The Sovereign Forest: Prologue

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Samhain. As night falls, the afternoon’s storm recedes to reveal a waning moon. Its light gleams on wet leaves.

The man fleeing into Sherwood sees nothing: his flight is blind, his body slowed by wounds. He runs like a fox at the hunt’s end; to stop is to die.

His passage neither stirs the roosting birds nor wakens the night’s prowlers: vixen and shrew, owl and vole. Finally, at the end of his strength, he stumbles, falls, and moves no more. The forest takes him.

 

Midwinter. In the villages, despite the influence of church and scripture, people still cleave in secret to older beliefs, where magic is revealed in the passage from season to season. This longest night is sacred. In its deepest dark, the furthest point from midsummer, time stops and turns, and the world spins back toward life and light and warmth.

A thick frost creeps over twig and stone and grass, enveloping the forest in its gentle, merciless grip. Its tendrils pause only where life gives heat enough to hold it at bay: the fox in its lair, the hawk in the yew tree. The body has lain for two months, but no frost covers it. The locals believe many things, and that a life which ended at autumn’s close should spark again at the turning of the year, when the earliest shoots burst through the kernel of the seed, would not surprise them.

 

Imbolc. January’s snow has gone, and lies only in patches untouched by the late winter sun. Snowdrops dot the undergrowth. Fieldfare and redwing travel in packs across heathland and waxwings move south, stripping berries from rowan and elder. Life stirs, like a sleeper coming slowly to wake after deep slumber, prey to dreams which flit across the mind. In the undergrowth, the bracken crushed beneath his weight for a season, a man’s eyes open.

Seeking a mate and claiming territory, a bird high above him sings. The man’s limbs feel new-grown; their weight and shape is strange. He stands up, shivering, his belly a knot of hunger. The bird flits, orange breast a flash of warmth in the cold, monochrome landscape. He walks, stumbling often. A shape burns in his mind. The shape of furled bracken, of a snail’s shell. A pattern he must walk, to learn the forest’s secrets.

He reaches into his mind and feels for the forest; to know its depths and size and taste. Here a river, a hill, heathland or village. He reads its history in the play of sunlight on a fallen branch, the melting of frost on a rock. Tracing the boundaries of the wood, he walks the shape in his mind, alive to the secret whisperings of the trees, and the messages of bird and beast.

The hood over his face keeps him warm and protects from the light which, though dim, is unfiltered by foliage and burns his skin. Day after day he walks, a wooden staff to aid his uneven steps. From the oak at the heart of the wood, spiralling ever outward he walks the bounds: scion and pilgrim, revenant and avatar.

Next: Chapter 1