Woman of the Forest
Summary: "They never knew quite what she was, a human gone wild or a faeren queen, a woodland sprite or the Devil in disguise. But, as is most often the case with the race of men, ignorance led to fear and fear to hatred. And, as any good child of man knows, that which is hated and feared must be destroyed."
Warnings: My usual brand of questionable theology; no likey, no ready
A/N: Am looking for advice on the way I've written the ending. Please tell me whether you a) like it that way or b) think I shoudl change it, and please elaborate. Beta-ed by my good pal Celebriel.
But let me begin at the beginning, which is always the best place to start anything. My name is Timothy Tamworthy, a citizen of Oakhampton for all my years, which number five and thirty when my tale begins. Oakhampton is a farming town, with around one hundred human inhabitants and twice again that many cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs. The town has always been self-sufficient, but the occasional passerby has always been welcome into one home or another.
The only thing that made Oakhampton different from countless other farming villages was the Forest. The Forest, which no one had the courage to name anything else, was the northern barrier of Oakhampton. The road that passed through Oakhampton from the south went into the Forest, too, but no one from Oakhampton had ever followed the road through the Forest. No one, that is, except for me.
I was the town wood and iron worker, the maker of cabinets and plow handles, barrels and crates, carts and baby’s cradles. I gathered wood from the Forest myself, traveled to the next village through the Forest to get any metal the blacksmith and I needed, and was paid in simple foodstuffs I could cook for myself.
Not that I had to very often. With a successful business, I was one of the most “eligible bachelors” in the village. There was often a cooked meal and a coquettish smiling waiting for me when I entered the kitchen every night.
This was made worse by the fact that many of the young women in Oakhampton found me attractive. My hair is the color of raven feathers and falls in a ponytail to my shoulder blades and my eyes are the gray of a stormy sea, differing greatly from the blue and brown eyes and blonde and brown manes of the other men of Oakhampton. My pale skin never burned or tanned in the sun, another quality that set me apart. And, most different of all, my long hair hid my pointed ears.
Yes, my ears are pointed. My birth mother came to Oakhampton just before I was born and gave birth to me and died the same night. My birth father’s identity is a mystery, as are any details about my mother’s past. I was adopted by the midwife and spent the first five and twenty years of my life with a hat covering my ears, which have always been a danger to me.
For the people of Oakhampton fear that which cannot be explained, including, of course, my ears. Which is why the woman of the Forest was in so much danger.
The first time I saw her was in the summer. It was just before dusk. I was heading back to my cottage when she stepped furtively into the clearing. Her hair was the color of sunbeams. She wore a flowing dress that was the dappled green of leaf shade. Her hair and dress were blown back in a light breeze that only she could feel. Her eyes were golden and almond-shaped and I could see that her ears were pointed like mine. She glanced at me in greeting before flitting back into the trees and disappearing.
I did not find this unusual at the time. I have often found that strange creatures feel drawn to me; I guess it has something to do with my mysterious ancestry. Little faeries and pixies sing to me while I work in the Forest or my workshop, and the little elves and brownies will sometimes pick up around the house for me in exchange for sweet cakes to eat and the little piles of wood shavings in my workshop as beds. I once saw a unicorn in the Forest, who bowed to me as if I were a king before galloping away.
The only problem with this attention is that other people could see my visitors if they did not hide fast enough. The brownies were the best at hiding, by rolling into corners and pretending to be potatoes. But the elves and faeries were caught occasionally, so I often had to spend five or ten minutes convincing whoever had seen them that they had not actually seen anything other than dust on the wind or a trick of the light. The lucky thing was that they always seemed to want to be convinced that the unknown creature hadn’t actually been there, so I never had much trouble.
I began seeing the woman every day after that first time, usually as I was leaving the Forest every evening. As the seasons changed, her appearance changed, too. In the fall, her hair changed to a reddish brown that reminded me of autumn leaves, her dress to the brown of the baring trees, and her eyes to a similar shade of brown as her dress. When the snows began to fall, her appearance changed overnight to white hair and dress the color of fresh-fallen snow and her eyes were the black of a wintertime starless night sky. As spring came around again and the snow melted as the ground thawed, she changed again. Her hair was a strange greenish brown that was very much like the color of new branches. Her dress was the gray-green of new buds and her eyes were the emerald green of new grass.
As the year passed she also spent more time with me, greeting me as I entered the Forest and staying with me until I left at dusk. I found her presence comforting and she was the closest to a real friend I had ever had, though she never spoke. I didn’t even consider the danger the night she followed me back to my cottage after I finished work. Too late I remembered that there was probably someone in the cottage and Sara, one of the young women from the village, opened the door just as we approached it. There was nowhere for the forest woman to hide so she froze as the light from the kitchen poured out and lit her perfectly in a way the dying sunlight could not.
