“Winter is a bitter season, the variety of food and flavours are bland. But a warm roll of rye bread baked by loving hand’s can warm the coldest hearts.”
“I’m sorry about my brothers out burst. He can be so insensitive sometimes.” Monarda apologised to Soil, who was walking quickly alongside her. Doing his best to keep up with her long stride.
“You don’t have to apologise, I know what having a sibling can be like.” Soil replied, “It’s clear that Brook cares about you. His anger and frustration shows this, he’s just unsure of how to communicate that care to you.”
“Oh it isn’t that, trust me. My brother is just rotten because he isn’t the head man in the family.” Monarda finished her sentence as she approached the doorway to her own house, that she lived in with her partner, Phlox.
Soil stared up at the marvellous homestead. It’s dark timber framework had been elegantly crafted and the multitude of pieces interconnected in a seamless, satisfying, fashion. Unlike many of the other homes in the village, this marvel made use of black brick to construct its walls. Rather than using the common, and cheaper, method of using wattle and daub. The building had it’s own yard, that sprouted a variety of green winter plants. White bulbs of garlic could be seen reaching out from beneath the dirt, as rows of leafy spinach.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the house was a stable that connected to it. Housed within was a great brown mare, whose head hung over the stable door. It’s large friendly eyes looked upon Soil as he gazed upon the large homestead.
He wasted no time in following Monarda into the house, of which the front door stood at a height that accommodated her towering stature. As the pair entered he hallway they were greeted by a sea of delightful smells. The aroma of sweet boiled herbs wafted throughout every nook and crannies of the house. Soil mouth began to water uncontrollably. Steam rolled in from the kitchen and crept across the ceiling above, bringing with it a warm refreshing temperature that drew the bitter winter chill from Soil’s limbs.
Monarda removed her thick blue coat and hung it on a collection of hooks that protruded from the wall to her right. She fanned her face weakly with her hand and exhaled deeply. Her hand stilled and her eyes widened when she noticed Soil was still standing with his large thatched cloak on. She kept forgetting that this young man before her was not used to the little rituals that village folk carried out on a daily basis.
“Feel free to hang your cloak up Soil. You must be boiling in that.”
“I am a bit warm to be honest.” Soil replied sheepishly, his face quickly reddening. After fiddling with a small toggle he drew the cloak from round his shoulders and hung up on one of the wooden hooks bedside him. Revealing his undergarments, which consisted of shorts and a sleeveless top, that looked much like a weaved potato sack and was a green grey in colour.
Monarda looked at his thatched cloak and cursorily rubbed a part of it between her thumb and index finger. It’s outside layer was harsh to the touch , almost gritty, as if one was rubbing their hand against sandpaper. However, to Monarda’s surprise, the inner lining was the opposite, pleasantly soft and elegantly smooth .
“Where did you get silk from in Eyre wood?” She asked in amazement.
“It’s not lined with silk, it’s moss.” Soil replied cheerily.
“Moss!? That’s incredible! How have you managed to use moss like that?!”
“The cloak is more like a living plant, rather than an item of clothing… It’s a mix of craft work and magic,” Soil told her, “But I couldn’t explain how the magic aspect works, I crafted it together and the forest just… sort of… did the rest? I can’t explain it.”
Their conversation was abruptly interrupted as Phlox came to stand in a doorway at the other end of the corridor.
“Monarda! Soil! I hope you’re both hungry!” The dark man said with a smile, “Your mother and brother are not joining us Monarda?”
“Unfortunately not my love, You know what Brook’s like.”
“That’s no problem. He’s a growing man looking for his place in the world! I was just the same when I was his age.” Phlox chirped, before bringing his hands together into an enthusiastic clap, “Let’s eat shall we!”
The trio made their way into the dining area, which held as much splendour as one would have imagined. Four large arrangement of candles sat in each of its corners, they provided a bright light that flooded the expansive room. The walls were adorned with a collection of different antiques and trophies.
On the northern wall situated above a doorway, that led to the kitchen, was a pair of two curved swords. Mounted so that the naked blades crossed one another. The swords were inscribed with strange symbols that ran from their points down to their hilts. The western wall housed a large open fireplace, in which a beautiful yellow crimson flame danced about upon a heap of charring wood. On the mantle of the fireplace sat a collection of 4 plates, very bland looking, made of clay. Each of the 4 plates had a unique character painted upon them.
Finally, in the centre of the ceiling, hung a truly grand yet unusual ornament. It was a crab claw, however it was nearly the size of a human, spanning a length of 6 ft. The bazaar appendage had been suspended by ropes that were in turn fixed into the dining hall ceiling. It hung freely, mirroring the long rectangle dining table that sat below it. Soil winced slightly as his eyes met the grotesque centre piece.
