by Oh, Kami (狼)
illustrated by quaedam and sairobi
Gwydion wove his way through the gorse bushes, stepping lightly on the sparse, dewy grass. His bare feet were chilled through and caked with mud, but it was too tricky to soften his steps in moccasins, riddled as the grasses were with tricks and traps that guarded the village. He wished that he’d thought to bring them anyway, as respite from the clear March morning. The sun was still long hours from rising and the moon had sunk low and fat on the horizon. It chased him from behind as he snuck across the moors.
One of his carefully placed footfalls started a family of quail into the air. He paused, his pulse throbbing in his ears, until he could be sure that no other creatures stirred as well. Dotting the vast horizon was the herd of wapiti he had been searching for. It wasn’t the main herd, which would have been grazing closer to the village, but the lonely group of young males.
The one Gwydion searched for was the biggest and loneliest of the herd. He had a deep, bloody coat and a rack that was as wide as a boy was tall. He was, as expected, a short distance away from the others. Gwydion whistled softly as he neared the other sleeping bulls, trying to avoid startling them and scattering them across the field out of reach.
“Ho, Ridderch,” he murmured as he stepped up to the great bulk of the wapiti. Ridderch stared, his eyes glossy black in the dim light. The beast tossed his great shaggy head, blowing puffs of steam from his nostrils. “I’ve a favor, and the prize is two apples, one now and one for the way home. They’re not the best, given the season, but it’s worth a trip to the forest, don’t you think?”
Ridderch laboriously rolled to his feet when Gwydion pulled the first gnarled apple from his belt pouch and greedily stuck his face into Gwydion’s palm, leaving traces of juice and spit behind.
“Then we have an accord.” Gwydion reached out his hands to grasp the great rack of horns, and Ridderch dropped his knee, allowing the boy to climb astride his shoulders. They stood a moment: a massive, inky shadow against the sky peppered in stars. Gwydion searched out the lode star and put it to their backs. He nudged Ridderch with his knees, leading them further from home. The wapiti roused to an awkward running gait and Gwydion clutched the long winter coat tight in his fists.
The forest they traveled to was a full day’s march by foot, but probably no more than half that at the tireless pace of which Ridderch was capable. It was the outer edge of what the villagers would have considered their lands. There was magic there, of a sort that people shouldn’t mess with if it could be avoided. Under other circumstances, Gwydion wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the forest himself. Even merely viewed from afar, it reeked of mysteries best left unsolved.
None who entered the huntsman’s wood ever returned, said the older boys while huddled around late-night fires. Gwydion put little stock in those tales, but all the same it left the hairs on his arms prickling and his stomach tense in anticipation. The imagining of such a place was surely a thousandfold its true danger. So he hoped.
He clung to Ridderch, refusing to slow their pace despite his fingers being stiff with cold, and his toes iced through. The wapiti guided them steadily across the vast moor, leaping terrifyingly over sink holes and peat bogs, as though the boy on his back was of no concern.
When the sun rose, they paused for a brief moment to bask in its warmth and for Ridderch to wet his nose in a brackish pool. Gwydion reached his arms to the sky, stretching his fingers as close to the sun as he could get them. Ridderch indulged him for some minutes, standing in such a way that encouraged the faint light towards Gwydion’s chilled body, and then the respite was over and they once again galloped southward.
They came into view of the woods near midday. Though the air remained chilled, the sun had beaten a sheen of sweat from his forehead and their ride left Gwydion quite exhausted. He dismounted some distance from where the trees sprouted suddenly from the ground with tall trunks instead of bushy foliage. It was entirely unlike the gentle slope of forest on the opposite side of the village. These trees were a vast wall, their heavy branches curling together and protruding in jagged, inhospitable spikes.
Ridderch’s comforting bulk lumbered near Gwydion’s shoulder as they advanced. There was a strangeness to the air around the edges and a peculiar lushness in the vegetation that became increasingly pronounced with every step forward. The feeling of unease crept further up his spine, until he stepped past the outer layer of trees and into a different world.
The air in the forest burned his throat at the first breath and soothed it in the second. It was rich with heat and moisture, like over-boiled water. Beneath his feet, the ground was soft and springy, infused with the same humidity as the air.
