The Lord of the Forest
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 hands into dough. If you could climb to the tops of them, and pop your head beyond the fog, a scattering of early starlight would greet you. But those stars could not be seen in the low cloud. The air was fresh, though thick and damp, and a mouthful would ease thirst.
A man made his way from one side of the forest line to the other, across the clearing, shrouded as the mist cloaked his movements in its thick shadow. And had the starlight shone through, he would still have remained unseen. For there was no one to see him. Just as he planned it.
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 into the forest quickly, his feet tracing a path that he obviously knew well. And as he walked, the trees grew thicker and the mist disappeared, as though it were shut out.
A wall of leaves and branches moved aside as the man pushed on, revealing a small house that glowed in the dark. For candlelight flickered out of small windows, and smoke curled gently out of a thin chimney.
The man knocked at the door, which opened with a creak, the hand on the knob withered and gnarled belonging to a wizened old woman with kind eyes, and a concerned, creased face.
‘Its 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 burst into her home. He laid down the dripping parcel, and in the light of the fire the drops glistened garnet-red. Untying the strings, he opened it.
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, and horns savagely sawed, the blank eyes of the animal stared off as though taking in one small section of the room.
The man’s mouth made a thin line. ‘She has gone far enough; that she should do this to him. It is time.’
Only a single glance passed between them before the old woman nodded and grabbed a ruck sack, which she began to fill. To anyone but the man, it would have looked like the oddest assortment. But he knew better. She was gathering 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; it was not the time to stay hidden.
After a time, they found themselves in the mist of the meadow clearing. The woman pulled something out of her sack 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. And the presence of one other; they were not alone.
‘Have you come to save it, then?’ Asked a woman, cloaked in a dark robe, her face unseen, and with a voice whiskey-harsh.
‘You know I have,’ 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 that? For you know that Pan’s absence has fostered eons; he will not return. And 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, her lips pushed beyond the brim of her cloak to reveal them alone; the bright red of fresh blood. Her eyes then narrowed as she spoke, coming to a creased point. The old woman held her staff and did not flinch at the words issued by the one cloaked in darkness. And so the harsh voice said, ‘It is my right.’
The old woman’s head cocked. ‘It is 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.’
‘Own?’ the withered woman questioned again.
The woman, 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 light of a star still. And in an instant, the women flew toward each other; the one of darkness’ face revealed white and pale with her blood-red lips, the other with a brightness about her eyes that reflected the light from her staff, each formidable.
While they fought, light against dark, long-tested against blood-earned strength, the man moved in the shadow, and into the forest from whence he had first come. He was gone not long, while the battle raged. And 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 cloaked in darkness leapt back from her opponent.
‘Pan!,’ she gasped, and began to see her own demise.
‘You knew not with whom you trifled,’ said the old woman gasping at breath. ‘The Lord of the Forest does not abandon his forest. Though he might, for a time, allow it to struggle and sharpen and take shape. He does not share his rule, as well you know. Thus comes your end.’
A moment’s silence spread and beat, as though it contained a heart, until a sudden movement broke it. A sudden 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 over the dust. He wept, for the old woman was his friend. And where his tears fell, sprang flowers, gold and glowing against the night, as though the stars had come there to live. The Lord of the Forest was home again. And he had work to do.