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The Castle in the Woods

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that she wasn’t hungry, Sarah reasoned to herself. It was that Toby was probably even hungrier, and he was still just a baby to boot. He couldn’t walk more than a few steps without stopping to wobble, and he only used a small handful of words confidently. He was still growing; she was not--at least, not as much. Sarah didn’t really know when people stopped growing, but she supposed that fifteen was as good a time as any, and both her her parents had been short, anyway. So it made much more sense for her to split at least some of her meals with her baby brother to make sure that he was getting enough to eat so that he could grow up all the way.

And it wasn’t that her family was completely destitute either, but things were far from comfortable. More often than not they had squirrel stew for dinner, and the garden behind their cottage had turned into a major source of vegetables ever since her mother died. Sarah spent most of her days foraging for fruit, checking the traps her father set, mending clothes, or helping her father collect firewood to sell at the very edge of the forest.

Really, it was the forest’s fault they were all in the position they were in. When she was very, very little, Sarah remembered it being a better place. It wasn’t completely safe--no forest ever really truly was--but she didn’t have to make sure that the sun was bright before she went into the trees, and she never had to wonder about whether or not the shadows were actually shadows. Back then, people bought the firewood that her father cut down happily, and there were no ill effects when it was burned.

But something changed in the forest not too long after her father remarried. It wasn’t the fault of her stepmother, of course, but Sarah couldn’t help but to feel that the woman brought ill tidings all the same.

The first spot of trouble was when her father did not come back from his day of marking trees ready to be felled. Sarah waited up with her stepmother and infant brother all night, but her father did not return until late afternoon the next day. He swore he’d only been gone for a few minutes, and it took quite some time for him to start believing his daughter and new wife’s claims that he’d been gone a full day.

Her stepmother was the next victim, and she refused to go anywhere near the woods ever again after she returned from picking tomatoes one cloudy afternoon. Her eyes were wide and wild, and her hands shook as she explained to her husband that one of the shadows grabbed her. No amount of rationalizing that shadows were unlikely on a cloudy day could soothe the woman’s nerves; it had been Sarah’s job to tend to the garden ever since.

The real trouble began when people stopped ordering bushels of wood. The requests slowed to a trickle, and even then became rarer and rarer, until her father practically had to beg the townspeople to buy from him again.

One evening he returned from market, his face stormy and his temper short. He was gruff with Sarah and irritated with his wife, who prodded him for answers and wanted to know what was so wrong that his mood was so sour.

“Magic,” he said, spitting out the word like bile. “That’s what. There’s something in the forest, and it’s infecting the trees. Makes it so the wood can’t be used to build. It can’t even be used to burn.” He scowled. “Frau Schneider said that the last time she burned our wood, the smoke shimmered and made everybody in the house fall asleep where they stood. Herr Lang said that nails worked their way out of his planks overnight. The whole barn he was trying to raise collapsed. Magic,” he said again, shaking his head. “All around the town, people are telling me about the magic in the forest and how they don’t want it near them. Well, we’re just fine, aren’t we? And we live right next to it!”

Sarah glanced at her stepmother nervously, but her stepmother ignored her. She wondered if the woman was thinking the same thing she was; they were not fine--they were very much not fine. But she dared not speak up. She knew well enough that her father was trying to convince himself more than anybody else, and she let it alone.

Now she wished she hadn’t let it alone. She was hungry and tired, and she knew her stepmother was plotting something. Sarah just didn’t know what yet, but she made it her mission to figure it out. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been good; whenever they happened to pass each other during their chores, her stepmother always looked vaguely guilty. Sometimes Sarah would catch her staring out into the forest. It unnerved her even more whenever her stepmother’s gaze landed on herself of Toby after that, almost like she was trying to link the children to the problem of the forest.

Sarah watched and waited for any sign of impending doom. For a long enough time, all seemed well--or well enough, anyway. Her father was able to sell a large order of wood to a travelling inventor, who seemed interested in studying the properties the wood was purported to have. He packed it up and took a large portion of it away, leaving her father’s purse full enough. The money lasted them well through the winter, when their garden couldn’t provide and game was scarce.

It was springtime that brought even more trouble. News had spread to the neighboring towns, and people refused to have any dealings whatsoever with Sarah’s father. Their money dwindled. Sarah got better at planting tomatoes and trapping small game. Her stepmother’s gaze grew hard and calculating.

