Spring – Fourth Moon – Tenth Year*
“When will they be back?” I asked, ladling soup into three bowls and setting them on the table.
“Tonight I think? It’ll be good to have fresh milk again, now that the cow’s dried up,” Ethan answered between slurps.
“Petunia,” Kat corrected.
“What did we say about naming her?” I said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, “You know she’s not a pet, Kat. We can’t keep feeding her if she’s not going to be of use.”
She shifted the soup in her bowl around, not wanting to accept the necessities of life that were still new to her. She’d soon learn, just as Ethan and I had before her.
“It’s our turn tomorrow,” Ethan said, trying to divert the tension.
“For what?” Kat asked, sheepishly still poking her spoon around he bowl.
“The Lighting,” I said.
“The Flamering,” Ethan answered, gesturing out the window where off in the distance torches formed a barrier on the tree line, separating the villages from the woods. “The fires need tending to every so often, so families from every village take turns fueling the flames.”
“Why?” Kat asked, a perplexed expression on her face.
“She’s young, I suppose she hasn’t been told yet.” I said to Ethan.
Ethan and I sat in silence for a moment, thinking of a way to explain the geography of the land to our young sister, a five, naïve but curious. Ethan crossed the room over to the stove and refilled his bowl before placing it in front of Kat.
“Think of it this way,” he began, using his spoon to point to contents inside the bowl, “The soup is all of the villages and the land between. The bits of chicken are the settlements, like ours. The vegetables are the few scattered groves of trees here and there. The broth the two are floating around in are the grasslands that make up most of our home. But the bowl itself,” he paused, dropping the spoon and pointing with his finger, “Is the Flamering. And the whole table is the woods. The bowel keeps the soup safely inside, just as the Flamering shields us from what lurks within the woods.”
“How do they keep us safe?” she asked.
“It’s the fire—beasts of the forest are afraid of it,” he answered.
Kat nodded in understanding and we returned to our lunch. The soup wasn’t anything special. After all, I wasn’t talented in the kitchen like Mother, but it was better than nothing.
Afterward we laid on the grass outside, gazing up the sky and comparing cloud shapes to animals.
“That one looks like Petunia,” Kat laughed, pointing to a puffy mass of white above.
“Kat, you shouldn’t get attached,” I said.
“I can’t help it,” she huffed in disagreement.
“Let her be, she’ll just have to learn the hard way,” Ethan sighed.
“Hello Ethan!” a shout came from the village. Two girls, the Holbeck twins, fourteens, walked toward us. They weren’t the smartest girls, far from it, but many of the boys in the village didn’t care—they were pretty.
“What are you doing?” They asked, ignoring Kat and myself, only addressing my brother. Their expressions were strange, twirling strands of hair around a finger as they spoke, smiling ceaselessly with wanton eyes. Ethan shrugged them off, not attentively conversing with them. Kat grew bored, curling up next to me and nodding off. They eventually left, still pretending to be unaware of me or my sister’s presence.
“I think they find you handsome,” I said, teasing him.
“You’re probably right,” he replied, his tone somber.
“You don’t seem to return their interest.”
“I don’t particularly find them interesting—why does it matter anyway?” His demeanor shifted defensively.
“It’s just that… most boys in the vill—”
“I just don’t.”
“Well… you are getting older. Are there any other girls you are intere—”
“I have to meet with the Elder again shortly,” he interrupted me, shifting to a different subject.
“Oh,” I began, speaking softly because he seemed bothered by what I had said, “When will you be back?”
“Why are the sixteens meeting with the elder so much?”
“I’m not supposed to say.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“You’ll understand when you’re older, Alexandra.”
“You’re only five years older than me, what is so difficult for me to grasp that you can’t say?”
He sighed, clenching his jaw before speaking, “It’s something all sixteens have to do. We’re not allowed to talk about it.”
“Why keep it a secret then?”
“Stop asking me about it. I’ll get in trouble if I tell you.”
“I won’t tell anyone just—”
A commotion of screams and shouting came from the village, followed by the slow tones of the old meeting hall bell.
“Something’s wrong,” Ethan said, waking Kat and ushering us back home to see what was going on.
“Why is the bell ringing?” Kat asked, pulling away from Ethan as he tugged her along.
“It only rings when something bad happens,” he said, “like a funeral, or…”
“Or what?” she asked.
He didn’t respond. We walked past our house and around the corner to where a crowd had gathered in front of the meeting hall. I couldn’t see over the crowd, but they all seemed to be looking right ahead.
They whispered to each other, frightened and concerned, “They say it came into the village just this afternoon—got into a henhouse, went into a state, tore them all to pieces—nothing left to use. Gone. All of ‘em.”
“I saw. Ferocious. Thrashing about in there—slaughtered the whole brood in minutes. Don’t know how no one didn’t get bit when they fought it off.”
“It took four men just to take the damned thing down. Cornered it and forced it out the coop. Bled it till it lost its fight, then strung it up to finish the job.”
“It’s what it deserves. We’d do the same if it were any one of us. They probably hung it up as a warning to the others.”
“Demented creature, ruining someone’s livelihood like that. How is that poor family going to have much to put on the table now? They’ll be working through the night just to keep themselves fed. Such a shame.”
