Spirit of the Forest
Spirit of the Forest
By S. J. Hinton
Josh had learned very quickly what a lot of newcomers took a while to
learn: Firewood isn't easy to find at a shopping center.
Here was the problem he had to face: Josh had just recently bought a
house in Winchester Heights, a fairly nice old neighborhood just within
the edge of South Sigil. One of the things the house had going for it
was a very beautiful fireplace of rough local stone, and Josh's wife
wanted very badly for it to be in use tonight. The weather report
called for temperatures to drop rapidly from the mid-50s earlier in the
day to just above freezing before midnight tonight. Josh didn't want to
use the artificial fire logs most stores sold by the case, and he was
having a lot of trouble finding wood at the local Safemart. Firewood,
he mused, wasn't one of the things found in an aisle of the
So, at about six-thirty this Saturday night, josh was driving north
along Broadway trying to locate someplace where firewood might be
found. He was not having much luck.
He eventually pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center, where
he'd seen a man selling roses earlier in the evening. The truck was
still there, as was the sign, but the man was busy loading up for the
"I'm almost packed up," the man said apologetically as Josh got out of
his car. "But I'll be back at ten tomorrow. I've got Sigil Sterlings -
they're better than any of the Tyler roses."
"Thanks," replied Josh. "But right now I'm looking for some
The man paused in his packing. "They usually sell bundles at
Safemart," he said thoughtfully. "And sometimes at Brookstone's. Some
places have stacks instead of bundles."
Josh shook his head. "Tried both places. Brookstone is out, and
Safemart isn't selling any this year."
"Hey, Ted!" called the man. "Is John selling any wood this week? I
haven't seen him in a while."
The other man called Ted stepped from behind a makeshift stand where
he sold vegetables. "He hasn't been around for a few days," he replied.
"I heard he got sick. I think his son might be out on the loop
"Up at the market?"
A nod. "Yeah. Maybe he's still there. It's pretty late, though."
"Okay," said the man as he turned back to Josh. "John is a friend of
mine, and he sells wood by the stack for about eight bucks. His son's
name is Wes. He'll have a big white sign up if he's still there:
Stinson Woodcutters." He turned toward Broadway. "Go out to Broadway
and left onto the loop. Go down about two miles, and you'll see the
intersection of 288. Just before the light you'll see a tent and some
stalls in a field just off the road to your left. That's the
Josh nodded. "I've seen it. Thanks!"
"Tell Wes that Tim sent you. It might help."
Josh climbed back into his late model BMW and jumped as the
temperature warning bonged at thirty-six degrees. Damn cold alarm, he
chuckled at the thought of what Eve called the warning gong. The
temperature is dropping faster than the weatherman said.
Eve was happy to see the wood Josh brought back. He'd bought a stack,
which he'd broken down to fill most of his trunk. It took several trips
to bring it in, and he was well chilled by the time he was done.
"I hope you appreciate this," he chattered through clenched teeth.
"I'm not used to this cold."
"Aww," cooed Eve. "Is snookums freezing?" She placed a warm hand
lovingly on his arm.
He smiled. "Yeah," he replied.
"Then maybe he should make a fire," she suggested with a giggle.
Josh rolled his eyes. "Your wish is my command," he said.
He followed the instructions he had downloaded from the Internet on
making the perfect fire, and it seemed to go along well. He was
concerned about the wood, since some pieces in the center of the
armload he'd carried into the house seemed to be a bit damper than he
thought they should. He lit the paper he'd balled up under the pile and
hoped for the best.
The fire smoked and sizzled, and overall didn't seem to want to
"You want me to try?" asked Eve, all sweetness.
"Nope," groused Josh. He rearranged the logs, and noticed some of them
seemed downright soggy and covered in mold. There also seemed to be
water dripping down the chimney, and a drop landed on the back of his
left hand. He rubbed it off on his pants leg and tried lighting the
paper again. This time the flames seemed to take hold.
"Got it," he sighed.
"Big strong guy," replied Eve. She snuggled deeper into the comforter
on the couch. "Want to join me?"
"Sure." Josh rubbed the back of his hand against his trouser leg
again. He walked over to the couch, and Eve moved her legs so he'd have
room to sit down. He slumped into the cushions, and Eve draped her legs
over his lap.
"Comfy?" she asked.
"Um..." Josh replied. He was beginning to enjoy this. "All we need now
is hot chocolate." He scratched the back of his hand.
"Is something wrong?" asked Eve.
