Puzzlewood

The trees called to him, and after crawling away from the Unseelie sithen, Eamon Wylde lost himself in a thick, moss-covered trunk of an ancient oak, surrounded by sweet chestnut, Weymouth pine, and larch trees. He’d given up both of his godheads to escape the Winter Queen, and in so doing, had nearly unmade himself. He was left with only the power of his first identity, the Green Man, to sustain himself. He fled to the forest to heal, to become strong again and let the world go on without him. He forgot who he was for a time, forgot all about the power struggle within the Winter Court, forgot all about the Jaguar and her Stone Creature. Forgot about everything but the nourishing soil beneath his feet, the warming sun above his head, and the delicate rain that fell on his broken, battered, abused body.

He would have been content to remain that way for the rest of forever, tucked away inside the giant oak, silent and still, entertained only by the black fallow deer and the wild boar that lived near his tree. He could have stayed in the forest until the end of time and would have been happy to fade from Humanity’s memories. But there was another pull that kept him anchored to the earth, another demand that drew his attention from the slow and inevitable slide into sweet, seductive oblivion.

It was a woman, a human woman, who came daily to his oak tree. She came first thing in the morning, as the sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. She came when the birds began their sweet songs, and when the deer and boar stirred from their nighttime nests. She came with wine, and honey, and bits of bread sprinkled with her own blood. She came dressed in a long, white gown, her thick blonde hair caught up at the nape of her neck in a simple braid, adorned by no jewelry or makeup, barefoot, and as silent as the deer.

Eamon studied her minutely the first time she came. He thought to muddle her mind with the last remaining bits of his magic and flee to some other, distant, more remote forest, but the softness of her voice as she sang out in an ancient language, unspoken for hundreds of years, gave him pause. Here was a woman who knew the Old Ways and still adhered to them. She left offerings to the wind and to the rain. She gave gifts to the old gods and to the Hidden Folk as well. But most importantly, she honored him, the Green Man, and for that alone did he stay. It had been such a long time since anyone had honored his most ancient name.

For three mortal years, he remained in the protective embrace of the oak and steadily grew stronger. He enjoyed watching the woman bring her daily gifts and he listened to her song. Though her syntax and conjugations were awkward and incorrect, he could puzzle out what she was asking and soon he understood her unflagging devotion. She wanted a baby. More than anything—more than wealth, more than happiness, more than a long life—she wanted a child of her own.

Eamon didn’t want to be moved by her pleas. He didn’t want to care about this woman or the fact that she was barren. But he could feel her desperation, her hunger for a child, and he couldn’t help but want to reach out to her, to offer her his hand in sympathy, to allow her to rest her head on his shoulder while he wrapped her in his arms and comforted her. She was a human, mortal, short-lived, and messy. He was a god… Well, all right. He was a former god reduced to a nature spirit, but still. He did not want to feel any sort of compassion or sympathy for a human. But he did, and it perplexed him.

So he began to wonder how he could help her. His power had grown, drawn from the Earth itself, and he was nearly as strong now as he had been before the Winter Queen entrapped him with the Horn of Herne and turned him into Der Erlkönig, the leader of the Wild Hunt. And after all, he was a symbol of male fertility. The woman knew about the Green Man and honored him as such. He should easily be able to harness the magic within him and channel it into her somehow. He should be able to give her the gift of a child. His power, his magic, was the answer to the woman’s fertility; his was the seed that was planted in the fertile soil of Woman and brought forth new life.

One day, however, the woman stopped coming. He waked early that morning, anticipating seeing her again, anticipating the softness of her step, the melody of her voice, the scent of her skin and hair. He’d decided that today was the day he’d make an appearance. He’d step out of the tree in front of her, take her in his arms, and… Well, that part was still undecided, but today was the day he’d do it, whatever it was. So he waited for her, senses strained to catch her first footfall past the line of trees that made up his forest. He could track her from one end of the forest to the other, but once she left the trees, he lost her to the all-consuming taint of iron.

He waited until the sun peaked in the sky. He waited until the birds and deer and boar settled down in their nests once more to sleep. He waited as the moon sailed across the sky and the stars wheeled above the tips of his branches, casting down their cold, barren light and limning everything in silver. He waited again throughout the next day and the next, but still, she did not come.