Gwydion had known there would be magic to the wood, but he hadn’t expected something so profoundly obvious. Behind him was a chilled March day, and in front was… something else. Ferns and dainty flowers; towering, dark trees with soft bark and a spicy scent; all manner of things that he had never seen before spread before him in panoramic glory. But not a creature broke the silence save for their ragged breaths.
He could hear the rushing of wind as the trees lurched over head, allowing lazy beams of light to penetrate the dense canopy. Off to one side was a trickle of water that barely deserved to be called a stream. It wound its way laboriously through the trees, often congested with thick foliage. Had he not been in such a state of discomfort, Gwydion might have stopped to admire his surroundings. It was surely the loveliest place he’d ever been.
His nerves remained on edge as he pressed forward. Every sound was an explosion in the stillness. The mere rustle of his clothing had Gwydion looking over his shoulder. The sense of unnaturalness still pervaded his senses but he pressed on regardless.
There was no set path to take. The absence of wildlife left an absence of trails as well, and Gwydion was left with only his instinct to guide him. Ridderch hopped the stream, jogging to catch up, and Gwydion sighed with relief. He tangled his fingers in Ridderch’s soft fur as thanks. He had no desire to explore the spooky wood alone.
They chose to trace the tiny stream, following its serpentine trail deeper and deeper into the trees. Further in, the atmosphere was no less oppressive and the heavy clothes he wore were no help — save for the comfort of familiarity — in the strange climate.
Time was impossible to track, far as they were from the sun, and it took no time at all to lose sight of the forest’s edge. Tall, ominous trees stood like giants, and below them, a scattering of familiar birch and alder, and even further below was the lush undergrowth that they trekked through, the likes of which Gwydion had never seen.
Gwydion started back as he nearly sunk his foot into a deep pool that was disguised by the many things growing in and around the water. It was the source of the stream, and a number of others fanned from its banks, trickling into obscurity.
Suddenly, startlingly, a shape moved from behind the trees on the opposite bank, and then another, and another, until six had emerged. They drew near, pausing at the edge of the water to sniff the air. Gwydion’s blood thudded loudly and his breath lodged deep in his throat when he could see their full forms.
Wolves; and no small things like the rangy pack that chased wapiti across the moors. They were lush and deep gray in color, their tongues lolling from grinning jaws. Gwydion felt a stab of panic, but Ridderch remained steady at his side. Gwydion watched, wary and uncomfortable. He had only a small knife at hand, and it was not the sort of weapon that would save him, should the wolves cross from their side of the bank.
They made no move forward, instead sniffing around in the underbrush and eventually settling down on the spongy moss that decorated the surrounding forest floor. Gwydion wondered if he should try to sneak back the way he came, but feared that any movement he made would startle the wolves to action. Barely three rods’ distance separated the sides of the pool, and that length seems to shrink with every passing second.
When Ridderch stepped forward, Gwydion barely contained a cry. It choked up the back of his throat as he watched Ridderch traverse the pool. The water sloshed around Ridderch’s knees and the thick growth of plants parted with apparent ease. There was a fog swirling up around the edges of the water and every step he took thickened its hold until the wapiti was no longer visible at all.
Gwydion watched the far bank in horror. He squinted his eyes in an effort to peer through the sudden gloom, but to no avail. Ridderch was gone from sight and the only sounds were that of Gwydion’s racing heart and the water burbling into the distance. Minutes passed with Gwydion trapped in a stalemate by his fear and the conflicted desire to find Ridderch.
One of the wolves howled. Another joined in, then another until Gwydion’s ears rang with their song. Slowly, emerging from the mist that dissipated as quickly as it had arrived, another figure took shape. Though he felt no less panicked by the sight — a tall and terrifying man, with an all too familiar rack of antlers growing from beneath his matted hair, and a fierce hawk mask to obscure his features — this was the reason Gwydion had ventured into the wood. To meet with the Horned God. To meet with Herne, the hunter.
The wolves stood as he approached, barking and rushing around his knees excitedly as dogs from the village might greet their master. Herne stepped from the bank into the pool, as though it didn’t exist. His clothing splayed around his hips, undulating in liquid banners, and his antlers trailed lichen with colorful tips into the water behind him.
Gwydion stared and his heart beat triple time thump-thump-thump with every movement that brought them closer. He set one foot behind, as though he might flee — for all the good it would do him.
“Well met, son of Dôn,” said Herne. His voice was sweet and low like spiced cider, cold like a fog-covered morning.
