4.3 – The wood maiden

Krrrrshkrlffff. Brittle fell with a thump onto the ground. Groaning, she tried to stand, but had to give up. Her body felt strange, as if it didn’t belong to her, as if she were another species entirely. Brittle tried opening her eyes, but they were stuck, as if glued together. Her lips too. Slowly and painstakingly, she managed to move her hand towards her mouth, forcing them open and wetting her fingers with saliva before wiping the sticky substance from her right eye. Opening it, she saw that the ground underneath her was thick with red leaves, and that her skin was covered with dark, almost blood-coloured sap.

„Sit, Brittle. Up you go“ she said to herself, her voice croaky and unfamiliar. But, yes. Brittle. That was her name. With a gargantuan effort she pushed herself up from the ground and tried to lean against the trunk behind her. But something was in the way. Feeling her back with her hand, she noticed that something was attached to her skin, to her spine, at three separate points. Like three long tubes sticking out of her back. When her mind caught up with the reality felt by her hand, a sense of deep horror overwhelmed her. With a shriek, Brittle threw herself forward and ran a few stumbling steps before stopping short.

Looking back over her shoulder, she could see three green, flexible branches, looking like they belonged to a sapling, connecting her to the trunk of the grey giant she had just asked for help. Or was ’just’ the right word? When mother had chased her, the forest had been in the warm embrace of summer, but now, most of the tree’s crown was bare and the leaves that remained had lost their green tint. Trembling, she looked down at her own body. She was naked, not a single thread of her flax and wicker dress to be seen. And she was taller than before, her proportions were different than they had been mere moments ago. Still shaking, she started to cry and laugh simultaneously. „What…what did you do?“ she asked the tree. „I didn’t ask for…“

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„I…“ She began tugging at her unwelcome outgrowths. „Let me go!“ Skhrllsh. And just like that, the three branches disconnected from the tree and dropped to the ground, hanging from her back like three misplaced tails. Her mind reeling with confusion, she started to walk towards home.

The forest’s leaves were bleeding. Time had passed. At least a season. She tried not to think about it. Just keep walking. Closer to the settlement. Closer to what was known. After a while, she saw a small group of children sitting on the path, playing some sort of game with fallen pine cones. Brittle counted four of them, but she couldn’t recognize a single face. Maybe they were visitors from one of the other holds, from the lines of Breaker or Breem?

„Hello!“ she shouted, calmly approaching them. Upon seeing her, three of the children squealed and ran away. The one that remained regarded her curiously, quickly picking up a stick in case it would prove necessary. Brittle stopped, realizing how strange a sight she must be for the little one. „Hello. I’m Brittle, daughter of Briar. Who are you?“ „I’m Brook, daughter of Breeze“ quipped the girl. „Why do you look like that?“ „I….I was inside a tree“. „Oh“ said Brook. She was a tiny thing, probably no more than four or five years of age. „You should wash your face“. „Yes“ smiled Brittle, „Yes, you are right. That would be nice“. Little Brook took her by the hand and started skipping along beside her, singing:

Little do you know, my darling
rivers run dry and trees will fall
Little do you know, my darling
life seems long when you are small

A bit further along the path, a small group of people came walking towards them. Hopefully someone she knew, like Brail or Brae. But no. Three men. One woman. The three remaining children. And not a single familiar face.

„Away from her, Brook!“ shouted one of the men, young, with a handsome but scowling face. He wore a patchwork feather cloak. „You know what we talked about. There are many strangers in the woods these days“. „She’s not a stranger, Brute!“ retorted tiny Brook. „She’s Brittle, daughter of Briar!“ „Of Briar!?“ snorted the man whose name seemed to be Brute. „Old Bone Hag Briar? Don’t be foolish. That sad horror drew her last breath when I was a twig, and she was older than a stone when we burned her worn bones. Any daughter of hers would be the age of my grandmother“ Brittle gasped. Part of her had suspected this, of course, but she had tried to keep it at bay. She sank to her knees and curled her back, trying to curve in on herself. How much time had really passed? How old was she? Her hands looked young. Her body too. But…

„Look! Her back!!“ shouted the woman. „It’s a wood maiden!“ cried one of the men. „Come here, Brook!“ roared Brute, a hint of fear creeping into his voice. „She will steal you away and put you in a tree forever!“ Suddenly alert, Brook jumped to the side and held out her stick for protection. „You said…you said you had been inside a tree“ „I did“ said Brittle, feeling older than the roots of the world. „Go to them, Brook. Go to your kin. I don’t belong here. Not anymore.“ Brook ran. Brittle got up. And a stone glanced her cheek.

