Winter was vast.
He’d long lost count of how many little hamlets and homes had been carved out of his Woods. They were built up, those charming little places, by mortals hacking down old oaks and firs and building, log by log, with their strong hands. Fires had always blown cheerful columns of smoke into the cold air and little families ran around in his eternal Winter, throwing snowballs and visiting Grandma and waiting for a sledded saint who never came.
First the children came to him, so small and curious, so easily beguiled, each a tender little springing bud. Then the supple young creatures came after the children, burningly eager to prove themselves heroes or escape the punishment of their elders. Then the adults, driven out of home and safety out of protective fear.
In time he returned the favor and did not make them leave their houses. He paid the courtesy of personally visiting the snowy old ones, waiting with limbs too weak to stoke the fire in their little homes so cold. Winter met winter, and he crossed their thresholds in the night to take them into the dark.
They all called him the Beast. He supposes that’s as good a name as any.
Now and then he comes across the ruined foundations of this or that little town, or cottage, or even church. Winter makes mincemeat of these places, mountains of snow breaking in strained roofs, cold beyond endurance shaking cabins into bits, ice slowly chewing through the markers of final resting places. Some places he hasn’t seen in centuries, and they are marked only by the remains of the last watchman, minding his post even as he stands a twisted tree in what was once his town square.
Every one he consumes, he remembers, from the frozen babies to the tender maids with red hands, from the burly axemen with icicles in their beards to the blind and wizened granddams who outlived their kits. They fed him and became something like his flesh, and they doze in a mottled ache when he walks in these places. Sometimes they make a yearning in him that is not his own, but that is all.
They have faded, but he and his Winter have endured.
He likes it when new territories are carved out of his Winter. The hope in a new home is enough to let him linger in perfect contentment on the borders of these places, sometimes for years, while elsewhere he minds the work of harvesting his orchards. The people come with food and youth and strength and by and by they all find their way into his arms.
Sometimes he’s not sure how long a place has been there, for of course no one would build near such a cursed and blighted thing as an Edelwood tree, and that is where he can feel his forest the strongest. Roads are gored into the fringes of his Woods, but people tend not to go too deep, if they can help it, so he lets that be. If the growth of roads encourages mortals to believe him nothing but a ghost story, so much the better.
He follows those roads sometimes, and sees strange sights. But most of the time he spends in his Winter, surveying his grounds, singing to his trees, instructing his lantern-bearer, and often searching for new servants.
He has an eye on the witch-maid who lives with her sisters, the mother and crone, out near the edges of the lake. She would be an excellent steward.
And then, of course, there’s Pottsfield. It’s on the very edge of his Woods, high towards the North East, truly a part of the Autumn lands. He passes it very infrequently, but it is always the same. Perhaps things do not change so easily in Autumn.
He cannot remember there never having been a Pottsfield. It comes right up to the Woods of Winter, but it goes no farther. Perhaps the magistrate knows the boundaries of safety without needing to be told.
The area seems perfectly settled, a lovely town and more than an acre of field around it. When he passes by, he wanders the outskirts of the town, examining the sweet red-roofed houses and high, handsome church, the big barns and low, tidy little shacks. He’s rarely seen a prettier township.
On this particular visit, he pauses at the Southernmost edge of the valley. He likes to stop here and sip the air, because its flavor is always so odd. He turns it around on his tongue and frowns to himself. Pretty Pottsfield is, but scentless, like a poinsettia. Strange indeed. He has always thought that a town that size should be jagged and pinched with hope.
But all he can smell is a slow sweet hum of contentment, dark and almost drunk, warming the back of his mouth and burning down his throat the way the fragrance of the Winter-wracked cottages once had. He can almost put his finger on it, but it evades him to the last.
There’s nothing that Pottsfield fears. They’re no threat of a Beast, no looming dread of the approaching snow. They’re happy here. Calm and still and silent as the grave--at least, when it’s a grave he hasn’t touched. Why?
Strange, strange little place.
He wanders on, leaving the mystery by. It's hardly his concern, after all, and it’s past time he checked on his lantern-bearer. He has found to his disgust that she needs minding. She's a ragged little creature who is convinced she’s got her baby brother’s soul lighting her way. She’s too weak to run a mill by herself, so she taps the trees for their sap and boils that down to oil.
It takes too long. He could do that himself. He wants someone who can swing an axe and grind the grist. She’s going in the ground just as soon as he can get a replacement.
