A Note

Just a quick note – I’ve added my short story, The Forest, to the site. It’s one of my better reviewed pieces of work.  If you’d like to read it in its entirety, the sidebar has links to all the chapters, starting with ‘Summer’.

Enjoy!

The Forest: Spring

Spring

Spring came, and with it, warmer days.  Most days, the sun hung yellow in pale blue skies, wisps of clouds slipping by on a mild breeze.  Here and there, outcrops of snow and ice still clung onto winter, in the shadow of buildings and trees.  In the forest, new growth began to poke through the browns of the last season, green shoots of grass, and fresh buds on the trees.  Animals moved in the relative quiet, and now and then, a deer or a skunk would wander through the empty land the men had tried to claim, buildings and machinery standing silent watch.

The wolves moved through the shadows.  They wanted for nothing.  Here, the food was plentiful, and the shelter always warm when they needed it.  The pack ran through the dense underbrush, and left almost no passage in its wake, occasionally stopping to nip or bark at one another.

As they passed the empty camp, two of the wolves split off, and approached the main gate, its steel starting to rust from disuse.  They made a slow circle of the road, noses to the ground, and then tested the air.  After a moment, they had come to the same conclusion.  Men were coming.  They ran to rejoin the pack.

Let them come.

The Forest: Winter

Winter

Winter fell mid-November, in a deep blanket of silent white that coated camp and forest alike overnight.  When the sun shone, it would send blazing lights of cold white into a men’s eyes, and glint in icy tones from metal where it lay uncovered.  Ice gathered at the eaves of the camp buildings, and on the trees, in clusters of cold spears that hung like the Sword of Damocles over anyone passing underneath.  The wind would pick up every now and then, sending drifts sifting across the road, and blasts of snow down uniforms and coats that left the men cringing and shivering in their clothes, and ice-laden tree branches clacking like shutters left open.

For the most part, it was a slow season for the men.  They had managed to stockpile a fair amount of meat from hunting, and grain either grown in small fields outside of the camp, or bought and shipped in from Bialowieza, and further, from Warsaw.  You couldn’t cut trees in deep cold – the wood was stone-hard – and laying rails would be just as futile, the ground unyielding.  There were days the mill would run, in order to catch up to the previous season’s cutting, but for the most part, aside from drills and the day-to-day, it was quiet.

Aleksy stood outside of the barracks and smoked, curls from his pipe drifting upward, and tugged then torn by the gentle but persistent breeze that seemed to always blow around the camp.  He huddled down into his wool jacket, and tried not to shiver.  He would’ve just lit the thing inside, but he hated the way a smoke-filled room would make your eyes burn, so he chose the lesser of two evils.

Guilt gnawed at him.  Just a little, but it was enough to make him turn it over in his head, like a knot, and worry at it, trying to untangle the feeling from where it lay with the others, and straighten it out.  He didn’t like it, that feeling.  He had spent a good portion of his life feeling guilty over one thing or another – first, the death of his father, disappointment from his mother when he didn’t make it into university, and then his failure to make enough to support his family without having to join the army.  Not that he’d had much choice in that.  Oskar was just one more piece of cordwood to add to that stack.

There had been a huge fuss when Aleksy had brought him back that day in October, bleeding, and out of his mind.  The medics had seen to him right away, and Stonebird himself had come down to see them.  Aleksy had been questioned, and then questioned some more, and he was thankful Oskar hadn’t seemed able to speak, so no one was able to refute his story that a wolf had attacked the man.  When it was over, and Oskar was sedated, and Amsel was satisfied, another shock came to Aleksy.

They had put him up for a commendation.  Valor, or some such.  He supposed those were hard to come by on forestry duty, and he was proud for a moment, until he realized he had lied, no matter how unbelievable the truth.  It was just one more piece to add to the guilt pile.  There was also the matter of Oskar, who had to be force-fed liquids and some food blended into a disgusting concoction of runny paste.

It took almost two weeks, and Oskar snapped out of it.  Sat up in his cot one day, and asked for a steak.  Aleksy wondered how true it was, since he hadn’t been there to hear it from Oskar himself, though he wouldn’t put it past the man.  Still, he had been lucky.  Had the snow come a week later, Oskar would have found himself shipping out to convalesce in an asylum.  Aleksy shuddered.  His cousin had died in one.  They were not pleasant places, disease and insanity rampant.  He doubted Oskar would have made it through that, regardless of his claims of being as healthy as a horse now.

He felt relief that Stonebird had decided Aleksy’s story was good enough, and Oskar seemed content to keep the events to himself.  Still, he felt responsible.  If he had been quicker with the rifle, a faster runner, or just plain more observant, they never would have found themselves in that situation in the first place.  Oskar didn’t seem to mind, though.  As it was, the man seemed downright cheery.

The door opened behind him, and Aleksy turned.  Oskar stepped out, the sounds of men chatting inside cutting off as the door closed.  Speak of the Devil, Aleksy thought, and shivered a bit harder.  He never had been in love with Polish winters.

“Good news, brother.”  Oskar nudged him with his shoulder, and lit a cigarette.  The smoke coiled around his face, and Aleksy could smell the sulfur from the match.  “Sounds like you’re getting that medal, after all.  The brass decided what happened to me was enough proof for them that Moser had a run-in with wildlife, and enough proof you saved my life”

Aleksy grimaced around his pipe stem, and looked at his friend.  He looked better.  After he had been brought back, Oskar had run a fever for five days, one that seemed catching.  Aleksy remembered the medics and several of the support staff getting sick during that time, none worse than Oskar, though.  It made sense; they all bunked together, and they were exposed more than most to chills and illness.  Still, it made him uneasy. When the fever had passed, those men had seemed different somehow – nothing he could pin down directly, just different, like someone with a scar you don’t notice until you look directly at it.

He shook the thoughts off, and noticed Oskar was distracted, raising his nose in the air like a dog, as though he were sampling the air.  He caught Aleksy looking, and grinned, as though he were embarrassed.

“Ha!”  He said.  “Hungry.  I swear I can smell the kitchens from here. Say, I’ll trade you a pack of these -”  he held up a cigarette “- for your steak tonight.”

“If we’re having beets again, you’ll have to pry the steak from my cold dead hands.”  Aleksy grumbled.  “I swear, the meat is the only thing keeping me sane.”

Oskar laughed, and clapped him on the back, then headed off toward the mess.  Aleksy watched him go, and tried to ignore feeling that was setting his hair on end.  He watched the other man trod down the slushy road, and as he went, men began to file in from the side avenues, and fall in behind him.  Something about it, like wolves in a pack, formed an icy knot that gnawed its way into his stomach as he watched.

