I look deep into the flickering flames of the fire. It is fascinating to watch the yellow fade to orange as the flame slinks away from the fuel, orange to red, and red into the darkness of night. The melodic laughter of the children dances through the wind from where they sit on the ground, as close to the fire as they can without their parents scolding them. The parents make a ring outside of the children sitting on logs, chatting away, and occasionally glancing at their little ones, who seem to always scoot closer to the fire when the adults are not looking. As for me, I sit on a stump just outside the children’s circle, absorbing all that I can. My days of banter and giggles are past. Now I relish contentedly in the children’s excitement, for they are excited enough for all. My time for talking will come yet this evening, in fact it is almost here.
Before long, the eldest child looks up at me. “Tell us a story, Grandfather.”
I hear murmurs of assent from the other children. A hush falls over the adults.
I smile at their glowing faces. “What a grand idea. I think a story is just what tonight needs. Now, which story to tell…”
The children whisper suggestions and guesses of what I will pick.
“I know, how about the story of Siaron and the Lady of the Wood?”
Many of the children have not heard this story before as I reserve it for special occasions. It is among my favorite stories, and I try my best not to over use it, lest it lose its allure. I breathe in the smoke and reminiscence and begin:
This is the story of how our nation came to be long ago.
The bleak months of winter were finally coming to an end. Trees were budding, flowers were blooming, and the grey world was becoming colorful once again. As always, the winter was hard, and the part of spring the people of the Northern Village welcomed most was the hope of going to bed with full stomachs. This was the hope that the messenger of Burnham Village interrupted one beautiful, sunny day.
The messenger of Burnham Village brought a desperate plea from their Chief. Their enemy from Quetwood, the forest south of both villages, had come and was attacking the village. Now, the Northern Village and Burnham Village had always been allies, so the King of the Northern Village mustered his best soldiers and went to their aid. But they were too late. When they reached Burnham Village, it had already been destroyed. Off in the distance, they saw an army—a very large army—returning into the woods. The King was wise, and he knew that his people would be faced with this army before long.
So the King returned to the Northern Village with his soldiers and gave orders for every man able to bear arms to be drafted to the army. He sent his officers out to see how large of an army they had after the draft. When they returned, the King realized that even with every man in the village, they would not be able to defeat their enemy.
As I said before, the King was a very wise man, so he came up with a plan that some of his people may be spared. He gathered his army and set off for the forest. He thought that if they caught the enemy off guard, they would have a better chance. He also wanted to take the battle away from the village, where the women, children and livestock were. Of course, the King knew that if his army were destroyed, the enemy would continue north and destroy the village just as they did Burnham Village, but there was no way to prevent that. The Northern and Burnham villages were the only two in the area, and the surrounding plains would offer no concealment.
It was morning when the army reached the eaves of Quetwood. As they passed under the boughs of the unfamiliar trees, a dread filled the Northern Villagers that they could not describe. The air itself was unsettling. Not long afterward, the enemy army came north from their settlement in the forest, which distracted the Northern Villagers from the evil of the forest. A battle ensued without delay. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that the slaughter ensued without delay. The Northern Village army was outnumbered and outmatched. Many of the Northern Village soldiers were young, just reaching maturity, and not trained.
Among these was a soldier named Siaron. The King and the captain of his company were killed toward the beginning of the battle. Leaderless, the company scattered. Most of his companions took to running off deeper into the woods—east or south, they were not sure of the direction. Now, Siaron had a good head on his shoulders, so he knew that if they ran off, they would all be killed by their pursuers and they would gain nothing from it. He stopped some members of the company and convinced them to stand and fight beside him. Of course, they did not fare much better this way. They were killed by the sword instead of arrows in their backs, but they did attain a few kills of their own. Siaron fought valiantly for a soldier without training. But after killing two enemy soldiers, he received a blow to his head by the blunt edge of a spear that knocked him unconscious on the ground.
