The Woods and a Wedding
by Stuart Sharp
part 1 of 2
‘How could you?’
Paul managed to duck in time and the plate struck the wall instead of his head. Sadly, Teresa wasn’t done with him. Though she only came up to his shoulder, Paul still took a step back as she stalked forward angrily, her normally pale complexion flushed with anger.
‘You had no right, trying to sell me off like a piece of meat!’
‘It wasn’t like that,’ Paul insisted. ‘I’m just trying to look after you, Teresa.’
‘Did I ask you to?’ She jabbed a finger at him. ‘It might be just us here, but that doesn’t give you any right to give me away to that... that...’
‘Orgin is an important man. You shouldn’t speak badly of him.’ He sighed, turning from his sister to stare out of the window of their cabin. The village of Mills was set out below in ordered rows, butting up to the edge of the forest, surrounded by a single palisade. Their cabin was almost the only home outside it.
‘Teresa,’ he said, ‘I won’t lie to you. Orgin is headman of the village. He wants you for his wife. If I’d said no, he could have made things bad for both of us. This way, maybe we won’t have to spend the winter scratching around on the edge of the forest, barely finding enough to eat.’
He’d hoped that Teresa would understand. How many times had she complained about them not being able to earn enough, here outside the village? How many times had she had to patch the dress she wore? Even she could hardly make something so threadbare look beautiful. Orgin would probably buy her dozens of them. But still, she insisted on arguing.
‘And I don’t get any say in who I’m supposed to marry?’ she demanded. Paul flinched back from her anger, silently cursing himself for it.
‘Why wouldn’t you want to marry him?’ he asked. ‘He’s handsome. He’s rich, and everyone in the village looks up to him.’
‘Not everyone,’ Teresa said darkly. ‘I’ll bet those families he drove out to starve aren’t going to say good things about him.’
‘They were thieves and worse.’
Even to himself, Paul’s answer didn’t sound convincing. He’d stood by the side of the road as three families were evicted from the village, had watched their pain and fear at it.
‘It was for the good of everybody,’ he tried.
Teresa shook her head angrily.
‘It was for Orgin’s good, and you know it.’
‘Enough. You don’t have a choice in this, Teresa. You might hate me now, but marrying Orgin is the right thing, for both of us.’
‘I’m not marrying him. If you love him so much, you go and marry him’
With that, Teresa turned on her heel, stalking towards the tiny room that she called her own. Paul started to follow, but he was too slow. The door slammed in his face.
Paul found Orgin in the village square, in front of the church. Already, brightly coloured banners were being hung up, and tables were being set out for the feast that would follow the wedding. When Orgin wanted something, it happened quickly.
The man himself leant against the gate before the church, overseeing everything. He was imposing, two inches taller than Paul’s own six feet, and powerfully built. Unlike Paul, it wasn’t the lean muscle of a man who worked hard each day, but that of a fighter. Orgin was well dressed in a mixture of silk and velvet. He wore no jewellery except for his chain of office, but that was impressive enough to make up for the lack, formed from gold links wrapped round many times.
He gave a broad smile as Paul approached. ‘Paul! My soon-to-be brother-in-law.’
Paul winced at that. Orgin wasn’t going to like what he had to say. ‘I have bad news,’ he said, ‘Teresa has shut herself in her room. She’s refusing to go through with the wedding.’
Instead of exploding, Orgin threw back his head and laughed. ‘I’ve heard of wedding nerves, but that’s a new one. Come, my friend, surely you can talk her round.’
Paul shook his head and sat down on the low wall. ‘I’ve never been good at getting her to listen to me, Orgin. She thinks I’m being selfish, even when I’m trying to help her.’
The other man nodded sympathetically. ‘She doesn’t respect you as a sister should, does she?’
‘No,’ Paul admitted, ‘she never has.’
Orgin paused, looking round at the square. ‘Well, it seems a shame to cancel everything, but if that is what dear Teresa wants...’ he paused again, and then snapped his fingers. ‘I’ve got an idea though. Something that could really make your sister respect you. That could make everyone respect you.’
‘What is it?’
Orgin touched his chain of office in what would have been a nervous gesture in another man.
‘Two days ago, something killed one of my logging crews. I’ve kept it secret so far, because I didn’t want to spoil the wedding. There’s something in that forest, Paul, and it needs hunting down.’
‘And you want me to do it?’ Paul asked. ‘I’m just a woodcutter.’
‘Think about it, Paul.’ Orgin clapped him on the back. ‘You know the forest better than anyone. You’re strong, and you can use an axe. Who is there that’s better? If you hunt this creature down, you’d be a hero.’
The headman looked away for a moment. ‘Truthfully, Paul, I need you to do this. At the moment, you’re just a woodcutter outside the village. I need you to be more than that if you’re to be my brother-in-law. The people of the village need you to do this. And Teresa... well, maybe she’d listen to a hero.’
Paul knew that he was right. He nodded. ‘All right, I’ll do it. But what about Teresa? Even if I go now, the wedding was supposed to be straight away. She might listen to me once I’m a hero, but she won’t listen to me now.’
