The mysteries of the forests of our world are endless. We are simultaneously drawn and repelled, I assume by the instinctual architecture of our brains; the portion that tells us to survive. One teacher addressed it as the immediate judgements that we make, before thought intervenes. We ask ourselves, at lightening speed: can I eat it, will it eat me, can I mate with it. These are the brains imperatives to keep the body going.
Our call to forest is in the verdant opportunity. It is wet, full of the possibility of food, and provides shelter. It is also dark and full of things looking for their own meal. Take your choice. No wonder it is also full of magic, how could it not be?
Once, I had the good fortune to stay at an ancient farm and hall in Derbyshire (UK): Highlow Hall, built in the 16th century on land owned by the Eyre family from about 1340-1840, just south west of the village of Hathersage. It is a notably ‘White Lady’ haunted site.
Though I was blissfuly unaware, in the three times I stayed there, of any sense of haunting, two strange occurrences remain with me. One of them was just down the road in the trees surrounding Dunge Brook. The other I will save for another time.
It was not a particular happening, but a strong experience none the less. I am very fond of trees (if you have not guessed), and had agreed to a near moonless walk in the November air with my sweetheart. We took our leave of everyone, happily, and slipped in silence down the road, past pastures of sheep and into the trees. As we walked, holding hands and barely speaking, I was filled with an uncharacteristic dread. I felt that someone was peering at us from the trees and following us.
If I had been in another location on the planet, some other forest, I would have wondered if I was being stalked by a carnivore. This not really being a possibility, any longer, in Derbyshire, I tried to ignore the persistent rising of my hackles. It was when my very solid and unflappable friend turned to me and asked:
“Do you feel like somebody is watching us?”, that I calmly nodded and pulled him with me back to hearth-light and comfort.
The sense I took away from this feeds this story. So here is the Fifth segment.
Part Five: What May Enter Here
Ella was periodically aware of the cold and of the pain in her feet, but the awareness would fade and there was the walking, or the skipping, followed by the dancing to distract her. She smiled until it hurt to smile and still her lips stretched. It pleased her to be laughed at and disturbed her that they barely touched her, even in dance. They were so radiant, so lovely, and she felt their scorn like a brand. In time she stumbled and her knees would not unbend, so she was dragged to the edge of the clearing by her arms, where she folded in on herself like a wilting flower at days end. They left her alone, but she could hear the sounds of their revels and the relentless call to return to them.
A long time passed, it seemed. She was not present when a foot kicked her side; no one responded. Much later she smelled water and her parched body reached out when a still faced servant placed a cup to her lips. She could not be grateful, she had forgotten how. Now, someone small knelt at her side. She glanced at the not-human face, then quickly glanced away to prevent the rising questions. Too much, too much. A soft hand brushed her face and she looked again with a sigh of resignation.
“Can you stand?” it asked.
She pulled her will into a single hot place at her center and pushed her body up by way of answer. The creature grunted approval and helped her stand, though it was a head shorter at least, it was strong. She guessed it to be female from its robes, but she could give this no further thought. Its paw-hand stroked the air around them, pulling light in streams down, around, and over their bodies. ‘Glamour’, Ella thought; a thought that fell like a leaf from her mind. Together they navigated the revelers as a ship in a storm, moving first right then left, holding steady, or still, for moments on end. At last she was pushed over the back of a sturdy small pony, somewhere in the trees. She had ridden as a child and the normalcy, of pulling a leg over and hugging a rough and smelly pony’s neck, felt safe and good. Her savior made another satisfied sound from near the pony’s head, and began to lead them away.
It was slow work, but they did not pause as the dark forest unfolded around them. Ella’s full effort was required to stay awake and seated on the pony, if seated is what you would call her horizontal embrace. Now and then her sweet new friend would make a sound of comfort, to remind her she was not alone. Ella did not cry tears, but a soft moan would, occasionally, leak from her like blood and lymph from a shallow wound.
At last another’s strong arms, someone much larger than her savior friend, carried her to a low bed in a room warmed and lit by fire. An old woman, who looked, or somehow smelled familiar, tipped a cup to her mouth. She did not want it, but the drink went down warm and strong anyway, taking her away, far away from dreams and pain. She slept.
Todd arrived when the fire was down to coals, thrusting through the doorway at a run; he fell to his knees, his face a mask of fear. Behind him followed the old woman; tall, controlled, arms folded within her long sleeves. Only the depths of her eyes echoed his disruption.
“She sleeps Todd, she lives.”
“Am I to be comforted by that?” He leaned in to gather up Ella’s hand in his, not looking once to the woman behind him.
“Don’t discount it.” Her tone was harsh. So was his.
After some time he turned his head and met her eye. “Piece by piece they destroy us? Who is next, Lady? Your grandson? Your self? Your consort is weak and can not come to your aid.”
“You may not judge him!” This had struck a nerve, but Todd sought truth here, not advantage.
“He is not wrong,” came a husky voice from the doorway. The woman spun to face the speaker with a sound of frustration. Todd shook his head, then gently releasing Ella’s hand, stood to face the door as well.
He was half a head taller than his wife, gaunt, in robes cut for a younger, fuller, figure. He moved forward slowly, a rune-incised stick tapping the floor beside him: once a seal of his power, now a support for each uncertain step.
