Willow

{This is pre-history from my Acadia world.}

Willow watched the young barbarian step cautiously through towering oak and elm, pine and cedar, hickory and pecan.  Barely a yard in and he thought some big predator was going to pounce on him. Half the forest was already aware of his presence. How loud the barbarian walked! Willow knew that she would pounce on him, if Cernunnos would allow her. The rule was that no one was to interfere with a human unless they wounded an animal during the hunt and did not seek it out to end its misery. Careless hunters were severely punished. Willow sighed. She did not like barbarians. Who would like an intelligent being that babbled nonsense, could not speak, and was worse than a pack-rat when it came to possessions? Those who brazenly chopped down whatever was near where they wanted to settle? A wasteful people, not aware of the bounty nature held, ignorant of the balance; blissfully unaware how one life helped another from tiny worm to plant to tree to beast.

“Willow, hearing is not the same as seeing.” Cernunnos’s latest teaching came unbidden into her thoughts. His words were not easy to banish. She stirred on the cedar branch she perched on. Hearing was the same as seeing. The warning bark of a squirrel was enough to send most residents of the forest into hiding. Willow growled. Why did they have to hide in their own home? They were here first. These barbarians needed to be shown their place. But Cernunnos would not allow it.

“Hearing is not the same as seeing.” Cernunnos’s words persisted in her thoughts. Whatever could he mean? Hearing a brook meant water was near. If you followed the sound you would find a bubbling brook, water trickling through rocks and dirt. Hearing was the same as seeing. Shaking long curly hair out of her face and untangling it from a branch, Willow surveyed the barbarian. He was not dressed like a “soldier,” reeking of blood, carrying what Cernunnos taught was a “Sword,” “Shield,” and “Spear.” She sounded each unfamiliar word out carefully. Remembering she was watching a barbarian, she fell silent quickly. The boy carried a yeoman’s bow, a long knife, and a dagger in plain leather scabbards. Around his neck, distractingly pretty, was a yellow chain with a purple crystal hanging from it, catching every stray sunbeam. She wanted it. She, Willow, wanted a “pretty” like some crow or raven.

“Pretty.” She whispered the word. An arrogant sniff escaped her nostrils, followed by an annoyed hiss. The boy froze. Willow kept still. The barbarians were notoriously blind and deaf. Arwena the fox had told her so. Arwena would know, she wandered outside of the forest a lot. If Willow kept still and quiet, he would go back to his previous activities. The boy cast around. Suddenly he looked up into her tree and met Willow’s eyes. It felt like an arrow had gone through her. She was vulnerable, pierced…. Such a sharp stare! Green eyes, brown hair… a tree was green and brown…. He had that “pretty” around his neck. Willow’s breathing sped up as her heart quickened. Warmth spread across her cheeks. What was this feeling?

Shaking her head brought no clarity, but now was not the time for wondering, it was time for fleeing. The boy was climbing into her tree, eyes bright and eager. A stern glare from Willow froze the boy as she took that extra two seconds to leap from the tree, land gracefully on two feet, and dash silently into the forest.

Willow sang a wordless song as she danced through the trees. She had not seen the barbarian more than fifteen times in the past fortnight.  And today she did not care if she did or not. Dust the stag said that all barbarians were double-crossing, back-stabbing fools. To trust one was to constantly fear an arrow in your back, and he should know. Dust was eight. He had survived a long time in the forest. So Willow sang and danced, trying to forget the pretty and the boy that was as pretty as a tree.  Between one step and the next something heavy knocked into her. The song she was singing fled, replaced by a tuneless gasp as the air fled her lungs. She stood frozen for several minutes unsure of what was happening. She had no idea of where to run. When she caught her breath again, she could smell sweat and a hint of fear. The next scent to assail her nose was freshly oiled leather and old blood.  In front of her was the young hunter dangling from one of his own rope traps. Willow backed away.

She heard something crashing through the bracken. The sound came from behind her. She whirled around. Then, turned back to the boy. Fear showed plainly on his face.

“Please! Help me! Get me down from here. Please! You nee….” The boy opened his mouth and the unintelligible barbarian babble poured from his lips. Willow did not understand what he was trying to tell her. The crashing grew louder and Willow scaled the tree the boy was tied in as quick as you can blink twice.

