Chapter 1: The Woodlands
The Woodlands were bathed in the comforting glow of the sun, as it descended steadily from its' throne. Leaves rustled quietly in the air, carrying the hum of insects in the greenery, and all was silent: As silent as nature can be.
Alisha slumped against the trunk of an oak tree and tried to catch her breath. After three days of chaos, her current surroundings finally let her feel secure and at peace and she forgot all about her troubles and sat there, inhaling the smell of greenery. Her hands clasped around the golden heart-shaped locket hanging around her neck, which held photos of her parents, and whom she was sorely missing at that moment, and she kissed the warm metal, tears forming in her eyes. However, as the shadows lengthened, she became aware of her own physical state and turned to more practical matters at hand.
Her brown hair was matted against her head wound and her arm was bleeding. Despite the bruises all over her body, she set about building the tent she had with her and gathering firewood. These were simple, yet consuming acts and prevented her thoughts from wandering too much from reality, as they often had recently.
She built the tent in an enclosed space underneath a canopy of branches and behind some overgrown bushes and grass, which provided her with ideal cover. The woodlands were wild and uncared for, but they were suited to her situation. She didn't want to be found just yet, especially as she'd only been absent for three days.
As she assembled the tent, her gaze strayed to the trunk of the tree where she had rested and on impulse, she knelt on the dry earth and planted a few flower seeds that she had in her pocket. She closed her eyes for a moment, not a word escaping her lips. Then, rubbing her hands, she got back to making the tent.
Alisha was different. She'd known it all her life. Ever since she was six, everyday reminded her that she was different. That she didn't fit in with anyone. And the reason that she was different was quite simple really: she could heal.
The earliest and most vivid memory she had of herself healing had been around the age of six. She used to be very fond of playing alone in the small, square back garden of her home until one eventful day when she found a bird lying on the soft earth, among several daffodils. It's so pretty; she remembered thinking, her dark eyes entranced by the multi-coloured feathers.
She put out a sticky hand to touch it, and then halted, as it stirred slightly. Amazed that it was still alive, she caressed it very carefully with her forefinger and then picked it up.
It was light and very small. Alisha could feel its tiny heart beating through its' soft chest and all of a sudden, she felt tragically sad. Why was such a beautiful creature dying? Couldn't she save it?
A sense of urgency settled on her. Her mum and dad were all the way on the other side of the house, so she knew she didn't have time to get them.
Then she remembered something her mother had always said to her. "If you ever need help… any kind of help, just pray to God."
And so that's what the six-year-old Alisha did. She closed her eyes and prayed, holding her palms joined together, like she'd seen her mother do. "Please God, make this bird better…"
As the words left her lips, a strange fuzzy sensation was spreading through her body. It was like a tingling warm glow, starting from her head and spreading slowly downwards along her arms to the tips of her fingers. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the warmth left her and she opened her eyes feeling chilled.
Despite that, she looked at the bird hopefully, so strong was her faith that God would answer her prayer, that she wasn't even surprised when the bird stretched, saw her and immediately flew away.
Alisha looked back at it now and smiled to herself. Back then, she hadn't once considered that she herself had a Power, and truly believed that God had answered her prayer. Maybe He had.
Of course, after that incident, Alisha proudly told her parents that she had healed a bird. They pretended to believe her, but they knew it wasn't true. Six years olds love making things up, they said to each other. After all, who in this world could heal? Nevertheless, they praised Alisha's imagination.
As Alisha now started gathering branches for a fire, she thought sadly of her beloved mum and dad and how she wished she had never prayed to God for help when she was six. Maybe everything would have been different. She certainly would not be here, in the Woodlands.
The actual realisation that she was different occurred two years later, when she was eight. She was sitting on a stool in the kitchen talking animatedly to her mum about school and her friends, when her mother accidentally cut her finger while chopping carrots.
Alisha always hated blood, and when she saw the cut, she was very sympathetic towards her Mum. As she grabbed a band aid and held her mothers' finger, she felt the same fuzzy sensation she had felt two years ago, and she couldn't even control it. When mother and daughter looked at the finger again, it was normal. There wasn't a speck of blood to be seen.
Her mother was astonished and speechless. Mistaking her expression for anger, Alisha ran outside and kept running, afraid of herself and afraid of her Power.
"What's happening to me?" she asked herself later, as she sat by the river, her dark eyes surveying her hand. Alisha didn't have an answer to her own question, and knew no one else could answer it either.
Scared, she returned home and her mother immediately sought her out. "I don't know what happening Alisha, but you must be very careful. The people here do not like those who are different."
"I don't understand," Alisha said, confused.
Her mother closed her eyes, before replying, "Just keep it a secret, will you Alisha? Promise me."
But the promise was not easily kept. Alisha learned to not touch anything when the fuzzy sensation started, but at the beginning, her own lack of experience resulted in rumours starting around the village, and she was regarded by some as a child-witch.
