He Must Go Walk the Woods So Wild (and other stories)

Release Date: March 18, 2021
Pages: 379

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Sometimes, all the world needs is a little bright comfort.
Other times, what it needs is a pinch of darkness.

In these twenty-five stories and three poems, S.L. Dove Cooper presents a balance of both in a mixture of fantasy and science fiction. In this collection, woods are dark and nights are dangerous and full of wonder. Fairies can be benign forces of nature. Or they can be the most dangerous predators of all. Magic can be caught and spun into impossible quests. In the far future, the most terrifying thing of all may be the prospect of making new friends. Including:

  • Four teens find themselves caught in a fairy tale some of them will never walk out of.
  • When GalaQuest comes hurtling into Hedriar's life, so does one of her sisters. And Hedriar will have to choose where her help is most needed.
  • A mermaid's curiosity sees both herself and a prince caught in a witch's trap.
  • All throughout his adult life, Paad has not been allowed to watch the dragons hatch, but when a hatching goes wrong, he may be the only one who can save the day.
  • Little Red Riding Hood's granddaughter has learned well from her family's mistakes, and isn't going to repeat them.

With humour and heart, the stories in this collection present a quiet, yet not always cosy, look at the fantastical and magical mundane.


He Must Go Walk the Woods So Wild

Looking out over the churning river, Pip stood motionless. White froth danced every which way below the old, rotting bridge, rising and falling like some dangerous sea creature from his grandfather’s tales. It was mesmerizing, and terrifying at once.

Above it all, he could just make out the calls from his friends on the other side of the rickety bridge. Hands resting on the rope, one foot dangling above the treacherous, still plank, his heart throbbed in his throat, erratic and heavy. He couldn’t make out what they were shouting – encouragement, probably – but it was enough to unfreeze him. Taking a deep, shaking breath and closing his eyes, Pip planted his raised foot onto the wood before he could change his mind. The bridge swayed and creaked underneath him.

He ran.

The rope snapped taut, chafing the palms of his hands as he held on just loosely enough to allow him to move forward. The run seemed to last a lifetime, his brain spinning stories of the rope snapping and the bridge collapsing into the rapids below. He was going to fall. All the way down. He was going to cling to the rope, slamming into the rock side, then fall. He’d slip, the rope-water slick and too frayed to hold his weight.

He thought he could hear sounds of disappointment from behind him, but before he could puzzle over the absurdity of his brain, his right foot touched solid ground. Bent double and panting, Pip waited for his heart to slow down and his breath to stop coming in small, irregular gulps of panic.

Someone put an arm around his shoulder, his anorak cold through the thin shirt he’d thought was such a sensible idea before they’d left. It’d be a warm night, the weather report had said. “You all right, mate?”

All Pip could manage was a nod accompanied by a shaky breath. It felt a long time before he could straighten and look around. The others were clustered around him: lanky, bespectacled Pete, plump, mirthful Julie and plain, ordinary Liam. Pip pushed his own glasses back into place. No one said anything, though his ears were roaring with the river below. Leaves rustled and the wind whistled through it. Before they could discuss what next, a fox screaming into the night startled the lot of them. Pip thought he could feel the eyes of forest creatures on his back. Staring. Wanting.

The sudden appearance of light blinded him momentarily and drove away the uneasy sensation of being watched. Two more torches followed and Pip fumbled for his own rucksack, hands still a bit unsteady.

Finally, he managed to open the stupid catch and locate his own light. After struggling to get the rucksack closed again, he added a fourth beam to the ones already scanning the area around the four of them. If anything, the lights made the forest look even more foreboding, dark trees towering above like disapproving sentinels. Pip took a step closer to Liam. He’d been the one who’d talked them all into this mess, sure, but also the one who always got them out.

“Now what?” Pete’s deep voice sounded distorted, oddly trampled, to Pip. Beside him, he could hear Julie shuffle. When she put a hand on his arm, he still nearly dropped his torch.

“We shouldn’t’ve gone out,” he muttered. “I don’t care what the weatherman said, there’s a storm coming. We’ll get drenched and catch a cold and everyone’ll know we sneaked out.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Julie pulled the hood of his anorak over his head. Pip grumbled half-heartedly, brushing it back down with his free hand. It was easy for her to say. She ran rings around them in PE. Pip had only agreed to come along because Liam and Julie were going. He hadn’t wanted either of them to think him a coward, though that chance was probably lost with Liam now. If only he hadn’t hesitated and been second across the bridge instead of last.

They’d be taking the long way back, at least. Below them, the water screamed at him. “Let’s just go on,” he muttered, trying to shake the chill out of his bones. No one else seemed to notice anything. No one else seemed to care that the bridge was old and rotted and they were lucky they weren’t being battered into a paste against the rocks right now. He’d make damned sure they took the long way back.

“That’s the spirit!” Liam’s voice. “Knew it was Pete we had to worry about all along.” As if it hadn’t been Pete who’d been first across the bridge, nimble as a bloody squirrel.

