The Kinfolk

The Kinfolk

Into the woods, she ran. Breathlessly, carelessly, stupidly, holding on tightly to her precious cargo. Into the woods, and deep into the heart of the forbidden. It’s not like she’d never wondered what was so feared in there. Why the rest of the townsfolk went about their lives in silent awe of the branches and vines that encroached their decrepit little hovel. The place seemed to be perpetually dark, thanks in no small part to the canopy of bark the ugly, wizened treetops provided across the village skyline.

“The only way out is through,” her mother had once warned her. Families survived in the village through total obedience to this mantra. None dared test it, and as a result, generations became entwined almost as tightly as the menacing branches overhead. Growing up under the darkness of the dome the woods provided was done so purely on one condition. None could leave.

Of course, there’d been stories of those who’d tried. Those who’d dared to flout the unwritten rule and had paid for it dearly. When she was little she’d learned of the boy who ran out too far one day, trying to impress the girl he was interested in. He’d thought himself a real bad boy. So had his companion, until all she could find of him were his torn clothes and the remnants of his left ear.

Then there’d been the old man who’d ventured forth from the village gates out of choice. He’d been too long in this world, he’d told his cat, the only creature who’d deigned to live with him and one of the few animals that remained in the village. For some reason, the rules of the woods didn’t seem to apply to its animal inhabitants, and so the village populace could only watch with awe and envy as they strolled off into the forbidden blackness and back again, seemingly unscathed.

The old man had been watching his cat explore the world beyond for almost a hundred years when he’d decided to join her. One night, as the slightest glimmer of moonlight broke its way through the canopy of branches, the man opened his door and followed his cat out onto the path that led out of the village. The light tricked him, according to the locals, illuminating a path for him like the breadcrumbs scattered by Hansel and Gretel in the folk tale. He was bewitched, they’d said, not knowing what he was heading towards. Others claimed he’d merely chosen his own fate, and that to say he was the victim of witchcraft and trickery was to do a disservice to his free will. Whatever the case, the end of the tale remained the same, with him never being seen again, save for his cat bringing back one of his dismembered ears in her mouth as a trophy.

Stories like this had followed her throughout her childhood. Horrifying cautionary tales, designed to instil a terror so deep that to even look at the trees the wrong way could make her feel cold inside for days. To live in a world of darkness, one must become comfortable with dark ideas, and with this notion she’d always struggled. There had to be a light beyond the reach of the forest. It was a dangerous thought, but one she couldn’t suppress, no matter how hard she tried.

The birds were the truest salt in the wound. How she envied them. To be able to escape the withering grasp of those branches; almost permanently without leaves and yet knotted so tightly together they forbade the presence of sunlight. The birds could just fly away, high up above it, she thought ruefully. They could escape whenever they felt like it, so to see them sitting overhead, chirping away arrogantly at the villagers was always a real kick in her teeth. She grew to despise the sound of birdsong, her jealousy eating away at her in the bleakness of each day.

The quiet was even worse than the singing. When the birds vanished to their freedom, a thick silence descended on the village. In their absence, the birds left behind nothing but the gentle whispering of the woodland wind. It was a noise so imperceptible but ever-present that many of the villagers had begun to listen to what it told them to do. Such was their reverence for ‘The Airess’ that a small group of them built an effigy in her honour on the furthest side of the village boundary. It was there that the Kinfolk of Air had taken seed, and had grown over the years to form a doctrine now followed by almost all of the village’s people. The Kinfolk were fervent in their worship of The Airess and insisted that their obedience to her wishes was what had kept the village safe from the grasp of the woodland’s wrath throughout the centuries.

She’d never had any reason to think otherwise, but she’d never heard the whisperings on the wind for herself. It was said that only the Mothers and Fathers of The Kinfolk were afforded that honour. One day, she thought, she’d perhaps hear the voice of The Airess, but right now, she wasn’t entirely sure that she wanted to. The Mothers and Fathers had been carrying out the wishes of their zephyr-like deity with increasing fervour, sacrificing an array of birds, insects and even rabbits of late. The townspeople had gathered to witness and pay homage to these rituals with growing frequency, and something about it unsettled her. Last Middeg it had been a hedgehog. She’d turned her eyes away in sorrow and disgust, hoping no one had noticed. The sacrifices were one thing, but the joy and relief it appeared to be bringing to The Kinfolk was something she’d not seen before. Were they enjoying it?

As she’d closed her eyes that night, she tried to put the image of them worshipping the effigy of The Airess from her mind. Something about it had always made her feel afraid. More afraid than the threat of the woods, if she was being honest. It loomed over the huts at the far end of the village, its face, intended to look like it was blowing a pure breath of air across the rooftops, had always looked to her like it was expelling a cloud of poison over them all. She’d never dare voice these thoughts, lest The Kinfolk publicly made an example of her in front of the horrid thing. She’d seen that happen once or twice before, to silly little children who’d let their mouths run away with them, and to one boy who’d thrown a chestnut towards a neighbouring squirrel and accidentally knocked the effigy’s eye to the ground. For smashing the rotting pear from the idol’s eye socket, the boy had been publicly pummeled with fruit by almost the entirety of The Kinfolk. Some of it was rotting, but most of it was ripe. The poor boy had apple-sized welts for weeks.