Finally, a mortal week went by, and Eamon became very concerned. Had something happened to the woman? Had her prayers somehow been answered? Or perhaps, worst of all, had she given up? Eamon stepped out of the oak’s trunk and clothed himself in illusion. He took on the form he’d worn the last time he had appeared as a mortal—shoulder-length, shaggy, graying blond hair and stormy-blue eyes. He even made sure he sported a few days’ beard growth on the strong line of his jaw and dressed himself in faded blue jeans and a tight black t-shirt.

He moved silently through the forest as the birds began their morning songs. He walked along the path that the woman had worn bare through the ferns and mossy rocks and foxgloves. He crossed a river, stopping to drink deeply of its waters before moving on. Finally, he reached the end of the forest and stood at the edge of a large, concrete-covered car park. There were two or three vehicles that no doubt belonged to early-morning walkers and hikers, but he paid them no mind. The woman, his witch in white, wouldn’t drive a car to reach the forest. She would walk. She never smelled of exhaust or gasoline. She only ever smelled of sunshine.

Eamon walked with purpose, leaving the car park behind him as he strode into the middle of town. He didn’t know the woman’s name and had little notion of how to find her, but the village was small and had a single high street. There were small shops just opening their doors, and Eamon felt certain that he would see the woman coming out of or going into one of them this day. He found a cafe and took a seat at one of the outdoor tables. He ordered a pot of tea and paid for it with faerie dross, stuff that appeared to be human money but would turn back into the bits of leaves and flowers it was made from at sunset. He felt slightly guilty about this, but he’d just spent three years living inside a tree. It wasn’t as if that was a high-paying job.

When he’d finished his tea, he ordered a sandwich and continued his surveillance of the high street. The woman hadn’t appeared yet. He had nothing but time, though. After his sandwich was gone, he ordered another pot of tea. Then a supper of fish and chips and a beer. The shops and the cafe closed at sunset, and Eamon returned to his tree, alone, confused, and more than slightly worried.

He repeated the same routine for the next two weeks, until finally, early one morning as he was moving through the nearly-empty car park towards the village’s high street, he caught a trace of the woman’s perfume. He went still as a stone, standing at the edge of the car park and sniffing like a hound. He turned his head north, then south, then north again. Her scent was stronger from the north, so that was the way he headed.

He walked quickly and with single-minded purpose through the small village, ignoring everyone who greeted him. Perhaps on another day, he would have stopped to chat or at least nod his head in acknowledgment, but he was too focused on his task. He did not want to lose the woman in the chaotic sights and sounds and smells of the village; he could not afford the distraction. She was one of the only things in his long, long life that he had chosen for himself. Yes, he’d been the leader of the Wild Hunt for twelve hundred years, and his duties had been a sort of obsession, but that had not been his choice. The Hunt had not driven him; the Winter Queen’s magic had driven him, consumed him unwillingly.

Soon he stood in front of what he believed was the woman’s cottage. It was a pretty little thing, made of local, squared-off stones, roofed with slate, and surrounded by a wild garden that surged with life. Pink roses climbed the chimney, scenting the air with their delicate perfume, while lilacs, honeysuckle, and peonies framed the door, adding their own scents to the mix. There was a bed of lavender beneath the windows and Eamon smiled when he saw it, remembering the scent of the woman’s bed sheets. The cottage and its garden reminded Eamon of what Faerie had once looked like, long before humans had begun destroying it with their use of iron and steel. Life positively dripped from the very eaves of the little cottage, making Eamon feel dizzy and drunk with its power.

He couldn’t understand how someone whose garden overflowed with the stuff of creation could herself be barren. Goddess had a capricious sense of humor, but it just seemed cruel to keep the woman’s belly empty of a child when it was clear she was capable of bringing life to everything else she touched. He determined in that moment that he would help her however he could, no matter what sacrifices he had to make. If any human deserved a child, it was her.

Eamon stood for hours in front of the house, just across the village lane from it, hidden by the shadows cast by a stand of maple trees. Despite the strong taint of humanity and its steel and iron, these trees grew tall and healthy, no doubt encouraged by the nearness of the woman and her green magic. He waited for her to show herself so he could go to her and tell her of his desire to help her become a mother, but she did not emerge from the cottage all day. He knew she was inside, though; he could feel the pulse of her magic, the overwhelming feeling of her presence sent shocks through his body. Their magic was compatible. It cried out to the other, recognizing the other within itself.

