If I can keep it up for the next twenty days, I will have completed my self-imposed challenge: writing and publishing at least 1000 words each day for one year straight.
Now, to celebrate the ending of the challenge, I have decided to write something a little different, a novella set in the world of Patina (so expect vast amounts of post-apocalyptic drama, dark magic and body horror), with each chapter inspired by a major arcana tarot card… and of course by the retelling of a certain folk tale.
Up until a few years ago, this area of the forest was still inhabited.
When travellers to and from the coastal settlements have to pass through this area, they can readily see the difference: the grey pines that comprise most of the woods look straighter and younger than they are used to. The air smells thicker, darker and richer than usual, with a clear hint of ash. And sometimes they pick up a molten spoon or the burnt handle of a pickaxe from the ground, a reminder of the baleful event that took place there.
If they are lucky, they can even spot the wizened figure of a lonesome woodcutter, a man used to be tall and that now age has bent into a hooked wanderer. His eyes will be clear and his smile ready. He will engage in trade and sharing news of that little corner of the world. And if you are curious and feel like asking, he will tell you why that patch of land carries such wound.
I have been one of those patient and curious wanderers, many years ago. I have kept the story to myself for too long, and it is now time for you to know.
This is how he passed it down to me.
Once upon a time, about seventy years after mankind’s fall in the Eldritch War, there used to be a small village of survivors, built around a steel processing plant from the old world. As it always is with every by-product of industrial might from the Ereworld, the processing plant shielded survivors from the forest and provided them with a modicum of protection.
They named the place Ferravia, thankful for the protection brought to them by iron. And for a while, all was good.
By winter, when the forest howled with hunger and the Eerie slithered out of their holes and the shadows of the Old Country to prey upon the living, the villagers would withdraw behind the iron walls of the plant and let the rusted iron and the clear industrial purpose of its ponderous shape turn the Eerie the other way.
Thus they endured for about thirty years since the fall. But in time, iron began to flake and the protection to fade. Year after year, hungry things began to encroach the village and their sharp talons began to leave deep scratches against the walls.
Those would soon turn into open gashes, and then the Eerie would find a way in, and the forest would claim yet another village.
But at around that time, a woman came back to Ferravia. She had been outside the village to learn and improve her trade, and during her journeys she had picked up on many useful skills and learned many powerful spells.
With one of these, she devised a new kind of protection that would preserve Ferravia further.
And thus, the settlement endured forty more winters.
As both the slow stars and quick streaked their bright dance across the sky, the village began to grow and the first hints of actual prosperity began to appear in the eyes of its inhabitants.
And one bright summer day, grand-daughter of the woman who had saved the village waited on the threshold of her house, biting her lip.
Her eyes shone at the sight of the grey pines beyond Ferravia’s borders. She was old enough to take husband, but part of her mind still lingered towards the forest and its mysteries. She was supposed to know better.
But to her, summer was a chance to wander between the pines in relative safety, and look for the remnants of the old world. Perhaps she would find an abandoned book, or a plastic relic, or a rifle!
Her most prized possession, and one that her mother had gifted her on her twelfth birthday was an ancient cloak of the brightest crimson. Its fibres had been made in the Ereworld and so they withstood the passage of time much better than wool.
It was not cotton (it would have been much more precious then), but the industrial fibre would provide her a modicum of protection. She was so in love with that cloak that she wore it almost constantly, and even if she had been gifted it more than six years before, it had yet to show and wear and tear. Thus people in Ferravia began to call her Rossa and it became her nickname, to the point even her mother started to use it.
“Here,” she said giving her a basket full to the brim with food and provisions for her grandmother, who lived alone deep in the forest, “this is everything for the week. Can you carry it?”
“It’s a bit heavy,” Rossa grimaced, as the basket was almost as wide as her shoulders, but she could carry it fine enough. “But I will manage.”
“Come back at least one hour before sundown,” her mother admonished her, “and stay on the white road. And do not reply to the voices!”
“I know where to walk,” she replied with a grin. Then she hugged her mother and sprinted off, swaying a bit under the weight of the basket. “And I will stay silent!”
The people of Ferravia waved at her as she passed and Rossa waved back. She was considered a bit strange, but she was still the grand-daughter of the woman who had saved their settlement, and so she enjoyed a bit of respite for her weirdness, from spending so much time in the forest to not having a husband yet.
Rossa waled past the iron sheets that made up Ferravia’s walls, noticing the deep marks left by the Eerie forty years before. Neither rain nor snow had managed to truly erase them. It was easy to forget they lived in a dangerous world now that summer was so hot and bright.
She took the white path through the forest, the wide road bounded by regular white stones. They shone polished and clean, shaped like honeycombs, and they were the best protection ever offered to Ferravia. The forest beyond looked verdant and inviting, but Rossa stayed on the path, even as her eyes looked for signs of treasure just beneath the needle-covered ground.
Air brought the smell of resin and fertile soil, and she felt at home in this secluded place, away from the constricting walls of home. Maybe this was how mankind used to feel before the war. Rossa wondered, not for the last time, how it would have been to be born back then.
Maybe she could have owned more than one red fibre cloth, but that would have made this less special.
A smile tugging on her lips, she walked down the path.
She did as her mother had said – and ignored the whispers coming from between the dark trees.
For the time being.