STORIES that stretch your mind
The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly
by Aleyna K. Pleva
The heavily-armored warrior lies on his back struggling to flip over. Around him the forest is dark. The darkness, though, is not the warm green shadow of any natural place. This is the darkness of magic. Long white trees grow here, unnaturally spindly things, grow so close together their trunks are bare of branches, except at the very top where the black leaves form a canopy that blocks the sunlight completely. Only pale yellowish grass grows on the forest floor.
The forest makes the young warrior ill and uncomfortable, and although in the past he has ridden into battle without fear, now he finds himself struggling with an urge to flee, an urge he knows his father would say is cowardly.
Vile Sorcery, the warrior grunts, as he has heard his Grandfather do when enraged by something strange. He was not quite sure what it means, but when his grandfather hisses it, the oath conveys a whole kingdom of contempt. The young man struggles to his feet. In one hand he clutches a sword, and near him a tree bears faint crosswise slicing cut marks from his blade. Yet against the pallor of the trees smooth hard bark, the sword strokes barely show, even though he has been hacking there for nearly an hour.
Gasping and sweating even through the dank coolness of the dark forest air, the warrior lifts his sword again at the tree. His blade clangs with a shudder that runs through his armored body, forcing him back a pace or two, though not throwing him to the ground as before.
Cursing, muttering, sweating the warrior labors to lift his heavy sword again. He staggers, his eyes hollowed by faint purpling rings of exhaustion.
Have you tired, yet, oh warrior of the trees?
The voice is a soft sweet peal on the cool afternoon air, but he is too weary to whirl suddenly in surprise. Slowly he turns around to face whoever it is that has spoken, and sees that a young woman stands behind him.
Then he doubts his first impression that she is young, for her hair is a most ancient shade of gray. Yet her round, placid blue eyes are untouched by the weariness that the old seem to bear in their eyes, and her faintly wrinkled face is as luminescent as an unmarred opal. She smiles at him, not speaking and he stares back, conscious that he must be gaping like a slack-jawed peasant. He does not know what to make of her. Perhaps she is a member of the aristocracy, to judge by the riches of her clothing. But what elderly noble woman would dress in a mans tunic even if it is woven of the finest pure wool? What sort of wealthy woman would wear knee boots, even such costly ones, and tramp about unescorted in a haunted forest?
Not knowing her, nor knowing how to address her, he says only: Who are you woman? His words sound coarse and rude in the silence, and he tries to frown formidably, though inwardly he winces, hoping she is not some great Lady who will order him flailed by her escort of knights for his roughness.
But she does not seem shocked, not offended, as any good noble woman would be. Instead she smiles at him. Her look is mocking, but he is too astounded to feel insulted.
I am the lady of these parts. She tells him. Do you not grow weary of your work? Her laughing eyes stray to the faintly scarred tree he has been bludgeoning with his sword.
When he answers, he is more respectful, more unsure of her status then before. Weary I may grow, lady, but I shall destroy this cursed forest that blights the land of the King.
Cursed? She says with a mild surprise, looking around her. She raises one eyebrow at him in mockery. This place looks peaceable enough to me, Sir. I see no spirits of the undead.
The warrior stares at her with a haggard gaze of incomprehension. My Lady, he shudders, I know not what part of the kingdom you come from, but surely you have heard of this cursed forest. This used to be the Kings most beautiful wood, His Highness richest hunting ground, filled with fat game, but now where once there were great oaks and ancient elms there grows nothing but these deadly stalks of blight. It is supposed by the astrologers that a powerful, evil sorcerer who hates the King has done this evil.
A sorcerer! Her voice was light like a woman humoring a child.
The warrior is too exhausted to bristle at her lack of courtesy. Yes Lady, a powerful wizard he must be, to make this ugly forest so strong and lifeless.
Hmm...indeed. But you Sir Good Knight, you have come here armed only with your sword, to defeat the whole forest tree by tree?
Her voice is taunting. The warrior straightens himself proudly, though it cost him precious energy to do so. No magician of the King can remove this curse with magic, so I have supposed that the only solution is to remove the trees with plain good steel. Every axe that has stuck here has failed, but my sword was blessed on the altar of Saint Maurice himself, the most holy patron of blades. The marks it has made are faint, that is true but no other blade has been able to score the wood of these trees at all.
The womans poised laugh is delighted, though the warrior has an uncomfortable feeling that she is not laughing in praise.
Perhaps that has more to do with your heart than with the blade, she suggests. Her grin is easy and eager. And you know maybe the Kings magicians cannot remove the curse from this place because these trees are not cursed," she says. "Perhaps it is only that someone has been singing the wrong songs to them. She laughs again, lifting her face to the pale light that seeps through the dark canopy of green leaves above.
What do you mean, Lady? The warrior stares at her in bewilderment.
She does not reply. The wind tosses her long silvery hair over her shoulder as though she herself had pushed it out of the way. She reaches out to the trunk of the tree nearest her, stretching her long delicate fingers to touch it.
The warrior gasps in surprise. When she stretches out her fingers, they do not meet the bleached bark of a shadowy, cursed blight tree, but instead where her hand meets the trunk the warrior can see the natural brown crust of the real, uncursed oak that should be there. In a halo around her outstretched hand the pale whiteness of the cursed oak tree seems to melt off, washed away like rain washes mud from a dirty jousting shield to reveal the markings beneath. She holds her hand against the tree until the real plant is shown in all its glory, standing as though it has always been there, its thick branches lush with green leaves and noisy with chattering songs of birds and squirrels.
You see, the woman smiles, her hand still pressed against the tree. Not a leaf out of place, nor a feather on a single bird ruffled in the least. Then she pulls her hand away, and again there stands the thin stalk of pale, mournful blight tree, lacking leaf or bird.
Your blade cannot destroy illusion, she tells him gently. The warrior struggles to speak, but his voice will only come in a croaking whisper. You! You are responsible for this?
Don't tell the King, she smiles.
But why have you wrought this... the warrior suddenly finds that he cannot call it evil, not when she is smiling at him as she is. Why have you wrought this...magic on the Kings woods?
Her serene face becomes stern. These woods were mine before they were the Kings before even his castle was built. These woods have been mine since the day I planted the oak seeds and sang into the growth of the first saplings.
But the oaks must have been born... hundreds of years ago, Lady.
So they were.
Who are you? the warrior breathes softly. He is not sure whether it is a sin to believe her. But he has been too awed by what he has seen not to believe.
©1998 Thresholds Quarterly Vol. 16 No. 5