He counted twenty in all, mostly men from the infirmary and post office, though it looked as though there were a couple of officers in the mix as well.  Finally, they turned a corner, all in step, and Aleksy was able to tear his gaze away.  His pipe had gone out while he dawdled outside, and he tapped the bowl on his boot, knocking the dottle loose.  His fingers were numb to the point of being useless, and he really was getting hungry, despite the knot in his stomach.  With a sigh, he turned and went back inside the barracks, to warm up before the dinner whistle blew.

*

Dinner was the usual affair, with a few exceptions.  The wooden building was hot, with men pressed shoulder to shoulder, and steaming trays of food open to the air.  The air was filled with men’s chatter, and Aleksy caught snatches of conversation, bits and pieces about assignments, the food, and speculation about the war that raged.  That war seemed a thousand miles away, too far for worry from the middle of a forest.

He trudged through the line and grabbed his tray, and let the cooks fill it with stew and vegetables and a hard biscuit.  Inside, he did a little jump for joy.  No beets.  When it was full, he made his way over to the trestle tables and sat down at the nearest one with an opening.  He looked around for Oskar, but didn’t see him in the press of men.  Another glance confirmed the other men he had seen joining Oskar weren’t present, either, and he wondered where they could be.

He shrugged mentally, and wrote it off.  He wasn’t the man’s keeper.  They probably had an early duty shift, or a poker game.  It wouldn’t be unlike Oskar to get up to something of the sort.  Someone jostled his elbow, and he dropped his fork, the food spilling down his uniform.  He cursed under his breath as the man passed, but didn’t raise a fuss.  These things happened.  He finished eating, and stood to go, and found himself face to face with another man.

The man was roughly five-foot ten, and swarthy.  Aleksy didn’t recognize him.  Sweat stood out on the man’s forehead, and day-old stubble sprouted on his neck and cheeks.  His eyes were the too-bright brought on by a fever, and he stared a hole into Aleksy.  He growled, low in his chest, as though he were a dog sending up a warning, and Aleksy took an involuntary step back.  The man eyed him one last time, as though coming to a decision, and shoved past him.  As he passed, Aleksy noted a cuts on his cheek, by his ear, and the back of his neck.

When he left the tent, and the chill air and the knot in his stomach hit him, Aleksy wondered just what the hell was going on.

*

Sirens in the night woke him, somehow deep and shrill at the same time, ripping into the night like claws in the dark.  He started from sleep, and sat bolt-upright in his bed, the sheets pooling around his middle as his mind tried to make sense of what that sound meant.  It came again, tearing into the silence, and he moved to dress, throwing on his uniform as quickly as possible.  He heard movement in the dark, and noticed other men were doing the same, some more successfully than others.

He finished, and grabbed his rifle, and followed three of his bunkmates through the door.  Outside, the snow was a sheet of pure, dazzling white, thrown into brilliance by the floodlights surrounding the camp.  The siren continued to wail, and he ran to the nearest gate, his mind still racing as it tried to make sense of what was going on.

It couldn’t be the war.  There was no way the French or the British had pushed this far inland.  A raid from the Russians, maybe?  He tried to focus on sounds outside of the siren, but try as he might, he couldn’t hear a single gunshot.  No, then.  So, what?

He reached the guard shack by the gate and slowed.  The gate itself was thrown wide, and the snow churned into a muddy slush.  The ground below the snow had been torn up in places, as well, and a part of him wondered what could do that in the middle of a deep freeze.  In other places, the snow and slush had turned a deep crimson.  His eyes followed the red, spilled and splashed like paint, and found the trail led to the guard shack.

The sounds of running footsteps were close enough he could notice them even under the siren, and he glanced over his shoulder.  Two of the men from his barracks had caught up, and were staring at the mess by the gate, as though unsure what to do.  He flashed them hand signals – talking was going to be useless in the noise – flank, support – they nodded, and moved to follow instructions, rifles at the ready.  Alesky took a breath, and moved toward the guard shack.

The door was thrown wide, and he moved in slow, in a firing stance, in case anyone were still in there.  The blood was thicker this close to the shack, and his footing became slippery.  It looked like someone had expended gouts of gore, and he wasn’t expecting a survivor.  He rounded the doorway, and stepped inside.

The smell punched him in the nose, copper and offal, and he had to choke back the vomit that threatened to erupt from his throat.   What was left of the man who had been on guard duty made it debatable that it had ever been a man, and not just a chunk of meat.  His legs were missing, and his insides decorated the floor like an offering.  One arm had been tossed through the back window, and his head lay where it had rolled from the body, under the small counter in the back, where the guard would sometimes take his tea or coffee.  He caught a glance of the name on the man’s uniform – Conrad.  His guts churned again.

Someone shouted to ask if he was okay, and Aleksy took the chance to step out and gulp lungfulls of fresh air.  The cold felt good for once on his skin, and he while he gathered himself, he waved the all-clear to the men backing him up.  After a moment, he went back inside, holding his breath,  and tripped the alarm to ‘off’, and then slipped out.

When he stepped out the second time, he noticed there was a good group of men gathered at the gate, everyone who wasn’t infirm, dead, or too slow to make it out, and they were waiting.  The crowd parted, and Stonebird came through, dressed in his wool coat and long johns.  He turned for a moment to wave the onlookers off, and approached Aleksy.

“In hand, private?”  He asked.

“Yes, colonel.  It’s a mess, though.”

The colonel took a moment, and looked at the gate, then toward the guard shed.  He walked over, and peered in through the door.  Aleksy counted a good three-beat before the man came back.  When he did, his eyes glinted, flints in granite.

“We’ll find who did this.  You did well.  I’ll have a clean-up crew out here tonight.”  He paused, and seemed to consider Aleksy.  “I’m impressed.  Either you’re taking a liking to this life, or someone has plans for you.  Good job, corporal.”

He patted Aleksy’s shoulder, and turned.  Aleksy watched the man walk away, the cold seeming to bother him no more than the scene in the shack.  He stood there in the snow for a moment, and wondered what had happened here, and decided it was a mystery for a time when he wasn’t jacked up on adrenaline and fear.   He started for his own bunk, even as men in bulky overalls, and carrying plastic bags and buckets of soapy water passed him.

It wasn’t until he was lying in his own bunk; staring up at the springs above him did he realize he had been promoted.  Then another thought occurred to him, and he realized Oskar had never returned.

He didn’t sleep well that night.

*

Three more men disappeared in the next two weeks, each on patrol, or hunting.  The only evidence found of them was a red mess in the snow, and prints, like those of a barefoot man.  Oskar didn’t return, and as rolls were called, men seemed to be slipping away every day.  Aleksy began to worry.  He knew he should have fired when he saw the thing in the forest, should’ve done anything to stop Oskar if he couldn’t stop her.

Nights worried him the most.  When he slept, it was more often nightmares than not, of men made ruin and screaming alarms that brought the Reaper and the woman with the black teeth.  Worse, when he lay awake, staring up at the empty bunk above him, he knew that out there, was red death stalking the forest.

