Not so very long ago but before you were born, an idle lordling went riding through one of the great forests that sweep across the Isles. You may guess which forest, and which man, but I will not tell you.
He was riding fast and to no clear purpose, for he was young and careless of his responsibilities. None of the stories his mother had told him of men vanished into the wilderness or returned changed beyond recognition could teach him caution. He might even have sung as he went, for his heart was unburdened that day as it never would be again.
If it had been night, he would have felt a little fear—his was only the folly of youth—but this day was fine, and it was with surprise and delight that he found a girl sitting in the branches of a tree.
Was she lovely? No doubt she wished to be. But any woman—even a raw-boned, overgrown girl—enthroned on boughs on a sunny day, her fair hair lit by leaf-light, would look prettier there than on the ground. Especially in that place. Besides, as I said, he was young, and young men fall easily in love.
“Hail and well met!” he called up to her.
She did not acknowledge him and kept her gaze fixed on her drop-spindle and its lengthening twist of thread. But, although she did not pause in her work, a deep blush bloomed on her high cheeks and the angle of her throat.
“What is your labor, gentle maid?” he asked, and sidled his horse nearer, until he could almost touch the girl’s long dirty feet. She pulled them up under the hem of her dress and continued to spin her thread. He could see now that it was a peculiar yarn, coarse and green, and that her broad hands were swollen and bled.
“Won’t you speak even a word?” he pleaded. “Surely your voice must be as sweet as your face.”
She reddened so furiously now that her fair hair and eyebrows shone green-white against her forehead. But still she said nothing.
It occurred to him that she could not speak or might not even understand. Yet she had tilted her head away as if she only chose not to see him.
“What thread do you spin?” he asked, and reached to touch it. At first he felt only the rough fibers, but then his hand began to sting as if scraped by needles. He snatched back his fingers and swore.
When he glared up at the girl, he saw she had caught up the spindle in one hand and was laughing, silently.
“Is this witchcraft?” he demanded, lowering his hand. She merely flicked aside a folded corner of her apron to reveal it full of nettles, their leaves toothed and jagged. Amused superiority danced in her sunlit face, as if—were she able, were she willing—she might say something as sharp and lively as the nettles themselves. But instead she joined a fresh length of the plants to the end of her thread, and again her nettle-reddened hands set the weighted spindle twisting in the air.
“Cloth of weeds, and fabric of needles said the young man. “You work in vain, lady—who would buy such thread?”
Then, since he did not mean to insult her, he said more softly, “It pains me to see your hands so harmed. Won’t you set your work aside, and walk with me?”
She shook her head once, firmly, and did not cease her spinning. But her fingers were less deft than they had been, and she wore a small smile. The young man had a gift for flattery, however honestly meant, and he was handsome—do not blame her.
“I will wait here until you finish,” he declared. “Unless you sprang from that branch like a leaf, you must come down soon. Or speak, or—” he grew daring, “or send me away with a glance.”
She pressed her lips together as if to hold back words—a rebuke, he suspected from the flare of her nostrils, or even a jest, from the way one corner of her mouth quivered. But he was certain it was not a dismissal. Nor did she glare at him in outrage or distress—she kept her gaze on her work, and her long lashes fluttered pale as wheat against the upward curve of her cheeks. Only her firm chin went up a little, as if she had chosen to defy something. It made her look proud as a queen.
No doubt he had somewhere else to be—young men often do. He was the heir to a name and lands, after all. If he had gone, he would have found another love soon enough, and a simpler life, and less grief at the end of it. If and if and if.
Instead he tethered his horse and, avoiding the stands of nettles that grew thick as banners on a battlefield, he spread his cloak over the leaf-littered ground and lay down upon it, the better to watch the girl.
But he could never sit long silent. “Shall I sing?” he asked. And yes, he might have more profitably told her about himself, but he assumed he was as well-known within the greenwood as outside of it.
He was not, of course. That place has its own hierarchies and legacies, and they shift like leaf-light. But the girl had, I think, once lived in the world outside, before she went in pursuit of her own fortune, so perhaps she had heard of him.
“If you do not like it,” he said, “you may throw your spindle at me.”
The song he sang was an old song even then. Although the words change with every singer, you know the tune.
“Are you going to the greenwoods so fair?” (he sang)
“Nettles and thistles and thorns on the vine.
Seek me out the handsomest there,
And she will be a true love of mine.“
She smiled, ruefully, and shook her head. Encouraged, he went on.
“Are you going to the meadowlands sweet,
Where violets and daisies and lilies grow fine?
Find me the lass with the dancing feet,
And she will be a true love of mine.“
He saw one of the girl’s feet swing beneath the hem of her dress, and—not thinking that wildernesses listen and learn, that they can (if they choose, if a question is asked just so) make honest belief and fervent deception equally true—sang further.
“Are you going to the bright bold town,
Sober and sage grow merry in time!
Kiss the girl with a shining crown,
For she is now a true love of mine.“
The blue and gilded shadows were thickening when the girl wound up the last of the green string she had spun and put it with the little drop-spindle into the broad pocket of her now-empty apron.
“A true love,” she repeated, archly, although her voice wavered for a moment. “Have you so many, sir, that you must send someone to kiss them by proxy?”
He jumped to his feet and shook out his cloak. “I haven’t any love at all, save you,” he said earnestly. “I won’t again. And I’d much rather kiss you on my own behalf—in forest, field, and town.”
“You make very bold!” she scolded him, her voice warm and sweet.
“Jump down into my arms and I will.”
She regarded him narrowly. “I’m not sure I liked your singing.”
“Didn’t like it? The very branches bent down to listen!” It was a common enough saying, then as now, but truer under those branches.
“Hmm,” she said. “The song I knew to that tune ran differently.”
“Then teach me,” he begged her.
“You might not like it.”
“I would like any song you sang,” he promised, no more rashly than anything else he had done that day. “But if I don’t, then you shall only have been paid with your own coin.”
“Very well,” said the girl, and she smiled as if her own words alarmed her. “I will come down. Only you must promise never to kiss me without my leave, or you shan’t kiss me twice.”
