7 min read

Chapter 7: The Centre of the Forest

Saffron and Bear go looking for trouble
An image of a dark forest is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 7: The Centre of the Forest"

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Saffron didn’t know exactly where the middle of the forest was. When she’d gone looking for maps, she’d found three different ones from three different times and none of their boundaries quite matched up. But they gave her a rough direction, and she just hoped she’d get close enough that whatever was there would be obvious.

She set out bright and early. It looked like about a day and a half’s hike each way. Plus she wasn’t sure how long it would take to do whatever was expected from there. She figured the farther she could go on the first day, the earlier she’d arrive on the second and the more time she’d have to deal with whatever it was.

The first part of the walk was through the familiar woods of her own domain, along the trails that her feet knew by heart. She paused now and then to check on the creatures under her care or to strengthen her protection sigils. Here and there she sprinkled a dusting of powder to encourage bounteous growth of the nuts and seeds that her forest friends depended on.

Bear was glad to be out and about. He made a few half-hearted attempts at chasing a bird or a mouse, but Saffron knew he wouldn't harm them. He was too slow and too content to actually hunt anything; he just liked the game of it. Besides, he knew Saffron would scold him if he came too close to injuring anything bigger than an insect.

They made good time through the morning and before long the sun was high overhead. She almost regretted the heavy boots that clung to her feet, but for the amount of walking she had ahead of her she knew she needed the sturdiest footwear she owned.

After a break for dinner she walked for a few more hours, enjoying the cooler evening air. Bear gave up on his attempts at hunting to ride on her shoulders, his short legs tired from the long days’ walk.

When the sun was on the horizon, she stopped for the night. She was near the edge of her own lands anyway, and she preferred to sleep in familiar territory.

It was a hot summer night, so she spread her blankets under the stars, tucked into the shelter of two large pine trees. Bear flopped on his side next to her, his back pressed against her leg. To distract herself from wondering what might be waiting for her at the centre of the woods, she counted stars until she drifted off to sleep.

She was awakened the next morning by the soft movements of Bear performing his morning grooming routine. She lay still for a few minutes, listening to the call of the birds, watching the pine branches sway above her, and feeling the familiar warmth of the cat beside her. When she could put it off no longer, she got up, stretched, dug out breakfast for the both of them from her pack, and rolled up her blankets. They were off again before the sun had fully risen.

She could feel the moment that she crossed out of her territory. The land under her feet felt colder, the trees seemed darker, and the calls of the birds shifted. This land didn’t know her, didn’t trust her, and she felt the same way. Her senses were on alert, keeping watch for danger. Bear became more protective too; he growled at any noise or sudden movement.

Saffron was more careful of their course now; she carried the map in her hand and referred to it often. There weren’t a lot of landmarks out here, and she didn’t know exactly where she was, but she did her best to aim for the centre of the forest, a task which became more difficult as the forest grew denser around her. The trees here were older, taller, their branches broader. Fewer of the sun’s rays penetrated their leaves to reach the forest floor below. Despite that, bushes and brambles and thorns carpeted the forest floor. Saffron had to choose her path carefully to avoid getting caught in them. Bear rode on her shoulders again to save his delicate paws from the harsh plants below.

She had the feeling of venturing underwater or into a cave; the landscape seemed to grow murkier the farther she went. Finally, around noon, a large shape began to emerge.

Was this what she was looking for?

Whatever it was, the thing was gigantic. Her mind flashed to the massive paw prints she’d seen in the river bank, the injury on the crow’s wing. Was this the enormous creature that had left those marks? She stopped and waited and watched for a while, but it didn’t move. She ran through some spells in her mind and pulled a few key ingredients from her bag to tuck into her pockets.

When she drew close enough to make out the details of the hulking figure, she wanted to laugh.

It was a house.

A massive house, but just a house. Not a creature.

The house rose three stories tall, an incongruous height for something this far into the forest. The wooden siding was dark with age, and vines of ivy hung along one side of it. All of its corners met at odd angles. The windows were long since broken. A tree branch protruded from one of them. She had the sense that the house had been abandoned for a long time, slowly mouldering and sinking into the ground.

She couldn’t imagine anyone lived here, but just in case, she knocked on the front door. It rattled under her touch and she worried that it would come apart, but it held up. She waited a moment. She thought she heard a sound from somewhere in the house, but no one answered.


