The Dark Places

Reynard wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Even in the cool air of early autumn, bringing down these trees was no easy feat and made for a long day’s work. These old hardwood trees took forever to fall, but the wood they provided would burn long into a cold winter’s night.   It was good honest work but far removed from his village, deep in the dark forested lowlands of the Tessian River. 

The old oaks and elms loomed over him, their still dense foliage warding off sunlight, enveloping him with shadows. The stand surrounded them, muffling the sounds of his exertion and the presence of the other two work party members. It made him feel alone when he stopped and looked at the tall sentinels surrounding him. Their faceless existence tolerated his company, not that they had a choice. 

“Break time!” came a shout echoing amongst the trees. Reynard turned to see the leader of his group, Pytr Nilson, snake his tall, lanky form from between a pair of large trees.

Pytr brushed back his long sweat-matted gray-streaked black hair and gestured to Reynard. “You got any water left?”

Reynard tapped the water skin at his feet with a boot. “Yes, plenty.” He let the ax slip to the ground and grabbed it. With a grunt, he hurled the water skin toward Pytr, who snatched it out of the air.

The man yanked the stopper, tipped the skin, and guzzled water as it splashed and dripped down his matted beard and over his heavy cotton shirt. “Ah!” he sighed, wiping his lips with his forearm. “Have you seen the boy?”

Reynard shrugged, “Not since we arrived this morning.”

“He’s probably sleeping somewhere. Better call him in.”

Cupping his mouth, Reynard turned and bellowed into the forest, “SORKIN!” After the muffled echoes, silence greeted him. Drat, that boy, where was he? 

After several more shouts and a few minutes, a beardless young man appeared, his heavy linen tunic stained with sweat, an ax resting on his shoulder.

“Where have you been?”

Sorkin blinked a few times before glancing at the dull, stained ax blade on his shoulder. “Cutting wood, apparently.”

Pytr laughed. “Well, what else would you be doing? Or maybe you were daydreaming about Gretta.” He nudged Reynard.

Gretta Lenzil, clearly the prettiest girl in the village, had all the hearts of the young men and perhaps some of the lusty hearts of the older ones. 

“Oh, not Gretta, I’ll bet,” Reynard chimed in. “Perhaps the widow Danby then,” he said with a smile.

Pytr roared. Danby looked like the wrong end of a horse and smelled like one too.

Sorkin blinked and looked between the two men. Pytr clapped the younger man on the shoulder, nearly causing him to stumble. 

“Relax, boy, we were just kidding.”

With a poisonous glance, Sorkin glared at Pytr.

Reynard grabbed his satchel and looked inside. “You hungry, boy?”

Sorkin looked at him. “Oh, yes, I guess I am.”

“Here!” Reynard whipped his arm toward Sorkin, who awkwardly dropped the ax and caught a small sack.

Reynard pulled out a hunk of bread and cheese from his satchel and sat heavily on a nearby stump. He looked up to see Sorkin staring into the sack. “Is there a problem?”

Sorkin looked up at him. “No.” He dug out some cheese, eyed it carefully, and sniffed it.

Reynard ripped off a chunk of bread and nipped off some cheese to go with it. Danby might look like a horse, but she baked like an angel. He looked up to see Sorkin chewing some cheese with his eyes closed.

“This is fantastic,” he said as crumbs dribbled down his chin. He stuffed most of the cheese into his mouth.

“Whoa, take it easy,” Pytr said. “You’ll choke on it if you aren’t careful.”

Sorkin looked at him but chewed rapidly and swallowed, though not without some obvious discomfort. “You got anything to drink?”

Pytr proffered the waterskin. Sorkin took it and swallowed several large gulps.

Reynard tasted bile in his throat and put his food back in the satchel. His stomach was hungry but unsettled. He didn’t know why, but these woods gave him the creeps. He looked up at Pytr.

“You suppose we’re the first ones in here?”


“No,” Sorkin said with a pinch of bread between his thumb and forefinger. He gave it a sniff and popped it into his mouth.

“How would you know?” Pytr shot back.

Sorkin’s eyes flicked in his direction. “Ah, well, that’s my guess anyway.”

Pytr rolled his eyes. “These woods are virgin stands, good solid and thick,” he said, slapping a nearby tree trunk. “No one has been in here. Not for a long time anyway.”

Reynard looked at the trees grimly. “No matter, I don’t like the feel of this stand. They feel almost alive. Nothing like the trees near the village.”

“You sound like an old woman,” Pytr scolded.

Reynard growled back, “I do not take rumors lightly. Some say these woods are haunted by evil spirits that devour the minds of those they enter and who never see their homes again.”

