The Tree Wife
By Michele Korri
The hut’s gloomy interior was bathed in stark white light, and in the space of a breath, an earsplitting crack resounded. Mae covered her ears and shut her eyes. The lightning’s brilliance danced as spots inside her eyelids. When she opened them again, the small fire burning inside its circle of stones cast a warm, comforting glow.
A spatter of rain wet her cheek, and she sat back on her heels and looked up through the fire’s vent hole in the roof. Another flash showed her that the rain was falling as hard as ever, being driven sideways by the wind.
The fierce rainstorm brought back memories of an important night five winters ago, and her glance shifted to the sleeping mat of roughly woven fabric stuffed with dried sweet grass that lay in one corner. In her mind’s eye came an image of the old tree wife lying there, her wrinkled features contorted with pain, her thin chest rising and falling as she struggled for each breath. Her skin had felt dry and cool when Mae cradled her snow-white head and rocked her. As death took hold of her, the tree wife had shared with Mae an ominous vision of the future, a portent of destruction, sorrow, and death. When the vision faded from their minds, the tree wife had chanted softly, her failing voice frequently drowned out by the thunder. Her last breath had come with a racking shudder.
Mae shook off the memory, rose, and left the fire’s warmth to peer outside. Her face and rich brown hair were soaked in seconds. More blinding streaks forked across the sky and she hastily withdrew, dropping the beech wood door’s leather catch over its anchoring peg.
Restlessly she made a circuit of the small room, noting several places in its stone walls that needed repair. After adding more peat to the fire, she returned to the door and ran her hands over the branches and leaves of the tree image intricately carved into its surface. Age and countless applications of Jakob’s fat had darkened and polished its surface to a high gleam.
The fire spit and flared, and she stared into its lively flames, gripped unexpectedly by a vivid, waking dream. Cold darkness surrounded her. Loud voices, their words unclear, rang in her head. Her throat constricted as if an unseen hand had closed around it. Fear and panic washed over her. She struggled for air, but every breath was increasingly painful. Mae cried out and the vision vanished instantly.
She dropped to her knees, panting and trembling. Shivering uncontrollably, she crawled close to the fire and laid her cheek on the hard earth floor. Rarely did she have such clear visions about herself.
A bluish burst of light pierced every corner of the hut. The following bang resonated deafeningly in her ears. Mae leaped from the fire and threw open the door. Through the darkness, beyond the close stand of trees, she saw a glow. Water swirled around her ankles, soaking her woven sandals instantly. She splashed through soft, spongy grass, her gaze fixed on the ever-brightening radiance ahead.
Rain plastered her long hair to her face and neck, immediately penetrating the several layers of clothes she wore. Her long skirts became sodden and heavy, clinging to her ankles and hampering her stride. A tremendous flame shot skyward, throwing the foreground into stark silhouette. She quickened her pace, entering the first straggling line of young trees. The pounding rain drummed a loud tattoo on their leaves. Through black, wind-tossed branches she could see a great light ahead.
Even before she broke through the grove and into the clearing, she could see the fire. She faltered, stopping at the clearing’s edge to stare at a spectacle that had transcended vision to become terrible reality. The sacred beech, her husband, was engulfed in a roaring conflagration. Red, orange, and blue flames licked skyward, hissing viciously in the downpour, caressing the massive trunk. Waves of heat penetrated the cold rain, warming her cheeks and bringing tears to her eyes. Smoke billowed from glowing branches, and the fire outlined a yawning split in the tree’s gigantic trunk.
Mae sank to her knees in the soaked grass and watched as fire plumes more than a hundred feet high ate at the huge beech’s cleft, blackened trunk. The prophetic vision she had shared with the dying tree wife, an omen generations old, had come to pass. Her husband was dying, would be consumed before morning. According to ritual, only joining his spirit in death would offer hope for the village’s future prosperity.
She stood naked by the fire, racked by chills, her rain drenched clothes in a heap by the door. In spite of her despair, she knew she should be grateful that The Great Mother had mercifully spared the others, the trees Mae had come to think of as the Tree Husband’s brothers; beeches, oaks, a walnut, all very old but none so ancient or large as he. The semicircle of young trees planted by past Tree Wives had also escaped harm.
What sin had she committed to bring about this disaster? Had she not been a good Tree Wife? She thought back on her five winters of service and the people she had saved with ‘sight’, like Regus, mired and slowly sinking in a boggy patch of ground. So many in her village were alive today because of her healing recipes, like the Hammet twins, who had suffered a strange stupor. She sighed and wrapped herself in a jakob fleece blanket. Sitting down on her bed, she drew her knees up and propped her back against the wall.
The storm had passed, and now the rain’s patter was a soothing background. She closed her eyes, hoping sleep would come and briefly lift the burden of her dark future, but instead her mother’s beautiful face appeared in her mind. Her eyes flew open, willing the image to vanish. Tears gathered and spilled down her cheeks. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head, begging, pleading with Mae to refuse the Elder’s test.