“We must not act too soon, this I know. We must bring an absolute end, not a temporary one.” She spoke to them both, ignoring what had been said and could not be unsaid.
“They see us as weak and take whatever they wish.” Weak he might be, but his mind was clear and his assessment sharp
“Unplanned furry will destroy our advantage. They are counting on that. Do you think this was an arbitrary act of hatred? They watch you, Todd. They know you. They fear us and wish to undermine our power, as you say, piece by piece! You think I did not wish revenge, Todd!?”
Todd dropped his head at this, moving his gaze back to Ella. Then he shook it. “No Lady,” the sound of him, now resigned, “I do not think that. I cannot see your plan or understand your mind. Guide me, if you wish to advert mayhem. My last reason for anything else lies here before me and I can not even assess the damage done to her.”
“She lives, Todd. She is strong, and I believe she is far more powerful than any of us know. What human has made this journey, walked this path, and still lived?”
Todd nodded, his face porcelain, but calmer. “Where is Culley?” He asked softly.
“His teacher is fetching him. She was the one to find your Ella and bring her to us.”
“Then I owe her much.”
“And yourself, Lady. I thank you.” He swiveled now to meet her eyes and confirm his sincerity.
“I wish us to unite for the power it will bring.” It was explanation and question at once. Todd could not remember a time when this woman ever pleaded for anything. He paused to consider what imperative this foretold.
“I gave liegence to your grandson. You must know that.”
“I do. And I thank you Dain-friend. I honor your council and your goodness.” These words were new too. Todd looked to the Consort who smiled vaguely and shifted a shoulder as if adjusting his robes. This was followed by long silence in which a coal cracked and fell. A soft sound from the bed brought them all to attention.
“Todd?” Her voice a whisper, she touched his leg with a fingertip. Todd dropped to his knees beside her again and cradled her bruised cheek tenderly. She sighed and closed her eyes. From where he knelt he could see her ravaged feet, salved but left uncovered and unwrapped in their rawness. An explosive heat rolled through him. The old couple drew closer, leaning against each other. From beyond the room, a heavy door fell closed and the sound of running feet grew near.
“Mama!” Culley moved from the doorway to his mother’s side like a wind, brushing the others away. Todd shifted and stood; Ella barely opened her eyes, but watched her son with alertness.
Culley’s teacher followed, crouched next to Cully and took Ella’s hand. “She is brave and strong, boy. We are proud of her.”
In another swift movement, Culley stood and pressed his crumpled face against Todd’s shirt, wrapping his arms around him hard. Sobs broke and fractured them all. They moved as a group, one shuffled step in closer. Todd wrapped his arms around the boy, thinking ‘Dain-son, heart-child’, and lastly, ‘clan-weave’.
The light in the room shifted, the fire seemed to have faded. The old man laid a hand on Todd’s shoulder, the other arm around the woman at his side; she, no longer Regent as much as wife, mother, and grandmother, reached down to take the knowledge-weavers free hand. Gently as a breeze, Ella slipped her other hand out to wrap Todd’s ankle.
Tendrils of light woke from the air, weaving, rising, connecting the raw intention, the clear knowing of something so ancient and so powerful it had no name. Todd breathed it in like salvation, in red gold, coppery strands. Culley looked up at him, open mouthed in wonder as the group morphed in a slow melting shimmer, vibrated and then reset, as if untouched.
The no longer old couple stood back with a gasp, fey youth, which deep sorrow had drained away, was restored. Culley stood inches taller, and his teacher, though seemingly unaffected, crinkled a smile of knowing on her eldritch face. Best of all was Ella, rising up on her elbow to smile at Todd and shake her head with her own wonder.
“Yes!” Their Queen shimmered in her power. “I knew there was something I could not grasp about you Todd.”
“And what is that, My Lady?” his voice weak in the aftermath of the power that had shifted his world.
“You wield love like a sword.” Her voice shook in awe and tendered a charming sweetness.
Her consort chuckled to himself. “We must not let them see”, he told them grinning, in the voice of a delighted child.
“Yes, a glamour!” The Queen swiped the air with a complex and powerful gesture, returning them all to their former appearance. “Return to your rooms, we will gather in the morning.” Her smile was beatific.
The Consort tapped his way to the door, a bit more quickly than he had entered, stopped at the room edge and leapt into the air, clicking his heals together. Tossing a grin over his shoulder, he departed, his tapping sounding down the hallway. The other three left behind him, arms linked.
Alone at last, Todd examined Ella at length (her whole length, should it be told) and found nothing amiss: bruises healed and delicate feet, smooth.
“I am so sorry for this.” He told her at last, as the fire flared to new wood laid across the coals.
She looked at him with her head tilted. A speculative look, which he knew from watching her art making. She would consider the materials with a slightly open mouth, as if listening for their own inclinations. It made him feel, somehow, ready for her touch, willing to be remade into anything of her choosing.
“Let us set sorrow aside, for now Todd.” She smoothed his hair from his brow, causing a shimmer of light in the room that neither noticed. “In this moment there is only one thing, and I refuse to turn away from it.”
No more words were needed.