The Woods and a Wedding
by Stuart Sharp
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Paul unslung his felling axe from his back, hefting the familiar weight of it and eying the tree. There was one easy way to deal with this. Maybe Orgin had made the right choice, sending a woodcutter after this thing. He took a last look at the birch. It seemed almost a shame to fell a tree that beautiful.
Paul shook his head, concentrating on his anger. It was no time to be thinking thoughts like that. He was sure that real heroes didn’t hesitate like this. This creature had killed men. It had attacked him. Already, he could feel the trickle of blood down his face from the deepest of the scratches.
Paul could almost here what Orgin would say. Something that dangerous couldn’t be allowed so near to the village, couldn’t be allowed to hurt people. It had to die for the good of every one of his neighbours. Besides, why else had he come there?
A drop of blood made it as far as Paul’s lips, and the taste of it decided him. Bracing himself, he swung the axe back, then brought it forward in a powerful arc. Chips flew as it bit into the birch’s trunk, cutting deep. A sound uncannily like a human scream broke from the tree. It was enough to make Paul take a step back, but only for a second. He swung the axe again, feeling the jarring thud of steel striking wood as the blow landed just below the first.
Instead of a scream this time, the surface of the birch’s bark flowed, bulging outwards. It twisted, knots and grooves in the bark forming lines that were unmistakably those of a face. That alone was enough to make Paul stand open-mouthed, his axe falling from his hands. When the bark continued to twist, forming the shape of a body in the side of the tree, it was all Paul could do to keep from running.
She stepped from the tree onto the grass of the clearing, her face a mask of pain. Even so, she was still more beautiful up close than she had been in Paul’s first glimpse of her. She stood unsteadily for a moment, then fell to her knees.
‘Please, no more.’ Her voice sounded only a little way from tears. It was easy to see why. A pair of long, deep gashes ran down her left leg.
Paul knew what he ought to do, what he had come there to do. He reached down, pulling the knife from his belt. One thrust, and everybody would be safe. It would almost be better for this creature too, he told himself. He should just do it quickly, put it out of its pain.
The forest spirit chose that moment to look up at him. Her eyes were moist with tears, and frighteningly human.
Paul paused, but he still held the knife tightly.
‘You killed people.’
‘They were killing the forest, but I didn’t kill any of them.’
‘You’re lying.’ Paul said the words automatically. Given a choice between believing this thing and believing Orgin, there was only one decision.
The forest spirit shook her head. ‘I scared them. I made the trees rise up against them, and the grass. It was no more than they deserved. Perhaps I should have killed them. All they do is take from the forest, try to control it. And now you... you’ve come to kill me so they can do more of it. I thought you were better than that.’
She started to rise, and Paul pushed her back down, bringing a cry of pain from her.
‘You don’t know me,’ Paul said.
‘I see the people who go into the forest. You’re not like the others, you’re different.’
Paul winced at the words. ‘Maybe I don’t want to be different.’
‘Then do it.’ The forest spirit spread her hands. ‘Kill me.’
Paul’s grip on the knife tightened until his knuckles were white. Part of him wished he could just do it, accept Orgin’s word, kill this creature, and get back to the village for his sister’s wedding. But he couldn’t. With a curse, he threw down the knife and seized the forest spirit by the arm. Drawing out the rope he’d brought, Paul tied her hands behind her.
‘We’re going back to the village.’ He said. ‘Try to run, and I will kill you.’
Their walk back was largely a silent one. Paul had no wish to speak to the spirit, and she seemed too preoccupied with her own pain to do more than put one foot in front of the other. Even that seemed difficult on occasion, and on the second time she fell Paul helped her to her feet.
‘Lean on me.’ He instructed. She did it without a word.
They came to the village after almost half an hour. There were few people about, but the doors to the church were open. They had to be making preparations for the wedding. Paul helped the spirit through the doors, passing under the watchful gazes of the gargoyles carved around it. They’d made it all the way inside before he realised that this was no preparation for the wedding, but the wedding itself. Orgin stood at the altar with Teresa, before Canon Edwin, the local priest. Almost everyone from the village was there, and almost all of them were staring at Paul.