"What?" Josh looked at her. "Oh. No, some water dripped on my hand
when I was making that fire, and now the skin feels irritated." He
gingerly touched his hand. "It almost feels like a cramp. It hurts -
sort of deep inside."
"You're sure nothing bit or stung you?"
He shrugged. "It felt like a drop of water to me. Just cold, no sting
"Uh huh. Go to the bathroom and make sure. We don't need you having a
reaction to a black widow bite or something tonight."
Josh sighed, but knew Eve wouldn't let up. He went into the bathroom
and inspected his hand under the bright lights.
There really wasn't very much: The back of his hand felt dry and a
little chapped, and there were reddish streaks where his fingernails
had scraped. Aside from that, there wasn't much to see.
Josh applied a little of Eve's hand cream, and the itching abated. He
felt better and returned to the living room and his waiting
He woke up later than he'd intended the next morning, having
apparently turned off his alarm clock after it had buzzed. He rubbed
sleep from his eyes and sat up groggily, wincing at the throbbing in
his head - it felt like a low-grade hangover, even though he'd not
drunk a drop the night before.
Groaning, he stood and padded into the bathroom. He stood uncertainly
several moments, wondering whether he needed more to pee or to throw
up. He finally decided on the latter.
Eve heard and came to the door. "God you look terrible!" she said with
sincerity. "I'll call you in sick."
"No," gasped Josh, trying to keep the world steady. "I can't miss
work. It's too close to Christmas."
Eve shook her head. "Let that asshole boss of yours try to fire you,"
she insisted. "You can't go to work like this."
Josh tried to argue, but another fit of gagging prevented him. By the
time his heaving was passed, she had already called.
"I don't want to hear a thing from you," she said. "You've got some
kind of bug, and I want you to climb right back into bed and get some
Josh dutifully did as he'd been told, and Eve felt his forehead with
cool practiced fingers. "You're burning up," she murmured
matter-of-factly. "I'll get some aspirin."
Josh snuggled under the covers until only his face was showing. He had
to break that cover in order to reach for the tablets of acetaminophen
as Eve returned.
"Try these," she said. "They'll help. Hopefully they'll stay
As he drank water, Eve frowned. "Wait a minute," she said.
"On your hand." She reached out to touch his left wrist. "Was this
where you complaining it bothered you last night?"
Josh looked at his hand.
The skin had become irritated during the night. The back of his left
hand was puffy and reddened over its entire surface, the very center
looking an angry red. The skin had become dry, and the skin had begun
to peel. It looked almost like bad sunburn after a few days.
"Does that still bother you?"
He thought for a second. "Not really. I mean, it started to itch as
soon as I saw it, but not before."
"It looks like a burn," Eve said slowly. "Or maybe poison ivy or
something like that. It doesn't look like a bite. Are you sure you
didn't touch anything strange last night?"
"Just that water dropping on my hand," he replied.
She thought a moment. "Look, we'll let you sleep for a while and see
how you feel. If you still feel sick or that rash gets worse by noon,
I'm taking you to see a doctor."
Josh tried to argue, but Eve won out. She always did.
She left Josh and went into the living room, trying not to worry. He'd
just come in contact with something he was allergic to, or burned his
hand without noticing last night. The fever had nothing to do with the
While she thought this over, she noticed the fireplace. Something
looked strange about the bricks.
When she bent to look closer in the dim living room, it seemed like
the brickwork was discolored. She turned on a light to see
The bricks were wet. They were also covered in a soft fuzz of some
kind of mildew. The remains of the wood from last night were a soggy
mass in the center of the fireplace, and looked like they'd decomposed
there. What was left was covered in the greenish fuzz.
What's going on?
He walked through a long-dead forest. The earth was a pale gray,
covered in what appeared to be fine ash. The ash covered every surface:
Every leaf, branch and stone was painted gray. The sky was gray, too,
and the horizon blended until it was virtually invisible.
The earth is dead.
The only sound was that of the wind blowing mournfully through the
trees. Josh couldn't feel the wind.
He couldn't feel anything. Not hot or cold, and certainly not the
Am I dead, too?
He didn't remember walking, but he was suddenly transported. In the
blink of an eye, some wild tangle of brush had sprouted from the
ground. Unlike the world around him, this new growth was vivid with
green life. It seemed to him that he should recognize the plant, know
it for what it was. The impression was alien to him - he'd never had a
green thumb or an affinity for green things of any kind. He couldn't
think of any reason he should know what the greenery in front of him
Long ago, men made cribs of the soft wood because it was plentiful and
easily worked. They broke their long pact with me, and I killed their
children in their sleep for it.
