Aphelion Issue 256, Volume 24
November 2020
 
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The Forest Lord

by Amelia Brown




Mist, soft and shaded in shadow, folded over the meadow. The trees picked it up at the forest’s edges, their leaves pressing into it like knives into dough. The air was fresh, though a mouthful would ease thirst. If you could climb to the tops of them, and crest your head beyond the fog, a scattering of early starlight would greet you. But those stars could not be seen in the low cloud.

A bent man made his way through the clearing from one side of the forest line to the other, shrouded as the mist cloaked his movements. Had the starlight shone through, he would still have remained unseen. There was no one to see him. That was the result of his magic, though he hadn’t much to waste.

Beneath his arm, he held a parcel, wrapped in cloth and tied with coarse twine. It was wet and dripping, but not because of the mist. Its dampness came from that which was inside; and what was inside was dead.

He moved through the forest quickly, his feet tracing a path that he clearly knew well. As he walked, the trees grew thicker and the mist disappeared, as though something had shut it out.

A wall of leaves and branches moved aside as the man pushed on, revealing a small house that glowed in the dark. Candlelight flickered out of small windows, and smoke curled gently out of a thin chimney. Despite the man with the dripping package, the sight was quaint.

The man knocked at the door, which opened with a creak. The hand on that clung to the inside knob was withered and gnarled and belonged to a wizened old woman with kind eyes, and a concerned, creased face.

‘It’s getting worse,’ the man said without any introduction, moving passed the old woman to the solid wood table as though he had a right to it. He laid down the dripping parcel, and in the light of the fire the drops that fell from it onto the freshly scrubbed floor glistened garnet-red. Untying the strings, he opened the cloth.

The old woman stifled a gasp as her hand moved to her mouth. For on the brown cloth, covered in blood, lay the head of a white stag severed brutally at the neck, with horns savagely sawed, and the blank eyes of dead creature that stared off as though taking in one small section of the window pain on the far wall.

The man’s mouth became a thin line.

‘She has gone far enough…’ The man paused, his eyes staring at the floor, his jaw working against the flesh of his cheek. He raised his head slowly, and stared into the eyes of the old woman. ‘We have, perhaps, waited too long. I must ask you to do your duty.’

The old woman raised her brows. ‘I may not be strong enough,’ was all she said.

There was a silence, and then his voice broke strangely, as though it held a single sob.

‘You are all we have,’ he said.

She only held his gaze a moment before the old woman nodded sharply and grabbed a ruck sack, which she began to fill with stones and roots and small bits of cloth. From the wall she took a thick staff that fit her hand as if it were made to be there. To anyone but the man, it would have looked like the oddest assortment. But he knew better. She was gathering what she needed for war.

Staff in hand, and the man at her side, all fire extinguished, she bade the bloody remains a saluted farewell, and side by side they went back the way the man had come, though now they did not bother to move silently. There was no longer any need to stay hidden.

After a time, they found themselves in the mist of the meadow clearing. The woman pulled something out of her sack, the largest of the stones, and held it up to her staff, which began to glow, gently warm at first, and then strikingly bright as though it had harnessed the light of a star. The mist glowed too, and then was gone.

In an instant, the stars bared witness to their presence, as well as the presence of another.

‘Have you come to save it, then?’ Asked a woman, cloaked in a dark robe, her face unseen, and with a voice whiskey-harsh. ‘More of your fiddling?’

‘Let us not prevaricate, Darkness. I am ready for you.’ The old woman’s voice rang across the clearing, with more strength than her withered body would have suggested she possessed.

‘And how will you manage? For you know that Pan’s absence has fostered eons; he will not return. I claim dominion over his land in his stead,’ she paused, and flicked something from her cloak with nonchalance before continuing. ‘For you know that I cannot resist so much blood power,’ she said with a slow smile, her lips pushed beyond the brim of her cloak to reveal them alone. They dripped the bright red crimson of fresh blood. Her eyes then narrowed as she spoke, coming to a creased point. ‘It is my right. The people, they give me so much of it. So much of their very life. You should try it, old thing. It is a power that will drive you mad.’