Siaron did not know much else about the battle, for when he awoke dead bodies surrounded him. The enemy soldiers had left, at least temporarily. Blood covered his face and arms. This must have been what saved him. To the enemy soldiers he appeared dead, lying on the ground with the rest of his people. He sat up and looked around. From what he saw, he could not imagine there were many survivors. It was immediately clear that he must leave before the enemy came back and discovered he was alive.
Siaron staggered to his feet and began wandering through the trees. There were dead bodies everywhere. He did not know which direction was north, but even if he did, he was not sure he knew which direction he wanted to go. So he picked a direction and started walking. He was hungry and thirsty, mostly thirsty, but he had no means of satisfying his stomach. Immediately our soldier found the forest eerie as he walked along. He remembered the alarm the entire army felt entering the forest, but “sensible” part of his mind told him his fears were inane. The shadows grew darker until they became downright frightening. Perhaps it was loneliness or blood-loss, or maybe there was an impalpable but perceptible evil in those woods. Either way, Siaron was scared and wanted nothing more than to get out of the woods. To him, the forest itself seemed just as evil as the enemy that had slaughtered his people earlier that day. He walked on, unsure of what else to do.
Evening came and he saw no change in the woods, except that they grew darker. All he wanted was a safe place to lie down. He considered spending the night in the boughs of a sturdy oak, off the treacherous ground. But the trees in those parts were grumpy, selfish, and disinclined to offer our poor soldier any comfort.
So Siaron walked on, flinching at every sound, the way one does when he knows no one is on his side. But then, a different noise came down through the trees: the chirping of birds. Now, it may have been his exhaustion or his soul grasping out for any shred of hope it could find, but he swore those birds had a prettier song than any he had heard before. He saw them fluttering from branch to branch in a tree overhead. The birds were white chested and purple crowned with yellow feathers covering the rest of their bodies. He did not believe that anything with so fair a song could nest in something evil, so he decided to find where they lived. He thought that whatever tree the birds found refuge in might bear him as well. The birds sang their song. In the silence that followed, he sang it back to them. As if to show that they heard him, the birds repeated it once more before flying off into the darkness. He ran after them, but before long their song faded into the distance and disappeared into the night.
But as I’ve said before, our Siaron had a good head on his shoulders. He knew that birds need not succumb to the winding paths of men. They travel straight to their destination. So he hastened forward, always watching and listening for the birds. Before long, he noticed that the woods were becoming slightly less foul. And suddenly, he heard the chirping. He looked up and saw fluttering twenty birds: yellow ones, with purple crowns and white hearts. And he saw that the trees they nested in had slender boles—surely one could not hold him. Even if one were strong enough to hold him, Siaron saw that they were far too crowded. As he walked, twenty birds turned to one hundred, which multiplied further until he had no guess of how many there were. But they all sang the same sweet song and wore the same purple crown with yellow feathers and a white heart. Just as Siaron was considering curling up at the foot of one of these good-natured trees, he heard something beyond the chirping of the birds—the sound of rushing water.
Now, to this point Siaron’s fear of the forest had outweighed his thirst and hunger to the point he almost forgot they were there. But when he heard the sound of the water, he forgot all caution and ran toward the sound. As the trees began to thin, however, he came to his senses enough to realize that he would not be the only being drawn to the water, and there was no way to know whether his company would be friend or foe. Just as he slowed his pace, a clearing opened up in front of him. He ducked into the shadows at the edge of the tree line.
The clearing was nearly a perfect circle, a quarter mile across, the ground cloaked with soft green grass kept short with care by a groundskeeper or animals grazing. The northern wall (he did not find out which direction was north until later) of the clearing was formed by a cliff about twenty feet high. Concentric to the clearing was a river that took the form of a moat. On the south side, the two sides of the moat joined and flowed out of the clearing. The river flowed in from the north as a rushing waterfall on the cliff. The water was as clear as liquid glass, shimmering blue, purple, and green in the moonlight.