Josh wondered just where the hell that came from. It had been a
vagrant thought, spawned in his brain, but not originating in his
If I'm not dead, I'm going insane!
He shook his head back and forth, denying what he saw. "This is
crazy," he cried out. "This isn't real."
The greenery before him twisted, assuming a nightmare shape. The
leaves changed, too, becoming leprous and twisted into forms nature
The hideous monstrosity leaned forward, grasping at Josh with skeletal
claws of twisted wood.
"Boo!" it said.
Josh sat up in the sweat-dampened blankets, swatting at a form from
his nightmare. His eyes opened in panic upon nothing.
Eve was at his side in seconds. "Honey? Are you okay?"
He waited while his breathing returned to normal. "Nightmare," he
She felt his forehead, clucking like he remembered his mother doing.
"You've still got a fever. It's about ten-thirty." She looked at his
hand, seeing the rash had remained largely the same.
"I'm okay," he said finally.
"You are not," she returned, her hands on her hips. "You're not
getting better, and I think you got something from the fireplace.
Something you touched, maybe. Could you be allergic to something in the
wood or in mold?"
He shook his head, still too winded to reply.
"Well," she said. "I'm calling Doctor Lawrence. You need to see him as
soon as you can. Even if the rash and your illness aren't the same
thing, you're sick enough to need to see him."
"The Elder Mother," said James Lawrence with a chuckle.
"Who?" asked Josh. He was still muddled with the fever, but feeling a
little better after getting on his feet.
Lawrence shrugged. "I'm just tickled to have remembered that from when
I was a kid. The Elder Mother was said to strangle children in their
sleep if the parents made cribs out of the wood of the elderberry bush.
It's a wives' tale from way back." He looked at Josh with a raised
eyebrow. "That's what at least part of your dream was about. You must
have heard that tale from somewhere, and it became a part of the
"I don't remember anything about an Elderberry Mother," Josh replied.
"I don't think I've ever heard that before."
Lawrence smiled. "Well, it doesn't matter. It's of no importance right
now. You seem to have come down with a virus of some sort. I know
there's a bug running around because half the town's got it. No one's
died of it yet, and no one will as long as I'm around." He pulled a pad
out of the drawer. "I'll write a prescription for something that'll
keep away the nausea. And you'll need to take in a lot of fluids.
Always sip water; take in some constantly throughout the day. Aspirin
for fever and aches, and plenty of bed rest. You may get diarrhea.
It'll pass in a day or two."
"What about the rash?" asked Eve.
Lawrence scratched his face. "Now that's something else. I'm sure it
has nothing at all to do with the other symptoms, but it's something I
want to keep an eye on." He paused for a moment. "It doesn't seem to be
an allergic reaction, but I can't be sure right now. It's not a burn,
nor is it poison ivy or poison oak. The best I can venture is that it
might be the result of contact with some kind of irritant."
"There's the fungus in the fireplace," suggested Eve.
"There's that," granted Lawrence. "But that doesn't fit in with
anything I've had contact with around these parts. I'll give you some
samples I have of ointments to try. Let's work on the more immediate
problem of the virus first, then we'll look more into the rash."
Josh and Eve packed up their belongings and Doctor Lawrence escorted
them into the waiting room, instructing the receptionist to make
another appointment for Josh in two days. Then he retired into his
Lawrence sat heavily in his padded chair and thought for several
minutes before logging onto his computer and accessing the Internet
medical libraries at the University. The first article he brought up
was entitled The Etiology of Fungal Mycotoxins.
Josh was dreaming again.
The world was gray, but that was the only thing immediately the same
as before. He stood in the eye of a great cyclone. The winds wailed
like banshees just beyond the stretch of his arms, picking up great
gouts of gray ash. He seemed to be moving as the cyclone moved, and he
watched the jets of ash eat away at anything they encountered. A
skeletal tree eroded to dust as he watched, the powder caught in a
draft of the funneled winds and swept away.
You have done this. The corpse of the earth is the stage upon which
humanity plays out its last act.
"If that's true, then it's a comedy," he spoke to the wind for lack of
any other with whom to converse. As before, the concepts formed in his
So who, then, laughs?
The winds died in an instant, the settling dust forming a figure. Made
of the powdered corpses of trees and earth, the figure was nonetheless
alive, turning a blank-eyed face toward him.