He sings, and plants, and wanders in the darkness. He dons disguises to trick little ones--a favorite is the guise of a beautiful, celestial queen, with promises of an easy return home. He's not perfectly sure why children trust that disguise so unthinkingly. Statistically speaking, not all of these little ones can have beautiful mothers, but nothing gets them to die of a broken heart like a beautiful woman betraying them.
Time rolls by.
He comes back, eventually, to the contented town with its beautiful field, and finds to his absolute astonishment that it has grown. The fields now roll for almost five or six acres, with the town pressed quite a bit away from the trees of his forest. The border hadn’t been there before.
They have chopped down his trees. Acres and acres of his trees.
It is as unaccountable as it is unacceptable. Of course, towns have always grown up like toadstools in Winter, but they’ve always contracted. They don’t reach this size.
He glowers at the pretty barns and steeples. Towns in Winter don’t smell this calm, or feel this warm. They have come into his Winter and made it feel almost like a late summer night.
Corn is growing here. Pumpkins, too. Trees full of apples stand in neat little rows behind the church.
He likes it when people move into his Winter, yes, because they feed him. But there's no hope here, no dread, and moreover he’s never seen anyone so invade and so change his Winter.
He decides that it’s time for them to taste fear.
He watches the town for a fair while. The people are strange, unlike anything he’s seen before. They go around in peculiar garments, and he’s helplessly reminded of one of his souls, a lost reveler in an animal mask who had wandered into the Unknown while celebrating something called Courir de Mardi Gras. That one had had a dark, strange soul, all twisted up with nightmares, and they had made his oil burn so keen and wild. That mortal was still in here, lost somewhere in the deep and tortured caverns of his being.
These people in Pottsfield are wearing vegetable masks, for some unaccountable reason. Perhaps a similar celebration was going on? Perhaps a cult?
It doesn’t matter.
He selects his first victim carefully. The first victim matters. They must be the town’s dawn and jewel, the sun that shines on their bleak midwinter village. When he snuffs out that sun, the town begins to rot. If the sun stays, the rest of the town clings on, willing to fight, without beginning to discover just how bleak the Winter is.
He finds her. She’s small and likely very tender, a little stumblesome but apparently bright and curious. She goes to and from church, to and from the biggest barn, to and from the little house he eventually realizes is a place lending out books. She takes daily walks, a risky business. Decorated like a little lady, though one made entirely of plant-products, she must be someone’s cherished daughter and likely the object of some young swain’s affections. They’ll come after her into the Woods.
On dark nights he sings the gay hymn of the axe. He knows they must hear it in their houses, must wonder who goes there. He doesn’t sing the song of temptation yet. It must wait until she’s already lost and looking for help, and when that time comes he’ll make the Woods thunder with it.
Shrouded in the darkness of the trees, less than a league away, he senses them murmuring and watching the Woods. They know he’s here. Good.
His victim takes her walk in the late afternoon, when the sun is going down. He digs through his fur for the right bait and comes out with the shining ring he’d taken from a spinster maiden, her last gleaming grandeur dangling from the branch one of her fingers had made. It’s the sort of thing to tempt a pretty young girl, he thinks.
He sets it down just a few trees into the Woods, steps behind an oak, and waits.
She comes, humming as she passes. She walks easily along, long skirt swishing against the ground.
Wrapped in some unseen reflections of her own, she doesn’t see her bait.
He frowns, snatches up the ring again, and races her to another pretty spot.
He sets it down again, closer to the edge of the Woods this time, and makes sure the fading light catches it and makes it gleam. Better. As she passes, he makes a noise like an owl. Her head turns and she looks into the woods.
“Oh,” she says. She sees the ring.
She pauses. Hums. And walks on.
He growls to himself. Well, it’s irritating, no two ways about that. But it’s not unprecedented, that a victim should have some kind of wariness or lack of constitution for adventures of this kind.
The next several times she goes a-walking, he lets her be.
After that, he leaves a book only two trees deep in the woods, where she can’t possibly miss it, opens it to the most beautiful illustration, and waits.
She is walking with another person that day, and he seethes quietly behind his tree. He can’t fetch her out like this, not with a witness. It will eliminate the dread and mystery. Why, they might even come into the forest and try to hunt him out, for all the good it would do the little fools.