He promised, and hoped it would not cost him too dearly. But when she jumped down into his arms, he nearly thought restraint far too high a price. On the branch, she had been untouchable, ethereal; it was easy to make promises to such a being. Now he held a human creature of muscle and bone, sharp elbows and rough wool, and he would have been glad to be allowed to kiss her.
“The aunts expect me home,” she said, modestly, although her face was bright.
She allowed him to set her upon his horse and, although he would rather have ridden with his arm about her waist, or her arms around his, he walked alongside.
“You promised you would sing,” he reminded her, after they had walked for a peaceful time in a direction to which she did not object.
“Of course,” she answered. “How else would we find my house?” But before he could puzzle that out, she began to sing in a voice of smoke and honey, like nothing he had ever heard.
“Tell him to build a bridge over the stream—
Merry and winsome grow sober in time—
With never a truss, or a rope, or a beam,
If he would be a true love of mine.“
“What of a stone bridge, or rope?” asked the young man, who never could keep quiet. They passed over roots tangled like stairs, between old carved boulders, and under fringes of moss that dipped like sleeves from raised limbs. Yet for all that, they kept straight on and did not need to turn aside for any obstacle, and so they had leisure to talk.
“You need wooden forms to build a stone bridge,” she told him.
“Is your father a mason, that you have seen bridges built?”
“I have seen a little of the world,” she answered dryly. “If you want to reach my house by nightfall—and I assure you, you would not like to spend it out here, not even the aunts like that—let me sing on.”
He could have imagined far worse company on a night out of doors. But he did not say so, and she continued.
“Tell him to grow me a rare rosy wreath—
Briar and bramble and thicket and vine—
With never a thorn, nor yet a green leaf,
Then he will be a true love of mine.“
“That’s hardly fair,” he complained. “Must it be roses?”
“Don’t you know any stories?” she replied. “Besides,” she added simply, for she had not asked herself why this was so, “the words fall best that way.”
“But without leaves or thorns—those aren’t true roses.”
“Ah, true roses are tricky,” she said, a little sourly. But then she shook back her hair. “Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never been...at least, before this—” and she gestured to the boughs that never quite forced them to duck, “you didn’t look at— I mean, you wouldn’t have— That is, I wasn’t the sort to be given any flowers.”
“I’ll remedy that.” He halted at once and began to search the grass and undergrowth. The horse shook its head. But although they had only walked for long enough to sing two verses, the warm afternoon had faded. The air was already velvety with twilight, and any flowers he might have gathered had closed for the evening.
“Not now,” she said. “I am not fond of the dark.”
“I’ll build you a fire.”
“Not here. Let’s go quickly. I will sing until we get home, unless you know a better song.”
She might have meant a better song for traveling to, but he did not understand, and he said, “I’d rather hear you sing.”
So she went on, while the air grew cold with night.
“Tell him to hand me my own beating heart,
Rosemary to remember, daisies for time,
And neither shed blood nor tear flesh apart,
Then he’ll be a true love of mine.“
The young man liked that last verse least of all, but he did not have time to say so, for when the girl stopped singing, full darkness was upon them, swift as pouncing, and he was a little afraid. It filled the hollows between the trees, and not even stars fluttered through the branches. But ahead, firelight spilled from an open door and spread its fingers between the shutters of windows.
“My house,” said the girl. “Or the aunts’ house, rather. For now.”
The young man could not make out the building’s shape. It might have been no more than a hovel; it might have been a palace. Above the windows, blackness towered until it ended in the shape of treetops, too high against the deep blue night.
He realized he could not guess in which direction his own home lay—the constellations were too few and distant. He remembered, like the steps of spiders, phrases of stories his mother had told him when he was small. A rhyme beginning: The land rises but the path dips down, a life away from field and town...
It was lucky he had not sung that.
“Set me down on the doorstep,” said the girl sturdily. Heartened by her fearlessness, he obeyed, and he stood back and watched her tall lean shadow as the door swung inwards. She, at least, was real.
The light did not reach as far as his feet. It seemed contained, as if in a vessel of glass, and the shapes of women swam fogged within it.
“Who is there?” spoke a voice, querulous.
“Just the lass,” said a second, nearer the threshold.
“And a man,” said a third voice, by the window.
“A man?” echoed the first voice.
“A young one,” said the woman nearest them.
“Oh dear,” said the other two together. “We can’t keep him, too. Send him on his way.”
“It’s dark out,” said the girl, and entered. The young man tried to follow her, but he found himself always outside the circle of firelight that spilled in a clear pool around the door. He was, he reasoned, tired—it had been a long day, though he remembered only a short bright span of it.
“Besides,” the girl went on, inside, “these ways are less his than yours.”
One of the aunts snorted. “Did we plant the wandering paths?”
“Do we walk them, if we can help it?” asked another.
“Tell him to sleep on the step,” said the third. “Prove his faithfulness.” She gave a huff that might have been laughter.
“It’s cold, and growing bitter,” replied the girl. “He brought me this far, out of kindness.”
“Kindness? He’d not have been half so kind had you looked other than you do now.”
“I still question his judgment,” said another. “As fair maidens go, your face remains a small enough fortune, my dear. Although you could, I suppose, trade him...”
But the girl must have stood firm, for the third aunt exclaimed, “Oh, very well! Bring him in, if you must. But don’t feed him. If you feed them, they stay.”
“As we have all learned,” said the girl, gravely. “But it has been a long and weary ride, and he lingered all the day by me without eating.”
“Feasting his eyes, at least, I’m sure,” muttered one of the aunts.
Another murmured, “Some enchantment must have fallen upon him.”
“If he took the day about it, no doubt he’s had his fill,” said the third.
“Perhaps,” said the girl haughtily. “But what he saw is not yours to begrudge him, any more than are roof or step or path.”
“Oh, aye?” said the aunts together, in amused surprise.
One of them went on, “Oh, very well, my fine lady of the forest, of the hut, of the fireside! Bring in your stray and let us see him, for a good deal else is still ours to see and pass judgment on—and you have not yet got all that you asked of us, only remember that.”
The girl went out and took the young man by the hand. She led him into the overflow of firelight and then by step and threshold to the hearth of that hidden house.
He felt, then, that the aunts looked very hard at him, but he could not return their regard. The fire flared high and the light danced about the walls, the spinning wheels, and the great loom with its beams and weights and cords, until the house was crowded with the shadows of watching old women.