Phlox pulled out a chair for Monarda, and then for Soil, on the opposing side of the table. “Make yourselves comfortable! I shall return shortly with your food.” Phlox sung out as he exit the room, disappearing into the soft, steamy fog of the kitchen.
Soil couldn’t stop himself from slowly shifting his gaze upward, doing his best to conceal the fact he was doing so from Monarda. A grimace forced it’s way across his face as he stared at the gigantic pincer. When he shifted his gaze subtly to Monarda he jumped! For she was looking directly at him. Quickly the distasteful expression left his face and Soil did his best to replace it with one of neutrality.
Monarda laughed slightly, “Is the giant claw bothering you Soil?”
Soil leaned across the table slightly as he replied “It’s a bit… Unsettling. Is now a bad time to mention that I don’t eat meat…?”
Monarda couldn’t contain the laughter that popped out of her body, Soil looked at her in confusion.
“Don’t worry Soil. It’s not the season for meat, Vegetables are the only food that we can get hold of right now, so you’ll be fine.”
Soil forced a small appreciative smile onto his face. He couldn’t stop his eyes from nervously glancing up at the claw at final time.
Phlox re-entered the room carrying three bowls of creamy soup, and a basket of black rye bread, upon a large tray. He placed the dish down delicately on the table and shared out the food. Providing each dinner guest with a dainty sliver spoon.
He looked upon the table with a distinct look of pride when he had finished, before pulling out his own chair at the head of the table and planting himself firmly upon it.
“We were just talking about the claw Phlox,” Monarda said, breaking the silence that Phlox’s entrance had brought with it.
“Oh yes the claw! The most prized item in my collection.” Phlox said cheerfully, staring up at the suspended limb. “Was an awful pain to transport when I moved to Tachbrook however.”
“I didn’t know crabs grew to that size…” said Soil as he brought a spoonful of soup to his lips. He found the collection of herbs provided a sweet flavour that was most agreeable, yet the boiling heat scalded his tongue. Soil did his best to conceal his discomfort, he glanced across at Monarda. Who was giggling at him quietly, and purposefully blew on her spoon before placing it in her mouth.
“It’s not a crab Soil! That is the claw of a mighty Argapod!” Phlox bellowed, before taking a tiny mouthful of steamy soup. “They’re a race of intelligent crustaceans that live just off shore of the Muskove mainland. Incredible beings.”
“Did you kill this one?” Soil asked.
Phlox laughed in response to Soils question. “No, no, I can’t even begin to pretend that I did. I don’t have the strength or the means to take one of these beings down. I came across the claw at an auction many years ago. A very rare find, taking into account that Argapods are notoriously hard to kill. Some even consider them to be gods.”
Soil looked down at his spoon thoughtfully, before blowing on it and sipped at the sweet pea soup.
“Anyway Soil, Tell me what it’s like living in the Eyre woodland!” Phlox continued.
“Have you never been in for yourself?”
“Never had the chance if I’m honest. Much of my work consists of travelling between Tachbrook and Larton city. So I don’t get much free time to go exploring. What’s it like?”
“It’s a very beautiful place, full of amazing flowers, trees and wild life. You could never get bored with the colours they display. Truly wonderful.” Soil smiled, as he thought of his woodland home. “Monarda, which of the flowers is it that you wanted to see. The ones that your brother mentioned. I can take you there at some point if you want? No one knows the forest like I do!”
The mood of the room instantly plummeted and Monarda’s face went a ghostly white. Soil sat staring at her, with a large grin plastered on his face. However he shifted his gaze between Phlox and Monarda as the silence began to draw out. Soil’s smile slowly receded, he wondered what it was that he had said…
Phlox delicately placed his silver spoon flat onto the table. The faint sound of the cutlery being rested on the wood rang out clearly in the complete silence of the room. He said in a low voice, his stare fixed directly on the table, “Monarda. We’ve spoken about this.”
“Phlox please, I didn’t-”
“When are you going to give it up Monarda! When are you going to grow up and get a hold of yourself!”
“Can we do this later?” Monarda hissed through gritted teeth and shifting eyes. “Let’s not argue in front of our guest.”
“No we shall! Otherwise our guest is going to think that I’m just unreasonable and don’t want you to go, out of spite.” Phlox snapped back hastily, remaining firmly upright in his chair. “Which we know isn’t the case, is it.”
Monarda looked down sheepishly at her lap. “No.” She whispered sadly.
“So please, stop chasing silly dreams and focus on what’s important for once!” Phlox’s stare was fixated his partner.
Soil, didn’t know where to look at or even what to do with himself. He stared at his bowl of green soup. Hoping, wishing for some excuse or reason that would justify him to leave the table. However none sprung to his inconveniently vacant mind. So Soil continued to sit, silently. He sipped at the broth and prayed that Monarda and Phlox would hurry up and do the same. In order for him to make an early escape from the tense, awkward atmosphere he now found himself in.
