Galen scratched the donkey’s ears, thanking him for allowing them to load him up with a picnic for the girls. Xote was a rather fickle beast, and it took some persuading to convince him to do any work at all. Galen was usually the only one who could coax Xote to let the humans put the picnic baskets on his back.

Galen looked up at the clear blue sky, judging that rain was unlikely. Nyota was inside, waking the girls from their nap. Marie had gone in search of their most recent arrival. The bell had tolled an hour ago, and she hadn’t yet returned.

Xote snorted, and Galen took a step back. Suddenly the donkey bucked, then ran off in the direction of The Meadow.

“Stupid, uncooperative beast…” Galen muttered under his breath as he took off after him. Xote might be lazy, but he was also fast when he wanted to be.

Galen didn’t bother racing after the donkey. He’d have better luck catching him if he let the beast tire himself out first.

He expected Xote to slow down when he reached The Meadow, with all the yummy clover to eat. But instead of slowing down, the donkey was streaking through the grass, heading for The Woods on the other side.

Galen jogged after him, cursing the donkey all the way. But just as Xote reached the treeline, a woman’s scream pierced the air.

Marie!

Galen sprinted to The Woods, judging that the donkey was heading towards the screams. As Galen reached the treeline, he heard a scream again, off to the right. Xote crashed through the underbrush, straight ahead.

“Marie!” he yelled, leaping over fallen logs and crashing through brush in the direction of her scream.

I knew she needed a security detail, even this close to home…I said she needed someone to watch over her, but…

Galen caught a glimpse of something up ahead, lumbering through The Woods. It was vaguely human-shaped, but large, and moved strangely, like some kind of monster. He was rapidly catching up, but the creature reached a clear area or path and put on a burst of speed. Galen reached the path mere moments later, and caught a glimpse of Marie ahead. The monster was gaining on her as she attempted to run in her dainty slippers.

Galen leaped, tackling the thing from behind and crashing with it to the ground. It snarled in rage, and fought back with a strength far greater than Galen could have guessed. Galen’s mind flashed back to seeing his father fight a bear in the arena; the bear was far larger and stronger than any man, but Galen knew the creature was underfed and drugged, giving his father the advantage. His father had won great acclaim for that fight, and he carried the scars to show for it.

Whatever the thing was, it could hardly be called human. It had the eyes, nose, mouth and ears of a man, but every feature was grotesquely distorted. It snarled like a bear and tried to pin him to the ground, but Galen slipped from its grasp and drew his dagger. As the creature swiped at him, Galen swiped back, slicing completely through one claw and halfway through another. The beast shrieked in pain and redoubled its attack, flailing wildly as blood flowed freely from its wounds. Galen danced backwards, then in one swift motion darted into the monster’s embrace, burying the dagger in its gut and eviscerating it in just a few strokes.

The beast crashed to the ground, and Galen withdrew his dagger, only to use it again to slice the monster’s throat and ensure that it was truly dead.

He heard Marie scream again, from somewhere up the path. Leaving the body where it fell, he ran to her.

“Out of my way, you filthy beast!” Marie screamed. Xote was blocking the path, adamantly refusing to let her come back to the scene of the battle.

“Xote! Git!” Galen commanded, adding a whistle to get the donkey’s attention. He barely had time to drop his dagger as Marie flung herself at him. Before he knew what was happening, her lips were crushing his, then she abruptly pulled away, holding his face in her hands.

“Are you all right?” They both spoke at the same time. Marie laughed, but Galen stubbornly insisted on her reassurance.

“Yes, yes. I’m fine. Just terrified. But you…” she began wiping at his blood covered arms with her clean and dainty sleeve.

Galen’s hands refused to let go of her, but she didn’t seem to mind. He watched, unable to move as she scraped the blood off, looking for signs of injury.

She kissed me…

He couldn’t be sure whether she was just swept up in the moment, or whether there was something else behind it. Relief and gratitude. That must be it. He knew Marie’s opinion of him, and it didn’t make sense that she should… have feelings for him.

He couldn’t make himself let go. Some power beyond the magic of The Place possessed him. She was in his arms, willingly staying, and he did not want the moment to end.

“Did you kill it? Did it hurt you?”

“Yes. No. I mean… yes, it is dead, but no, I didn’t let it wound me.”

Finally he found the strength to let her go. He looked at her dirty, bloodied sleeves, then down at his own filthy self. “We need to get home. We need to make sure everyone else is all right…”

They walked back down the path the way they had come, Xote meandering slowly behind them. “I only heard The Bell toll once. I’ve never heard of an arrival being such a monster… I have no idea why he was sent here. It took me a long time to find him, but as soon as he saw me, he howled, and…”

Galen stopped short, and Marie stopped mid sentence. Not only was there no dead body, but what had been the barest trace of a path had somehow turned into a well-trod path wide enough for the two of them to easily walk side by side.

Xote shouldered past them, and continued walking.

“Something’s changed… can your pull tell you which way is home?”

“Well, I don’t usually need it to tell me how to get home. It just tells me when there’s something I should attend to…” Marie paused, looking around her. “But now that you mention it, the only “pull” I feel is that we should follow the donkey.”

Galen growled. Usually when he was in The Woods, he had his horse, Homer. Homer could always take him wherever in The Place he wanted to go, taking shortcuts through The Woods, taking advantage of their magical properties.

Galen took a few deep breaths. He suspected that all was well back at home, and that Jane Charlotte was simply having some fun with them.

“Well, our choices are to go forwards along the path, following the donkey, or we could go back the way we came, in which case we would certainly find ourselves either turned about, or somewhere we don’t want to be.”

