Chapter 1Mature

Sara and Tyndal Stonnerg held each other fretfully at the edge of a field of withered crops - their only source of income. There was nothing of the wheat that could be salvaged, no plant that was even barely edible in the mess of the result of a month of no rain. They stood in their ragged clothes - when one is impoverished, the priority is food, not clothing - and reflected in hushed voices that they were surely going to perish. Their faces grave, they walked back to their small, thatched-roof cottage where waited their fifteen year old son, a thin, pale boy whose physical condition restricted him to his home - he was prone to nausea, fainting spells and spontaneous attacks of violent shudders which always made his parents fear that he was on the brink of death. His poor health was something for which his parents felt guilty - they believed that their lack of money and the way that food had always been hard to come by in the household had brought about his illness, and they tortured themselves with thoughts that they somehow could have made the situation different.

Sara and Tyndal had to break the news to their weak, sickly son that there wasn’t going to be a meal that evening. There was only water from the village well to drink - water that Tyndal had suffered in collecting, walking from the cottage to the well while his stomach felt like it was being rent by hunger pangs.

The boy, whose name was Diango, couldn’t bear it any longer. The sense of his own futility, which had been with him since he had begun to appreciate the work which had to be done to keep a house and to earn a living - and realised he could not perform - grew to such an extent that he actually, ironically, resolved to try to change these dire circumstances. There being no other visible alternative in his mind, he decided he would venture into the Enchanted Forest near his village (one of many in the country which generally comprised tall, dark fir trees and were inhabited by supernatural creatures) and forage for food. It was a perilous mission that he intended to embark on, the Forest containing so many threats to non-magical folk that it was avoided by even the bravest of souls. But, in the mind of the frustrated and desperate Diango, if he died trying, it would mean that there would be less mouths to feed in his house.

And so, that night, when his parents had fallen asleep (for they would surely never approve of their son’s self-sacrifice) on their mats on the floor, Diango stole out of the cottage, taking his first steps for many years in the world outside the cottage windows.

He was nearly overwhelmed by the experience. The freshness and the cool caress of the air, the foreign scents of Nature, the astonishing and beautiful light of the moon... If this was his last night in the Land of the Living, at least he had tasted the world.

He had scarcely taken five steps in the world when he was overcome by a wave of nausea, accompanied by a dizziness that put black spots in front of his eyes. His empty stomach bit him, causing him to cry out in pain. Luckily his parents didn’t wake and Diango fought through the torturous sensations, continuing to walk. The forest loomed before him: a five minute walk for anyone else who wanted to travel from the Stonnergs’ cottage to its border, which glowed silver in the moonlight - a sign of the magic and a warning directed at humans - but Diango had already begun to stagger, his legs simply not accustomed to the exercise.

He forced himself to think of the treats assuredly waiting for him across the silver line: wild fungi, berries and fruit, if any other tree than the intimidating fir grew within the forest’s depths. His mouth watered. But he would never obtain any of these if he didn’t push on, he told himself sharply.   

About three feet from the trees, Diango’s body threw him to the ground as he suffered a trembling fit. The shaking jolted his painful stomach, made him feel like he was going to vomit and almost crushed his determination. He lay there crying as his useless body shuddered, feeling like he deserved to die. How had his parents stood him for so long? He was pathetic.

The fit ended and he remained on the ground awhile, sobbing from the agony in his stomach and out of bitter frustration at his wretched condition. But when the crying ended, Diango’s mind was filled with the picture of returning home empty-handed. He imagined his parents’ faces. Beyond the shock and the concern, he knew intuitively that there would be resignation and the sense that they should never have expected anything other than failure from him. Diango hated the idea of them feeling like that and, in a burst of pain- and fury-fuelled energy, he got up and crawled the remaining distance to the forest. And this time it was like all his pain and nausea had been burned away: there was nothing but solid resolve in him as he moved across wilting grass that barely softened the hard ground beneath him.

With a triumphant yell, Diango crossed the line. And then he stopped, stiffening, suddenly aware that his shout would have alerted any nearby predators of his presence. But when there was no sound in response to his cry, Diango used a tree to climb to his feet and proceeded to search for edible plants - though it was almost impossible in the darkness produced by the thick canopy of branches high above.

Suddenly there was a snap of a twig nearby. Diango froze. Slowly he turned on the spot, trying hard not to make a sound, his eyes wide as he searched the darkness for the source of the noise. Before he completed his rotation, an icy hand clamped down on his shoulder, searing his flesh even though his top. Diango screamed, terrified. But though he struggled, the force of the grip of the predator held him in place. The next thing Diango felt was two simultaneous sharp stings in the side of his neck. And then, the creature, whose mouth and hand felt like any human mouth and hand - though both were unnaturally cold - began to drink his blood...

The End

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