Orgin smiled. ‘Leave it to me, Paul. I’m sure she’s just nervous. You concentrate on killing our monster. I’ll talk to Teresa.’
Paul walked through the forest carefully, heading for the spot where the loggers had been killed. He’d fetched his felling axe from the cabin, along with a smaller hatchet and a knife. He’d also picked up some food and a length of rope for setting snares. Teresa still hadn’t come out of her room. Orgin had promised to come by after Paul had left, saying that it would be less pressure for Teresa.
It wasn’t hard to find the area where the loggers had worked. They’d cleared an area as large as most fields, felling trees and digging up the stumps. Tools lay scattered around it, apparently abandoned. Paul looked around, trying to find some sign of whatever creature had killed the men, but all he found was a line of ants moving between their nest and one of the remaining tree stumps, marching in a single line. Paul stepped over it carefully.
A flash of movement caught his eye. There, among the trees. His eyes were used to picking things out in the forest, to looking through the mess of foliage rather than at it, but even so it took a moment for his mind to make sense of what he saw. When he did, he gasped.
A woman stood there, but like no woman he’d seen before. Her hair was so tangled with vines and flowers that it seemed to be made from them, while her skin was the silver of birch bark. The dress she wore seemed to be composed entirely of leaves. The whole created a beauty that was at once unearthly and utterly natural.
Paul found himself thinking of the tales people spun about forest spirits, as much a part of the forest as the trees, and dangerously capricious. He’d never thought to catch a glimpse of one.
Was this what had killed Orgin’s men? The headman had made it sound like some wild beast, not like this beautiful thing. Could this spirit have killed the men? Of course it could. Spirits were wild, dangerous things, and if this one found men harming its forest, it wouldn’t have been merciful.
Paul found his mouth dry. He hadn’t thought to ask Orgin how many men the creature had killed. Would he be strong enough to defeat it on his own?
In that moment, Paul realised that the forest spirit was staring at him. He froze in place. There was no chance of sneaking up on her now, nothing but chasing or fighting.
The spirit seemed to know it too. She stood utterly still, her eyes fixed on him. They stood like that for long moments, until finally Paul couldn’t take it any more. He reached down towards his belt for the hatchet, hoping perhaps he could throw it. He was too slow. With a cry, the forest spirit darted away into the trees.
At once, Paul set off after her, following as best he could. At first, it wasn’t difficult, because the woman ran ahead on a narrow track. Paul even thought that he might be gaining on her. When she plunged into denser foliage, Paul didn’t even hesitate, but followed through it, his feet crushing plants as he ran. He noticed that the strides of the forest spirit left no marks.
It was harder to keep pace with her now, and hard to spot the green and silver of her form among the trees. For a moment, Paul thought he might have lost track of her, but then she plunged onward, towards what might have been a clearing.
He tried to put on a final burst of speed, but tripped, his foot snagging on a tree root. No, he realised, in a sudden rush of fear, the tree root had wrapped itself around his ankle. Quickly, he drew out the hatchet and hacked himself free, struggling back to his feet.
‘Turn back.’ The words reached Paul on the breeze, sounding strange and melodic. Caught up in the hunt, he ignored them.
At once, the forest seemed to rise up against him. More tree roots tugged at him, forcing Paul to hack downward again and again. Branches lashed at him. Even flowers and tufts of grass seemed to combine to tangle and slow him. He struck where he could, cutting plants from his path. Even so, within a few strides, Paul had taken several sharp blows, and almost tripped again.
He pressed on in the face of it, approaching the clearing through shear persistence. Thorny briars rose up between the final line of trees, and after a couple of ineffectual blows at them, Paul realised that there would be only one way through. Hunching his head down and closing his eyes, he threw himself through the thorns.
The pain was immediate, worse than everything that had come before put together. Paul could feel the thorns tearing through his shirt, tearing through his skin, with every movement he made forward. It was all he could do to keep his hands up and protect his eyes as the thorns sought blood. Even then, his face took deep scratches.
He thought of stepping back, trying to save himself, but Paul could imagine what would happen then all too easily. His sister would call him foolish and worse for trying such a thing, even while she tended to the wounds. Orgin would be harder. He would think of Paul as a failure, as nothing more than another useless woodcutter.
With a snarl, Paul gave one last burst of effort, throwing himself again at the thorns. They scourged him, bringing a cry of pain from him, but even so he ploughed forward. Step by step he advanced, until at last the thorns gave way, and Paul found himself in the clearing.
It was perhaps twenty paces across, with a single tree at the centre, a silver birch that curved elegantly upward. There were flowers around its base, and birds flitted among its branches. The whole place seemed to radiate an atmosphere of calm beauty. Of the forest spirit, there was no sign.
This is her tree. Paul knew it as surely as he knew what the creature was. One look at the thing told him that. Its bark mirrored her skin exactly, while some of the flowers around the base of the tree looked remarkably like those twined in her hair. What did the old tales say? That these spirits were bound up with their trees?
Copyright © 2009 by Stuart Sharp