Deborah Boydston Deborah Boydston
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Firstly, the forest had grown more silent [the] farther. I think you meant 'the' instead of 'that'.

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Taylor Lanson Taylor Lanson
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The Risen

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She had a friend.

In Progress

      I was only four years of age at the time, but I remember everything. We had gone out to fetch water from the southern well just as we had done daily for most of our lives. Of course, the village had warned my parents about the danger in sending out two small children by themselves so close to the town’s border, but the risen had not breached the outer fence for over a decade. The warnings were empty and my parents never listened. I guess it was only a matter of time.

       Ellis was teasing me as he usually did. Being three years my senior made it so that he was just old enough to look up to, but not old enough for there to be that much of a difference between us. He hadn’t experienced a life too detached from my own, he had just been living it a little longer. He had taught me most of what I had known considering the fact that my parents were always busy healing the other villagers. It made me wonder how Ellis had learned all the things he taught me in the first place, but I never had the chance to ask him for myself.

       My brother had dark hair like my father, whereas I took after mother with my light, almost white hair. On the other hand, Ellis was much paler than the majority of the village, but he was teased for it often. One day Ellis pushed one of the kids that were taunting him down a small cliff into the woods. Afterwards, he was forbidden to attend his daily healing lessons in the temple for an entire week by our father. He cursed me for telling our parents what he had done, but I never felt like I was given a choice in the matter. If I had known, I never would have told them.

       The path to the southern well was worn and unkempt. It was lined with large stones, like a natural trench; some say it was carved by the ancients. During the cold months, the stones were covered in a thin layer of ice. I remember the way I would scrape the frost off with my fingernails and mold it into tiny shapes in my hand. Ellis would always make fun of me for how I would get absorbed in my own creations. I would often forget to keep walking and be left behind until he realized that I was no longer following him.

       On that day we had been moving a little slower than usual, taking in the atmosphere with that innocent awe only children can produce. We had been on the path countless times together, but each time we made it a point to feel something new. Ellis pointed upwards towards the tall evergreen trees and I could see a hawk swooping in between the rays of sunlight that had just started to poke through the morning clouds. The sound of its prey squealing in pain made me uncomfortable and Ellis noticed immediately.

       “Don’t worry Lyla, they have to hunt to survive.”
       “But why can’t they leave the other animals alone?”
       “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

       We kept walking, this time more hurried than before. After a few more minutes, we had come to the clearing where the well stood, but something made Ellis stop in his tracks. He pointed forward, similarly to how he had before. This time, however, he raised his hand more slowly. I can still see the way it shook when I close my eyes.

       Its back was turned to us. We both knew what it was instinctively despite having never seen one of them in person before. Its skin was gray and folded. It was emaciated, hunched over, bald, and naked. When it turned around, those husky orbs of white stared into and penetrated my heart. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even scream. It took long strides one after the other until it passed the well. My senses returned to my body and I started to sprint back into the forest path behind us. I didn’t think to look back until it was already too late.

       I’ll never know why Ellis didn’t move from that spot, but I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe he did it to protect me, to distract it long enough and ensure my safety. Maybe he was fascinated by its haunting gaze. Maybe he was just too scared to function.

       He didn’t start to back away until it was close enough to grab him. He took a few steps backwards and fell to the ground on his back with a sickening thud. The risen laid on top of him, dripping its black saliva onto his face. It wasted very little time with him. Ellis started to swipe his hands against the creature’s eyes, but instead of deterring the beast, my brother’s desperate attack only encouraged its bloodlust. With the first scent of blood, it was as if the risen had been rejuvenated with a vigor more intense than even living men could possess. It clawed away at Ellis manically, tearing his clothes first and then his skin. His screams turned to labored gurgles. He was crying, clawing his hands into the blood-stained snow around him. I could hear him gasping for air, I could hear him mumbling out a prayer beneath each breath. Laying on his back, he pushed outwards with his arms and legs beneath him in a sort of backwards crawl that can only be described as panicked. It wasn’t enough. The risen had already tasted his flesh and it wouldn’t cease the nightmare until there was nothing left. Try as I might, I couldn’t look away until it was over.

