The Woodcutter – Kate Danley

The darkness settled like wings, blocking out the sun and casting the forest into false night. A woman no older than sixteen ran through the trees, her white ball gown of gossamer gathered in her hands. The leaves shivered in the wind and whispered a warning. Quietly! Quietly! they spoke. Though she could not understand their words, her breath caught in her throat, for she heard the clatter of death waiting to fall. The Beast was nearing. The earth tried to soften the ground as she flew, to muffle her feet in moss and mud, but it was not quite quiet enough. She exhaled and the cold darkness overcame her. With fangs of ice, the wind bit and gnawed at the very marrow of her bones. It yanked her strawberry curls from atop her head and wrapped them around her swan-like neck. It spat clods of mud at her eyes until she could not see. She stopped, frozen in place, knowing there was no escape. All that was left was to turn and face the Beast. And in that terrible moment, though her body chose to fight the monster that was stalking her, her soul refused such a death and leapt from her body to continue its flight. The husk of her flesh fell silently to the forest floor as her spirit ran on toward a doorway of light that appeared before her.

Her spirit ran as she heard the footfalls fast behind her and as the cold wind became warm breath. Her feet were still moving as the Beast inhaled. Her scream still echoed as she clawed toward the light. But the Beast inhaled again and her ghost halted in its tracks. One final time he inhaled and her soul disappeared into his maw, no more than a wisp of smoke. The forest was silent as the Beast padded away. CHAPTER 2 A man knelt by the body and laid down his ax. The girl looked almost as if she were asleep, but her skin was too pale and the blue tinge to her lips gave her secret away. He brushed aside a long red lock that was masking her delicate features. She was no one he knew, but the relief he felt was tempered with the knowledge that a stranger killed in this place was far worse.

He picked up her arms and tilted her face. She was so young, so frail and light. His hands seemed clumsy and too large as he scanned her body for clues of her death. He found no signs of struggle. Only her white ball gown and chipped glass slippers suggested that she did not plan to lose herself in the Wood. The man rocked back on his heels and looked up at the trees, knowing that they would be of no help. The sight of his ax had silenced their voices, even though his ax had never been tainted by sap. Those in this place did not know his purpose—his purpose, as had been his father’s purpose, and his father’s before that… They did not know what it meant to be the Woodcutter. He took a deep breath and let his eyelids fall to half-mast. The warmth came, gathered up from the earth, and channeled through him as smooth as a warm spring over a river rock.

His vision blurred and he reached out to touch the girl. Like lightning, a shock ran through his body. His heart convulsed and he choked back the cry wanting to tear itself roughly from his throat. The taint of fear was like black tar upon the surface of a pond. She had been frightened, frightened to death, and her spirit had leapt from her body to try to save itself. “Whatever did you get yourself into, child?” he whispered. The Woodcutter wiped his hands upon his trousers and set about the grim duty of laying her to rest before the wolves found her. CHAPTER 3 The Woodcutter opened the door to a small thatched home. A woman looked up from her cutting board, the staccato sound of chopping vegetables pausing as she brushed back a wisp that had escaped her tidy bun. Her gaze lingered upon him long enough to release the breath he did not know he was holding.

He felt himself fall into the depths of her smile. She was a woman who had stood beside him for ten years and ten years more, and she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. “Wife,” he greeted quietly as he walked to the hearth and sat to pull off his boots. The warmth of the fire seeped through his clothes, but today it could not chase away the chill of the girl in glass slippers. His wife’s wide hips rustled her skirt as she walked to the mantel and removed a small, carved box, just as she had every night for ten years and ten years more, and placed it on the table beside him. She laid a hand upon his shoulder. Like an old, gray-muzzled dog, the Woodcutter leaned against her, wanting nothing more than the peace brought by her touch. One might have thought she had a bit of the fae in her, but he knew better. Her spirit would not have been able to rest so quietly with him if the fae had mingled with her ancestors. She was who she was, no more, no less, and that was what made her so special.

She stroked his hair and then went back to her work. He pulled his pipe from the box and lit the tobacco. The smoke wreathed his head, its wafting trails dancing to the music of the house, the music of stews boiling and tarts being taken from the oven. All else was silent as the minutes slowly ticked themselves comfortably away. “Wife,” he finally spoke. She looked up. “I shall have to leave,” he said. A slight tensing in her neck was the only betrayal that his words would keep her awake every night scanning the road for his safe return. “When?” she asked so calmly it would put a player to shame, but he knew her tells. The Woodcutter looked into the rings of smoke.

