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Across the Black Earth This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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It was Father Julius who decided who was to go into the forest. Two weeks earlier, he had announced that the town's stockpile of supplies was dwindling and would not last the winter. One week before, the town council had elected, under his suggestion, to send some idle person into the Bottomless Forest to seek help. After much deliberation, they deferred the decision to Father Julius, asking him to choose their messenger. His judgment had been proven, time and time again, to be blessed with good fortune.

Some years ago (nobody cared to remember exactly how long), a group had followed a much younger Father Julius in devotion, trusting in him entirely. None regretted their decision. He had chosen a clearing near a river, completely isolated from any other civilization – and beautifully idyllic, with its bubbling stream and warm sun.

The first group had included a builder, who first built a simple but enormous structure (now the town hall) for shelter, and started on a church soon after. There had been hunters and gatherers and woodcarvers, while the blacksmith, bored without metalwork, vanished. It was one of the few times anybody had seen Father Julius angry. He ordered the builder to stop work on the church, which he had just begun, and build a walled perimeter. It had been a hard first few months, but once the wall was a reasonable height, the men went back to hunting, and devout Father Julius went back to praying for guidance in his quest to lead. The plot of land that had originally been excavated for a church was used for his house instead.

After some adjustment, tasks were divided up, based on skill and strength, and the community settled into a routine. Some men and women were sent to work on crops; hunters, on days when food was stockpiled high or the weather too stormy, would help them. Others took care of the livestock. By then the walled perimeter had been expanded. A teacher tutored the five children who were too small to work. There were women who gathered plants. And then there were still others, who, being young and untalented, did little.

Brendan was one of those. At 14, he was old enough to be expected to contribute, but two years before he had spoken blasphemously and loudly during a town meeting. Since then, not a single soul wanted anything to do with him. Father Julius had been gracious and allowed the boy to stay, but it was the general unspoken belief that Brendan was a moocher and nothing else.

The day after the council elected Father Julius to choose the one to seek help, he called Brendan to his home. Brendan, his skin paler than usual, arrived promptly.

“He is my Father, my protector. He gives us happiness and health, and cares for and loves us always,” Brendan muttered under his breath as he stood outside gathering his courage. He might have continued if the heavy wooden door had not opened, revealing Father Julius's imposing figure.

“You have been keeping me waiting,” he said. “I have a task for you. Come in.”

Brendan didn't dare glance at Father Julius before scampering into the dark house. Once inside, they settled on opposite sides of a desk, and Julius got straight to the point.

“I have chosen you as the person our community must depend on. I know that you will accept this honor gladly, for in this hour of need, we need somebody young who can travel far to seek out our salvation. I have consulted with the heavens, and they agree that you are capable, the one for the task.”

There was a painting behind Father Julius – the only artwork Brendan had ever seen. It was beautiful, in a vague and blurry way, he thought. It took him several moments, but at last, he managed to speak stiffly. “You want me to find help? Other civilizations?”

Father Julius nodded slightly.

Brendan swallowed. “And how far are the other civilizations?”

“Well.” Father Julius pretended to think. “I believe, when the first ninety-two of us traveled to this spot, it took us a hundred and fifty-seven days.” He smiled thinly.

“While I am truly honored by this request” – Brendan winced as, at the word “request,” he saw Father Julius's eyebrows raise – “I do not think I am qualified for this task. Surely there are others who are more capable.”

Brendan focused on the painting once more. It was really very indistinct. After a tense silence, Father Julius spoke. “Why yes,” he drawled, “I suppose there are others. Jacob, perhaps. Or maybe the widow, Adrianna. Or even six-year-old Petunia. Any one of them would be better than you, but they all share something that you do not. They are all a part of this community. They have jobs, or will have jobs, and are essential to our survival, while you are idle, with wasted potential and are completely unwanted here. I am sending you because everyone else needs to be here.”

Brendan thought he could discern a face in the painting. Her mouth was open – in laughter, or a scream? He thought about how, a couple of months ago, the townspeople were celebrating the good harvest.

“Will I be given anything for the journey?”

• • •

It was a quiet good-bye. Father Julius was there, of course, and, to Brendan's surprise, so were his parents. He was given an old map, a blanket, a sack with two flasks of water, a supply of meat, and a hunting knife. As a final surprise gift, he received a cross on a chain. “To remind you always of your duty,” said Father Julius.

Brendan had never been beyond the walls of the compound, but he found that he didn't feel even a sliver of fear. As he left the place, he felt nothing. For the first day, all he did was walk, always in the same direction. In the morning, he walked toward the sun; in the afternoon, away. He never stopped. And when his numbness finally began to give way to cold and soreness, Brendan curled up in his blanket.

The next morning, Brendan forced himself into practicality. He found it helpful to talk aloud: “Okay. Focus. Eat food first. Or maybe not … you don't have much. Unless you want to attempt to hunt.”

His hand found the knife in the sack. He imagined, in a moment of wild fancy, abandoning all responsibility. Brendan knew Father Julius didn't expect him to come back, but he couldn't bring himself to abandon the one thing he had known his entire life. He doubted the town was really short on food, but if he did manage to find something valuable, something worth having ….

Shaking his head hopelessly, he unfolded the map and realized instantly that it was useless. It was blotted, unclear, and so old that Philadelphia was still on it. As it was, he barely knew how to read a map.