I stood on my toes, trying to see over the crowd. No luck. I looked at Ethan. He clenched his fist, unnerved not turning his gaze when I tugged on his sleeve. “What happened?” I asked.
He didn’t respond, looking on with a blinkless stare—is whole body firm and on edge.
“Come,” he said, suddenly picking up Kat.
“No, I want to see.”
“Fine.” There was no kindness in his voice. He didn’t look back as he carried Kat home.
I wanted to know what was bothering everyone so much. I pushed my way through the crowd, still whispering and gawking in disbelief.
“To think one actually came through… I thought the Flamering would deter it.”
“I saw their coop. The vile thing was mad—diseased, probably. Doubt fire would scare it much when it doesn’t even have its senses.”
I forced myself through to the front to finally lay my eyes on it. But I shouldn’t have. I should have followed Ethan home. I should have never had to see it.
It hung there—silently. Unbreathing at the end of a twenty-foot rope, tied so tightly around its neck that it snapped under its own weight and tilted unnaturally to the side. Blood, a from both prey and itself, slowly dripped onto the dirt, running down and leaving a dark stream drying on its fur. Its mouth gaped open, teeth painted with blood and froth. Its coat dotted with leaking wounds, violent stabbings before being hoisted into the air. Even as the rope swayed, its limbs remained motionless. It drifted to and fro, soundless and calm. Complete stillness. Death.
There are wolves in the woods
*Spring – Third Moon – Sixteenth Year*
His sat near the back of the graveyard, alone near the Flamering, quietly away from the others. It was nice to sit here with him, peaceful even. I placed new wildflowers in front of it and tossed the old ones into the woods.
“Well Ethan, it’s been almost a year since I last saw you. In some ways it feels like longer, in other ways it feels like just the other day. Now where were we yesterday? Ah, yes. That Alden boy has expressed interest to Father in courting me. Owen is nice—he means well, but he’s in his head a lot of the time, too much for his own good. He should have talked to me more first, but luckily Father told him we were both too young. I think Henry—you know, that tanner’s son from the far away village Mother insists on buying from? He’s started making deliveries to our village. He doesn’t deliver to any of the others. I think he does it to see me. I’m conflicted. While being courted by Owen would mean I could stay near Mother, Father, and Kat…” I paused, “They might be my only reason for doing so. But Henry’s village is quite large. So many people. I might get lost, I think. What should I do, Ethan?”
A gust of wind, as if in response, blew away the flowers I gathered. They landed near the Flamering.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, getting up to retrieve what had blown away. I hunched over, collecting them up off the ground. The last one laid right on the Flamering line. This isn’t breaking the rules, I don’t think. It’s on the line, not past it, I thought to myself as I picked it up. I held the flowers in one hand while picking leaves off the gray cotton of my dress with the other.
That’s when I saw him, again. Lurking behind an old oak tree, he was covered in a long dark cloak that drifted like smoke in the wind. I could never see his face, it was always hidden by his hood. A strong frame filled his form, suggesting a grown man hidden beneath the black cloth. Soundless, never uttering a word—his chest breathless and unmoving. He stood motionless, calm in the stillness, like the lifeless wolf hung from the meeting hall. Death. Incarnated and watching me, often, from in there—the bad woods. I dropped the flowers and turned to run. By the time they fell to the ground and I looked back, he was gone.
I took a seat next to Owen in the meeting hall. The old wooden benches creaked whenever anyone adjusted their position. Large gatherings would cause a cacophony of noise. As a child, I used to think it was kind of like a song. All of us, all seven sixteens in the village made our way inside. Elder Clarke, the leader of our small village, stood behind a podium. He was a tall man, dark skin, with short hair that was starting to recede in old age. He wore clothes of very fine cotton and leather. He could afford them, I suppose. Owen tapped me on the shoulder. He had combed his hair today. The red mess atop his head actually looked nice when he took the time to fix it, which was rarely.
“Do you know what this is about?” he whispered.
“Ethan and the other sixteens would gather together sometimes. Could that be it? My mother and father wouldn’t tell me anything. It’s only us, none of the other children. It seems odd, why woul—.”
“Welcome, sixteens,” the village elder’s loud, booming voice interrupted me, “I know you’re probably curious why I’ve gathered you all here today.”
“Is something wrong, Elder Clarke?” Owen asked. The elder took a moment to look around the room at all of us. Every sixteen in the village had been told to gather here today after breakfast, but it seemed none of us were told more than that.
“No, in fact, this is a very special occasion. But first, let me just go through the list and make sure everyone’s here before we commence,” he answered, before calling out the names of the sixteens, eventually coming to mine at the end, “Alexandra Wilder?”
“Here.” I replied.
“Alright, let’s begin. For your entire lives, we’ve kept a secret from you. A secret that is meant to protect the youth. For in a week’s time, you will participate in the rite all sixteens go through. The rite will have you embark on a journey, from which you will become adults in the eyes of our communities.”
“How, Elder?” asked Josephine Rigsdale, the village doctor’s daughter.