Pytr blew out a loud breath, “Nonsense. Nothing lives in here except squirrels and snakes.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Sorkin said, his eyes flicking between the two men.

“Oh, this should be entertaining,” Pytr laughed. “How about you tell us about it? I could stand to hear a good story.”

Sorkin blinked. “All right. I will then.” He sat down on a stump and cleared his throat.

“What do you know of the Shadowless?”

Pytr waved the question away. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. My mother used to tell us stories about them, so we wouldn’t play in the forest after dark. So, you’re going to tell us a ghost story?”

Reynar rubbed his chin. He, too, had heard the stories. But unlike Pytr, he still harbored a fear of the formless creatures who devoured the souls of those they possess, but there was no way he’d let either man know that. “Oh, let him tell the story.”

“In the beginning, not even the Shadowless knew they were different than the wild creatures they lived among. But they soon realized they could leap into the bodies of creatures around them and maintain that existence until the forms they occupied no longer suited them. Then they would move on to other animals, accumulating skills and experience and achieving self-awareness. In the old forests of the piedmont, they lived a lean and meager existence during bitter, long winters and short temperate summers. Rains fell each spring, bringing forth new life and opportunities to grow. And grow they did, from a select few, into hundreds of creatures, spreading beyond the ancient uplands into the more fertile and temperate forests and primeval swamps. 

Life, such as it was, was good solid, definable, and predictable. But that changed when the newcomers arrived, first in small numbers. Their fitful and pitiful attempts often ending in disaster – whole families finding their way into the soil, only to fertilize it for the next group to arrive. But the newcomers were resilient, relentlessly scratching and clawing an existence out of the earth, chopping down the trees, hunting the animals the Shadowless relied on. The invaders reshaped the land to meet their needs, not the Shadowless. As the cancer of the invaders’ existence grew, the Shadowless watched. Some wanted to fight back, but most did not – so they retreated further up the slopes to the foot-hills from whence they came, into the thinner forests of the uplands.”

Suddenly Pytr shivered. Reynard noticed. “You okay?”

Pytr glared at him briefly. “Yeah, fine.” He looked away. “Just caught a chill.”

“Okay, Sorkin,” Reynard said, looking at the younger man. “Go on.”   

“A lean existence became a meager one. They left the elk, deer, and fox for the goat, eagle, and snake. But the invaders followed, picking and hacking their way over precipices and passes, relentlessly taking away places of refuge, closing off paths of escape. In desperation, some dove deep into the caves – scraping out an existence amongst the bats, snakes, and lowly spiders. The rest scattered to even more remote areas.

As sanctuaries disappeared, so did their community. They lost touch with the other clans – and their numbers declined steadily until only a handful were left – a small pitiful remnant of a sizeable and glorious clan. So they decided to risk everything and head back to the lowlands, and the wild forested lands near the river, where some Shadowless were rumored to have taken refuge. They took courage from the fact that the invaders had not penetrated there and hoped that they could survive, perhaps even regain some of the vigor they once had.

For some time, they did find safety until the sounds of axes echoed among the trees, and the destruction began anew. There was no consideration of escape this time, only a desire to strike back.”

Sorkin paused and slowly drank from the waterskin, never taking his eyes off Reynard.

Reynard grinned, “So what happened?”

Pytr visibly tensed, staring him down. “That is up to you.”

Reynard’s curiosity wavered; he was beginning to feel uneasy. “Me? What do you mean?”

Sorkin straightened and picked up his ax. “Do you want to be a messenger or an example?”

A shiver ran down Reynard’s spine as he helplessly scoured the menacing faces of Sorkin and Pytr. He couldn’t fathom their motives but knew he had no choice. He nervously replied, “Your home?”

Sorkin glanced up at the looming trees and spoke softly yet firmly, “This is ours now. Tell your people what happens to those who dare to step here again. Leave us alone, and we will leave you in peace.”

Dread filled Reynard as he stumbled backward, away from these two imposing figures. His thoughts circled from his family’s fear-stricken faces to the repercussions that would soon follow this encounter. They wouldn’t believe him about these men, so more would come in search of them. But it would not be him who led them here. His life meant far more than risking it in the dark places.

The Exchange Part 1

The cool autumn breeze hung in the air, tugging at the multi-hued leaves on the trees. A dark Victorian mansion lay down a long, winding road lined with twisted pines. The front door swung freely in the wind, slapping the doorframe with a rhythm all its own. The shutters, stained and rotted, shivered from the cold breeze as the dirty, cracked windows stared disconsolately across the garden – a tangled mass of briars and brambles. The sun flitted behind the clouds as if shielding itself from having to look down upon the house.

