The Dark Forest
Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead
Hang stars like seeds of light
In vain, though not since they were sown was bred
Anything more bright.
And evermore mighty multitudes ride
About, nor enter in;
Of the other multitudes that dwell inside
Never yet was one seen.
The forest foxglove is purple, the marguerite
Outside is gold and white,
Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet
The others, day or night.
I just wanted to walk among the roses, when I got to Mysthaven the next day. I’m not sure why. I don’t even like them all that much; they’ve always seemed sinister to me. But that day, they seemed more friendly, somehow. More open to someone like me. I even leg my legs brush against them physically, though not enough to scratch. I must have walked around the castle two or three times, just taking in the quiet. I didn’t even worry where Nathaniel was: I knew he was about, knew I’d see him soon.
On my third pass or so, just as I passed beyond the door, I turned to find Aoibheann. She had her hands behind that back, and that … look in her eye. The one that lets you know she’s about to do something completely daft.
So I just came out and asked her. Wonder of wonders, she was straight with me, probably because she knew I wouldn’t let up til she told me the truth.
She was, she said, going to check out my vision. Apparently, she recognised the darker forest from my description as what she termed “The Huntsman’s Forest,” which is somewhere removed, like Faermorn’s hideaway, maybe. I’ve given up trying to figure out the geography of the Wylds: there just isn’t any, and that’s that.
Well, you know what happened next. Whether because I’m a loyal friend or because I’m certifiable, I said, “I’m coming with you.”
And you know what always happens after that. Nathaniel appeared.
Nathaniel appeared, looking very, very different. There was an energy about him, for starters. And then there were the ears. Pointy, fae ears peeking out from my Nathaniel’s beautiful red hair?
My fae boyfriend?
Well. There will have to be a long conversation about this, I was thinking. Aoibheann didn’t seem to notice and was ready to take off without a moment’s notice. She said she had a way to get to the Huntsman’s Wood, but wasn’t sure she could take the two of us.
So we all held hands, in the same way we would if I were going to take someone realm-hopping with me. I figured since that power exists within Nathaniel as well, we might get lucky and he might manage to keep his clothing wherever we were going. Obviously, I love him naked, but clothes were probably good for our destination. We held hands, and–
Landed. In front of the — was that a cwn? — biggest, meanest looking cwn I have ever seen. With great snarling fangs and a were’s build. Was that a were-cwn? Was such a thing even possible? Well, we were standing right in front of it, I guess…. so it must be possible. Then again, all things appear to be possible in the Wylds. Except 24-hour pizza delivery, which is a fucking shame.
For once, I cast before I thought, enveloping us all in an iridescent sphere of protection that might or might not have stopped the cwn, but as it didn’t seem to be advancing at all, perhaps it was just being, well, menacing.
I couldn’t believe we were all still standing.
The creature was missing the red ears I usually associate with the cwn, now that I think about it. But it’s not like I have loads of experience with cwn. Well, more than everybody I studied Welsh folklore with, I’d bet, but still.
OK, it’s impossible not to be afraid when you’re standing in front of something that looks like that. With nowhere to run, really, since you don’t really know where you are. This is the opposite of joy.
Aoibh sank onto the ground, whether motivated by fear or tiredness from the hop, or perhaps the creature’s breath was rank (she was closest to it). And then we found out why it might not have been attacking right away.
It was waiting on a word from its Master, who appeared like a cold blast of wind, a thunderstorm, a torrent of thorns: Gwythyr Gwynn, the Unseelie King Himself.
He asked why we were there, and how. I told him Aoibheann had brought us to a place she called “home”, and that we hadn’t been expecting a great snarling were-cwn to meet us at our landing point. His attention at that point seemed to land on Nathaniel.
“I scent my Queen on you. Unfortunate,” he said. Of course I stepped right between the two of them, because I am a fucking idiot. To me, he said, using my old name, “You have almost bloomed to full flower, Gwyneth Eirienwen Evans….Hmm, you have moved on towards your full potential. Time will tell. Unless you wish to know now.” He makes me shudder. I don’t understand this weird pull he has on me. I have never embraced darkness, nor do I wish to now, but something about every freezing word he says makes me want to look up into his depthless eyes. “Now is the time,” he said, “to give me a reason to not take you all. In the time remaining to me.”
Well, that felt like a test.
“Of course I would like to know now,” I said. “But it isn’t time. And that is why you should not take us all. It isn’t time. Everything progresses and comes back to itself, and the cycle takes us in another direction now. There will be another winter, and then it might be time. Your longevity proves that you are patient; you must know that as desirable as we may be now, we will be even more desirable in the years and seasons to come. Why take me now,” I asked, “when it would be so much sweeter to take me at the height of my power? You say I have almost blossomed. Why take me, why take us, when it’s easy? You are so much more powerful than that.” It was so hard to tear my eyes away from that fascinating oblivion, ignore the pulse in my throat, turn away from the palpitation in my belly, back to Aoibh and Nathaniel. “We are children,” I said. We offer you no sport.” Why does he do this to me?
Aoibheann gave me a look like I had just murdered her cat. What? What did I do wrong? She just said, “Because you cannot take what is mine,” in a totally Aoibh-like way. Simple or wise: who can tell?
Nathaniel’s answer was more pragmatic. “We came here by choice,” he said, “and we will leave likewise by choice. Each of us has the choice. If you take us, then you lose the chance that any of us might come to you by choice. We might, or we might not, but if you take us, then that hope is gone.” He took our hands. “We three are friends, companions, bound, not by oaths, or fear or power that any one has over the others, but because we choose to be so. And nobody takes that away from us. You have your companion, your queen. Be content with that.”
There was a rush of tentacles, spiny, horrible, twining around us like thorns. The beast quivered at Gwythyr’s side.
Then, there was a flush of dark energy, like smoke, like an inkspot.
After that, only his voice lingered: “I shall visit each of your dreams to tell you if you gave the right answer…..” Then, he faded, his cold laugh lingering like a nightmare, the kind that doesn’t end.
We were too tired for talking after that. We clasped hands and found ourselves back in Mysthaven, where Aoibheann slunk back into the castle to sleep and Nathaniel and I barely made it back to his cabin before succumbing to exhaustion.
I woke in my clothes the next morning, stinking of fetid breath and fear.