Every year, the tribe sends a bride to the Forest God.
At the time when deer mate, in the autumn, the seers will search the sky and divine. At the first quarter of the moon, the sacred sixth night, the bride will be sent forth. In the morning, she is feasted. In the afternoon, she is bathed and dressed and adorned. A pure white linen gown is put upon her body; a necklace of acorns is hung about her neck. For a crown she wears autumn leaves, bronze, gold, and red, and she is wrapped in furs for warmth. As the sun sets, she is sent forth into the forest, without escort or retinue, without food or drink, without even a torch to hand.
And then, the tribe waits.
Most years, the bride returns. They do not speak of the god. Some of them cannot speak, seemingly. A few return naked and gibbering, but most come silent, still wearing linen and furs. Some show blood on their gowns, some only on their thighs, when the grandmothers examine them later. They are given hot food and drink, wrapped up warmly, cared for tenderly. Eventually, they will rouse, as if they had been sleeping with open eyes. Eventually, they will speak again, if they have been silent. Eventually, their bellies will begin to swell. Their children are healthy, strong, well-favored.
A few of the brides do not come back. Their possessions are given funeral rites, and they are burned, their ashes scattered at the edges of the forest.
So it has always been. We give a bride to the Forest God, and he gives us his blessings: a good crop of acorns, many mushrooms for gathering, herbs for the wise women, abundance of deer, and victory over the occasional wolf or boar who strays too near the village. This year, the lot has fallen to me.
When they came to tell me, the chief priest and the grandmothers, they were courteous, apologetic. Did they expect me to fight? I laughed in their faces. "I go gladly, elders. Whatever the Forest God may do to me, it will not be worse than what Kenmale did."
I did not give up my maidenhood willingly. Kenmale son of Kolwin raped me on bonfire night. I screamed for help, to no avail, and marked his face with my nails. The next day I cried him out, pointed to the stains on my clothing, the bruises on my thighs, the scrapes on his face. He offered marriage, but I refused. His family paid mine twice the bride-price anyway, and then he was banished for half the year.
I would have killed him if they had let me.
I had my rights by the law, but I had no justice. I was blamed for his attack upon me, for his exile, his family's impoverishment. Blamed for my own shame. Shamed as if I, not he, had done wrong. I swore I would go before the Forest God and tell him the village did not deserve his blessings, for they had sent him a tainted bride whom they had treated with bitter unkindness.
The fifth night of the moon was counted, and in the morning they came to prepare me. By then I had given away many of my possessions, buried some along the banks of the river and the edges of the forest, where someone more worthy might find them. I ate the hero's portion of the meat, the best bread and cheeses, and drank all of the wine, once I knew it was not drugged. They would not need to drug me; I would go from them full willing.
Then I bathed in a great vessel of skins full of hot water, like a queen. My hair was washed and combed out for me, with small braids at the sides. A new linen gown was put on me, and the eldest of the grandmothers herself laced it up, then hung the necklace of acorns about my neck, and crowned my long hair with a garland of leaves, beautiful in color but brittle. She wrapped a heavy cloak of bearskin about me and fastened it with a finely wrought pin. No doubt I would have felt honored, if I had cared any longer for their honors.
To the music of pipe and drum, the sound of slow marching and weeping, I was led out of the village, along the winding stone path through the meadow, to the edge of the forest. The sun was setting, and the interior of the forest already dark. I turned and raised my hand to the tribe. "Farewell. I will tell the god how you have dealt with me. May he deal so with you."
There were hisses and murmurs behind me, but they dared not curse me. I belonged to the god now.
Alone and unafraid I walked into the forest, while the air turned cool and the shadows deepened around me. I walked until I could no longer see what lay beneath my feet, no longer hear the sounds of birds nor the stirring of leaves. I stood alone then in the darkness, in the silence, silent myself and afraid.
And then I heard a voice say, "Come."
The voice seemed to come from all around me, deep and reverberant though soft. Directly ahead of me, I saw a glimmer of golden light. The tales told of flickering fires carried by tricksy imps, often blue in color, but not of this, a golden gleam steady as sunlight but more gentle. I began to walk again, toward the light, until the trees opened out before me.
I stood then on the verge of a pond on which fallen leaves drifted. The source of the golden light, which had gotten brighter as I approached, seemed to be within the pond, as if a small sun shone from its depths. On the far side of the pond stood the Forest God.
I knew that it was he, and no mere man. The tales had not lied concerning him. He was taller than mortal man, his brow bearing antlers like a stag's. His long legs were hairy like a deer's, though he seemed to have feet and not hooves. He was naked, though his body was shadowed and not all plain to me.
"Are you my bride?"
His voice was the voice that had summoned, deep and reverberant and soft.
"Yes, Forest God. I am your tribute this year." I bowed my head, trembling with awe.
I obeyed, stopping when my toes touched the damp earth at the rim of the pond. He, too, came closer, gazing at me with wide dark eyes. He had long dark hair that fell curling about his shoulders, a short beard that fringed his jaw. His eyes were fathomless dark, but his face was human-like and handsome.
"You are not afraid."
"Good. Remain unafraid. I will not harm you. Will you take off your cloak?"
I obeyed, letting the heavy bearskin with the fine pin attached fall behind me. The god came closer, advancing into the pond.
"And will you take off your garland and your necklace and give them to the forest?"
I cast the crown of dry leaves to one side, the string of acorns to the other. The god came closer, the water lapping about his legs. I could see now that he had a strong, fine, youthful face, a scattering of hair down his chest like a man, a man's parts hanging between his hairy thighs.
"And will you come to me, my bride?"