“Well, well.” A large burly man carrying a sword at his hip and a spear in his hand stumbled out of the surrounding trees. Two more men of greater girth and height joined him.

“Where is that nymph at you keep telling stories about?” One of the men asked.

“I thought she was the fairest damsel ever seen. Even prettier than the Princess.” Another said.

“Come on, boy. Take us to her. We want to have a… talk with her.” The first said. He lifted his sword. “Come on, I ain’t got all day.”

Willow did not understand what nonsense these barbarians were speaking but their body language grew more impatient and hostile. The one with a naked sword concerned her the most.  He was pointing it at the boy. Her boy. Her tree-boy.  The owner of the “pretty”. He was hers and these barbarians would not hurt him! The man with the naked sword swung his blade down. Willow dove from the tree. She was now in between the sword and her tree-boy.  The sword cut into her shoulder. A howl of pain and rage leapt from Willow’s lips. The man pulled his sword free. Reacting on instinct alone, Willow kicked the offending blade from the man’s hand. It flew towards the nearest tree and buried itself there. The man looked surprised, then delighted. She hissed as the strange barbarians moved nearer. The pain in her shoulder returned manifold. She sunk to her knees. Willow growled.  The barbarians jumped back. A wondering whistle met her ears as the smaller barbarian said,

“Well, she is a beauty at that. Let’s take her for a walk.”

“She hain’t gotta stich of clothes on.” One said excitedly.

Willow did not like the way they were staring at her. She had seen packs of wolves hungrier than these men but they at least had honour. These barbarians were without that pride. She heard a light thump behind her. She barely smelled the old blood and oiled leather now; blood flowed from her shoulder. She could see Death waiting. But he was not beckoning yet.

“You will have to go through me.” Willow’s tree-boy stood over her. His voice was firm and he smelled of anger. “You cannot have her.”

The men attacked. Swords and spears were dropped in favor of fists and feet so the girl was not harmed. The hunter would not relinquish his long knife. He was brave and fought for her. He did not leave her to the barbarians. Maybe he had honour. Maybe he was not as Dust said. And if Dust was wrong maybe Arwena was wrong. He had never tried to hurt her. Willow felt cold, very cold. She knew she had to move but she lacked the strength.  The boy was tackled. Blood trickled from a wound on his forehead. He was pale. Willow felt fear race through her. Fear for the boy. Cernunnos! With the last of her strength she broke into a wordless song she had never sang before.

A strong wind swept through the clearing. The strange barbarians were lifted into the air and thrown against trees where vines grew at a rapid pace and branches sprouted to hold them there. The wind did not bother the hunter or Willow. Not a single hair stirred on their heads.

“Willow. You are not allowed to follow Death.” Cernunnos’s voice filtered into the clearing.  Strength returned to her. The blood flow stopped. “Seamus, you are dear to my daughter. Now I grant you your life.” Cernunnos appeared in front of the recovering hunter. The rack of antlers on Cernunnos’s head was like a crown.  He had the body of a man, a gold torc around his neck, a torc in one hand and a serpent with the horns of a ram in the other. He wore a close-fitting striped shirt and striped trousers.

“Thank you, Lord Cernunnos.” Seamus bowed low. “May I ask the lady’s name?”

“Her name is Willow.” Cernunnos said.

“Willow,” Cernunnos spoke in the tongue of animals. “Do you care for this man?

“Yes. He is my tree-boy.”  Willow smiled at Seamus.

Cernunnos left the pair smiling at each other. He walked into the sunlight and it shone down around him. The vines dropped the three men. Pale, eyes rolling, they did not move from where they fell but they could not look away from Cernunnos.

“You have tried to touch my daughter. You spilled her blood on the grass. I should kill you.” His eyes glowed red. “I should kill you but death will teach you nothing. For a year and a day you three will be swine. You will roam the forest and die by the spear. If you have not changed your heart in that time, you will be swine forever. You will no longer be able to speak with a human tongue.” The men changed into pigs. Their clothes and swords fell to the ground. The three pigs charged from the clearing squealing into the trees.

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2 thoughts on “Willow

  1. Very good! Given the setting is a bit mid-evil with swords, sorcery and all that, i would’ve changed the three men into females instead of swine. See if they can survive as a woman and what they learn from it after a year. If they learn and understand nothing, then they stay female and suffer some horrible fate.

    Liked by 1 person

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