But the girl, who stood a little defiant in front of them, had like him only one shadow, for all the flickering of the flames.
“Good evening, mothers,” said the young man politely, as though he had spent any number of evenings in weaver’s cottages and among ordinary folk. Wrong as he was, he had at least learned manners.
“We’re no mothers,” said one of them, out of a nest of circling shade.
“Nor do we approve of the practice,” said the second.
“It always leads to problems,” said the third. “And often as not, we must deal with them.”
“Let us hope that at least she’s clever enough not to trouble us that way,” said the first.
The young man thought he was certainly overtired. The fire must have smoked abominably, too, for although the flames seemed clear, he still could not make out the features of the aunts.
“We could take him, in place of her promise—” said one.
“He is not hers to give,” said another. “Not yet.”
“Nor worth the trouble,” said the third crisply.
When they turned their attention abruptly away from him, he felt the day’s travel in all his joints and the weight of his eyelids.
“Have you thread and spindle and weight?” they asked the girl, their shadows now gathering around her, now flitting to the corners of the room.
“I have, dear aunts,” answered the girl, taking the items from her apron. If she saw how the aunts—if they were aunts, if they were women—boiled and flickered around her, she gave no sign, but her voice was hollow. “And I hope the thread is well used, for the earning of it cost me dearly.”
“Pah, nettles,” said another. “Child’s play. There’s girls—delicate things, too!—as have spun nearly enough of that for a dozen shirts, and this is only for a coat.”
“That young woman spun for love of the wearers,” said the girl, “as I heard the tale.” “I suspect I will never meet the customer for whom this is destined.”
“Nor should you wish to,” said one of the aunts. “There are those who’ve lived longer in the woods than any mortal should. Too long, and the stain of it gets into their souls.”
“Besides,” said another firmly, “you heard the tale wrong. Those who spin do so to turn the world to a shape that pleases them.”
“It is not the world that I hope to change,” said the girl.
“Did you cry out as you picked the nettles? Even to hiss between your teeth?
“You taught me better than that.”
“And did you speak as you worked?” asked another, examining the thread.
“I did not.” And for a moment the young man felt again the speculative regard of the aunts, but the girl added slyly, “You did not say my company must keep silent.”
“Perhaps we should have,” said the third aunt, ominous. “And did your feet touch the ground before you had finished?”
“Not even after, until I reached the threshold,” said the girl, and the blush returned to her face.
“Likely you have ruined all your hopes,” said the first aunt. “To bed with you, before you disgrace yourself utterly.”
The girl kissed each of them in turn, but when she reached the young man she held out her hand.
“No kiss for me?” he said.
She brightened a little, as if she’d expected him not to ask. But she only said, “Remember your promise.”
“Very well,” he answered, and pressed her fingers. Then she walked between the looms and climbed a steep ladder, up through the ceiling. When he turned from watching her go, he found a bed of blankets already spread out by the hearth and the fire sunk low. The aunts were still indistinct in the gloom but more solid.
Had he been wiser, or less tired, he would have feared them. But his heart was merry, and the girl had smiled upon him.
“How did you find her?” asked one suspiciously. “She bargained with us for a great deal, but not you, not yet, nor—” and she sniffed “—no, nor are you a creature from the trees, or from below them.”
“I did not know until today that she lived,” he answered. “She was in the branches, spinning, when I went riding by. I saw her and I rode no further.”
“Did you not find that peculiar?” asked the second.
“Not peculiar,” muttered the third. “That thread must always be spun so.”
“I found her beautiful,” replied the young man, honestly. “And she did not mind my singing more than I minded her silence, although—” But no more than he could be silent could he be entirely earnest. “Although I think we are both happier now the other has ceased.”
“Singing,” muttered one of the aunts. “Preserve us.”
“Who is she, pray?” asked the young man. “That I may seek her again.”
“Nobody and no-one,” said the first aunt. “Certainly no hen to hatch a brood of heirs for you.”
“Ours,” said the second.
“Her own,” said the third.
And they would not tell him more but ascended, muttering and murmuring, into the upper room, and drew their shadows up after them. He was left alone.
The fire, the young man discovered now, was banked to a red glow, and at some point bread and water had been set out, although he had not seen by whose hands.
After eating half the bread, which was quite ordinary, he stretched out by the hearth. He made no complaint about it—his own house was fine and large, yes, but he had slept on the ground before, and this was after all an adventure. From the floor, he peered around the darkening room, at the shifting shapes of the looms and heddles, bobbins and wheels, the dull curve of a somber metal mirror upon one wall, and the night between the cracks in the shutters. The blankets around him were rich as his bedclothes at home and patterned with strange figures—people and birds and briars—but it was too dim and the bed too warm for him to make out the details.
That night, he dreamed a great shadowy hound slipped in at the locked door, ate the rest of the bread, and curled at his feet.
Then the aunts descended from the attic and stood surveying him. Although his eyes were closed, he could see them much more clearly than he had been able to while he was awake—although he could not have described them afterwards, except that between them they had many bright eyes and folded limbs.
“There’s a surprise,” said one of them, nudging the hound with a toe. It stretched and yawned and curled up tight with its tail over its nose. Perhaps, after all, it was only an ordinary dog—and in truth, it was neither a man bewitched (that I know of!) nor the ghost of one murdered (at least, not that I have heard).
“The young fool probably fed it,” said another with a sniff. “Some hearts are given too easily.”
“As we see,” said the third.
“Is it an enchantment, do you think?” asked the first. “Not the dog, but her, of all earthly girls. Him, of all idle fools.”
“Youthful fancy,” said the second.
“That’s the true danger,” said the third. “Falling in love with them-over-there—well, a man might die in his folly, but he’d never rue it. Falling in love with such folk as these, knowing that, turn as they may, they’ll turn back to earth in the end—that’s to fall hard and far.”
The second said, wistfully, “I should rather like to have kept her.”
“You’d rather like to keep everyone,” said the first.
“But they’re pretty when they’re young and not yet what they must become,” said her sister. “Look at him sleeping so peaceful.”
“He’s a good deal prettier than her,” said the third.
