The sun could not pierce the thick foliage of trees that hung over Ainsley like twisted question marks. The smell of peat moss and the buried dead hung in the air, and she hadn't heard the chatter of birds and squirrels for days.
Ainsley couldn't remember when she'd entered the woods, but the fatigue of the walk had set in, and she trod at a slow pace. With every step, she considered falling to the side. She fantasized about pulling the leaves over her body and allowing herself to become another casualty of the long journey. She barely willed herself to carry on.
She sensed the darkened house before she saw it, and when it finally appeared, she believed it was a shadowy mirage. She hadn't seen another human being in weeks, so she couldn't fathom how it had arrived here, except that it had grown out of the roots of the ancient forest itself.
Whoever built it had lived alone. Every board reflected a solitary existence. Each shingle drooped, and every gutter wept, and its crooked joinery was held together by pain.
Yet, the curiosity of what it hid in its shadows drew her closer. So empty, so lost, so silent. What secrets did it hold?
Ainsley climbed its steps and felt an inviting air. Flickering, warm light danced with shadows on a far wall. She edged her way towards it, across rotting floorboards, and peeked around the corner.
She discovered a cave at the heart of the house, where peeling plaster met smooth stone and stucco transformed into stalactites. On its rocky floor, warm coals cooked meat and a soft nest of furs invited her to lie down. Savoury and smokey smells filled her nostrils. She knew if she laid down, she'd never wish to leave.
But beyond it was the depths of the cave. Any hint of surfaces disappeared, and all light was eradicated. A few steps in and Ainsley would be lost forever.
She didn't run away immediately, and she stared into its heart for a breath too long. When she realized, she gasped and stumbled backwards out of the room. She never looked back.
Ainsley rushed to the door, down the steps, and back to the path. She kept going until she knew the house was no longer visible and carried on, and it wasn't until the sunlight pierced the canopy of the trees that she finally dropped to her knees and wept.