“We can’t afford to feed so many mouths,” Sarah heard her say one evening when Sarah and Toby were meant to be in bed. “We can barely afford to feed the two of us; what are we meant to do with a half-grown girl and an infant boy?”

Her father mumbled something about them being his children, but his argument did not sound convincing. He was tired. They were all tired. You should fight for us, she wanted to shout at him. We are your family! But instead, she went back to the room she shared with her brother and was too afraid to fall asleep.

When she was asked to follow her father into the forest to help collect firewood, she didn’t think too much of it. After all, she was happy to help and prove her worth to her father and stepmother. Perhaps if she did well, the danger would pass. And Toby couldn’t be in any real danger anyway, she reasoned with herself. He was a baby. What could they expect him to do? So Sarah entered the forest and tried to be brave, even though the trees loomed taller than she remembered, and the shadows stretched out longer than she thought they had any right to. She took with her a canteen of water and a sandwich made of the bread she’d baked that morning and the salted pork that was left over from the winter.

Her father was silent as he marked off the trees that he would cut down later in the season, and even when he set to work felling one of the early ones, he did not ask for his daughter’s help. Sarah tried to be of use by collecting kindling that they could use for the rest of the week. Even though she strayed, she always, always made sure that she could hear her father’s ax ringing through the woods.

It wasn’t until the light in the woods started to dim that she realized she had strayed too far. She could no longer hear the steady sound of metal on tree that had filled her ears earlier, and her stomach rumbled with hunger. Even before she stood up straight to look around herself, she knew that she was completely and hopelessly lost. Sarah clutched the dry twigs she gathered to her chest as if they could provide any security whatsoever.

“Father?” she called out, hopeful that he might somehow still be nearby. Nobody answered, as Sarah expected, and that only made her feel worse. She remembered the shadows that had tried to grab her stepmother all those months ago and tried to stay in the patches of forest floor that still had some light; as the day went on and bled into night, that would become impossible. Sarah had to find her way home, and quickly.

But although she was the daughter of a woodcutter and had lived next to the forest her entire life, Sarah was not all that familiar with the paths within the forest. She knew that the tallest trees were at the center, and that there was no truth to the story that moss on a tree trunk could tell you which way was north, but she knew next to nothing else about navigation. And besides, she would have to climb one of the trees to see if there were any taller, and even knowing that she wasn’t in the middle of the forest wouldn’t necessarily help her get home.

Sarah took a few hesitant steps backwards, hoping that she had walked in a straight path the whole time and she would be able to find her way back to some marked trees. But it was to no avail; no matter how far she walked trying to retrace her path back to her father and, eventually, home, she only got more and more lost with every passing minute. Nothing that she could see was marked, and every tree looked the same to her. She couldn’t even tell if she was walking in circles or not.

“This might as well be a maze,” she said to herself, frowning. Sarah had to face the fact that she might be spending the night in the strange forest alone. The impossibility of her situation crashed down on her, and she sat on the ground, setting her kindling to the side. It wouldn’t do her any good to cry, so she brushed her tears away. Besides, crying would only make her thirsty, and she had only a little bit of water.

Thinking about what she had in her satchel with her reminded her that she was terribly hungry. It had been almost a full day since she left home, after all, and she hadn’t had much for breakfast. Deciding to focus on filling her stomach rather than her hopeless situation, Sarah pulled her sandwich out of her bag; she was about to take a bite to at of it when a small voice caught her attention.

“‘Ello,” it said, and Sarah almost dropped her food in surprise. She looked all around but couldn’t find the source of it and she wondered how quickly madness set in--if at all-when one was lost and alone in a magical forest.

“Down here, behind you,” it said, and Sarah followed the voice to where it came from, down around her right elbow.

“Did you say… ‘hello’?” she asked, wondering if the bright blue caterpillar creature was a figment of her imagination. It was wearing a little red scarf, after all; Sarah didn’t think the caterpillars she was familiar with wore scarves.

“No,” the caterpillar said, shaking its head so that the little blue tufts of hair waved from side to side. “I said ‘ello, but that’s close enough. You seem lost, dear. Why don’t you come inside? The missus has a fresh pot of tea on.”