      When my parents found out that their only son and first born was dead, they didn’t quite know how to react. How could they? We sat down for what seemed like several hours and held each other, weeping long into the night until we drifted off. The villagers would give us gifts to ease the mourning, but back then I couldn’t understand why they thought material possessions could replace my brother. I couldn’t understand anything without him.

       That day made me realize that I couldn’t rely on anyone anymore. Even the grown-ups made mistakes and although they acted like they had all the answers, I knew that they were just pretending. They were just like me: confused, conflicted, and lacking meaningful reasons. I couldn’t even trust my own parents anymore and I guess that’s where I started to cultivate rebellion within my heart. I wanted to figure things out for myself.

       Our already small hut started to feel like a prison since my parents never wanted me to leave it. When I would ask them why, they would just look at me with that same cold stare the risen had given Ellis right before it devoured him. I hated them for what happened even though I didn’t really blame them for his death. I blamed myself.

       It’s been twelve years since the incident. I am no longer a girl and I am no longer afraid to talk about what happened that day, but no one really wanted to listen except for Rhinel. Rhinel is the son of the village elder and because of that, he is destined to become the next chieftain. He is much older than me, though he didn’t ever try to make it seem like I was anything less than he was. He approached me one day randomly during the harvest season and asked me about what had happened in my youth. I was surprised and almost a little offended that he thought he could just walk up to me, but something deep inside myself told me that his motives were sincere.

       I realized that I had never really told anyone the full story. Back when it all happened, I merely screamed “he’s gone! Ellis is dead!” to my parents over and over again. The village had sent out scouts to the well and found what was left of my brother, but the risen creature had vanished by the time they arrived. My parents never questioned the specifics of the event and it is certainly easy to understand why. I guess I expected them to want to learn more once I came of age, but the conversation never happened. The bitterness inside told me that they had forgotten about Ellis, but in reality, I knew that they simply didn’t want to reopen old wounds. The scars were certainly ugly enough by themselves.

       Rhinel motioned me over to the village temple and I walked with him there, expressionless. I told him everything. I think what made me most impressed with him is how he just listened to me. He never interrupted me once and I could tell that he could have recited the entire tale back to me verbatim if I had asked. Later that night, I had nightmares about him writing everything that I had said on parchment and laughing to his friends at how pathetic I was. The following day, I confronted him. I realized that it wasn’t like me to open up so easily like I had done the day before. I wanted to know why he was so interested in me. I wanted to know why he had approached me about something so specific, something that had happened so long ago. He stood there beside the common grounds for a few moments. There were about ten yards between us. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and said “because I love you,” and walked off. That night we embraced in the woods behind the temple. It’s been five weeks since then and I am certain that I am with child.

       My first reaction to the pregnancy was unselfishly in fear of Rhinel’s esteemed position. If the village found out what we had done, he would be dishonored and stripped of the privilege. I knew that I had to keep it a secret for as long as I could. If necessary, I would flee the village when the time came. Now that the initial shock has befallen me, I have grown to love this child inside me despite its burden. I am woefully unprepared to be a mother, but I suppose that none of the mothers in the village felt prepared when it was their time. What scares me the most is the prospect of having no one to guide me with this. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I was so hell-bent on learning for myself and now that I have no choice, I dread it with all of my being.

       When I told Rhinel of my fears in the temple after his evening prayer, he grew enraged. He called me a liar and a whore. He told me that I was confused, that I must have contracted the “disease” from another man. He made me cry, but in my moment of weakness I grew so much. I knew from the beginning that I would be alone. I guess I just was waiting for my fears to be realized. His garments were lush with the luxuries of being the elder’s son, but his heart was as black and as bleak as the risen themselves. He was just like them, I thought. Fascinating from a glance, but horridly brutal face-to-face. Looking back on it now, I wonder what I even saw in him in the first place. I guess I wanted to believe that there was someone out there who could understand me.

      In the end, I don’t think that he was lying when he said he loved me. There must have been a part of him that felt love, but despite his age he was still naïve and immature. I was no different, of course, but I’ve come a long way since then. I just wish I could have learned my lesson much less painfully. My morning sickness began not long after our disagreement. I realized that the time for my departure was closing-in faster than I expected.