“Oh, that will pass,” said the first. “These things have a way of finding their level. But we are running ahead. Let the matter alone. They are human children—their memories are short. And his kind require wives of a different sort.”
“Could we keep him, too? Turn him...” But the last voice fell to a whisper. The young man opened his eyes and saw he was entirely alone and the fire cold ashes. He touched the weave of the blankets and felt instead the familiar cloth of his cloak and the chill of a grey morning. An early wind hissed through nettles. Nearby, his horse blew a cloud of breath into the dawn.
There was no cottage, no dog, no aunts and no girl; only the piping of ordinary birds, the thinning fringe of trees, and beyond that the rolling fields of his own land under the open sky. And beyond them the brightness of his well-built manor house touched by the first rays of the sun.
If you saw those fields today, you might not believe me, but in those days the lands that belonged to him were rich and the light that fell on stone and timber and glass was unshaken by leaves. His mother welcomed him with relief, for he had been absent seven days. When he told her he had been gone only a night, she said, as if she wished to believe it, “You wandered in a dream.”
But although the walls were solid, the crops grew high, and the fields were busy, his mind was quiet with nettles and laughter, the face of the girl, and the tune of the song they had sung. If she had been a dream, she had hold of him still.
There was work to be done on that land, even by the lord of it, but it went unheeded. Day after day the young man rode out through ripening fields and up to the forest. He forded cool streams and lost himself in unimagined mazes, but whether in the saddle or on foot he could not find the house beyond it, nor a glade of nettles where a girl might have sat spinning. Each night he returned, weary and earnest as his mother had never seen him before.
“Something must change,” she said one night as he stood before the cavernous stone fireplace. He was staring past its carvings of beasts common and wondrous, his thoughts lost in the flames. “It is time you were married. I will find you a suitable lady.”
“It’s no use,” he replied. “I have met the only girl I intend to have. But I cannot find her again.”
His mother was a proud woman and did not approve of chance-met maidens, but she loved her son fiercely. Only a few weeks before, she would have rejoiced that he had grown thoughtful and sober, but she could not be happy to see him languishing. She knew, of course, that he rode each day beyond the open fields, and she had lived long enough near that wilderness to be wary of it.
“One need not marry where one finds love, dearest,” she warned him, all the same. “Few do. But if it must come to that, there are other women in the world—graceful and mild and gently raised, and for whom you might learn to care.”
“I know, Mother. Maybe once, but now I do not think I can love another.” And when he told her, at last, the whole tale of the long night he had spent among the trees, his mother’s heart ached.
“Ah, my son,” she said. “Was she even mortal?”
He thought of the girl’s wry smiles and the weight of her when she dropped into his arms. “I’m sure of it. She was not changeable like her aunts. She was not winding like those paths.”
His mother would have liked to have found him a woman with a good name and rich lands and no stain of the woods upon her soul, but she was not, after all, a fool. She knew, too, that the forest does what the forest will, and its roots go a long way down.
And although he was her son, he was no longer a child.
“I think—I fear—there is some curse or promise on you,” she said. “You will not find each other again until you can unravel it. If you are able. If you wish to.”
“I do wish to,” he answered. “Above all things. But what must I do?”
“How should I know the answer to that?” she replied severely, for she had always prided herself on good sense. Then she relented and said, “But if I were you, I would begin by searching for those weaver-women—if women they were—and asking them politely.”
She took a length of red woolen thread, with which she had been making herself a fine cloak, and gave it to him. “Go into the woods—sing if you must, since it worked before—and trail the thread behind you, that you may find your way back to me.” She gave him bread, too, to put in his pocket, and a ring, because in the stories she knew folks who traveled to the frayed places of the world always fared best if they traveled with three things.
And so, bearing his mother’s gifts, the young man set off once more.
He tied one end of the thread to the first tree he reached and unwound it behind him as he went. Yet he had no more luck than formerly, whatever he sang—songs of the hunt, songs of the sea, songs of the harvest. He tried to remember the words of the girl’s song, in case that was the trick of it, but he could only recall the sense; he could not make the words fall into the tune.
At last, in despair, he stopped and asked the branches and stones loudly, then angrily, then politely, to send him some guide. But there was no answer. Despondent, he dropped down to sit on a carved rock, took the bread out of his pocket, and began to eat.
Almost at the first bite he heard a rustling in the undergrowth, and a great hound bounded out of a stand of bracken, shaking its ears. It loped up to him and sat, eyeing the bread. It seemed an ordinary animal—its teeth were sharp but no more than those of any other dog; its eyes were bright, but they were fixed on his meal.
“Are you hungry, fellow?” asked the young man. “You’re a fine beast, fine as any of mine. Have you brought a guide with you, by any kind fortune?” It only yawned hungrily. So the young man gave the rest of the bread to the dog, which ate it almost in one breath. Then, having nosed about in the grass in search of crumbs, it trotted self-importantly away. The young man, having no better option, followed.
Soon the thickets grew close-woven and dark as evening, although, high above, small and far as the sky in a well, blue day still glinted. The way wound torturously, between split boulders and under nets of low branches knotted dense and heavy as a shroud, and more than once he was sure he saw his own footprints ahead of him.
Of course, he should have been afraid—afraid of what manner of country the path led through, or what was keeping pace in the rustling tree-dusk, or of where he was being led, or by what. But he knew what he traveled in search of, and he did not think to doubt his hope, his fortune, or his guide.
Folly brings its own rewards.
The path at last vanished at the great tree beneath which—or within which—the house of the three aunts stood, its edges indistinct in the gathering gloom. The dog barked once, in announcement or annoyance, and galloped away into the gnarled twilight.
The young man knocked, and the door swung open.
The aunts stood in it, shoulder to shoulder, although it seemed no wider than any other doorway. He did not trouble to be surprised by this, for he could now see them clearly: three women, neither old nor young, and as like each other as reflections in a curved glass.
“It’s the young man,” said one of them, acidly.
“Not as pretty as he was,” said another.
“Don’t they feed him at home?” asked the third.
He felt their attention rest on him as keenly as he had when they were only suggestions and smoke. “What does he want?” they asked together. “Has he not caused enough trouble? Our plans. Her wishes. This house, and us so comfortable in it.”
“Aunts,” he said, remembering their former rebuke. “I’ve come to find my true love.”
