Jade T. Woodridge
“Leave us,” Dara rumbled, his voice a little less than a growl as he stepped aside to allow his men passage.
The two men that had brought Mary to the cottage turned obediently and left them alone. It was just as well; the room was too small to fit the four of them comfortably. Dara loomed over her, taller than the doorway, his body blocking her only way out. He looked at her with eyes burning with rage and something more.
Mary remembered the way his hard muscles had felt beneath her hands, her fingers running through the thick curls of his chest. The warmth of his breath against her cheek and the feel of his strong hands as they gripped her thighs.
“Why are you here?” she flinched at the roughness of his voice and the pain in her heart it had caused.
Dara’s eyes softened. The last thing he wanted was to cause her pain, yet his voice did not abandon its hard edge. “I told you to forget about this place. Forget about me and never come back.”
“I had to!” she argued, taking a step toward him.
Dara took a step back, his hands clenching at his sides. “It is dangerous here. You have no idea what you are doing―”
“And yet here I am, Dara. I’ve found you and here we are,” She challenged. If it wasn’t for the bundle that occupied her arms, she could have crossed them.
Dara was not an easy man to find. In fact, it was impossible to hunt him down. You did not find Dara and his men, they found you. It was no coincidence that she had stumbled across the two scouts, their spears lazily at their sides and their knives sheathed. Mary was certain that Dara had sent them. If they had not found her wandering the dense forest when they had, she would have died in the cold, dark dampness of the Dark Forest. It was just as well she had chosen to go looking for him; As Dara’s men lead her through camp to the old ruins of an abandoned cottage that Dara chose to call his camp, she could see that they were all in various stages of leaving. What would she have done if they had moved on before she got to the forest?
Mary took another step toward him and in the small space, he could back up no longer. Any man, woman, or child would have been terrified of Dara. His dark eyes glowed almost amber in the candlelight set amidst his dusky skin, scars of battle criss-crossed his face, chest, and body. In the low cottage, he stood hunched, and guarded, like a beast backed into a corner, his curling hair falling forward like a curtain as Mary looked up into his predatory eyes.
She placed her hand on the rough stubble of his tight jaw. Mary had loved him, and though their time together had been brief, she could still see in the softening of his face as he leaned in to her touch that he still loved her too.
Dara blinked, his keen ears having picked up the faint sound of suckling. His thick brows furrowed in bewilderment as his eyes traveled down from her face to her thick, shapeless cloak, brushing it aside to reveal what she hid beneath.
Dara’s eyes widened.
Swaddled tightly against the warmth of Mary’s body, she cradled an infant. Mary gently took the swaddling from the makeshift sling that tied the infant close to her body and bounced her gently as her sounds of suckling turned to a whimper. Her little fists broke free of her swaddling to rest against her soft, rounded cheek.
“I’ll need to feed her soon,” Mary said softly, stroking the little fist before she looked up at Dara.
Dara had grown so still, the breath leaving his body as he gazed down at the infant in Mary’s arms in quiet disbelief.
Not long after Dara had returned her to the forest’s edge, Mary had learned of the child she was carrying. It had not been easy, returning from the forest to a village that had bore the scars of the night of her capture. She’d kept her silence about Dara, hiding her growing belly fearful of what they would do to her once they realized.
Mary looked down at their child.
They had realized.
She had run away into the forest, giving birth in its damp darkness. Dara had taught her how to survive in the wild. She had done well enough on her own, but as the days wore on, and the creatures of the forest learned of her presence. Mary knew that she should not have gone back into the forest; she had promised him with a breaking heart that she would forget about him and this world, but as she gazed at her daughter’s face, she knew that she could not protect her on her own.
“She is yours,” Mary said as she touched the thick curls of dark hair atop her head. It was a shock to Mary to pull this child from her womb with a full head of hair and a smear of eyebrows. As small as she was, she was heavy and healthy. Otherworldly.
“Did they hurt you?” Dara whispered and Mary looked up in confusion.
He had let down the barriers between them and Mary saw the wonderment, the tenderness, as well as the intense anguish that swirled in the glowing cauldrons of his eyes. He grew angry with what he knew they would have done to her as they realized whose child she had carried.
“Did they hurt you?” he snarled, the flames of rage leaping higher.
The infant began to cry and Dara stepped quickly around Mary, retreating as far as he could to the other side of the room. Mary shifted the infant to her shoulder, softly patting her back to sooth her into silence. Dara watched in silence, never taking his eyes off of the infant.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said quietly, after a time.