“I’m sorry, mother,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
From the hut’s open doorway, Mae peered into thick mist shrouding the narrow vale. Somewhere high above the sun had risen, but its rays would not penetrate the cold fog until midday. A strong, rich odor of burned wood filled the air. The outermost trunks of the Sacred Grove were barely visible, their dark brown bark a soft gray in the heavy mist.
Mae wrapped her shawl snugly around her shoulders and stepped out. Silver-gray pools of water amidst the sodden, flattened grasses reflected the shifting veil. Mae’s braid was quickly bedewed with fine water droplets, and moisture reddened her cheeks and dripped off her delicate nose.
An eerie, muffled quiet gripped the Sacred Grove. Only the soft squelch of her sandals in the wet grass broke the silence. She passed through the semicircle of young trees and walked into the meadow. The odor of charred wood was so intense it choked her. Fog and smoke combined to shroud a greater part of the Tree Husband from view. What Mae could see of it was blackened and still cooling.
Her fingers groped for the sacred amulet, hanging from a leather thong around her neck. An artifact of the Old Time before the Great Darkness, and of a material made through means of the Lost Knowledge, the amulet was sacred by virtue of its extreme rarity. The old tree wife had told her that it held an unknown power. Lifting the thin, round disc, she gazed at the image of the Tree Husband graven on one side of its smooth surface. Constant handling by dozens of previous Tree Wives had almost completely worn away the image and the strange words written around the edge of the disc’s inner hole.
A sudden wind gust tore at the smoke and mist and offered a passing glimpse of the Tree Husband’s shattered, blackened body. Fire had reduced the beech’s height by three quarters, leaving only a tall, jagged-edged trunk. Its once huge, graceful, lower branches, so massive they had bent under their own weight, lay in smoldering black heaps in the matted grass. Mae shuddered. Which of the remaining ancients in the grove would become their spiritual link with the Great Mother? No premonition of this came to her. Her husband was dead and the Great Mother had forsaken her.
No Tree Wife before her had ever brought such dark fortune to the village. Once she informed the village Elders, the Sacred Rules would be invoked. Her death would only be postponed for as long as it took to find her successor, a virgin with the gift of ‘sight’. Once she had passed the secret, unwritten knowledge on, she would drink the sacred poison.
Mae turned to look back towards the grove. The mist swirled and parted and her mother emerged, black hair loose, her arms swinging in rhythm with her stride.
“Bad dreams woke me in the night,” Dela said breathlessly. Her gaze shifted from Mae to wisps of smoke curling skyward from the fog shrouded Tree Husband.
Mae saw her own fear mirrored in her mother’s eyes. “The old prophecy has come to pass.”
“My vision,” Dela muttered. “No, please, it cannot be true.” She looked down at Mae. “My daughter,” she cried softly, and embraced Mae.
“I am on my way to the village,” Mae said, gently freeing herself.
“Never. The Elders will demand you drink the sacred potion. No, you must go north at once. I’ll help you prepare. Walk north and you will surely find Praetor. That’s your proper destiny, to marry Praetor, have healthy children and live in the joy of your love for each other.”
Mae shook her head. “I vowed to be a faithful Tree Wife. I swore to the Great Mother.”
“Vows never tested. They’re unreasonable. The Great Mother would never approve of such a sacrifice. No Tree Wife has ever had to drink the sacred potion, not for as far back as the village has recorded history. Your death won’t change anything. You must go to Praetor; I know he still loves you. In my dreams I see him in a strange land where white ash sometimes falls like rain.”
“How can I? The Elders have never forgiven you for refusing their call. Until I took their test and was made Tree Wife, we were shunned. Those memories still haunt me.”
“Is that why you took the test? The Great Mother help us! Shunning is little enough compared to death. If you had only heeded me, you would not be in peril of your life now.” Tears shimmered in her eyes. “I should have forbidden you take the test. You are my child, wanted, loved, above all things. I will not see you leave this world ahead of me.”
Mae’s heartbeat pounded in her ears as she gazed up at her mother’s stricken face. “I love you, mother, but I cannot run away. I, too, would never have a quiet moment again. I am afraid, but I must go to the Elders.”
But Mae was running, her heart beating even harder.
Dela stood motionless some time after Mae had gone, her mind numb with shock and horror at the prospect of her daughter’s impending death. What could she do to prevent this calamity? Once the Elders learned of the Tree Husband’s death, she would be powerless to prevent her daughter’s sacrifice.
As she muttered, ‘Oh, Great Mother, help me now’, inspiration struck her. She hurried into the Sacred Grove’s cold, damp embrace. Condensed mist showered her as she wove a path through the trees, but she did not feel it spatter her cheeks. The Tree Wife’s hut stood a short distance away.
She approached without hesitation and pushed the door open. Only embers still glowed in the central fire pit. Dela lighted two wall torches with a taper and looked around. On the left hand wall, opposite Mae’s bed, two ancient tree stumps supported a large stone slab. Upon this table, neatly arranged, was a large assortment of sealed containers, each carefully labeled. There was also a mortar and pestle, the Tree Wife’s Sacred Book of Knowledge, and a small, cylindrical, sealed vial secured on a leather loop.
