by James David Collins
Billus entered the Darkheart without a second thought. The villagers of Nester had warned him against traveling through the forest alone. They actually believed the old children's tales. They had told him frightening stories of evil elves and fairies kidnapping and murdering unwary travelers. Billus assured them that he would be very wary. The villagers shook their heads as he waved good-bye.
The path through the Darkheart was the quickest way to Wells, Billus's home village. The May festival was about to begin and he didn't want to miss a minute of it. He had been away for several years and each May he regretted missing the festival. He quickened his pace. The sooner he got home the sooner his good time could begin.
The farther he traveled into the forest the darker it became. Billus looked up. The interlaced branches of the various kinds of trees allowed only a small amount of sunshine through. He could see his way on the path, but little else.
Billus stopped. Someone else was traveling through the forest. "Hello."
"You are kind to stop."
Billus looked to his left. Nothing. He looked to his right. Nothing. He looked before him and behind. He saw nothing. "Where are you?"
"I am here." The voice was the last of an echo.
Billus heard a rustle of branches to his right. He turned and looked hard into the dimness. "I don't see you."
"Perhaps this will help." A faint light appeared around a great oak tree just off the path. "Here I am."
Billus stepped closer to the lighted oak. "All I see is this grand old oak. I'm afraid I still can't see you, sir."
"The tree is me."
Billus stood staring at the tree. He could see the crooked outline of a mouth and two round, yellow eyes. "You are a tree?"
"For many years."
"You are enchanted?" He stepped closer to the tree.
"No, no. I'm one of the fairy folk." Branches rustled high above Billus's head.
"Oh, my." He stepped back. "The stories are true."
"Stories are always true to someone." The tree's yellow eyes opened wide. "Please, don't go. Let me introduce myself." One branch bent and pointed like an arm to the trunk. "I am called Elm."
"Elm?" Billus scrunched his face as he looked at the tree. "You're an oak."
"Oak is such a harsh name." The gesturing branch swung out to Billus. "Elm is a more peaceful, soft name. I prefer it."
"All right, Elm. It's nice to meet you." Billus bowed to the great oak.
Another branch drew itself down to the side of the tree. It now had two arms gesturing to Billus. "It is such a pleasure to see someone on the path. It has been so lonely here."
The tree's echoing voice covered Billus like a blanket. "People are afraid to come here." He put his hand to his head. He was getting dizzy. "Old children's tales keep them away."
"You are unsteady on your feet. Let me help you." Elm reached a branch to Billus. The smaller limbs curled around his body, supporting him. "That's better."
"Yes, thank you." He held his head in his hands. "I don't know what's come over me."
"It will pass, I'm sure." Elm reached into an opening in his trunk and removed a necklace. "This is for you." He placed it around Billus's neck.
Billus looked down at the strange item. The cord was woven from small twigs and on it hung a carving of an oak tree. "I really can't accept this." He raised a hand to remove the necklace.
"You must keep it." Elm reached a branch to stop Billus's hand. "You see, if you remove it now you will die."
"What?" Billus's eyes widened. His hands went to his neck. "What do you mean?"
"You are my slave now." An echo of laughter escaped Elm's dark mouth.
"No." He tried to break free of Elm's grasp, but he was held tight.
"You will bring me other visitors." The black mouth on Elm's trunk curled into a twisted smile. "I like visitors."
"What if no one will come here?" Billus still struggled in the great tree's hold.
"You must try very hard to convince them." Elm pulled Billus closer to his trunk. "If you don't return here within three days with a new visitor the chain around your neck will kill you."
Billus wrinkled his nose at the strong tree odor coming from Elm's crooked mouth. "I only want to go home."
"You will go home, but you will come back to me or you will die." The words bounced inside Billus's head. "Bring me visitors."
Billus was released and sent on his way. Elm's laughter followed him all the way home.
The people of Wells were happy to see Billus. They questioned him about his travels and the sights he had seen. He regaled them with such tales of wonder they had never heard. The only story he didn't tell them was of the Darkheart.
After two days had passed he returned to the Darkheart with a friend. They walked the path talking of the fun of the May festival. Billus led him to the heart of the forest.
"It's getting dark, Billus."
"It's only the trees," Billus said. "They block out the sun."