It was the skull of a thing long dead, and its mouth gaped to swallow
Screaming, Josh sat upright in the bed and kicked his legs to back
away from the apparition. Eve was lying next to him, and a flailing leg
kicked her hard in the thigh. She stifled a cry and fought to hold him
"Oh, Baby," she whispered. "It's alright. It'll be fine."
It took a long time before Josh could believe that.
By the time he'd calmed down, Eve was nursing a badly bruised thigh
with a makeshift icepack. She winced as she shifted the bag, and Josh
apologized for the fourth time.
"Don't worry about it," she replied. "Worry about yourself. What's
going on in your head?"
"It must be the fever," he said. "I've never had nightmares like this
before. I've never had something talking to me inside my mind like
this." He sagged against the headboard. "Am I going crazy?"
His eyes were haunted and sunk deeply in his face. Like pissholes in
the snow, thought Eve. His hurt cried out to her, and she felt entirely
inadequate to the task. "We should call Doctor Lawrence first thing in
the morning. It's four now, so it'll be getting light pretty
"I don't know what to do," he whispered hopelessly.
Eve hugged him. "It'll be alright," she said. "Everything will be
She wished she could believe that.
When she called the doctor's office at eight there was no answer. That
was repeated at eight-thirty.
At nine, the receptionist answered. She put Eve on hold for a long
"Mrs. Bascom? This is Doctor Lawrence. I was just about to call you,
Eve sighed with relief. "I'm glad I caught you, Doctor. Josh hasn't
gotten any better yet, and his nightmares are getting worse." She
swallowed nervously. "He's beginning to doubt his sanity."
There was a slight pause. "Please tell him to remain calm," Lawrence
said finally. "First off, it'll take some time before he begins to feel
better. Second, I expect it's possible he'd have bad dreams and
depression about now. Keep him in bed, hydrated and distracted."
"He's still got that rash," she said in a rush. "It hasn't gotten
better or worse."
"That's what I wanted to call you about," replied the doctor. "I may
be onto something about that. I wanted to ask whether it'd be okay for
me to come by your house and get a sample of that mold growing in your
fireplace? It could help us."
"I could bring it by," said Eve.
"Oh, no," replied Lawrence. "If the mold is the pathogen I wouldn't
want you being exposed any more than you already have been."
She considered. "Okay. All right, come by anytime. I'll be here all
"Thank you," replied Lawrence. "And please don't worry. Josh will be
perfectly fine soon enough."
After he rang off, Doctor Lawrence made another call. He spoke with a
friend and colleague who worked in the University lab. They spoke for
several minutes, then he rang off.
"How do appointments look for this afternoon?" he asked the
Dorothy checked the book. "Pretty light," she responded. "You're
booked until one, then only two appointments in the afternoon."
He thought for a moment. "Do you think Doctor Rand could fit those two
in? I have an important errand to run this afternoon at the University,
and it really can't wait."
Dorothy didn't like her plans upset, so she tapped a pencil against
the side of her glasses lightly while she looked at the appointment
book. Usually the doctors gave up after a few seconds and let her go
back to her job, leaving the day intact. Doctor Lawrence didn't seem
willing to back down.
"Well," she said finally. "He's not too busy. I suppose I could shift
a few things around, assuming you'd be willing-"
"Thanks, Dotty," he broke in. She also neither liked being called
Dotty in front of the patients nor being interrupted. "Tell him I'll
make it up to him later."
Doctor Lawrence didn't show up at the Bascom house by lunch, and
neither did he make an appearance by four. Josh was sleeping and Eve
had begun to worry. When she called the office, the receptionist was
"He said he had to run some errands this afternoon," she said. "I
don't know what he was doing for sure. I didn't expect him to visit
"He was coming by to pick up a sample from my house," replied Eve. "He
thought my husband might be allergic to something. When do you expect
to hear from him?"
A pause. "Doctor Lawrence? I'm sorry, I thought you might have known.
Doctor Lawrence was involved in a car accident today. It was very
strange, too. He's in a coma."
Eve was shocked, but she asked listlessly: "Strange? In what
"It's the queerest thing," said Dorothy conspiratorially. "From what I
understand, something punctured his brake lines. When he was pulling up
to a stop light on the loop, his brakes just gave out. He got hit by a
Eve got off the phone as soon as she could, doubtlessly to the outrage
of Dorothy, who had just begun to expound her own theories about the
Doctor Lawrence! Who would've thought?
