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Willow Wand

Aislinn awoke with a start, the many-voiced whisperings and haunting music of her dreams fading away into the morning’s gray reality. She sat up from her leafy bed of soft ferns with some alarm, for she knew that she had stayed out too late. The dawn had come, and she would be missed. Passing unsteady fingers through her wild mane of tangled auburn hair, Aislinn looked about and found the battered leather bag that she always carried with her. Clutching it to her breast, she quickly stood and looked around nervously.

They had gone once again. Not a trace of them was to be found in the sheltered clearing with the little pond of dark, deep water. No shadow of any size could be seen peering out from behind the thick boles of the tall, lichen-covered oaks. Aislinn found that she was holding her breath, and quickly released it in a rush. Her grip tightened on the strap that held her bag and her heart started to pound. Aislinn forced herself to breathe slowly as she carefully peered into the battered and worn sack.

The items were there: an acorn, a clutch of red rowanberries, and a small, slender wand of willow. Aislinn’s heart skipped a beat and she found that her shoulders were shaking. She bit her lower lip hard and tasted blood in her mouth. Breathing a silent prayer of thanks, she quickly closed her bag and hastened from the clearing. She paused only once as she passed the largest and most ancient of the oaks. She slowly knelt before the venerable giant and bowed her head once. Then she rose and hastened down the barely-discernible path, her bare feet scarcely touching the ground.

*******

Liam was splitting firewood as she approached the house, stopping in mid-swing as Aislinn approached. His dirty, unshaven face regarded her with a leering grin as she walked slowly up the path. She tried not to meet his eyes, and almost succeeded until he stepped forward to bar her way.

“Where have you been, girl?” he demanded. Aislinn hated that he never used her name. None of them did. It was either ‘girl’, or worse.

“I…I fell asleep,” she said “In the wood.” Liam laughed coldly.

“Well, you’ve a beating coming, that’s sure. But, not from me. You’ll get what’s coming to you soon enough when Miach comes home on the morrow.”

Aislinn turned to walk past him, but Liam reached out and took hold of her hair, pulling her head back until his rancid breath whispered hotly in her ear. He roughly squeezed her breast with his other hand as he spoke, and Aislinn knew better than to resist.

“I’ll see you tonight, my sweet little sparrow.” Liam laughed again, and released her. Aislinn slowly walked up to the house, not looking back.

Osla was waiting for her when she came inside. Aislinn couldn’t help but notice that the fat older woman held a leather strap in her hand. This was to be expected, she reminded herself. Osla was a head shorter than Aislinn, but she somehow managed to tower over the young woman anyway. Her high-pitched voice was quick and sharp.

“Where have you been, you little slut? Out frisking in the brush with some village boy, I suppose? You little heathen witch, your body isn’t worth the rags we dress you in, though I daresay you managed to entice some fisherman to wiggle between your legs for a time.”

Aislinn was silent. She knew Osla was simply building herself up to the inevitable beating she was to receive, so she didn’t see any point in wasting words. Osla’s eyes were piercing. She advanced a step.

“We paid good money for you,” she said, advancing still “Though, I was against it from the start. Liam deserves a finer woman. Finer than some clumsy forest witch who’ll more than likely bear him rotting stillborns instead of strong sons. Miserable wretch! I don’t know what Liam sees in you, but you will learn to do as you’re told. Oh yes, you filth, you will learn!”

Aislinn turned, and just narrowly avoided taking the strap across her face. The strap fell on her shoulders instead, and then her back. Aislinn bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain at first, but eventually could not help herself as the strap tore her already ragged dress to shreds and lay ruin to the soft skin beneath.

*******

The cool water rolled noisily over her feet as she stood in the shallow part of the brook that ran down alongside the house to disappear into the dark wood. Aislinn tore strips from her ruined dress and wet them in the water. Now she had only one other dress to wear, and it was hardly better than what she wore, being stained and soiled so many times before she had worn it that it’s original color could no longer be guessed.

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the small jar of salve and smeared some on the strips from her dress. She winced as she tied the strips over her back, but exhaled with relief as the harrowroot salve soothed the burning welts from her beating. She sat down on the overhang of the bank, turning to look wearily at the large basket of laundry she was to wash. A seething anger began to grow in her stomach as she looked with contempt upon the clothes that would go on the backs of those who mistreated her so. She had thought more than once of rubbing nettles against the fabric or simply casting them into the water to let the water carry them away. But Aislinn knew better. It would only earn her another beating.