Dela picked up the vial. It contained the sacred potion, a deadly poison that brought death with only a few drops. She studied its sealed stopper, made from jakob’s tallow. It would require care to reseal the vial perfectly, once she had diluted its deadly contents. Relief warmed and relaxed her. She could save Mae. Without further thought she set to work.
Mae stopped to catch her breath at the top of the path that wound up from the bottom of the vale. Before her a treeless, undulating, brownish-red landscape stretched as far in all directions as the eye could see. She continued at a slower pace, and paused to look back. A gentle rise already hid the lush, green vale and its precious forest from sight. Great sadness filled her. She was struck with the thought that when she returned to the vale, it would be to take her own life.
A distant bleating made her glance left. Under low, gray skies, she saw in the distance the tiny, horned shapes of jakobs. Memories of her childhood came unbidden, of running with the dogs, herding the jakobs, of playing with Praetor. Fresh tears welled up in her eyes. Too many times she walked this path and taken for granted the sun’s warmth, the air’s spicy scent, the simple joy of being alive.
Over the next low hill, Mae saw the village center and paused. Even from this distance she could see that it was filled with people and animals. Then she realized it must be market day. Unconsciously wiping her damp palms on her dress, she walked on. A lump rose in her throat and she trembled inside.
A huge stone basin that tapped a natural spring dominated the village square. Several herds of jakobs milled around an animal’s drinking trough fed by the basin. The jakobs’ long twisted horns clicked and clacked as they butted heads, and their occasional bleats were high-pitched and plaintive. Small black and white spotted dogs barked and snapped at the jakobs, each dog trying to keep his master’s herd together and under control. A tall, blond-haired, young man had just drunk from the upper basin. He splashed water on his sun-browned face and smoothed his hair back. Mae gulped hard, but when the young man turned and she saw that he looked nothing like her Praetor, the blush rising on her cheeks faded away.
To Mae’s right, as she skirted the square, was a tiny hut, its walls of multicolored rock in soft hues of pink, green and gray, and its steep, thatched roof trimmed into a criss-cross pattern. It housed the village’s shrine to the Great Mother. Through the open doorway, Mae glimpsed tiny, flickering points of light that were candles kept always lighted, placed on either side of the deity’s carved image.
Beyond the shrine was Mae’s destination, a square building of pink stone, with long, narrow slits for windows, its imposing entrance doors made of precious beech wood slabs carved with elaborate trees, symbols of the Great Mother. This was the Elder’s Council House.
A thin crowd of villagers, their marketing done, stood in small groups around the wide steps that led up to the Council House entrance. Their animated conversation punctuated the background drone of those mobbed beneath the great thatched roof of an open-air, market pavilion some distance farther on.
As Mae approached the Council House steps, a sharp-eyed woman spotted her.
“The Tree Wife has come!” Several alert boys rushed this news from those gathered at the steps to the busy marketplace. By the time she had greeted people and climbed to the imposing, carved doors, the crowd around the steps had swelled. The din of idle chatter, bartering, barking dogs, boisterous children, crying babies, and bleating jakobs had subsided.
Mae heard the familiar deep voice and turned around. The gathering crowd parted for the Chief Elder, who was also Praetor’s father. His balding pate shone in the brightening afternoon, and a breeze ruffled his thick, curling sideburns and beard. Primus bowed. “Has an Elder summoned you?” he asked, his rich voice carrying even to those at the very back. A baby cried out and was immediately hushed.
Her throat constricted and she swallowed hard. “No,” she replied.
Before she could say anything further, he stepped past her and pushed open the heavy doors. Mae followed him inside, hardly hearing the voices of the other Elders as they hurried into the room. A silence fell and she looked up. Narrow beams of sunlight coming through the windows laid a pattern of bright stripes across the stone floor and scatters of it shone on the six men who faced her.
“The ancient prophecy of death has come to pass,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “The Great Mother has called the Tree Husband to her.” Mae saw Primus frown and tug on his beard, while the other Elders exchanged worried glances.
“This is a bad omen.” Locke, the Master Weaver ignored Primus’ glare. “Prophecy warns that the village will suffer unless you take the sacred potion.”
“The Tree Wife is familiar with the prophecy and the Sacred Rules,” Primus said. He turned to Mae. “You must have a successor. It is rumored that your cousin, Artha, possesses the gift. Do you name her?”
“I know of no other,” Mae answered.
“She must be tested.” Primus turned to one of the other Elders. “Send for her.”
“I see a hearth,” Artha said. “There is a sick baby. It cries but the mother can do nothing.” She opened her eyes and looked at Mae.
Mae was silent. She knew Artha was pretending to see a vision. She had handed the bone knife to Artha and had had a quick image from it of a herder struggling to free himself from a boggy patch of ground. This was Regus’ knife, as she was sure the Elders already knew.
Primus frowned. He glanced at Mae before saying, “You have failed the test.”