       The following week is when it all happened. I decided to tell Rhinel of my plans. My spite for him was immeasurable, but I knew that I couldn’t live with the guilt of hiding him from his child forever without trying once more. Should he choose to grow in heart and in spirit like his teachings demanded, he could follow me. I knew that he would never accept my proposal, but it was a final act of desperation in a woman’s heart that no reason could undo. I approached him slowly and with a deliberate stoicism in my mind. It was all an illusion.

       “I am leaving for the Outerland on the morrow’s eve. I know that you do not believe me, but this child is yours. Here is the path that I intend to take,” I handed him the parchment with my desired route.
       “You will die out there alone if you leave.”
       “I suppose that would be for the best. There’s nothing left for me here in the village and you have everything to lose by my staying.”
       “Take my blade and my blessing. Promise me that you will return.”

       The ceremonial dagger was used in sacrifices to the goddess of life and death. It is imbued with a holy power that is said to smite unholy creatures with a mere touch. The village possessed only two of these blades and its disappearance would surely not go unnoticed. Rhinel explained to me that he would tell his father that it had been stolen by a common thief. He outstretched his right hand and made the gesture of protection and guidance over my forehead. I bit into my tongue out of malice, but made no effort to stop him.

       The day of my departure, I told my parents that I loved them. They didn’t suspect a thing and I left as soon as I could sense them falling asleep. I took with me enough provisions to last a week, but after that I had no idea how I would survive. In a way, it was suicide, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t on the brink of life and death already. The journey would be long considering it had no final destination. None of these facts stifled my movement or my determination. I was distraught, but not defeated. I would not give up.

       Making voyage during the cold months was vastly more dangerous than at any other time. The winter would be coming to an end soon, however, and I was counting on that notion for safe passage to the Outerland.

       The Outerland was an undocumented area beyond the fence that enclosed the village. All of the explorers who left the fence never returned and it was quickly assumed that the place was cursed. The ancient texts speak of countless risen roaming the desolate plains for any signs of food. They are like a flood of death and destruction, leaving nothing but emptiness and pain in their wake. It is said that the Outerland is their home, but no one really knows. In my heart of hearts, I felt that there must be more out there for me and my child.

       I looked back towards the dim village lights right before I passed the threshold into the unknown. I was frightened, my hands clasped each other and my brother’s gray tunic which barely wrapped around my body. Each step was a burden, my legs shivered, my toes numbed. Every now and then some small pieces of snow would slip into the cracks of my worn sandals causing a sharp yet somewhat enjoyable sensation on my skin.

       The forbidden forest grew thicker as the night grew darker. Mysterious clouds began to form and blocked-out the teal moon’s aura. Now I was stumbling with the snow growing damper and deeper. My sandals and feet were soaked. I knew that I would have to stop soon to make a fire. How had I forgotten to bring a torch?  

       During the first portion of my trek I was too exhilarated with the prospects of adventure to truly notice my surroundings. Now that I had started to calm down, a few things made themselves apparent. Firstly, the forest had grown more silent that farther away from the village I traveled. It seems even the animals knew that this place was not be treaded upon. Secondly, I noticed that some of the trees were without snow and that I had been walking on a declining slope. Lastly, I was tired. So tired that the simple idea of making a fire seemed insurmountable. Regardless, I immediately got to work after spying a small hill as the perfect place to retire. 2 comments

       Needless to say, wood was plentiful, but most of it was too wet to use. I climbed one of the shorter trees and snapped a handful of branches. My hands were raw after the excursion, bleeding a little around the creases of my fingers. I stuck my hands in the snow to wash them, ignoring the chill with a smirk.

       With the wood acquired, starting the fire was mindless. I recited the incantation of ignition which is taught to all villagers once adulthood is reached and waved my hands over the wood in semi-circular patterns. My eyes widened as sparks burst from beneath the branches. I dug out the snow until I reached the dead grass underneath and used my brother’s faded tunic as a cover. Resting my head against the hill was somewhat uncomfortable as small insects were crawling through my hair deep into the night. I didn’t care enough to pick them out with the gentle warmth of the fire distracting me. I knew that the fire could attract the risen, but I also knew that killing one or two of them wouldn’t be an issue. It was only in their numbers that their true horror was unleashed.

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