The Guardian of the Forest

The Guardian of the Forest

In a hollow, deep in an eldritch forest, dwells a guardian of the wood. It walks paths only known to it, never leaving trail nor trace of its long journeys under the faint glow of the moon.

Its arms and legs extend out like creaking branches with long twigs for fingers and toes. Its torso resembled a twisted trunk covered in soft brown bark. Gold Chanterelle mushrooms adorned the top of its smooth wooden head with a crown of small branches pointing upwards resting just above the brow: a royalty bequeathed by Mother Nature. The face bore narrow slits for eyes with a cat-like keenness. Its ears were brown-veined leaves attached by stems. There was no mouth therefore no spoken language, only a low pleasant humming while it walked among its family of trees, guarding them from axe, fire and saw.

In days long past, these ‘creatures’, as some called them, went by the name Spriggan, while in other lands, Spirits of the Wood or Elf-Wood’s. No one really knew much about them since only the bones of those who ventured into their woods laid scattered about the edge of the forest, believed killed, picked, and licked cleaned by hungry wolves.

***

This tale begins on one dark night at the beginning of the winter solstice. While the moon hung high above in the dark velvety sky and the stars slowly blinked, three travelers with lit torches and carrying rucksacks with rolled beddings strapped to their backs, unknowingly stumbled onto one of the forbidden paths. The Spriggan, comfortably hidden in the alcove of a large oak where it blended as a chameleon on a green leaf, awoke to the sounds of footsteps shuffling through dry, brittle leaves. It had made no plans to perform sentry that night since trespassers had not breached its forest in well over two full moons. It remained silent in the alcove quietly listening as the trespassers walked by.

The first trespasser was a short, plump, bald man who walked with a waddle. Following him was a tall, thin, lanky fellow with a long nose that curved downward and a peppered beard that draped down to mid-chest. Lastly, the third was of medium height compared to the other two, with a strong, stout build. The Spriggan noticed that he carried a large axe above his bedroll. He would keep a close eye on this one. Stopping in the middle of the hollow, they began to speak.

“This seems a nice enough place t’ build a home,” spoke the short, bald, plump man. “There’s got t’ be plenty of game t’ hunt ‘n these woods, ‘n the soil appears loose ‘n dark enough for plown’ and plantn’,” he said as he kicked at the ground with a tattered, brown boot, exposing the dark soil beneath the dry leaves.

“We’ll have t’ do a bit o’ clearin’ t’ achieve all that,” squeaked the tall, thin man. With a bony hand, he waved his torch above his head then lower around mid-waist, closely examining the trees that surrounded them. “These trees are perfect f’ choppin’ t’ make logs for the cabin. Their trunks appear sturdy ‘n strong.”

The Spriggan gave a shuddering scrape in its alcove at the word, ‘choppin’, and began to become angry.

“Wha’s that?” said the plump man, looking about with wide, fearful eyes.

“Just th’ win’ blown’ though them branches,” answered the tall thin man as he looked up at the swaying leafless limbs.

“That’s all well and good,” the third man said, wrapping his overcoat tightly around his stout build to ward off the icy chill from the cool night air, “but it’s time we start heading back. The only warmth I feel is ‘n my feet from th’ long walk.”

“An’ a long walk it was indeed,” said the plump man. “The sun was still shin’ when we left th’ horse ‘n cart. I believe we could make a nice camp here with a warm fire n’ wait ‘til mornin’ t’ head back. No reason t’ hurry, is it? That is why we brought our bedrolls…correct?”

“If you think it best,” replied the stout man, vigorously swooshing his palms together in an effort to create heat. “But let’s get that fire a goin’ right off. No need t’ let old man Frost bite ‘n the meantime.”

After clearing a large circular spot of dry leaves, gathering large stones for making a pit, and choosing the driest dead branches for kindling, the three travelers awoke such a blaze that its warmth could be felt a good twenty paces away.

This angered the Spriggan even more ˗ not so much that they used dead branches that lay about the forest floor for a fire ˗ but how the long flaming tongues danced in the cold wind, spewing glowing amber’s through the branches of the surrounding trees.

‘Careless as always,’ thought the Spriggan, ‘without one thought or care to my woods’.

Satisfied with the warmth they had made, the three men unrolled their bedding’s and settled down around the fire. The plump man pulled out a tube of sausage, a small block of cheese and a toasted loaf of bread from his rucksack. The stout man brought out a flagon of whiskey and a canteen of water from his sack and began mixing two parts whiskey to one part water in old tin cups for his two friends in hopes of numbing the chill.

***

Finishing the last of their meager supper and becoming drowsy from the whiskey, the thin man threw a few more slow-burning branches onto the fire, then all laid down to a peaceful sleep.

The night turned black and silent as the moon and stars above grew dim behind the drifting gray clouds.

***

Hearing slow heavy breathing mixed with a few snorts, the Spriggan left its alcove and quietly strode over to the campsite. While humming a soft, sleepy melody, the Spriggan first dowsed the fire with dirt to remove any harm to its fellow tress. Then, kneeling down, it buried its twig-like fingers deep into the soil and bowed its head, as if in a deep trance, and waited. After a short moment had passed, creeping vines began to grow upward from the soil near each man, slowly coiling themselves around their necks. With a quick yank, the creepers tighten causing the men’s eyes to bulge open in horror.

As the gasping men clawed at the vines in an effort to free themselves, the creepers grew tall and stiff, raising them struggling past the point of standing and holding them there until darkness replaced their every thought and their bodies hung limp. After lowering the men back to the ground, the creepers disappeared back into the soil like a brood of snakes slithering back into their holes. The Spriggan rose up, walked over to the bodies, and began carrying them one by one to the edge of the forest while humming a pleasant tune.

Finished with its task, the Spriggan settled back into the alcove of the large oak and slept once more as the howling of wolves echoed in the distance.

 

Bruce Rowe © 2018

 

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