She looked once into my eyes, a look I could not decipher and ran, back into the Forest from where she had come. I wanted to turn and run after her, but I could not, since I would have to persuade Sara that the woman had never been there. But Sara had seen too much. Her eyes were wide and she barely paused to pick up a lantern before running out of the house and up to the village, where she would run first to her parents and then to the priest. Then all Hell would break loose.
The rest happened far too fast. From the darkened windows of my cottage, I saw a group of men from the village run into the Forest with torches, searching for her. I still don’t know how they found her. But I watched them drag her back to the village square not an hour later. I knew that following them wouldn’t help her, so I waited for the dawn, pacing back and forth all night until a knock on the door and the first light at my window heralded the return of the mob. They dragged me down to the village square, too, muttering something about me being a witness and that I had to talk to the priest.
They had her tied to a stake, like a heretic, in the center of the square. It was horrible; a noble creature like her, whatever she was, should run free, not be tied like a disobedient dog. She looked once at me, and I knew that she wanted me to save myself and forget that I had ever known her. I gave a tiny nod that my captors missed but she did not. I knew that everything was not going to be alright, but she seemed resigned to her fate and I knew that she did not want me to die with her.
A dais had been set up, on which was standing Sara, her brother James, who had led the hunt, and the priest. He wore his normal brown robes, but he had traded his simple wooden “eye of the Great One” for an elaborate wrought-iron one. One that I had made for him. His eyes shown with purpose below the fringe of his tonsure. The friendly expression was gone from his face, replaced by a look of badly concealed fear that was echoed by the faces of most of the village.
First he asked Sara about what she had seen and James what he had caught. Then the priest turned his sweating face and fervent eyes to me. He asked if I had ever seen the woman before. All eyes were on me. Clasping my hands behind my back to hide my crossed fingers I answered. My resounding “No” filled the silence, sounding guilty and traitorous to my ears.
No one else heard this, though. The priest smiled and turned to the woman tied to the stake. She stood tall and proud, as if none of this mattered to her. The priest called her the Dark One’s harlot and a strumpet of the Beast. She stared him down but did not answer. I wanted to cry out, but could not. The priest threw a bucket of holy water at her and when she did not melt or cry out, he removed his “eye” and touched it to her chest.
As I had suspected, nothing happened. The priest, at a loss for what to do, said that an iron cage must be made to hold her. The job fell to me. Since my innocence was proved by a single word, I was left alone to make it. I made the iron cage but lined the insides of the bars with wood. The brownies mixed a black dye for me that made the wood blend perfectly into the iron, but the strips of wood served their purpose. When she was place in the cage, the iron did not hurt her. A small triumph, but all I could do without giving myself away. I still regret that I could do no more.
She wasted away without her woods around her. Her hair, eyes, and dress changed slowly to a cloudy gray and she began to look even more frail and ephemeral than ever, but this time unhealthily so. I think that the wood I lined her cage with slowed down the process, but nothing could stop it. In just over two months she didn’t move at all, but rather sat in the center of the cage with silvery tears coursing down her face. Little plants grew at her feet, but they always died before long. It was painful to watch, even for those that feared her.
And then one day she was gone. All that was left of her was the beautiful dress, now turned the black of a burned tree, and a pile of similarly black ash. I was able to persuade the priest to let me take the cage back and use the iron for barrel hoops, so I was able to spirit away the ash and dress. I took the dress and placed it under a hidden panel in the bottom of one of my trunks. The ashes I took to the Forest in a small box made of the wood strips that had lined the cage. Going to the clearing where the woman and I had stayed the most, I opened the box, letting the ashes be taken up by the wind and blown away.
I hid the box with the dress in my trunk and began to pack my things. I can not stay here anymore; I can not live in a place where the people destroy that which they do not recognize or understand. The brownies are helping me pack, enchanting the trunk so it fit more than what it appeared to be able to. I am taking only some clothes, my tools, the woman’s dress, the little black-stained box, and the red woolen cap I had to wear before I learned to cover my ears. Then I will down to write this chronicle.
This is my story, of the death of a beautiful, harmless creature at the hands of ignorance and fear. I know that the Forest will soon die, its protecting spirit and very soul gone. Too bad it was never named.
Maybe I’ll try to find my father now, or a place where I really fit in. Somewhere that is not ruled by fear, where the people are willing to learn. I don’t know if this place actually exists, but I have nothing else to do now. I cannot stay here. There is nothing for me here but guilt and old memories, and hidden unacknowledged hostility waiting for its time in the sun, when it can take control of those too weak, ignorant, and afraid to fight it. I must continue on until I find somewhere better, somewhere I can live free, with my brownies, fairies, and elves, with my ears uncovered and open to the sun.
So fare thee well, you who reads my chronicle. May you learn a lesson from the faults I have revealed. May this never happen again.