She decided she needed to take a walk, but first she would check on
Josh opened his eyes as Eve entered the room.
"Did I wake you?"
He shook his head. "No. I had a bad dream."
Eve heard how weak his voice sounded. His eyes were reddened, bleary
with fever, and his skin looked pasty. She began to reach out to grasp
"Doc Lawrence is dead."
Her hand faltered. "No. He had an accident, but he'll be okay."
Josh shook his head again, and Eve was surprised to see the confidence
in his face. "No, he won't. He hit his head on the windshield when he
had the car crash, and he never woke up. His heart stopped a few
minutes ago. It just stopped."
She swallowed. "Josh, how do you know what happened?"
He smiled weakly. "I don't know. It was part of my dream, but I know
this was true." He frowned a bit. "Does that mean the rest is true,
"I don't know..."
He looked at her. "I do, and it does. Do you know that the wreck
wasn't an accident? Some weeds under his car grew up and punctured the
brake lines to his car." His voice sounded alternately weak and strong,
as if his energy pulsed and ebbed. "They can do that, you know. Grass
can exert enough pressure to crack concrete and grow though a
sidewalk." His voice faded and he paused. Then: "But the weeds didn't
grow like that. They grew a lot faster than normal."
"You're sick, Josh. And overwrought," she sobbed.
"No," he smiled again. "It's just that the Mother wants me to die, but
she wants me to be punished, first."
By six-thirty it was full dark. Josh had fallen once again into a
feverish sleep filled with his own personal demons, and Eve was sitting
hopelessly at the kitchen table with a cold cup of coffee. She jumped
when the doorbell rang, but it took her a full thirty seconds to
realize what had made the noise.
The woman at the door looked to be middle-aged, thin without being
skinny. She had a head full of lustrous silvery hair and intelligent
"I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour," she said when Eve opened the
door. "I know this may sound a bit odd, but is anyone in this house
seriously ill? Your husband, perhaps?"
That was how Eve met Melissa Johanson. She couldn't have explained it
in any coherent way, but Eve immediately trusted this older woman.
Furthermore, Melissa had known not only about Josh's sickness but also
seemed convinced that she could cure him. To her credit, Eve was
difficult to convince. It was only a pervading sense that Melissa was
perfectly honest and sane, coupled with a feeling that this was right,
which finally decided her.
"Look," said Melissa as they sat and sipped tea. "I know this is going
to sound really strange to you, but I'm sure I can help."
Eve shook her head wearily. "I'm sorry, but we've been to a
"I'm not a doctor," Melissa replied with finality. "I'm a healer.
Doctors can't cure what they can't identify, and their encyclopedia of
known ills is pretty slim. I deal in a lot of the sicknesses doctors
can't or won't classify." She laughed. "Quite a few doctors I know
would faint dead away if they'd seen some of what I've seen."
Eve sighed. Her shoulders sagged and her face seemed to cave in. "I'm
so tired. That's so selfish. I know how it sounds: A lot of people I
know of have borne up under a lot more and for a lot longer than I
have, but I'm still so tired."
Melissa put a hand on Eve's shoulder. "This sort of thing can take a
lot out of you. It's kind of the nature of the thing."
"And what kind of thing is this?"
Melissa looked at her hands for a moment. "You told me Josh's family
was from around here?"
Eve frowned. "Yes. But that was a long time ago."
"That depends on who you ask. Josh's family was in lumber decades ago.
They cut most of the timber all around, until there just wasn't anymore
and the rain washed away the topsoil. That's when the business dried
out and the partners broke up. Josh's folks moved east after that, and
haven't been here in two generations.
"The government funded rebuilding the area. They brought in topsoil,
put in ground cover to keep the soil anchored against the rain and
replanted a lot of the forest. Most of what you see has been growing
less than sixty years. People often have short memories, but some
things never forget."
Eve tried to piece together what Melissa was saying, but it didn't
make sense. "Who wouldn't forget?"
"Not who, what," replied Melissa. "The land, or maybe the spirit of
the forest. Have you ever heard the story of the Elder Mother? That's
really a story about the land punishing those who abuse it. My -
beliefs - revolve around the concept that we have to honor nature.
We're a part of it, as much as it's a part of us. And nature has been
starting to lash out against men for a while, now.