Jonathan Spenser trudged up the pathway from the road to the front door. Slung over his shoulder was a bedroll, and under his arm, he carried a satchel with his worldly possessions – a toothbrush, a bar of soap, a can opener, and a Bible. As his foot settled on the porch, the floorboards let loose an ominous groan. He tested his next step carefully before trusting it with his full weight. Derelict houses could be tricky, especially when alone. Falling through the floor with no hope of rescue meant focused self-reliance. Time to sit and dream of a better life and circumstances, and this old house fits the bill nicely. Big, imposing, and protected by rumors of unexplained fear. The sort of thing that kept people away and made it possible for vagrants like himself to take up residence without being roused up in the middle of the night by the local sheriff. He caught the door as it swung towards him and, with a tug, pulled it shut – fastening the crossbar to prevent it from coming open again.

Fading sunlight refracted through the window panes wrestled with the shadows behind dust-covered chairs and tables, and sheets of cobwebs canopied the interior from ceiling to floor. A large chandelier lurked above his head, shrouded in darkness. He stepped forward cautiously, and a metallic thunk greeted him as his foot struck a candle lamp laying on its side. He picked it up, inspected the wick, and, seeing it still in reasonable condition, fished out his cigarette lighter and lit it. The light pushed back dark boundaries and glinted off lint-coated photo frames lining the mantelpiece and a clock showing 12:03.

Jonathan glanced at the pictures, brushing off a frame. An attractive young woman stared at him, her face fixed in the emotionally stilted Gilded Age style. “Hello, beautiful,” he said. A crash came from upstairs. He made his way over to the stairs, choosing his steps carefully. As he stepped into the hallway, another bang greeted his ears. It appeared to be coming from behind a closed door to his right. He slowly pushed through and looked into a large bedroom filled with covered furniture, including a huge canopied bed. Drapes billowed into the room as a nerve-jangling “bam” erupted from an open window. Closures drifted in the breeze. Moving quickly, he set the lamp down, secured the shutters, and lowered the sash. Through the dirty glass, he spied the yard, a wild riot of climbing vines and boxwoods. In the center was a stone statue, the form of an angel, her back to the house, arms upraised. A faded path led down to a tall, hoary old willow tree at the far end. Hanging from one of the limbs, a swing moved disconsolately in the wind. Just beyond lay a leaf-smothered pond.

Despite the apparent neglect, Jonathan had to be impressed; the mansion and grounds must have been impressive in its Victorian heyday. But now, it sat ignored and unwanted, a pile of rotting wood and cobwebs. For the evening, however, it should suffice to keep the rain off his head. Growling interrupted his thoughts as his stomach reminded him of the other reason for seeking shelter. Food. Grabbing the lamp, he moved into the hallway and back down the stairs but paused at a picture on the wall. An old man with large mutton-chop whiskers glared at him. The cold, forbidding eyes perused his ragged clothes and unkempt hair. Jonathan retreated involuntarily. Nasty old tyrant. Pushing on, he reached the dining room. The light from the late afternoon sun still slanted through the windows, relieving him of the need for the lamp. He set it down on the table, extinguishing the wick to save it. After passing through the double doors into the kitchen, he scanned the corners and quickly located the pantry. Sometimes abandoned homes had a stray morsel left to eat. He searched the shelves and smiled. Cans lurked on the periphery, nearly submerged in dusty cobwebs, but still, there might be something edible. He grabbed a can and blew a cloud of grit off the label. “Peaches,” he said aloud, quite pleased.

As he stood, a glint caught his eye. On a top shelf, a dark glass bottle lay on its side, its label facing away. He pulled it down. Dom Perignon 1869. He knew a little about wines, and the name and vintage struck a chord. With satisfaction, he noted it was unopened. Ah, yes, my sweet. Tis’ time to celebrate and live the good life. But when he stepped back into the kitchen, he stopped short. Nuts, I don’t have a corkscrew! His eyes fell upon something sitting on the counter. An opener sat upright near the edge. As his hand closed around it, he could not help but wonder. How did I not see this when I came in, and why is it free of dust and cobwebs? Perhaps, I overlooked it in my haste to find some food. Satisfied with his explanation, he made his way into the dining room. But as the doors swung shut, he again froze. A single glass sat next to the lamp on the table. Light from the candle pushed against the shadows cast by the approaching sunset. He rubbed his eyes, trying to puzzle out the mystery; neither the lamp had been lit, nor the glass had been there, he was sure of that. Was he losing his mind? He stared at the wine bottle. Well, if I am going crazy, at least I’ll be able to enjoy it. He placed the container on the table and inserted the corkscrew into it. Might as well toast to my good fortune.

End of Part 1