“Ah,” said one of the aunts.
“But is she yours?” said another.
“And are you hers?” said the third.
“And how did you get here?” asked the first, suspicious.
“I threaded a path,” he answered, and held up the end of the thread, which for all the distance he had traveled had not yet run out. His mother would have puzzled over that, but he merely supposed it was why she had given it to him. The aunts too seemed unsurprised by this, so he added, “And there was a hound which led me.”
“That dog!” said one of them. “A meddling busybody.”
“All dogs are,” said another. “We must make our plans around them, not in defiance.”
“Please,” begged the young man, who was—he realized as he stood there—both hungry and tired. “Is she here, and may I see her, or else how can I find her?”
“That’s not enough of a riddle, that we could be tempted to answer it for its own sake,” said the first.
“Has he brought a gift to sweeten it?” said the second.
“Some new thread?” said the third.
“Spun of shadow, spun of moss, spun of heartache or of loss?” asked the first.
“No,” said the young man, and considered the thread he held. “At least, I don’t think it was.”
“Spun of lighting, or of rain?”
Again, the young man shook his head.
“Spun of going home again?” asked the third.
“Ah,” said the young man. “That I have.”
The aunts took the spool from him and examined it closely, each holding a length so that it dipped like gut and sinew from hand to hand, vivid in the gathering dusk. “You’d sever it for her?”
“I would,” he said boldly. A more thoughtful man would have hoped he would not regret it. A more cautious man might have refused.
The first aunt took out of the pocket of her apron a pair of iron shears and closed them once, so that the blades sang against each other. It was a very final sound, and he was young enough not to like it.
“Perhaps,” he said politely, “I had better do it myself.” So he broke the thread with his own hands. Maybe those shears were no more than they seemed—I cannot say. But I know he earned no later sorrow by breaking the thread himself—except, perhaps, that sorrow which must come to all sons in time.
“Odd boy,” said one of the aunts.
“This will add a pretty shade,” said the one with the shears, holding up the length of thread.
“Not as rich as it might have been,” muttered another. “It’s already faded—an ordinary adventure.”
“Not for me!” said the young man.
“I’ve seen more lovesickness from a pup. You’re neither pale nor wan. Your history will hardly rival the great romances of the ages.”
“It will seem grand to them,” said another aunt, soothingly. “And she matters to us, and he matters to her, and therefore we will listen to him.”
“So the mighty lower themselves,” said the second, and gave a gusty sigh. “Confined to a borrowed cottage, and a girl’s fancy.”
“Hush,” said the third. “Threads won’t spin themselves, nor looms weave. Young man, in answer to the first part of your question: she is not here. For the second: you may not yet see her, for the trees keep you apart—they are witnesses and enforcers.”
“They are meddlers and ill-wishers,” snorted one of the others. “But for the third: tell us quickly what passed between you that day, that we may see the weave and how to unravel it.”
So the young man told them. They were particular that he repeat the words of the songs as nearly as he could recall them. Then they frowned.
“It’s a forest enchantment,” said one of the aunts. “There’s no hope for you. Those knots hold.”
“The groves may have blessed and sealed it,” said another. “But the two young fools brought it on themselves, smiling and singing so carelessly in the greenwood. You can only cure it, boy, by carrying out the promises you’ve made and taking the consequences. But you might never be free.”
“I don’t want to be,” he replied absently, and thought back on the words of the songs. “But I’ve already sought her.”
“Have you found her?” asked one aunt.
“Have you kissed her?” asked another.
“You told me she’s hidden.”
“Then work harder!” said the third aunt, “Meet her terms. And when you find her—kiss her!”
“I promised I wouldn’t without her leave,” said the young man.
“I suspect that won’t be a problem,” grumbled another. “If you find her.”
“If she still wants him,” said one of her sisters. “But I wouldn’t be too sure of that—she’s put a high price on herself.”
“At least she learned that much,” said another.
“All the obligation, it seems to me, falls on you, young man,” said the first. “Your song was a flattering little thing—bubbles on the air, and gone just as soon if she hadn’t added her voice. You gave your heart cheaply. What she sang cuts rather deeper.” She shook her head and muttered to the doorframe, “And what business did she have singing it, and to you, and here?”
“We didn’t warn her,” said the second aunt.
“We oughtn’t to have had to!” replied the third. “She knows the forest changes things, that it disregards earnest requests and catches up idle ones, that it seals bargains. Seven years she’s spent with us, and for what other reason than that—”
“Aye, and she traded us a roof over our head for the half of that wish. If she decides she doesn’t want our help after all—” She glanced in exasperation over her shoulder, at the welter of looms and wheels.
“What’s done is done,” said the young man, hastily. He had, after all, been raised by a sensible woman and was still not quite sure he believed everything the aunts said. “How do I undo it?”
“There’s two ways to such things,” said the first. “Like a thorn hedge—you can back out of it, or you can go through.”
“Backing out only seems easier,” cautioned the second. “Things break that can’t be unbroken.”
“Going forward’s likely to hurt,” said the third. “Those scars will last.”
“And woe betide those who seek to reach the goal by leaping over.”
“Woe,” agreed the other two, happily.
“And you will not let me see her until I’ve done all the song said?
“Us?” exclaimed the aunts together, and then one said, “This isn’t our forest, nor are we party to these terms.”
“At least tell me where she is,” he begged them.
“Spinning nettles, where nettles grow. We don’t disturb her, and neither should you—true nettle thread’s hard-won.”
“The best things are,” he said sturdily, although he had not before now believed it. Perhaps he still did not. But such words spoken in the forest may—sometimes—have the force of a vow.
“Go home, young man,” said the third aunt kindly. “Live a quiet ordinary life away from here. Father children. Till your fields and mend your roads and thatch your cottages—or go to war or ride hunting, and neglect them, as you will. You’ll not be the one to regret it.”
“I will live an ordinary life,” promised the young man, rashly—for who is to say he might not have become, in time, a great man. “I’ll mind my lands and die in my bed. But not without her.”
“Then keep your bargain,” said the aunts, and they closed the door and left him in the blue darkness.