"Some people are just more sensitive to it than others, so it becomes
a lot more personal. You can argue whether nature can be sentient or
not, but those sensitives will swear that what they experience is a
direct attack from an intelligence. Whether you want to believe in the
Elder Mother or just think that it's all a part of Josh's fevered
nightmares is up to you. But the fact that Josh's illness is tied to
what his family did years ago is just that: Fact."
"This is too much to believe." Eve shifted heavily in her chair.
"You're suggesting that nature is a sentient intelligence with the
ability to strike out against those who hurt it."
"It gets better," replied Melissa. "I'm a sensitive, from a family of
sensitives. All my life I've been blessed - or cursed - with an empathy
toward the earth and its children. I've been monitoring a disturbance
particular to this area for a long while, and it has recently come to a
climax centered on your husband." She sighed. "If anything weird can
happen, it'll happen in Sigil. Your husband coming here was just a
catalyst, and he happened to be a likely and attainable target."
Eve simply stared for a long heartbeat before she spoke. "I should
tell you that you're crazy, and ask you to leave. I'd do that is I
thought it was true."
Melissa smiled. "I've had worse done to me. Let's do this: Give me the
chance to see if I can help. If I can't, then nothing's been lost. If I
can, then Josh will be well again."
Eve led the way into the bedroom where Josh slept fitfully.
"It started mostly with what Josh said was water dripping in the
fireplace onto his hand. Then a rash developed." She quickly outlined
the occurrences of the last days.
Melissa drew back the covers and adjusted the light to better see.
Josh's hand was now swollen noticeably. The entire back of the hand
looked burned, and the skin was raw in the center of the area. A
discoloration had begun, pale green, in the middle of the
"Mycotoxin," clucked Melissa. "I'd bet on it. What you see is
chlorophyll fixed in tiny organisms growing on Josh's hand. Josh came
into contact with a plant species and became infected with spores or
living organic material. It's probably producing toxins that are making
him ill." She paused. "I have an ointment that should kill the
infection and start healing. I'd suggest starting a fire in the
fireplace to dry it out and kill off any infestation. Do that wearing
gloves and long sleeves, and wash the clothing afterwards in a bleach
Eve was anxious for something to do. "I can start that right now," she
"Good," replied Melissa. "First the body, then we'll find out what's
infecting the soul."
Melissa bathed Josh's hand in warm water into which she placed a
powder that bubbled and hissed as it dissolved, smelling faintly
herbal. She dried his hand, applied a salve and bandaged the hand
loosely in clean gauze.
Josh woke during the process and looked curiously at Melissa.
"Who are you?" he asked weakly.
"A friend. I'll help you get better."
He smiled. "Good," he replied, closing his eyes.
While he was still conscious, Melissa made Josh drink a bitter tea she
carried in a flask. He made a face, swallowed, then settled back and
was soon deeply asleep.
"He'll probably sleep straight through until morning," she pronounced.
"Now we'll see what else we can do for him."
It took the better part of three hours for Melissa to properly
complete her preparations for what came next. Eve watched with
interest, although never quite being able to shed her doubt in the
After going to her car to fetch an overnight bag, Melissa dressed in a
plain gown of fine linen, stitched in complex interwoven patterns along
the hem and neck. She sat quietly for several minutes both before and
Next, she mixed water from a glass flask with salt from a leather bag.
She produced a knife with an intricately carved hilt and made various
gestures over the flask while chanting softly under her breath.
"Call it Holy Water," she said with a shrug. "I have to purify my
tools before I begin."
Melissa then began to remove other objects from her obviously very
deep bag. Eve saw candles, what appeared to be an incense burner and a
beautiful stone bowl. Eve excused herself, being able to take no more
of this. She felt she was justified in seeking any possible aid for
Josh, but this dipping into magic was going too far for her
sensibilities. She needed a cup of coffee, if not something much
stronger, and she needed to get out of this room and away from this
Melissa sensed, much more than saw, Eve leave the room. She was far
too immersed in weaving her protective magick to notice much in the
material world. She carefully placed each of four candles at the
cardinal points, walked her circle and called the Guardians of the
"Please, Goddess," she whispered. "Guide me in this. Give me
strength." Oh, Leighton, she thought. If only you were here to work
She sighed deeply, feeling the old sensation of her own body slipping
away into trance. Without thinking, the words came to her lips: "A null
e, a nall e, Sli'ante!"