They never lied. “Tomorrow,” he replied. She nodded and took plates from the cupboard. “I shall prepare your things for the morning.” Their eyes locked, but neither of them spoke another word. Indeed, the Woodcutter thought, never had a man loved a woman more. CHAPTER 4 The lark welcomed the sun as the Woodcutter stretched in his bed. He could hear his wife stirring the coals downstairs. He rose and walked to the washbasin, splashing its cold water upon his face. It was a harsh greeting for the day.

He wiped his dripping beard and looked out the window. Winter was fading and the tender touch of spring had caressed the earth, leaving its gift of new blossoms in delicate green. He pulled his jerkin over his shoulders as he entered the main room. His wife greeted him with a kiss to the cheek and steered him to the table, knowing he would leave without breakfast if given a chance. “I have placed food for two weeks in your pack and have filled two skins with water,” she said as he sat. He forked the eggs she had lovingly prepared and shoveled them into his mouth. He did not want to say that which must come next, but the words came as if bewitched from his lips. “I shall need the velvet bag from the cupboard.” The plate slipped from his wife’s fingers and crashed to the ground. She hurriedly crouched to pick up the pieces, careful to mask the concern from her voice.

“The black bag?” “The black bag,” he repeated, the words sounding calmer than he felt. She threw the broken pottery into the rubbish bin. “Is it so terrible?” He grunted, not daring to say more. The words they had spoken already could have been picked up by the wind and carried to ears that should not hear. The magic was too strong in the Wood. His wife sighed, wiping her plain hands on her apron before opening the cupboard. She moved with strength and deliberation. His wife had not known his calling before she married him. The first time he saw her was at the harvest festival. The absence of glamour was intoxicating.

Surrounded by the swirl of other ladies in painted fineries and magicked perfumes, she stood in the firelight with no auras, no spells—just quiet, like an ancient oak rooted deep to the center of the earth. His heavy feet carried him to her side as if by flight, and he had asked her to dance before he knew what he was doing. She answered with a smile, a smile that revealed the clever wit beneath that silent face. He had been taught since childhood to listen for answers in the gentle murmurs of a breeze. As he led her to the floor, he read her heart in the quickening of her breath, in the pressure of her fingers upon the crook of his arm, in the way her eyes sparkled in the lantern light. They said things he knew her lips never would. And he knew, in that moment, he would never meet another woman like her if he traveled every inch of the world and back again. They were wed before spring. They were childless, as all Woodcutters are. His son had not yet found him, but blood would call blood.

A child would be laid at their doorstep, and that child would grow to take over his role. The Woodcutter watched his wife as she carefully placed the small bag within his traveling pack. He couldn’t help the thought that danced across his mind: such a woman, who had waited ten years and then ten years more, should be allowed to have a child. And with that unbidden musing came the blanket of failure. The child had not yet appeared, and the truth was that the Wood had not yet deemed them worthy parents. It had not yet deemed him a worthy father, for his wife was everything a child could ever want in a mother, and more. “I have tucked the bag in the side pocket,” she said, interrupting his sad reflection. He rose from his seat, his breakfast eaten. His wife walked him to the door and settled the straps upon his shoulders. “You will be careful, and you will return to me as soon as you can.

I shall watch the moon and wait, my love.” He kissed her dearly and, with a final look, walked out into the morning mist. CHAPTER 5 The Woodcutter sat by the deep water as it rushed by. He opened up his pack and placed his lunch upon the grass. There was a time and a place for movement, and the wind had whispered, Hush. So the Woodcutter sat by the riverbank and finished his journey cake to the last crumb before the wind gave him leave to begin. He took an onion from his pack. Carefully cutting it, he rubbed its juice across his hands and then moved to the water’s edge. His hands unstrapped the ax at his side, an ax that was owned by his father and his father before him. He leaned over and listened to the water, listened to its gentle words as it guided him along.

He listened and waited for the build to reach a crescendo. And then he casually allowed the ax to fall. “Oh, my ax! My ax!” he cried, wiping his eyes with his onion-laced fingers. As they burned, he made sure his tears fell into the river. “Honest woodcutter, why do you cry?” He looked up. A wrinkled old man with white whiskers and beady eyes sat in the fast current as relaxed and calm as if resting in a washbasin. The Woodcutter felt the magic shape the words that came out of his lips: “I have lost my ax in the river, and without my ax, I shall not be able to cut wood for my family. Without wood for my family, my wife will surely die.” There was a gleam in the River God’s eye. “Why, honest woodcutter, I would be happy to fetch your ax from the river.

Wait here and I will be naught but a moment,” said the god. The Woodcutter sat. The wind blew the hair on the back of his neck the wrong way. The River God bobbed back to the surface. In his hand was an Ax of Shining Silver with green emeralds along the handle. “Here you are, woodcutter. I have brought you your Ax.”

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