He scrabbled in the dirt and the grass until he found the red thread. But when he began to wind it back up, intending to follow it home, the wool caught on twigs and stones and bark, and it broke as if it had perished in weeks of bad weather. Soon he lost the trail entirely. Night deepened. Somewhere above, rain fell, and water began to patter through the leaves and seep into his clothes. He shivered. His bones felt hollow. Had it been only that morning that he had set out?
He was in danger, although he never knew how great. He might have slept and not woken, or met another traveler (or himself) upon the path, or fallen through and become something else—such things have happened. He might have tumbled into a great adventure or merely have wandered on and never found daylight again.
But kindness without thought of reward rarely goes unpunished. The young man heard a crashing through the undergrowth. He stopped, very still, until—barely visible in the wet darkness—the hound was upon him. It leaned its warm body against his legs and pressed its cold nose into his hand and thumped his knees with its tail. He pulled its ears in greeting.
“Well met, old fellow,” said the young man. “I’ve no bread with me here, but if you can help me to some kindly hearth, where I can puzzle out what must be done, you’re welcome to share both food and fire.” He had not learned to be wary of bargains.
The dog sighed at him peaceably, then trotted ahead into the night that folded heavy as velvet around them. The young man followed. For fear of losing sight of his guide, he did not look to the left or the right. That was just as well; at the edges of his gaze, the undergrowth filmed and spiraled like oiled water, the vines billowed like curtains stirred by a draught, and something prickled in it like stars fallen far too low. It was a treacherous path that he trod, had he known it. His world stretched only a little way around him, and as he walked it fell away behind.
But at last a light grew in front of him: a homely red glow that brightened into a merry blaze at the upper slope of the farmlands where they met the trees, and reached out through bars of shadows: a sturdy road of firelight. The young man stumbled shivering towards it, no longer needing his guide. By the flames, wrapped in all her cloaks and furs against a wintery wind (and surely it had been only early autumn when he left), was his mother.
There was thin snow on the stubble of the fields, more silver in his mother’s hair than he remembered, and in the firelight, her face was thin and lined. But she flung another cloak around his shoulders and did not ask him any questions until they were home, where the great manor house crouched low and glowing among its leafless orchards.
She sat him before the great fireplace and had hot food brought, but he had not even raised his spoon to eat when claws began to scratch at the iron-bound doors and a voice whined beneath them like the wind. The dogs by the fire raised their heads but made no sound.
“What has followed you home, my son?” asked his mother.
He looked up, wearily. Already the events of the evening felt months old; in his relief and tiredness he had abandoned his companion and forgotten his promise. “It’s a hound,” he said at last, remembering. “It led me through the trees.”
“What does it want?” asked his mother, levelly.
“A place by the fire, and meat,” he answered.
His mother herself stood and went to the threshold, her hand on the latch. “Can you think of any reason why I should not let it in?”
Had he been witty or wary, he might have thought of any number of ways his promise could have led to disaster. For one thing, he had not specified what the dog could eat, or for how long it could stay—and there may be things that take on the form of a dog for no good purpose.
But his mother was a fair-minded woman. It was she who had taught him that, in or out of a story, promises must be kept—no matter to whom they are made and whatever the cost. But all that entered was a dog that capered a moment around her skirts, then trotted over the stone floor to the fireside to fling itself down among the other hounds. They shifted to make room for it, sniffed at it idly, yawned and slept again.
It was so completely at home that the young man wondered whether he had seen it there before.
His mother watched it long and long. She thought of the legends she had told her son when he was just a boy—of minstrels who could sing the heart out of a chest, or into one; of soldiers who, wishing for treasure, tricked themselves to standing guard for a thousand years over a forgetful spring; of maidens, May-blessed and fox-footed, dancing uncatchable in sunlit groves. At last she said, “Such endings the tales of the forest have! I fear you are going to follow yours through to its conclusion.”
“I must,” he replied.
“You were careless.”
“Perhaps.” For all his exhaustion, he smiled. “It could be worse.”
“These are not rich lands,” she said, “and your father’s name—your name—is not one at which people tremble. But you could still do great things with both land and name. You spoke unwisely, I grant you. But you made no promise as such to the girl.”
“Would you have me only honor the letter of such things?” he asked. “Or are you testing me? I know I am not clever, mother, but I must learn wisdom sometime.”
In her sad heart, she was proud of him.
“Then think, for once,” she said.
He thought of the red thread, frayed and broken and given away. “Can you not help me?”
“No,” said his mother. She felt very old then, and yet still as ignorant of the mysteries woven through the world as she had been when a green girl. “I can tell you only what I have learned: there are two ways through everything, a rough and a smooth. But you must choose your own path—you are not a child, and she is your true love, not mine.”
He wished, still, to plunge out into the forest once more and blunder through it, searching. But that had profited him little so far, and he knew his mother was right—he had tried his strength. Now he must test his wits.
Wherever he turned, whatever he gazed on—in the grain of wood on the doors of the great hall, in the leaves of the orchard, in the coiled colors of the borders of books—he imagined he saw his beloved’s face. Still it did not occur to him that he might be cursed, or that he might blame the aunts or the forest or fate (although his mother did, perhaps, a little). If he suffered now, it was for what might be, not what had been.
And so, thinking on the future, he looked about him for clues to the riddles and learned to see anew the fields and gardens, trees and ponds, pens and tracks of his own countryside. He spoke to his people, his tenants, his servants, the farmers and millers and guards and cooks and shepherds, the washerwomen and brewers and tailors and weavers of common cloth. He learned their names and histories, he heard the myths and wonders of their trades. He discovered why each had learned not to go into the forest and listened to what they desired of him—the pressing needs and small joys of the turning year.
In that season, he laid by a store of knowledge and cautious goodwill that would stand him and his in good stead for many years. But although he heard many tales—of love and heartache, labor and loss—he found no certain answer to his most pressing questions. Indeed, he was only more sure that he wished to walk across those fields beside her, in harvest and spring and frost, and see the sun of the open day glinting in her hair, and sit with her by their own fireside until time overtook them.
Then he grew sober in his search. Through snowy days and icy weeks, he studied the words of old songs and the writings of wise men. He asked the learned people throughout that part of the land for advice and for books: little books of blue-stained pages gilded with stars like sand; great volumes of words knotted like a thicket of thorns.
