Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Seed

Once, there was a girl named Elhira and she was beautiful, so beautiful her mother hid her away in the darkest rooms of the house in fear that the forest wights would see her and curse her, or the Gods would steal her away for their own. She grew up in darkness, cared for by her family and doted upon by her mother who refused her nothing save her greatest wish; to go outside and feel the sun on her face.
Elhira’s mother taught her about the gods, the spirits in the forest, which was a wild, dangerous place; full of twisted ever changing pathways, just as it is today. It was easy to fall prey to the old Forest God and his children, or to the beasts that lived under the trees. People, foolish people, would go out into the forest and try to leave a trail so that they could find their way home.  But nothing worked. Trails of pebbles failed, marking the trees with charcoal and tying linen around the trunks failed, in fact all the ways the ancient people tried failed. The forest became a dark, forbidding place where they refused to tread.
But the forest would not leave the village alone, predators crept from the trees to hunt the villager’s; animals and packs of monkeys would run out and steal everything from food to beer to something else and sometimes they even made off with the villagers’ children, bearing them back to the trees. Those children never returned; but their spirits lingered on in the forest as wights bound in service to the forest god, haunting their loved ones.
Elhira’s mother told her all of this and how jealous the wights and the gods were; how they desired the things humans had. She told her stories of how Biranda the Sun Goddess hunted beautiful boys, taking them in her arms for a brief, fatal embrace; how Ontaro the Moon God had cursed the man who had stolen the secrets of fire, hounding him until he was insane because he was jealous of his power. She taught her ways to placate the Gods; the two would make offerings of their blood when the moon was right. With their men they would offer fruit and meat when the harvest came.
When Elhira became a woman, her mother knew she had no choice but to allow her to walk in the village. The years in darkness had not dimmed the girl’s beauty; she had only become lovelier as she aged with strong long legs and arms, and a tight waist. Her bosom was small, but pert. What stood out most about the girl though were her eyes, because whilst everybody else had dark brown eyes, hers were a brilliant green, verdant as the forest the villagers both feared and worshipped.
When the girl first stepped out of the house her mother accompanied her; her flinty gaze silenced most of the men before they could make the foolish comments they thought would impress her. After a few weeks the village had grown so used to Elhira, both women felt she would be safe if she went out into the village alone.
But the girl was not safe, eyes deep in the forest watched her. News filtered back to the Forest God that a young woman lived in the village; the loveliest woman ever seen near the forest. He stirred himself in the forest’s heart and slipped out to the edge to watch for her. He waited for days and then he saw her, walking tall and proud in the light of the Sun Goddess. As soon as the Forest God saw her,  desire grew in his breast. He could not sleep, or eat, or even think straight. He watched her for a whole season until finally it was not enough.
On the last day of summer he slipped out of the forest, taking the form of a handsome young man with big muscles and an easy smile. With a spear and a posy of fine flowers in hand he went to Elhira’s house knocking gingerly upon the door.
Elhira’s father, Tormid, answered the knock and stood in the doorway with his arms crossed, looking the Forest God up and down. He was a big man, the village blacksmith, arms and chest covered in muscle from forcing bronze and copper into new shapes, which they hate. That is why you use fire and a hammer to do it.
“Can I help you?”
“I have come for your daughter,” the Forest God told him, gesturing widely with the flowers. “I have heard of her beauty and come from twenty villages away to ask if you might permit me to take her as my bride.”
Tormid frowned and asked the young man, as he thought the Forest God was, to share a drink with him in the shade. The women lingered near the door, hiding in the house, eavesdropping on the men's conversation.
“What is it that you do that you would come so far?” He asked as the two sipped beer on the front step.
“I am a hunter,” the youth replied. “I can bring down the mightiest of beasts and track even the smallest for miles through the most difficult terrain. Nothing can escape my sight or my spear.” He patted it with satisfaction.
“Most impressive, what is the biggest thing you have killed?”
“I slew a great deer by the watering hole at the edge of the forest outside my village.” The hunter told him. “He stood twice as tall as me, his antlers were as wide as this.” He held his arms out to show how big they had been.
“That, again, is most impressive.” Elhira’s father conceded. “What is the smallest thing you have tracked?”
“I hunted a tiny mouse through the forest for several miles before I caught him. He was only as small as this but I found him.”
“So you hunt in the forest? Aren’t you scared of getting lost?” Tormid asked.
“Not I! I have never been lost in there. It is as if it were truly my home. I have run all the way to the forest’s heart and never once lost my way in order to bring these fine flowers for your daughter.”
“But that is impossible. Nobody can enter the forest safely. The creatures eat them, or the god claims them.” Tormid made a sign to ward away evil with his free hand.
The youth puffed out his chest. “I can. I know every inch of the forest like the back of my hand and every creature that lives within it from the lowliest grub and maggot to the most majestic of the crocodiles that live by the great lake.”
