Friday, 11 December 2009

Stories: Winterwood


Jinna scrambled over the stones of what had once been a wall and looked down the slope to the snow-covered wood below. Not a single print of any kind disturbed the whiteness, and only a gap like a low archway through the trees showed her where the path ran. The light was lowering and gloomy beneath the leaden sky and the prospect filled her with deep uneasiness. But she patted her coat and felt the slight bulge from the inner pocket. There it lay, the great jewel. She must carry it safely through the wood to the other side, and whatever her fears she could not turn back now. Setting her face in determination, she half walked, half slithered downwards, and ducking under the laden branches, entered the Winterwood.

Inside it was very quiet. The trees were packed so densely that there was little snow underfoot, but the darkness was greater. She could trace where the path wound about, and there were dimples in it, as if feet had already passed that way: feet too small for humans, but making patterns unlike any animal Jinna had ever seen. She continued downhill until she reached the bottom of a valley, and saw there was a frozen stream that she must cross. She listened carefully for the sound of trickling water, which would mean thin ice that might break under her weight. If she got her feet wet, they would freeze. But there was no sound. Jinna realised that since she had eneterd the Winterwood, the silence had been broken only by the sound of her boots and her own breathing. Somehow this was more even more oppressive than any noises of living things moving around her. She sensed that here in the wood it was always winter, and nothing that she would recognise as a living creature ever came there. Fighting back her mounting fear, she crept across the ice and up the bank on the far side.

The path now climbed until she came to the summit of a low ridge where the trees opened out. There was nothing in the clearing except an immense log, the remains of some tree fallen long ago, looking like the body of a frozen dinosaur beneath its covering of snow. The light was better here, and Jinna paused for a rest. For reassurance she patted the lump in her coat, and then acting on sudden impulse reached into the pocket and pulled out the great jewel. She held it up, and even in this dimness it burned and sparkled with its internal radiance. Never had she seen anything so dazzlingly beautiful. She must save it, at all costs! But its glory only made her surroundings seem more threatening. The trees appeared to close in on her. She sensed that the Winterwood hated and feared the jewel; would smother its light if it could. Over to her left came a sound, and then another: the first she had heard since entering the wood. Maybe it was only the soft thump of snow falling from overburdened branches, but Jinna feared it might be ....... she knew not what, but something immeasurably threatening. She realised she had made a serious blunder. Quickly she returned the jewel to her pocket and pressed on.

The path twisted right, then left. Fear stalked behind her, and she walked faster and faster, panting with weariness and mounting anxiety, never daring to glance back. Then after an age, up ahead, amidst a thicket of smaller trees, she glimpsed another archway and knew that this was the end of the wood at last. With her escape in sight, panic finally overcame her. She ran. Through the archway she ran: branches clawed at her face and snow cascaded over her head and back, but she escaped, freed from the Winterwood for ever, out onto the grassland beyond.

For a while she simply stod there, panting with relief, and then once again she felt for the little bulge in her pocket. There was nothing. She tore open her coat and plunged her hand into the pocket. It was empty. In mounting desperation and terror she searched every pocket; every inch of her clothing, uselessly; once, twice, many times. Nothing. There could be no doubt: the jewel was gone.

Gradually she managed to subdue her terror, and steeled herself. She knew what she must do. Somewhere, somehow, she had dropped the jewel, and she must find it again. Trembling with fear and reluctance, she forced herself back to the archway between the trees and re-entered the Winterwood; retracing her steps, examining the snow on each side, stumbling with weariness and terror, tears frozen on her cheeks, until at last her strength gave out and she fell forward on the snow and she died.

But then the clouds rolled away and the snow melted. Flowers blossomed in the grass. Jinna felt warm sunlight on her face, and looked up in wonder to see birds playing on the budding branches. Then a Voice, so enormous that it filled the horizons but was at the same time gentle, spoke to her.
"You have done well", said the voice.
"But I failed", said Jinna. "I lost the jewel in the Winterwood".
"No. You were victorious. There never was a jewel. There never was a Winterwood. But you fought on till the very end. You have triumphed. We can now proceed to the next test".

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