Had The Kinfolk always been cruel, she wondered. Growing up, she’d never really considered it, and it had never really seemed that way. Now, in her fifteenth year, she was becoming more concerned by the behaviours some of the Mothers and Fathers were displaying. Her own mother, thankfully, was an exception. These days she rarely left the house, seemingly so crippled by the fear of the forest that she’d become something of a hermit. Better that than one of The Kinfolk though, the girl had often mused. She’d always been a quiet woman, kind and gentle, but the last few years had prompted a shift in her that the girl couldn’t put her finger on. She’d seemed more determined than ever to keep her distance from the rest of the village.

A banging on the door woke her from her slumber. Groggily, she pulled off the blanket and began to head for the door of their hut. A blur of cloaks, torches and staves shoved past her as the door was thrown wide before she reached it. Voices raised and dripping with intent, the throng of bodies headed for her mother and dragged her from her bed. The girl cried out and threw herself at them as they forcibly removed her confused mother from the safety of her home and pulled her through the darkness of the village, towards the looming effigy.

“Your solitude offends her,” they chanted as one, “you must be seen to all!” The girl, incandescent with rage, clawed and struck out at the arms of the Father holding her still, forcing her to watch as they tied her whimpering mother to a stake in front of the effigy. The Kinfolk of Air had gathered in a large semi-circle in front of The Airess and had evidently decided to make an example of the girl’s mother.

She scanned the crowd of villagers around her. Why would they do this? Her mother hadn’t done any harm, she’d broken no rules. She hadn’t even spoken to anyone outside of their home in years. Why? Why would they…

Her eyes stopped as they met another pair, glaring back at her sternly. It was the Grand Father. His gaze burned through her before he opened his bearded lips and whispered cruelly into the wind. “You shall not turn your gaze from The Airess, you will not hide, and so now, neither shall she.”

The hedgehog, she realised. He’d seen her turn away from the ritual, and now he was enacting his punishment upon her. She knew it, all along. This was cruelty dressed up as worship. Her mother was crying now, her tired and weakened mind reeling at the sensory assault that had been forced upon her. All these people, all this outdoor space. The girl knew how terrified her poor mother must be, and she felt a rage welling inside her. A burning sensation of fury and loathing boiled within her gut as she stamped down had on the foot of the Father who held her before yanking her hands free of his grasp.

The pure unbridled fury of a fifteen-year-old girl had been heavily underestimated by The Kinfolk. She rushed forward, knocking over the Grand Father and grabbing the flaming torch from the grip of the Grand Mother. Rage propelled her towards the effigy of The Airess and as she set it ablaze she laughed hysterically. The Kinfolk gasped in horror as their beloved idol roared into flame and the girl took her chance. She set to work on the ropes that restrained her mother, pulling and grappling quickly with the knots while the congregation of Kinfolk fell to their knees in fear, watching and waiting for The Airess to leap to their salvation.

The ropes around her mother’s hands and feet gave way, and she dragged her free of the stake and pushed through the wailing crowd, using the torch as her weapon. As they broke through the semi-circle, she could hear the Grand Father yelling after her. “There’s nowhere to go! You shall not turn your gaze!” She ignored him and hobbled to the safety of the village’s empty marketplace with her bewildered mother.

“Mama,” she panted, “are you alright?” The older woman stared up at her tearfully and nodded her head. The girl knew this was probably as much as she would get from her mother right now, but she needed her to focus. “Listen,” she continued, “we have to leave this place, it’s not safe for us anymore. They’ll be coming for us now, we have no choice.” Her mother looked aghast. She turned her head to the trees and began to mumble in fear. “I know Mama, but The Kinfolk will come again, and this time, I think they’ll do more than humiliate and hurt us.” The older woman sobbed quietly to herself.

“The only way out is through.”

“I know,” the girl whispered, “but it is the way out.”

Her mother looked up at her and smiled tightly. At that moment, the girl saw with clarity that fear wouldn’t stop her mother from running with her daughter. The girl grabbed her by the hand and they ran towards the village gates. Their hut was one of the last few before the boundary, and she knew they’d need to grab whatever they could, post haste. She pulled on a small pair of leather shoes and stuffed her satchel with the day’s bread and cheese. Her mother dragged a bag from under a floorboard. This surprised the girl; had she been ready to leave all along? Resolving to ask questions later, she threw on her cloak and they each took a large knife from the kitchen drawer. Shoving hers into her satchel, she stopped short of the door and took a last look at her home.

“Are you ready, Mama?” the girl whispered.

“I’ve always been ready, child. The only way out is through.”

Her mother smiled at her, before blowing out the last remaining candle in the hut. The sound of angry voices drifted across the wind towards them as they made for the village gates. Darkness began to break as crumbs of moonlight illuminated a path past the boundary’s edge. The girl held her mother’s hand tightly as she took a step across the border and towards the path. Her mother followed, casting a final glance at the angry throng following behind them. An angry throng stopped at the gates, hissing in anger and dread. She smiled at them all and held onto her daughter.

Into the woods, she ran.

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