Gwydion was instantly enraptured and it took a moment to clear his throat before he could reply. “Well met, my lord.” He shuffled his weight back and forth, trying not to move away as Herne climbed the bank.
Water cascaded down the back of Herne’s legs and, though Gwydion had not noticed before, life sprung anew from every thing he touched; curling fronds and dainty bell-shaped flowers littered the dripping trail behind him.
“You are young to join my hunt, boy. Is that not what you seek?” His laugh was the rumble of thunder in a clear sky. One great hand with its rough fingertips reached up to stroke Gwydion’s beardless cheek. His hand was stained with earth and smelled of a forest rain.
Gwydion shuddered, struggling to keep his eyes on Herne, fierce and demanding as his mask was. “They say you will grant a favor,” he said, “to any man who can say where you were killed.”
“You must find the tree where I was hung,” Herne replied. “But beware the price of failure. If you choose wrongly, you will be trapped in my forest for all eternity to run with the wolves by my side.”
Gwydion sucked in a startled breath. He’d known the penalty, of course, but the grave tone in which Herne spoke was ever so much more dramatic than his mother’s histrionics as she’d tried to stop him from leaving. “Yes, I know,” Gwydion said softly.
“Come then,” Herne said, offering one arm.
A single step was all Gwydion managed before he stumbled, finding that they were no longer near the pool. They stood in the center of a small grove of oak trees. There were no more than fifteen, arranged in a circular pattern around a field of tall grass and wildflowers.
“And now, son of Dôn, may you choose wisely.”
Gwydion took several unsteady steps around the ring in an attempt to regain his equilibrium as well as to assess the trees. They were all sturdy oaks, with broad, horizontal boughs and dense foliage. He drew near the first, looking up into the branches. The leaves were a bright, shimmering shade that made Gwydion uncomfortable to look upon them. He hurried along, finding the next tree impressive though plain when compared to the first. On he went, around the grove until he’d examined them all as carefully as he could.
It seemed an obvious choice — the bright tree stood out among all others — but Gwydion knew something that no one else could know about Herne’s question. It was a trick, of course, and that knowledge itself had come at a dear price. Though he felt as if he might collapse at any moment due to the weight of the decision, Gwydion forced himself to stand tall as he rejoined the Horned God.
“I cannot speak for any other man, my lord, but surely you weren’t killed here at all,” said Gwydion, and his voice quavered only the slightest bit.
“Not in that pretty, bright green tree?” Herne asked, with a smile in his voice. “Are you quite sure?”
“There is no doubt, for had you been hung to death, the rope would still remain.” His heart resounded in his chest, skipping beats then frantically catching itself up. The silence drew out to an unbearable length and a hint of doubt bubbled up to fester in his mind. He felt the first stab of true fear to plague him since he had entered the magical wood.
Herne slipped his mask back to reveal dark, thoughtful eyes, and allowed the corners of his mouth to curl slightly upward, giving Gwydion’s heart another reason to skip. “You’re a clever boy,” he said, “for indeed it was not I who hung that day.”
“Then you’ll grant my request?” Gwydion said. He tried and failed to find the answer in Herne’s inscrutable face.
“I am a man of my word and you have surely earned your favor,” Herne told him. “What is your wish?”
Gwydion felt the swell of possibility cascade across his mind. He might have asked anything, anything in the world, and the Horned God would grant that desire. It was difficult to imagine such a vast power at the tip of his tongue and for a moment, Gwydion savored that feeling. And then he took a steadying breath and said, “My sister and her child…” He faltered, because that wasn’t what he’d planned to ask for at all. Once started, the treacherous words continue to spill from his lips. “I wish for them to be protected. She will not speak the name of the father and even now she does poorly. I fear her child will be stillborn and such a thing –” He cannot finish that sentence.
Herne cocked his head curiously. “You wish for me to take responsibility?”
“No!” Gwydion covered his mouth with his hands, as though he might have the smallest chance of regaining his dignity. He could not imagine any cause for his alarm, save that the thought of Arain anywhere near the forest made his stomach churn unpleasantly. “No,” he replied when he could finally say the words calmly, “I only wish for them to be safe. A child without a father is no small curse. I would ask that they be treated with kindness.”