The girl blushed and looked to her cousin for support. Mae stared back, her face devoid of expression.
“But, but, I have the gift,” she protested. “My vision was strong!”
“Do not add more lies,” Mae cried suddenly. “I have held this. I know what it has to say.”
Artha paled and backed away. The expressions of the men gathered around her frightened her further. She turned and ran for the door.
Mae looked helplessly at the Elders. “Is there another girl?” she asked.
Following the Sacred Rules, Mae went to the shrine to pray. She would not return to the Sacred Vale until her successor had been found, prepared, and was ready to take her place. As she knelt on the cold, stone floor, a clear, painful memory of the day she passed the Elder’s test and became an apprentice Tree Wife came back to her.
It had been a beautiful, warm day, when the sky was particularly blue and no cloud had darkened the horizon. She was on her way home, nervous in anticipation of her mother’s anger. So Praetor’s abrupt appearance had startled her until she realized he had been waiting for her.
She had deliberately stopped just out of arm’s reach.
“My father tells me you passed the test.”
The pain of that moment when she looked into the face she loved, had loved since childhood, was as sharp now as it had been that day. All the plans they had made, the happy discussions of where they would build their hut, of the great jakob herd they would raise, had crumbled the fateful day she experienced her first ‘vision’.
Her ‘sight’ had driven a wedge between them. Dreams had shown her a destiny that appeared to exclude him, a dark, sorrowful future. As much as she feared her visions, she also believed them.
“Yes,” she had answered.
“So you don’t love me after all.”
“You’re wrong. I do love you. But my dreams tell me that The Great Mother has a different purpose for me. I cannot ignore her messages. If we married, terrible things might happen. It’s because I love you that I agreed to take the test.”
“Your mother has sight. She refused the call, and no hurt has come to her.”
“It’s too late to argue. I’ve taken the vows.”
“It’s never too late.” He had tried to embrace her and she had evaded him. “There is one sure way we could force the Elders to chose another girl. Be my wife, Mae.”
It hurt to recall how she had roughly shoved him aside and run. And the next day had brought news that had taken away what little joy she had found in her new position. Artha had arrived breathless with word that Praetor had vanished during the night. Mae’s parting with her mother had been all the more subdued, and sorrowful, for her mind had been on her love.
Mae stood in the low doorway of her mother’s house for the first time since she had become Tree Wife. As she entered, she saw that nothing had changed. Dela’s huge loom sat on the left, a stone slab table supported on jakob horn legs with three stools around it stood in the center of the room, and a healthy fire burned in a fireplace built into the right hand wall. Intricately patterned tapestries hid the cottage’s stone walls and thick woven rugs covered the beaten earth floor. Seated in a chair in the inglenook, Dela tended her jakob stew, which bubbled in a big, crude crock-pot suspended from a large cooking tripod. Its delicious smell permeated the room.
She looked up as Mae entered and they stared at one another for a moment.
“I knew you would come.” Dela stirred, the fire’s heat flushing her cheeks. “Is it true Artha failed the test?”
Mae was not surprised her mother already knew all the details of her meeting with the Elders. No doubt one of the many waiting outside the Council House had immediately run to bring her the news.
“Yes, it’s true,” she answered quietly.
Dela looked up. Mae sensed a strange calm in her. “ My sister will be angry,” Dela said.
“Artha deliberately pretended.”
“Do not blame her, she is only a child. No doubt my sister is behind the false rumors of her gift. She was always jealous and angry that I and not she had ‘sight’.”
“But she shunned us more than anyone else when you refused the Elder’s test.”
“Yes. She cares too much about her neighbors’ good opinion and felt my disgrace somehow reflected on her.”
An awkward silence fell. Mae ached to rush to her mother for comfort, but feared she would only use it to renew her pleas that Mae run away.
“You must be tired and hungry. Come, eat. The stew is ready.”
While Mae sat, her mother stepped from the inglenook to a storage niche in the back wall from which she took two bowls, two wide cups, and two bone spoons. She poured a thin mead into the cups, and set them on the table. Then she spooned stew into each of the bowls. Once seated, Dela raised both hands, and spoke a quick blessing chant. She clapped her hands twice.
Mae gazed at the rich stew with little appetite.
“I know of no one else rumored to have the gift,” Dela said. “What do the Elders say?”
“That I must continue until my successor is named,” Mae replied. “But I may not return home until that time.” Mae fixed her gaze on the stew. It was tasty and warming but sat uneasily in her stomach. She sipped some mead. “Why did you refuse the Elders’ test? Was it for love of father?” she asked.
“I had not yet met your father. No, I saw bad omens. Death. Had my mother not bragged, no one would ever have known I had the sight. Those same visions haunted me again when it was your turn.” She shook her head.
Mae tried to lay a hand on her mother’s arm, but Dela rose hastily and cleared off the bowls and cups. “Yes, mother, you saw truly,” Mae said, watching her poke at the fire, “and I was wrong.” Mae’s lip trembled. “I have failed,” she said, her voice quavering. “I fear the Great Mother is angry, and has destroyed the Tree Husband and deserted us because of me.”