“Should I go back?” Brendan muttered. He clutched at the cross. “No, I can't go back with nothing.”

He watched the sunlight shift and filter through the forest. There was an odd quality to the light, and to the darkness as well – as if the air itself was literally shining. Not unnatural, but otherworldly. He thought he heard a voice, a clear, bell-like child's voice. Brendan stood and, leaving his supplies, followed the haunting timbre of the child without a thought.

When the voice faded, he had no idea how long he had been walking. Brendan shook himself from his strange stupor and looked around. He stood near the edge of a clearing bordered by ancient trees. The forest was verdant, but this little clearing was bare – not a sign of life or insect or rock. It was just black earth. Near the center, a girl with long white hair lay on the dirt.

Brendan wasn't sure if she was dead or sleeping. Regardless, he didn't want to find out. He turned around, only to find the girl standing there. Yelping, he fell backwards. When he looked over his shoulder, he saw nothing in the clearing.

The girl's large, bright green eyes surveyed him emotionlessly. She couldn't have been more than ten. “How did you find my place?”

Considering her mystical appearance, her voice was surprising – high-pitched and slightly whiny, like a child who wanted a toy.

Drawing himself up with an air of self-importance, he started to speak, but she interrupted him, repeating, “How did you find my place? Did you hear me? Very few people hear me. I am a bit surprised, but since you did, and listened to me, you can come into my place.” She held out her hand, which he took tentatively, and led him onto the black earth.

As soon as Brendan's foot touched the dirt, the entire view seemed to emerge, as if he had just noticed some tiny, interesting detail in a wall he had looked at every day for years: dull, and then, all at once, endlessly fascinating. The dead clearing suddenly filled with beautiful flowers and fruit and the sounds of nature.

“Unless you can help me, I should leave,” he said. “I am searching for help for my village. We are hungry and worry that we will not have enough food for winter.”

“They aren't worried and won't starve,” the girl said. “Are you going to ask my name, since we're friends?”

Brendan smiled. He liked her a bit. “What's your name, since we're friends?”

“I don't have one!” she yelped in delight, then broke out in peals of laughter. “I am the forest, and the forest gives all knowledge. I know myself, so I do not need a name.”

She looked at him sideways. “Would you like that?” she asked conspiratorially. “I can show you how to be the forest, too, how to never want or starve or thirst, if you are in this forest. It is easy. Someone showed me the secret once; now I can show you.”

Brendan immediately thought about his village. If they could have this knowledge, life would be so much easier. And he would be a hero. He nodded, and the girl squealed in delight.

“Okay, okay. But you can't tell anyone unless they hear you like you heard me. And you can't talk to any of the people from your old life. All you need to do is drink this.” In her hand, a plain wooden cup suddenly materialized, and she dipped it into a puddle, filling it with a green liquid that smelled of the trees and the rain.

Panic seized Brendan. The silver cross weighed heavily on his chest, reminding him. “Of course I want this, but can I go back to my village just one last time? To say good-bye?”

There was the faintest hint of a frown as a shadow flitted across her face. But then she smiled radiantly and said, “Of course! Since you have been here, you will be able to find the way back. I will wait for you. And remember: tell none of the village folk what you will do.” She flicked her hair and disappeared.

Brendan found, as he hurried back, that the girl was right; he knew exactly where to go. Every tree, rock, and bush was a distinct and unique landmark. He passed his supplies, and salvaged what was left.

Father Julius was not pleased when he arrived. “Brendan! So good to see you! I trust you met with good fortune?” he exclaimed as he ground his teeth.

As Brendan told his story, he watched Father's face nervously, afraid that he wouldn't believe him. Instead, Julius first showed recognition, and then wonder. “I came to this forest seeking that very spirit that you discovered. And now you are telling me that my dreams are within reach. Tell me you can take me back!” he shouted, grabbing Brendan's shoulders and shaking him until the cross slid out of his shirt and dangled between them.

Brendan smiled. “Of course. I can take you and everyone!”

Julius's face darkened. “No, only me. Perhaps we will come back for the rest later.”

• • •

They traveled back to the clearing, telling no one. Once they reached the black circle, Brendan excitedly stepped in and watched as the world again transformed. “Quick,” he said to Father Julius, “before the girl returns.” He approached the puddle and filled two cups with the odd liquid. Before either could take a sip, a voice rang out from the forest.

“Brendan, you lied. You should not have. I am much older than you, and I expected better. As for you, Julius, I am not surprised to find you here, trying to take what is not yours. Neither of you will drink my gold. The forest forbids it. I forbid it.”

Brendan and Julius both froze as a giant white wolf emerged from the forest. Her lip curled back in a growl, revealing sharp rows of teeth. Her bright green eyes, which looked familiar to Brendan, surveyed them almost impassively, but with just a hint of anger.

She lunged.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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This article has 3 comments. Post your own!

sapphire_sora This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Sep. 21 at 4:06 pm:
Is this based off The Secret of Kells?
 
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write2expressThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
Sep. 6 at 9:50 pm:
This is amazing! You are such a great writer!
 
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aladine_98 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 25, 2013 at 1:32 am:
Stunning! Your world sucked me in and kept me there. At first I was straying away and half-heartedly moving along, but your story demanded attention. Practically perfect grammar and spelling. Interesting plot. Fascinating conflict. What else could you ask for? :) Please tell me this is only the beginning! Brendan, shame on you!
 
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