Quimby the woodcutter met his mysterious bride one afternoon in early spring, just as he was about to put his axe to the bole of a tall, black poplar. The tree grew alone in a glade near a stream.
“Not that tree.” She had slipped like a faun into the glade.
He checked his swing and lowered the axe-head to the ground. Leaning on the long handle, he admired the visitor.
She wore a green jerkin that covered little. She was short and athletically built. Tawny freckles were sprinkled liberally over her smooth skin. Her long hair was the color of flame, a deeper red than his own.
“Why shan’t I cut down this tree?”
“That is a gateway tree. If you fell it, it will draw you through, never to return.”
He raised a bushy eyebrow. “Draw me through to where?”
“Wild Wood, the shadow wood of the Fey. You are mortal. You could not come back.”
He seemed to contemplate this, stroking his thick beard. “Well, there aren’t too many who would miss me. My parents are buried, and I have never taken a mate. Is there good mead in the Wild Wood?”
She smiled. “There are draughts there the likes of which man has never tasted.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Can you imagine drinking the first warm rays of a spring morning?” She drew nearer to him, lithe and graceful as a stalking cat. “Or the first chill of an autumn evening, right before you climb beneath warm blankets with a lover?”
“I reckon I’d already have to be well into my cups to imagine any of that. Are you a bard? You like your metaphor more than I like my mead.”
“My name is Embla.”
And so they conversed, until dusk fell and he returned alone to his cottage.
The next day he went back to the glade, and again she was there. Thereafter he visited her often, and by the full heat of summer he was passionately in love. In the autumn of that same year, he took her before the village priest.
But he had never told anyone from whence she had come, and on the day of the wedding there were many villagers leery of the whole affair. They were suspicious of her accent, and there were grumblings that she came from the North, an abandoned Viking wench. Some whispered that she was a witch. And there was one who hinted that she was not human at all.
When the priest asked if there were any present who might object to the union, three men stepped forth. Their leader was a hunter named Bernard, who revealed that he had spied on Embla and discovered her secret: she was indeed from the North, but she was no Saxon. She was a hulder, a young female troll. He claimed to have seen her tail.
Quimby fought two of them off with his bare hands, but others, wanting to see with their own eyes if it be true, took up the chase and drove Embla into the woods. She was nimble and clever, but Bernard was accustomed to tracking prey, and she could not shake the small band of men he led.
She ran for hours, weaving up rocky paths and down deep gulleys, ignoring the thorns that sliced her legs as she tried to shake her pursuers. She crouched by a stream, drinking as fast as she could. She jumped up when she once again heard her pursuers calling her name, and sprinted deeper into the woods.
She scrambled to the crest of a hill and froze. A hulking silhouette stood beneath a yew tree.
He stepped into the light of the setting sun, his axe balanced on one broad shoulder.
“What, Quimby, do you intend to do with that axe?”
He grunted and strode toward her. She stood her ground.
Her head was level with the red chest hairs that curled out between the leather straps of his tunic.
She lifted her gaze up to his hazel eyes. “Are you going to chop off my tail? Or my head?”
His free arm reached out, and he clasped her small fingers in his own calloused hand. “I’ve become rather fond of both. Come this way.”
As they scrambled through the deep woods, their destination soon became clear: he was taking her back to the place where they first met.
When they reached the glade, Quimby let go her hand and took the axe from his shoulder, hoisting it in his firm grip.
She gasped as he hefted the axe. “You must not — I have told you what will happen!”
He grunted. “Let them follow us into the Wild Wood.”
Her fingers wrapped around his bulging arm, ineffectually tugging him back. “You will never be able to return!”
He shook her off. “We’ll lift a cup to our nuptials in the Wild Wood! I’m eager to know what it tastes like to drink the first chill of winter, the first rays of spring.”
The pursuers heard the sound of wood-chopping afar off. But when they reached the glade, all they found was a felled black poplar. Two sets of tracks — large boot soles and dainty bare feet — were seen all around the stump, but no trail could be found leaving the glade. Quimby and his bride were never seen again.
Nicholas Ozment teaches English at Winona State University. His stories and poems continue to appear in numerous magazines, book anthologies, and online zines. He is a co-editor of Every Day Fiction’s sister publication, Every Day Poets.