He lets her take the book. He has no choice. And at least now she’ll believe she has nothing to fear from the forest. He thinks he's willing to wait her out.
He usually enjoys playing long game with mortals. He doesn’t mind being patient with them. ‘Patient’ means a very different thing to a mortal.
But after a few moons it's clear that his little victim will not go along with him. She won’t enter the woods without a companion, not for anything, not for a cry for help or the sound of beautiful singing.
So he has to show his hand a bit.
Every three days she walks with a companion. He has to wait for it, but at last he picks a dim, heavily overcast day, with just a little roll of fog coming out of the woods. Not enough to keep her indoors, but enough to diminish visibility from the town. He covers his lantern, freshly retrieved from his former servant, and hides its light in his fur.
Parts of a pumpkin patch abut on his forest, and it shall be the work of an instant to have her in his clutches and gone.
He waits, watching from the woods. He smiles to himself as she comes.
She walks alone. She passes him by.
He moves slowly out of the Woods and into the pumpkin patch, moving through the crops silently. He needs only a moment, only the merest second, and she’ll be his. He’ll drag her into the darkness and turn her loose in the wild Woods without even the sun to guide her, and perhaps she’ll go to earth as an Edelpumpkin.
He’s certain her oil will be sweet.
He scents the air, eager to get that last sniff of contentment from her before he shatters it like a frozen pane of glass.
He reaches out a hand towards her. Straw has been twisted into plaits for her hair and he thinks that those will make a lovely handle.
A fingertip brushes her straw--he holds his breath, feeling his eyes widen in his head--and something coils around his ankle and pulls.
He’s on his back, being dragged at an extraordinary rate through the fields. He barely has the presence of mind to snatch at his lantern and protect it with one withered arm as he’s hauled by his ankle around pumpkins and through a small, prickly sea of corn stalks.
He twists around and reaches out a hand, clawing deep into the earth and scoring it as he goes. Prying at the grip around his ankle with his free leg, he manages to get his lantern’s handle between his teeth and dig his other hand into the earth. It takes all his strength, but he resists the pull.
He might break free.
The grip on his leg loosens for an instant, as if surprised to be resisted, and he tugs away. He rolls up onto his feet, crouching in the corn and shining the light of his soul down on his attacker.
It’s a thick green vine with a tapered point. For a ridiculous instant he thinks it must be a very confused snake, but then he sees the leaves sprouting off of it. It looks like a pumpkin vine.
He lost his knife further back in the fields. Damn.
The vine recovers from its apparent bewilderment and whips out again, lashing in his direction. He ducks and lets out a hiss of pain, feeling it snap off a brittle part of his right antler. Agonizing, but he has other things to worry about. He grabs the vine, twists it harshly, and holds it until its thrashing protests slowly cease.
At length, he drops it to the ground. There.
One problem solved.
He’s just glanced the sky and begun to calculate how much more time he has until darkness falls and he can walk upright back to the Woods, when the vine surges out of its feint and coils around him rapidly, sliding up around his legs and holding them together as another vine bursts out of the corn and wraps around his neck.
They drag him the rest of the way across the field, out of the corn, through another unaccountable pumpkin patch, and bring him up behind the biggest barn in town. Releasing him very suddenly, they give him a hard shove through the barn doors.
He sprawls inelegantly on his face on the barn floor as the doors slam shut behind him.
There is at least the mercy that the barn is dim. The light of an ordinary oil lantern spills down from the ceiling, but it’s mighty far away. Oh, no light but that from his own lantern can illuminate him, but it's still uncomfortable to be about in the daylight. Lying on his face, he hikes his fur up around him and tries to catch his breath.
The smell of the town is concentrated in this barn. Dark, sweet, thick and almost alcoholic, and as warm and acrid as a burned-white coal. Not a bonfire. A cook fire. Home. Hearth. And something else...
“Well, well, well,” says a voice from above and the memory clicks--molasses. “What have we here?”
The Beast picks himself up slowly, tucking his lantern away beneath his fur to keep it hidden and safe. He looks up at the origin of the voice, and finds himself staring at a colossal head, leering down at him from its mount atop a beribboned maypole.
Some of the ribbons move, curling up like the tentacles of an affronted octopus.
“Care to tell me what you’re doing in our little town?” the head asks, although its lips did not move. The head leaned down to look closely at him. “And just what you were trying to do to Miss Clara Deen?”
