I took to the Kingswood the midsummer after the Dame died. I did not swear a vow, but I kept myself just as strictly, living like a beast in the forest from one midsummer to the next, without fire or iron or the taste of meat. I lived as prey, and I learned from the dogs how to run, from the hare how to hide in the bracken, and from the deer how to go hungry.
I was then in my fifteenth year or thereabouts. I had been taken into the Dame’s household as a foundling, and when I came to a useful age, she made me her handmaid. I was as close to her side as a pair of hands, and as quick to do her bidding without a word having to be said. I stood high in her regard; many a daughter of the Blood is not so well regarded, being counted more a debt than a gain to her house until she is safely married and gone. When the Dame died, and her nephew and his new wife inherited the manor, I became just another drudge. The world had its order and I my place in it, but I could not whittle myself small enough to fit.
In sorrow and pride I exiled myself to the Kingswood. I shunned fire for fear the kingsmen would hunt me down, and so by way of cold and hunger, I came near to refusing life itself. I never thought to anger or please a god by it. Sometimes I wonder if it was my stubbornness that caught the eye of Ardor, god of forge and hearth and wildfire. And sometimes I wonder–was it by my will alone that I fled to the Kingswood? Maybe Ardor had already taken me in hand, to test my mettle as armor is tested, under blows.
I was not such a fool that I could go hungry in high summer, when the wild plum waited for the touch of my hand before letting go of the tree. I could put a name to each useful plant, I knew its favored ground and the most auspicious season and hour to seek it. The Dame had taught me all this when we’d ridden to the Kingswood to gather dyestuffs for her tapestries and herbs for healing or the table. By root and stem, flower and leaf, seed and fruit, she’d shown me how every plant was marked by the god who made it, that we might know its nature, whether benign or malign or both at once. She’d taught me songs for many herbs, so I might keep in store what I’d learned: these songs were half riddles, half prayers. And the Dame’s housekeeper, Na, and Cook had given me other names for these plants, in the Low tongue, and other uses as well. We mudfolk have a green lore of which the Blood know nothing.
When I fled to the forest, I gave up begging the gods for favors, for my prayers had been ignored; I threw myself on the mercy of the Kingswood. But turn away as I might, I couldn’t turn my back on the gods, for they were everywhere before me. The Kingswood was their garden, everything named and known, fruitful and pleasing to the eye, ripe with signs.
What I couldn’t gather freely I stole: grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards, beans and seeds from the burrows of field mice, bulbs hoarded by squirrels. At times I felt I had stolen the Kingswood itself, for there was a heady freedom in roaming where I was forbidden to go, in lazing when others were working. I walked for days and days, from the slate-bedded ravines to the mossy woods high on the mountains, where the trees are stunted and stooped, and never lost my way. I have the gift of knowing where the Sun is, even if the Sun is behind clouds and I am under a fir tree at the bottom of a narrow valley.
Though I’ve traveled farther now and know the world is vast, I still think the Kingswood, inside its compass, may be endless.
Our village was an island in a sea of trees, one of many such islands, each with crofts, fields, hedges, orchards, and pastures, scattered across the great round waves of the mountains. The Dame held that village and two more at her father’s pleasure, and at King Thyrse’s pleasure too, for her holdings lay within the Kingswood and under forest law. The king had given her dispensation to take dyestuffs from the woods, as he prized the tapestries she wove. So she had wandered at will, and I’d attended her, and thought I knew more of the Kingswood than the other drudges of manor and field.
The villagers had leave to travel the market road that threaded the wood from one village to the next, and certain grants to underwood, pasture and forage, clay pits and such. All for fees, of course, always something owing to the king’s foresters and woodwards. It was said King Thyrse was so jealous of his belongings that he kept a tally of every deer and oak in his forest; and the pigherds swore he counted every acorn too, when they drove the pigs into the woods in autumn to fatten on the mast. The drudges could cut no wood save hazel and ash poles from the coppices, and every man had leave to fell an oak when he took a wife and built his house. Otherwise they were not allowed past the wards.
But I found signs of their trespass: a burned patch planted with a fistful of grain, a tree felled or stripped of fruit, a deer strung up in a snare. I never saw a poacher. They were too cunning, and for cause: the foresters would take a man’s eyes and hands and leave him to the mercy of the wolves for such an offense. It was bad enough to steal the king’s game, but snares were an abomination. The gods abhor weapons that leave the hand, cowards’ weapons such as javelins, bows and arrows, slings. No man or beast save vermin should die by such means.
The village folk kept other secrets, and I found those too: great circles of ancient elm, ash, or oak, their limbs so entwined that no sapling could take root under them. I supposed the groves deserted, but still I felt the prickling on the nape of my neck when I saw the lofty spaces and blackened stones inside. I’d heard tales of such places from Na when I was small. Late at night she’d whisper to me of the old gods in the woods, the numina of trees and groves, stones and rivers, until I feared to sleep. The Dame had given these tales no credence, so I too had come to disbelieve them. When the Blood took these lands many generations ago, they said the gods of the mudfolk were not gods at all, but rather malicious wights. They banned even their names.