Herne scratched his chin and sat. Gwydion struggled to remain standing when their surroundings changed again. They were now in a grotto, carved from the trunk of a very large, very old tree. The enclosure was illuminated in unearthly color, enough to see the pack of wolves lounging at Herne’s feet and the stone throne that he sat upon, but little else.
“That is no small feat, son of Dôn. From such a distance, and without her in front of me… At the least, I will require your assistance and perhaps more than that.”
“I would –”
Herne held up a hand and Gwydion’s words stuttered to a halt. “Do not make promises that you cannot be sure of keeping, boy. Particularly when you can’t be sure of what you promise.”
Gwydion shuffled forward when beckoned, stepping warily between the great wolves at Herne’s feet. When he was within reach, Herne took one dirty hand and gripped Gwydion’s chin, forcing their eyes to meet.
“This is not an easy thing you ask. For me, or for you,” Herne said with a voice like flint on steel. “You must trust me in all things.”
There was a different sort of fear lurking in Gwydion’s belly as he was released to sit uncomfortably at Herne’s feet. A fear born of wanting.
Gwydion watched as Herne stood and crossed the room. The wolves slunk after him, trailing in his footsteps as eagerly as pups while he lit torches and sooty candles to finally illuminate the grotto entirely.
There were stone benches on either side of the room, set with a mortar and pestle in the center and oddly shaped stones all around. Herne beat a handful of herbs in each mortar and then lit them on fire, filling the air with a sweet smelling smoke.
There was no rumble of earth when he stepped forward to the center of the room, but the ground sunk away until it formed a basin, deep enough to stand in and half a rod across, with three steps leading down. Herne stood at the very center of it.
All the while, Gwydion watched from his place in front of the throne. A curious feeling fluttered in his chest as he breathed the heady air. The smell of the forest was already rich and wet, and now there was a taste of spice and enchantment to intoxicate him further.
“Come to me, Gwydion. Let us weave some protection for your sister and her sons,” Herne said with a murmur. He strode forward and held out his hand, waiting for Gwydion at the bottom of the stair.
Gwydion took cautious steps forward, as though the earth might deceive him at any moment. Herne’s magic was an unpredictable thing and he was rightfully wary. He descended into the pit with careful ceremony until they stood side by side. Herne’s eyes were a dull coal black but still Gwydion found them captivating.
Herne held up a bone knife between them and Gwydion matched his grip on it, wrapping their hands together. “We call upon the spirits of heaven and earth to bless us and keep us from harm. We call upon the winds and the rains to guard our spirits. We call upon fire and earth to guard our bodies. Let nothing interfere, let nothing impede us.” Herne spoke clearly, his voice rising as a tangible magic swirled around them, flickering the torches. He took his free hand and pierced the skin of his palm on the bone knife, letting the blood drip down into his sleeves. After a moment of hesitation, Gwydion did the same and they clasped their bloody palms together.
The energy that had been rising in the room swelled one final time and then receded. Gwydion felt short of breath and his heartbeats were thunderous in his ears. Herne still held his hands fast, but that was something of a relief. It kept him grounded. He could still taste the magic in the air, swirling in lazy currents around them.
Herne stepped away and began to strip out of his clothes. Silently, Gwydion followed suit until even his loincloth was piled on the stairs. He stood, awkwardly nude, and watched while Herne finished unwrapping his innermost layers to reveal skin the color of burnt sugar. Gwydion’s nails bit into his palms, stinging the fresh wound.
“Sit, and let me tend to you,” Herne said. He raised his hands from his sides. There was a hiss and a rumble and warm water flooded the basin to their knees.
Gwydion very nearly fell again, flushing with embarrassment as he caught himself on Herne’s shoulder. He was offered a hand to sit, which only embarrassed him more, but there was nothing for it.
Herne knelt at Gwydion’s feet and carefully began to bathe him, starting with his toes (which were somewhat sensitive) and cautiously moving up his legs. It took restraint for Gwydion to keep his hands to his side as he felt he should. Herne’s hair looked soft, like spun dandelion fluff. His lichen coated horns sprouted from behind his ears like the great trees of the forest. Gwydion’s fingers twitched. He clenched them tight.
Herne’s hands trailed up Gwydion’s thighs, caressing gently and causing Gwydion to shiver in the warm water. His groin stirred under Herne’s careful attention, as the cleansing continued up his chest and across his arms.