“This will shock many of you, but know that we have reasons for the rules that are in place. Within the woods, my children, lie not only an endless expanse of trees and the dangers that accompany them, but also a gift. A gift that every sixteen is to receive on the first full moon of summer. To seek this gift, I ask for each of you to demonstrate bravery, for you will cross the Flamering, into what lies beyond.”
“Elder, you speak blasphemy. Entering the woods is forbidden!” shouted Josephine. The sixteens all whispered to each other, wondering if Elder Clarke had gone mad suggesting such a thing.
“Settle down now, settle down. This is a rite of passage all of us have undertaken since the founding of our communities. When each of you enters the woods, you will seek out a special kind of creature that lives within. They will bestow a gift upon each of you, which will signify you as adults among our people. This gift usually comes in the form of knowledge, but over time, other gifts have been bestowed. You all know Jovanna?”
“The mad old crow who lives in the hut just outside the village?” Owen scoffed.
“Hush now, Owen. Don’t be rude! Jovanna’s gift was… unique. Rarely is it given. She can experience the world in ways we can only imagine. Again, I stress that anything other than knowledge is rarely given, but it does happen. Each of you will gather at the Flamering, a week from now, on the night of the first moon of summer. You will enter the woods and these creatures will seek you out individually. They will offer you protection in addition to the gifts they bestow. Each of us is destined to encounter our own. You may be in the woods for several days before you encounter yours, but you will be given food and water to last you.”
“What about the…” stuttered Josephine.
“You will be armed with means of defending yourself against what also lies within. That is why I stress that you all exhibit great bravery. This is a daunting task, but one that has rewarded our people for generations and allowed us to prosper.”
“Prosper? You’ve seen what comes out of there! Why make us risk our lives?” Josephine shrieked.
The elder sighed and continued, “Every year, the dangers of the woods have claimed lives of our own. It is a rare occurrence as the whole, you all are more than likely to return unharmed. But the sacrifice of those few has led to a prosperous existence for the many, I assure you. After each and every rite, in addition to the knowledge each of you will be bestowed, we have seen it—time and time again, our crops grow remarkably fruitful, our families well and fed, the survival of our people is insured. We would not continue the rite if it did not support the greater good.” He looked at me directly with sadness in his eyes. A single tear, warm and heavy, formed a line down my cheek.
What do you think, little twig? Do you think we can find some more for her?
“What kind of knowledge do they bestow?” Owen asked.
You know you can chew food, right?
“When we meet them, they will usually offer us guidance, a direction on a path in life we must take and—”
You’ll understand when you’re older, little twig
“What kind of creatures are these?” I managed to speak.
I’ll get in trouble if I tell you
“They are called spirit guides.”
When Elder Clarke finally dismissed us, I ran out of the meeting hall. I stood in the middle of the road, clutching my face in my hands—wet and warm. My parents told me he died, but when I would ask how, they would change the subject. Over time I gave up asking, accepting that not knowing was probably best. But his absence clung to me, every light-haired boy who crossed my path, every meal at our family table, every shooting star that streamed across the sky, every wish that this all was a nightmare—unescapable.
“Hey, are you alright? Is this about Eth—” Owen said, putting his hand on my shoulder to comfort me.
“Leave me alone!” I shouted, swatting his hand away.
I ran back to him. Reached his stone, and falling to the ground. I curled up against it, holding my legs close and burying my face in the skirt of my dress. The spit turned thick, oozing from my mouth as I shuttered and couldn’t contain my sadness. I stayed there until the sun began to set and the sky turned the same warm shade of pink as my face. I didn’t want to accept that this was the reality in which I lived. The sweet older brother who used to hide rolls of bread in his pocket to give to me when Father sent me to bed without supper, the same brother that taught me how to snare rabbits and catch fish, the same brother who used to let me win when counting stars as they fell across the sky, he did not die at peace. He died in pain. Alone. You have to pull yourself together, you have to get up, I told myself, he would want you to stop crying, to get on with your life.
I wiped off my face, which made quite a mess on the cotton sleeve of my dress. And there he was again. The cloaked man. Death incarnate. Crouching behind a tree in the woods, watching me. Tranquil in his stillness.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” I shouted, “You killed him, didn’t you? You sick, twisted, vile thing!” What remained of the sadness I had released from myself now turned to rage.
“He knew how to hunt. He could handle himself. The spirit guides never found him, did they? Wolves be damned! It was you, wasn’t it? You took him from me!” I screamed.
He didn’t respond. He just stood there, quietly observing.
“Who are you? Why are you watching me?”
No movement. I reached down to pick up a rock. It had decayed and chipped away from a gravestone—blunt, but still heavy.
“Is this some evil game to you? Tell me what you did to him, you monster!” I clutched the rock so tight it’s worn edges cut my skin.
The cloaked man stepped out from behind the tree. Gliding through the underbrush with slow, careful steps until he was right behind the Flamering line, merely a few feet away. His gaze never left mine, but I still couldn’t see his face.
“Who are you?” I demanded, hurling the rock at him. I blinked, holding back tears. The rock hit the very tree he had crouched behind moments before. Like silence after the wind blows, unchanging, yet absent, as if never there at all, the cloaked man was gone.