He slowly became more worried for her. Had she simply given up? After three years of entreating the Green Man to fill her with life, had she finally accepted the fate Goddess had created for her? Was she even now withering away, choosing to fade as he himself had chosen not so long ago? He wanted to go to her. He wanted to assure her that he could give her the child she longed for, but violating the sanctity of her cottage and its wild garden made him hold back, made him hesitate. Would the gardens and the land recognize him and reach out to him? Or would her magic be stronger than the magic of the Earth and deny him entrance?

As he stood and watched and waited, the sun dipped below the line of trees in the forest behind him. Darkness consumed the land, and the magic of life, the stuff of creation that filled the air around the cottage, began to subside. Eamon’s heart hammered in his chest, fear creeping up on him like a shadow monster creeps up on children in their beds. Was the woman even now dying? Had she indeed chosen to fade?

No,” he growled, disturbing a pair of doves who had settled for the night in the boughs of the tree above his head. They took wing with cooing grumbles of their own, to which Eamon paid no heed. The woman needed him. She had saved him from oblivion, and now it was his turn to save her. He would not allow her to fade, to die, to waste away for want of a child and unanswered prayers.

He dropped the illusion that hid him from human eyes and strode across the lane, shining once more with the power of the Green Man. He glowed as if the sun was trapped beneath the surface of his skin. His hair and eyes gave off sparks that illuminated the darkness surrounding the cottage. Lights danced at the ends of his fingers, and when he touched the wrought-iron fence that separated him from the woman, the lights traveled along the pickets, leaving behind flickering electric-blue trails that grounded themselves in the earth. Flowers that had not been seen in this part of the world for centuries appeared where his power touched the soil, growing and curling along the bottom of the fence, sending out tendrils that grasped like fingers at his legs.

He opened the gate and pushed through the fecund magic that wrapped itself around her land like a barrier. It split open before him, recognizing his magic, the power of life that he carried within his body, and allowed him access to the woman’s inner sanctum. He stepped onto a lush, green lawn and the scent of flowers overwhelmed him. It was as if the very land beneath the cottage knew what he was about this night and had given him its blessing. He curled his toes in the thick turf and felt a buzzing tingle pulse through the soles of his bare feet. The sensation drew a rare smile to his lips, and he knelt down to run his fingers through the grass as if it was the hair on his lover’s head. More flowers popped out of the ground where he touched the lawn, their tendrils curling around his fingers like the hand of a small child.

He moved deeper into the garden, closer to the little house, and the door to the cottage opened. A soft, golden light spilled out onto the lawn, back-lighting the woman, who stood in the doorway. She was dressed as she always was when she came to his tree to leave her offerings and say her prayers. He could see the silhouette of her body through the fabric of her gown, and something stirred within him that had not stirred for a thousand years or more. He longed to run the tips of his fingers along the curve of her waist, to stroke the soft flesh of her thighs and stomach, to see her need for his touch naked and fierce in her eyes. He wanted to hear his name whispered from her lips as he touched her, kissed her, filled her with his magic and his body.

It’s you,” she said, her lovely green eyes filled with wonder and just the tiniest bit of fear. He wanted to balk at that fear, reassure her that he was no threat to her, but he knew the fear was right and proper. She should fear him; he was a shining god in that moment, filled with the promise and power of life. He was beautiful and terrible to behold, immortal and all-powerful, a god who had deigned to speak to her, a mere mortal woman. She should hesitate to look upon him.

For a moment, he forgot the only name he had remaining and felt a kind of dangerous power borne of being the Huntsman surge forward, nearly overwhelming him. “Who am I?” he asked, moving even closer to her now, stopping just at the edge of the threshold to the cottage. It was the old magic of hospitality, of ghosti, the guest-host relationship that drove ancient Celtic customs that stayed his feet. He could not, would not, enter the woman’s sanctuary without invitation.

The Green Man,” she whispered, her voice reflecting the awe and trembling fear that flashed in her eyes. “You’re real. How can this be? How are you here after all these years?”

Her questions made Eamon smile, and a full-throated, husky chuckle slipped from his lips. “Of course I’m real. You prayed to me every morning for three years. Why are you shocked to see me?”