He stares. He has no explanation for that, not one he’ll admit to, at least.
The head’s eyes narrow. “I’m afraid it looks very much to me like you’re a trespasser here.”
Now that, he cannot bear.
“No,” he says. “You are the trespasser.”
This does seem to startle the head. It rolls back, eyes narrowing in confusion, now. “I? I don’t think I understand you.”
“You’ve been cutting down my forest in your expansion,” he says. “Every tree you fell belongs to me. I was willing to overlook it, but you never paid any dues, and you were growing larger.”
The head tilts to the side. “You mean to tell me that you own these Woods?”
“Then that was you, singing in the wilderness at night?”
He isn’t used to being asked questions. Perhaps it’s time to cut this conversation short. If the scent is anything to believed, this is where to strike if he wants to destroy the whole town quickly.
That’s becoming a very attractive prospect.
He glances up at that lantern hanging from the ceiling and sucks in. The light of that little flame, all the ambient glow from the outside world, everything but the cold star of his own lantern pulls within him, burning in his eyes. He stretches up to meet that head straight-on.
“Yes,” he growls. “It was me. I am called the Beast of Eternal Darkness.”
The head does not cower. It does not flinch or squeak. Its eyebrows, or what would’ve been its eyebrows if it had any, do rise, but it seems to be more interested than fearful.
Strange, strange little place.
“Ah,” the head says, and he watches in the light of his own eyes as its mouth moves at last. The corners of the greenish lips twist slowly upwards. “I’ve heard of you. The Hope-Eater, isn’t that right? You turn people’s bodies into oil trees. To be honest, I thought you were just a myth.”
“I am no myth,” he says. “And you’ll be the one to prove it. Are you ready to see true darkness, creature?”
It would not take much to kill this thing, he thinks. A quick twist of the head on the maypole body, break whatever it has for a neck. Oh, or perhaps a neat little puncture. Nothing elaborate.
The head speaks. “Not just yet, no.”
There is a tug within him and he finds himself staring at his own lantern.
He rears back, grunting painfully, desperate to escape the light even as he snatches for the handle of the lamp. In the returning light allowed by his broken concentration, he can see the head holding his lantern in one of its tentacles further away and out of his grasp.
He shrinks back to the floor, in agony.
“This is important to you, isn’t it?” the head asks. It holds up the lantern. “I’ve heard all manner of thing about this pretty bauble of yours. You keep your soul in it, a loved one’s soul, the soul of your master--”
“I haven’t got one of those,” he replies, bristling.
The head grins. “Ah. Of course not.” It swings the lantern insolently from its loose grip. “So we’re the trespassers, are we? That does put a different face on the matter.”
He rests on the floor, watching warily at the head begins to sway. Its tentacles ripple across the ground and he realizes the creature is pacing.
“After all, I suppose there’s room to say the land is ours on account of our using it while you let it go to waste,” the head says. “But that isn't perfectly right, if we had to cut down your trees to do it--and the expansion did take a little of that, I confess it. We had an influx of impoverished dead, you see. Plague of some variety, I suppose. We had to have more room.”
He didn’t see, and he didn’t reply.
“And just how long have you owned these woods?” the head asks.
“I have always owned them,” he replies slowly, looking up at the head. “As long as there has been a forest, I have ruled it. I have always been."
The head nods. "As have I. I have been in these places since riches first went into a tomb. When first a hole in the Earth was filled with death, I was present.”
He was as old as the wilderness, and the head was as old as the tomb.
“Then you own that I have the prior claim to the land," the Beast says.
“I never denied it,” the head replies. “But I cannot give the land back. I have my duties to fulfill, same as you.” The tentacles wiggles the lantern and makes it gleam.
He growls. “And so you will simply live on my stolen land, old one? For how long?”
“Enoch,” the head says.
The Beast frowns, thrown. “I believe you mean 'epoch.'”
The head grins. “No, my fine neighbor. That was my name. Enoch. You have no need to call me ‘old one.’ We don’t need to stand on ceremony, I'm sure.”
“When will you stop growing?” the Beast asks.
“I’m hopeful that the answer to that is ‘never,’” the head, Enoch, replies dryly.
The Beast smiles humorlessly. Enoch was not hopeful. Enoch was certain.