They switched places and with no small nervousness, Gwydion began to wash Herne in return. Herne’s body was no soft thing. His muscles were hard and his skin rough to the touch. It was only with a cautious glance at Herne’s face and seeing the hunter’s eyes were closed, his posture relaxed, that Gwydion was able to still his nerves at all.
When the bath was complete and the water seeped back into the earth, Herne took up a vial filled with thick, sweet smelling oil. Again they took turns. Gwydion stood in tense anticipation as the oil was gently rubbed into his skin. Up his thighs, across his shoulders and his chest until his body shone slick in the dim light. Then it was his turn to reciprocate. His hands were no more steady than they had been the first time. Where Herne had been firm and confident in his treatment, Gwydion faltered. Yet Herne never said a word.
When at long last he deemed the task done, Herne led Gwydion by the hand to the throne. It would serve as their altar and had been prepared as such while they bathed. The rough stone surface was draped in hides and softly woven blankets. He followed Herne’s silent direction as best he could, once again stumbling when they sat and he was pulled into Herne’s lap.
“Calm yourself, boy,” Herne said. He tugged Gwydion until they were more comfortably aligned: hip to groin and Gwydion perched cautiously on Herne’s thigh.
Any tension that might have left Gwydion from the bath now returned full force. He dared not relax into Herne’s embrace, doubly so when he felt hands on his lap. “Your pardon! That is –”
“Never you mind,” Herne said. His voice was liquid now, coaxing Gwydion into a more restful state. “Think of your sister. Don’t fret if you cannot keep her in your mind’s eye. Simply think of her and think of me.”
“But…” However, Gwydion could say no more. Herne’s hands were rough and hot on Gwydion’s sensitive thighs. They pulled his knees apart and stroked upwards to greet his hardening flesh with all apparent skill.
He had lost control of his body and gripped the cool, stone arms of the throne to lessen the thrashing of his limbs. Herne paid no heed to Gwydion’s struggle. He was unmerciful, allowing no respite nor ceasing his caresses. His breath teased Gwydion’s ear and Gwydion turned his face into it, looking to anchor himself further from the strange heat curling in his belly and flaming his face. Gwydion felt the length and breadth of him pressed against one hip. Every jerk of Gwydion’s body shoved them tighter, as their oiled bodies slid together with something nearing intent.
“Think on her, Gwydion,” Herne whispered into his ear as though he knew it would only be moments more before the end. “And then think only of me.”
It was more difficult than Gwydion might have imagined to bring Arain to mind when his body was stroked and petted without cessation. He had her for a bright and shining moment and then Herne, Herne, and only Herne flooded his thoughts as he was spilling himself into the hunter’s hands.
Gwydion allowed himself to finally relax, pressing back against Herne’s chest and sucking in gulps of air. Herne encouraged it, gentling Gwydion with careful touches to his brow, to his cheeks, his lips. Gwydion found himself dozing and when he awoke, he was no longer in the throned grotto.
Herne served as a pillow and a blanket of rabbit fur was tossed casually over Gwydion’s naked body. He pushed aside the blanket as he took in his new surroundings. The air was as thick as every place he had encountered in the forest, and full of unfamiliar spice. Gwydion pulled himself to a seated position. His skin was sticky with sweat and oil, and his body ached with a bone-deep tiredness.
“I am impressed by your magic,” Herne said. He was a deep pool that reflected everything and nothing in his voice. “The rains will come soon enough.”
Gwydion’s heart caught and ricocheted around his chest. That had been the boast he offered, the dare that chased him from his home out into this strange world. “You knew my true aim?” He asked, half ashamed of his treacherous heart that would put the value of his sister over the good of all the tribe.
Herne smiled his mystery smile. “Only once you willed it so. As I said, it was a pretty bit of magic. Do not fear your desires, Gwydion. There is no shame in wanting.”
Tremulous butterfly wings of anticipation beat at his core, as if wishing would make it so. In Herne’s forest such a thing was not so impossible as it might have been otherwise. Perhaps, if he could find the words for what he was wanting. “Then this place is?”
“My home,” Herne said. He pet Gwydion’s hair and stroked his cheeks with no small fondness. Gwydion, though shaking with emotion, found Herne’s dirt-stained hand with his own and gripped it tight. “So that when you leave, you might find your way back again.”