You never answered me,” she said, stepping across the threshold, moving closer to him. She stopped within arm’s reach of him, though her arms stayed at her sides. It was as though she was afraid to touch him and discover that he was not, in fact, real and solid, that he was nothing more than a dream. “For three years, I prayed to you, and you never answered me.” The awe in her expression was replaced by anger. “Why? Why didn’t you come earlier?”

You saved me,” he said in a soft voice, as though that was explanation enough. His glowing, shining power softened, dying back to faint starshine. The power that had surged forth, the strength that was created by her fear, faded, leaving behind only the Green Man. “You kept me alive. I looked forward to your visits. But I was afraid.”

Afraid? Of what?” Her anger was replaced by curiosity, and his heartbeat pounded in his head, heightened by her nearness and her interest. He found her closeness distracting and had to fight to answer her question.

You.”

Me? How can that be? How could you possibly be afraid of me? You’re a god and I’m… I’m just me. Human. Mortal, and not terribly interesting.

You know me by my most ancient and secret name.”

The woman’s brow furrowed in thought, and Eamon’s palm itched to smooth away the lines in her face. “You have other names?” she asked at length. If it had been anyone else asking the question, he would have immediately suspected betrayal. But she was innocent. She cared nothing for power over him; she would not use his names to control him as the Winter Queen had.

Still, he would be cautious. He would give her the truth of his names, but he would hide them in riddles. He had spent too much time amongst the sidhe not to have learned to bend the truth to its breaking point but never outright lie. He said, “I have been known as the Lord of Wild Things and the Reaper of the Foresworn.”

Her frown deepened, and he knew that she did not recognize these names. Had his other identities become only the stuff of myth and legend amongst modern humans? Did they no longer recognize the old gods? “It does not matter that you don’t know those names,” he said, moved by his need to lighten her expression, to wipe the confusion away from her eyes. He stepped forward, close enough to her that the hem of her gown brushed against his legs. “You know the truth of me, and you honored it. You kept me from oblivion.” His hand rose, almost of its own accord, and his fingers splayed out along her cheek, tenderly cupping her face. “I would repay you.”

She raised her eyes to his, locking their gazes. Heat bloomed between them, and as he stroked her face, his fingers left trails of light across her skin. She shivered and exhaled, a scent like mint leaves crushed beneath his feet rising from her. He raised his other hand, cupped her other cheek, and dipped his head, capturing her lips with his own. Her mouth was pliant and warm, her lips soft, and as he kissed her, the heat between them roared into a hungry forest fire that threatened to consume them.

With a soft moan, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her to the back garden and the privacy of a wooden gazebo covered in sweet pea vines and climbing hydrangea. The air was redolent with the thick, almost cloying scent of the flowers, and the creamy-white hydrangea blooms studded the darkness like earthbound stars. He laid her down inside the small cathedral of green, growing things, and stretched out beside her. She gathered him to her body, embracing him and kissing him softly, delicately, almost tentatively. Heat rose once more between them, and their kisses become ravenous. He found he could not control himself and moved his hands from her face down her neck to her shoulders. Every touch, every kiss sought her permission, and he was rewarded with her welcome embraces.

He moved to cover her body with his, his hands tracing lightly down her sides, over the sweet swell of her hips and the long muscles of her thighs. He tugged at the hem of her gown, pulling it up to reveal her creamy skin and the dark gold tangle of hair at the apex of her body. She shivered and goosebumps rose up along her skin.

Are you cold?” he asked against her mouth. She shook her head and reached to pull his own shirt out of his jeans, her nails raking lightly against his back as she raised the shirt, exposing his skin to the cool night air.

Not cold,” she whispered, drawing away so she could look into his eyes. She smiled a little shyly and pulled the shirt up higher. He ducked his head, and she drew the shirt free of his body, tossing it away before sitting up a bit. She kissed his neck, suckled at his earlobe, drawing a shiver and goosebumps from him with a wicked smile. He understood her shivering and dipped his head to leave a line of fiery kisses down between her perfect breasts and over the flat smoothness of her belly. He closed his eyes and inhaled her scent deeply, seeing in his mind’s eye that perfect expanse rounded, stretched, and filled with life. His manhood stood stiff, pressing against her body, and he longed to plunge deep inside her.