“What do you mean?” Mary asked, her voice trembling. Of course she had to come― there was no other place for her to go. Surely the news of her immoral union would have spread from village to village. If she ever emerged from the forest again, there would be no home for her or her child.
“It is not safe for you here,” he said, his voice thick with anguish. “It’s not safe for you with me.”
“It is!” she pleaded.
“Take a look around you,” he said through his teeth, finally looking up at her. There was such pain in his eyes as he slapped his chest, “Take a look at me― Mary, you have no idea what I am and what I am capable of!”
“Look at her,” Mary said, crossing the room swiftly and once again, Dara could not retreat nor could he pull his eyes away from their child.
“I know that you are a man of gentleness. Fairness, and love. You rescued me that night, Dara. You heard the cries of my village, and chased down those who pillaged it. I saw your eyes from the dark, watching me,” her memory of that night was spotty at best. The men who had taken her had knocked her over the head before they tossed her over the rump of their horse, but she did remember those amber eyes, and when she woke up, she lay in his strong arms as he carried her away from the carnage behind him.
Mary reached up and touched his face. “I am here because of you, and so is she,” she added with a small smile, “you did not have to save me then, and you did not have to send your men to find me. You could have just let me die.”
“Never,” Dara breathed. He closed his eyes, his jaw clenching once more before he took a deep breath and let it out slow. “Mary, it grows dark,” he whispered. “I am afraid that you will retract all that you have said to me once you know the truth.”
Mary shook her head; nothing could change her mind about him or her decision to be with him.
“Do you want to hold her?” She asked abruptly, halting his words.
Dara hesitated; he was eager, yet fearful as he drew himself up as best he could. She could see in his awkwardness that he had never held something so small and fragile before. Why would he? Dara was a warrior, after all. She closed the gap between them, both of their eyes shifting to the sleeping infant against Mary’s shoulder. Once again, Dara’s face softened as his hands slowly, but gently came up to touch her.
“My lord!” The guard from before burst through the entryway. Dara looked up sharply and stepped around Mary, shielding her and their child from the intruder.
“We’ve been found,” the guard panted. “They will be upon us shortly!”
“How many are there?” Dara snarled.
“A small army. My lord, I think they followed the girl.”
“Impossible,” Dara spat. “How is it that none of you noticed a small army until now?” He grew angry; Mary could feel the air around her grow dense and her knees trembled with fear. Surely she had not been followed, at least not this far into the Dark Forest. The infant mewled, her little hand splaying across her face in distress.
“Is that a―”
Dara turned to Mary abruptly, “I will drive them back, Mary, stay here!” to the guard he added, “ready the horses at once. Get her out of here when it is safe.”
“Dara!” Mary clutched his arm. How could he stand a chance against a small army? Dara carefully, but firmly, disentangled himself from her.
“You should not have come,” he said sadly before his eyes grew sharp and he looked up a second before they all heard it.
“Dara,” a man sang from the forest outside.
Dara’s nostrils flared as he strode from the room and leapt over the crumbled stone wall of the cottage without much effort.
Mary followed, despite his warning, crouching down behind the wall to peep through the cracks. The dark of evening was upon them; Mary could see nothing as she searched the forest around the camp for the voice.
Dara stood in the middle of camp at his full height, two or three heads taller than the thirty or so scruffy warriors around him. Their bows and swords were drawn, prepared for battle, but Dara carried not a thing.
The infant still cried and squirmed and sucked her gums. Mary quickly pulled the laces of her gown and brought the wailing infant to suckle at her breast to quiet her. Soon they were all hanging in silence.
“Show yourself,” Dara growled. “How is it that I cannot sense you?”
The man in the woods laughed and Dara spun in its direction. “A man knows how to hunt a beast undetected,”
“You are no man, you are a coward!”
“A fox waits. He watches. He follows his prey to its den and waits there for as long as it takes,” the man stepped out of the darkness and into the fading light. “Would you call said fox a coward?” He was tall, though not as tall as Dara. He was silver haired and lanky, his grinning face creased with age. Mary knew this man; it was his face she had seen as he set fire to her village, as he gave her and others away to the creatures of the dark forest.
For centuries, the countryside had been plagued by the stories of monsters that hunted by night. That raped, murdered, and pillaged, returning to the dense forest with their spoils. They lived in fear until this man promised to rid them of their fear. Instead, he had let the monsters in.
