Something white between the oaks, the shade too deep for shadows. No breath, no footsteps, although she darted like a startled doe. “Sidhe,” he whispered. She has to be sidhe.
Since he followed his father into the forest, learned to wield the ax, he’d hoped to see one.
“Come to weep over the trees, they do,” his stoic father told him. “Or so my gram said. Never saw one of the things myself.”
“Weep?” he’d asked.
“Worshipped trees, the pagan things. Hated to see their groves cut down. Gram said the things bled sap. Ate sap as well.”
John the woodcutter, his Da was known. By sidhe measure, he must have been a murderer. John’s son was known as Young John, and he was the woodcutter now.
All his father had left him was a sharp ax.
John looked ahead, seeing a flash of silvery white. He pursued, wishing his bulk didn’t make him breathe as hard as an ox, wishing his boots didn’t break every twig into echoing crunches.
What he found was a tiny stream, pouring from the dark mossy slope, as slender as a girl, its voice musical over the stones. Sweet water, when he took a drink from his cupped hands.
The forest had no secrets for him, but he couldn’t remember this spring, these rocks. He gulped the coldness, drank it down like a man with a fever. A man didn’t forget a clear spring.
He sat on a mossy boulder, its face as smooth as skin, and took the measure of the trees. Old oaks, massive in girth like prosperous old men, their bark-covered bellies swollen. Mixed in, some graceful ash, and a few thorn bushes. Never cut an ash, Gram said. Or your home will burn.
I must be growing old, he thought, to have forgotten such a grove, a spring. What little he knew was forest and four letters, enough to scratch his name.
John’s slow, his father had said. Steady, his gram had said. John didn’t speak a word until he was three. And that word was not Da, but “fire”.
“Good word for a woodcutter’s son,” Da said.
John’s mother died when he was born. Such children, Gram said, had a pall, their mother’s shroud, wrapped round them for their swaddling clothes. Enough to take their words. The dead must have their due.
Gram had so many words. At night, by the fire, she told him stories. Never only told stories, for her hands were always occupied—spinning thread, knitting thread, mending—always full of thread.
“Once this was their place, this forest,” she would begin. “The Old Ones, the people. My gram saw them dancing in the moonlight, dancing like girls round a maypole, they were. But all silver white they were, white as bone. And beautiful—maids and men alike, the most beautiful things you ever laid eyes on.”
John had listened, wordless as always, clutching his bony knees to his chest as he sat by the fire. A thin boy then, able to ball himself up into the hearth for warmth.
“If you see them dancing, you must never join in with them,” Gram cautioned. “Their dancing kills a mortal. They will dance until you are naught but dancing bones, and you will never know from one reel to another that you breathed your last, that the flesh fell from your bones, until they let go of you. Someone will find what’s left of you—another skeleton in the forest, another body without a proper grave, a name to put on it.”
He’d found a skeleton like that once, five years or so back. A man’s bones, by the look of it, he’d guessed. Too tall, too heavy for a woman’s bones. He’d piled earth and stones over the skeleton, made a crude grave. This deep in the heart of the forest, a traveler lost perhaps. A mad man wandering from home. Someone set upon by thieves. Or maybe wounded in a skirmish, long ago.
How old were the bones? He couldn’t tell. On one long finger bone he’d found a ring, a slender band of gold. The ring he’d thought of keeping—gold was gold. But a crow spoke, just as he slipped it off the bone, a rude, high screech. Let the dead keep their gold, he’d thought.
He didn’t need a ring. He’d never found a bride.
Married to the ash, the elder and the oak, he heard folk jest. Now that he lived alone, since Gram and Da had long gone to sleep in the earth. If trees were his love, then he slaughtered it. So many trees, chopped up in bits for burning.
People live by fire.
Could that be music? John rubbed his ears, trying to rub away the melody.
A fiddle, high and sprightly. Or was it wind bending the trees?
And there she was again, that flash of silver. This time she was no stream. She stood before him, slender but as real as stone. Her eyes were dark in her white face, her hair a ripple of shining ebony. She smiled at him, little teeth as white as bone.
The sidhe, he thought. Behind her more appeared. A circle of figures, making space beneath the trees—the trunks gave way and made a room for them. Or was it always there, that place, now lit by the glow of silver skin, of clothing thin as cobweb in the moonlight, softly shining threads?
He knew that he should run, but his boots felt like lead on his feet. When he stood up, the only way was west, his only path toward them.
She waited, arm extended, fingers beckoning. She had an apple in her hand.
He laid down his ax.
Some years later, a traveler found the bones. A man’s, he guessed. A big man’s bones, splayed out within the circle of an old oak grove. And on a stone, some distance further on—a rusted ax, the handle rotted off.