The field was wide and wild, the earth-scent rich after the rain. The sky was gauzy gray over the grasses dotted with flowers. Scattered over the hills were lone-standing fruit trees, the soil around them sweet with rotten fruit, now picked over by birds.
His boots squished in the wet field, his pant-hems wet. It was the right place, a fertile place. They'd build the houses up there, safe from floods, and till the soil there for crops, and again there when the crops rotated, and the herds could graze there. There were enough trees to supply all the lumber necessary for homes and the firewood to keep them warm, while still hedging them in, out of sight of the outside world.
Walker was alone, scouting the land with a map scroll tucked in a waterproof case under his arm. His friends who agreed to his wild plan were back in the city collecting assets, and he was alone. His father had been murdered, and he was alone.
He produced the map and marked it as he went, circling patches of land in pencil. They'd bring no money, but their estates must be fairly divided, to avoid the greed that led to murder. Each had a fair share. There was more than enough here for everyone, and for the next generation, should one ever come.
Or maybe they'd wait out their grief, play out the silly lies until the darkness lifted, and go back to the cities and live out the rest of their lives. Maybe, maybe. Walker couldn't imagine ever returning.
Once his city-boy legs ached enough, he abandoned his cartography and made back for the edge of the woods. His boots squelched, his breath fogged before him with the cold, his fingers were going numb. He slung the map case over his shoulder again and rubbed his hands together before tucking them into the pockets of his wool jacket.
He breached the border of the woods. His stomach turned unexpectedly as if poisoned. Oh lord, would he get sick from lunch before he got back to a toilet? He'd have the others agree to proper plumbing.
He continued on. The air was still, the woods quiet but for the dripping of water off the leaves. No birds nor mammals stirred.
Walker paused and frowned. Surely this was the way he'd come, yet the small path he'd beaten wasn't there. He looked left and right - there was the fallen log to the left, orange with mushroom heads, and there was the boulder with the white streaks, to the right. But the path, where was the path that went between them?
Instead of a path, scattered leaves and branches. Walker produced his map again. The trail was supposed to be -
He looked up, and there it was again, the trail, and the leaves and branches had moved - were moving - were not leaves and branches at all.
Walker's breath caught and he stumbled back, tripping over his soggy pant legs, the map falling into the mud, a clawed foot falling onto the map a second later.
The creature's spined and mottled body, the quills and claws, the sparse trails of fur, were the colors of the woods themselves. It seemed a part of the forest come to life, its features hard to distinguish even in motion. Its claws left foot-long grooves through the map paper with a single step as it lurched, hunched forward over Walker. A cloud of hot breath billowed out from the end of its muzzle, and eyes like red berries searched him over.
He inhaled deeply to yell.
It growled to silence him, gargling like a muddy brook. "Do... not... scream."
He swallowed, shaking.
"Do... your best... not to scream," it said. It pulled up and back again, as big as a bear and lithe as a cougar, the map going up with its claws. "The others... will not... refrain... to kill you."
It seemed to form speech with difficulty around its very many, very large and very sharp teeth.
Walker could only nod, squeaking an affirmation.
"This image..." the creature growled. Its eyes darted down to the map. "Our woods. Why do you come?"
"I-I... I own... I own the land," Walker stammered.
The creature stared fixedly for an entire minute, then rumbled at length with what he hoped to god was mirth and not malice.
"What a silly lie," it said at last. "Did we... not make the message clear... the last time... the border was breached? Why have you... returned?"
"W-what? No, I - I've never been here," Walker said. "I bought the land -"
"Bought nothing," it snarled. "Only we own it. Only we... may allow passage. If you purchased... from a human... you have been misled."
That explained how it came so cheaply, why the owner was so eager to be rid of it, Walker thought.
"I wish to live here," Walker said. "I and six others. We... we wish to escape the wickedness of the cities."
"You wish," the creature said, "at what cost?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"You wish to live here... to buy the land," the creature said, slower, less patiently. It bent low over him again, its teeth close to his face, its breath hot in his eyes. "We are the owners. What will you pay... to us? You would take... our hunting land. What prey... shall we eat? You leave the cities... but belong to them... yourselves."
"We would bring livestock. You could have any share you wished," Walker said, "of our sheep, our pork -"
"Agreed," it interrupted. "But more... than prey... is at stake. Secrecy."
"Secrecy is needed," Walker said, nodding. "I've already - I began arrangements to seclude this place even further. To erect a high wall surrounding the perimeter, and guard houses every ten miles, staffed at all times to eject intruders. My people have no desire to travel back and forth once we settle here. We have lost everything that once mattered to us already, and with those things so lost what tethered us to the outside."
The creature pondered, and then lifted away again. It gave a shake of its foreclaws and dropped the map on Walker's lap.
"See to it... that your people... swear a sacred oath... to this effect," it said. "The fields... will be yours. The forests ours. A portion... of your prey, ours. Swear an oath... never to speak of us... never to approach us. My kind... is not merciful. Yours will be slain."
"I understand." Walker licked his dry lips and swallowed. "And so shall I make the others understand."
"Forsake... the cities," the creature said. "And bring not... the color red... within your borrowed fields."
It retreated, moving swiftly across the forest floor like water over a cascade, like sand through a sieve, disturbing not a twig and making no sound. In its wake was a silence like glass as the animals of the woods held still for the sake of their lives. Walker found himself unable to move for several minutes.
He collected the map and stowed it away again as he stood. He waited for the first tentative whistling of a bird before he felt safe to walk again. The path had been left clear for his passage out.
Of course he'd make them understand, because it was already far too late for anything else. Everything was sold or bought already, it was all moving forward. They'd agree to anything in their grief. They'd take any oath. They'd make any sacrifice.
"There did exist rumors of creatures in these woods," he told his daughter carefully. "In the history books of the cities."
One day, seven lost souls met with the emissary of the woods. Shortly those seven men and women were surrounded on all sides by the bristling hides and teeth of monsters, unspeakable, unspoken of.
Oaths were sworn, and blood was spilled, cut by claws and let to bleed on the forest floor. Should the oaths be broken, the rest would be taken until none remained in the oath-breaker's body.
"We will find him," he said, of Noah. "We will say he was killed by the creatures."
That would be a lie.
They did find him, in the pit that Ivy gave directions to. She wouldn't leave Lucius' side to show them, but for the better, they secretly felt. Better that she didn't hear it.
The creatures crouched over the pit, three of them, waiting for the elders to arrive, it seemed.
"The passage... of the maiden," one growled, while another slipped down the muddy walls toward Noah's body. "It has been paid for."
"Can we please, please can we have any of him? Anything to bury, please," Noah's mother cried.
"For each part spared..." the third creature said, "another paid with."
"The girl's body... left whole," said the first. "This man's body... kept whole."
"Noah entered the woods alone, and was killed by Those We Do Not Speak Of," Walker announced to the villagers.
He coughed, wrung his hands a bit, and went on, "We were... unable to recover his body. It had been consumed in its entirety."
That was not a lie.