“Because of you?” Her mother’s tone was sharp with surprise. She stared at Mae.
Tears slid down Mae’s cheeks and she looked steadfastly at her hands. “My heart was not pure,” she said. “The Great Mother could see into my heart, she could see that I had strong feelings for Praetor. I have never been able to forget him.”
“No!” Dela rushed over and gave her a good shake. “Mae, look at me. That’s foolish talk! The Great Mother would never punish true love. You must not think such a thing. You did not bring about this omen.”
“If the Great Mother is not angry then why did Artha fail the test? Why is there no successor?”
“She may be punishing us, but it’s not because of your love for Praetor.”
Five sunrises came and went, and two more virgins took the test. Both failed. After the second, Mae saw a definite change in attitude toward her. Villagers no longer bowed humbly, reverentially when she passed them, they barely inclined their heads and their glances were sharply critical. She sensed many dark, frightening thoughts, that over the course of another few sunrises became utterances. A growing faction believed that only her death would appease the Great Mother and reveal a new Tree Wife. That faction found a voice among the Elders, and she was called one afternoon to the Council House.
To her surprise, Locke, the Master Weaver sat in the Chief Elder’s chair, and Primus was absent.
“Since the Tree Husband’s death two herds have taken sick,” Locke said. “Regus’ wife miscarried, and a host of other misfortunes have befallen us.” His eyes narrowed. “And you have failed to give us a successor, and have not offered any vision of a remedy.”
As frightened as she was, Mae returned his look defiantly and tried to slow her breathing. She reminded herself that only a few sunrises ago she had been completely prepared for death. “I will gladly drink the sacred potion, but what of the sacred knowledge? There are the sacred records, but not all is written down. I must pass it to someone.”
The Master Weaver nodded. “This is the problem that troubled us. But we have discussed it and come to a solution.” He looked past her and as if on cue, the Council House doors opened, and two villagers escorted her mother inside. Mae was so dumbfounded she could not speak.
“Your mother has the gift,” Locke said. “She is not a virgin, but will become keeper of the knowledge until a virgin with sight is found.”
“No, spare Mae. I will drink!” Dela cried.
“Silence!” Locke pointed the long staff of office he held at her. “Speak again and you will be gagged.” He turned his gaze on Mae. “Perhaps the Great Mother punishes us for your refusal and has visited this calamity on us now, when your daughter is Tree Wife. But the prophecy is clear. The Tree Wife must join her husband’s spirit.” Locke wrongly interpreted Mae’s silence as defiance. “If you do not obey, Dela will face The Thousand Blows.”
Mae sank to her knees, but no one stirred to help her. She had never witnessed the punishment of a Thousand Blows, which was reserved for anyone who committed murder or stole another’s wife, but she knew that none ever survived. “If I agree,” she said, rising unsteadily, “will she be given all the rights and respect of a proper Tree Wife?”
Locke nodded. His gaze shifted to Dela. “It will be punishment enough for her to watch you die.”
As usual, Artha came just before sunset, toting a basket of food cooked by Dela’s sister. On this, the twentieth evening, of Mae and Dela’s virtual imprisonment in the shrine, Artha shied from Mae and greeted Dela. Dela returned the greeting, took the basket, and praised its contents, while Mae withdrew to a corner to listen and watch.
“What news?” Dela asked.
“The Spences lost four jakobs in North bog.”
“So many. Where was young Spence?”
Artha giggled. “Carrying Mary Whit’s peat. His papa thrashed him.”
Dela handed Artha the basket, which was now filled with dirty bowls and spoons from the previous day’s meal. “Give your mother my thanks.”
“Yes, Aunt.” Artha shot Mae an uneasy glance and hurried away.
“Come and eat,” Dela said to Mae.
“I am surprised Aunt Roe cooks for us.”
“Only because she knows there would be talk if she did not.”
Mae looked at the thin stew without appetite. What was the point of eating? In ten days she would drink the poison and depart this world.
Wrapped in a jakob’s wool cloak, Mae watched the contours of the square’s central basin emerge from darkness as dawn approached. A soothing splash of flowing water was the only sound she could hear. Behind her, lying on a thin pallet beneath the Great Mother’s stone carved image, Dela still slept.
Mae fastened the cloak, and stepped out. Cool air bore a pungent smell of jakob dung, and thur, a purple flower that blossomed on the eve of the cold season. Her leather slippers made no sound on the packed earth. She skirted the worn paving stones that surrounded the central basin, and without a specific direction in mind, chose the first path she could see.
The thur’s scent was much stronger now, a spicy, pleasant odor that Mae happily breathed in. A strange sound made her stop and look around. A faint orange line defined the eastern horizon, but the sound had come from the night-shrouded northwest. Mae squinted into the gloom. The noise came again, a snort from some kind of animal, but none she had ever heard before. Then she detected another sound, a hollow clop like a jakob’s hoofed footfalls only much louder. She strained to see.
