The Ghost Wood
The yew tree took hold of me as I walked out of my lodgings. A branch thrust into my sleeve and stuck needles into my arm: another pushed down my back and dragged me to a halt.
I was taken by surprise, even though I’d heard what was happening in the rest of the city. The yew had appeared a few days before, fully grown, its roots sunken into the cobbles. I had walked past it safely several times and it had not attacked anyone else. Nevertheless, I am a student mage. I should not have screamed like a silly girl unable to use her wits in a crisis. The tree flinched, though it did not let me go.
‘You don’t want me,’ I said aloud, in the language of the earth, the language understood by the life force in everything. ‘I’m noisy and bony. My blood would poison your sap.’
My voice squeaked and wobbled but that might not mean much to a tree. I opened my mage sight and felt a restless anger in this one, a desire to share hurts it had suffered. But my words made it hesitate long enough for me to wriggle out of my jacket and dodge out of its way.
The Ghost Wood used to come into the city only on moonless nights, through the ghosts of trees felled when the land was cleared long ago. I’ve heard stories about them ever since I was a small girl. Walkers without lanterns would find familiar streets blocked by tangled branches or trip over roots into sinks of mud. Sometimes a student or a baker up before dawn heard the scrape of twigs across a window or the groan of timber pushing against a door. But by morning all the obstructions would have vanished away.
Last month, the trees began to move in every night. All over the city, walls were knocked down, stairwells blocked and roofs broken by intruders which no longer behaved like ghosts. People found them round their houses in the mornings, where their shade blighted the ground and the rustle of their leaves made dogs whine and babies cry.
I told Crispin about my encounter with the yew when we met at my local coffeehouse.
‘You were lucky, Linnet,’ he said. ‘The oak in the King’s cellar has swallowed two guards and spat out their bones.’
Crispin is not my lover, whatever anyone thinks. I moved into lodgings because I wanted to put an end to foolish rumours about the two of us. He is the youngest son of the Earl of the West March and I am no more than a minor cousin, even if I was brought up in the Earl’s household. I know better than to expect any secure place in Crispin’s life and I’m not interested in anything less. I take my studies in the art of magecraft seriously, while Crispin merely dabbles. But I don’t refuse to listen to the gossip from court.
‘Where was the King’s Mage?’ I asked. ‘Couldn’t he help the guards?’
‘He got there too late. Now he has devised a scheme to stop the invasion.’ Crispin did not speak with the relish I would have expected and he kept his voice low. The coffee house was full of students, as usual, but nobody disturbed us at our table in the corner.
‘What kind of scheme?’
He scowled into his mug. ‘He’s given orders to cut down the trees.’
‘The invaders?’ Most people were reluctant to take an axe to them. ‘The ordinary trees.’ Now Crispin scowled at me. ‘Each one in the
castle grounds that reaches higher than his head: the willows by the river, the apple trees in the orchard, the birches by the gate, everything.’
Those trees were old. Some of them must have been there before the castle was built.
‘What good will that do?’
‘Frighten the Wood into a withdrawal, according to Master Poyniard.’ Master Poyniard was the new King’s Mage, a man from the eastward hills with a formidable reputation. ‘He says the invaders are filled with the spirit of the Wood, unlucky to touch. But once they sense the harm to their daylight kin, they will give up their attacks. And the ground will not welcome them so readily once it’s been cleared.’
‘Has Master Poyniard been into the Wood, to find out the cause of the invasion?’
He reckons there’s no need. The Wood must submit to him or he will do worse harm.’
‘Has anyone been inside? What about the other mages?’
‘He faced them all down, all the most respected Mages in the city. He has more learning than they and more strength in magery.’
‘Were you there?’ I tried to picture the scene.
‘At the back, with the other students, I thought we’d be thrown out early on but the Masters were too intent on their quarrel to bother about us.’
‘Your grandmother would have gone into the Wood. She would not let the King’s Mage daunt her.’
‘She wouldn’t, would she?’ Crispin looked up at me. His grandmother was Alicia, the Dowager Countess, once the most powerful Mage in the kingdom. For a while, we had both studied magecraft with her. ‘If she came back to the city again—’
‘She said she’d had enough of us all.’ The Countess had gone into retirement at the Deepdown Library, exasperated by the frivolity of the young aristocrats she tutored, Crispin chief among them.
‘She’d come back if you asked her, Linnet,’ Crispin said.
She had abandoned me and I had not been able to find a tutor to match her since she left. I did not feel inclined to ask her for help.
‘Not for me, she won’t,’ I said. ‘You go and ask her.’