Tormid sipped his beer and thought for a while. “You are a man of great skill and bravery, that much is plain. You must think highly of my daughter to run all that way simply to find a gift. But tell me one thing.”
“What?” The God asked.
“Why are flowers growing up between your toes?”
In his arrogance the Forest God had completely forgotten he was pretending to be human and had allowed his power to flow naturally. A meadow of flowers bloomed around his feet. He sprang up and his spear took root, blossoming into a fine sapling as soon as it was planted.
In his surprise the God’s mask slipped; his eyes became as wild as the forest itself.
Elhira’s mother screamed and burst out of the house; the cleaver she used to chop up meat gripped in her hands. She swung the blade wildly. “He can’t take her, he can’t!” She howled. “She won’t go with you, I swear it, you monster!” She swung again and the god was forced to duck away, retreating from the house. A crowd started to gather, attracted by the woman’s cries. Their faces were hard and their eyes frightened for it was rare for something as powerful as a god to come to the village.
“Calm down,” Tormid cried out, seizing his wife, restraining her until the cleaver tumbled from her hands.
She twisted in his arms, lunging for the god with hands curled into talons, gouging at his face.
“Mother, Father please stop,” Elhira cried, running out of the house; her eyes wide, hands wringing. “Stop please.” She flung herself between her mother and the god, shielding him from her blows. Finally exhaustion overtook all of them. Her mother collapsed to the ground, clutching at Elhira, who cradled her close, cooing and stroking her hair.
When everything had died down Elhira rose to her feet. “Sir, you wanted to speak with me.”
The god looked embarrassed. “I wished to ask for your hand in marriage; you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” Reaching out a hand, he said, “Come to the forest; be my bride. I shall make you a crown of leaves and flowers; all the creatures will acknowledge you as their queen. They will bring you food and never try to harm you, even in the hungry season.” He held out his other hand revealing rich fruits in his palm. “Take this; tell me you’ll come with me.”
Elhira did not move to take the fruit. “You honour me greatly. Surely a girl such as I could not hope for so good a suitor, but may I have some time to consider your offer?”
“How long will you need?” The God asked.
“A few days at the least,” she replied. “And a little longer to say goodbye to everybody.”
“How will I know if you accept me?”
“I will walk to forest’s heart, trusting you to keep me safe upon my journey and I will call for you.”
“I shall await you then.” He gestured to the field of flowers that grew around them. Some of the plants were tall enough to reach their waists. The tree that had been his spear shaded Elhira’s house with its foliage. “I leave you this gift, as a token of my admiration.”
“Thank you great lord,” Elhira replied; taking a bronze arrowhead and looping it onto a thong which she hung about the god's neck.
They walked together to the forest’s edge, Elhira watched him enter the great mass of trees. As soon as he was out of sight she ran to her home and her parents. That night the villagers held a great feast, filling their bellies with as much food as they could, and plying them with wine. And the people ate and drank and were merry until they fell asleep, slumbering so deeply that even an elephants' stampede would not wake them, or the approach of a leopard stir them from their beds.
As the midnight hour struck, Elhira used the knowledge her mother had given her to lay a curse on the meadow. By morning it had withered away, nothing ever grew on that land again. Her parents shut her away in darkness again. They prayed the Forest God would forget all about her. They cast spells to hide themselves, foolishly thinking they were safe.
But the Forest God did not forget and once he realised he had been tricked a great roar erupted from the forest, shaking the trees and the ground.
That winter was hard, the Forest God sent his children to plunder the lands outside the forest; wild beasts killed the villager’s animals, herds and flocks were ravaged by hungry wolves and cats. The villagers' stores were raided until there was almost no food left. The next spring the crops would not grow and the remaining animals sickened and died. As the season progressed word spread that things were bad all along the forest’s edge, it was commonly known a girl had rejected the Forest God. Some of the villagers made nervous forays into the forest but none returned. Eventually, they began to mutter it was all Elhira’s fault and she should be punished.
On the last day of summer the people had had enough, they marched to Elhira’s house and broke it open, dragging the family out into the village square. They bound the girl, and dragged her into the forest, leaving her there. For five days the people waited, praying the god would relent.
On the fifth morning they woke to find the trees were full of fruit; the field shone with ripe grain. New animals stood at the forest’s edge waiting for the villagers to claim them.
The villagers fell upon the food, gorging until they were full. They found pleasure in each others’ arms and they were fruitful, for the Forest God blessed them in that regard. It was not until spring that word came from another village: a single baby girl had been born with deep green eyes.
Elhira had been reborn.
Ever since the people of the villages and cities along the forest's western edge have offered Elhira to the Forest God every twenty years so that the fields and animals stay healthy and bountiful, so our women have many strong children who will grow great. Her sacrifice secures the lives of so many people.

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