A part of Melissa was aware of the feel of carpet on her buttocks as
she sat, of her hair tickling her face as it fell slightly out of
place. But at the same time, she was also aware of the sensation of
falling a short distance in the darkness. Suddenly, the darkness
resolved into a dark landscape, and the sense of falling became an
off-balance step forward -
Into cool air. Grass, glistening wet, about shin high. The air was
fresh and tangy, with a hint of ice in it, and the sky was dull
metal-gray. It felt like fall.
She looked around the bleak landscape, seeking some point toward which
she might venture. She decided to begin walking toward a stand of stark
trees at the horizon.
This was not the first time she had traveled thus, so she wasn't
surprised at the speed at which she arrived at those odd trees, walling
a sunken bowl of earth. At the edge of the decline was set white
standing stones, about eight feet tall.
Melissa only glanced away from the depression for an instant, her keen
hearing having detected a distant howl like that of a wolf. When she
turned her gaze back, a man stood in the center of the standing
His face was thin, framed by an angular graying beard and wild tangle
of grizzled hair. He wore a crown of dried leaves and curving stylized
horns. His clothing appeared to be rags of gray and brown tied about
"I've been waiting for you, my daughter," he said in a deep voice only
slightly touched by age.
Melissa looked back without fear. Fear in this place could easily be
deadly. "Who are you?" she asked.
"I am called Herne," he replied. "But I am known by many names."
Melissa felt the slightest quiver of fear, but did her best not to let
it show. "I know of you," she said. She was pleased at how steady her
voice sounded in her own ears. "But you don't look like Herne. You
aren't the one I seek."
The old man's pale silvery gaze turned suddenly hard. Melissa found
herself standing on the same level as he, eye to eye. Now he was young,
with firm tanned skin and long, dark hair. A black crown with polished
black bull's horns was firmly on his head, and he wore a dark loincloth
and short black cape.
"Is this more what you expected of Herne?" he asked, his eyes flashing
lambent gold. "I know precisely who you seek."
He placed his hands on her shoulders, and she found him much taller
than she first thought. "You called to me," he said. "Just as you
called to me when you were a child. I have always been with you, Lissa.
I've always been with you, within you, just as you wished."
Melissa shook her head. "I've studied the old ways, yes, but you are
not who I've come to seek out. You must know why I've come."
"One of your brethren is cursed by She Who Abides. It is his fate, and
one to which he is well suited."
"No," she argued. "He has done nothing aside from wishing to live on
the lands of his ancestors."
"Those lands are inhabited by those who remember what his ancestors
She nodded. "Yes, they have long memories. But he is innocent of
Herne sighed. "No man is innocent."
"Some are," Melissa replied. "At least, of many of the crimes of man.
The followers of the New God have long ravaged the lands for tempting
them from the path of pure spirit. They are blinded to the miracle of
the Earth. Yet, some of them have found their way back."
"As you did..."
"As did I," Melissa agreed.
"You do yourself a great wrong to defend those who rape the Earth,"
sighed Herne. "They are scarcely deserving of such faith."
"A greater injustice is being done in punishing one who has done no
wrong," Melissa said with passion. "Time is linear to mortals. He no
more has a say in the matters of those who came before him than water
can refuse to flow down a waterfall. But he is being made to suffer
terribly for no wrong he has done."
"You argue well. Think you that She will listen?"
"She must," insisted Melissa. "Take me to her, or bring her here. I
will defy her if I must."
Herne's hands still lay on her shoulders, and now he shifted them,
lifting her as easily as though she were a small child. He held her
tenderly, eyes meeting hers.
"We are all one and the same," he whispered.
So mote it be, echoed within her mind. Herne laughed, and his face and
form began to shift through a rapid series of aspects. The old man with
the crown of leaves, a young girl with blonde hair wearing a circlet on
which a crescent moon was mounted, and an aging woman with graying hair
bound by a leather strap and wrapped in a tattered shawl.
Melissa struggled, and managed to slip the grasp of the woman whose
form became more real with each heartbeat. She hit the ground hard,
knocking the wind from her lungs.
"So you sought me out," said the woman.
She stood perhaps a hand taller than Melissa. She appeared to be about
thirty, handsome and proud, with shoulder-length black hair and an
alabaster complexion. She wore a jeweled headband about her head and a
collar of beaten gold and jewels about her neck. She took a small step
forward, and she was suddenly dressed in a plain robe of brown
This shape shifting is going to drive me nuts, thought Melissa.
Inwardly, she felt a throb of electricity, and saw a sphere of light
expand from her chest and surround her entirely.