*

The days passed, slipping by like a knife through flesh.  Aleksy would see the men who had kept company with Oskar, still walking in their pack.  They had been joined not long after by the man who had nearly confronted him in the mess hall.  Aleksy wondered who their alpha was now.  He decided he didn’t want to know.

He found himself with a few more responsibilities since his promotion.  Most of it was routine inspection, PT direction, and clerking for Moser’s replacement, a Sergeant by the name of Kocher.  There were times he had to pick up the slack as well, which meant longer duty shifts if a man was detained elsewhere, or if they were short, which they were more often than not.  The illness was taking men as it saw fit and laying them up for three, four days at a time.  He wasn’t sure he should thank the colonel for his promotion, the more he thought about it.  His pay was bumped up a bit, of course, and he was sure to send the extra to his sister in Warsaw, but there were days, when he stood for sixteen hours in the guard shack, when he doubted the worth of it.

Aleksy was laying in his bunk, staring up at the springs above him, and wondering if there were a way to go back to give his promotion back, when the door to the barracks opened.  He turned his head, and saw the legs and torso of another soldier making a beeline for his bunk.  He slipped his legs to the side, and sat up so he could see the man.  The soldier was a bit taller than most – roughly six foot – with dark hair that was bordering on too long.  His uniform hung on him.  The man was skinny as a post, and likely to stay that way until he reached his twenties.  He came to a stop just short of Aleksy, and stood at attention.

“Sir, the Sergeant needs you to report to the infirmary ASAP.”

Aleksy stood, and pulled his uniform jacket from the locker next to his bunk.  He drew it on, and eyed the private.

“Anything else?”  He asked.

The boy swallowed.  “Uh, no, sir.  Just that he was already yelling for you, like he expected you to be there ahead of him.”

Aleksy cursed under his breath, and dismissed the boy.  He ran his fingers through his hair.  So much for a little rest.  He wondered what the hurry was, and the thought occurred to him that someone under his command had been wounded.  He doubted that – they hadn’t had any incidents since the last hunter had disappeared.  The forest had been quiet.  He pulled on his winter coat, and slipped out the door, trying not to make any noise on the way out.  Just because he had been called up in the middle of the night, didn’t mean the others had to suffer.

Outside, the night was still and cold.  Aleksy spared a glance upward as he began to walk toward the infirmary.  The sky was that severe midnight blue it could only get on icy winter nights, and stars hung there like white fire, paling next to a full winter moon, huge and white and uncaring.  Aleksy shivered and pulled his coat tighter, though he wasn’t sure it was the cold that was reaching into him.  He picked his way across a stark landscape, snowdrifts and buildings thrown into stark silhouettes.  His boots crunched on the gravel, and he thought it a lonely sound.

He passed a sentry or two on his way to the infirmary, their breaths pluming white in the dark.  They nodded or saluted to him.  They knew he wouldn’t come down on them like some of the NCOs about that sort of thing, especially this late at night.  The brass looked on him as an odd duck, but the rumor was they overlooked most of it because he did his job, and did it well.

Somewhere in the forest, a wolf howled, and it stopped Aleksy in his tracks.  It was a long, lonely sound, a wail that spoke of defiance.  After a moment, it was picked up by another, and another, and yet another.  In a matter of seconds, the world seemed to vibrate with the sound, and Aleksy forced down the fear that rose in him.  He knew it was the fear of prey, that flight or flight instinct that had kept cavemen alive when they were the ones hunted.  He forced himself to go on, and was stopped in his tracks when another howl came, closer, louder.

He turned to find the sentry he had just passed, and found the man leaning just inside the alley formed by two buildings.  The ember of his cigarette burned red against the night.  Aleksy got his attention.

“Gather the men you can, and check the infirmary.”  Aleksy said.

The man flicked his cigarette to the side, and snapped a salute.  He paused before going.

“Is everything okay, sir?”

“No.  I don’t think so.”

The soldier turned to go.  Aleksy started to turn as well, to head back to the barracks.  He watched the soldier he had just ordered off fold in on himself and collapse, and Aleksy blinked.  His brain tried to catch up to what had just happened.  Something huge and black streaked by, a musky animal scent assaulting his nostrils.  The soldier that had fallen was bleeding out, quickly, his blood shining black in the moonlight as it spread like runoff.

Another howl sounded, and Aleksy was sure it had come from inside the camp.  The sound snapped him out of his stupor, and he ran, his boots slipping at first in the warm slush the soldier’s blood had made, and then gaining purchase on the dry gravel.   His boots tore into the gravel underfoot, and he ran hard, hard enough to throw short sprays of cold stone behind him as he went.

More howls broke the night, and he could hear screams punctuating them.  His breath came in ragged gasps as he ran, fear snatching his breath.  He turned a corner, and saw another huge shape, as tall as man, and cloaked in wiry fur, bound by, and tear the head off of a soldier who had been stupid enough to try to fight, the man wielding one of the big axes from the lockers.

It turned as he ran by, and he caught a wolf’s snout and large dark eyes staring hate.  Pointed ears lay back on its head, and it snarled.  He could see rows of razor teeth in that mouth.  Its body looked like it had been carved from muscle, and shaped for murder.  The whole thing was covered in coarse black fur that sent off a scent of musk so strong he thought he might retch.  Its arms were long and corded, and its fingers ended in black talons.

He saw it only for an instant, until it saw him and moved on, powerful legs moving it near silence as it ate up ground in great leaps.  That instant was enough to burn it into his brain for the rest of his life, however short that might be.  He uttered a prayer as he ran, and tried to ignore the spot on his leg where he had pissed himself, the wet spot turning to ice in the frigid air.

He turned another corner, and saw the barracks ahead.  The building appeared unmolested, and he wondered how many had managed to slip out, alive, or armed, or both.  He poured on speed, his muscles and lungs protesting.  His heart was beating in odd rhythms, and he had the morbid thought that if he died now, no one would be able to provide for his family.  The thought was snapped out of head by the sound of something coming up on him, fast.  He ran, and slammed himself into the door.

His muscles threatened to cramp as he ripped the door open and threw himself inside.  With another effort made more of will than muscle and bone, he slammed the door shut, and rammed the heavy deadbolt home.  After the guard shack incident, he had convinced Stonebird to have them installed on the doors, and uttered another silent prayer in thanks, to God and the colonel, when the bolt slammed home.

Something huge and heavy hit the door, and it shuddered in the frame.  Dust filtered down from the lintel, and he feared it would split.  Another blow and it shuddered again, but held.  Aleksy breathed a sigh of relief, and backed toward his locker, where his rifle was stored.  The hammering had stopped after the second attempt, but he didn’t trust that to last for long, and he wanted to be as ready as possible.  He turned to go to his locker, and halted in his tracks.  Oskar was sitting on his bed.