‘She won’t take me seriously.’ Crispin leaned forward. ‘She’ll believe you if you explain how bad things are. Master Poyniard means to attack the trees in the streets round the castle, if needs be, or maybe in the whole city.’
I wanted to help. But Crispin could travel faster out into the country than I could and he would be admitted to talk to the Countess without any argument.
‘You were at the meeting when he spoke,’ I said.
‘I’ll come with you.’ His eyes brightened. ‘We can ride out together in the morning.’
‘And let the whole city believe we’ve run away together. Don’t be ridiculous.’
The argument went on for a good while longer but neither of us would give way. Crispin went off to get drunk with his friends and I stared into my coffee. If I could find out what was wrong in the Ghost Wood, maybe I could ask for help from the Countess without losing too much of my pride. Maybe I could show her I was worth teaching on my own, without bothering with any of the young men who would not take their studies seriously. I had not liked the feel of the yew tree that attacked me but not all the invaders seemed so aggressive.
The hawthorn tree at the crossroads looked ancient in the August sunlight, with its twisted trunk and cracked bark. But it had not been there the day before. Its leaves were faded and curled at the edges as though bitten by frost. I stood just beyond its shade and opened up my mage sight. I could sense nothing dangerous about this tree, only a deep discomfort and the bewilderment of the beetles and caterpillars who lived on its twigs.
I fixed my glance on the shadow of the hawthorn across the stones and waited until I could see the deeper darkness within the tree’s dream of itself. I began to walk widdershins round it.
‘Take me home,’ I said. ‘Take me where your roots drink deep and the earth tastes sweet to you.’
My powers of compulsion through spell making have never been strong but I know how to ask for what I want. After nine circuits, I looked up. Trees were all round me now, more hawthorns, oaks and hollies. My feet were sunken into leaf mould and a bitter tang filled the air. I was in a small clearing, choked with fallen branches, brambles and toadstools. Everything was pale, the leaves pearl grey on the oaks, milk white on the hollies. A shining mist rose from the ground and I could not see the sky.
In this place mage sight and common eyesight were as one. I could not see anything out of place but I could hear loud groans and sighs, though the leaves hung with barely a tremble. No creatures moved nearby, not the flicker of a bird’s wing or the scratch of mouse or insect. Then a sudden wind slammed against me. The trees roared and hail beat round my head.
I would not be driven away so easily. I kilted up my skirts and ran into the wind. I could not see a path and the ground was slippery under foot. But I pushed myself between tree trunks and scrambled over roots and stones. Soon my progress slowed to a crawl but I kept moving onwards.
A deeper roar surged through the noise of the storm, a thunder of pain and rage loud enough to knock down a mountain. The mist blew away and the wind dropped. I lost my balance. On my hands and knees I stared at a bear three times the size of any I had seen in the King’s menagerie. Its mouth was as wide as a cavern, its teeth stained, its claws like knives, long and sharp. It stank of rot and meat. It roared again and I thought the noise would break me apart. But it did not attack. I sat back and looked at it more carefully.
For all its bulk, the bear was not in good condition. Its iron grey fur was matted and sores were crusted on its right foreleg, round a band of gold, an arm-ring sunken into its flesh. As I watched, the bear twisted its head to worry at the band. Its teeth slipped off the gold and it pulled at the thing with its other front paw, without any success.
‘That’s horrible,’ I said. ‘Do you want me to try?’
The bear growled at me, a rough, uneasy sound, not as painful as the roar but not welcoming. I was afraid to go any closer but I knew better than to run away from a wounded bear and I had not the strength to work any spells against it, especially not in this place. I stood up and stepped forward, my movements as slow and smooth as I could manage.
The bear’s shoulder was above my head but the golden band was well within my reach. I slid my fingers over patches of raw skin and bloody blisters and tugged at the metal. I was surprised not to be seized and shaken to pieces. My touch must have been painful but the bear held still and its growl softened into a grumble.
‘Gold, red gold, washed from fair waters,’ I said, ‘this is no place for you. Come away. Come where you can be cleaned until you shine in the sunlight.’
The band was enchanted to keep its grip. I could feel that but I could also feel a resentment under the enchantment, a weary loathing of its task.
‘Come away,’ I murmured and the bear’s growl took up my rhythm. ‘Come where songs can be sung to you, silks folded to cushion you.’
The band shifted in my hands and slid down to the ground. The bear lifted its head and roared until I backed away, my hands pressed to my ears. The air shook and the bear vanished. In its place stood a man dressed in rags, big headed and broad, with an ugly wound on his arm.