One incident in particular stood out in her mind. She was probably no more than fourteen when a boy called Henry from her class in school was found severely wounded in the nearby park. His family were practicing Christians, and he was just like them. Faithful. Believing.
They nursed him as best as they could in their simple home. They cleaned his wounds, fed him, clothed him and did everything in their power to get his wounds to heal. A Doctor from a nearby city even came to look at Henry, and left some medicine, but it seemed that he was getting worse.
Eventually, he fell into a coma.
Once Alisha's parents found out that a boy from her class was very much near death, they insisted on visiting him. Her mother in particular thought it was a great idea, and Alisha knew why. Even though she didn't say it, her Mum was hoping Alisha could help him.
So she found herself tactfully left in an empty room with him. She doubted his parents knew why Alisha's Mum and Dad insisted they accompany them to the garden. Henry's face was shockingly pale against the dark pillows. The room itself was rather glum with the curtains drawn across the windows, and the air, stiflingly hot.
"Can you hear me Henry?" she asked, but wasn't surprised when he didn't so much as twitch. His eyelids were closed but she had a feeling he could hear her.
She took his hand in her own, and concentrated, praying that the familiar fuzzy, swooping sensation would begin.
"I'm Alisha," she said at the same time. "Remember me? We're in the same class. Everyone's really worried about you."
Talking soon became difficult and Alisha just concentrated on willing the warmth to flow into him After what seemed like a very short time, she heard coughing and looked up to find Henry rubbing his eyes, as if waking up from a very long sleep.
Just then, his parents entered, subdued. His mother glanced towards the bed and let out a scream of what must have been happiness, before fainting. His father left her lying on the floor and ran towards the bed, roughly pushing Alisha aside, before clasping his son in a fierce hug.
"What happened?" he gasped, his gaze unbelieving.
Henry just shook his head and shrugged, bewildered. Blood caked a gash on his cheek but when he rubbed it, it scraped away and the skin below it was perfectly normal.
"I was lying here, and just remember hearing you and Mum leave the room." His gaze fell on Alisha and he looked mildly puzzled. "And I remember hearing her talk to me," he added, pointing at her before stopping abruptly.
"Go on," his father prompted him, looking confused.
There was a pause as he hesitated, before stating, "She healed me."
Her parents exchanged looks and Alisha stood there foolishly, her expression sheepish.
"Me? Heal you?" she repeated, trying to sound incredulous. "You must have imagined it. I didn't do anything."
The boy shook his head vigorously and protested, but his Dad passed his hands over his face and said, under his breath, "Thank the Lord for this miracle." Henry followed suit and lay back in bed, his gaze lying suspiciously on Alisha.
She smiled at him uneasily, before suggesting, "Perhaps we should go. After all, Henry needs his rest to recover fully."
As they reached the door, a strong hand rested on her shoulder briefly, and Alisha turned to find Henry's Dad staring at her intently.
"Thank you," he whispered, before releasing her and tending to his unconscious wife. As she walked out, Alisha turned one last time to find Henry glaring at her back. His eyes told her that she was in trouble.
And her guess was right. The very next day, the rumours began and although she obviously denied anything to do with Henry's recovery, the people didn't believe her and several similar incidents in the following years resulted in her being labelled as the Child-Witch.
The fact that her Power was good didn't matter. She was different and no one knew why. And what people don't understand, they hate, and what they hate, they eventually get rid of.
And that's what they did to Alisha. They waited until she was seventeen, a pretty girl but a strange girl, and then, on Christmas Eve, they marched up to her home and broke down the door. Perhaps they thought their noble mission would be further blessed due to the coming holy celebration of Christmas.
Afraid, her parents tried to reason and negotiate with them, but they were insistent. They wanted to burn her at the stake, but the heart of the leading man softened slightly, as his gaze fell on the distraught parents.
"We will give her a choice," he stated, his dark eyes glittering. "She must leave the village and never return again, or she will be punished and the devil will be coaxed from her."
Alisha looked back at him, terrified. The other two men who had accompanied him inside protested at this display of generosity, but he held up a commanding hand and they fell silent, looking sullen. "The Lord has always insisted on forgiveness. Perhaps when she leaves, the devil will choose a different being to occupy," he added softly and nodded in her direction. She took this as an indication to get her things and leave.
Alisha trembled as she grabbed a tent from her bedroom along with several necessities, and two loaves of wrapped bread from the kitchen, her mind not seeming to function properly. She just threw anything she thought could be useful into the tent bag.
"Leave now!" yelled one of the men, seeing her loitering as she passed him cautiously, fear making her body sluggish. His voice snapped her into action and she ran out through the back door of the house, glad that there were very few people in sight. She could hear her parents calling after her and struggling against the men holding them back, but Alisha didn't dare glance at them as she clambered over the high fence and dropped onto the other side, barely feeling the pain as someone threw a stone at her and it grazed the skin on her arm. She stood there for a very brief moment, her eyes closed, adrenaline pumping through her entire body, before making a run for it.
