Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Romance of Perilous Land fiction: The Seedling

 


Anna had never been allowed in the woods without her father, a woodsman. He knew all too well of what lurked in the dark of the Wytchwood. Still, fires needed lighting and houses needed building so it was an occupational hazard for her father, a broad shouldered man with a full grey moustache. He'd taught her about the mushrooms, which ones were good to eat and which would bear your soul to the underworld. He'd explained how to track animals and how to create shelters if she became lost. Her father had also told her stories of the blackhearted witch of the wood, the one who ate little girls and ground their bones to make bonebread. 


Anna froze at the sound of a snapping twig echoing in th crisp November air. To her relief it was her own boot that caused the noise and with a sigh the child continued deeper into the wood. Mortimer had said that the golden ash wasn't too far, that she wouldn't have to go beyond the stream. But the more time passed the less sure of where she was. Her father had told her that moss grows on the north side of the tree, but the trees here were completely enveloped in a jacket of green. Finding the golden ash would be worth it, Anna thought, though she wasn't sure how convinced she was of that. Mortimer said that a single leaf from that sacred tree could fetch a handsome price, enough to pay the local cunning woman for her services. She saw the pale image of her father in her mind, his face ashen and eyes sunken. He'd deteriorated over the last two months, becoming weaker by the day until he could no longer swing an axe to ply his trade. 


Something rustled the leaves not a hundred yards away. Anna found a thick stick and weilded it like a blade, pretending she was Guinevere on a quest. Something was moving closer, she could hear the crunching getting louder. Then she saw it, a monstrous grey wolf, its face contorted into a vicious snarl. The girl's heart was close to bursting from her chest the way it was beating. Another noise came from behind. Anne wheeled around, grasping her sword stick until her knuckles turned white. Two more wolves emerged from the undergrowth, bearing their dreaded fangs. "Come no closer," she commanded, her little voice wavering. The beasts circled her and she knew it was only a matter of moments before they pounced and ripped her body to shreds. She pictured her father wasting away in his bed, alone and helpless. She reprised her grip on her stick, "I'll give you a bloody good thrashing if you come any closer," she threatened. Ignoring her pleas the largest wolf darted forward with a sound like tearing sheet metal. Anna drooped her rudimentary weapon and covered her eyes, hoping her death would be swift. But her death never came. 


Removing her hands from her face she looked around to see the three wolves sitting like obedient hounds, their heads cocked. One yawned before resting its chin on the ground placidly. Anna could feel a presence with her, standing right behind her. Slowly she turned her head to see a tall woman clad in a dark green dress, vines wrapped around her arms and shoulders. Her hair was wild and knotted but her dark face was pristine. She seemed at once as young as the spring and as ancient as the oak.

  "You're a little young to be out here on your own," she said with a lilting cadence, "What brings you here?" 

  "My pa," Anna stuttered nervously, "He's sick." She cleared her throat, "Who are you?" The stranger knelt so her eyes met Anna's.

  "You're a brave one aren't you?" She asked, ignoring the question. "This world needs women of courage like you, women who are willing to fight against the wolves at our door." Anna had no idea what she meant by that, but her voice was comforting. "Your pa, what are his symptoms?" The woman asked with a concerned frown. 

  "He's always shivering. His eyes are practically black and his skin is ever so pale," Anna said. She noticed that even the wolves were hanging onto this woodland stranger's every word. How did she do that?

  "It sounds like blight fever," the woman said, "It's difficult to treat, but it is curable." Anna's eyes lit up. 

  "Can you help him?" She asked in a mouse like voice. The woman smiled warmly.

  "I can, my child. But I must first create a draught," she stood, appearing even taller than she was before. "Meet me at the edge of the wood at dawn. I'll have the cure for your pa." Anna finally had hope, but she was still lost.

  "How do I get out?" She asked. The stranger uttered a few incomprehensible words and the large wolf padded forward. Anna's instinct was to lurch backwards, but she realised the creature wasn't going to hurt her. 

  "Calibar will take you to the forest's edge," the stranger said softly. "Don't worry, he's a friend. Go now." 


Calibar and Anna emerged from the ancient woodland into the cloud-veiled twilight. To her surprise, Anna realised that she wasn't afraid while travelling with her new companion. It was as if she'd known him for years. After thanking her escort, she made her way home as rain began to spatter. 


 When the frosty sun rose over the forest Anna was already well on her way to her meeting place. True to her word the tall stranger, wrapped in autumn golds and browns, waited by a yew. "Good morning my young friend," the woman said with a smile. "I have a gift for you. She reached out clutching an emerald vial sloshing with a dark liquid. "Two drops at sunrise and two when the stars reveal themselves. It should take three days to take effect," she folded the vial into Anna's hands. 

 "Who are you?" The young girl asked, slipping the concoction into a pocket.

 "My name is Morgan, and you are Anna," she replied. Anna was slightly taken aback. How did she know her name? "Don't worry, I've been around for long enough that not much gets by me," Morgan winked. 

 "Can you teach me how to make potions?" Anna asked bashfully. Morgan crouched to look into her eyes. 

 "I will teach you potions and more. The world is changing, Anna. Strong girls like you will need to learn all the skills they can to weather the coming storm." Anna furrowed her brow, wondering what storm Morgan was talking about. "Once your father is better, come here each dusk and I will help you fulfill your potential." Morgan placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, "Today we become sisters, Anna."

***