She trembled at the thought of Miach’s return in the morning. He was always worse than Osla or Liam. Always. It wasn’t that he was more brutal. It was that he was smarter. Miach could be cunningly cruel when it suited him. Aislinn remembered the first and last time she had tried to run away last winter. Liam had caught her, and Miach had taken a horsewhip and made her run naked through the snows until she collapsed from exhaustion and the freezing temperature.

Aislinn put her face in her hands and began to weep softly. Could she be strong enough for them? Would they keep their promise? It would start tonight, they had told her. If it succeeded, she would finally be free. If it failed…

Aislinn wept by the brook for long moments. At length, the wind picked up, bringing with it the scent of apples and rain. Aislinn stopped weeping and raised her head as she heard once again the telltale whispering and light laughter on the wind. She did not turn, but could feel the soft footfalls all around her. She closed her eyes and stood still as tiny hands patted her cheek and small voices whispered soothingly in her ear. They were on her shoulders now, and in her hair. They laughed and sang softly.

“Aislinn, Aislinn, Moon’s Daughter,” they sang “Do not weep, do not sorrow!”

Aislinn felt tiny lips press to her forehead and her cheek. She could not help but smile through her tears as she felt a garland smelling of apple blossoms being placed gently upon her head. The whispering continued in her ear, intermingled with laughter and song.

“Remember the Oath, remember the Word!”

“Remember the three, and you will be free!”

“We will not falter, we will not faint, dear Aislinn!”

The tiny voices drifted away on the wind, and Aislinn sensed that she was alone once again. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked and saw a chain of pale blue forget-me-nots in her lap. The basket of laundry at her side was washed, dried, and folded. Her hair had been plaited with daisies and her back no longer pained her. Without looking, Aislinn knew there would be no scars. She smiled gratefully, dried her tears on her tattered dress, and silently changed into her only other dress. She then sat down, reached into her bag and pulled out a needle and thread. Taking one of Osla’s dresses from the basket, Aislinn began to sew.

*******

That night, Aislinn waited in the tiny bedroom in the back of the house. The blankets on the bed were dirty and riddled with fleas, but they were warm at least. She forced her breathing to remain relaxed while she waited for Liam. He eventually threw open the door and stumbled in, drunk as usual. He chuckled wickedly as his bleary gaze fell upon Aislinn in the bed, his hand fumbling at his belt as he threw back the coverlets to reveal Aislinn’s naked body.

Aislinn silently endured his painful thrusting within her, his foul breath hot against her as he grunted and drove himself roughly into her again and again. She closed her eyes and once again drew her thoughts away from Liam. Away from his drool running down her neck, his filthy hands groping her, and his wicked laughter when he hurt her.
At length, he was finished. He grunted and rolled off of her and laid his head back upon the dirty pillow. Aislinn stared upward at the ceiling, her heart pounding in her chest. She closed her eyes in silent thanksgiving when his deep snores could be heard at length. Liam hadn’t noticed the lump under his pillow where Aislinn had placed the acorn.

*******

The morning sunlight shone in through the dirty window when Osla pounded on the door to the bedroom.

“Get up, Liam! There’s work to be done!” Her high-pitched voice was sharp, as always. There was no answer.

“Drunken sot,” Osla grumbled, “It’s a wonder he doesn’t drown. Get up, you lazy lout!!” She pounded upon the door once again.

Listening for even a groan of protest and hearing none, Osla pushed open the door.
Flies buzzed around inside the tiny room. Great, bloated black flies that hung in the air lazily. Osla smelled foul air in the room and wrinkled her nose. She went to the bed and gripped the coverlets.

“Pig! If you’ve puked in your bed again – “ She threw back the coverlets.

Liam’s lifeless eyes stared up at her in helpless, rictus horror. His skin was gray and his mouth hung slackly open. Osla couldn’t even scream as she saw the hard branches of oak growing up out of Liam’s mouth. Here and there, the branches had punctured through his chest, his arms, and his legs, giving him the appearance of some ghastly spider. His hands and feet were elongated shoots that wound around the bed frame. His blood was black and oily on the coverlets.

Osla finally shrieked.

She fled the room, her breathing coming in labored gasps. She threw open the front door and ran out onto the porch. She forcibly calmed herself as she looked out from her porch. The morning sun was caught in the tiny droplets of dew that clung to the green grass, giving the small patch of yard before the wooden fence a bejeweled appearance. Ignoring this, Osla’s eyes scanned the yard nervously.

The girl! Where was the girl?