“Then your hopes must be disappointed,” he says, “because I will take them away one by one, slowly into the darkness with me, and your town will--”
A few tentacles shoot out and wrap around his neck, hefting him off the ground. They squeeze tight and if he needed to breathe, he’d be in some rather serious trouble.
“No, Beast,” Enoch says, bringing him up to eye level. “You will not touch my townspeople.”
“Will I not?” he purrs.
The tentacles squeeze even tighter, but he doesn't breathe that way, so it hardly matters. He smiles to himself.
“That doesn’t work on me, old one," he croons. "What can you do to keep me from taking your little villagers as I like?”
“I believe I’ve proven myself pretty capable of defending my people. I’ll warn them off of you.”
“There are always curious ones,” he murmurs. “You can’t keep them out of the forest if they want to go. And if they want to go, they’re mine.”
“They won’t want it. They won’t go.”
“So you claim.” He rolled his head against the tentacles. “Now, put me down. I think perhaps you got a little over-excited.”
Enoch acquiesces and deposits him once more on the barn floor. “If you want hope or oil from them, you won’t get any. The only reason for you to take my villagers would be sheer spite.”
“And why do you say that?”
Enoch tilts his head for a moment, thinking, before he waves a tentacle towards the corner of the barn. “Wait there, if you will.”
The Beast narrows his eyes slightly and steps into the deep shadow, feeling much more at ease the moment the darkness shrouded him. No way of telling how much Enoch had seen in the light of the lantern, but at least here he’s completely covered.
Enoch clears his throat. “Flagsman Brown,” he calls, “could I borrow a moment of your time?”
After a moment, the doors creak open to admit another pumpkin person. This one is decorated like a young man with a scarf around his neck, and he carries a tall staff with a flag attached to the top.
“What can I do for you, Enoch?” Flagsman Brown asks.
“I believe you were one of the first to get the fresh crops this year, weren’t you?” Enoch asks. “May I ask how it’s holding up?”
Flagsman Brown taps the side of his pumpkin-helmet. “Well enough, thank you. I’ll be glad of a new one sooner or later but there’s nothing wrong with this one.”
“Might I see it? I’d like to know when to go out to cut in the fields.”
Flagsman Brown leans his tall burden against the door and, with a hard little jerk, pops the pumpkin off of his head.
From the corner, the Beast stares. Beneath the pumpkin is a skull, bleached white and toothy, with two little pinpoints of light within its eye sockets.
Enoch reaches out with two tentacles and picks up the pumpkin head, squeezing it a little. “Mm, I see. It is getting on a little, isn’t it? Does your body fare the same?”
“Oh, more or less, yes. The straw’s holding up very well. My bones don’t get cold hardly at all, but then we have had nice weather.”
“Indeed,” Enoch murmurs. “Well, thank you for your time, Flagsman. I’ll have to bring in some new pumpkins soon enough.”
“Of course, Enoch. If you’ll excuse me, I must get to my rounds.”
“Naturally. And do keep an eye on the forest borders, won’t you?”
“You’ve got a bad feeling?”
“Oh, no, not at all. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. But strange things come in the night, don’t they? Might as well keep a weather eye out. I’ll take my patrol in another hour or two and relieve you.”
“Right. I’ll be off.”
The Flagsman sticks his head back in his pumpkin, catches up his flag, and leaves the barn, closing the door behind him.
The Beast looks up at Enoch.
“What are you?” he asks. Maypoles simply do not live in barns, attended by skeleton servants. Enoch is no mortal thing.
“The lord of Pottsfield, of course,” Enoch replies. “Although I prefer the term ‘mayor’ or ‘magistrate.’ Now, I trust I’ve demonstrated my point about my townspeople? If you’re the Beast of Eternal Darkness, I suppose you must’ve wanted my dear Miss Clara Deen for a tree, not for a seduction?”
The Beast thinks about that. Enoch’s dear Miss Clara Deen? He must have picked upon the magistrate’s bride-to-be. Oh, it would have been a crushing blow to the town, if he could’ve had her in his orchard. But that’s by the by. The skeletal secret certainly explains lack of hope or fear in the air. What could the dead hope for? What could they dread, now that the worst was over?
Why, if he had taken that girl, he like as not would have waited in vain for the cold or fear to affect her. And who knew what she’d have turned into, even if she could die?
“Yes," he murmurs. "I see your point."
“I’m afraid you shall get nothing out of them, neither hope nor trees. They’re long dried and withered.”