The old woman held her staff and did not flinch at the words issued by the one cloaked in darkness. Then she cocked her head. ‘So many things to say, but I think the worst is this: your right? To wound and fell and maim is your right? A strange right for a steward of the forest, I think.’

‘Fool!’ the harsh voice answered. ‘You know better than to question that one who owns the Forest.’

‘Owns?’ the withered woman questioned again. ‘I was under the impression it was a loan, brought about by theft. Too quickly you took what was not offered you when the Lord of the Forest did not return. Too suddenly you blocked his name, and stole his power, and more besides. Too readily did you bleed dry the lifeblood of the forest. There are chinks in your stewardship, Darkness. And a requisite payment. Stand aside; your grand experiment has failed.'

The woman with the lips of blood, cloaked in her darkness, snarled, and raised a staff of her own that looked carved from the darkest onyx and glistened as the moon peered out from beyond a cloud as though enticed.

The old woman raised her staff, too, which held the glow of starlight still. In an instant, the women flew through the air toward each other; the one called Darkness’ face revealed white and pale with her blood-red lips, the other with a brightness about her eyes that made her features charcoal black, reflected the light from her staff, each formidable. Their clash came like a gong, their magics at constant counterpoint. With all possible strength, they wielded their power, the one hoping she had brought enough and the other that she had drank enough.

While they fought, paled skin flashing red against light and shadow, long-tested against blood-earned strength, power dripped in sparks from their airborne battle. The man moved in the surrounding darkness, collecting the drips from their battle on his tongue, and then he slipped silently out of the clearing into the forest from whence he had first come. He was not gone long, while the battle raged. When he returned, the battle looked much the same.

But he did not.

He moved into the center, expanded, changed. Morphed were his hands, his arms, and legs and chest. His muscles stood out, stronger than an ox. And from his head had sprung horns. And it was that which made him known.

The pale woman paused, her body hanging in midair, before she croaked and cloaked herself darkness, leaping back from her opponent.

‘Pan!,’ she gasped. ‘You are not here. You cannot be here. My powers…’

But already she was weakening.

‘A chink, I said.’ The old woman breathed the words out heavily. She was bent far more than the man who was now the magnificent being had been before.

‘It is not possible…’ the woman called Darkness had faded paler.

‘You knew not with whom you trifled,’ said the old woman gasping at breath as she set herself down on the ground. ‘The Lord of the Forest does not abandon his own, though he might, for a time, allow it to struggle and sharpen and take shape. You took advantage of him then, but you should have known he would find a way through your barrier. You should have known that your use of magic would call him home. Now… well, now here he stands. And he does not share his rule, as well you know.’

‘I hold your power,’ said Pan, his voice the sound of thunder, his eyes the flashes of falling stars. ‘Thus comes your end.’

He crouched to spring, to finish the nemesis that would suck away life in exchange for power.

A moment’s silence spread and beat as though it contained a heart.

Sudden movement broke it.

A swift vengeance moved, striking the old woman’s staff with all the hatred summoned by one who would destroy life for her strength—and in an instant, the old woman renewed her battle. But it was all there was to spend; as their staves collided, a sharp crack rang out, and when the one magic touched the other, each was no more than dust upon the earth.

At this, Pan cried out, and then fell upon the dust. He wept, for the old woman was his friend, and where his tears fell, flowers sprang, gold and glowing against the night, as though the stars had come there to live. The Lord of the Forest was home again.




THE END


2020 Amelia Brown

Bio: Amelia Brown started writing officially as a humor columnist for her university's newspaper. Her work has been published in Gramarye, Corvid Queen, Enchanted Conversation Magazine, 365 Tomorrows, among others, and in the science fiction anthology Odd Dreams. She is the author behind the blog Fairy Stories & Other Tales (www.fairystoriesandothertales.com).

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