He was jostled awake as the coach creaked to a halt. The driver opened the door for him and he stepped out. It was dark and foggy. He looked up at the blanket of white that covered the moon and stars.
The driver cleared his throat. “My pay.”
He looked down at the shorter man and reached into his pocket. The driver greedily took the small handful of coins he offered, which was all that he had.
He turned his back on the driver and his coach and walked into the forest. The bitter bite from the cold wind seeped into his limbs as he moved through the trees and further into the mysterious foreboding grasp of the unfamiliar forest. A wolf howled somewhere off in the distance. The answering cries of its brethren soon followed.
He paused, certain that he was being followed. He heard nothing save for the lonely howling of the wolves and the wind whistling through the trees. Unable to shake off the feeling, he continued on increasing his leisurely pace to a brisk walk. The winding path that had led him into the forest disappeared from beneath his feet. He spun around, searching for this lost path. He was met by an unshakeable wall of trees, with no trodden down dust and dirt path. The wall spread around him in tight circle. A chill spread through his body and the hair on the back of his neck.
Not again, not here! He thought desperately.
A twig snapped. He froze and looked about himself once more. His chest rose and fell with his now shallow and labored breaths. The foliage rustled, much harsher than that of the wind disturbing it he realized. His heart rate quickened, the dull pulse of it sounding in his ears.
Do they know where I am? He thought.
The wind rose to an unbearable screeching sound that crashed against his eardrums. “You shouldn’t have come,” a voice of many whispered in the wind.
It rose again and then . . . silence. All was still. The wind had stopped. A small figure joined him in the small orb of light produced by a gap in the clouds around the moon. He stiffened as her glowing red eyes penetrated deeply into him.
The little girl grinned malevolently at him, forcing him to take a step back.
“You are too late,” she whispered with the voice that spoke for the many, it contained the will of the trees and the power of the forest. “I don’t intend on allowing you to leave my forest in body.”
The little girl’s voice washed over him, compelling him to stand still and stay. He trembled.
“It is evident to me that you would wish to leave whole,” she murmured. “I shall give you the opportunity to do so. After all, you have not harmed my forest yet. Just accept my challenge.”
He moved his mouth, trying to form the words to say yes. Everything was uselessly lodged in his throat. He inclined his head in a slight nod to compensate.
“Alright then,” she confirmed. The little girl took a rubber band from her wrist and used it to tie her long hair up in a ponytail.
He stared at her with narrow eyes, more or less dumbfounded and confused.
Is she joking with me? This can’t be serious, he thought.
Her eyes narrowed to match the slits of his. “My challenge is no joke. If you prefer I can have my forest swallow you whole without any human ever be able to track you.”
He gulped. “Name your challenge,” he managed to croak out sheepishly.
“Here it is: you must successfully take my hair down without removing a single strand,” she explained, touching the rubber band lightly. “Should you fail I will condemn you to wander the inner reaches of my forest for all eternity. You will have no escape and you will be all alone. I won’t seek you out again. You will never have another attempt. The solace of a sweet blissful death won’t even be an option. You shall live as you are now, except hungry, cold, afraid, and alone, wandering the depths of my forest without pause. Now do you except the challenge?”
His head hung and eyes closed, he uttered his answer, just one single word. “Yes.”
She crouched low in a defensive position, she waved her hand in a “let’s begin” gesture. He lunged forward.
B. Valdez 2008/2009