BUTLER, LYLA FOREST
Lyla Forest Butler
Age: 13, Grade: 8
School Name: Saint Ann’s School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Alex Darrow
Category: Short Story
The Woman in the Woods
Ira pulled her winter cloak over her head until her face was barely visible. She liked it that way – no one had to see her or take care of her. Ira was fourteen, and liked doing things by herself.
Her mother used to say that Ira’s cloak mirrored the color of fallen rose petals, but now Ira liked to think of it as the color of blood. The cloak hovered a whisper away from the worn panels of the floor as Ira tucked a strand of raven-black hair behind her ear. She mounted her black stallion, Bane, and gazed off into the silhouette of the woods. It was well into night, and the moon was high and full. Ira exhaled, her breath billowing out in a visible puff. Everyone in the whole wide world is asleep by now, she thought. Ira pulled back Bane’s reins and a whinny sounded through the forest. Bane took off at a gallop, Ira kicking him to go faster all the while. They raced off into the night, straight for the trees. Ira wasn’t sure where she was going, but it was far away from here. From the vintner. Ira dodged branches and leapt roots. Her hood had fallen down, and leaves collected in her hair. After what seemed like hours had passed, Ira reached a clearing and tied Bane’s reins to a bough. This was a familiar place to her– her favorite tree, Destiny. Ira had come here many a time searching for an escape. All the woodland animals came to the tree seeking guidance, and the tree would give it to them. Each living being surrounding the tree grew strong and plentiful. Heaps of wild heather, a plant that scarcely grew anymore, thrived in the tree’s field. On each leaf was inscribed a wish written in a language only the elves knew. Legend had it that if you whispered your wish to an elf on the full moon, it would come true. Ira didn’t believe in elves, unlike most other people in Saint Étoiles. She had also given up on wishing a long time ago.
Ira tried to look around to see if anyone else was there, but had no luck. It was as dark as coal. Ira gazed up into the tree and began to climb. She knew all the places where her feet would go. Ira slowly made her way up the path she knew by heart.
Once she reached the top, she laid herself across one of the branches and let out a long sigh. But that sigh was accompanied by a scream. Ira whipped herself around, taking out her silver dagger. She was surprised to find that it was a girl, about her age. She was breathing hard. Ira reached out a hand, as if she had never seen another girl before. Then, Ira scrambled down the tree, leapt onto Bane and began to untie his reins, her palms coated in sweat. Ira’s fingers fumbled with the leather straps. She couldn’t let this girl find out who she was. She could get turned back to the vintner- or worse.
Ira had almost unfurled the last knot when she heard a desperate voice call out into the night. Ira tried to run away, but the girl sounded so innocent. Ira slowly turned Bane around so they were facing the girl. She stood barefoot on the forest floor, leaning against Ira’s beloved tree. She looks tired, Ira thought. The clouds parted, and the moonlight seemed to seep through her clothing. She was wearing a long, blue dress and had bright red hair that fell down her back in ringlets. She had a smattering of freckles across her face and her green eyes seemed to glow, even in the night. But she could not allow herself to sympathize with this girl.
“Why are you here?” Ira asked, looking straight into the girl’s eyes. “I’ve only come here because…” The girl trailed off, looking at her toes. “I’m Ira,” said Ira, sliding off of Bane and giving him a pat. “What’s your name?”
“Celia,” said the girl, taking a step forward. “You see, my brother, he is very sick, and a few days ago, he just- disappeared,” Celia said, rapidly twirling her hair around and around with her fingers. “We took him to the doctor, but he had said it was just a virus.” Just a virus. Where had Ira heard that phrase before?
“We looked everywhere for him, and we couldn’t find him,” Celia explained. “I suggested looking for him elsewhere, but my parents ignored me. I asked again and again, but no response. It was almost like they had forgotten him.” Ira heard Celia’s voice falter. “That’s when I decided I was going to find him. But, as you might observe, I’m not very skilled in the art of fending for myself. Seems life in the outside world is harder than it seems.”
Celia blew out a long breath.
“Well, maybe… do you have a horse?” Ira asked. She could feel herself giving in to the sympathy. I feel like it’s just a matter of time before I become best friends with her or something. Gross. Ira pushed away the little voice inside her head telling her that this was what she had always wanted. Celia shook her head. “You could hitch a ride on Bane, if you like,” Ira offered. Celia’s eyes lit up. “Yes! That would be amazing!” she said.
Soon, Ira found herself and Celia trotting through the woods on Bane. “So, where are you going?” Celia asked. Ira hadn’t really thought this through-she just assumed she would hide out in the next village, but now that plan seemed too risky.
“Um, just, go to my… Uncle’s house! That’s it! In… Elderberry.”
“Oh,” Celia said softly. She leaned against Ira, her scarlet locks spilling over Ira’s shoulders, and let out a big yawn. “Is it fine if I get some rest? I’ve been traveling all… night…” Ira didn’t have time to answer as after that last word escaped Celia’s mouth, she was fast asleep.
Ira had been riding for hours, Celia resting on her all the while. The sun was just beginning to paint strokes of red and orange through the trees. Without a wink of sleep, she was starting to close her eyes, too- when an astonishing sight made her jolt up in her saddle.
In the strange and magical glow of sunrise, many things could have been thought of as a trick of the light- but not this. A woman that looked like she had come straight from her grave crept toward them. She wore a tattered cloak made of old rags and had her whole weight on a strange-looking cane with a snake’s head on top. She had sunken eyes, no teeth and barely any hair.
“Celia!” Ira started to shake her. She was scared out of her wits.
“Can’t you just wait a little longer?” Celia said sleepily. Ira was silent. Celia’s eyes grew wide when she saw the woman. “W-who’s that?”
“I see you!” said the woman. The girls shivered. “Old Peggy says it’s time for war. Time for blood, bones and gore! Skulls a-cracking, lives a-snapping, wounds a-bashing and death a-flashing! Death’s in store for you, oh death…” Old Peggy sang an off-key tune as she started to turn around. Even at a snail’s pace, she seemed sinister.
“What was she talking about?” whispered Celia, after a long silence.
“I don’t want to know,” said Ira, turning around to face her.
“Maybe we can ask her more- hey, wait!” Celia called out. But no one was there. The wind swept through the forest, and the trees shook.