Between the Trees
Darkness hung thick in the forest, the trees absorbed the thin light cast by the sliver of moon which would peak out for a brief glimpse before retreating, swallowed up by the clouds. Grigory strained his eyes against the gloom, alert to any movement out in the inky stillness, but it was as though the leaves themselves were petrified.
The scouts should have returned six minutes ago, if not all of them then at least one. Perhaps they were lost. Grigory allowed himself the brief consolation, though he knew it was almost impossible; they were strong young men, had ventured out in conditions as bad or worse than this many times, always returned like clockwork. Besides, they knew the forest better than anyone; it had been their playground as children, their hunting ground as men, he wasn’t sure what it was to them now – prison or salvation.
With an exhale Grigory turned to where the others were hidden, almost invisible beneath the bank of the great fallen tree but for the mist that rose off and out of their huddled bodies and drifted over them, dispersing as it went, like their very souls were abandoning them there between the roots, malignant ghosts threatening to give their position away to anything that cared to see them.
Of the two hundred that had escaped the village with Grigory and his family, only forty six remained. During the days of confusion following the evacuation factions had formed within the group, distrust and squabbles broke out over the best routes to take, about how to ration what little food they had. Some made the decision that it was safer to take their families and make a go of it alone. Grigory hoped they had been right, though somewhere deep in the animal part of himself he knew the opposite was true. The elderly members of the group had been the first to die, succumbed to the harsh conditions out in the forest, years of drinking and the lethargy of old age had rendered their bodies frail, the sudden call to action was too much for them; they became ill and passed in the night, or had to be left when they could move no longer. Others had broken under the stress, lost all hope and simply sat where their destitution left them, refused to move. A few took their own lives. Better that than the fate they would suffer from their pursuers, Grigory thought.
They would have to move soon, with or without the scouts.
Grigory shuffled back up the hillock on his stomach, cursing the scouts for their tardiness. He hadn’t wished for his position, adhoc leader, but he had lead the evacuation, had urged those around him to follow him into the trees after the panicked report from the farm boy who had seen the desolation of their neighbouring village firsthand. Even after the boy’s terror-stricken tale of a deserted village and mysterious trails leading off into the forest some of the more stubborn villagers had clung to their belief – perhaps hope – that it was all rumour, superstitious nonsense with no basis in fact or reason. After all, it was madness to believe that such a thing could be true. They had refused to leave despite Grigory’s pleading. Rolling their eyes above nervous smiles they had assured the evacuees that when they came to their senses and returned to the village, there would be warm beds and hot tea waiting for them. They even waved to them as they left, told jokes. Three weeks later the scouts lead by Grigory had returned to the village in search of supplies and survivors They found tea that had gone cold and upturned beds heaved across rooms, inhuman trails leading into the forest, a few pools of curdled blood where a struggle had ensued. No one was left.
The survivors owed Grigory their lives for his impassioned speech that had convinced them to leave, though now it was as though they existed in a limbo of his creation, neither alive nor dead, merely existing, waiting for one or the other. When an important decision had to made, all eyes flitted to him like prayers, those of the previous sceptics included.
Time was up. Grigory peered once more into the impenetrable black, as if sheer will power could cast light out there. He urged himself to wait just a second longer, gasped, turned and slid down the hillock towards Pitr who was on watch to the west.
‘No sign of the scouts,’ said Grigory under his breath. ‘We must move now or dawn will be upon us.’
‘OK,’ said Pitr, his eyes fixed on the forest, as though he could see with perfect clarity.
‘Tell Michel and Rudi to gather everyone and make sure they stay low and quiet. We’ll move north, make our way back to the creek until the boys come back and let us know what’s ahead.’
Pitr gave a grim nod, ‘OK.’ With that he darted between the trees to the next guard position, not so much as a rustle to give him away.
The lilting echo of a sound pricked Grigory’s ears. He caught his breath in his throat, praying it was his imagination. The noise came again, closer now, drifting like a morose fog between the trees. It sounded like a woman sobbing. With frozen blood Grigory peered over the roots he hunkered behind, gripped his rifle tighter. None who has survived this long would have the ill sense to make such a noise out in the open, unless she had lost her mind. He listened, wide-eyed to the wailing out in the trees, repeating itself over and over, tried to pick out where it was coming from. It swayed eastward and westward, seeming to swirl above them in the canopy of leaves above. It was so nearly human, as close as the creatures could get. The only give-away was the repetition, parrot-like. The creatures were refining their tactics, their tricks sought further and further to play on the weakness of humans, to appeal to the humanity of those they hunted.
‘Not human,’ Pitr muttered beside Grigory, giving him a start.
‘No,’ he said, attempting to disguise that he had caught him unaware.
The moaning in the trees swept through the black, the huddled pair listening to its every turn, trying to locate the ghastly source. Grigory sighted down his scopes, knowing the rifle was practically useless out here; it would attract any of the things in earshot, and their what their eye-sight lacked was more than made up for by their hearing. Regardless, it was a comfort to feel the weapon, to prepare it for its only use.
Behind the hillock Rudi and Michel had corralled the others deeper into the roots within the earthen cave of the fallen tree. Mothers held the mouths of their children, though those too young to understand the necessity of silence when the creatures neared were already dead, some at the weeping hands of their own families. Grigory looked back to see their eyes fixed on him, waiting in anticipation for his alertness to morph into terror, waiting for the end.
‘He-e-e-e-lp!’ the thing in the woods cried through the leaves. ‘Please, somebody help me!’
More sobbing followed. Grigory shuddered.
‘He-e-e-e-lp! Please, somebody help me!’
It knew they were near, they only vocalised like that when they sensed something, someone. Grigory and Pitr hunkered lower into the dirt and mulch, scarcely breathing, one eye each peering over the detritus, fixed in the eternal darkness where the voice whirled and sobbed and begged.
To the east the first whisper of dawn crept across the sky, dull pink and orange illuminating the stony grey leaves into blossom soft as duck-down. Grigory had loved this time of morning before the evacuation, before the creatures. Now the peaceful light was an omen of the dangers daylight brought. They would have to move soon, before the day broke. To the north the voice pitched and shifted, rose to a guttural shrieking which pierced the forest like daggers flung out into the night. The creatures were always altering their tactics; perhaps where sympathy had failed, terror would prevail.