Fear and exhaustion crashed into him.  He dropped to his knees, his legs cramping.  He caught himself on his palms, and managed to push himself to a kneeling position, but not before feeling the warm stickiness that coated his hands.  He looked at his palms, and saw in the dim light they were covered in crimson.  He looked around, noticing for the first time men in their beds, each of their throats slit; their bodies lifeless.  Oskar cleared his throat, and Aleksy looked up.

“Rough night, brother?”  He asked.

Aleksy noticed his rifle sitting on the other man’s lap, nearly within reach.  He tried to figure his chances, but his mind refused to work through the haze of adrenaline and weariness.  Instead, he just nodded.  Oskar grinned.

“I know how you feel.”  He placed the rifle next to him on the bed, and stood, walking to the high window in the wall.  He looked out.  “We woke her up, you know.”

Aleksy was staring at the rifle.  He started to inch forward.  Oskar didn’t look back.  “Who?”  He said.  He thought if he could keep the man talking, he might have a chance.

“The Forest.  Marzanna.  We were hurting her, taking those trees, killing her children.  So she made us.”

Aleksy was still inching forward.  He was almost close enough to reach out and grab the rifle.  Oskar turned and looked at him, and he froze.  There was a fierce look in his eyes, anger and a purpose Aleksy hadn’t seen there before.

“I’m not telling you this because I’m some villain in a fairy tale, Aleksy.  We’re friends.  You should not worry so.”

Aleksy reached out, and grabbed the rifle.  He knew it was loaded.  He kept it that way, ever since that bloody night.  He swung the barrel toward Oskar.

“Why, then?”  He asked.

Oskar’s skin began to ripple, like water on a pond, and he began to change, bones popping in loud cracks as they shifted, and muscle building as though a sculptor were slapping clay on a statue.  He started to grow in height; standing almost to the ceiling, and thick patches of fur began to appear in places where his clothes had torn.  When he spoke again, the words came out rough, half-formed around rows of teeth.

“Because there’s nothing you can do about it.  You have no choice.”

Oskar, or the thing that had been Oskar, leapt at him.  Aleksy pulled the trigger.

The Forest: Fall

Fall

It was autumn, and the forest was changing.  Aleksy noticed it on the air first, toward the end of summer.  The wind smelled cool and sere, and the nights started to cool quickly, the days slipping to dusk faster and faster.  A week later, the first colors began to show on the leaves, yellows and reds slipped in among the greens, and then another week after that, the forest simply reversed colors, as though someone had flipped a switch.  Trees were a riot of color, ablaze with autumn coats, and the dry rustle of fallen leaves followed him around wherever he walked.

Oskar had spent just a few days in the infirmary while the medics made sure he was okay.  They seemed more concerned that he had scrambled his brains rather than injured himself, and as a result, they restricted his duties, and kept him away from any detail that required him to be armed.  Moser was still missing, though after a short inquiry, they didn’t seem to think there was any evidence of a connection.

Aleksy had been moved to hunting detail, since there hadn’t been enough free men to partner him with someone else, and the common wisdom was that he would be safe alone, as long as he was armed.  He doubted the validity of that wisdom, but kept his mouth shut.  Oskar still came out with him from time to time, though for the most part, the man had been confined to the boundaries of the camp.  The brass and the medicos had moved him into the kitchens as a clerk.  When they did manage to get out of the camp from time to time, Aleksy noticed the man seemed deflated, as though all his hero talk had cracked as quickly as his mind had seemed to.

They walked down the winding path that led to the cutting areas, the rails that had been laid so far keeping them company off to the side.  The Germans had figured it was far more efficient to set up a small rail system for the woodsmen, that way they could cut, and the men could load the carts, and send them on their way back to the mill that had sprung up next to the camp.  Aleksy didn’t know what to make of it, this industrialization of a place he had grown up so close to, a place that had always been alive with myth and nature.  He wasn’t sure he liked it.

As they walked, Aleksy shot a glance over at the other man.  Oskar seemed to have perked up a bit since they left the confines of the camp, and was looking around, studying the scenery.

“This would be a good place for a home, I think.”  He said.

“How’s that?  It’s in the middle of nowhere, and there are Germans crawling all over it.”

Oskar shrugged, and turned back to him.  The man hadn’t been sleeping well since his breakdown.  Dark circles ringed his eyes.  Aleksy noticed his eyes were bright however, and he seemed to be gaining confidence as they moved further from the camp.

“You’re kidding, right, brother?”  He asked.  “Fresh water, fresh meat, and fresh air.  Wood for fires – enough wood for enough fires for your grandchildren’s grandchildren.”  He sniffed the air, an action that seemed odd to Aleksy, and then bent down.  He pushed leaves to the side until he found what he was looking for, and snapped it off, and stood back up.  He was holding a mushroom, a morel, from the look of it, and pushed it towards Aleksy.  “You could eat like a king here.”  He dropped the mushroom when his friend didn’t take it, and looked around, dusting off his palms.  “Hell, I bet there are even truffles here.”

They kept walking, Oskar in the lead.  Aleksy had only meant to go as far as the one-mile mark, two at the most, and turn around.  He had brought his rifle – he was supposed to be hunting for game (not that it was hard to find) – and the butt bumped against his hip as he walked.  He adjusted the strap, and they continued on.  Stumps passed by on the other side of them, and Aleksy imagined he could see a few he recognized, old things he and Oskar had cut down just that summer.

They walked in silence for a time, as they had in the past, and fell into familiar habits.  Oskar’s stride had picked up, and he was chattering again.

“…doctors think I suffered a case of hysteria.  Hah!  Women get hysteria.  What I need is a good steak, and a good lay.”  He grinned, and gestured at the rifle hanging from Aleksy’s shoulder.  “Say, you plan on shooting anything today, or are we eating rabbit and deer again?  You should let me have that.”

Aleksy grinned sheepishly, and unslung the rifle.  He stopped for a moment to clear the breech, and load a shell.

“No, it’s fine.  Maybe we’ll find you a nice possum.”

Oskar spat.  “Dupek.”  He said, though he was grinning back.  “Fine, fine.  Let me rustle something up.”

He started into a stand of hawthorn, and shook the bush.  Aleksy watched him, and breathed a sigh of relief.  He wasn’t sure how the doctors felt, or if Oskar was as well as he claimed, but he wasn’t about to find out the hard way by arming the man.   Oskar was already moving on, and Aleksy tried to follow, and Oskar broke into a run, as though he had seen something further on.

“Oskar, wait!”

Oskar stopped, and turned, a puzzled look on his face.  He acted as though he were lost and alone.  Aleksy called out again, and the man didn’t seem to hear.  He took off at a jog again, and Aleksy followed.  He passed the three-mile mark as he did, and the bottom fell out of his stomach.  He knew where Oskar was headed.  He put his head down, and started to run, trying to catch up with the man.