“I understand. I had wondered why this place smelled so queer,” he admits. “I suppose that is my answer.”
“Queer? No indeed. Just peaceful.” Enoch rolls his head around and leans down. The Beast watches the curve of the titanic spine and wonders on just what kind of maypole this creature rested, if any.
“A vast dead swath cut out of my Woods?” the Beast asks. “Carved out, and growing? I don’t call that particularly peaceful.”
Enoch smiles. “A fair point, neighbor. But we can’t possibly give it back. We’re established here. We’ve got crops and homes.”
“Everything sinks into darkness eventually,” he replies. “And I can be very patient.”
“Good,” Enoch says. “Then I’m sure you won’t mind waiting us out, while we carry on.”
He narrows his eyes. “Advance no farther into my Woods.”
“I can’t promise it.”
“I can clear any expansion with you, of course,” Enoch murmurs. “So as not to obtrude upon your lands more than decency allows. Perhaps we can cut ourselves a deal?”
He should be offended. Deals are lies. He cuts deals with mortals to trick them into death. This overweeningly proud maypole can have nothing to offer him.
But how does one attack a town whose people may not die? If he scatters them, what keeps them from moving into his forest and simply staying in little pockets in the Woods? They’re strange and quite possibly undying, and they’ll scare off little families and towns, and those very people, still full of dread and hope, will move into Autumn and survive, beyond his grasp.
Is it better to have one huge dead patch or a thousand little dead pinpricks, all mobile, all ungoverned?
This way, at least he can barter.
“What do you propose?” he asks.
“Well, say what you like, we do make the place look habitable, don’t we?” Enoch observes. “And if we make the region look habitable, what’s to stop people from inhabiting it? You might get some nearer neighbors who are little more pleasing to your discriminating palate.”
This is very true. Surely this town will have some kind of trade with others, and he’s not particularly good at establishing the kind of false sense of security that lures people to settle close. Desperate refugees are his main fare, and they are delicacies, but like all true delicacies, they can be very rare.
“And that’s what your proximity benefits me?” he asks. “I refrain from poaching your game--”
“A game useless to you, I would remind you.”
“--and attempting to press your town untimely into oblivion, and in exchange you’ll sacrifice your neighbors to me? How mercenary.”
Enoch grins at him.
“What care have I for anything beyond my borders?” he asks. “My business is with the dead, not the dying.”
That is very reasonable.
“And what do you get?” he asks.
“The Beast of Eternal Darkness as my friendly neighbor,” Enoch replies. “No more attacks on my townspeople from that corner, and I'm certain that makes for a border I hardly have to patrol at all. I think very little escapes your Woods without your say-so.”
Is that truly all? The Beast wonders and turns the idea over in his mind. It seems so cheap, so very little to ask, when stacked against fresh fuel.
But then, they have met one another, and to some minds that would mean they know each other. Is it a small thing, to live beside the Devil one knows, instead of the unknowable void?
“And is this all you have to offer?” he asks.
“That, and of course we’ll share information over our fence posts, like good neighbors do,” Enoch smiles. “Trade cups of sugar and suchlike.” He winks.
The Beast is not particularly used to receiving winks, so he ignores it.
“So be it,” he agrees. “Cut down no Winter trees without my permission. I will not touch your crops, nor your game, nor your houses. Such will be our border-agreement.”
“We have an accord, my dear neighbor,” Enoch replies, and extends tentacles towards him, apparently intending a physical seal on their agreement. How mortal. How quaint. But perhaps these things are necessary, when one is the Lord of the Peaceful Dead.
He takes the tentacle and grips it hard. “My lantern, if you’ll be so good.”
Enoch smiles more on one side than the other. “Ah, yes. I suppose you can’t be forgetting that. Seems mighty important, if I may observe as much.”
“You may observe it all you like,” he replies coldly, “but I must insist that you return it.”
“Of course, Hope-Eater, of course.”
The tentacles extend to over the lamp and he reaches out to take it.
The tentacles dart back and his hand closes on empty air.
Enoch speaks. “Ah! But I’m not being very host-like, am I? Let me just fill it up for you before you go on your way. We have perfectly fine lamp-oil--”
“NO,” he snaps, striding forward and reaching out for it again. “No, just--”
The tentacles hold it away once more and their owner chuckles. “No need to be so fastidious. This will only take a moment, I assure you--”
“JUST--” He stops short and tries to compose himself. “Just. Give me my lantern.”