The other woman obviously saw Melissa's circle, too. She smiled and
drew a finger along the arc of light. The sphere crackled where the
woman touched it, but otherwise held.
"Do you think this will stop me?" she asked.
"Herne?" called Melissa.
"He's here," replied the other woman. "We all are, but I am ascendant.
I am She Who Abides, the Elder Mother. You are my child, and I may do
with you as I will."
"I am no child of yours," said Melissa. "I hold the True Beliefs of my
ancestors, and they saw only a kind Earth Mother. You are a cruel
creature, and you I do not recognize."
The other woman smiled crookedly. "You'd better watch your tongue,
before someone tears it out."
We are all one and the same, came a voice from deep within Melissa's
mind. I have always been with you, Lissa. I've always been with you,
within you, just as you wished.
Melissa started. Herne? She called silently with no response. She
continued to feel his presence, though. What were his intentions in
helping her, if that was what he intended to do?
I've always been with you, within you, just as you wished.
"What? No reply to that? I would've thought more from you."
If you wish to see the face of God, look no further than your
reflection. It was a favorite saying of Melissa's first teacher in the
Old Religion. God was within you. That was a focal point of the most
basic of beliefs. Drawing down the Goddess or God into your physical
body - you and God were one and the same, but with one ascendant.
I don't need to call Herne, I already did. Years ago, I called to him,
and we have been one since that time.
"Enough of this," spat the other. "I'm not interested in you. I'm
interested in children. I do my work through them. I've nearly killed
the child in that other mortal you wish to save." She stopped and began
to slowly smile. "Perhaps I could find an amusement for the child
Something dark and foul snaked through Melissa's defenses as if they
didn't exist. It pierced her chest, and with a cry she fell to her
knees. Something within her seemed to collapse and wither.
"Yes. Give me that child within yourself, and I'll let you live.
Perhaps I'd even let that other mortal live."
"Go to Hell," gritted Melissa against the pain.
"Too late," replied the other woman.
That dark and toothsome thing sank its fangs into her again, and she
almost screamed. Oh, God, I can't do this!
And something unfolded within her. The pain went away, and the faintly
pulsing sphere that was Melissa's inadequate defense against She Who
Abides flashed brilliant blue.
Melissa spoke, but the deep tones of a man came from her throat.
"Hecate and Sybill you may be known as," she said. "Goddess you may be,
but you have gone against your very own Laws which were passed on to
She faltered. "Herne?"
"Do what thy will, and harm none," she continued. "We gave the Law to
our children, and see what they wrought in spite of it. In your anger,
you seek to find justice. But look what you do, in spite of the
"It is my right!"
"It is not right," responded Melissa/Herne. "No good comes of it. A
single soul singing the Law in the night is worth ten thousand souls
burning in Hell. You can not do this!"
She screamed unintelligibly, attacking Melissa physically where her
energies could easily have burned the mortal woman to a cinder. Melissa
stood with her arms hanging limply at her sides, simply waiting.
And, just as She reached Melissa, the mortal woman reached out and
pulled her into an embrace.
There was a terrific struggle, but it lasted mere seconds. She Who
Abides crumpled limply to the ground, sobbing. The sobs became less and
less strong until they all but stopped.
And Melissa found herself fighting sobs in her throat, alone on the
earth, her arms wrapped around herself.
Herne stood nearby, saddened.
"She was a part of me, as I am a part of you. By accepting that part
of us, we accepted her." He heaved a sigh. "You could never have fought
her. But you could accept her as a part of yourself and love
"Is she gone?" Melissa asked.
Herne pondered. "She's still with us, but I think she's gone the way
of many old Gods. They don't die, but they do dissipate on the winds of
Eve was asleep on folded arms at the dinner table when Melissa came
downstairs. When she woke, she found the older woman looking beaten and
"Josh is peacefully asleep now," she said to Eve's unasked question.
"I'd be surprised is he isn't completely healed within a couple of
Eve looked at the other woman's hair. What had once been honey flecked
with silver was now almost all gone to white. The kind eyes were sunk
deeply into their orbits.
"You look like hell," said Eve. "Can I get you anything?"
Melissa thought for several seconds. "A shower," she said at last.
"And then perhaps some tea with lemon. Then bed."
Eve nodded. "I can't ever thank you enough," she said. "What
Melissa paused for a heartbeat. "Just go on believing it was a serious
infection I cured with natural treatments. It'd be much better if you
Eve looked puzzled, but nodded.
You've done well, my daughter.
All in all, she had to agree.