Ahead, the stands of oak in twos and threes and hawthorn bushes grew in size, and Aleksy saw Oskar pass between them, and into the clearing he knew was on the other side.  Aleksy fought for a moment with the urge to give up the chase and return to camp, to gather either a search party, or medics, or even the MPs.  If he had been further from the clearing, he would have done just that, he thought.  As it was, he knew that if you could see a man drowning, you didn’t make him wait for help.  You jumped in.

He reached the stand of trees and bulled his way between them, the hawthorn and low branches thicker than he remembered, as though they were conspiring to keep him out.  They snagged his clothes, and threatened to hang up the rifle.  He pushed on, and won through. Oskar was standing in the center of the circle for the second time in recent memory, late afternoon sun shining on him in shafts, the autumn wind kicking up small spirals of leaves and letting them drift to the ground.

Aleksy stopped just short of the stones that made the circle, almost afraid to step foot inside.  Oskar’s lips were moving, as though he were talking to someone.  He turned to his right, just a bit, and Aleksy’s breath caught.  He could see her.

She was all of five feet, with heavy breasts open to the world.  Around her waist, she wore a skirt that seemed to be woven of red and gold leaves, short enough to expose her thighs.  Her hair was a fiery red, and her eyes a deep blue.  She moved almost silently, on the balls of her feet, every line and muscle of her body perfectly synchronized.  When she reached Oskar, she leaned in and whispered something into his ear.

Aleksy tried to remember everything they had taught them in training about being still and silent, but the run and the shock of seeing the woman took him by surprise.  He stumbled, and a twig snapped underfoot.  The woman’s reaction was immediate.

She looked up, and her face changed, into something lupine, her mouth filled with fangs, the tips of her fingers sharpening into black claws.  She snarled, and words, black and guttural, spilled from her mouth in no language Aleksy recognized.  He raised the rifle, his first instinct to protect his friend.  She saw the threat, and in one motion, she drew her claws cross Oskar’s neck, bright blood welling and flowing from the wounds, and turned and ran.

Leaves shot up in her wake as though a cyclone had passed, and in a moment, she was gone, even before the bullet had cleared the rifle.  In the silence left in her wake, Aleksy could hear only the sound of his own heart pounding in his ears, and then another, a keening wail that came from Oskar even as he fell.

He dropped the rifle and rushed to the other man, too late to catch him from hitting the ground.  He propped Oskar’s head up, and inspected the wounds, using his handkerchief to clear away what blood he could.  The wounds looked superficial, and he breathed a sigh of relief.  He wasn’t sure why that thing hadn’t killed Oskar; he could only hope it was from self-preservation and a last minute distraction that his friend had survived.

Oskar was still wailing, and Aleksy made himself busy tearing pieces from the man’s shirt and making bandages.  He wrapped them tight to the wounds to slow the bleeding, and looked around.  It took some doing, but he managed to find enough green wood and loose branches, and the rest of Oskar’s shirt, to make a makeshift sled.  Before long, he had two loops over his shoulders, and Oskar on the sled, and was on his way, trudging up the path toward the camp.

On the way, his mind twisted and turned, trying to make sense of what he had seen.  A czarownica?  A nimfa?  Neither of those made much sense.  What he knew of them from the folktales, witches cursed men, they didn’t bleed them, and nymphs were more about teasing, subtlety.  What he had seen there was only subtle on the surface.  It was fierce, and apparently, possessive.  He shot a glance over his shoulder every now and then; just to be sure he wasn’t being followed.  Not that he could do anything about it, with the rifle back on his shoulder; his arms tangled in the sled straps.

He quickened his pace, and tried not to notice the sounds of branches breaking, or leaves stirring.  It was the forest, after all.

Just the forest, and that low, eerie moan that followed him as he walked.

The Forest: Summer

Summer

Aleksy hated the work.  It wasn’t that he was lazy, not by far – he always finished the task in front of him.  It was the heat, and the flies and mosquitoes, and the constant jarring of the axe in the wood.  It wore a man out, swinging a hunk of metal and wood from sunup to sundown.  At night, he would return to the barracks, hot and sore and tired, the calluses on his hands sometimes still breaking open, turning his palms red and raw.

He had been raised in Warsaw, with the forest just to the north of him his entire life.  There had been plenty of work there for a man willing, and though the pay was poor, it had never seemed as hard as this.  When the Germans came through, he made the choice to join, not for any lofty cause – the Germans could have their land and their rule – but because it was better than being clapped in chains and letting his family starve.

Beside him, Oskar raised his head from the axe he had been working, and wiped his arm across his forehead.  “You stop swinging for a reason, brother?”  He asked.

Aleksy hated that, as well.  Oskar called everyone ‘brother’, and he knew it was probably just a verbal tic, but it still rankled him.  Oskar had joined willingly, ready to fight the Americans and British that crossed the ocean.  When they weren’t working on the trees, Oskar would lie in the barracks and boast about killing the enemy, taking their medals or helmets for souvenirs.  He insisted he was made for glory; all he needed was the chance to prove it.

Aleksy shook his head, and grabbed the axe again.  “Hot.”  He said.

Oskar looked around, peered up through the canopy of the forest.  It was thinner here, this part made mostly of newer growth, the great old giants further in.  The man shook his head and grabbed his axe as well, and went back to work on the tree he had been trying to fell.

The two men worked in silence for a while, the smells of freshly-cut wood and forest loam that was never quite dry and sweat drifting around them in the late afternoon heat.  The sounds of axe heads biting into the wood went on, a rhythmic thunk-thunk that echoed through the trees.  In the distance, Aleksy could hear echoes of their axes, and a sharper, higher sound – metal on metal – as men dropped and secured the first rails and ties for the carts.

German command had decided the forest would be an excellent strategic resource, and so had moved the 9th Army through Poland to the border of Belarus.  As they went, they conscripted men and women into the army.  Those that wouldn’t go were clapped in chains and sent to the closest prison.  Those that did were given a uniform, a rifle, a kit, and marching orders.

When they arrived, it was to a mixed bag of emotions.  The ones like Oskar, and the relatively green recruits of Germans, were disappointed.  There was to be no fighting here.  They were to secure the forest, and then begin exploiting it.  There was a great deal of good hardwood in those miles, and an almost equally abundant supply of wild game.  As far as Aleksy, and the men who believed as he did, were concerned, if the worst the Germans asked of them was some deforestation, they would take what was handed them and not grumble.  It was still better than laying face-up in a crater in no-man’s land with your guts spilled to your side.

Aleksy thought for a moment of his cousin, Jarek, and his deployment with the 1st Army.  He wondered how his cousin was doing.  He wondered if there were any forests where he was, on the western front, bogged down in the mud and fire.

His thoughts cut off as Oskar nudged him.  “Look sharp, brother.”

