The woods were dim and deep, but he was going to make it.
That Woodsman was so full of crap. He’d been all over these stupid woods and he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of any beasts, and that was a fact. It was just a little dark and a little chilly, and yeah, he was kind of scared of being out here at night, but he had a good head on his shoulders--his mama had always said as much--and he was bundled up good and warm.
He paused to examine a tree that looked familiar. Yup, there was his mark on it, the initials he’d carved in the bark of the tree with his pocketknife. He counted off thirty big paces out from the tree at a ninety-degree angle from the way he’d come. He notched the more significant trees on the way, stopped to sight the sun in the East and carve his initials properly on the new touchstone tree.
All he had to do was do another nice big loop and he’d walk himself closer towards the lake. Maybe from there he could get back towards that old abandoned house he’d neglected to enter before. Either way, he’d get out of these woods in no time. He had a nice big pack of jerky and he could make a little fire somewhere at night without too much of a problem.
Piece of cake. This wasn’t his first run around the woods.
Behind him, a pair of white eyes watched him disappear into the swirling snow before their bearer approached the touchstone tree.
The Beast thoughtfully ran his fingers across the intertwined letters. The exposed tree flesh withered beneath his touch, and as the bark puckered he iced over oozing sap, erasing the mark.
He walked over to a tree fifty feet away, deeper into the center of the forest, and mimicked the pattern of the initials with a sharp shard of ice. Glancing up at the sky, he nudged the apparition of the sun over just a few more degrees to the north.
There, he thought, taking a deep draught of the unspoiled hope and confidence pouring off of the young man in his woods. That should keep him busy.
He’d just tasted the boy’s tart, green certainty of his food supply--mm, that would have to be the next thing to go--when the trail disappeared.
Bewildered, the Beast paused and listened hard. It was a thick, snowy day, bright but difficult to see for anyone who didn’t know his orchards as well as he did. The wind blew and the trees rustled sleeplessly, but nothing else moved in his forest.
The Beast followed the filling footprints of the boy as they meandered here and there, around trees and through brambles but ever towards the traitorous sun. Sure-footed little thing, wasn’t he? Pleasantly bright and alive.
The Beast stopped and sniffed. Here, the boy had trudged on, his head lowered, pressing back against the wind and--
The snow across a log-bridge had been disturbed and frozen chunks still fell to the bottom of a deep ravine. The Beast sighed and breezed down to take a look.
No. No, he didn’t suppose mortal necks were supposed to twist like that.
“Damn,” he mumbled.
The borders of Pottsfield were not as sensitive as Enoch would like. Escapees from the pasture-house reported that the old witch Adelaide had some sort of system for telling when people entered her home, by feeling whenever her strands of yarn were disturbed. It was a good idea in theory but Enoch was of the opinion that one was ill-advised to emulate witches when it came to home-security.
And although he had his own doubts that there was anything like true safety to be had on this sad, dim earth, no matter how hard one tried, there were things in the Unknown that he would prefer never entered his sphere, and the only way to keep them well-away from his townspeople was to patrol the borders himself.
He went out of the barn a few hours after sunset and made his circuit, listening for any change in the tranquil night air. He almost liked being out in the night, when the turkeys were tucked away to rest and the wind was cool as it rippled through his ribbons.
He was passing the harvest fields when he saw the intruder.
Enoch was a fair and lawful leader, but this wasn’t a barn and there were no doors to bar. He could not pass judgement on a loose prisoner.
His ribbons shot out and wrapped around two large shapes, one limp and heavy, the other taut and alive and grappling fiercely with its bonds. He held them fast, even as the meager light shed by the moon suddenly disappeared and left him in a perfect darkness.
“Well, now,” he said, wrapping his ribbons still more tightly around the struggler’s neck. “I do believe you’re trespassing, aren’t you?”
“Enoch!” barked the Beast.
The identity of the first interloper raised more questions than it answered. Enoch pulled the Beast close, peering at the wide, multi-colored eyes staring furiously out of a face he could not see.
“Ah, Hope-Eater,” Enoch said quietly. “My apologies. I didn’t recognize you without your lantern. It’s too dark to see your antlers clearly.”
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to stop throttling me,” the Beast said, although he didn’t sound so much as out of breath. His eyes were fading once again to white and it seemed that the moon was returning.