The rest of the lunch time meal was carried out in a bitter silence. The couples heated exchange had sucked the previously enjoyable atmosphere from the dining room. Instead it was replaced with a heavy, uncomfortable one. That squashed mere seconds to feel like minutes and minutes into hours.
Soil’s heart leapt with joy as Monarda finally took her last mouthful, after what felt like a lifetime of waiting. She tenderly placed the small silver spoon beside her bowl. Soil was eager for someone at the table to say something, anything! Until he realised it was up to him, the neutral party, to shatter the quiet that hung around them.
“That was really nice. Thank you for inviting me.”
“A pleasure Soil.” Phlox replied, as he got up onto his feet. Slowly he started to clear the bowls from the table.
Monarda and Soil gazed at one another, “I suppose you’d want to be getting off back to the woods now?” Monarda asked, ”Would you like me to escort you to the door Soil?”
Soil’s mind screamed with delight “Yes! Yes! Please! Yes! Get me out of here!” He got up slowly and calmly replied, “That’d be most kind, thank you.”
When Phlox had carefully stacked the bowls he turned to the Woodling. “It was great having you over Soil.” Phlox said, he made a move to shake Soil’s hand but retracted it. Instead he bowed slightly. Soil smiled, and did the same.
“I had a great time.” He replied.
Phlox smiled, then turned on his heels and disappeared into the depths of the kitchen.
Soil looked up at Monarda. “This way,” She said to him calmly.
The two made their way from the dining room to the front door. Soil lifted his thatched cloak from a protruding wall peg and swung it over both shoulders. Fastening it’s toggle tightly.
“Are you going to stay in Tachbrook for a while?” Monarda asked the young man, “I’m sure there would be a room for you at my mother’s inn?”
“That’s a gracious offer, but the woodland. sorry, Eyre woodland is my home.” Soil replied with a sunny smile, “I will come back soon however. I quite like this place.”
Monarda smiled, “Okay Soil, See you soon.” She leaned down slightly and embraced Soil in her arms. He returned the gesture.
“Goodbye.” Soil replied, before disappearing through the doorway.
The late luncheon meal had dragged on, and slowly the days sunlight began to fade. Leaving the sky a pastel red.
Soil weaved his way along the village pathways. He passed by homesteads whose families were coming to the end of their daily routines as the sun began its early winter descent. Men and women who tended to their idle homes began to file away behind small wooden doors.
Soil stepped to the side of a pathway, to make space for a group of weary tree smiths. Who had just entered the village through the narrow northern gate. All were eager to return home and soothe aching limbs in gentle slumber.
Two mighty horses escorted them. Behind them they pulled a large cart in which a collection of sawn off wood was heaped.
Soil made his way through the gate once they had passed, and found himself running his fingers across the cool tall grass that encompassed him. A smile leapt to his face as he saw the edge of the forest. Standing like a mighty wall that embraced the village.
Soil continued to follow the path that he had taken that morning with Monarda. A feat most people would have had difficulty in doing, as the forest can often be disorienting. With it’s plethora of plant and tree life.
However the woodling could see past the forest’s illusions and was able to traverse the landscape with accuracy and ease.
It wasn’t long until soil found himself back at clearing. The gentle brook still sang its quiet song as it’s waters trickled by. He looked up to the sky above, watching as the crimson twilight sky faded into a blanket of stars.
He took a deep breath of cool air, before looking upon the red tree that he had found Monarda weeping under that very morning. Thoughts of her flashed harshly in his mind, thoughts of her pale skin and long flowing hair.
He ran the bright crimson leaves through his fingers as he approached the small tree. The cold winter wind suddenly hissed. Soil’s cloak and the tree leaves danced in accordance with the breeze.
In this moment, Soil noticed something, strange and peculiar. Fluttering gently was a small piece of parchment, which was nailed to the tree bark.
He leaned in curiously and pulled the note from it’s fixing. Carefully unfolding it within his hands, making sure that the ever growing gust of wind did not steal it from him.
The note had five bold words scrawled across it in big black writing. “DON’T LEAVE. SHE’S NOT SAFE.”
Soil’s stomach dropped and the wind hissed once more. He quickly scanned his surroundings. In hopes of finding some clue as to who had delivered the note.
A black figure stood, hidden away under the faint dark veil of the tree line. Which suddenly darted off.
Without thinking Soil set off after the mysterious silhouette, dashing over shrubbery and fallen trees. As if he were water, uninterrupted, free flowing and fluid.
However the dark shadow seeped away into the darkness, like water into a sponge, and Soil came to a sudden stop on top of a large tree stump. Soil stared deeply into the darkness, but no trace of the being was to be found.
The words on the note were etched into his mind and a thousand thoughts tumbled through his head.
“DON’T LEAVE. SHE’S NOT SAFE.”
“DON’T. LEAVE. SHE’S. NOT. SAFE.”