Aleksy looked up from the axe he wasn’t aware he had stopped swinging again.  Oskar nodded off to their right.  Sergeant Moser was walking the labor lines, inspecting the men’s work.  He would occasionally stop and say something to a man on the line, and then continue on.  The times he did stop, the man he had spoken to would slump a bit, and then return to work with only a slight increase in vigor.

Dupek.” Oskar muttered, and spit off to the side.

Aleksy smiled to himself.  It was comforting to know that despite Oskar’s bravado, the man hated his boss just like everyone else.  The sergeant was getting closer, and Aleksy and Oskar resumed chopping at the trees, just a bit harder than they normally would have.

Five minutes of hard cutting had them sweating and grunting, the only sounds in their ears of axe head hitting wood.  Aleksy was ready for a break.  A bit of water, maybe a smoke borrowed from one of the other men.  He tried not to think of it, and before long lost himself in the work.  He nearly dropped the axe when a shadow passed over him, and instead of moving on, it hovered, the sensation of being watched sending prickles down the back of his neck.

He swung the axe that much harder, not wanting to hear the Sergeant’s criticisms.  THWOCK.  THWOCK.  A minute passed, and then two, and Aleksy’s shoulders and hands threatened to cramp from the repetition and impact.  Just before he was sure he would have to leave the axe in the tree and deal with Moser, the shadow passed over him.

He risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the man slipping between the trees.  He slowed his pace, still swinging, but only just enough to make noise, until Moser disappeared in the shadow of the forest.  When the sergeant was gone, he stopped cutting and left the axe in the tree.

He stood and knuckled his back, and then wiped the thick sheen of sweat from his forehead with his arm.  He walked over to a nearby stump, and pulled his canteen from his kit, taking a long pull.  The water was warm, but good, clean spring water.  Oskar joined him after a minute.

They leaned on the stump and watched the last of the afternoon light filter through the forest canopy.  A breeze sprung up, and sent the leaves overhead dancing, making watery shadows on the ground.  Neither man said a word, and that was good, as far as Aleksy was concerned.  Too many people thought that every moment spent with another person had to be filled, any sound, no matter how inane, better than even small silences.

They listened to the forest around them, taking small sips from their canteens.  They knew they had to be back at it, but it was getting close enough to dusk to not make a difference, and with the inspection gone and passed, they could relax a bit.  In the darker parts of the forest, something broke a twig as it passed by, and a bird called out, low and musical.  The last of the light started to go, turning the light first red, then a deep orange.

A whistle, high and sharp, pierced the forest, and they were broken from their quiet.  Quitting time.  They’d have enough time to gather their things, and maybe take a quick shower in one of the stalls outside of the barracks before the bell rang for mess.  They began to gather their things, stowing first their canteens in their kits, and then taking up the big axes from where they had left them in the trees.

They started down the path, moving at a quick walk.  The path hadn’t been there even two weeks before, but heavy traffic and the work of dozens of men with axes had quickly cleared enough undergrowth and smaller trees to allow the men access to increasingly deeper parts of the forest.

Halfway to the camp, Oskar stopped.  He glanced over his shoulder, and held up his hand, signaling for Aleksy to stop as well.  Aleksy did so, and watched, as the other man crept to the edge of the path, his axe in both hands, his kit laid on the path.  Oskar peered into the bush for a moment, and cocked his head, as if listening.  Nervousness began to creep in Aleksy, and he wondered if he shouldn’t have his axe at the ready as well, rather than slung over his shoulder.  Tense moments passed, and he began to lay his kit down, so he could grip the axe.  Then it was over, and Oskar was returning to the path, his axe held loose again.

“Well?”  Aleksy asked.

Oskar shrugged.  “Thought I heard something pacing us.”  He pointed the axe in the general direction of the bush.  “Gone now.  I was hoping it was a boar.”

“A boar?”

“Yeah, you know, big pig, tusks.  We would’ve eaten like kings!”

They resumed walking, and Aleksy shook his head, but couldn’t keep a grin from his face.  He tried to imagine Oskar as any kind of hero, even as the man went on about bacon and short ribs and chops.  Oskar the hero.  He almost chuckled aloud.

*

The 9th Army’s camp had grown into a sprawling monster in the few months since they had arrived.  Despite the remoteness of the location, the officers had decided not to take any chances (some of the more gung-ho ones had insisted they needed to keep their eyes peeled for the Russians), and had erected a fenced palisade topped with barbed-wire, with another small field of barbed wire extending past that for several yards.

The camp was laid out according to military code, with utility buildings like the mess and infirmary and command nearer the back, butting up against a small hill that had been cleared, and soldier’s tents and barracks erected in neat lines that allowed for straight avenues and easy navigation.  Latrines marked the outer boundary of the camp, on the leeward side, in the hope that the wind that passed though the countryside and forest would carry the worst of the scent away.

Aleksy and Oskar passed through the gate leading into the camp.  The path they had been walking had turned into a well-worn wide dirt road a half-mile back, and they kept to one side should vehicles, or rarely, a horseman, pass by.  They were waved inside by the two privates on duty, rifles slung over their shoulders, a disinterested look in their eyes.

One of the men, Conrad, smiled at Aleksy as he passed.  Aleksy thought of him as decent enough, for a German.  He was smoking one of those Turkish cigarettes, the smoke rising in wisps that the wind tattered away.  He could smell the strong scent of burning tobacco as he passed, and it made him wish he had brought his pipe.

Inside the camp, they passed groups of men, heading in a hundred different directions.  It seemed to Aleksy the camp was more akin to a lethargic beehive, everyone working, with no one really all that excited about it.  This far out from command, there were very few officers seen mingling with the enlisted, and everyone seemed to be happier for it.  The majority of the men here were conscripts like him, and though they weren’t all happy with their lot, they were still good, hard-working men, regardless of the proximity of officers.

They passed a group of privates chatting in excited tones.  The weekend was coming soon, and the rumor was that several of the men were being allowed passes to the city.  Their chatter slipped by as Aleksy and Oskar walked, and they passed two more groups of men, all going different directions as they went.  Men reporting for duty, or heading to mess.  He was starting to think he and Oskar might have to miss their showers when they turned a corner, and the barracks came into sight.  He breathed a sigh of relief, and Oskar clapped him on the back, shot him a quick smile, and quickened his pace.

They half-jogged to the back of the barracks, axes bouncing on their shoulders, until they reached the row of equipment lockers there.  They put away their axes and field kits, and locked the boxes when they were done, each man with a key that hung around his neck.  With that done, they made their way around the corner, where the showers stood, really little more than stalls with thick plastic curtains, where the men could clean up quickly.  They stripped down, and stepped into one each, and Oskar started to talk, while Aleksy tried not to think of the grumbling his stomach was sending up.

“Oksana.  You remember her, right?”  Oskar grinned and ducked his head under the water.  Aleksy nodded.

“Yeah, she was what, sixteen?  Girl followed you around like a puppy.”

“She liked it like a puppy, too.”  Oskar’s grin got wider, and Aleksy rolled his eyes.

