The man who carried forests in his heart stood where the trees gave way to grass and sunlight. From out of the failing shadows, he peered at the cottages in the glade. A mist of memories swirled about him, whispering that this place was once his home.
He could not remember what the hamlet was called; he could not even find his own name among his muddled thoughts. Like the briars tangled in his hair, identities were scattered in his mind. Husband. Father. Woodwarden. But they seemed distant and dim. He knew only this: when he had entered the forest, he did so in service to another, one who ruled the destinies of many. But deep within the oak and fir, he had lost his way, and something else had claimed him.
It seemed an age since the moss had seized his leather and steel, and the forest shades had crept into his clothing. His brown skin had deepened to sooty black, like the soil that had devoured his boots. Now his feet were calloused and caked in mud. Musty leaf mold and sweet resin drifted with him on the wind.
The same wind brushed the wooden chimes hanging from a cottage porch. They rattled with the breeze, an empty sound, but it quickly filled with bell-like laughter as three children dashed by. The sounds were familiar, but they echoed beyond a thin veil he could not pass.
The young ones shrieked in delight as a dark-haired woman chased them playfully. Their faces appeared bent and blurred, as if draped in ribbons of water, but he recognized each one. They were older than he remembered, though still as beautiful, with tawny complexions and raven-feather hair–the same as their mother’s. He recalled lying with her in the sun long ago, that hair spilling through his hands with the texture of a summer breeze. His cheeks ached as they fought the strange impulse to smile, and he relished the mix of pleasure and pain. The veil began to fall away.
A deep chuckle joined the chorus of laughs. A man, long-limbed and strong, stepped out of the cottage with a woodsman’s axe on his shoulder. The children rushed to him, and he gathered them with his free arm, giving each a tender kiss on the forehead. The woman watched, smiling.
A sense of intrusion gripped the man in the shadows, and he scowled. Something precious had been taken from him, and he strode out of the woods to reclaim it. But a voice, soft and feminine, stayed his step.
The words hung in the air behind him like the damp of the deep woods. All around, tree roots creaked as they stretched into the earth. A cluster of white flowers blossomed in a flurry and moss spread like spilled water. In a nearby nest, a sparrow’s new eggs hatched and her children burst forth into flight.
He turned to face his mistress, Lady of Leaves and Thistle Queen; Weald Maiden to the folk who lived along the borders of the forest.
She stood before him with skin of loam and hair like strands of hanging moss. Her jade eyes nearly slew him with guilt as she moved closer with the epic creep of the forest. “Why do you leave me when I need you most?” The sorrow in her voice seemed beyond measure. “Look…”
She gestured toward the lands beyond the wood, where the forest had once grown lush and green. Now, a swath of rotting stumps like a graveyard stretched from the mountains to the valley. The trees had receded far up the slopes of the foothills, cowering from the axes that had taken their kindred.
The great woods were all that remained of the earth as it was before men learned to burn and build, and the man who carried forests in his heart grieved for the fallen wilderness. Still, he could not tear his thoughts from the dark-haired woman and the laughing children. They were… family. The word came back to him, wrapped in staggering joy and sadness.
He turned away from the Weald Maiden, but she grasped his hand and pulled him back. He reached for his wife and children, straining as he let out a feral roar. But she would not release him, and he struggled in vain. His cries turned weak and desperate, like a cornered beast, and tears escaped his eyes. “How long have you bewitched me, lady?”
She pressed her body against him. “How long have I helped you to see?”
Her kiss calmed him while arousing long dead sensations. He tasted honey and wild berries, smelled pollen and blossoms and rebirth. The ecstasy and exhaustion left him shivering.
He knew in his bones that this had all gone before, that he had failed time and again to remember what he must and return to the glade.
And he knew his final chance had slipped away.
Deep within, where the forests entwined and choked his passions, a faltering love yielded at last to brambles and yew. Now there was only his mistress, and his only desire was to keep her from harm.
The Weald Maiden breathed in his ear. “Protect me.” He nodded, and from his belt he drew a knife carved from obsidian of rarest green, like sunlight shining through a birch leaf.
In the glade, the woodsman waved to his family and headed to the hills, his axe in hand. The man who carried forests in his heart gripped his glass blade and followed.
Nicholas (Nik) Ian Hawkins‘ fantasy fiction has appeared in FLASHSHOT and is forthcoming in Magic & Mechanica (Ricasso Press, 2008) and Return of the Sword (Flashing Swords Press, 2008). He welcomes visitors at http://nihawkins.wordpress.com.