Gallowwood - Part 1

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The Gallowwood is dark, and deep, and dangerous, my child. Never venture there. Never.

Maria wept as she remembered the words her granny had whispered into her ear as she left to pick berries. The old woman had spoken these words to her every day as she left the house; every day of every summer, fall, spring, and winter – to Maria, they had become an empty phrase. As usual, she had smiled, nodded and disregarded them in the manner all sixteen-year-olds did the wisdom of their elders.

She did so no more.

An inarticulate scream tore from her lips; the sound of an imbecile, of a lunatic that had forgotten speech. Blinded by terror, she charged through the undergrowth, tearing through veils of pale moss that hung between the trees like age-ridden spider webs, blood spilling from deep gashes on her exposed shoulder, soiling her woolen dress. She stumbled and fell, crawled a few feet and got up again, desperate to reach the edge of the wood before the fading sunlight breaking through the canopy finally abandoned her.

It was of little comfort that the wood hindered the creature chasing her just as much as it did her. Huge and lumbering, it crashed through the thicket like an enraged bull, snapping thick branches and smaller trees in its eagerness to get to her. A bitter stench unlike anything Maria had ever smelled heralded it and made her gag through ragged breaths. She dared to glance behind, regretting it instantly.

A scream tore from her throat, for all of a sudden she was tumbling head over heels down an abyss that had come out of nowhere. Up became down, down became up, the world spinning around her in a kaleidoscope of colors, faster and faster. The stop came as sudden as the fall, and with it came pain unknown so far in her young life. Someone screamed. It took her a moment to realize it was herself. The screamed turned into a gurgle, choked off as she looked down. Her left arm was broken, bent backwards at the elbow with a piece of red glistening bone protruding from it.

Looks almost like a split branch, she thought stunned.

Maria would probably have fainted if not for the sudden realization where she was. The fields! She must have tumbled down the woodland hillside and now found herself not far from the borders of her family's stead, the potato fields only a stone throw away. Ahead of them and across, a mere few hundred steps away, she could see her parents' farm against the darkening sky and tears of joy filled her eyes.

She stumbled onto her feet and stormed towards salvation with the strength of desperation, her feet soon sinking into the freshly ploughed earth of the fields, hampering her as if the ground itself harbored some malicious intent.

So close.

Something crashed down the hill behind her, snapping trees in its descent. It came to a stop with an earthshaking thud and a roar. Maria did not stop and turn around, did not dare to.

Almost there...

The pain of her broken arm was searing, throbbing with the beat of her hammering heart, yet the fortress-like homestead became larger with every step, even though darkness was steadily gnawing at the edges of her vision.

Almost there!

The heavy oak door stood ajar, the light of candles and fire spilling from within warm and golden in the encroaching night. She pushed it open – and froze. Blood. Everywhere was blood. It splattered the walls in intricate patterns, dropped from the ceiling, pooled on the hard-packed dirt floor. Something rolled away from her, pushed by the door. A head. Her brother's head... It came to a stop against a frail body lying further down the corridor.

"G... Granny?" Maria whispered.

The old woman's eyes and mouth were wide open, locked in an endless moment of terror, but there was no life in the blood-splattered face. Maria screamed, her fingernails raking her face. A scream so full of terror and despair, it left no room for anything else, seemed to abolish time itself. It lasted until a huge hand with six meaty fingers fell onto her shoulder, yanking her around. The scream became a shriek, tearing her sanity asunder while the world faded into blissful darkness.

Mariaembraced it.

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