Ailbhe ran, gasping and stumbling, along the narrow track, a staff of ash-wood clutched in her right hand. Briars and thorns snatched at her cloak and lashed at her legs, arms, and face. To either side the alder-woods stretched back from the path into the shadows, dark and threatening. Weaving in and out between the trees, figures clad in green and brown, each about the height of a rat standing on its hind legs, ran alongside her.
Their mocking laughter taunted her. One darted forward and stabbed at her ankle with a small spear, while another loosed a tiny arrow at her face. Ailbhe cried out in pain and fear, pulled her hooded cloak around her face, and ran faster. Their weapons were too small for any one blow to mortally wound her, but they hurt, and sooner or later, if she did not escape, they would cripple or blind her. She choked back a whimper of fear as she tried not to imagine what the wee folk would do to her then. Their small size would not keep them from killing her. But she would take a long time to die.
She reached the banks of a river. To left and right the river wound between banks that were muddy and choked with rushes and willow. She could not escape that way. Straight ahead a small island split the river in two. Did the little folk swim? Ailbhe could not remember. A tiny arrow struck her in the back of the neck and a little spear jabbed her in the calf as she hesitated. With no other choice left to her, she ran into the river.
The river was not deep, and Ailbhe waded most of the way to the island, only having to swim a few strokes at the deepest part in the middle of the channel before pulling herself up onto the island. She turned back to see if she had left the wee folk behind, but they were scampering up trees like demented squirrels, running along branches that hung out over the river, and leaping from there into the branches of the trees that grew on the island. Some were already running around the shore of the island to cut off her escape. She was trapped.
An arrow struck her in the ear, burning like a hornet’s sting. Ailbhe cursed, and forced herself to her feet, stumbling forward awkwardly in water-soaked clothing. She pushed her way through the gorse and willow that grew upon the shores of the island. Further in a low hill rose, and the gorse and willow gave way to a stand of silver-barked birch. There was something about the little folk and birch trees. What was it? She struggled to remember. Granny Brónach had taught her something, or had tried to, if only she had listened.
Another spear-thrust to her ankle broke the chain of thought. She seized her staff at one end with both hands and swung it like a flail, trying to mow down the wee folk that tormented her. They leapt aside, laughing. Not once did she land a blow. More arrows stung her face and hands, and more spear-thrusts pierced her ankles and feet. She wept tears of pain, fear, and rage. Unable to bear the pain any longer, she turned and ran, further into the island, up the hill and in among the pale-barked birch.
The little folk stopped chasing her.
They crowded around the edge of the birch wood, jeering and mocking, shooting their arrows but advancing no further. Ailbhe made her way to the centre of the birch wood, the highest point of the island, where the pale trunks grew thickly around her, a wooden wall that protected her from the arrows. At the crest of the hill a moss-covered standing stone leaned askew, dislodged from the earth by the roots of the trees. Ailbhe tried to read the script, but it was weathered, and the symbols seemed different from the ones she knew. She could not decipher them. She sat at the foot of the stone and peered out through the gaps between the trees. The wee folk wandered around the edge of the birch wood, calling out to her and to each other, loosing arrows that buried themselves harmlessly in the trunks of the trees.
They came no further, but neither did they leave. She was safe, for now, but she was trapped, surrounded. She knew enough of the terrible persistence of the little folk to know that they would not go away while she lived. She had to find a way to escape or starve to death where she sat.
What was it that Granny Brónach had tried to teach her about the little folk and birch woods? Ailbhe had not been paying attention. She had been too busy flirting with Flannán, too distracted by Flannán’s blue eyes and red lips. If only Flannán were here now. Flannán would know what to do. But Flannán was not here. Following their apprenticeship with Granny Brónach, Ailbhe and Flannán had each been sent out, separately and alone, to find their own ways and to prove themselves in the world.
What did she know about birch trees? They were symbols of renewal and purification. Folk used brooms made from birch twigs to drive out the spirits of the old year to make way for the new. She pictured herself chasing after the wee folk waving a birch-twig broom, and she sighed. That might work–if they laughed themselves to death.
Darkness was falling. Ailbhe was exhausted, and the little folk were clearly not going to enter the birch wood. In spite of her fears, her eyes kept closing and her head nodding. She pulled out the little arrows and tended her wounds as best she could. She made a rough nest for herself among the fallen leaves and dead branches, taking care not to damage a young birch sapling that grew there, struggling up toward the light. She buried her fingers in the cold wet earth and tried to still her mind as Granny Brónach had taught her, quieting her fear, and merging her spirit with the spirits of the earth and the trees, the river, and the wind. Exhausted, she curled up and closed her eyes.
Ailbhe stood tall, her bark silver in the moonlight, her branches reaching into the sky, her roots deep in the earth. She felt the wind in her leaves and the worms crawling between her roots. Those roots met and intertwined with the roots of other trees, her sisters, binding the birch wood into one.
Small figures sculked around the edges of her wood and her anger smouldered. The wee folk were no threat to a full-grown tree like her, but they hated her kind, and they would gleefully cut down or root up a small sapling when they could.
She stretched out her roots, writhing through the soft, wet earth like blind, groping, vengeful fingers in search of prey.
A stray sunbeam woke Ailbhe, finding its way through the leafy green canopy to kiss her eyelids as she slept. She sat up and stretched, wincing and groaning, stiff and sore from her many small wounds and from sleeping awkwardly in her uncomfortable, makeshift bed. Her belly grumbled.
She needed to leave this island, or risk starving to death and spending the rest of eternity as a skeletal, undead duine gorta. She vowed to herself that if she could not escape, she would find a way to drown herself in the river. Better to drown than to be blinded, crippled, and slowly cut to pieces by the little folk.
Ailbhe picked up the heaviest, sturdiest fallen branch she could find, and hefted it as a club. If the wee folk feared the birch trees–and it seemed they did, or she would not be alive–then perhaps a birch club might be effective against them where her ash staff had failed. It was not much of a hope, but it was all she had. With the staff in her left hand and the club in her right, she crept down the hill toward the edge of the birch wood.
The little folk were nowhere to be seen. Neither was there any sound of them. Ailbhe pressed on, fearful that they had merely withdrawn a little way and were waiting in ambush. Perhaps they would leap screaming out from behind the trees, or perhaps they would drop down on her from the branches above her head? But she reached the edge of the wood and still there was no sign of them, until she saw one little green boot sticking up foot-first out of the earth.
She bent, and picked up the boot, and then she jumped back with a curse. Sticking up out of the earth was a little foot clad now only in a brown woollen sock. As she watched, the foot twitched, once, twice, and then was still. She threw the boot away and wiped her hands on a tuft of grass.
Ailbhe waded and swam across the river and climbed out on the further shore. There, the path she had been following continued, winding westward between woods, hills, bogs, and lakes. By tonight she would be sure to reach a village. What a tale she would have to tell at the fire after supper. Her audience might not believe it, but that did not matter. They would enjoy the tale all the same.
At the crest of a hill, she paused, and turned to look back one last time toward the birch wood on its island in the river, its leaves burnished by the morning sun. She raised her staff in a gesture of thanks and farewell. And then she turned, and went on her way, and left the pale-barked birch trees dreaming in the sun.