“He knows what his prey likes,” the man continued as if talking to an old friend. “He stalks the field where they eat, drink, play. Surely, the great Night King would not ignore the cries of slaughter. No, he’d lick his lips in anticipation, salivating at the stench of death. It drew you out of the forest.”
Dara crouched low, never taking his eyes from the man and his terrible grin.
“But had I known that all it took was a virgin to get you to drop your guard,” he laughed, “I would have made… other arrangements,”
At this, Dara lunged, so quick that Mary could hardly follow, until Dara fell to his knees. Mary blinked in confusion; the evening light was now all but completely gone. Had she missed something? No fires burned yet the Dara’s warriors seemed unbothered by the lack of light. Mary moved her infant to her other arm and crawled to the edge of the crumbled wall to peep around it for a better look. She screamed as she saw the two arrows protruding from Dara’s chest. Why weren’t they helping him? Why was nobody helping him?
The man laughed and crouched down in front of Dara, “A fox waits to strike when the time is right, for he knows that he is not as strong as a wolf,” he glanced behind Dara at the circle of his men and tisked, “Wolves are so arrogant, wouldn’t you say? Let them watch their king fall.”
Dara chuckled, his laugh ringing out over the silence of the camp.
“You speak like a man who has won the battle,” something about Dara’s voice didn’t sound right. It had changed, becoming deeper, rough like a growl. “You say my name even as you stand before me ignorant of its meaning.”
Mary heard the snap of the arrows as Dara ripped them from his chest and tossed the pieces to the side. For the first time, Mary saw the white of the man’s smile disappear. He stumbled back as Dara rose to his feet, the muscles of his back bulging until the fabric of his shirt and pants ripped at the seams. Thick black fur pushed through his peeling skin and he let forth an enraged roar that shook the frame of the cottage and rustled the leaves around them. Mary threw herself down behind the wall with a cry, covering her daughter with her body, shaking with fear as the inhuman voice rumbled, “I am the Night King, demon of the Dark Forest!”
Mary emerged from the safety of the dilapidated cottage, her infant clutched close beneath the shelter of her cloak. The early morning air was thick with smoke and gunpowder. Fog swirled about her knees, hiding the horrors she knew littered the ground beneath. Mary walked as if waking from a terrible nightmare full of death and dying.
The warriors had seemed to disappear into the night, racing through the forest. She could not block out the terrified cries and screams of pain. Bones breaking, the wetness bodies crashing against each other. The clanks of swords and the pops of gun fire. Snarls, roars, cries all muted by the great howl of the―
Mary froze as she saw a figure materialize from the dark between the trees. Dara was naked, his dusky skin covered with blood. He did not take a step toward her, but continued to watch her with eyes no longer the color of flames, but of the blood that covered his body.
Mary swallowed back her fear, tightening her arms around her infant.
The Night King, she thought. A man that was neither human nor beast but something in between. The illusive demon of legend who reigned over the Dark Forest and its creatures.
“I thought you’d gone,” Mary whispered, for though the battle had been short, neither Dara nor his men returned to camp that night. Were they as he was, or something else completely? The Dark Forest was full of mysterious creatures.
“I had,” he breathed, holding her once again predator’s gaze. “You are not safe with me.”
Mary’s eyes welled with tears and she found herself closing the distance between them.
“You’ve seen what I am. You know who I am,” he said in agony, gripping her wrist in as she reached to caress his face.
“I know,” Mary said, gently pulling her wrist from his hand. She had always known, deep down, who he was. She had known it even as she’d fallen in love with him.
“My love for you has not changed,”
She said as she peeled back her cloak and lifted the infant into his large, awkward arms. Dara cradled her carefully, reaching up with his other hand to gently touch the soft curls on her head.
“And neither will hers.”
Jade T. Woodridge is a Washington D.C./Maryland native, currently living in Southwest Michigan. While she dabbles in various genres and styles, surrealism and blank verse seem to draw her imagination. Some have said that her works are ‘dark,’ but Jade likes to say that she writes ’emotionally driven’ pieces that don’t always have pretty, happy endings. Jade has a BA in English Literature and a MA in Information and Library Sciences. Her work has been featured in the Chiron Review (2015), Vine Leaves Literary Journal (2016), WitchWork (2016), and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature (2020).