Safety in the Things Men Make

The fog unnerved him.

That was all there was to it, really. The moonlight through the fog put Johan on edge, drawing up a creeping unease that clawed at his guts. He wasn’t exactly sure why. He’d traveled this forest path ever since he was a child, as his father had done and his father before him. Merchants had to know all the ways through the woods to deliver goods to the various towns in the region. Commerce didn’t care if the road frightened you.

But Johan liked to consider himself a bit of a poet, so he examined the fog as he directed the mule pulling his wagon. It drifted between the shrubbery in waves, rocking back and forth. That wasn’t so bad, but the trees made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. When the fog came down from the branches it looked almost like blood flowing from a man’s hands.

“Fog through a full moon’s light,” he whispered, trying to make the words flow. “None but the strange would be out this night. Sleep not in Gravewald alone, for mysteries wait there forever unknown.”

Johan sighed and rubbed a hand through his pale hair, wishing he hadn’t been such a fool. If he had only left earlier he might have made it to Weindorf before nightfall. But his friends had insisted he stay and celebrate Heinrick’s birthday, and now he was stuck driving his cargo with a pounding headache. His friends had asked him to stay till morning, but with his father ill he had to be the one to make the trip. 

Someone had to pay the doctor’s bills.

The night, and his throbbing skull, made the path more ominous than it was by daylight. It wasn’t just the fog but the noise, or rather the lack of it. The footsteps of the mule, the creaking of the wheels, seemed to echo throughout the darkness. 

But that was all. No animals stirred, no crickets chirped. It was unnatural, even with winter coming. Johan rubbed his arms and urged his mule to move faster, shuddering not just from the chill.

“Move not from the set path,” his father had always warned him. “Especially after the sun goes down. Never stray from the path. In this world there are things unknown to man, and it is better to leave them alone. Gravewald is a dark place, but there is safety along the things men have made.”

He eyed the path, really just packed dirt worn down from generations of travel. But along the sides he would sometimes notice small stones. They were only about as tall as his knee, and with just the moon’s light he couldn’t see them very well, but he knew they were engraved in iron with runes of protection and warning.

“Night’s the time when good men are in bed,” he mumbled, his teeth chattering as he forced out his poem. “But here I’m treading dangerous paths instead. Never wander from Gravewald’s way, for you may be taken by a wayward Fae.”

Laughter, light and airy, drifted through the woods. Johan frowned and turned his head, trying to find the source. It echoed strangely in the night, bouncing off the trees and surrounding him like a noose.

Is someone walking behind me? he wondered, turning around to see nothing. No… Ahead? But I didn’t see anyone.

He looked to the side, catching a glimpse of a woman’s dress as it moved into the trees and was consumed by the fog. It almost seemed to have been glowing, but Johan dismissed that as a trick of the moonlight.

“Hello!” he called. “I say, hello! You shouldn’t be off the path!”

The only response was more laughter, fainter and further away. Johan bit back a curse and pulled a torch out from the cart. Some fool woman had decided to go off into the woods. With a strike of steel on flint he set the torch alight, waving it ahead to banish the darkness and the fog. 

“God save me from cold nights and strange women,” Johan muttered as he moved through the underbrush. Branches snagged at his clothes, and the roots of the trees almost sent him tumbling flat on his face. “Damn, but I don’t need this!”

He could still hear the woman, but he couldn’t see her. How was she staying so far ahead of him? Surely she could not move so quickly wearing that dress.

Sweat beaded on his brow, his fear overcoming the chill. His father’s words rang in his ears, and he was very far off the path now. There was something to be said for chivalry, but taken too far it was blind stupidity. If he didn’t find her soon he’d have to go back.

With a push, he broke through the brush and found himself in the middle of a glade. It was bathed in moonlight, illuminating everything in an ethereal glow. It was almost as bright as noonday, yet the shadows hung on, cloaking everything. He could see, but at the same time he could not. 

There was a drumming in Johan’s ears that matched the rhythm of his heart as he tried to make sense of the world. He spun around, and then regretted the motion almost immediately. His stomach, too full with ale, threatened with a clench to heave up everything inside of him. He groaned and closed his eyes.

“Good woman!” he called after the nausea passed. “Please, do not continue this game! These woods are dangerous!”

“Nonsense,” a clear, ringing voice chimed. 

From the side of the clearing emerged the most beautiful woman Johan had ever seen. Her face was perfection, without blemish and perfectly proportioned. Her neck curved down to slender shoulders, covered by a blue dress so pale it was almost white. It seemed as if it were made of air, ready to float at a moment’s notice. Behind her hung long, white hair, but she was no crone. She was…

Her eyes were completely violet, with no whites showing as they glowed with an inner light. And when she smiled it was with teeth that were far, far too sharp. Johan gasped, feeling his breath catch in his throat as she came closer.

“Nonsense,” she said again. “These woods are no threat to me.”

Johan went to his knees, tearing his eyes away from her. A chill wind blew through the glade, and his torch sputtered fitfully before dying. It slipped from numb fingers, trailing smoke that vanished in the breeze.

 He had to escape! He had to get away! But if he ran, she’d simply take him when his back was turned. Why had he strayed from the path?

“Gre… Greetings, mistress Fae,” he managed. “Please, forgive my impertinence. I feared that some woman had ventured into your realm not knowing of her trespass. I meant no offense.”

Without sound she was in front of him, reaching down with one slender hand to lift his chin. Johan kept his eyes downcast, but he knew that she was still smiling. A shudder passed down his spine when he saw her long fingers, seemingly delicate, had an extra joint in the middle.

“Such a gallant young man to move so bravely to a stranger’s defense,” she said in a voice like song. “Take heart, young one. I am not offended. On the contrary, I find your actions quite charming. You had no way of knowing I was not in danger. That makes your deeds valiant despite there being no threat. Such bravery deserves recompense.”

Johan swallowed, trying to work moisture in a throat suddenly dry. “I would not dream of asking you of anything, my lady Fae. To do good is its own reward.”

The Fae laughed into the back of her hand, sweeter than any music Johan had ever heard. He lifted his gaze to her, enraptured by the sound. The moonlight shone from above, surrounding her in a pale halo that made her hair gleam like silver around long, pointed ears. 

She was magnificent. Nothing he had seen in his short life compared. He felt as if he could sit there for eternity, simply looking at her and drinking in her loveliness.

She stopped laughing and looked down at him, her eyes meeting his. It took Johan a moment to remember how to breathe. “It was your poems that caught my attention, young one. They were quite delightful. Did you make them on the spur of the moment?”

“Yes, my lady…”

“So talented, and with such pretty green eyes.”

She traced her other hand over his face, her too long fingers gentle even as frost trailed in their wake. She leaned down, her face but a few inches from his own.

“Such a beautiful child. Tell me, would you like to live forever? I know what rests in the hearts of men, and in its depths the fear of growing old exists above all. Would you like to stay young forever, with me, beautiful child?”

“Yes,” Johan said breathily. “Yes…”

She kissed him, a powerful, forceful kiss that stole the breath from his lungs. The taste of her lips was the sweetest thing he had ever experienced. The touch of her skin against his was smoother than silk, her grip gentle but stronger than iron. 

There was ice in both, however, so deep it drove away all warmth and left him shivering. A part of him screamed against this, told him that the cold was killing him, but he didn’t care. The voice was small, and despite the chill her lips were so wonderful…

His heart slowed, and then stopped.

When Johan awoke, his head was resting on her lap and she was stroking his hair.

“Forever with me, beautiful child. Forever young. You will stay with me always.”

She leaned down.

“Always with me, my beautiful child.”