Enoch loosened his grip around the Beast’s neck in a silky-smooth slide, but kept his quarry in his coils nevertheless. He didn’t think the Beast was the sort to dart away from him without a word, but then again he wouldn’t necessarily put it past him. Besides, one didn’t have this kind of opportunity every day.
“Now, what are you doing skulking about in my fields at this time of night?” Enoch asked. “You must admit it looks a little eccentric, Beast, even for you.”
“I have no idea what you mean by ‘eccentric,’” the Beast remarked, “but as to the question at hand, I’ve come bearing gifts.”
The Beast said nothing. If he had to guess, Enoch would have imagined the Beast might well be smiling enigmatically. That seemed like something he would do, if he ever smiled at all. It would take an instant’s twist and brush of a ribbon to confirm the shape of the Beast’s mouth, but…
Perhaps that was a little intimate for now.
“Will I like these gifts?” Enoch asked, lowering the Beast to the ground and following him down with a little undulation of his spine. He let a few ribbons fall away, but kept some in their places, and one coiled loosely around one of the Beast’s ankles, just in case.
Trespassing, after all, and quite possibly bribing the magistrate. Serious stuff. It might warrant quite a severe punishment.
“I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it,” the Beast replied. “It seemed like just your sort of thing.”
Enoch tilted his head back and grinned. “Well then. Perhaps you’d better give it to me.”
“You have it there, in your other tentacles,” the Beast replied, pointing at the heavy lump yet squeezed in Enoch’s coils.
“Oh,” Enoch said. He turned his attention to the lump, waiting for the moon to come out from behind the clouds.
The dim light showed the stark face of a dead young man. He was naked, stone-cold, and somewhat battered, his face covered in dirt and unbleeding nicks and scrapes. From the looks of his injuries, he’d been dragged many miles after his death.
Enoch canted an eye at the Beast. “Well, I’m touched, but are you sure it’s in my size?” he drawled.
The Beast snorted and began to pace, tripping a little over the ribbon before finding a clear line to walk.
“He died in my forest, before I could eat all his hope,” the Beast explained. “And since I can’t make anything out of a dead body and they don’t really decompose into fertilizer in the Winter, I thought perhaps you might get something out of him.”
“Aha,” Enoch said, smiling. “You brought me one of your wayward souls.”
“To submit to the soil of the earth?”
“Or however you like to dispose of these things, Harvest King. He is all yours.”
“Well, this is kind of you, Beast,” Enoch said, wrapping the body up in his ribbons. “I’m deeply moved by your thoughtfulness.”
“Yes, of course. Some folk offer flowers, some offer chocolates...you bring me a corpse.” Enoch grinned. Miss Elizabelle, an alleged witch who had been drowned in a pond and then bobbed up in Pottsfield ages ago, had a bony little puss that liked to leave dead birds on her doorstep. It tended to rub itself against her legs and purr when she discovered the little treats it brought her. Enoch did not imagine the Beast would appreciate the comparison.
Once the body was shrouded in a cocoon of wrapped bands, Enoch tore the lengths off and shuffled his ribbons around to let the others regrow in safety.
The Beast looked down at the body and nudged it with a toe. “Very tidy.”
“Thank you. Least I can do for the poor little thing is make him comfortable. What happened to his clothes?”
“I hung them on a tree. If you didn’t take him I would’ve tossed him in the river and there was no sense in wasting the garments.” The Beast shrugged. “Perhaps the schoolmarm will make something of them.”
The magnificent Unknown ecosystem at work. What a world of good just one dead body could do!
“He’s a treasure. I’m sure he’ll make for a fine crop. Thank you for bringing him to me.”
“You give me too much credit, I believe. There was hardly anyone else who would’ve wanted him. At least you can put him to some kind of work.”
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something for him. I’ll bring him back to the barn and get someone out there to dig a grave for him in the morning.” Enoch reached down and grabbed the ends of his own amputated ribbons, giving the body a little tug. A few extra ribbons wrapped around the Beast’s shoulders. “Won’t you walk with me?”
“I will not be trespassing?” the Beast inquired archly, picking at one ribbon that coiled loosely around his throat.
“Come now,” Enoch grinned, unwinding that strand and nudging the Beast with a slow sway of his body. “What’s a little territory dispute between friends?”
