The night pressed down heavy on the men traipsing through the dark forest. The forest was still, expectant. Their swords jostled at their sides. Their boots crunched on the leaves covering the forest floor. An occasional curse hovered in the air when a root rose up to trip one of them.
It was a night all of them dreaded.
The clearing was empty when they came upon it. Grass grew in tufts, silvery gray in the moonlight. The Hanging Tree, gnarled and ancient, loomed in the middle. Its branches like fingers, reaching out for them.
It knew why they had come here.
They’d not been standing there long, huddled in a group, eyes fixed on the forest around them, when a woman glided into the clearing. Her white dress glowed in the moonlight, accentuating her swelling belly.
“You came,” she said. Her voice was quiet and breathless in the dark night beneath the trees.
The group whirled around. One man’s mouth opened into a surprised o, his hand pressed to his heart.
“Who are your friends?” she asked. She looked from one to another, her eyebrows knit together in confusion. They were meant to meet alone. His friends shivered and moved closer together, their hands near their weapons.
He ignored her question.
“I’ve come to say goodbye,” he said instead. His voice was not quite friendly.
She grew still, her face stony and impassive.
“Did you honestly think I’d run away with you? That I could love you?” His words cut through her.
“Yes.” Her voice was as quiet as the wind sighing between the trees. She placed her left hand on her stomach.
“Well… I don’t. I just wanted to have some fun, but you’re turning into more trouble than you’re worth. It was never going to happen.”
He looked to his friends, who nodded their support. His family had spoken sense into him that morning and his friends had been sent with him to the meeting. He took another breath and opened his mouth, but she spoke before he could.
“You’re right. I should have known you could never love me.” She smiled. “But I won’t have us leave here as enemies. Will you walk with me?”
She reached out her hands to him. Without even a moment’s hesitation, he took them. His friends tried to stop him, but she held him tightly. They disappeared into the trees.
A single scream broke through the thick silence. Everyone living near the forest shivered and shuttered their windows against the night. They knew what that scream meant, even if they were too young to have heard it before. But they also knew that the one who dwelled in the forest did not take things that were not hers.
The man’s friends hung their heads, knowing in their hearts that he was lost. As one, they left the forest, trudging home to deliver the news that they could not save him. Just as the men before them could not save the last one.
Tomorrow, they would return to gather his body from the Hanging Tree. He would be wizened and ancient, like the tree itself. And, like the tree, he would now forever belong to the forest.