A towering, massive shape took form, a darkness against the growing light of predawn. The clop noise drew nearer, and she heard loud snuffling.
“Who’s there?” she called.
The sounds and the huge shape halted. To Mae’s shock, the shape suddenly split, the upper part of it appearing to break away from the lower. Only when the upper part came closer did Mae recognize the figure and motion as that of a person.
At that moment, the sun slipped above the horizon, and the landscape’s grays turned to subtle colors. Morning light revealed a cloaked man, a full head taller than Mae. His hood was so far forward, only his bearded chin, and prominent nose were visible.
Mae looked past him to the strange creature he had separated from. It had a large head topped with small, pointed ears that flicked, large eyes, a long snout, a graceful neck, four legs, and a hairy tail that almost brushed the ground. A fur-covered rope encircled its nose; the rope’s two long ends were grasped in the man’s hand.
“I am Hector,” the man said simply. His voice was raspy, his accent strange. “I am a traveler. I wish only to find water for myself and my horse.”
“Horse?” She stared at the animal. In spite of her warm cloak, she shivered and took a step back.
“I mean no harm,” Hector said. “My throat is patched. Please, do you have water?”
“There is water in the village square.” Mae turned and ran.
Dela stood on the shrine steps watching for Mae. “What is it?” she cried, when Mae rushed across the square and into her arms. “You’re trembling. Are you hurt?”
“No, mother, no.” Mae tried to take deep breaths and willed her hands to stop shaking.
“Something has frightened you. Speak. I must know.”
“A stranger has come.” Mae shook her head as if to clear it. “He said he meant no harm, but somehow the sight of him frightened me.”
Dela released her daughter, and returned to the doorway. “Yes, there he is now. He leads a strange creature.”
“Yes. The creature is called a ‘horse’. The man says he is from the north.”
“The north,” Dela muttered. “He drinks deeply, like someone who has come a great distance. Why did he scare you?”
“It was just a feeling.”
By noon Mae and Dela could no longer ignore the clamor in the square. Dela had proved a quick learner with a good memory; well able to absorb the large body of sacred knowledge not recorded in the sacred book. Luckily, she could also read, was one of the few who could, so the limited time they had been given was devoted strictly to information not covered in the book. Dela had already mastered all of the important healing recipes, and Mae had moved on to teach her the first of many chants. But the noise outside was so distracting, they abandoned the lesson and went to the doorway.
To their astonishment, Hector, astride his horse, circled the square to the shouts and approval of the crowd.
They heard many eager cries.
“Will you sell it?”
“Do you have more?”
“What does it eat?”
“How much weight will it carry?”
Hector slowed the horse to a trot by pulling hard on the two ropes. As it finally came to a stop, he was besieged by men avid to touch the horse, and get answers to their questions.
From where they stood, neither woman could hear what Hector said, but slowly the crowd as a body shifted, and soon they were moving toward the market pavilion.
Artha, arms clasped about her knees, crouched beside the basket, while Dela unpacked it.
“Momma says to tell you that the man from the north, and his horse have been taken as a good omen. She says she’s heard many say that he came because of the Elders’ decision.”
Mae and Dela exchanged glances over the basket. “Any gossip?” Dela asked.
“The north man stays with Primus even though Primus is no longer an Elder. Some say it was wrong of the Master Weaver to take his place as Chief Elder, and remove him from the Council.” Artha shrugged. “Momma says she wouldn’t be surprised if the other Elders soon beg Primus to return. There is talk that the Master Dyer is angry that the Master Weaver elected his own apprentice as the sixth Elder.”
When Artha had gone, Mae said, “Is it not strange that this Hector stays with Primus?”
“Perhaps he knows Praetor.”
Mae turned away. This thought had occurred to her the moment she met Hector. Was that what had really frightened her, the possibility that she might see Praetor again?
Another ten sunrises passed before Mae had covered all spoken Tree Wife lore. Through Artha, she and her mother learned that Hector had gone, apparently without promising to return with horses to sell. Many men in the village had proposed following him, but Locke as Chief Elder had called a meeting, and after what was said to have been a heated discussion, they decreed that no one should leave the village.
Mae now leaned against the shrine’s stone archway in order to watch the moon rise, when she saw a dark form pass the public water basin. As the figure approached, and light from the shrine’s torches struck his face, Mae saw it was Locke. A chill crawled down her arms, and she shivered.
“You have run beyond the time allotted to pass on your knowledge. Have you completed your task?” he asked Mae.
Hoping her mother, who had already fallen asleep, would not wake, Mae said, “Yes. I am done.”
“Good. Tomorrow at sunset an escort will take you to the sacred grove. When the moon rises, we will perform the ceremony.”
Mae thought her mother strangely calm the next morning when she told her the Passing ceremony would be that night. She had expected tears and protests, even ranting against the Elders, but her mother smiled an odd little smile and simply nodded.
Now that her death approached, Mae wished the day would pass more quickly. She fretted that her courage would fail her, that she would not be able to drink at the proper moment.
