The forest shudders, disturbed by the passage of something great and terrible. Even in your panicked haste you pause to wonder what could be so encompassing.
Behind you, the ruins of your village. Mother dead in the pigsty, skirts above her head; sister flung down the well; nephews with their intestines wound on cartwheels -- all at the hands of the tall, ruddy men whose longboat swept silent up the river with the morning mist.
You would pray for your life, but not now, after what you've seen. Brother Padraic is as dead as the rest, his god-on-a-stick useless. Tyr might listen, but his hammer hangs around the necks of the reavers, whose prayers are more mighty than your own. You are left only with the echoing woods, suffused with the memory of vanished peoples.
The forest rustles again. Whatever it is can be no worse an enemy than those drunken killers behind you. You kneel by a burbling rill in a patch of rushes, vigorously green in spite of the lateness of the season. There you shove aside thoughts of gods new and old to throw yourself on the mercy of the greenwood.
"So," says a voice of rattling leaves and creaking branches. "At last you return."
Close at hand, the voice frightens you even more than the laughing, simple death from which you fled. At least the reavers were men, and the gods there safely distant.
"Need drives you to me," the voice continues.
"Save me," you whimper, falling to your face among the rushes. The muck embraces you like a long-neglected lover.
"Salvation," the rushes whisper, "is not my promise."
"Safety," you tell the mud. "Not salvation."
The voice bubbles up through the muck, carrying scents of old death and rust-locked time. "There is no safety. But you may perhaps live another day."
You rise up onto your elbows and stare at the leaf-riddled sky. "How?"
Just as if it had always been there, among the oaks and elms there is a face -- big as a harvest moon, vine-wrapped and sly, eyes the gleam of raven's feathers, bright teeth the bones of badgers, leaf and stick woven into the fabric of its skin. The Green Man has come to you.
"Give yourself to me, and I will protect you."
The holy cross has failed, as has Tyr's hammer, but still you hold back. The Picts faded to shadows, the Romans retreated behind city walls -- lesson enough that you should not trust this ancient, patient power. But afraid as you are of this power's treacherous promise, you are more afraid of dying in bloody terror.
"I am all alone," you lament, "and ever more shall be so."
Clutching a torn bunch of rushes, you raise your hand toward the Green Man. His smile is thorns as the forest pierces your heart and you rise bark-clad to live a thousand thousand days in his thrall, alone and unafraid. You dream of blood and dying -- great, slow oaken dreams -- but the living spirit of the forest is too strong within you.
Copyright © 2003 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2003, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as Realms of Fantasy, Writers of the Future XIX, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. For more about him and his work, see his website.
Jay notes: "This story cycle would not have seen the light of day without the assistance of a cast of dozens, from the Fread group to the Forteana mailing list, and most of all the encouragement and support of the Strange Horizons editorial team."
Dresséd All in Green, Oh