‘You’re not the trapper,’ he said, in a voice almost as deep as the bear’s growl.
‘Who are you?’ I said. ‘Do you live here?’
The wood was stirring round us. I could feel the attention of small creatures, rabbits maybe, as they tasted the air in their burrows. Water trickled under ice and sap seethed under bark. The groans and sighs that had greeted me when I arrived were changed to murmurs of relief.
‘Did he send you?’ The bear man glared at me and I could not look away.
‘Who do you mean?’
‘The trapper.’ His voice went soft and his lip lifted into the bear’s snarl. ‘The sly brute who thought to bind me into my beast shape and confine me to this place, until I submitted to his power.’
‘Nobody sent me.’ I shook my head.
‘Then how did you spring his trap?’ He was angry and more suspicious than in bear shape, maybe because he was less desperate. And I had more time now to appreciate the danger I was in.
‘With kind words and determination,’ I said. ‘You helped me. You must have felt my goodwill.’
He stared at me for so long that I began to shiver.
‘Can you pick that thing up from the ground?’ he asked.
The gold band had rolled under a willow tree. It looked harmless enough, a plain arm-ring such as a man might wear. The mist had all gone by now and the light was clear, though not bright. The trees remained as bleached as when I had first seen them, except for dark threads which pulsed through their leaves and twinkled under their bark. I did not want to touch the band again but I scooped up some fallen leaves and lifted it with those. I felt the fizz and sparkle of the spell like a broken net round the gold, its malice wilder now that it was loose, and I dropped the ring again. The ground winced away from it and dislike quivered through the air.
‘Is that what’s made so much trouble?’ I said. ‘Are the trees moving out because of that?’
‘What trouble?’ the bear man asked. I told him about the intrusions into the city and he grinned. His appearance was too vivid for this place, his eyes too bright, though his clothes were iron grey and his hair grizzled. His lips were red and his skin weather beaten.
‘So you’re a mere busybody, come to flatter the Wood into keeping its misery to itself.’
However overbold I’d been, it did not lie well in his mouth to mock me.
‘I came to protect the other trees,’ I said. ‘The trees out in the city. If the Wood goes back to its old ways, they will not be attacked.’
Anger hardened his face. A small wind rattled along the ground and nipped my fingers.
‘Who dares threaten the trees?’
I did not have to answer. The golden arm-ring shuddered and leaped from the ground. And faster than I could blink, he was there to pick it up, Master Poyniard, the King’s Mage. He cradled it in his hands and looked up, first at the bear man, then at me.
‘What have you done?’ His voice was as blighting as his glance. I had seen him before, on public occasions but never face to face like this. He was a little man, no taller than me and slightly built. He might have fitted into the pocket of the bear man’s ragged coat. In this place his formal clothes were drained of colour but his eyes gleamed blue. He looked as safe to touch as a poisoned dagger.
‘Leave her be,’ the bear man said. ‘You have me to deal with.’
‘Because of her,’ Master Poyniard said. ‘I had you nicely caged, Ironcoat, confined where you could be no threat to the King. I’ll pen you up again once I understand how she contrived to free you.’
‘I was never a threat to your king.’ Ironcoat shook his head like a bear shaking off a fly.
‘I’ve seen you walk in and out of his realm and ask no leave of me or the King. I’ll have no such creature free who will not acknowledge my power.’
‘But the world is full of beings who care nothing for any human power,’ I said. Maybe I should not have drawn Master Poyniard’s attention back to me but I wanted to understand. ‘Surely you can’t trap them all.’
Master Poyniard looked at me and I flinched.
‘I almost remember your name,’ he said. ‘None of the Master Mages have dared enter here after I warned them away. What made you so presumptuous?’
My tongue was stiff and slow in my mouth. Ironcoat answered before I could speak.
‘What makes you so insolent? Do you mean to trap all the lords of the spirit world, all the dancers in the night?’
‘Not unless they laugh at my spells, as you did. And now the trees of your wood choke the streets of the King’s city and knock down his walls.’
‘For grief at my confinement, you fool.’ Ironcoat’s voice grew more like the bear’s snarl with every word. ‘And to get away from the poison you left here.’
‘No poison.’ Master Poyniard stroked the gold with his thumbs and smiled at it. ‘You liked this trinket well enough when I left it here to tempt you.’
‘She says you have cut down the trees which belong in the city. Do you delight in the making of enemies?’
‘The Wood invaded the city,’ Master Poyniard said. ‘I turned the threat back on the Wood. You have only to submit, you and the Wood, and all will be well.’