Osla’s gaze fell on a dark, black form perched upon one of the wooden fence posts. It was the largest crow the fat woman had ever seen. The fathomless black eyes regarded her as the razor sharp beak opened and closed silently. Osla found she was unable to breath when she looked into the creature’s soulless eyes. Her heart began to pound with renewed panic in her chest. She stood rooted to the porch, unable to move. Unable to breathe.

The giant crow suddenly shrieked, it’s ear-splitting cry breaking the spell. Osla stepped back and gave a terrified whimper as she gasped. Tearing her eyes from the crow, she searched wildly about for some sign of where the girl had gone. This was faerie magic if ever there had been. The girl was a fey-witch; Osla had always suspected it. She sobbed and drew the sign against evil across her chest. Liam was not dead. The faerie witch had stolen his soul and spirited it away to the Daione Sidhe, the fey-folk. Osla knew enough tales from her childhood to know that her son could be brought back if the girl could be found. At least, this was what all the old tales suggested. Osla sobbed again and knew that she could not walk past the great crow that still perched upon the fence post, regarding her with its’ hellish empty eyes.

The brook! The girl has gone to the brook!
The sudden thought caused Osla to giggle with nervous apprehension. She moved off to the side of the house, never taking her eyes off of the crow, and then ran down the dirt path to the brook. The crow watched her go, silent and unmoving.

Osla slowed as she approached the bank, the raised hairs on the back of her neck telling her that she was not alone. She stifled another sob and tried to walk quietly. The babbling water of the brook splashed over the smooth stones as it wound its’ way downward like a sinuous serpent. The slender birches and rowans appeared to be the only other occupants on the banks of the laughing little brook. Osla cautiously approached the water. There was no sound. Even the water seemed to be strangely hushed, as if it were watching her somehow.

Or waiting.

Osla looked up and down the banks of the little brook, finding nothing. Her fear began to wane and slowly give way to her characteristic sharp temper. She knew the girl was here, somewhere. The witch was watching from behind a tree or hidden behind a tussock. Osla’s eyes narrowed and her fists clenched at her sides.

“Well, witch?” she shouted “Show yourself, you little slattern! I’m not afraid of your spells and charms! I know how to deal with you, you little fey whore! You’ll pray for death once Miach returns! If you return Liam, you’ll only get a beating. I promise you that. They burn witches in the village, you know! Come out now and make it easy on yourself!”

There was no sound. Only the quiet splashing of the water. Only the stillness. Osla grew more angry still.

“Where are you?” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

“Where are you?” a tiny voice mimicked, and there was much giggling and laughter.
Osla whirled around and saw only empty birch and rowans.

“Come out!” she cried, her heart pounding in her chest once again.

“Come out!” More giggling. Osla spun around, her eyes wide in terror.

“Stop that!”

“Stop that!”

“Come out!”

“Come out! Come out! Come down! Come down!”

Osla’s gaze fell on the water. There was…something there. She bent to look in…
Two pairs of beautiful gray-green eyes regarded her from faces too comely to be human.

Muruadh. Women of the water, Osla thought.
Fey folk!

Long, green hair wafted in the current, and their slender arms held something that struggled. Osla bent closer, her face lit by wonder. The struggling thing held in the Muruadhs’ arms turned, and Osla saw her own lifeless face staring back at her. Waterweeds grew from her eyeless sockets and worms wriggled in and out of her ears. The Muruadhs gazed up at her, their grip tightening on their captive.

“Come down!” their fair voices called “Come down!”

Osla screamed and fell back against the bank, her head cradled in the browncaps, mushrooms, and toadstools that grew there. She turned, and as she did so, the largest of the toadstools turned to reveal a tiny, wizened brown face underneath. Dark eyes with no pupils regarded her. Osla screamed again, lunging forward, away from the faerie toadstool. The wizened little face smiled, and regarded her silently.

Suddenly, Osla felt eyes upon her. She turned and saw only the rowans, their spreading limbs tipped with clutches of red berries seemingly reaching out for her. She stumbled back and felt the hard boughs of another rowan behind her, its berry-tipped fingers grasping at her. She screamed and fought back, her arm coming up to ward off the terrible grasping thing. She caught a flash of red on her chest and quickly looked down.
There, cunningly sewn into the bodice of her dress, were three small rowanberries. A faerie charm to call the tree-spirits.

Osla looked up in horror as several of the rowans uprooted themselves to surround her. She found no voice as strong, wooden arms grasped her shoulders and forcibly guided her to the brook. When she dug her feet in and resisted, gnarled roots wound around her ankles and tripped her to fall into the waiting branches, tipped with red. Osla found herself lifted and her head held above the water. She stared down into the eyes of the Muruadh in voiceless terror.

