Failed father, failed husband, and failed scholar, Charles Hayden hopes to put his life back together with a new project: a biography of Caedmon Hollow, the long-dead author of a legendary Victorian children’s book, In the Night Wood, and forebear of his wife, Erin. Deep in mourning from the loss of their young daughter, they pack up their American lives, Erin gives up her legal practice, and the couple settles in Hollow’s remote Yorkshire mansion.
In the neighboring village, Charles meets a woman he might have loved, a child who could have been his own daughter, and the ghost of a self he hoped to bury. Erin, paralyzed by her grief, immerses herself in pills and painting images of a horned terror in the woods.
In the primeval forest surrounding Caedmon Hollow’s ancestral home, an ancient power is stirring, a long-forgotten king who haunts the Haydens’ dreams. And every morning the fringe of darkling trees presses closer.
Soon enough, Charles and Erin will venture into the night wood.
Soon enough, they’ll learn that the darkness under the trees is but a shadow of the darkness that waits inside us all.
Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood is available October 9th from John Joseph Adams.
Charles stopped just the other side of the gate, at the verge of the wood, the wall at his back. It was full morning by then, and cool underneath the trees. Sunlight here and there glimmered through chinks in the leafy canopy, imparting to the air a crepuscular malachite glow. Everything smelled of rain, damp and fresh and newly awake — the low, ferny undergrowth and the soft earth beneath his feet, the moss-enveloped boulders that jutted from the ground like the broken teeth of buried giants.
Charles exhaled. His burdens sloughed away. He felt born anew — yet ungrieved by the world outside the wood. Even the throb in his head retreated. Putting the sun at his back, he struck off through the forest along a narrow trail, the wall on his right hand, and on his left the enormous trees, rising on a slow grade, through dips and folds in the rocky terrain. Harris was right. The wood quieted the mind. There was no threat here. No summons or command from a dream that was only a dream and not (as Erin, too, had told herself ) a portent — this his last conscious thought before the wood gathered him in and there was only stillness in his unstill mind, the pleasant ache in his muscles as he scrambled over the occasional knob of upthrust stone or root, the animal vitality of bone, breath, and sinew, the absolute and eternal present, free of past guilt and future anguish.
And then, something — he wasn’t sure what — startled him from reverie: a rustle of leaves or a movement at the corner of his eye. Charles paused to catch his breath and take stock of his surroundings. The path here took him deeper into the wood, skirting a dense coppice of thorny underbrush to climb over a small ridge. This was probably his favorite stretch of the hike, for while glimpses of the wall remained visible through gaps in the trees, it was easy to pretend that he had wandered —
— astray from the straight path —
— deep into the virgin forest, entirely apart from the complications that elsewhere beleaguered him.
Something stirred in the leaves farther up the ridge, and this time Charles did catch a flash of movement, he was sure of it. He turned his head slowly, searching it out. The trees in their multitudes climbed the heavens, titanic columns in the lingering ground mist. Somewhere, a bird called. And then — he felt his heart seize up — there it was, staring back at him from a tangle of undergrowth a stone’s throw up the ridge: a face, or something like a face, and what he was reminded of was his childhood, plucking In the Night Wood down from its shelf and thereby changing the course of his life, or setting it in motion, as could only happen in a story. What he was reminded of was opening the book to its elaborate frontispiece, the seemingly random intersection of leaf and bough from which peered a dozen sly faces.
But no. There was no one and nothing. The face — had there been a face? — was gone. He’d imagined it.
He stepped off the path all the same.
He stepped off the path despite the prohibitions of a thousand tales — broken every one, as such prohibitions must be, subject like us all to necessity or fate, the grim logic of the stories everywhere and always unfolding. This door you must not open, this fruit you shall not taste. Do not step off the path. There are wolves.
Charles stepped off the path.
He thought he’d seen . . . Yes, there, the face, or one so alike it might have been the same, peering down at him from higher up the ridge, half hidden in the low crotch of a huge oak that had thrown up branching trunks, massive with age and overgrown with fairy ladders. And then, there, a gleam from the dark beneath a granite outcropping, some chance beam of sunlight setting afire a sprinkle of quartz — or maybe it was . . . eyes. They blinked and disappeared, only to open up anew still farther up the slope, a knowing glitter, a cunning little face like a cat’s and yet unlike it, too, inspecting him from the undergrowth behind a deadfall tree. It was gone again in the same breath, stealthy in the branches. Yes. And there another one, withdrawing. And there. And there. A step, and then another, and yet another still. Climbing.
