By Terri Clifton
Townspeople and farmers, travelers and soldiers alike agreed the forest was a dangerous place and they were right. They said it was inhabited by an ancient witch, and they weren’t far wrong. Vast and dense was the wilderness, and few were the roads that passed through, and none through the deepest heart. Trees grew huge where no one dared to fell them.
Travel through the forest was never done in darkness, never done without fear and need. No one could remember a tale of specific harm, but the witch and her wood were feared no less. And it was true that the forest was haunted, but the souls who found sanctuary there were only interested in peace.
The springtime had been the driest in a generation. When heat joined drought, forest and farmland, hamlets and castles sweltered. Creeks became streamlets, and streams dried up completely. Even in the deepest shadow of the greenest trees the heat built, and the forest floor crackled under everything that walked. The meadow grasses in the clearings grew brittle.
Mother Foster sat in the shade and put her palm flat to the earth and whispered, then she reached one hand to the sky and sang quietly, soft as the bees. She knew that change was coming and would welcome it, but felt a thread that disturbed her, and asked the trees to find the danger.
The day the storm came dawned white hot, and haze blanketed the hilltops and valleys. The air was thick and foreboding, and even the birds muted their songs early and fell quiet. Despite the heat, Mother Foster sat over a brazier of coals, adding herbs a pinch at a time, attuning to earth and sky, fire and water. She closed her eyes and waited.
Still miles away, but ahead of the storm itself, the carriage rolled into the forest. Two matched black horses, nostrils flaring, ran like the wind. Their driver and outrider sat atop, hands on the reins and on a sword, leaning forward as if to propel the whole thing faster. If it was fear for themselves or for the women inside they wouldn’t have said, but were determined to make the safety of walls and castle either way. This road was the last bad stretch of their journey home, so close and yet so far. The horses needed little prompting to run. Skittish from the spirit of the wood, or just the fear rolling from the humans, they ran in a controlled panic, not yet close enough to sense the barn, but knowing it lay before them.
Dust flew thick, flew from hooves and wheels. Inside the passengers covered their mouths and noses and did their best not to be thrown about. The Lady Claudia held her small niece close even in the heat so the child wasn’t tossed. The nursemaid was taking deep breaths and fighting tears,as much afraid of Claudia’s glare as any other danger, but near her wits end. Claudia despised superstition but when the storm clouds began to lower, she too became afraid.
That fear and fury seeped into the hard packed road, and down to where the roots held the earth and was drawn up though the sap and the heartbeat that pulses within trees. Fear ran fast, and it reached the leaves and burst forth, ran along the canopy and passed branch to branch, until it reached the tree that Mother Foster sat beneath. She rose to prepare for the night ahead. Long before she and the other women reached the forest road, it began to rain. The sky went black.
The trees got so caught up in their own satiation that Mother lost their guidance, but she pressed on. She knew these ways from childhood, and however long it had been since she’d ventured this far, her feet stayed sure. Even as evening came early and the wind howled, she planted her staff steadily and moved forward, the others following her steps in a line, trusting her vision. Still, she was too far away to hold the lightning when it struck, or to whisper to the crazed beasts. She had known that may be so, and her task went beyond that the moment it ripped the sky.
The bolt struck high in the oak tree and blew out near the bottom, just at the carriage passed by.
Sparks and splintered wood exploded out, spraying over it. The horses stood in their traces, rearing, injured and blinded when their world went white. Their screams tore above the storm, and Mother Foster started to run.
Tack and hardware came apart. The velocity of the carriage and the downside of a hill propelled it forward. The downpour had turned the dirt to slick mud. Veering wildly, it overturned, breaking apart as it tumbled.
The clouds stayed alive with flashes and the rain continued to pour. The forest sighed but too much water fell at once and not all of it could soak into the parched soil. Already it was channeling down the dry stream beds, combining and growing, and Mother felt the new rumble under her feet. The keening of a woman reached her and she followed the sound to find the terrified soul on her knees, digging as she wailed.
A child was trapped in the wreckage. With one hand the woman held the child’s face out of the water that was filling the torn open compartment, the puddle too near the child’s nose. With the other she pawed at the mud.
The forest women lifted away the twisted door that had the girl pinned. Claudia looked up from her charge only briefly. In a haze of shock she allowed them to help her to her feet. With no idea where they were going she allowed herself to be led. Anna was carried just ahead where she could see her. A strong woman carried her, wrapped against the storm.
Whether it was fear or faith, she went deeper into the woods than she had ever been in her life.
Behind her the women worked to recover the bodies of the nursemaid, the driver and the outrider. The horse that survived was cut from its traces as the water rose around its feet. They gathered what they could, then moved to higher ground. Moments later the rushing water reached the wreckage and swept it into the road turned river, and off into the dark.
Claudia couldn’t have said how far they walked. She never realized she was limping, or her hands were bleeding, until they stopped. Ushered into a dry house she watched as Anna was settled on the bed while she was given a stool. She watched the old woman carefully as she touched the child’s head, then her arm. The lightest touch of fingertips on skin, then a gentle probing. The child never stirred.
One wrinkled hand on the child’s wrist and one on her elbow, Mother Foster gently pulled in opposite directions. There was a scrape when the bone slid together. Claudia fainted dead away.
When she woke in the night, her hands had been cleaned and bandaged with linen strips and she shared the soft bed with Anna. Her thumb throbbed where the nail had been ripped away. A different, younger woman sat next to the bed and gave her water from a wooden cup.
“She still hasn’t woken,” the woman said, touching the child’s forehead next to the livid bruise.