“Oh, and you’re so pure, brother?”  Oskar shot back.

Aleksy ignored the comment.  He had had his fair share of farm girls and working girls on their tour; he just preferred not to talk about it.  He didn’t believe you needed to trumpet every conquest like an elephant with something to prove.  Sometimes, a man just needed a warm body to keep him company for a night, and sometimes a woman needed the same thing.  It wasn’t an issue of pride for him as much as a necessity of the human condition.

Oskar was still going on in the background.  “What do you think we’re having for dinner?  Beets and venison again?”

Aleksy’s stomach growled at that, but it was only half-hearted this time.  He hated beets, though venison was starting to bring up the rear in that race.  He almost wished Oskar would’ve got that boar.  The man would’ve been insufferable for a week, but they’d have something other than deer steak and beets.  Or deer steak and leeks.  Or deer steak and onions.  He was starting to wish he had found the boar, for that matter.

The mess whistle sounded across the camp, snapping Aleksy out of his thoughts.  He stepped out of the stall and dried himself and then shucked back into his uniform.  It still smelled of sweat, but not as strongly.  He could change out of it when dinner was over.

Oskar wasn’t far behind, and Aleksy waited for the man to finish dressing, while he ran his fingers through damp hair.  When Oskar was done, they started off toward the mess hall, silence dropping over them once again.

*

The mess tent was a cacophony of noise and motion, men lining up to eat, men wandering the rows of tables looking for a place to sit – either with friends, or as close to the door as possible – and the sounds of chatter and the metallic clink of silverware hitting tin trays.  Aleksy and Oskar made their way through the line, waiting patiently as the cooks dished out food into the compartments on their trays.  Beets, stewed in their own sauce, making a violet almost-jelly, a brown steak that smelled somewhat gamey, and a dense piece of cake that looked like it might be a brownie.

They took their food, and wandered the tables, until they found one with two spots open, and sat down.  Aleksy tried not to shift too much while sitting on the rough wood.  He had learned the hard way, the first week, and the camp medic had to pull a two-inch splinter from his rear.  He had no wish to relive the sensation of a man giggling behind him while he was bent over a gurney, with his pants down.

Oskar was already bragging, the other privates and corporals leaning in to hear his story.

“Bet on it, brother!  Tomorrow, I’m going to catch that boar, and then we’ll all be eating ribs!  Three feet tall, if he was an inch, I swear to you!”

Aleksy rolled his eyes (something he found himself doing more often than not around Oskar), and set to his meal.  The beets were slimy, as always, and he had a hard time choking those down.  He tried the steak, and though it was a bit chewy and salted to beat the Dead Sea, he found if he dipped it in the beet juice, he could eat it.  He managed to finish both, and tried the brownie.  It was dry and crumbly, and he ended up going back to the water bins twice to refill his cup before he finished it.  Still, it was food, and his stomach had finally stopped dancing and growling.

The other men at the table were laughing at something Oskar had said, and it drew Aleksy out of his head.  Oskar clapped him on the back, and was grinning.  Aleksy looked over at the man to ask him what was so funny, when motion out of the corner of his eye made him turn his head.  He saw the smile slip from Oskar’s face.

Karl Amsel, Colonel Amsel, if you were an enlisted man, was striding between the long trestle tables down the aisle that led to the back of the tent.  Oskar was still leaning close to Aleksy, and whispered under his breath.

“The Stonebird himself.  Pieprz mnieMust be big news, for the old man to come down.  Hey, maybe we’re finally going to see some action.”

The colonel reached the end of the aisle, and leaned over the cook counter, speaking in low tones to the men behind it.  They stopped what they were doing, and came out from behind it, sitting at one of the more sparsely occupied tables.  The colonel turned, and cleared his throat.

He was not a large man, maybe five-foot six, give or take an inch.  He was however, dense, like concrete.  His uniform strained at the seams, none of the bulk fat, and his wide face and square chin gave him the impression of being carved from granite.  Despite his age (he was rumored to be in his sixties), his hair and moustache were jet-black.  Nearly black eyes full of intelligence looked out from over a nose that hooked like a beak, all of it together giving him the impression of a bird watching its prey.

The colonel began to speak, and Oskar hushed.

“For those of you who don’t know yet, and I’m guessing from the whispers I’m hearing, that’s most of you, we lost a soldier today.  Dietrich Moser, Sergeant Moser, was last seen checking the labor lines close to the three-mile mark when he went missing.  For now, we’re assuming he is simply lost, maybe turned around in the trees out there, and not AWOL, or worse.  As a result, we’ll be taking volunteers to from search parties and beat the bush.  If we do not have enough volunteers, we will begin drafting men at random in order to fill out the groups.  This duty is in addition to your regular work, so do not expect to volunteer and be given a pass.”

A quiet groan went up from the gathered men.  The colonel ignored it.

“In addition, until we find the sergeant, or put to rest what has happened, all weekend passes are suspended.”

A larger groan went up, and this time, the colonel shot a glare around the room, quieting it.  When it had settled, he went on.

“That is all.  I expect you men to use common sense in the forest.  Keep to twos, keep your kits on you at all times, and pay attention.  Now, those of you who wish to volunteer, you may go to the notice board and sign the sheet posted there.”

He finished, and began to walk out; paying no attention to the glares he must have caught from the corners of his eyes.  The tent flap closed behind him, letting the last of the dusk light in, then cut it off.  The chatter began to pick up in the silence he left behind.

Oskar leaned in, talking in a low voice.  “It’s bullshit, I tell you, brothers.  The Soviets are responsible for this.  They’re out there, in the dark, just waiting until we go to sleep, and then they sneak in, and slit our throats.  Or, they just pick us off, one by one.  One minute, you’re dropping a tree, the next; you’re trying to breathe through the knife in your lung.”

One of the privates, Dariusz, replied.  “What’s the big deal?  If it’s the Soviets, they can’t hide long, and we’ll beat them out.  If it’s not, or even if it is, Moser’s gone.  Tell me that’s not a good thing.  And hey, you finally get your action.”

Oskar leaned back.  “You make good points, brother.”  He clapped Aleksy on the back.  “C’mon, let’s go sign up, maybe we’ll get to kill us some Russians.”

Aleksy wasn’t thrilled with the idea.  He wasn’t a coward, just a realist.  Fighting meant someone getting dead, and in close quarters, it meant getting dead in a messy way.  He hoped to God it wasn’t the Russians.  He hoped either the man had gotten himself lost or killed, but not by another man’s hand.  Oskar stood up, and was making for the tent flap.  Aleksy followed after a moment.  He wasn’t in love with the idea of pulling double-duty, or with kicking through bushes, but someone had to watch Oskar.

