Into the wild woods.

Words by & illustration by Frida Stenmark

Isa had only entered the forest on a few occasions, always with her father and always during a hot summer’s day. These encounters had been enough to prove to Isa that there was nothing in the forest that could capture her attention, nor anything except leafy green trees, tufts of grass and flowers in its depths. Isa was sure that in the depths she could find rabbits, deer, hedgehogs, and badgers but it was rare for anyone in the village to discover such things.

What Isa wished for was adventure. A break from her routine. She’d mentioned this wish only twice, once to Lucas and the other to the tavern owner’s wife. That had been a mistake, within the day everyone had heard of the Mayor’s daughter’s dream including her father who was only one of the many to warn her of the dangers of adventures and the risks of being attracted to such things.

In winter, which it was now, the forest took on a nightmarish glare. She watched from the perimeter. Tree branches would become black and spindly reaching out to grab at you, and the path would be littered with dying plants that you had to wade through. Isa imagined off the path it would be worse.

There had always been stories, rumours, surrounding the forest and that had only increased in recent years. Three years ago, one of the Woodsman’s boys had gone into it, all excited for his first lone chop. It had been before dawn but the whole village, including Isa who was permitted the day off from her father’s routine, had woken early to see him off. Not much happened in the village so what did was celebrated.

His name had been Lucas and he’d turned eighteen merely one week before. His father had been a cornerstone of the community. After all he provided the whole village with their firewood and in return the village made him quite a well-off man. He had looked on with so much pride, as had everyone, as his son went into the woods.

Isa had watched that evening, from her bedroom window which looked onto the forest, as the Woodsman strode through the centre and took up a stationary position awaiting his son’s return. She was eager for Lucas’s return, certain he would have some exciting tale to tell. Isa had alternated between watching him and attending to her work for some time before going to speak with him. The Woodsman’s face was scrunched up, his eyes constantly scanning the unchanging landscape, his feet wearing a small groove from his pacing. Isa had never seen the Woodsman in such a state and, at first, was unsure whether to approach him or not. She paused hidden by a tree’s shadow. She also scanned the forest quickly but she found no movement other than the Woodsman’s constant pace. Isa approached. His movement made her want to pace alongside him and wait for Lucas’s return. Isa was glad she didn’t. The Woodsman looked, though Isa wasn’t sure he actually saw her. She spoke first, only in greeting, yet the Woodsman seemed to struggle as the corners of his lips turned up.

Isa had always been fond of the Woodsman, he’d never been graced with a daughter and had always let her play at his house. She’d grown up surrounded by his family. The Woodsman taught her various wood related skills such as creating and maintaining a fire while his wife spent her days teaching Isa to cook and clean.

At first the villagers comforted the Woodsman by saying Lucas must have forgotten the time and was having too much fun. As it grew later some said that perhaps the cart had broken down and Lucas had been forced to carry the wood through the forest. Every new story ended the same way; I’m sure he’ll be back soon, don’t you worry. But Lucas didn’t return, not that night nor the following one.

The Woodsman spent his time out with a few of the other men scouring the forest for any sign of his boy. There were none. Whispers started. People said that it was an animal attack at first but, when no evidence of Lucas could be found at all, a few villagers blamed black magic, hauntings, demons that hid in the forest and preyed on those who had just come of age. The villagers decided it would be best that only adults were allowed through the forest, though few did then, and that children were to be escorted.

They never found Lucas’s body. The Woodsman and his family left after a few weeks and the town eventually moved on. A new woodsman came and things returned to how they were before. Isa spent days after he left going out and pacing along the treeline and scanning for movement between the trees. It had become a habit and that was how she now found herself on the edge of the wood listening to the music.

It lilted along the breeze and twisted around her. Allowing her to choose even as it tempted her in, her curiosity buzzing to find the source, after all the forest had never emitted music before. This was her chance. None of the servants watched her with keen eyes ready to report the slightest deviation from her routine. No villagers to warn of the dangers lurking in the forest. No father to stress the importance of etiquette or enforce the life he deemed fit for her.

Isa stepped between the trees, then stepped again. She may have paused longer had it been night, but it was only dusk and the sky was swept with a medley of ashy yellows and weak oranges. It made Isa feel safe. Secure. There was no turning back now, she had made her choice. The forest was dark as she started on the path but light still filtered unhindered through the leafless trees. Her shoes, while flat, were not entirely suited to the unexpected journey into the woods. Her feet slid on the undergrowth but she righted herself quickly. Isa thought about turning back, her father would be home soon and no doubt he would worry. He always did. He would punish her for breaking his rules but Isa skipped on, thrilled at finally having her shot at adventure.