Claudia closed her eyes to pray but was lulled by the beeswax candle and the scent of crushed lavender, by the steady drumming rain. When she opened her eyes again it was daybreak but still shrouded and storming. There was a fire glow that felt safe and the care-woman was still there on her stool, and went to fetch tea seeing Claudia awake.
Claudia leaned over Anna and frowned as Mother went to her side.
“Do not let her feel your fear for her. Her mind may run away in panic and she won’t find her way out.”
A single sob escaped Claudia.
“What is her name?”
The same hands that had set the bone now cradled Anna’s face but she looked at Claudia. “And what does she call you?”
“Auntie Claudia.” One tear fell.
Mother Foster took their names and called out in her mind, whispering through her lips, her index fingers placed aside the girl’s temples where she could feel the pulse. Anna was very far away. Or she was hiding. Mother tried again and there was a flutter of lashes, then stillness.
“Talk to her. Tell her she is safe. Call her to you. She will come eventually, but sooner is better.”
It rained for more than a week. Anna woke up the second day, and was playing dollies on the bed with other little girls by time the deluge ended.
One morning before dawn the very last raindrop fell. The sun rose in a sky washed clean.
A trillion brilliant drops caught on leaves and long grasses of the meadow and the inside of the cottage brightened. Mother rose from her chair where she’d been waiting, and walked to the door. Her smile greeted the sun and she welcomed it into herself as she stepped outside.
Claudia rose quietly, drawn by the light and all she felt pulling in Mother’s wake. She stood on the stone step of the doorway.
The flowers in the garden were blown askew but their pinks and purples and yellows opened bright against the sodden foliage. The lichen glowed against damp wood and stone.
A beam of sunlight found its way through the branches and fell on the little meadow. The doe never moved as Mother went past. When she stood upon the rock and turned her face to the sun, Claudia caught her breath. Then listened as Mother sang a song as old as the woodland. The birds joined in and the trees stirred and swooshed without a breeze.
Mother Foster was the witch of the woods, the guardian of the trees, and when she turned back she saw Claudia watching her with fear in her eyes, then retreating back inside.
Mother followed and sat once more in her ancient rocking chair, waited while Claudia prayed over the still sleeping Anna, pressing bandaged hands together. She waited until Claudia opened her eyes.
“What is the nature of your fear?”
“That we are among witches.” She shook as she spoke but looked straight at Mother.
“We are women of the woods, who have done simple women’s work these days. You’ve seen them. They made the salve on your hands from the roots they gathered. They held cold spring water to your lips. They wove the blankets that covered you. But you fear them, still?
Claudia was silent.
Mother turned to the hearth where a young woman was cooking. “What binds you here, Delia?”
“Love, my Lady. I’m freely bound.”
The old woman smiled and nodded and turned back to Claudia. “You’ve not seen the care they gave to your dead, but they were shown every grace left to them. Their bodies were tended and wrapped and sent with prayers into the next world. If you knew the stories of these women you wouldn’t fear so. They fear more for you, returning to your world.”
“You knew we were coming.”
“And I did not reach you in time. For that I am sorry.”
“You knew because of sorcery.”
“I knew because the trees told me. They loan their magic to me, to the women who came before. The ones who will come after. Trees look forward as well as backward with stories and prophecies stored in their rings. Rings tell the story of the forest, and the tree. Just as we care and carry the experiences of those around us. The trees felt your grief, felt the death of a child. They could not accept the rain if that could be prevented.”
The sun shined strong and bright for the days that followed. Creeks and streams settled into their beds, and it was time to return Claudia and Anna to their people.
Moving almost soundlessly, nearly one hundred women escorted them to the edge of the treeline where the woodland met the plain.
Claudia had been blindfolded so she couldn’t tell the way. She blinked when it was removed. Mist clung to the ground and the sky went from pink to gold. The castle ramparts stood out in a hard silhouette, dark and damp. She looked toward the city gates then back to Mother Foster.
“I was so afraid to stay. Now that I have seen the truth, all I want is to stay. My fear of living within those walls again is greater.” She had seen nothing but love and light for the past two weeks. Now she had to re-enter a place of greed, and violence, and powerlessness.
Mother touched her brow in blessing. “Move past the fear child, for this must be.”
“Please, may I stay?” In her world she was of no value. She was barren and aging. Her charge of Anna after the child’s mother died of childbirth was her only joy, and only protection.
“No.” Mother’s voice was firm but gentle. “They would search for you, but would find us. And Anna still needs you.” Then she smiled. “But someday she will not, and you may return home to us, yes?” She placed a small carved whistle in Claudia’s hand. “Protect us.”
“Swear to them it was dreamlike, that it fades whenever you even try. Tell them whatever they need to hear to leave you and us alone.”
Claudia nodded and took the lead rope for the horse. She carried a staff in her other hand, topped with an improvised flag cut from the driver’s livery
She stepped forward out of the shadows with Mother at her side. Mother stopped at the edge while Claudia kept going. Anna looked like an angel with the sun hitting her curls as she slept.
The men on the ramparts gave warning and the soldiers came to the walls. They saw the litter approaching, and they saw one lone woman standing in the light, arms outstretched overhead. Some swore they could hear her singing. The old woman who guarded the forest became real to them as they watched the horse and the sled cross the open land.
Claire pushed back her hood as she reached the gates but without a word the portcullis was raising.
She looked back at the old woman, and in gratitude and solidarity, she raised the staff. The last of the mist swirled. She knew Mother had stepped back within the trees, but there was an audible gasp
from the soldiers above as she disappeared
Claudia suppressed a smile as she crossed the drawbridge, but she was starting to let her spirit soar. Someday she would return to listen to the trees, and learn to sing.