“We could always go crashing through the trees…” Marie teased. She seemed remarkably composed for someone who had almost been killed by a huge monster.

Galen smiled, and Marie radiated back at him. It felt good, to be smiling with her. But it also felt terribly strange and too unfamiliar. Or perhaps “too familiar” was more accurate for their respective positions.

They didn’t make a verbal decision, but both of them turned to continue following the wide path in the direction Xote had gone. Soon enough they came to the end of the path, where they found a small door set into the hillside. Xote was waiting patiently, eating sugarbeets off a low table, as if they’d been put there just for him.

The door slipped open as Marie approached. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

In answer, strains of music began to play. Galen gently but firmly pulled her back, away from the door. She acquiesced readily, letting him examine the room before letting her enter.

It was a simple cottage, dominated by one large bed. It was piled with fluffy blankets, and sprinkled with rose petals.

Subtlety is not one of The Madwoman’s strong points.

A machine in one corner was producing music out of a large curved funnel. There was a black disk on top of the machine’s flat surface, and it was turning at a constant speed. A narrow arm hung over the black disk, scraping it.

There was a fireplace with logs ready to light. As Galen looked around for some means of doing so, an ember appeared under the logs and soon they were burning steadily.

He recognized the pump and basin from his own home in The Hamlet, and motioned to Marie that it seemed safe to come in.

“I believe Jane Charlotte is playing with us. Although what her purpose is, I can’t imagine.”

Marie looked around the small room as she helped Galen wash the blood off. Seeing how hopeless his shirt was, she directed him to take it off. “Off with that… it’s filthy.” She commanded, more like a nagging housewife than a queen.

Somewhat reluctantly, Galen pulled the shirt off, and took it outside. He quickly took the baskets off of Xote, who turned in a circle three times then sank to the ground like an oversized dog.

“Sit. Good boy,” said Galen after the fact. Xote snorted.

Marie was washing her own sleeves under the cool water. She motioned for him to come back, and she took a wet towel to his sweaty, bloodied chest.

His senses reeled at her touch. She went about cleaning him matter-of-factly, but it didn’t occur to him until she was done that he could have done it himself.

If I’d done it myself, I wouldn’t have to fight down the hardness between my legs… he thought regretfully.

Marie looked at her own soaking wet sleeves, and at Galen’s dirty, blood covered trousers. “Well…”

“Let’s see if there are any extra shirts in some cupboard,” Galen suggested. They both poked in every corner, but all they found were some utensils and an extra pair of slippers that fit Marie.

That says a lot… Jane provides slippers, but no clothing. Humph.

Galen caught Marie lost in thought, staring at his bare torso. When she realized he was watching her in return, she blushed and immediately began to babble.

“Well, I suggest we get as clean as possible, then eat the picnic cook packed for the girls. Who knows how long it will take for us to find The Hamlet again?”

They did just that, then followed the path back the way they came. Xote refused to follow.

After just a few yards, the path dead ended. There was a small, tidy privy there, but it was as if all that existed in The Woods was the tiny cottage built into the hillside, and the privy. The undergrowth was quite dense all around, much more dense that most of The Woods.

They walked back to the cottage.

Xote blinked innocently up at them, slobbering after taking a drink from a trough he hadn’t noticed before.

“Well, I don’t want to stay in these wet things, and you need to get out of those pants.” Marie declared. She went to the bed and began stripping blankets off. She managed to get three before the rest stubbornly remained stuck at the bottom. She humphed and handed him two, keeping one for herself.

“I’ll go wash at the trough.” Galen announced, and walked out the door.

He scanned The Woods as he undressed, but there was no sign of either man nor animal anywhere. He washed his clothes as best he could, then hung them up to dry. Wrapping himself in the blanket, he regarded his furry companion, wishing the animal had the ability to speak.

After some time, Marie peeked out the door, wrapped up in another blanket. “Aren’t you coming back in?”

Galen tried not to think about what she wasn’t wearing under the blanket. “I wasn’t sure if you were finished.”

Marie sighed, slightly exasperated. “Well, it’s getting dark. You should come inside now.”

Galen nodded, said goodnight to the donkey, and followed her in. He closed the door, then found a sturdy chair to wedge against it. There was a large window, but the latch seemed solid enough. It would have to do.

He slowly walked around the cottage, trying not to look at Marie. After he had been back and forth three times, she called out to him. “Galen, I’m sure it’s safe. Please, why don’t you come lie down? There’s plenty of room.”

“My lady, I wouldn’t presume to… I mean, I will be content to sleep in the chair…”

“The chair you wedged under the door handle?”

“…I mean, I can sleep on the floor.” It was indeed very dark outside. The fire continued to burn, the flames providing a subtle light to the small room.

Marie snorted. So did Xote outside the door. “That’s nonsense. Please, Galen, come to bed.” Her voice softened, and turned to a plea. “And please, don’t call me “My lady,” call me Marie.”

Galen turned to her. She was irresistible in the firelight, disheveled by her ordeal. Vulnerable.

He sat down on the edge, still wrapped in his blanket. Marie was still wrapped in hers, and she had also pulled some of the other bedclothes over her.

This is going to be the longest night of my life.

He lay back, on top of the covers, facing away from her. “Thank you, Marie. And goodnight.”

What Would Have Been

What Would Have Been is a short story (or novella… who knows?) that I am publishing one chapter at a time… as I write it. It’s a fun exercise for me, and hopefully a bit of entertaining reading for you!

This story is dedicated to the Janes. The real ones and the fictional, the ones who survived, and the ones who didn’t. For all of you.

The shortlink for this post is http://wp.me/p1rMYd-lI