As the main path trickled to an end, Isa followed a smaller trail deeper into the forest unwilling to leave so soon. The further Isa trekked into the dark realms the more alive the forest became around her. Inky trees became rusty browns and crunchy auburn leaves replaced the decaying undergrowth. The sun had long since left the sky and yet the forest seemed no darker than when she entered. The trees here seemed larger, their thick trunks supporting the multitude of branches that tangled above her; they were spread out here too, allowing grass to fill in the gaps with the help of hellebore flowers.

Louder and louder the music played till it tore through the forest like a thunderstorm. Her focus was on the ground, hunting out leaves she believed would be especially crunchy, the kind that make that nice rustle when crushed, ready to jump on. It was one of the few habits she’d kept from her childhood. Isa didn’t notice the branch until it was too late. She gasped. It stung, sharply.

She twisted into the tree unhooking the tendril of clothing that had caught. When Isa turned around her eyes landed on a wide clearing she hadn’t noticed before. As she started towards the clearing the music could be heard softly whispering along the breeze.

There was no path between Isa and the clearing, it wasn’t far though and she decided to keep going rather than risk not finding the source. Her mind was consumed by the need to find the music. Isa began to tire of wading through the forest but ventured on, not ready to give up this opportunity.

The Woodsman and her father had long been discussing an engagement between Isa and Lucas though nothing ever came to fruition before he disappeared. He’d not only been a friend but a shot at escape from her father’s routine. A chance to live her life as an equal to a man who also craved adventure.

Isa neared the clearing and scanned the landscape detecting movement from the opening. She paused. Isa tried to glimpse what the movement could be. She couldn’t. She should turn back. Why had she come here? Her father would be furious if she wasn’t back before supper, but even if she left now there would be no way to make it back on time. Isa continued on, after all she would already be in trouble so it might as well be for something.

She could tell the music came from the clearing. Whatever was moving must either be making the tune or have been summoned by it. She shuffled forward. The clearing itself was strange, full of green, even though it was the middle of winter. But what stood there was stranger.

A large carousel took up the bulk of the clearing and it was from this that the noise came. It seemed to her a normal carousel, the kind you could find at a city fair. Yet there was something different about it, the tune more haunting than the cheerful music that should accompany carousels. On closer inspection Isa realised there were no horses on this carousel, instead woodland creatures took their place.

Isa stepped forward, enticed by the strange device. As she did so the carousel, which had been stationary, began to move slowly. The music stopped but Isa remained captivated and moved forward until she was barely inches away. A light breeze manipulated the air here. Her weight shifted and a twig snapped beneath her. She looked down, the spell of the carousel broken.

Isa stepped away from the broken shards of twig, and brought her gaze up. It had slowed and Isa imagined if she jumped, she could have made it safely onto the spinning platform. As the carousel turned Isa saw a silhouette in the centre. Though she couldn’t be certain, as a medley of animals impaired her view.

‘Hello.’ Isa said. Her voice sounded loud, the only sound she had heard in the forest other than the music. The person didn’t acknowledge her greeting and Isa moved closer to the carousel. ‘Is anyone there?’ She asked. Isa stepped forward as she spoke until she was close enough once again to jump onto the carousel. This time though Isa’s hand reached out stopping mere centimetres from the golden poles holding the creatures. Isa stood like that for minutes as she tried to decipher whether there really was someone at the centre.

‘Isa.’ A voice said.

‘Lucas?’ Isa said.

‘Did you expect someone else?’

‘I didn’t expect anyone.’

‘Was this worth it?’ Lucas said. ‘The adventure. The danger. The thrill of breaking the routine.’

‘There had to be more.’

‘With adventure comes risk and with risk, consequence. Consequence brings with it the chance that your situation will be worse than before.’

‘Is it wrong to wish for more? You did.’

‘Not if it will satisfy you but I fear your attraction to dangerous adventures will not be sated by this one trip to the forest.’

‘Will you tell me more about it?’

‘If you wish to know more, jump. But I urge against it. Return to the village Isa, the forest isn’t a safe place.’

‘I made it this far.’ Isa said. She shifted. Her hand caught a glistening pole and she jumped. For a second there was no ground below her and then she was spinning as the ground below turned round and round. She’d landed on the edge of the platform and moved towards the centre until she was no longer scared of falling off. The carousel began to turn faster, or at least Isa thought it did, but perhaps it had always been that speed. As she looked towards the centre Isa frowned.

‘Lucas?’ Isa asked but there was no-one to hear her. The carousel’s tune quietly began tittering as if laughing at the foolish girl. Isa moved around the carousel, her eyes scanning for any sign of Lucas; she found only a note, but her mind was dizzy and her feet tired.

Worn out Isa sat upon one of the distorted creatures to read the note.

I tried to warn you.

The tinkling tune began once more and she spun round and round deep into the night.

Chloe Forester, born in Cornwall, is new to the writing world but has always enjoyed fairy tales and magical stories. She now lives in another seaside town, Weston-Super-Mare, and enjoys experimenting with fantasy and fairy tales in her own writing.