Sarah blinked down at the creature. She didn’t think that she could fit inside the tree, but that was also the least of her problems.

“Oh, thank you, but I really must be getting home. It’s just that… You’re right, I’m lost. I’ve never been this far into the forest before, you see.”

The caterpillar nodded. “I ‘spected as much. Well, if that’s the case, why don’t you let me pop inside and call for help? Wouldn’t want a nice young girl like you stranded out here all night.”

And before she could thank the creature properly, it disappeared back into the tree through a chewed-out knot that she hadn’t noticed before. Sarah had a moment to think that if all creatures in the forest were this obliging, then perhaps magic wasn’t really all that bad. After all, something terrible and hungry could have happened upon her, and then where would she be?

Sarah started wrapping her sandwich back up, deciding to save it for dinner rather than try and eat and walk at the same time. After all, help was coming. The forest suddenly looked brighter and far more welcoming.

Help, as it turned out, was a ferocious-looking beast covered with bright orange fur. Sarah had a brief moment of panic when it reached down to her, which quickly turned to relief when she realized he was only offering her a rather large hand to help her stand. She quickly grabbed her satchel and kindling, thinking that she ought not go home empty-handed.

“Thank you,” she said, taking it. “Do you happen to know your way to the little cabin at the edge of the forest? My name is Sarah,” she offered.

The beast grunted once and nodded. “Ludo,” he said, and Sarah took that to be his name. She didn’t protest when he gently tugged her in a direction she hadn’t thought to try before--at least, she didn’t think she’d not thought to try it. It was so difficult for her to tell.

“Well, Ludo! I sure am lucky to make not only one, but two new friends all the way out here, just when I’d thought my luck had all run out.”

“Friend?” Ludo asked. Sarah got the impression that he had a difficult time speaking with words because of the large tusks jutting out of his mouth. She smiled up at him anyway, thinking that having friends in the forest could really only be a good thing.

“Of course. And to celebrate that, I really should give you a thank you gift,” she said, trying to think of something that could work. All she had, however, was her canteen of water, a bundle of sticks, and her sandwich. Well, she thought, he probably has plenty of sticks and water.

Not knowing what else to do, Sarah offered him her dinner.

“Friend,” Ludo said happily, putting the sandwich into his mouth. Sarah nodded and smiled up at him.

Before too long, Ludo guided her back to trees Sarah thought she remembered. And not too long after that, Sarah started to see trees that were marked with the red clay her father used. Sarah smiled wider and hugged Ludo out of excitement.

“Thank you again, Ludo! I can see my house through the trees, so I will be okay, now.” She patted his hand. “You’re a dear friend; I hope I see you again!”

Ludo patted her hand back, bowed his huge head once, and grumbled out a word that sounded like “okay.” Sarah watched him lumber off, and then turned and skipped out of the forest. It wasn’t every day that one went from hopelessness to relief quite so quickly, Sarah decided. Despite everything, it had turned out to be a rather nice day.

At least, until she entered the kitchen and both of her parents turned to stare at her, aghast.

“We thought you’d been lost,” her stepmother said, choosing her words carefully. “Your father tried to find you, but you would not respond.”

Sarah very badly wanted to point out that she doubted that was true. She’d tried calling him too, after all, and she hadn’t been that far away from where he was. She was certain that if he called for her, she would have heard him.

“I must not have heard,” Sarah said instead. “I was gathering kindling.” She offered her armful of sticks to her father and stepmother as evidence. “But I found my way back in the end.”

“You did,” murmured her father, with a quick glance at her stepmother. Sarah’s stepmother pursed her lips and doled out some stew to Sarah in an old wooden bowl.

“You certainly did,” her stepmother responded, echoing Sarah’s father’s words. Sarah decided against telling them about the two new friends she’d made in the forest. Even though her getting lost had only been a little bit her fault, she still felt as if her parents thought she’d done something terribly wrong. A deep feeling of unease crawled through her chest.

“Well,” her stepmother said after some time. “Since you did such a good job at gathering firewood today, why don’t you take your brother out and gather some more tomorrow?”

Sarah knew in that moment that her and her brother’s fate was sealed; she looked to her father for a defense that would not come.

After all, nobody said no to her stepmother.