„Monster!“ „Go back to your tree!“ „Leave us be!“ The stones flew around her. Her eyes stinging with tears and her face flashing with pain, Brittle stumbled off into the woods. There was nowhere else to go. Like it or not, the tree was the only being left alive that knew her. She had asked it to hide her and it had, until long after her mother’s ashes had been carried away to all the corners of the real.

Night had fallen when she returned. It struck her that she did not feel cold, as if she was wearing furs. Her blood felt warm, and her heart, the rhythm of its beat was strangely slow. Looking up at the tree, she asked, bitter sap dripping from her voice:

„Is that what this is? Did you make me into a creature from nighttime stories told to frightened pips? And why spit me out now? Ages after mother passed?“ She sniffled and touched the trunk tenderly. „Just…take me back. Please. I have no place out here.“ It was as if the bark hardened under her palm in response. „No?!“ She snapped like a piece of dry firewood and started hammering the tree with her fists, shouting „It’s not fair! It’s not fair! Why was I even born?!!!!“ Exhausted, she dropped to the ground, sitting with her side against the tree. The sky was brimming with stars. At least they, too, were the same as before. The moon was also comfortingly familiar. But why the red sheen? And before her eyes, the moon birthed a twin, dividing from its brother like a blood-coloured shadow.

Red streaks of light like the interconnected parts of a spider’s web spread from the blood moon to all the stars in the sky, spread to the world below. Red lines of soft brilliance were all around her, streaming from the trees towards the sky, in between the trees themselves, and down into the ground. She could see the currents of their roots below as if the thickly packed earth was not there at all. And she herself was incandescent, her heart a blooming flower of luminescent crimson, its slow and meticulous beats a mirror to the newborn moon above, which, unlike its static twin, throbbed in tandem with the ebb and flow of her blood.

„Is this how you see the world?“ she whispered, paralyzed by awe. One of the branches gave a slight shudder, and a small waterfall of dying leaves rained over her, their passing feeling like a thousand caresses on her still sap-smeared skin.

„It is like seeing Love“.

A star shot across the heavens, sending ripples of joy through the web of light, reverberating even in the shining altar that was her Deepheart.

„It is like being Love“.

Raising herself up, she lifted her hands to the sky, all her dark feelings gone like the dew of the morning when the dawnfire sparrow sings. All that was left was gratitude. A memory, both from this morning and from years ago, flashed through her mind.

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„You saved me. You did.“ she said, looking at the tree in all its sanguine glory. „And I stand by my promise. What do you want in return?“ The response came from a surprising source. Herself. She felt a pull from her uppermost wood tail, the one close to her neck. She spun it around (and was mildly surprised that she, in fact, could control it like any other limb) bringing its tip close to her face.

As she did, she noticed the bud that in the very next moment burst into a wondrous flower, its scent overwhelming her senses. Quickened by the light of the blood moon, the flower wilted almost immediately, transforming into a glorious, succulent fruit that grew until it touched her lips, egging her to bite it. She did. And couldn’t stop herself from devouring all of it. In truth, she hadn’t eaten for years. The next thing she knew, her stomach started to rumble something fierce. She had to crouch down and with a heave and a grunt she left her droppings on the ground. They smelled weirdly wonderful. In their midst was a tiny seed, a red and gold nugget of impossibility hidden in the muck.

And without further ado, it all sank into the earth, as the blood moon hid behind its twin once more, the stars they donned a night cloud cloak, and rain began to fall.

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