He frowned over letters in all the languages he knew (his education, although he had seen little use for it until then, had been thorough). He became acquainted with philosophies and (to the extent he could reach them in that chill season and on those brief days) with tutors and merchants, priests and abbesses, cartographers and chroniclers.
They had answers to his questions—laws and principles, blood and death, prophecy and the consequences of all the unwelcome things that had happened in history and had been considered worth recording. Lessons repeated and inescapable, for the accounts in their books were rigid and unvarying, heroes and villains pressed like dead flowers between the pages.
His new knowledge was as bitter and stale as medicine—good for him, perhaps, but joyless. When he looked through it at his memory of the girl spinning nettles in the branches, she was a small and unlikely image. Distant as the bright impossibilities inscribed in the margins of manuscripts or hewn into the stone of cathedrals.
The snow fell heavily that midwinter. There were rumors (although even in those days, they were probably only that) of wolves howling on far hills and sightings of desperate men wandering hungry in the wilderness. The young man rode out with his mother—and later, for she was not young, without her—to the furthest cottages to make certain they had walls and roofs and fire. But beyond them always rose the forest, its bare branches clawing at the sky. The young man felt hopelessness eyeing him, like a starving beast stalking through the trees.
So at last he set aside his books and rejoined the life of his people. The great hall of the manor house filled with people eating at the long tables, singing and talking before the fire, and falling asleep in the warmth. His mother was there, too, but she had grown swiftly frail that winter. She hunched near the hearth, wrapped in rugs and blankets in the tall chair in which she had been used to sit straight-backed and regal, and her hands, once always busy, rested now. The young man felt, sharp as a thorn, a great love for her. But in that crowded room he also felt lonelier than he ever had before.
He went out alone into the winter. He saw grey smoke rise like vines from snow-shrouded cottages. He stood beside a frozen pond and saw the waterweeds underneath bent sideways as if a current flowed beneath the ice’s heavy glass. Another man might have despaired. But the air was bracing, and he was, after all, still young, and so he went inside laughing.
“Mother,” he said, “I’ve gone about this all wrong. I can think of two ways to answer the song’s demands. One is easy, as you said.”
She held her breath, for easy paths are often treacherous.
“Easy for me,” he added. “For there are other bargains I might strike to accomplish my tasks; there are powers above and below and beside who would take my fealty in exchange for what I desire.”
Easy paths with deep pits on either side, she thought, and closed her eyes.
“But I will not do it,” her son said. “Blood and betrayal and the birthrights of my people—I’ve no taste for that.”
“Then you will give her up?” asked his mother, drawing her shawls tighter.
“No,” he said lightly, as if he did not know the precipice along which his feet had led him or the ice that had struck into his mother’s heart. “But if there is an easy path, then there must be a hard one—not of wit but of work. Not of roses but of nettles. And that path, I’ll take.”
“Are you certain?” asked his mother.
But he was. And, as abruptly as he had discovered that his mother was grown old, she realized her son was no longer so very young.
“Then take your path, my love,” she said. “And with it, my blessing.”
Winter wheeled towards spring. His mother died, and the young man mourned her. He kept busy then against sorrow, as much as for hope.
On grey days he bent over dry wood with a chisel and learned from carpenters, cutting and blistering his hands until they grew calloused. On bright thawing days he studied the ways of living plants—coppice and sapling, field and glade—from those who worked them, and dug the earth, tearing and muddying his fine clothes, until he took to wearing sturdy plain ones.
He listened with an open heart to the stories and songs and lessons of the year, and searched them for the shifting lights of promises. And the dog, which had kept him company on his wanderings and slept on his feet when he studied was there still, sneezing at wood shavings and chasing rustlings in the grass.
(Had the young man thought to ask it... well, there’s no knowing what even ordinary dogs are capable of. But he did not ask, and there is no saying that his life would have been happier or longer if he had.)
And finally, a little way within the greening forest—beyond a stream, but within easy distance of his home—he planted a garden of young nettles. There he went every day, until he found the girl again.
By then the nettles had grown tall, jagged and dark, and she sat on a long grey bough, spinning in the shade of the late spring’s foliage.
She looked, in that dimness, beautiful to him. As lovely as a statue on a tomb, her severe gown stitched around hem and wrists with a pattern of flowers, and her hair close-braided.
He stood among the nettles, the dog close by him with its head beneath his hand, and said, “Won’t you come down, my lady?”
She did not answer.
“How many coats of nettles have you made in all this time? I’ve looked and looked for you.”
Her eyes were bright as if with tears, but they did not fall, and she would not return his gaze.
“Please speak,” he begged her. “Or send me away. Or shall I sing again?” he asked. “Loveliest—”
“Oh, don’t!” she exclaimed. “Look what happened last time!” Then she covered her mouth and glared at him.
“Talk to me,” he said. “If the thread is ruined, I’ll pay for it all.”
She bundled up her work and threw it at his feet. “There, have it!” she cried. “And good riddance to it and—and to you!”
She scrambled to the ground before he could offer to help her.
“Why are you angry with me?” he asked. “Is there something I have not done? Everything in the song—”
“Everything in your song!” she exclaimed. “In your song. You’ve cursed me away from you forever, or as much of it that matters. I’m not fair, and I’m not sweet, and I’m not shining. I’m human, and bitter, and—and I’m myself, as I am, and not all the charms of the forest or gowns of cunning thread or years of service or hospitality to old women have changed that. Not yet. Not in time. In a hundred years, perhaps, I might become lovely, or walk out of the trees into a world that finds me so, but you wouldn’t be there—”
She blazed in the light that flickered into the heart of the clearing.
“But you are lovely!” he said with a laugh, reaching for her hands. She pulled them away, but he continued, “You always were. I said so when I first saw you. Your hair shines like a crown. I have seen you swing your feet as if you heard music. And if that’s not enough I’ll—I’ll make you a circlet of flowers, and dance with you, and kiss you until you believe I know you to be beautiful.”
“Look at me,” she said. “Truthfully. Pretend you’re not be-spelled. I’m not a nymph, or a princess, or a swan-throated maiden. You would mock me with a crown of flowers? A dance? A kiss? What contract demands so simple a payment?”