Elm's voice crawled onto the path. "A visitor. How nice." The old oak began to glow. His eyes were two yellow suns in the dim light. "Come closer."
"What's this?" The friend grabbed Billus's arm.
"His name is Elm." Billus pried his friend's fingers from his arm. "Don't be afraid. He only wants to meet you."
"Yes." Elm's words were a vapor that surrounded the new visitor. "What is your name?" The vapor of his words pulled the visitor closer.
"Shenk," he said.
"Come closer, Shenk." Elm's branches curled around Shenk. "Closer." He pulled the helpless man closer.
"What are you doing?" Billus tried to get to Shenk. Branches pushed him back and held him.
"I have been so hungry for visitors." Elm's crooked mouth grew wider. It was a jagged darkness opening on the trunk. "Starving for visitors."
Shenk's head was rolling on his shoulders. "What's happening?" His words were slurred.
"Good-bye, Shenk." The branches drew Shenk into the dangerous blackness. The man disappeared into the pointed black mouth. It closed after him. Shenk screamed. Elm sighed. "That was good." His crooked mouth smiled. "Bring me another one."
"I won't do it again." Billus pulled against the hold of the tree. "You never said you were going to kill anyone."
"He's not dead." Elm lowered Billus to the ground and released him. "Yet."
"What do you mean?"
"I need living blood to make me strong." The tree flexed his branches. "I can't kill him right away. His blood would be worthless." His yellow eyes swelled. "Bring me more, Billus."
"No, I won't."
"Do you have a choice?" The great oak laughed so hard he shook leaves from his upper branches.
Billus fell to the ground. He was trapped. The evil charm around his neck held him prisoner to the mad oak. He should have listened to the people of Nester. He was a fool.
Billus brought more visitors to the Darkheart. Each one was swallowed by Elm's jagged maw. It made Billus sick to see the tree's pale, yellow eyes swell with pleasure after he closed his crooked mouth.
"More, Billus, more." Elm's resounding voice flowed through the forest. "Bring me more."
"There won't be anymore." Billus ran up to Elm's trunk. "No one will come with me. I had to force the last one. No one trusts me. I'm an outcast." He began to sob. "My own parents shun me."
"That is too bad." Elm bent a branch to pat Billus on the back. "You poor thing."
"Why did you do this to me?" He turned his back to the tree, pushed the branch away, and walked from the oak.
"What did I do to you?"
"You turned me into a monster." He wiped the tears from his eyes.
"I didn't have to try very hard." The yellow eyes flared.
"What do you mean?" He turned to face the tree.
"You already had it in you." The old oak laughed. "It would have been much harder if you had been truly good."
"What about this charm?" He held it up to Elm. "You said I'd die if I took it off. You said I had to bring you visitors."
"The charm is just a harmless trinket." He reached a limb to Billus and yanked the charm from his neck. "It never had any power." Elm pointed another branch at Billus. "You just needed an excuse. You wanted to help me."
"You said I'd die." Billus wrapped his arms around his body. "You said I had to do it."
"Would you build a nest and lay eggs if I said you were a bird?"
"Of course not."
"You were already a monster inside the darkest corner of your heart." Elm poked a limb at Billus's chest. "You could have chosen to die to save your friends. Instead, you led them here like lamb's to the slaughter just to save your own life." He crossed two branches across his trunk. "How sad."
Billus looked into Elm's round eyes. "What do I do now?"
"I don't know." The old oak shrugged. "I'm done with you."
"Help me." Billus fell to his knees. "You've got to help me."
"Why don't you go home." The great tree lifted Billus to his feet. "Tell them what happened. They might believe you."
"They'll kill me." His voice was small in the dark woods.
The light around the old oak faded. Elm's yellow eyes stared through the darkness. "Let them kill you." He paused. "You'll feel better."
James David Collins hopes to add many more writing credits to a list which includes short stories accepted by Glyph magazine and Dream Forge e-zine. He's completed two YA fantasy novels, as yet unpublished, but is working hard to remedy the unpublished part. David was a public school teacher in Texas for 10 years, but is now a stay-at-home dad with his new son, James. His wife, Cathy, also a school teacher, is a bit jealous about David's staying home, but she'll get over it (she says).
Did you like this short story?
"The Darkheart" ©James David Collins. Used by permission
of the author.
Raven Electrick ©2000-2001 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.