Someone chuckled. They walked along the path, all a little under an arm’s length apart, torches shining around them to give them a small bubble of light. That’d been Pip’s idea, and he was ridiculously grateful that the others had at least agreed on that. The forest unnerved him, though he’d never been afraid of the dark before.

He was now and he couldn’t even begin to explain why. Down beneath the trees, his biggest fright ought to be the occasional owl hooting or something. Though they were trying to be silent, they startled a badger once and Pip’s heart jumped so high he thought he’d perish on the spot. Truth was, none of them was any good at sneaking through forests silently. At least it meant that, after a while, they just started to assume that the sounds of snapped twigs and crunched leaves was made by one of their own, not a wild creature.

Partway through their walk, the rain that had been threatening to fall all day finally started. Pip expected it was churlish and childish to say ‘I told you so’ but he grumbled it under his breath anyway. The only reason they were out here at all was Liam’s morbid curiosity and sense of dramatic timing. He’d been looking over old newspaper clippings for a school project or another and decided that he needed to see the place mentioned for himself. In the dark. Because this was obviously the best idea Liam had ever had in his life and it wasn’t going to get them all horribly killed and mangled like the murder the clippings discussed.

Liam’s hand rising up distracted Pip from grumbling and the group stopped walking. By now Pip’s flimsy anorak had deflected all the rain it could and he was shivering. They were standing on a muddy track – and it was definitely a pathway of sorts even if the brambles clawed at their jeans. Thick branches above them dangled like raised clubs suspended in time and did absolutely nothing to keep them dry. Some creature or another darted through the underbrush nearby.

“Did anyone bring a compass?”

Pip felt his heart sink all the way down to his toes. Liam’d assured them all he’d packed everything they could possibly need and Pip, fool as he always was about any of his best friend’s promises, had trusted him instead of doing the sensible thing and prepared for the certainty that Liam would forget half of what they needed. And now they were lost because Pip had, against his better judgment, believed that this time would be different. No one else had, predictably, brought a compass either because Liam could be a persuasive bastard and, anyway, it was always Pip who was the cautious one.

“Then we’re lost.”

Any other time, the fact that Pete and Julie not only cursed at the same time but picked the exact same wording would have been hilarious. Wet, bedraggled, lost and stuck in a murder forest late at night was not it.

“Go on?” Pip offered. To his right, Julie drew a sharp breath. To his left, Pete said a little prayer. The light of his torch barely wavered. “We’re lost, there’s nothing back there except a bridge about to collapse when it’s not wet and the rain’s getting worse.” Pip looked around and pushed his glasses back into place along his nose. “We can’t stay here. It’s too wet, too cold and too narrow for us all. Maybe we can find some shelter for the night.”

For a moment, he’d considered that Liam was playing an elaborate practical joke on them all, but the other boy stood frozen, his black hair plastered to his skull, looking defeated. They were well and truly lost then.

Pip let the other argue about the direction. He was trying to warm up his muddy, cold feet. All he’d had on hand was a pair of flimsy slippers. It would’ve been fine if the weather report had been accurate.

“You lead,” someone said from beside Pip. It took a fraction longer to realise the speaker was Liam than to process the words themselves. “Pip’s right about one thing: we can’t stay here.” His best friend switched places with Pip easily enough. He was entirely too cold to resent it.

“Least you won’t get eaten first,” Julie said. No one laughed, but then she’d only sounded tired. “Hope that shelter of yours isn’t too far off.”

Pip declined to quip that it was I-have-no-idea-how-far away. His heart wasn’t in it any more than Julie’s was. The rain picked up again when they started to trudge forward. Pip huddled in his clothes, his free hand now holding his hood in place. His torchlight was steady, at least. The darkness around them sang with the unseen and the unknown and the memory of Liam’s recounting of the newspaper story.

Eventually the brambles disappeared, then came back, then disappeared again. Pip’d hoped for a glimpse of any kind of shelter at all. An abandoned cabin or cottage, a cave, a mysteriously empty tent, a woodshed, a police car, his parents. He could hear Pete still praying softly behind him and, a little louder, Liam singing in a language Pip only ever heard him use at home.

After the umpteenth bramble brush scraped past their jeans and the so-manieth branch whipped at everyone’s head, Julie moaned. “We’re going in circles.”

The path looked like a straight line to Pip. They’d not deviated from it and it was wide enough to be a hiking trail, if a little used one. It might be a loop, but surely they’d have found some place they’d recognised if they were already back where they’d started. Pip hadn’t seen anything familiar at all.

“No, we’re not.” He tried to sound confident. He was pretty sure he had logic on his side. “Anyway, if we are going around in a circle, at least it’ll keep us sort-of warm and we can figure out where we are at dawn.” He didn’t want to know how much longer that was. All he wanted was to plod on until he spotted some hollow tree or… something big enough to shelter the four of them. Anything’d do.