She stretched out her hands, nettle-welted, work worn, the bones of her wrists stark beneath the embroidered cuffs of her sleeves. She held up her chin, so that the light fell on the raw angles of her face and the unraveling strands of her straw-colored hair and the red rims of her eyes and nose. He looked, and remembered what he had forgotten—the weight of her once quite real in his arms, the angles of her elbows and the smell of her hair. Real as sawdust and tilled earth, spring flowers and climbing vines.
“I don’t care if I am under a spell,” he said. “And after all, why shouldn’t it be just as simple, and as hard, as that? Perhaps even somewhere as ancient and terrible as your aunts’ forest likes a story that ends well, once in a while. Why should you have to—” and he racked his memory for legends he had heard that echoed her share of their problem, “—to find the skin of a wild creature and wear it for a year, or dance for seven nights without resting, or—or—or steal a crown from a sleeping prince? And incur who knows what debts besides, and start how many other stories?”
“Well, I haven’t succeeded in doing any of that,” she said sharply. “And if I only could forget you, I shouldn’t want this story anymore, either.”
“Yet here you are.”
“You lured me,” she accused him. “Growing a crop of nettles. Besides, the aunts told me that if I let them stay in the cottage no matter what happened, they’d tell me where and when to find you.”
He grinned, but she glared at him and went on. “But I’ve climbed higher than this tree, I’ve walked in your fields, I’ve gone to the very edge of the town. And I’ve ruined my hopes, just as they said, for I’ve seen your fields, and the lights from your hall, and I know what manner of ladies live in such places. Before I met you I wished to be just such a maiden, and to have just such a suitor. But I’m no bride for you, nor will I become one in your lifetime. You arrived too soon, and the bargain I struck with the aunts wasn’t finished.”
“Make a new one,” he said, and found in his pocket the ring his mother had given him, long ago. “Take this to seal it, instead of a song.”
She took his hands instead and turned them over between her own long fingers. “What have you done to yourself?” she asked. “You never took a cut like this from braiding daisies, nor even from growing nettles.” Her face grew pale. “Was it the words of my song? What have you done?”
It was his turn to redden. “Everything you sang,” he said, awkwardly. “Roses, and a bridge. And a heart. I wasn’t very clever to begin with, or I would have been done sooner. But you see, I can learn, in time—how to look at things, I mean.”
“It wasn’t so simple,” she said, sadly. “With never a thorn, and never a stone, and never blood. I was not fair to you either.”
“But I worked it out!” he said. “Only come and see.”
If the forest had not kept them apart until then, perhaps she would not have believed him. If the hound had not so clearly been at home by his side, she might not have trusted him (if and if and if). But so it was. She held onto his hand, and they walked back through the storm of early summer’s greenery, sun spangling their faces and the dog close at their heels.
The path was no longer than it should have been, and in a very little while they reached a stream, steep-sided. A young horse could have leaped it carrying one but not two. But green saplings, still growing, had been bent across the water, lashed together with their own young branches.
“I’ve sat awake dreading the manner of bridge you must have devised,” she said. “For I have heard there are... other places, beyond and below. Bridges of living bones, and tolls of the heart’s-ease.”
“It won’t bear much weight yet,” said the young man, “but in time they’ll grow together into a sturdy footbridge. Even now, if we go nimbly, I think we can get over without falling in. But if we do fall, we will dry out, and if this bridge does not satisfy the terms of the song, I have other ideas.”
But they crossed it easily, swaying and laughing like children, and it must have been enough—that living link between the farmlands and the deep forest.
Out of the undergrowth and over a low stone wall they went, down across the bright busy fields and into the great hall of the manor house. And for all her protests, the girl—standing there in that long room, with stone shadow and window light soft around her—gleamed like a candle.
“Here,” he said, drawing forward a chair. Its wood was still yellow. “I made it myself!”
“Carved all over with roses,” she said, wondering.
“So well-polished that there’s not a single splinter to be mistaken for a thorn. And nor is it green. It will be gold by the firelight—just like you.”
She laughed then. “Oh, this isn’t fair! These tasks were easier by far than the ones you gave me. Have you always been so clever at riddles?”
“I’m not,” he answered honestly. “Nor would I have spent so long worrying over them, if it hadn’t been for the thought of you.”
“And yet one task remains,” she said.
He took both her hands in his. “I think I have worked that out, too. I will need your help. But then we and ours shall be free of enchantments, and live happily until we are both old.”
He said that as confidently as any promise he had ever made her. If they been beneath the living trees, perhaps those might have sealed and enforced his words. But they stood only under the smoke-black beams of his own hall. “My help?” she echoed.
“Well, yes,” he said. “The answer is a child of our own.”
“No,” said the girl.
She turned and left him, then. She walked alone out of the great doors and over the fields, back into the trees. She walked quickly, and although he stumbled beside her, and the hound capered around them both, she did not stop until she was once more under the shelter of the boughs.
“I cannot,” she said, and he remembered too late the words of the aunts that first night in the cottage—no mother of heirs. “Besides, even if I could, I promised them my firstborn. Do not look at me so—I did not think it would come to pass! It was years ago. I knew so little then.”
“It’s better this way, I’m sure!” he said. “Bloodlessly—that’s what the song said. We’ll find one somewhere. I swear to you here and now—”
But she put her hand over his mouth. “No more promises.”
“Here and now,” he went on, speaking against her palm. “I swear. The first motherless child brought to our door, we’ll take it as our own, entirely. Will that work? Could we love it as the song demands, do you think? As our own heart?”
“Do you doubt—can you believe that I would not? ” she asked.
“Not for a heart’s beat,” he said. “Will you please let me kiss you now?”
She nodded, so he kissed her until she cried, and kept kissing her until she stopped again. They were quite alone when they linked hands once more and left the edge of the trees that final time—the hound had seen all it wished and had gone about its own business, whatever that may have been.
What happened next, you ask? Ah, my dear, the enchantments of the forest were powerful and their reach wide, even in those days. Next is a long story.
But I can tell you this much: after she married him, and the last condition of the—was it a curse? a promise?—was met (and although I do not know who guided the bearer of that motherless child to their door, I can guess), he still thought her the loveliest woman he had ever seen, and through all his days he never changed his mind.