And in the center of the clearing inside the moat was a castle. It was a small castle; in fact, many would not call it a castle at all. Around the base it was about as wide as a house—a large one for the time period. But its shape resembled that of a castle, having three stories, a balcony, and two towers, albeit short ones. So, you see, the word house wouldn’t do, and the word tower wouldn’t either. The best word to describe this particular lodging is, in fact, castle. Now, perhaps it would have appeared differently in a different light, but in the light of the moon and the glittering stars, the castle appeared mysterious and terrible. The castle did not seem to Siaron as though it could be evil, for the clearing felt so fair; however he could not muster the courage to step closer.
When he could bear the dark shadows of the castle no longer, Siaron turned his head back to the waterfall. The melodic rushing and hypnotic sparkling of the breaking water eased his mind.
“I know you are there.”
Siaron started when the clear voice pierced the darkness. It did not take long to find the source of the voice. He turned his head back toward the castle and saw the silhouette of a lady standing several paces outside of the moat. Siaron clung tighter to the tree, willing himself to disappear. For though he was a soldier now and most men will not admit that they are innately afraid of women, it was clear that this lady was powerful. She took a step toward him, her face turning enough that the moonlight shone on it. It was then he saw it was a kind face, and undoubtedly fair.
Her voice was gentle as she spoke. “Come out of the shadows, young man. For shadows are where thieves hide. You are not a thief, are you?” She paused only for a moment and continued when our soldier did not answer. “It is in the light where those who are true at heart reside. Darkness is where deeds are done that one wishes to hide, but honorable deeds should be done in the light, where all can see.”
Siaron knew his best option was to do as she asked, so he stepped away from the tree and walked into the clearing, trying his best not to let his hands shake. He halted as soon as he was out of the shadows, not wanting to get too close.
“Come closer.” The lady commanded. Siaron obeyed.
As he drew near to her, the severe, powerful look in her eyes overshadowed her aforementioned kind nature, and afraid was no longer a suitable word for what Siaron was feeling. He knew he had no right to ask anything of her—remember, he was trespassing on her land—but he knew that she was his only chance of surviving the woods or ever making it back to the village, what was left of it. A justified terror gripped the young soldier, but when no more than a yard separated him from the lady, he remembered his manners.
He knelt at her feet. Staring at the ground he said, “Siaron, a soldier from the Northern Village, at your service.”
The lady answered, “That is a valiant offer, Siaron from the Northern Village, but tell me, what need have I for the service of a common foot soldier?”
To this our poor soldier had no answer. He swallowed, but his throat was still dry and scratchy.
“I suppose you have no such need, my Lady, but I offer it all the same. In return, may I be so bold as to ask to drink from your stream?”
Her voice was grave as she answered, “I will not have a filthy soldier drinking from my stream as a pest from the woods. No, that will not do.”
At this, all hope left Siaron’s heart. All he could wish for now was to escape unhindered, so he might drink water from the river downstream.
Then, the lady laughed. Unsure of what this meant, Siaron mustered the courage to look up, and he saw her smiling down at him.
“Come soldier, you look sad. I can tell your day has been riddled with grief. Rise.” She reached her hand out to him. He took it and stood. Her hand, soft and smooth against his rough skin, pulled away as soon as he was standing, leaving him longing for another touch. “You will have food and drink and a place to rest tonight—inside.”
She turned away and walked back toward the castle. There was no bridge in sight, so Siaron wondered how they would cross the moat. But the lady stepped out onto the moat and began walking on top of the water. When she was about halfway across the moat, she noticed Siaron was not following. She turned and beckoned him forward with a smile and a wink.
Surely she meant for him to follow, but she gave no explanation of how he should go about it. Siaron looked down at the water. Perhaps it was an illusion, though the waterfall seemed real enough. He decided to take a step out, just to see what would happen. As he extended his leg, he felt the water on his foot, but instead of sinking to the bottom, it hit something solid just beneath the surface. He realized that there must be clear stones that rise to the top of the water. Siaron continued forward slowly, and with each careful step, his foot hit another clear stone. When he reached the ground on the other side, he took a deep breath, feeling relieved and rather accomplished.