“Is someone there?”
As if in answer, a breeze swirled through the trees, voices whispering woodland tidings that he could not quite decipher, and quiet laughter, too, mocking and capricious, but not unkind, or not entirely so.
Charles paused, looking back. There lay the path, almost out of sight now, winding down the other side of the ridge to resume its circuit of the wall. And here another way, and a choice between them.
I should steer clear of the wood if I were you, Dr. Colbeck had said. People get lost.
Yet those faces drew him on: the imperative of shadow and mystery, the inviting dim under the trees. How could he get lost if he stayed to the spine of the ridge as he ascended? It would be a matter only of following the same spine’s descent as he returned.
He would not go far.
There was another ripple of laughter that was not laughter but only wind. And another sly goblin face — another chance intersection of light and shadow — scrutinizing him from the dark interior of a crack that sundered the vast bole of an ancient oak, moss-bearded and stern.
He would not go far.
He climbed the ridge through green, dappled light, lured on by faces that could not be faces and voices in the wind that could not be voices. The sun shifted its angle as it slanted down its rays through the canopy. And then the foliage was just foliage (he had surely imagined them, those shrewd little imps); there was only the wood itself, and that was enough, sufficient to him.
Why had he ever been afraid?
Bracken thrashed as a deer — was it a stag? — leapt away. He watched, bemazed, its white tail flashing in the murk. High on the ridge now, he found a grove of young birch, arrow-straight against the sky. He looked out from a gap among them. The site commanded a view of the folded landscape below. The Eorl Wood stretched as far as he could see. Hollow House was gone, or hidden. The wall, too. There were no walls here, only the primeval forest: trees and rocks and the eternal return of newborn green piercing the damp ferment of the old year’s leavings.
Charles sighed. It was time to return, but he was weary with walking, reluctant to face once more the complexities that awaited him outside the wood. Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to sit down and rest for a few minutes. Leaving the straight path — he hardly thought about it; he might have been summoned there — Charles slipped down through a ring of ancient yews. Like a child in an enchanted forest from some half-forgotten tale, he emerged into a beautiful glade of green grass where stood a lone oak, regal and old beyond reckoning. That sense of contentment, of being anchored in the eternal present, once again suffused him. He’d sit here, then, he told himself, though he would later wonder whether he’d chosen the spot of his own accord or whether it had been awaiting him all along, his fate or destiny. And so, as necessity would have it, he lowered himself to the earth, embowered in a thickly moss-grown crevice between two gnarled roots. He leaned against the trunk of the oak. He closed his eyes. Birds tested the still air, and the tree cast down upon him a cool blanket of shade. He might have fallen into a daydream or a doze there — he would later wonder about that, too — but then suddenly he was awake.
Charles sat up.
Full sunlight flooded the clearing, but the darkness under the tree had deepened. And it was cold, unseasonably cold. When had it gotten so cold? And where were the birds? Why this silence, so fathomless and deep that he could hear the pulse of his heart?
He swallowed. Dragged in a breath, blew out a cloud of fog.
And then a curtain parted in the air, and he sensed from a world outside this world or from one that interpenetrated it, some remote, numinous sentience, vigilant and green, turn its attention upon him.
A cloaked figure loomed over him, tall and lean. Had it been there all along, or had it gathered substance from the dark, spinning itself into being out of the emerald shadows under the tree?
Charles lifted his gaze — past the battered leather boots planted in the moss-grown soil before him and past a short leather tunic sewn with interleaved steel scales, much rusted, to the thing’s face: its skin of autumnal leaves close-woven, its hooked nose and its cheeks like upturned blades, its great rack outspread. A black imperative burned in its merciless yellow eyes, some terrible command. And though it did not speak, its voice was thin and hateful in his head.
Bring her to me.
Charles three times denied it — No, never, I will not — unsure of what he was denying.
Metal rang as the creature unsheathed its sword. The blade hung above Charles, silver flashing in the gloom. The thing gripped tighter the hilt, and everything balanced on a heartbeat.
The killing blow descended in a blue arc.