‘Submit to you!’ The shout turned into a roar and Ironcoat dropped onto all fours, in bear shape once more. He charged at Master Poyniard, who nodded and held out the arm-ring, flat on his open hands. The bear recoiled.
‘Don’t,’ I said, to one or both of them.
‘Maybe you should try this on.’ Master Poyniard offered the ring to me. I did not want it in the least and yet I remembered the words I had spoken to it. Had I promised to look after it, to lay it on silk and cherish it? Words have consequences, especially when they are spoken in such a place. I did not need to be a Master Mage to know that. My hand reached out until I almost touched the gold. But the bear snarled and shouldered me aside. Master Poyniard laughed.
Ironcoat turned back into a man.
‘Get out of here, King’s Mage,’ he said. ‘Go now and you may depart with a whole skin.’
‘I will not leave you free to work mischief and to play with this wanton.’ Master Poyniard lifted up the gold ring and stretched it like pastry into a circle wide enough to press on top of his hat. Sparks of red fire flashed out from it. Master Poyniard spread out his arms and began a chant, a whispery, icy murmur of words too slippery to grasp.
The wind died and the air turned thick as soup. Ironcoat brandished a great log at Master Poyniard but it burst apart in his hands. He reached out to take Master Poyniard into a bear hug but the sparks from the golden ring caught in his hair. Master Poyniard’s words turned into birds which mobbed him and pecked at his eyes and feet. Sparks flew at me, too, and a cloud of moths filled my mouth and battered my eyes.
I had no strength to fight the King’s Mage. But I could ask for help, even if I choked to death in the attempt.
‘Please,’ I spat out moths as I called into the trees and down to the earth. ‘Help me. Help Ironcoat if you can. I will plant violets among your roots and anoint your branches with red wine and honey.’
The trees groaned and shadows swung round me. As the moths blew away, branches from two willows reached down to Master Poyniard from either side and snagged his wrists. They dragged him into the air and he screamed as they tore him apart. The birds and moths vanished as blood and guts splashed round me.
I vomited then. Ironcoat led me to a stream and gave me a cloth to wipe my face.
‘You’re more dangerous than you seem,’ he said. ‘But one of these days you’ll make a promise that’s not so easy to keep.’
‘What else could I have done?’ I sat down on a tree root by the water. My legs shook and my voice was hoarse. ‘I never meant to kill him.’
‘The trees killed him.’ Ironcoat made a cup of his hands and offered me a drink from the stream. ‘Their grudge against him was as bitter as mine. But they are slow. They might not have acted in time, if you had not roused them.’
The water was cold and as welcome to my throat as the finest mead.
‘I should have known better than to come into the Wood,’ I said.
Ironcoat sat down on the ground beside me and stretched out his legs.
‘And I should have known better than to touch that trinket when I saw it. If I hadn’t, I would not need to be grateful to a wanton.’
‘I am not a wanton.’ The echo of Master Poyniard’s words was more painful than insulting.
‘No.’ Ironcoat looked at me sidelong. ‘But you could be. Stay here and play with me a while.’
The temptation shocked me after everything that had happened. I wanted to explore Ironcoat, body and soul, and live in the Wood with him. But I am not that much of a fool.
‘You have more need of a nurse than a lover,’ I said.
He bent his head to look at the wound on his arm, as though he had forgotten about it. Then he stretched out his tongue further than any man could have done and licked the sores thoroughly, twice and three times.
‘It’ll heal.’ He turned back to me and grinned.
‘Then I must go.’ I stood up. I did not know how long I could stay in the Wood and still return unharmed to my ordinary life.
‘What of your promises?’
‘I’ll come and visit. And search for the gold to take it away, if you wish. But I can’t stay now. I don’t belong here.’
I told nobody except Crispin about my venture into the Wood and even to him I did not tell it all. If the Countess ever visits the city again, maybe I’ll give her a full account but I do not trust anyone else with the story. According to Crispin, the Masters decided the Wood had killed the King’s Mage and that he had brought the trouble on himself. They were glad to leave well alone when the invasion from the Wood stopped. And the King was as relieved as anyone that no trees needed to be cut down. My nightmares are my own business and my dreams of Ironcoat. They do nothing to diminish my daydreams about Crispin. It is no consolation, I find, to cherish two impossible loves instead of one.
I am a retired Government lawyer and I live in London, UK. I am a keen writer and reader of fantasy and a member of the London Clockhouse Writers’ Group. I have had a number of short stories published, including one in Aurora Wolf last year. My novel, Spellhaven, is due out from Mirror World Publishing on 17th August.