No answer again. She looked at Bear, who was on the ground again now, and he looked back at her and meowed.

“Yeah, I know.”

She tried the doorknob, an ornate brass sphere patterned with leaves. It fell off in her hand and the door swung open. She set the knob carefully on the ground and stepped inside.

It took her eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light. It took her another few minutes to realize what she was looking at.

Every surface of the interior of the house was covered in fungus. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, they were all pebbled with mushroom caps. Bear quickly crawled back onto Saffron, evidently not enjoying the sensation on his paws.

Saffron still thought she heard noises from somewhere in the house, but told herself it was just the wind, just the ancient timbers settling, just the sound of decay happening in real time. There was no way anyone lived in this.

She crouched down, near the door where the light was a little bright. Their colour was unusual and she wanted to get a closer look.

She bent and peered at the mushrooms. Up close, she could tell that they were a bright orange.

Hardly daring to breathe, she pulled a shawl from her bag and wrapped it around her hands. With her fingers protected, she gingerly gripped one of the mushrooms and tugged it from its place on the floor. She turned it over to see the light purple below.

Jacinthe on its cap and lilac beneath its helm.

The same mushrooms that had poisoned Anna, the one from the verse in Mister Payton’s mother’s book.

‘Ware the fungus at the heart of the realm, it had said.

It had been right there in front of her the whole time. Was this what the Queen had warned her off? The Queen had told her to stop something from spreading… Saffron shivered, imagining the growths taking over the forest, poisoning creatures and humans alike.

She couldn’t let that happen. But she didn’t know how to safely destroy them.

She tucked the mushroom into her bag to study later, and she examined the room for clues. Something caught her eye on the opposite wall: a gap in the mushrooms. She approached cautiously, trying her best to step in the few small gaps she could find on the floor. She didn’t want to spread any more spores than necessary.

The wall was similarly covered, but there was a clear space where no mushrooms grew. She looked closer. The space was marked by three deep claw marks in the wall.

The sound from deep in the house came again and Saffron’s heart froze. The noise was a little louder now. A little closer. Was the creature inside the house?

Bear’s tail puffed up and his claws dug into her shoulders as he growled again.

“What do you say, boy?” she whispered. “Fight or flight?”

They both remained still for one long tense moment, and then the noise came again, a scratching, shuffling noise, so close now it might well be in the next room. Bear launched himself away from her, almost reaching the door in one mighty leap, and she followed his lead.

She slammed the door behind her, whispering a quick word to hold it shut despite the broken knob. It wouldn’t hold forever, but it would buy her a few minutes.

Bear ran ahead, paying no mind to the thorns now, dodging and weaving through the underbrush. She followed his lead, crashing through bramble bushes and jumping fallen logs. She whispered more spells as she ran: speed, protection, stealth, safety. Anything she could think of that would give them some advantage, to stay ahead of the thing if possible and to survive it if not.

They didn’t stop running until they crossed into her own familiar land. The going was easier here and her burning lungs couldn’t last much longer. She hadn’t heard sounds of pursuit behind them, so she risked a stop to catch her breath and pick the burrs from Bear’s fur. Then they continued on, at a brisk walk now, Bear cradled in her arms, exhausted from a long run for a small grey cat.

Although she felt safer on her own territory and didn’t see or hear any sign of the creature for the rest of the day, she didn’t dare stop for the night. She kept on walking until it was nearly dawn and her legs were ready to give out. She laid out one blanket and collapsed on top of it, Bear curled tightly against her chest.

She awoke at the height of the afternoon. The air was heavy with humidity and her limbs felt sluggish. They were safe, for now. She was sure that the creature, whatever it was, hadn’t followed them this far. The familiar sounds and smells of the forest reassured her that all was well.

When they reached the familiar meadow, Bear leapt down from her shoulder for the first time all day and raced her to the front door, pawing at it as he waited for her to let him in.

“I agree, little one.” She opened the door and he immediately hopped into his favourite lookout by the window. “It’s good to be home.”

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P.S. - If you enjoy my writing, check out my story “Weathering Boredom”, available now in A Quiet Afternoon 2, an anthology of low-fi speculative fiction, available here.

Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.