“Come down!” they said.

“Come down!”

*******

Miach stood with his bony mare at the top of the hill and looked down at the house. He had been standing there for some moments, his eyes scrutinizing every detail. He was no stranger to trouble, having seen a battle or two in his day. He had developed a feel for such things.

He knew that something was wrong.
The pile of firewood he had set Liam to splitting before he had left was almost finished. Almost. Liam knew better than to leave a task that Miach had given him unfinished. They all knew.

The door to the house stood ajar, the heavy oaken door swaying back and forth on its’ hinges in the breeze. There was no sound. The hair on the back of Miach’s neck stood straight up. Miach nodded inwardly and slowly drew the rusty sword from under the mare’s saddle. He surveyed the scene once again and his eyes fell on the large black crow that sat on the fence post. The warm spring breeze sent Miach’s dark hair flapping in the breeze.

The crow’s feathers were not so much as ruffled.

“Witchery,” Miach breathed. He slapped his mare’s rump and sent it trotting off toward the house as he took a diagonal direction to come at the house from the side. His ears strained to catch a sound. Any sound. But, there was nothing. His eyes fixed on the crow as he slowly came up to the front door from the side. The crow regarded him with its baleful gaze and split the silence with it’s piercing cry. The great black wings stretched, and the crow flew slowly off.

Toward the dark and silent wood.

Miach watched the crow disappear in the distance and slowly eased his way in through the front door. The rusty broadsword was held out before him like a divining rod. Beads of sweat rolled down the sides of his face, losing themselves in the matted curls of his dark beard.

A few moments later, Miach was stumbling from the house, vomiting and cursing loudly. He shouted for Osla again and again. Hearing nothing, he faced the house, his senses desperately searching for some explanation for the horror he’d found inside. Suddenly, he felt, rather than knew that this had something to do with the girl.

Osla had never trusted her. Not from the day Miach had brought her home, bound and struggling with barely a stitch of clothing on. He’d said that she was a slave he’d purchased in the village – a suitable wife for their son, Liam. He’d had to come up with some excuse for the disappearance of so large a sum of coin from the family coffers, after all. A three-day drinking stint would not serve as an explanation to his shrewish wife.

He’d thought he’d gone completely mad when he’d come upon the girl sleeping in the wood. The Witchwood, some called it. She was alone, barely dressed, and easy prey for the large Miach. She’d resisted him at first, of course. Women always did. But, Miach’s size and strength proved to be more than a match for her. She had wept and cried out, but then had subsided into tortured silence as Miach raped her.

After that, she’d been relatively easy to break and train. Liam obviously appreciated the soft young form in his bed, and Osla didn’t mind the extra help around the house, though she complained about her every chance she got. And, of course, Miach didn’t mind having his way with the girl when Osla was feeling waspish.

Yes, Miach knew this was somehow connected to the girl as he slowly backed away from the house. The girl was nowhere. He’d find Osla later. After he’d retrieved the girl. Miach’s eyes narrowed as he guessed where the girl had obviously fled. The wood.

The forest was dark, dimly lit by the filtered sunlight that pierced through the heavy boughs of the ancient oaks. Miach walked slowly, his sword held at the ready. Thick wisps of fog periodically obscured the faint trail the girl had left. Miach was counted a fine hunter in the village, and he used his skills now like a wolf on the trail of a wounded deer. His grimy face broke into a grin when he heard the faint echoes of a female voice singing a haunting melody from deeper into the wood.

At length, Miach found himself in a clearing surrounded by the thick boles of massive, ancient oaks. A small pond of dark water lay off to one side. And there, sitting in the midst of a ring of toadstools, was the girl.
She stopped her singing as soon as Miach stepped into the clearing. Her hair was wild and tangled with leaves and twigs. Miach held his sword at the ready.

“You’ve done a very bad thing, witch,” he said, taking slow steps toward her “I suppose I don’t mind all that much that you did away with poor Liam. He was never worth a piss anyway. Takes after his mother too much. But you shouldn’t have run off, my girl. You belong to me.”

As he spoke, Aislinn had stood. Despite the pounding in her chest, she did not tremble. Not here. Not now. Her dark eyes regarded Miach, and a faint smile touched the corner of her mouth.

“I never belonged to you,” she said.

Miach smiled, circling Aislinn. His eyes scrutinized her stance.

“And what do you think you’re going to do?” he asked “You think to use some of that witchery of yours on me? Bah! You don’t frighten me, bitch. I’ve all the protection I need against you.” He tapped the blade of his rusty sword. He took a confident step forward.