Paul was busy staring at Teresa. She looked beautiful in a wedding dress that must have cost Orgin a fortune, but that wasn’t what he was looking at. He wasn’t even looking at the flowering bruise on her cheek where someone had struck her. Instead, it was her expression that caught him. It had sullen resignation etched on it, an air of helplessness that he had never thought to see from his sister.
Canon Edwin coughed loudly. ‘What is the meaning of this interruption?’ he began, but Orgin waved a hand at him and he fell silent. He stepped away from Teresa, meeting the pair of them where they stood by the doors.
‘Hardly the best timing, Paul,’ he said jovially. ‘As you can see, I’m in the middle of something.’
‘Yes,’ Paul said pointedly, ‘I can see. I can also see how you persuaded my sister.’
Orgin’s eyes flashed. ‘Now Paul, you know it needed doing. Teresa will soon see that this is the best thing for her, but I didn’t have the time to wait around for her to make up her mind. And what about you?’ He looked over at where the forest spirit stood. ‘You were supposed to kill that.’
‘I’ve heard a lot about killing today,’ Paul replied. ‘You told me that loggers had been killed.’
Orgin shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’ He sighed. ‘Paul, the truth is that I told you what you needed to hear. I thought you’d do a better job if you were angry, so yes, I lied.’ He ran a finger across his chain of office. ‘Sometimes a leader has to do unpleasant things, Paul. I have to be strong for everyone. This... thing, is a danger to this community, so I sent you out to deal with it.’
‘And I dealt with it.’
‘Did you? Capturing it isn’t good enough.’ Orgin raised a questioning eyebrow. ‘What are we supposed to do, Paul? Hold it captive? Waste time and resources that this village needs on something that isn’t even human?’
Teresa came marching down the aisle, her dress flowing behind her. Orgin gave her a harsh look.
‘Go back to the altar, dear. I’ll join you in a minute.’
‘Not while you’re acting like this. Can’t you see that the poor thing is hurt?’
‘Go back to the altar.’ Orgin’s tone was harsh enough that Teresa winced. He nodded to a couple of the watching villagers, who took her firmly by the arms, leading her away even though she squirmed. Paul looked around at the others, who sat there passively.
‘They won’t help.’ Orgin said. ‘The thing with most people is that they like being told what to do. Now, Paul, can we put an end to this? You know as well as I do that the only thing to do is to kill this creature. Otherwise, in a month, or two, we’ll be doing the whole thing again. You can understand these things, Paul. Not like the rest of them.’
Paul nodded slowly. ‘You’re right.’
He pushed the forest spirit to her knees, drawing his knife. She looked up at him imploringly.
Paul sighed. ‘I’m not like the rest of them.’ He reached down and cut her bonds.
Orgin shook his head.
‘And what does that achieve? Still, if you won’t work with me...’ He started to motion to the other villagers, but he wasn’t quick enough. The forest spirit pushed to her feet with a brittle smile.
‘You’re the one who leads these people? I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,’ she said, and kissed him.
At first, the strangeness of the action was enough to stop things, but then Orgin recovered. He opened his mouth to instruct the others to deal with them.
No words came out.
Instead, he clawed at his throat, gasping for air. A strange creaking, rushing sound filled the air. As close as he was, Paul could see the moment when Orgin’s fingers began to bulge, green shoots sprouting from them. Twigs poured from his mouth and his clothes tore as he changed, growing.
Beneath him the stone of the church floor cracked as roots wormed their way between them. The transformation was frighteningly swift. Within a minute, all that stood there was a young birch tree, Orgin’s chain of office wrapped around its middle.
Paul stared at the forest spirit. ‘You could have done that to me.’
She shrugged, leaning against him. ‘It only works on weak men.’
The villagers watched silently as Paul helped her up to the altar where his sister waited. He knew none of them would do anything now. Some were already drifting from the church, while others were examining the tree in amazement.
As for Teresa, she was already bending down, tearing a strip off her wedding dress. Paul touched her bruised face as she knelt and started to bind the spirit’s injured leg.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said softly.
She shook her head and laughed. ‘Don’t be sorry. This is about the first time I can remember being proud of you.’
Copyright © 2009 by Stuart Sharp