Just as it cleaved his neck — there was no pain yet, only the kiss of cold steel unseaming his flesh — just then a soft breeze flew up from nowhere and Charles opened his eyes or he didn’t open them. He woke up or he had never been asleep, and the dark creature under the tree had never been there at all or it had been and the wind had shredded it into rags and blown them all away.
Charles gasped and touched his neck, and the clearing was sunsplashed, and the green shade under the tree was pleasant and cool. Everything was as it had been, only those words —
— bring her to me —
— lingering, and then another breath of wind snatched them out of the air and carried them off into the wood as well.
His heart slowed. The blood pounding at his temples faded to silence. A lone bird called, and then another, and then the air filled up with the woodland chorus of insects and birds and the wind in the grass and the trees muttering among themselves.
Charles pushed himself to his feet. He gazed up into the grandfatherly oak where it aspired to the heavens. The sun was visible in flashes through interstices in the leaves. The morning restored itself. That sense of contentment once again enfolded him.
So it might have remained had he not looked down. But it happened that he did.
And saw a boot print in the moss.
The day darkened.
The sun was as bright, the breeze as gentle. Birds still choired in the morning air. Yet the day darkened.
He had imagined it, of course. Like the vulpine little faces staring out at him from the leaves and the black places in hollow trees and the overgrown deadfalls in the wood. Like the terrible King, the creature, the thing.
Imagination, nothing more.
Yet Charles knelt all the same. Ran one hand across the moss, thinking that it must be the print of his own hiking boot or that it was some chance pattern in the growth or that it was not there at all, that he’d imagined it. And then he felt —
There was something there, something metal like a coin or —
He pushed aside a tussock of grass, picked the thing up, stumbled out from beneath the shadow of the tree to see it in the light. He laughed, without mirth or joy, a single gout of hysteria, really, for what he held was a thin scale of steel about the size of a fifty-cent piece, rusty, but finely worked into the shape of an oak leaf.
The armor. The thing’s armor.
He wheeled around, anxious to be free of the wood, trying to discover where he’d entered the clearing. Yews, he thought. He’d come through the yews, but yews soared up on every side.
Charles pocketed the scale. Disquieted, he scanned the yews once again. More than ever he felt like a child in a tale, as though the birds had eaten up the trail of breadcrumbs he’d scattered at his back to find the way home.
He thought of the lean figure of the Horned King towering over him, the kiss of the blade upon his neck. Anxiety throbbed in his chest.
The grandfatherly oak now seemed malign, as if it might at any moment reach down, snatch him up, and shove him into some knothole mouth, sealing itself up behind him. The once-inviting clearing seemed suddenly exposed.
People get lost, Mr. Hayden.
A childhood axiom came back to him: when lost, stay where you are and await rescue. Instead, Charles picked a direction at random and trudged into the wood. Enormous trees loomed over him, deep-hollowed and knobbed with growths. Roots cracked stone and furrowed earth. A breeze whispered in the leaves. He thought of those impish faces, capricious and mocking and half unkind as they lured him deeper into the wood. He dammed back a rising tide of panic. It was morning yet. He would find his way.
After a time — five minutes or so, he reckoned — the ground began to rise ahead of him. Relief surged through him. Surely this was the slope he’d descended to the clearing, he told himself, though a doubting inner voice pointed out that he might have taken the wrong angle through the yews, that he might be climbing toward the crest of an altogether different ridge — or indeed no ridge at all, only a small fold in the land. After all, the descent to the clearing hadn’t taken him nearly this long, had it? But he kept climbing, and when at last the ground leveled out again, he found himself once more in a grove of silvery birch.
They seemed to bend aside before him, willowy as young dryads laving their hair in the wind. He looked out through a gap among the trees. Below, the Eorl Wood stretched as far as he could see. He’d stood in this place before. He was sure of it. And the spine of the ridge seemed to descend gradually southward on his right, just as he remembered.
He soon confirmed this observation. This must be the way, he thought with growing confidence, and, yes, fifteen minutes later he stumbled across the path — or a path, anyway, one that looked familiar. He followed it down the ridge and at last the wall appeared among the trees. Soon after he found a fallen gate, stepped over it into the tunnel beyond, and ducked in and underneath the wall, the passage bound at either end by an archway of light. He emerged on the other side into lambent, late-morning air, with the meadow all peaceful before him and Hollow House below.
Excerpted from In the Night Wood, copyright © 2018 Dale Bailey