*

As it turned out, luck was on their side.  They had pulled the search shift on one of their off days, and so had plenty of time to pick through the trees.  They set out with a group of eight other men, who were in turn accompanied by seven other groups of ten, eighty men in all, trudging in a line with electric torches and long sticks to beat the bush.  Each man was spaced roughly five feet from the other, the torches lighting up the underbrush and tree trunks in the darkness of the canopy, calling out for Sergeant Moser in voices that echoed in the dim light.  In the dim light, it looked like a dance written for fireflies.

They had made it almost to the three-mile mark, the point where the path thinned out, and the trees thickened, when Oskar began to edge a bit closer to Aleksy.  Aleksy groaned internally.

Here it comes, he thought.  He’s going to go on about how he’s going to be a hero, get a medal, maybe catch that boar, as well.

He tried to ignore Oskar as they moved along, making a point of shining his light into a hawthorn bush, the red berries catching the light and drinking it, turning each of them into round rubies amid gem-like green leaves.  He poked his stick into the base of the branches and shook it, but only managed to startle a vole out of its burrow.  He straightened up, and Oskar was next to him, looking out over the bush as the rest of the men moved on.

“Still looking for that boar, Oskar?”  Aleksy tried to keep the smile and the sarcasm from his voice.  Oskar didn’t notice.  He leaned in – you could always tell when Oskar was about to say something that could get him in trouble when he did that.

“Nah, brother.  I’m thinking – eh, well, you probably don’t care, what with being pure as the driven snow.  Look, I saw something.  Someone.”

Aleksy frowned in irritation at that, but let it go.  “What?”  He said instead.  Oskar wasn’t making sense.  He shot a quick look at the man while still pretending to check the bushes.  He didn’t see any of the signs of sickness.  No yellow skin, or red eyes, no thick sheen of sweat.

“There are women here, brother!”  Oskar almost let his voice rise above a whisper.

“What?  Where? How?”  Aleksy stopped poking the bush, and stood up.  He didn’t really know what else to say.  The closest women were ten or fifteen miles away, in Bialowieza.  There was little chance any had snuck into the camp, with the fence around it, and any in the forest were likely to be spies, or lost beyond hope.

Oskar went on.  “I saw her, brother.  Young thing, probably about sixteen or seventeen, dancing in the trees.  She was there, for a minute, dressed in a skirt, and that’s it.  Didn’t make a sound, either.  She saw me though, sure as I saw her.  Waved me on.  I think she’s in that stand of trees over there.”

He pointed to a group of oaks growing in clusters of twos and threes.  Aleksy could see that the line of men had moved on past them, their lights bobbing points in the distance.  They had closed ranks as they went, as though they hadn’t even noticed the absence of two of their own.

“C’mon, brother.”  Oskar started toward the group of trees.  “Maybe she has a sister.”

Aleksy didn’t like where this was heading.  If the men ahead of them noticed they were missing, and reported it, he and Oskar would be in hot water.  Worse, if Oskar were sick, despite not showing any symptoms, he could get himself, or even both of them, killed.  He hesitated.  It would be easier to join the men ahead, or even go back to camp, make an excuse, and leave Oskar to his fate.

Oskar was already on his way towards the grove, his torch pointed down so as not to attract attention.  He stopped at the edge of the circle of trees, lit from overhead by light filtering through the canopy.  Aleksy set his shoulders, and followed, still uneasy.  He caught up to Oskar as the man slipped between the trees, his torch forgotten on the ground.  Aleksy stopped to pick it up, and followed.

Full sunlight streamed into the clearing, a space several yards across, and almost empty of trees.  A circle of stones ran just inside the perimeter of the clearing, lush green grass growing inside of it.  Oskar stood in the center of the stones, turning a slow circle with his hands out, and a puzzled look on his face.  When he saw Aleksy, he stopped turning, and raised his hands in a frustrated gesture.

“She was right here, brother.  Where did she go?  Come out, come out!”  He almost shouted the last.

Aleksy stepped into the circle, and set the torches down.  He walked to Oskar, slowly.  The man’s eyes were wide, and he looked spooked.  Aleksy wasn’t sure what he could have seen or heard in the minute or two it took him to get to the man, but it had clearly set him on edge.

“It’s okay, Oskar.”  He said.  “You probably just saw a trick of the light.  It’s hot, we’ve been searching for hours, and you’re over-excited.”

Oskar looked back at him.  He could see little red veins running through the whites of the man’s eyes, and the vein in his forehead pulsing.  “No, she was here.  She was here, and now she’s gone.  The little tease.  The little BITCH!”

The shout echoed through the trees around them.  Aleksy cringed a bit, knowing that it had to have reached the men ahead of them, and that someone would be turning back to find out what the matter was.  His stomach knotted.  He thought of all the ways he could be punished for shirking duty, not the least of which was a flogging in the center of camp.

“God damn it!  God DAMN it!”  Oskar was shouting.  The man really had lost his grip.  Whatever had a hold of him had him fast, and he was going to bring the both of them down.

Another shout made Aleksy’s mind up, and he did the only thing he could think of.  He stepped forward and brought his fist up, hard and fast.  It connected with Oskar’s chin with a thunk, like a hammer hitting a melon, and shut the man’s shout off mid-yell, like someone turning a valve on a faucet.  For a moment, nothing happened, the clearing perfectly still.  Even the forest outside seemed to be holding its breath for a beat, as though waiting for a hammer to fall.

Aleksy stood still, watching Oskar’s eyes bulge.  He waited for something to happen, listening to his heart pound.  He could hear the wind stirring the grass and branches, the scrape of his eyes in their sockets.  Time seemed to reach a standstill, and he imagined he could see the wings of a fly as they beat, moving in snapshots of light.

Then it was over, and time snapped back into place.  A throbbing shot through Aleksy’s hand, even as Oskar’s eyes rolled up into his head, and the man crumpled to the ground, boneless as a sheet.  Aleksy turned to go, to call for help, when the sounds of movement, and a low buzz of voices entered the clearing, and a second later, the men attached to those voices came into sight.

They stopped at the edge and surveyed the scene, and one of the men broke free and approached him.  Aleksy could see by the insignia on his uniform he was a corporal.

“What happened here, private?”  The man asked.  The name on his breast read ‘Albrecht’.

Aleksy gestured back toward the circle.  “He wandered off, was muttering to himself the whole time.  I found him like this.”

The corporal peered Aleksy’s shoulder at the man lying prone on the ground.  “You did good, staying with him, then.  Would’ve looked bad for everyone if we had lost one man while looking for another.”

He turned to two of the men and ordered them to pick Oskar up, and take him back to camp.  He waited until they were done, and waved the rest of the men standing around off.  When they were gone, he turned back to Aleksy.

“You look like shit.  I’m cutting your work short for the day.  Go on back, get cleaned up, and get some chow.”

The corporal turned to go, and Aleksy thanked him.  He watched the man walk out of the clearing, and stood there for just a bit longer, turning in a circle, listening to the wind in the trees.