Sunday, 15 February 2009
Behind the stockade...
It was some forty years ago I find. As I read my journal for the year of 19__, the memories come back in a rush as if it were only last week.
I had set out with Carstairs and Rutherford to the dark forests of Sussex. It may sound unbelievable now, but then the great interior of those forests was not mapped. Local communities of rustic English were farmers and crafters. They had tales handed down through the generations of dark things in the woods. Nameless, terrifying things of which the faeries were only one part of what they feared. In our modern 20th century it seems merely silly to speak of being afraid of faeries, but these people were not fools. They had knowledge of the dark forests with with they lived in some uneasy contract.
Carstairs, Rutherford and I were no fools either, but we had the fiery eagerness of youth and the will to do great things. We were determined to map the forests all the way through. It is possible that this fiery will of ours was our undoing. We had the curiosity of the young, with no awareness of the possible consequences. We left the village of Little Tinkerton at the edge of the vast forest and went into the trees. The three of us had small iron crosses on steel chains about our necks, given to us by an old woman in the village who had begged us to reconsider our decision. When we had made it clear that we were as foolhardy as many of the villagers thought us, she had given us the crosses and insisted that we do not take them off, no matter what. It was a small thing to us, so we promised her and set off.
Almost immediately, we ran into problems, for the one known path seemed an unstable thing that turned where we did not expect it to. Had we known it we were being pixie-led by the mischief of faerie. But we were too lumbering, too blunt and unappreciative of such subtleties. I had spent the week in Little Tinkerton listening to the elders who had survived the few small hazards that the faerie had thrown at them. So I understood what to do - or so I thought. I had a pair of iron soles made by the blacksmith. Now I bound these upon my boots. Standing, I watched as the path seemed to suddenly straighten as it ought to. I took my companions by the hand and led them along the path. We continued slowly for some few hours as if I were a half-blind man leading the blind. We settled in the darkness of the wood to eat after a while.
We had barely sat down when two old people, a man and a woman came on to the path and approached us. They were small and dressed in the fashion of the early Regency period. Both wore red and green, faerie colours and their faces were as wrinkled as a walnut and as brown. In perfectly clear voices they asked where we were going. Politely we told them, addressing them as 'Grandfather' and 'Grandmother', knowing perfectly well what they were. We shared our food with them, knowing the correct courtesies.
"No small feat that, for there are but three of you and the forest is immense. You will need all your magic to do it," the old man answered us.
"Waldruna, the Queen of the Wildwoods will not like your presence either, " the old woman added.
"Is Titania no longer Queen then?" Carstairs asked, a little facetiously, I thought.
"Titania? There has never been a Queen of Faerie called Titania. Tho' I believe a mortal once invented such a one, so we are told in any case," the old woman said.
I gave Carstairs a sharp look, but he smiled slightly and said no more. After we had eaten, the faeries thanked us and gave us a feather each and told us to wear them. We bowed politely and thanked them, saying that we would do so. I placed my feather in the band of my hat and thanking them for their company at lunch, we departed along the path. When we looked back for them they had disappeared. We did not speak of them for we did not know who might be listening.
After a while, we came to a ruin and discovered it to have been a chapel. We entered with the thought of making it our sleeping place for the night. Within, we saw that ivy and other plants had taken over much of it. Yet, they stopped before the altar and we noticed this with some interest. We cleared away the ivy and made the place as habitable as we could. Then we settled for the night. We had drawn what we saw of the natural pathways through the trees and these we gathered together. We decided to examine one of these the following day and settled ourselves to sleep. Then we heard the great sigh as if some huge being were beneath us.
We got up together and armed ourselves. Rutherford took the lantern while Carstairs and I took our rifles. We searched the ruin until we came to a great doorway covered with ivy. The tendrils were thick and the leaves the size of a man's hand. We cut the ivy at the base and pulled it away from the doors. This done, we carefully pushed it open, for the lock had long rusted away. Behind the doors was a large chamber that arched up above with a high roof that despite everything was intact. Trees had grown up within the chamber and appeared to support the roof - a sort of temple of living pillars. At the centre of the chamber and around the trees, thick cut branches had been pulled together to form a stockade of some kind. Above it at the centre of the chamber a great crucifix had been suspended by ropes and branches. The ropes had long rotted away, but the branches remained. The thick cut branches were stitched together with some kind of cables that looked silvery in the lantern light.
We stood gazing for a while unspeaking until a breeze seemed to blow through the doors into the chamber. Then a voice was heard, strong and commanding,
"You will leave and you will not return!"
We turned to find a tall dark imposing figure. It appeared to be a woman, but this woman's skin was tinged with green and her eyes were two amber fires. Her hair was long and dark red. About her body were feathers and the wings of butterflies and moths, stitched together with cobwebs. Upon hear head she wore a crown of silver in the shape of fine branches with beetles and other insects upon it. She did not need introduction, we already guessed that she was Waldruna, Queen of the Wildwood. While she appeared young and strong, she was unbelievably old I had heard. The faerie have been around since before the dinosaurs.
For a moment, I dreaded Rutherford or Carstairs making some comment in defiance, but I need have no fears there. Like me they were struck dumb in the face of her magnificence. We seemed suspended in time as if we were in a dream, struggling to waken. Then sleep washed over us and we fell to the floor senseless.
When we awoke we were in a field near Forest Row and it was early morning with the dew fresh upon us. We struggled to our feet and reached for our feathers. They were still there and we took them in our cold fingers and I caressed my feather gently. For a moment we said nothing. Then Rutherford said quietly,
"I don't know about you fellows, but I need coffee."
On this we agreed. We struggled to our feet and as I caressed the feather again, there was a soft breeze and a beautiful young woman came walking up the gentle slope of the field towards us. Her hair was dark red and her eyes were amber and she smiled gently.
"What was behind the stockade, majesty?" I asked her cautiously.
The young woman smiled and wagged a finger at me.
"You mortals are too curious and so young," she answered.
"Go home and hold on to the feathers you were given. They will be your fortunes. Forget the forest and the stockade. There are somethings other than the faerie and more dangerous. You are better off not knowing them for they have more power than you can imagine," she told us.
We had enough sense and the sober quality of the experience to bow to her and take our leave. None of us have ever been back to the forest and it was never mapped. It remains unmapped to this day. Carstairs made his money in silver and used his money to good effect among the poor of London. Rutherford studied Physics and made his money in it.
I invested in gold and made enough money to retire aged 30. I spent my time writing and researching history and through my researches I discovered that the chapel in the forest was called St Ewan of the Holy Rood. There was an order of monks there in the 9th century but only two of them ever came out of the wood and they never returned to it. It was said that their Abbot was a very well-read man who was reputed to know magic. More than that I could not discover, but I suspect that the Abbot did not listen to Waldruna and called something dreadful into our world that only the faerie and a few monks could hold, if not banish.