He moved away from her, kneeling between her legs, pulling her gown off her body and tossing it to lay in a pile with his shirt and jeans. He gathered her into a sitting position and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly against his body. He lowered his mouth to hers once more and marveled at the softness of the skin on her back, the way it slid beneath his hands like warm silk. “You are beautiful,” he whispered against her lips and was rewarded with a smile.

They laid back against the bare wooden floor of the gazebo and he paid tribute to her body in the most ancient of ways. He pushed inside her, filling her with his body, drawing a gasp from between her lips. She pulled him down against her, clutching him to her body, wrapping arms and legs around him. “So are you,” she whispered back and kissed him hungrily as he moved inside her. His skin began glowing again, casting rippling lights and shadows against the green-leafed walls that surrounded them. The air was soon filled with the sounds of love, the scents of their sweat mingling with the sweetness of the flowers around them.

As he approached his peak, he heard the voice of Goddess in his head asking, “What would you give to plant your seed in her belly?”

Anything,” he replied, the word almost lost in the heavy sighs and moans of his lover. “I would give anything to be the father of her child.”

Even your power?” Goddess asked.

Yes, even my power.”

So be it.”

He felt the velvet touch of Goddess’s hand stroking down his spine, Her fingers pushing through his skin down into the core of his body. They wrapped around the seat of his power and squeezed. He exploded his climax within the woman, and his glow was so blinding that he had to shut his eyes against it. He cried out, over and over, and his voice was soon joined by hers. They rode the waves of their combined magics, and when the moment passed and they sank into a contented numbness that suffused their entire bodies and minds, Goddess whispered once more inside his head: “So be it.”

They awoke the next morning to the sound of birdsong. The woman was shy when she opened her eyes and found that the night before had not been some glorious dream. He smiled at her, reached out to cup her cheek, and leaned closer to kiss her. “You are with child,” he murmured against her lips, feeling desire stirring again.

I know,” she whispered back, her hands reaching for him, stroking him softly, cradling his most sensitive flesh in the palm of one gentle hand. “But I would have you again just to be certain.”

He chuckled and covered her body with his once more, the surety in her touch bringing him to life once more. He filled her again and again, reaffirming his choice to surrender his power and his magic to plant a seed inside her. And once more, Goddess whispered in his head that it would be so, that the woman would bear his child.

After making love, they lay curled together, drifting warm and slightly fuzzy just at the edge of sleep, listening to each other’s heartbeats and the bird song that rose up around them. “I’m hungry,” his witch said. “Will you eat with me?”

Of course,” Eamon replied.

What do I call you?” she asked as she climbed to her feet and searched for her gown.

He slid his jeans on and picked up his shirt but did not put it on. “Eamon,” he said, reaching for her hand. “You may call me Eamon.”

Eamon,” she said softly. She smiled at him and twined her fingers with his. “‘Protector’. I’m Saoirse.”

Saoirse,” he replied with an answering smile of his own. “‘Freedom’. It’s beautiful.”

She led him inside the cottage through the back door and sat him down at an old country farm table. He watched intently as she moved around her tiny kitchen, plucking eggs out of a wire mesh basket on the counter and cracking them into a bowl. She added fresh herbs from a pot in the kitchen window and a splash of cream from a bottle she’d found at the front door, before stirring everything. “Scrambled?” she asked.

However you like them,” he replied. He hadn’t eaten eggs in a thousand years or more and no longer remembered how he preferred them. They ate a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs, buttered toast, and tea in silence, holding hands across the table. After the meal was done, he helped her clean up, and they retired to her bedroom, where they fell into her lavender-scented bed sheets and made love again and again. Every time they did, he gave away more of his power to ensure that a baby grew inside her.

When their passion subsided, she lay in his arms and whispered into the darkness, “Will you stay with me?”

Forever,” he whispered back. “I will stay with you forever, my sweet Freedom.”

Nine months later, a girl they named Claribell was born. Three years after that, a son called Bennett joined their little family. Soon, there were silver threads in Saoirse’s golden hair and fine lines on her face, but Eamon’s love for her was still overwhelming and painful in its intensity, despite the passage of time. He watched his children grow into adulthood, and he held their children in his arms. He aged and died, happy, content, and still very much in love. He was no longer cursed with immortality but instead blessed with the sweet Freedom of humanity.