While her mother spent the day chanting softly, as if reviewing some of the prayers Mae had taught her, Mae paced nervously. Would Locke keep his promise to treat her mother well? And what of her mother once a new Tree Wife had been found? Would her life be truly safe?
“I see them, mother, they are coming!” she said from the doorway.
“Let them come!” Her mother’s tone of contempt made Mae turn around. Her mother’s lovely eyes sparkled, and there was a fierce aspect to her slight smile.
Before Mae could question her, their four-man escort arrived.
Night came quickly in the cold season, and it was almost dark when Mae and her companions stepped onto the winding, downward path into the vale. Clay-fired lanterns the four men carried shone warmly in the dark, illuminating the path before them. Deep shadows already cloaked the sacred grove and only the faintest outline of her hut was still visible.
The four men stood respectfully outside and a little distance away when Mae and her mother entered the dark hut. Using a striking stone and a handful of dry grass, Mae started a fire in her cold hearth. Cheery flames soon dispelled the hut’s dank, abandoned atmosphere.
Mae gave her mother a quick tour of the hut and its furnishings, and showed her the sacred artifacts. Then she removed the sacred amulet from around her own neck and placed it around her mother’s neck.
“This will be your home until a new Tree Wife is found,” she said, tears rising in her eyes.
Her mother also looked tearful, and nodded as if too moved to speak.
“Think kindly of me, mother. I only do what I feel is right.” Mae’s voice cracked. She quickly cleared her throat. “Please, I’d like to be alone a moment.”
A single tear slid down her mother’s cheek, and she raised a hand and touched Mae’s face. Then she turned, and went out.
Mae picked up the vial containing the sacred potion and looped the thin leather thong over her head so that the vial lay between her breasts. A sudden calm flooded her body. The Great Mother, to whose spirit she would soon be joined, would protect her mother. She gazed around the cozy interior, wanting to fix in her mind each part of it, and all the good memories of her life there. Voices outside distracted her, and broke the moment of peace.
Brilliant moonlight shone down on the blackened wreckage of the burned beech, the tall black masses of the other ancient trees behind it, the grassy meadow, and the faces of the six Elders facing Mae and her mother. The four escorts stood outside this circle, their lanterns raised high.
A cold breeze fanned Mae’s face and penetrated the thin fabric of her dress. She listened to Locke’s singsong litany. When he finished the sacred chant, she would drink the potion. With steady hands, she broke the vial’s seal. The Master Weaver’s voice and her own beating heart were the only sounds she heard. His last words echoed in her head. She lifted the vial and drank. The bitter liquid burned her throat. She looked to her mother, but her vision had already blurred.
Her throat constricted. Mae struggled for breath, but the invisible hand at her throat tightened. She was dimly aware that she had fallen to her knees and could feel the cold damp soak through her dress and chill her legs.
Locke pulled out a bone knife. “She suffers. There is no need. My cut will be swift.”
The Master Dyer grabbed Dela. “He is right. See her agony? Let him end it.”
Mae rolled onto her back in a writhing fit. Her hands clawed up wet earth and grass.
Locke went down on one knee and raised the knife. Dela screamed, broke free, and lunged. She knocked Locke sideways, and they went down together, rolling over and over. Dela gave a short, sharp cry as their tumble ended.
One of the escorts rushed forward and held his lantern over them. Frozen in horror, the men saw Locke push Dela off him. As she turned face up, the lantern’s golden light shone on her fixed, wide-eyed expression and the knife buried deeply in her chest.
“The Great Mother, what have you done?” the Master Dyer cried.
“I did not mean to hurt her.”
At the instant Mae thought she would smother, when her ears rang loudly and all sense of the world had slipped away, the unseen hand released its grip and her next breath was deep and painful. Feeling flooded back into her body, the icy wet grass on her back and legs, evening dew on her cheeks, the throbbing of her dirt-clogged fingernails, the rapid beating of her heart. She heard voices raised in conflict. She opened her eyes. The full moon stared back at her, its luminous face set against a black, cloudless sky. She was alive. By the Great Mother’s power, she had survived the poison.
“Look!” The Master Tailor’s shout stopped Locke’s argument with the Master Dyer in mid sentence. The circle of men around Dela’s body turned in unison and stared.
With dirt clots clinging to her fingers and streaks of mud and grass on her gown and face, Mae had risen to her feet. She swayed unsteadily but there was no question she was alive.
“Great Mother be praised for this miracle of rebirth,” the Master Dyer cried. He hastened to support Mae as she took an unsteady first step.
The others backed off at her approach. Mae stared down in disbelief at her mother’s corpse, at her mother’s hand clasped tightly around the knife in her chest.
“Mother.” She would have fallen to her knees, but the Master Dyer embraced and held her up.
“We are sorry, so sorry,” he murmured.
A distant shout drowned Mae’s sobs. A moment later, a man on horseback burst from the Sacred Grove.
“Mae!” His cry echoed through the vale. He bore down on them, his cloak billowing out behind him, his horse’s hooves flinging up wet earth as it galloped.
The horse had barely slowed when the rider leaped off and ran towards them.