The Beast walked with him for a little while, into the sleeping heart of Pottsfield town. Turkey snores rattled the quiet of the dead and a few small candle flames here and there hovered in the darkness. Enoch’s ribbons rustled quietly over the dusty ground and the Beast’s feet made no noise, his tattered fur cape brushing against Enoch’s coils.
“There’s very little here, isn’t there?” the Beast remarked.
“I beg your pardon?” Enoch asked.
“This place is mostly picked bones, I mean to say.”
“Picked bones?” The Beast was going in circles. Enoch smiled at him, pleasantly confused. “Do you mean that in a way beside the literal truth?”
“Oh yes. Despite your husking bee, there’s nothing here to eat. Nor the need to do so. You all reek of satisfaction.”
Enoch stared at the Beast. “Satisfaction.”
“Is there an echo in here,” the Beast drawled.
“Well, then,” Enoch murmured, grinning a little, “do you mean to tell me I satisfy you, Beast?”
“No,” the Beast replied. “As it happens, I cannot be satisfied.”
Mmm, so he claimed. He seemed confident that the situation was “cannot” instead of “have not,” but Enoch was pretty willing to bet that no one yet had ever properly tried.
“Perpetual dissatisfaction is sort of the point, actually,” the Beast added in a rather thoughtful tone. “Eternal hunger.”
“Is it? I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh? Don’t trouble yourself over it,” the Beast said, waving a hand. “It is my nature. I scavenge, you harvest. And as far as I’m concerned it’s barren here. Your little...citizens don’t need to spend so much time hoping and wishing and praying, because here you are: the embodiment of fulfillment. Their hope pays off in you, in rebirth, in, well, satiation. There’s nothing leftover. Just joy and very tepid relief.”
Enoch smiled. “I do my best to make things run smooth, yes. But surely they still have hopes, like anyone else.”
“Not enough. Not without fear. They don’t fear, Enoch, you’ve made them all very happy.” The Beast snorted. “You keep the wolf from your door very effectively.”
Hmm. Perhaps causing a little fright was the way to lure the Beast in. The only other option that had meaningfully presented itself thus far was putting a forsaken child on a line and trying to fish for the fiend.
“I do what I can,” Enoch purred. “It matters very little to me what happens out there, as long as Pottsfield is as it should be.”
“Then you don’t want me on these streets,” the Beast said.
“Oh, you can’t do much harm here,” Enoch replied. They approached the barn and Enoch gently tucked his soon-to-be newcomer into a safe corner. The Beast stood outside, contemplating the woods, and Enoch watched out of the corner of his eye as the Voice of the Night straightened up and stared in one direction like a pointer dog.
Enoch looked around him.
Deep in the woods, sunk back towards the Witch-ward side of Pottsfield, a little light moved in the darkness, glowing sweetly towards them from around trees and brambles. A mindless little lullaby floated over towards them on the night wind, as likely sung to amuse the bearer of the lantern as to distract them from the horrible work.
“Oh,” Enoch said, following as the Beast eagerly headed for the woods. “So that’s him, is it?”
“That’s him,” the Beast confirmed. His voice dropped to a smooth, smug tone. “I think I chose wisely.”
“And why would you say that?”
“Because I have invested in a fountain,” the Beast replied.
They moved swiftly over the fields and onto the borders of Pottsfield and the woods. The Beast paused there, and the two white circles of hollow light closed. The noise of air drawn through teeth hissed in the darkness, quickly followed by the noise of shaking leaves.
The Beast let out a low purr. “Can’t you taste it?”
The Harvest King could not, but then, he didn’t have quite the Beast’s palate.
“A fountain,” the lord of Pottsfield echoed. “I don’t think I have your meaning.”
The Beast turned his head towards Enoch.
“My Woodsman has a special kind of interest in the lantern,” the Beast said. “I’ve borne it for my own reasons, of course, and I’ve had witch hearts and people’s very souls and, oh, let me see, a lost puppy once--”
“Ah. That’s what happened with that little Miss Dorothy, then. I did wonder.”
The Beast made a noise that in another voice might have been a giddy little laugh. “You get the idea.”
“Your charity is limitless, yes.”
“But I did him the favor of putting his sweet little daughter’s soul in there. And you know what that means,” the Beast said, sweeping between the trees to move closer to the light in the forest.