The lady was waiting for him with an amused smile on her face. She led him to the castle where she showed him the wash basin, and he washed for dinner. After washing, he followed the sound of banging plates intertwined with a soft humming to the kitchen and a small wooden table set for two.
“Sit, my guest.” The lady smiled warmly and motioned toward a chair.
Siaron sat and the lady sat across from him. He found a delicious meal and a glass full of cold water in front of him. He ate and drank as fast as he could while still minding his manners, for he did not want to lose favor with the mysterious lady that sat across from him. When dinner was nearly over, the lady began to make conversation.
“So,” she began, “how is it that you arrived at my door?”
It did not take much more prompting for Siaron to tell her the whole story. He told of how an enemy was threatening his village and how they could not conquer their enemy and how he narrowly survived the battle and ended up lost in the forest.
As he finished telling of how he saw the birds and followed them, he posed a question of his own. “How did you know I was here?”
She answered with a sly smile. “I was told you were coming.”
His stomach lurched nervously. “Who could have possibly told you that?”
“That is not important,” she answered.
“I daresay it is.” He looked around the candlelit room. The shadows crawled in the dim, flickering light. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he sat up straighter, on edge. “Was I being watched?” As doubt and fear crept into his heart, he asked for the first time, “Who are you? Where does your allegiance lie?”
The lady put her hand on his. He flinched, but did not pull away. “I could have fun playing with you, but I fear I am in danger of losing your trust. The same birds that you followed to find this place flew ahead to tell me of a stranger heading in my direction. Since I knew you were coming, it was not difficult to notice your arrival. As for who I am, different people have different names for me, but most call me the Lady of the Wood. And for where my allegiance lies, that is a more difficult question. I do not offer my allegiance rashly. However, my allegiance lies with the forest, and as long as you do not act against the forest, I would not consider you an enemy. Does that comfort you?”
Siaron blinked and nodded. The lady’s thumb, which still rested on Siaron’s hand, moved in slow circles. Siaron’s skin tingled at her touch. He willed her to stop and longed for her to never stop at the same time. His head swam. Perhaps this was due to the jostling of his head when he nodded, or maybe his wound was just catching up with him now that he had eaten. Whatever the reason, his head throbbed. He winced, though thus far he had succeeded in shrouding the pain.
“Is your wound hurting you?” The lady asked.
“It is okay.” He lied as he tried not to let his eye twitch to the beat of the pulsing.
The lady looked skeptical. She stood and leaned toward him across the table. He thought she was just getting a better look at it, so he did not move away. But she pressed her finger on his forehead near the wound. He flinched away and groaned.
“As I suspected.” She walked around the table and stood next to him. Siaron wished she would not look so amused at his pain. “It is dirty. I will clean and dress it for you.”
“No, do not trouble yourself.” He protested. “It will heal.”
“I was not asking for your permission. Stay here. I will be right back.” She patted his shoulder as she left the room.
Siaron, like most young men, did not enjoy people fussing over him and was not enthused about the situation, but he sat and waited as the Lady of the Wood asked. He did not feel he had any other choice. She came back carrying a bowl with water and several rags. She set them on the table while she retrieved a slightly taller stool from the counter.
The lady sat in the stool next to him. “Turn toward me.”
Siaron obeyed, but he did not like exposing his wound to her, though he knew that was the whole point. He fidgeted nervously.
“Relax.” She said as she dipped the cloth into the water and wrung it out. Her hand was steady and gentle as it reached toward his forehead, but he jerked his head away as soon as she made contact.
He put his hand in the way to stop her. “Really, I am fine.”
The lady moved his hand with her free one. “Sit still. It will hurt less and be over sooner if you cooperate. For a soldier you are acting rather boyish.”
“I have only been a soldier for two days.”
