You never knew air could hurt until the moment it burned through your lungs as you sprinted as fast as your feet could carry you and then some. You ignored the burning acid rising up your throat and stomach, the twigs smacking into your face and the thorns scratching at your legs, rushing to just run empty-headed with no sense of direction or where you wanted to go, as long as it was away. To say you were lost was an understatement.
What else did you expect, dashing barefoot through the night and into the woods with the moon and the stars as your only guide and light source. Every few minutes, you could hear wolves howl in the distance, your nightgown sticking to your damp skin when you broke out in a cold sweat on top of the hot one induced by the long run. It sounded like they weren’t too far off, and you started to wonder if you’d really chosen the right option out of the two you were presented with.
Burned alive at the stake or ripped to shreds by a pack of wolves?
You’d never believed in the tales and legends of your town. They were often even more ridiculous and fantastic than the fairytales you’d grown up with. Yet, it could’ve been one of the reasons why they accused you of witchcraft. That, and the fact you knew your way around healing potions and herbs. When you had managed to cure a child who was on the verge of dying from a severe illness not even the best doctors knew what to do with, you had gotten the label practically slammed onto your forehead. But you know what they say; no good deed goes unpunished.
They came for you in the night, forcefully breaking down the door of your humble house with the intention of making their way to your chambers to capture you. To make you their prisoner and most probably torture you all night to force you to answer questions you didn’t know the answers to. However, you were always one step ahead. The barricade in front of your door didn’t serve to keep them out as much as it did to buy you some time. Time to climb out of your window and escape from the back. Time to bolt towards the only place you knew they would never follow you.
The haunted forest.
The people loved to pass on tales, tell the stories their parents had told them whose parents before them had shared with them, and so on. Legend has it that this forest was structured like a labyrinth and harboured an ancient soul. One that somehow ensured anyone who ever dared to enter the forest never came back out. No, people didn’t come here. They haven’t for centuries, until you. Then again, you weren’t one to believe in old wives’ tales, especially not those told by the same mouths that accused you of witchcraft.
The forest appeared harmless enough aside from the usual threats of wild animals and losing path. There was no sign of the air bearing the suffocating pressure the townspeople often spoke of, nor was your vision clouded with thick fog rising from the dirt. None of the horrors you’ve been told were present in these particular woods and this only motivated you to rush deeper into them.
When the flickering yellow lights and loud, threatening shouts of the torch-bearing crowd seemed to have died out behind you, you knew they went no further when you did.
All sounds had turned to silence aside from your panting breaths in the air and the dull sound of your feet hitting the soft soil, and finally, you deemed it safe enough to catch a breath.
Another spine-chilling howl pierced through your nerves, and even though your feet were sore and chapped, twigs and stones occasionally digging into the bare soles, you found yourself striding the opposite way of the sound that made your skin crawl. The more distant it became, the more you found yourself relaxing, the pace of your restless steps turning languid as the realisation you’d probably escaped death twice tonight started to kick in. You felt exhausted, if not from the long run then surely caused by the whirlwind of emotions you got put through in the last couple of hours, the adrenaline rush finally dropping and leaving your body to be completely spent. You wanted to lay down so badly, sleep for a bit and recover your strength, and when the woeful cries of the canines had come to fall completely silent, the thought started to feel all the more tempting.
The moon stood tall and bright, its beauty seemingly only reaching your eyes now you were no longer focused on surviving the night. With its perfectly round shape and white glow, you were almost tempted to believe in this thing called magic, this thing your fellow villagers prosecuted you for.
As on cue, a small swarm of fireflies emerged from between the flowerbed a few feet further, emitting a comforting and warm, yellow glow that lit up your path like little stars. Slowly treading through the field of blooming bluebells, a hundred more tiny lights appeared in the air and surrounded you. You must’ve disturbed them by stepping through the flowers, but what a sight it was! What tragedy it must’ve been if the villagers got to you and you’d never have witnessed this indescribable beauty. And just when you’d convinced yourself this had to be the most breathtaking phenomenon you’d ever behold, you heard it.
Suddenly accompanying the nocturnal silence came a mesmerising melody, humming from the distance and weaving through the forest to reach you. Those tones of allure and love incarnated were spellbinding; composed to fog the minds and feast on the hearts that listened to them. The little flying lights seemed to change formation, forming a long luminescent ribbon as they followed the sound. Afraid to lose your tiny stars and incredibly drawn to the foreign song in the distance, your feet were moving before you could think about where they were going. The music filled your head until there was nothing else left, your heart swollen and bursting with an inexplicable desire, throbbing with a yearning unknown to you. You felt what could be described as entranced, thoughts about how strange and suspicious it was to hear such soft and lovely melodies in the middle of the night, so deep into the forest, not once crossing your mind. You could only take in the swaying notes, leisurely being carried by the midsummer breeze, hushing you and convincing you not to question why they were there in the first place.
Your little lights unexpectedly came to a stop, where they left their ribbon formation to spread themselves out and float over a small spring a little further down. The sound of a gasp falling from your lips got interrupted by your breath getting caught in your throat first, your hand promptly covering your mouth when your eyes grew the size of the moon above you. There, waist deep and naked in the spring, was a man so beautiful you finally started to wonder whether this had all been just a very vivid dream. Hiding behind the nearest tree you could find that was broad enough to conceal your shaking body, you leaned against the stem to steady yourself as your knees turned weak and trembled in shock, trying to calm your hammering heart that threatened to break through its cage.
Still, you couldn’t seem to tear your gaze away, even when the sight before you pained you so mercilessly you thought you’d collapse. Never in your life have you witnessed such sublime beauty before, such majesty exuding from a person as if he might as well be a fata morgana.
The silver beam of the moon paid him absolute tribute, his slender muscles and tightening tendons a kind of delicate strength rippling underneath a coat of untouched, unsullied ivory as if he was bathing in the white splendor of the moon instead of the dark waters of the lotus lavished spring it was reflected in. His hair matched the shade of onyx the night carried and the contrast with his skin was that of the one between the sky and the moon.
Although you were facing his back, you felt like you were being watched. Being watched as you were watching him while he continued to scoop up palms of shimmering moonlight, the droplets making his pearl pale skin illuminate an almost blinding brightness in seemingly utter ignorance of your mere presence.
The soft clattering of the small waterfall into the spring continued as undisturbed as ever, as if your heart hadn’t just plummeted to your stomach, your body stiffening up entirely at a foreign voice calling out to you.
“Would you have yourself standing there behind that tree and spy on me for the rest of the night or will you at least show yourself?”