Enoch looked down at the forest floor. Perhaps another step or two. No more. He dared a pace, reaching back to leave his longest ribbons on indisputable Pottsfield soil.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Oh, Harvest King…” the Beast sighed, leaning against a tree and looking back towards him. “It means he loves her.”
Enoch looked at the Beast. “I’m certain you mean for that to be significant in some way, but I must disappoint you.”
“He loves, and therefore he hopes.” The Beast turned to look into the forest, where the light had lowered and steadied. The sounds of an axe cleaving wood rang out through the woods. “He hopes ceaselessly, to keep her alive, to win her back from me, to live in some kind of peace with his loss. How long it can last I do not know--but it’s already been nearly three months and he’s still going strong!”
“Ah. They’ve usually sucumbed to despair by now?” Enoch asked, comprehending.
“Yes. And that’s fine, ordinarily, but lantern-bearers move around so much that I can’t get oil from them. Eventually I have to plant them by force, just to get a new one. Tiresome. But he still has vim and vigor. I’ve been sucking him down for days and it just keeps coming...”
Enoch rolled his head back to look straight at the sky and try not to smile. “You were made for each other.”
“I almost wonder, you know,” the Beast chirped, turning to pace back towards him. “Yes. I’m very, very pleased. He’s strong and hearty and loves his burden, and he’ll keep it safe for some goodly years to come. He hopes to save her--and others!”
The Beast reached out and laid a hand upon one of his tentacles. Enoch fought the urge to wrap the ribbon around the Beast’s wrist. He was charming when he was excited.
“That’s right, I nearly forgot the best part!” the Voice of the Night exclaimed. “He hopes for others! Just a moon ago he tried to warn some sad little orphan thing out of my woods, and he hoped for its survival for days and days.”
“Of course, in vain, don’t be absurd,” the Beast replied. “But the point is that he hoped.”
“Wonderful indeed.” The Beast made another hissing noise and this time the sound of rattling leaves was even louder. “I like him. He’s...pleasing.”
“I suppose you must feel this way about Pottsfield, although...well, I don’t really know what it is that you eat, come to think of it,” the Beast said thoughtfully.
“Not my citizens,” Enoch said coolly.
“No, obviously not. You love them,” the Beast shrugged. He watched the Woodsman for a few more moments, humming quietly.
“Do you sense the hopes of everything?” Enoch asked, after a moment or two.
The Beast’s voice came out half-sung. “Oh, yes. I can taste the hopes and fears of everything and anything.”
Enoch looked at the forest floor and dared that second step in. “What about me?”
The Beast’s head turned to stare at him. “...you?”
Enoch tilted his head back and made as if to turn away. “Ah. Obviously not everything, then. Good night, Hope-Eater.”
The Beast finally turned his attention completely away from that groaning Woodsman and took a few steps closer. Enoch watched as the white eyes rolled over him--he wondered what it must be like for the Beast to be incapable of looming.
“Do you hope, Harvest King?” the Beast asked. The voice of the Night was iced satin, as cold and pure and clear as crystal. “I would’ve thought there was nothing you needed…”
“Needed, no. But I have wishes, just like anyone.”
The Beast drew in his hissing breath and Enoch tried not to grin. “What can you want, other than the health and safety of your little town? It seems to me to be all that consumes your thoughts, Harvest King.”
Enoch watched, intrigued, as the Beast sized him up. There was a soft noise, something sliding wetly somewhere on the Beast’s face. He was licking whatever he had that passed for his lips.
“What could the king of the dead hope for?” the Beast crooned.
“You tell me, Beast.”
The Beast approached him and looked up at him with wide white eyes. The very merest tinge of red touched the centers of the wild gaze and Enoch smiled.
“An interesting game, prince of paradise,” the Beast breathed. “If I taste your hopes, I’m going to want to eat them. And I will eat them.”
“Perhaps so,” Enoch said.
“You challenge me in this, Harvest King?” the Beast asked. “After all these years, and at such risk? What shall become of Pottsfield, I wonder.”
“I don’t think there’s much risk in this, Beast.”
“How could there not be? When I would drink you down and make an Edelpumpkin out of you?”
“You might manage that, you well might. But then again--you had no notion that I did hope. Perhaps you won’t even get wind of it now, when I tell you I do.”
