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 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.