“All the same, try not to squirm.” A flicker of a taunting smile appeared on her lips. Not wanting to be teased, Siaron sat on his hands and sat as still as possible.
The Lady of the Wood knew what she was doing, and though it hurt, the pain was not unbearable. When the wound was clean, she quickly bandaged it.
After it was bandaged, Siaron thought his head felt much better. The lady took the wet cloth and wiped the blood off of his face. The throbbing of Siaron’s head had diminished, and now he could feel the lady’s soft, careful touch on his face. He looked at her face as she worked. He thought again of how beautiful she was. As he watched her quiet concentration, he found that she did not seem nearly as scary as she did earlier. It was not difficult for a smile to grow on his face for the first time that day.
“That is better.” The lady said, smiling back at him and laying down the cloth.
“Thank you.” Siaron said sheepishly.
“You are welcome.” As if reading his mind, her thumb stroked his cheek one more time. “You should sleep.” At this, Siaron decided she was not reading his mind after all.
Siaron slept soundly, and in the morning the lady gave him a nice breakfast. She then handed him a pack filled with food and water.
“You must return to your people today.” She told him.
He looked at her gravely. “You are asking me to leave you?” He had grown quite fond of her and of her place in the forest, and it saddened him to leave. The Lady of the Wood does not claim to be magical, but there was something undeniably enchanting about her presence.
“Yes, soldier. There is nothing for you here.”
“But you are here.”
“Ay, I see in your eyes that you are enamored with me. I must inform you, though, that your feelings are misplaced. I admit, I enjoy visitors from time to time, but I cannot give you what you seek. My heart lies with the forest. Return to your village.”
“I am afraid there may be no village to return to. If they have not already, our enemy will not wait long to plunder the village.”
“That is why you must return with haste. If there were other survivors, your women and children may already be warned, but if not, they need you to warn them.”
“And then what? Where can we go? The only other nearby village has already been destroyed.”
“Gather what supplies you can and take refuge in this forest. You can build a new settlement in these trees.”
“But our enemy lives in this forest.”
The lady shook her head. “Their reign does not extend past the Northwestern corner of the forest in which you fought. The southern woods are uninhabited. There you can live in harmony with the trees. Come east first from your village and then cut south. You will have safe passage through my land.”
Siaron left and hurried back to the village after the lady told him which direction to go. The enemy had not come to finish off the village yet. They were satisfied for the moment with the victory over the army. The villagers were grieved by the bad tidings Siaron brought with him, but his plan offered them hope and heartened them. They gathered what they could quickly, and then left for the forest immediately. They reached the forest without seeing any signs of the enemy and passed southward easily, just as the Lady of the Wood had promised. At the lady’s request, Siaron kept her existence a secret—at least while they crossed through her land.
In this new land, the people made houses in the trees and learned how to find food and survive in the forest. With the Lady of the Wood’s blessing, the trees respected and grew to love them. The people mourned the loss of their King and of all the soldiers. There were few able bodied men left in the population, but they made do. They made Siaron their new King, for though he was young, he led them safely to their new homeland. Siaron proved to be an excellent King. He was a fine leader and a good man. The people grew accustomed to this new life, and they were soon prosperous again. Siaron the King found a wife who bore him five children: three sons and two daughters.
But he never forgot the Lady of the Wood or what she did for him. His thoughts often wandered back to her when life got stressful. And from time to time, yellow birds with purple crowns and white hearts would come down from the north, singing their sweet song. Siaron would meet them under the trees and sing back to them. He always sent them back with gratitude and with the message, “All is well.”
A silence follows these last words as we return from the romantic wisps of memory to the campfire once more. There has always been something about stories that allows me for a moment to forget myself and live in a dream. I cannot put my finger on it. No, identifying the enigmatic something that captivates my heart would ruin the story. The most desirable aspect is not the characters, nor the plot, nor the moral. It is the unattainable nature of the unknown, of the long ago, that whets the soul.
While I cannot be sure if others feel the same, I suspect they do, for they always ask for another story.