“Mm-hmm,” Enoch hums knowingly. Enoch looks down at him with an expression of hard consideration and he finds himself straightening up so as not to give any impression of quailing. “I thought as much. There are rumors in these parts of the world, Hope-Eater. I’ve heard things about you. I wonder how many of those things will prove to be true.”
The Beast considers his newly-met neighbor.
Enoch has a voice like molasses. Sugar and fire. Temptation and absolute destruction.
It’s a simple enough recipe, but he thinks he’d be a fool to forget how potent each ingredient is, even on its own.
He holds out his hand and at last Enoch hands him his lantern. He takes it with a grip just this side of covetous and holds it close to him, finally able to breathe easy.
“Let me see you to your Woods,” Enoch offers.
“For the sake of precaution?” he dares.
“Oh, no, nothing of the kind,” Enoch replies. “Just pleased to escort you, if I may.”
They leave the barn and in the gloaming he gets a clearer look at the lord of Pottsfield. He’s tall, much taller than the Beast himself, and those tentacles move with an unsettling liveliness. He seems to sway as he goes, and his pace is slow and steady. It almost makes one forget how fast he can snap his strange limbs.
They reach the borders of Pottsfield and the Beast carefully memorizes the distance from the first tree to the barn. If they doctor that limit by so much as a foot…
Pumpkin vines or no, Autumn-land or no, he’ll sink this place into darkness.
“Fare thee well, neighbor,” Enoch says.
“Yes,” the Beast replies.
“Do come on back sometime soon. We’d be happy to host you, particularly during our harvest time.”
The Beast slowly nods to that strange solicitude, unnecessary though it is, and walks into the dimness of his forest. He hangs his lantern from his left antler.
Time to find a new bearer. He can’t be holding onto the lamp, not if he’s going to be in peril like that on any kind of regular basis.
Enoch’s prediction comes to pass into truth, and things change.
A schoolhouse appears not far from Pottsfield, perhaps three miles walk in the Autumn woods. Children with snouty faces and sticky-outty ears stumble and dither around it, and in time he’ll pluck them like berries--but they have a ways to go, to get to his lands.
Up pops a tavern, closer South and West and riding on the very limit of his Woods. Some nights he watches the comings and goings out of that little house in the dale. They are much more ripe for the picking, and every now and then he takes one or two into his orchard.
They write a song about him. He likes it, and the fear that pours out of the place is delicious.
He gets a lost lumberjack to take up the cause of the lamp. His bearer strong and hard, and he fears death. The Beast has promised to put his soul in the lantern, in exchange for the lumberjack’s services.
As the Beast moves through the Woods at night, the far-away sound of chopping pleases him thoroughly and he likes to hear how the swings of the axe start to coincide with the beat of his joyful hymn to the blade.
He feels good. His light burns bright in those huge hands.
He wonders when the lumberjack will discover the lie, and if he will have to make the mortal's mirrors show only his wishes for a while.
He quietly causes a splinter of witches, driving the crone insane. She moves away to live in the prairie with her back to the Woods, and he works on her carefully. She does as he commands.
Only two left. The maid will be so very easy to catch, soon.
He keeps an eye on Pottsfield and the lord thereof. If the Harvest King marries his dear Miss Clara Deen, the Beast misses the ceremony. It is a peaceful place, and it is pretty, although the air is dead and the people don’t particularly strain themselves for anything. He begins to wonder if Pottsfield ever will diminish, if it doesn’t truly grow in the first place. They pull a queer sort of crop in Pottsfield, but then perhaps it’s not for him to say what’s odd, agriculturally speaking.
He and the mayor of Pottsfield have their little tête-à-têtes in the borders, and Pottsfield does not outstretch its agreed bounds. Seven acres is enough for many, many years.
Every now and then, when he's passing by, he thinks he might hear Enoch singing. He must be rubbing off on the Harvest King, he thinks.
Sometimes, as he passes, he pauses and stands, watching a land where death offers sweetness and comfort. A yearning that is not his own works within him. He nears the border in pursuit of any news, or so he tries to think, as his sublimated parts strain for a peace he cannot have and does not, for himself, truly even want.
Enoch will usually oblige with conversation, if nothing else, and it makes the yearning less unsettling.
All in all, he thinks they make very good neighbors.