“Mae, what have you done to Mae?” he shouted, brandishing a stone-headed bone club. All the Elders, except the Master Dyer, scattered. The escort dropped their lanterns and charged at him, knives raised.
“Stop,” the Master Dyer bellowed.
They all froze.
“Who are you to interfere with this ceremony?” As the Master Dyer came near, he suddenly recognized the intruder. “Praetor,” he said.
The moment of silence was broken by crying.
“Put your weapon down.”
“Not if Mae is dead,” Praetor replied.
The Master Dyer gestured emphatically to the escort to stand back. “See for yourself,” he said.
Mae raised a tear-streaked face. Her dress and hands were bloodstained; her mother’s head was cradled in her lap. She stared at the bareheaded stranger.
“Mae, it’s Praetor.” He knelt down beside her. “I thought I was too late.” His gaze shifted to Dela. “Great Mother, what has happened?”
Mae burst into fresh tears, but pushed Praetor away when he tried to embrace her.
“Carry her to my hut,” she said. “I will prepare her for a proper burial.” She accepted the Master Dyer’s help to stand. The other Elders backed away, taking the lanterns from their escort, who gathered around Dela and carefully raised her up.
Mae gave Praetor a cold, distant glance. “Why have you come back?”
He stared, speechless with surprise. Mae turned without another word and followed her mother’s body into the shadows of the Sacred Grove.
Mae studied Praetor’s face. Five seasons in the north had matured it; there were new lines around his eyes and mouth. His once fair complexion had become ruddy, and a pink scar ran diagonally across his forehead, puckered the corner of his right eye, and disappeared into the thick beard that covered his cheeks.
She was still so overwhelmed by her own resurrection and the shock of her mother’s death that his arrival barely touched her. The smell of burnt jakob’s oil filled her nostrils and part of her mind could not shake the image of her mother’s shroud-covered body engulfed in flames. Only that morning, she had gone back to the Sacred Rock to gather up the cooled ashes of her mother’s funeral pyre and scatter them in the Sacred Grove.
So Hector, as Praetor’s friend, had come to the village to see how matters stood and had hurried back to his village in the north when he learned that Mae was to die. But what did Praetor expect from her? The Great Mother had brought her back from the brink of death. There could be no greater sign that her destiny was to be Tree Wife.
“I have not stopped loving you.”
Mae gazed past him, through the shrine’s archway. Most of the villagers were gathered in the square. She could see, at the crowd’s center, a circle of men. The Elders, with Primus once again their Chief, faced an equal number of men from the north. Beyond the crowd, and tethered to anchoring stones, were fifteen horses. They appeared restless in the cold, morning air, eager to run. They shook their heads and pawed the earth.
“I’m sorry, Praetor,” she said finally. “I am Tree Wife. I survived the sacred potion. My duty, my responsibility to this village, has not changed since the day we last parted. I can never be anything to you.”
She saw how her words made him flinch, but she felt too numb to pity him.
“Remember the house we always said we would build? I built us one, in my new village.”
A brief surge of old memories made her glance away. “I will never regret how I loved you, but those feelings are gone and will never return. You are a good man. I’m sure you will find a loving woman to share your new house.”
A quick glance caught the glint of tears in his eyes.
“I will always hold you dear,” she said, “ and will pray to the Great Mother to bless you with good health and a long, happy life. I won’t ever forget that you came to save me. But my place is here, with the people the Great Mother has given me charge to care for. I am their seer, their healer. I will die here and like my mother, and all the Tree Wives before me, my body will be laid out on the Sacred Rock to be consumed by fire.”
He swallowed with difficulty. “May the Great Mother also protect you.” He nodded towards the square. “This new trade of horses for jakobs will benefit both our villages. If you had agreed to wed me, I would have remained here to teach our people how to care for their horses. But I see it is better I go. Hector can stay behind, live in my father’s house, and help with the horses.”
“Goodbye, then,” Mae said. “May your journey be safe.”
She let him embrace her and kiss her cheek, and was thankful that he hurried away and did not see the sudden tears in her eyes.
Warm sunshine filtered through the great oak’s spreading branches and glinted off its leaves. Dela picked another yellow wildflower to add to the armful she already clasped to her chest. As she straightened, she smiled and beckoned to Mae. Then she turned and threw the wildflowers into the air. The flowers were borne up by the breeze and scattered amongst the oak’s branches.
Dela whirled about, arms lifted, head back, and her clear, joyful laugh pierced Mae’s heart. Mae called to her, reached out her arms, but Dela only laughed again and spun farther out of reach.
“Mother!” Mae opened her eyes and the dream vanished. “Mother,” she whispered. Tears filled her eyes and she wept briefly. Then she sat up in bed and deliberately wiped her face.
This was her first vision since the night her mother had died. Maybe death had not completely separated them. Perhaps the Great Mother in her infinite wisdom and mercy would again use her mother to be her instrument of instruction. For the vision’s meaning had been clear. The Elders, the whole village would rejoice. A new Tree husband had been chosen.