She ran crazily, terror driving her on, with no idea as to where she was headed. Just the one thought occupied her head. She must leave the city. She didn't have anywhere to go… no relatives that she knew of, nor a friend that would help her. She was alone.
Then another thought struck her. Perhaps the man had only been tricking her. Suppose they send someone after her to kill her? She wouldn't stand a chance. Her legs were already tiring, and the weight of the tent and her other belongings were slowing her down. Everything seemed strangely silent and she was only aware of her own rapid breathing and the slap of her shoes on the ground as she whipped along the streets in the eerie semi-darkness.
Where will I go? She started panicking, and stopped for a moment on the edge of the street to catch her breath, before looking back. But there wasn't a soul in sight. Then a thought struck her. The Woodlands. They weren't that far from here, and she was familiar with some parts of it. Having spent a lot of her childhood in the play area.
Was it just her imagination or had she heard footsteps behind her? She looked back, her eyes straining, but nothing stirred. Everyone seemed to be inside his or her own homes, enjoying Christmas Eve. Whatever the sound had been, paranoia sprung her back into action and she jogged in the direction of the Woodlands, her breath coming in short gasps.
Eventually, the familiar trees came into view, and she wiped her brow in relief, resting only a moment before walking along a path that she was sure she knew. But as she walked further into the Woodland, the lights from the roads dimmed until she was surrounded in utter darkness.
Fear gripped her heart. She couldn't remember a time when she had been in the Woodland at this time of night. Fumbling with her tent bag, she located her torch, which worked by storing solar energy during the day, and switched it on, relieved to find that it was working. The thin beam told her that she was standing on a hill and the path she had been following ended here. From here on, all she could see was overgrown greenery growing in every direction.
Taking a deep breath, she plunged into the grass as high as her waist, and made her way forward, trying to head in a straight line. But eventually, she found herself standing on top of a hill that looked suspiciously like the one she had been standing on before. Was it possible that she had gone around in a circle? She let out a frustrated sigh and deliberated, but it was no use. She had to camp here else she might end up heading back towards the village by accident.
That was Alisha's very first night in the Woodlands and it passed fairly well, with no one springing on her while she slept. In her fitful sleep, she dreamed of an old woman telling her to travel north to Estonville.
"Make your life there Alisha," whispered the weary voice in her dreams. "But beware of everyone. I shall come for you very soon."
Whoever the woman was, whether real or a figment of her mind, Alisha decided to trust her. She needed a place to go to, and besides, she had been to Estonville once before, a very long time ago. It was the only place that was less than a week's journey away from her village, and she vaguely remembered the ancient city as one vibrant with life and colour and the Stage in particular. And maybe one day, when all this had died down, she could come back home, she added to herself as consolation.
A sudden rustle in the bushes to the side of her made her jump and draw her knife, her mind returning to the present. It was a butcher knife she had grabbed from the kitchen as she fetched the loaves of bread and although she felt ridiculous with it, it was her only weapon. She inched forward slowly until she was just above the bush, then sweeping it aside in one movement, she looked over, but there was nothing there.
Feeling foolish but certain that she had heard something, she went back to the fire and ate a chunk of the remaining bread of the second loaf, trying to successfully chew the stiff edges. She would stay awake for a few minutes and then perhaps she would go to sleep, she mused, before removing the golden locket from her neck where it felt cold and placing it inside the tent.
Yawning, Alisha watched the sun set and sat still as her surroundings grew darker. Creaks and whistle-like sounds carried in the wind but Alisha convinced herself that they were probably from the village, or maybe even from the woodland itself. It's probably nothing to worry about, she reassured herself. But then, she heard a thud and a yell that couldn't have been very far away. Eyes wide and shivering with fear of the unknown, she hesitated for almost two minutes before grabbing the torch and going to investigate.
Shadows caressed her face like spider webs as she crawled through holes and walked along dusty pathways. Claustrophobia was near but she didn't turn back, knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep at all if she didn't know what was happening. Turning a particularly deceptive corner, she shone the light ahead and glimpsed a flash of white disappear into the bushes, before everything was dark and still.
Shuddering as Alisha edged forward, her eyes strained to see anything that might be ahead. Her ears suddenly acknowledged faint breathing in the silent woodland and she made out a distant figure lying on the ground. Heart thundering, she stopped where she was, but the figure didn't stir.
Inching forward slowly, she halted just above the body and shone the light down. What she saw made her recoil with horror. It was a blood-covered boy, clothed only in a trouser and a thin vest. Feeling sick, Alisha stared at him, before swallowing, and realizing that she could be in danger.
Turning blindly, she saw the white flash from the corner of her eye but she was too late. Something hit her on the back of her head, and she went sprawling down a hill and into a river. After that, she knew nothing but the darkness behind her eyelids.