Aislinn drew herself up and held out the slender rod of willow in her hand, her eyes determined. Miach laughed loudly at her. He took another confident step forward. Aislinn’s lips began to mutter something he couldn’t quite make out. He lunged for her, and she leapt out of his way. She continued to whisper words that seemed to drift away on the breeze that had suddenly sprung up.

“Your spells won’t save you from me, girl,” Miach growled and lunged for her with his sword –

- Only to strike something as hard as stone and as visible as thin air.

Miach stumbled at looked where he stood. A cold chill tripped its way down his spine. Aislinn smiled.

Miach stood in the exact center of the toadstool ring that Aislinn had occupied only a moment before. She walked around him, the slender rod of willow still held firmly in her grasp. Her voice when she spoke was calm.

“Not spells,” she said, “I was telling them that you are ready.”

Miach’s blood froze.

“Them?” he asked.

In answer, the wind picked up, sighing in the trees and stirring up the leaves on the forest floor. Now Miach could hear whisperings and soft voices on the air. The water in the pool began to turn lazily in a counterclockwise direction. Inexplicably, a great bonfire sprung up from out of nowhere off to the left of Miach’s strange prison.

And now, Miach fancied that there were things moving amongst the trees – dark eyes and fair faces regarded him from in between the boles and branches of the oaks. Laughter was in the wind. Miach screamed as the toadstools around him began to writhe and squirm at his feet, moving in the same direction as the water in the pool. Aislinn’s face was lifted to the sky as the brown and gold leaves of the forest floor fluttered and spun in the wind. She laughed and held the willow wand aloft.

The water spun faster and faster as Miach spied figures running around the clearing. Short figures, tall figures. Some with knobby horns, and others seemingly made of leaves. They danced and capered around Aislinn as she laughed joyously. The water spun faster still, and the toadstools looked up at their prisoner with wizened brown faces and intelligent dark eyes. The trees began to sway and move in the breeze until they looked as if they, too, were dancing.

Then, a void opened up in the center of the spinning pool and a tiny procession rode up out of the water. Before Miach’s astonished eyes, the procession grew in size until they stood before him: tall, beautiful beings of air and light astride horses the shade of dawn and dusk. And at their head, a great silver champion astride a powerful gray stag with mighty, branched antlers. His eyes were piercing in his shining helm, and a long pale sword sheathed in a scabbard traced with leaves hung at his side. The sidhe-king urged his beautiful mount to stand before Aislinn. All that were in the clearing bowed before him.

“My love,” he said, his voice like the sound of the wind in the heather “At last I have come for you. The mortal realm is no place for my beloved.”

He turned to regard Miach. He removed his helm to reveal a strong, handsome face with eyes of the palest green. Anger and outrage boiled in their depths.

“Is this he who has violated you in so many ways?” was his somber question.

Aislinn nodded slowly, still grasping the willow wand in her hand.

“Then let it be done,” said the faerie-king. Taking the wand from Aislinn, he struck the invisible wall surrounding Miach on three sides and then motioned to the water. The waters once again began to spin and swirl in their counterclockwise direction. The faerie-king regarded Miach before taking Aislinn’s hand and lifting her onto the back of the stag.

“The Green Lady never belonged to you, mortal. As you have stolen, so let you repay!”

The faerie procession rode swiftly around the clearing seven times before riding into the void that had once again opened up in the spinning pool. Miach found that he could move, albeit stiffly. He looked around for his sword, not remembering when he had dropped it. His limbs ached, but he ignored the pain. Where was the sword? His arms felt oddly stiff and then his back began to twist and writhe. Miach screamed in horror as his skin turned rough and bark-like. His fingers and toes split as tendrils grew outward and into the earth. He tried to scream again, but found he had no voice. His arms and legs froze at weird angles as his hair began to grow and change color and texture. He stiffened one last time and then stood still – a green willow overlooking the pond.

The waters slowed their spinning as ethereal laughter echoed from their depths. And then the waters were still and silent. And the forest kept its’ secrets and told no tales.

Save to those who can hear the laughter on the wind.

Willow Wand is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Great story!

This was very well-written, the language just right for the rough justice of a dark faerie world. And the descriptions of the wood are quite evocative.

I also liked how Aislinn was both sympathetic, yet also strange and more than a little frightening, especially (obviously) toward the end.

And the pacing! Just right. By the time Miach appears on his horse, you know his doom is coming, but the story takes its time, building to the grim end he has coming to him.

I hope this is only the first of many stories!

Nice

I like it!