The Beast emitted a low little snarl and his hand shot out, seizing some of Enoch’s ribbons in a tight grip. The centers of his eyes had gone positively red, and a ring of yellow was forming around the red circles.
“You cannot say I never warned you,” said the Beast, his voice ringing vast and hollow.
Enoch leaned close. “Go on. See if you can catch it. I’m curious.”
Pulling himself close by his handful of tentacles, the Beast took a huge breath of air, face turning towards the junction between Enoch’s head and tentacles. Going for what passed for the jugular, Enoch thought rather dizzily; perhaps the scent of hope was strongest at a mortal’s pulse points. A few of his ribbons dithered precariously in the air until they finally settled, one draped daringly over the Beast’s shoulder.
The Beast smelled at him like an animal, sniffing in tight little breaths and spitting them out as quickly as they came. After many increasingly frenzied moments, he made a few wet noises, trying to taste the air, and finally pulled away with a snap of annoyance.
“Damn!” he snarled. “It’s the Woodsman--with him in the air I cannot taste anything else. There’s something in there, I can almost smell it, but…”
The Beast’s eyes widened. “Do not laugh at me, Harvest King, and do not think I cannot taste your amusement!”
Enoch bowed his head.
“As I thought,” the Beast said, pushing himself away. “There might be something you want, but you do not really hope. You have no need to. You’re perfectly satisfied with what you already have.”
“Though why you felt the need to make a fool of me I cannot imagine.”
“That was not my intention, my friend.”
Enoch rolled his head. “I do hope, Beast.”
“So you claim. But I tell you can I taste anything that hopes and fears and--”
The Beast’s head swiveled back to face him and tilted with a terrible, grinding crackle. “Oh…”
The woods went very, very dark. The moon fled like a startled bird and Pottsfield disappeared behind him. All that remained was the tiny point of the Woodsman’s light, away in the forest, illuminating nothing but burning like a star. The Beast’s great and terrible eyes rose up, above even Enoch’s head, and bored down into him.
Enoch reached out and tapped around where he guessed the Beast’s chin would be.
“I was wondering if you’d pick up on that,” he smiled.
Gradually the true starlight reappeared and the night woods settled around them. The Beast’s eyes sank back down and bled out their colors, and the Woodsman, still oblivious to the monsters in the forest, moved on.
“You do not fear me,” the Beast said in a tone of some uncertainty. “That is...terrifically strange.”
“No, really. I don’t wish to talk myself up, but I am the Death of Hope. The Beast of Eternal Darkness. I literally subsist off of the despairing souls of children.”
“I don’t really have or like children, so I’m afraid that’s a moot point for me--”
“What I’m trying to say here is that I am the reason people don’t go into the woods at night,” the Beast said. “And somehow you’re not afraid of me.”
Enoch wondered if the Beast was perfectly aware of the fact that he was the titanic be-tentacled ruler of the land of the dead, and consequently not exactly ‘people,’ and if not, if there was any way to delicately break the news to him. “I’m afraid I just don’t get scared like a mortal does.”
The Beast said nothing.
“Your picked bones problem again, although I’m not entirely sure that I am just bones underneath all this.”
“And all in all, it’s probably for the best that you won’t be trying to eat my hope any time soon,” Enoch observed. “There’s no guarantee I’ll despair like a mortal, either.”
The Beast closed his white eyes and for a moment Enoch wasn’t sure that he hadn’t just disappeared. He waited, trying to penetrate the shadows in the dark forest, and had almost given up and started to turn back to home when frozen light of the Beast’s starry, moonlit gaze appeared again, just where it had been before.
“I should be going on,” the Beast said. “I think I’ve been embarrassed enough for the next many, many centuries.”
“Oh, now, no need to be--”
“Anyway, I will not be getting anything out of the young man I brought you, and I must find a new sapling.”
“All right, my old friend,” Enoch smiled. “Thank you very much for the new citizen. If I find any living thing that wants to wander on, I’ll send them your way.”
The Beast looked at him. Enoch got the sense that he wasn’t particularly amused.
Enoch reached out and patted him on the shoulder. “You go on and take care of that fountain of yours.”
The Beast nodded and walked behind a tree, and was gone.
Enoch glided back towards Pottsfield and his new charge, humming the Woodsman’s tune.