It’s one thing to forbid the worship of a god, and another to command that it be forgotten. One day I found the oldest tree of all, a black oak bigger than twelve men could encircle with their arms, and I knew it for the one Na called Heart of the Wood. Dolls of twigs and shucks dangled from its branches: right side up to cure barrenness, upside down to bring on a miscarriage. Mudwomen had dared to put them there, knowing that if the kingsmen had caught them in the woods out of turn, they might also hang from those branches.
I was not the only inhabitant of the Kingswood. There were some few others there, with the king’s leave or without. Besides the foresters, there were woodcutters, charcoalmakers, miners, armorers, drovers, all to supply the needs of king and kingdom. I stayed away from them, with their noise and stink of smoke. Feral men and uneasy shades also dwelled in the woods, or so Na had said, and sometimes at night, when the strangled scream of a vixen sounded like a haunt, I believed her. I should have been afraid, but I was merely wary. I thought I was safe enough, as if I were a shade myself, who could go unseen and tread without leaving footprints.
Late in summer I crossed the pass between Barren Woman Peak and Bald Pate, and walked south along the ridge and down and uphill and down, until I came to mountains I couldn’t name and a forest groomed so that a man could ride through it at a gallop without bowing his head. It was a place of old trees, great shafts rising to a roof of leaves, lank grass underfoot. I saw a red stag cropping the grass, moving between the gray trunks in a green hush. He wore a crown of thirteen tines covered in tattered velvet.
He lifted his head and snuffed the air, and then I heard the hunters, a rumble of hooves and voices and the chink of bridles. The stag smelled nothing, so I clapped my hands and we ran, he in one direction and I in another. The bellhound had the stag’s scent and chased after him, belling as he went. The other dogs were gazehounds, running silent beside the dogmaster while the huntsman signaled the chase with his horn.
I ran downwind until I could no longer hear the horn over the roar of my own breath. I waded in a stony stream and burrowed my way into a stand of horsetail rush on its bank. There I lay gasping and sweating and shaking in a black swarm of gnats. And there I lay even when I heard the horns and bellhound again, coming closer. I saw the stag lunge across the stream and up the other bank with water streaming from his flanks, his breath harsh as a cough. The hounds brought him to bay and tore him down, their lean bodies straining and wriggling at his chest and belly. A small dog, a lap-warmer, wormed his way in between the gazehounds like a puppy after a dug. The dogmaster whipped them off. The stag strove to gain his feet. The lead huntsman thrust a long knife into the stag’s chest and leaned upon it. The stag sank again, and the huntsman drove one antler into the earth to bare the stag’s throat to the knife.
I was frozen like a hare in a meadow that seems to think the boy with the cudgel won’t see him hide in plain sight. And I learned that the hare is not deluded. It’s just that he can’t move when the fear is on him, limbs won’t work, eyes won’t blink, only the wheeze of breath and roar of blood distinguish him from a stone.
The hunters made a libation of stag’s blood, and passed around the cup until their lips were red. It took a long time for me to pluck words from their roars, to realize they spoke the High tongue of the Blood. Even then I couldn’t make sense of it, I was so deep in my silence.
The huntsman in his stained leathers took the antlers and held them to his head and pranced up and down, and the other men laughed. Yet it was not mockery. They were calling the Hunter, stag-headed avatar of the god Prey, and I could swear I felt his breath on my cheek as I lay hiding.
The stag was unmade: gutted, skinned, and quartered. The horses stood quiet, trained to bear the smell of blood, while the dogs fed on bread mixed with the entrails. When they were gone, leaving scraps on a bloody bank, I thought of a red haunch blackened on a fire, and I craved the taste of meat until my belly cramped.
The hunt taught me to be afraid, day and night. I moved to higher, wilder ground, to the domain of the beasts of prey: bear, lynx, wolf, and boar. I studied their habits and avoided their territories. I feared them, but not as much as I feared the king’s men and the king’s dogs.
I found myself a lair, a cleft rock cut into the crown of Bald Pate. Only eagles claimed such high, stony places, and they paid me no mind. I roofed the cleft with a flat slab of rock and filled it with a nest of leaves, and strewed twigs around to warn of any approach. From this aerie I could see down the valley to the village, a mud warren next to the stone manor walls. The river winding past the village changed with the weather, sometimes silver under the Sun, sometimes brown and full of silt.
I watched two drudges and a mule plowing a spiral field, tilling the strip that had lain fallow that year to ready it for sowing in the spring. Three bands of color coiled one inside the other: the brown ribbon of dirt, darker behind the plow than before; the golden stubble of the summer rye; the luminous green of the winter wheat. Hawks circled below me, looking for unwary mice gleaning the grain.
The world the gods made is too big for us, so we make ourselves a smaller one. We go round and round, every path we take a thread, the threads tangled. From outside I could see how tightly the villagers had knotted their world about them; hadn’t I done the same, as if my little tracks could contain the Kingswood?
I knew by the signs that it would be a hard winter. The hollies bore a heavy crop of berries and birds stripped them bare. Crows quarreled in the reaped fields and owls cried in the mountains, mournful as widows. Fur and moss grew thicker than usual. Cold rains came, driven sideways through the trees by north winds, and snows followed.
I had brought two things with me to the Kingswood: the dress I wore and a sheepskin cloak Na had made for me, dyed with ward signs against ill winds. This cloak kept death away, but could not keep out winter, the old Crone, who crawled under it while I slept and wrapped her icy arms around me.
Excerpted from Firethorn by Sarah Micklem. Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Micklem. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.