I trembled, but obediently I waded into the water. To my surprise, it was pleasingly warm, though the bottom dropped away before I expected. I flailed my arms, crying out in surprise; then I felt the god take hold of me and pull me downwards.
We sank together, not into darkness and cold, but into warmth and light. When I could see clearly again, I realized I could breathe. We were not at the bottom of a forest pond, to my sight, but standing together in a fine hall whose roof was woven of tree roots and whose walls were studded with gems.
The Forest God now appeared as a beautiful bearded man, without any sign of an animal nature. He wore a fine tunic and leather trews; I was still clad in my linen gown.
"Welcome to my hall, daughter of the tribe. Here we will consummate our marriage."
I felt myself flinch. No doubt he saw and felt it, for he let go my hands. "You have been hurt," he said.
"I was raped, lord. It is a ruined gift they have sent you." I turned my face away, feeling again the shame I hated.
With the softest of touches, he laid his hand upon my cheek. I felt warmth and gentleness and looked back at him. "Not ruined or tainted, no. Harmed, and treated unjustly." The floor seemed to quiver beneath me. "But still a fitting gift, still my bride, if you will."
He seemed to be waiting upon my answer. "I will, lord."
He laid his other hand upon my cheek, holding my face tenderly. He smiled upon me and it was as dazzling as the sun. "Then will you let me make love to you, my bride?"
He led me to a bower that had within it a wide, soft bed, covered in fine linens and strewn with the petals of many flowers. Nearby stood a table and upon it a jug and two cups. The god filled the cups and offered one to me. I drank of it, and it tasted like clear sweet water, yet was as heady as wine or mead. I emptied the cup and drank again, and when he bent to kiss me, I did not draw away.
Kenmale had not kissed me, not after the first rude try which I rebutted. The god's mouth was gentle but very warm, warmer than a mortal's; he only tasted my lips and did not try to enter. Then he stepped back, took off his tunic, and stepped out of his trews. Naked, he seemed entirely human now, fine, lean, and pale, less hairy than before--less hairy than Kenmale.
"Will you take off your gown, my lady?"
With trembling fingers I undid the laces and drew the gown off my breasts, my arms, let it fall to the floor. I felt the urge to cover myself, but did not. He had not covered himself nor hidden from me.
Again he stepped close and kissed me. Now I stepped closer to him, lifting my arms about his neck. He tasted my lips with his tongue and wound his arms around me, bringing me closer still. My breasts against his chest, his rampant cock against my belly, his arms warm and strong against my back.
We kissed until I felt dizzy with desire, as if I were floating in deep water, as if I were burning up from within. I had never felt such a desire, yet I knew it for what it was, the yearning for his touch, the desire to unite with him. Then he lifted me easily in his arms and laid me down upon the bed.
I knew a moment of fear again when he lay down upon me, but he only kissed me again. His weight and his warmth stoked my desire, and I heard myself whimpering like a babe. He kissed my throat, then, and the hollow at the base of my throat, and then the slopes of my breasts. I cried out when he took a nipple in his mouth and suckled it; a whirlpool of pleasure stirred deep within.
At length he left my breasts and kissed my flanks, and my belly, my navel, and my mound, and then delved between my thighs and licked sweetly at my flesh. I cried out, I shook, I thrashed about, pleasure shooting up and spreading out inside me the flare of a bonfire, the swelling of a tidal bore.
I lay panting and almost insensible as he kissed my mouth. He smelled and tasted of me, rich and musky, and I wanted more from him.
“May I enter you now, lady?”
“Yes, yes, please--”
He settled his hips between my thighs, shifted, and with one hand, guided his cock inside me. He moved slowly, carefully, and there was no pain. I tried to remember the pain, the fear of Kenmale behind me, thrusting into my unwilling, unyielding body, but the memory was wiped away by the wetness of my passage, the slow swelling of fullness within me, the gaze of the god’s deep green eyes penetrating me as surely as his cock.
There came a point where he could go no further. I wrapped both arms and legs about him, greedy for more. “Are you well, lady?” he asked, a hint of laughter in his voice.
“I will be well if you continue!”
Laughing silently, he began to move, stroking out and then in again. He made slow progress, possessing me with sure steady strokes until I began to tremble and beg him for more. At last he thrust harder, faster, and I howled like a wolf as waves of ecstasy rolled through me.
“Show me--show me,” I gasped. “Show me your true form!”
The god threw back his head and growled. Antlers sprang forth from his brow again; the thighs held between my thighs turned heavy and hairy. Flowers and leaves of ivy sprouted through his hair, ran down his chest and belly. The cock within me felt larger, more than human. I cried out with a climax more powerful than all the rest, and then I saw only a shape of light shining above me and through me, heat and sweetness and joy and I swooned away.
When I came to myself, he was lying beside me, in simple human form once again. He smiled at me and squeezed my hand.
“Are you well, lady?”
He kissed me briefly and I felt utterly content. When I turned toward him, he took me in his arms and I laid my head upon his chest.
“What becomes of me now?”
He sighed deeply. “There are… choices. Yours, not mine.”
“Tell me, then.”
He stroked my hair. “You may return to your people. I take no life, keep no one prisoner; the brides who do not return have been taken amiss in the wood, misled by their fear. If you return, you will bear my child.” He kissed my forehead.
“And if I do not wish to return? What if I wish to remain with you?”
He was silent for a moment. Then he moved to sit up, therefore I did, too.
Taking my hands, he said, “For longer than mortals comprehend, I have hoped for a bride who would stay, yet no woman has ever wished to remain with me. If you will, you may stay, and be my true wife, and my love will make of you a goddess.”
For a moment I could neither move nor speak. Then I flung my arms around him and pressed my face to his neck, weeping. “You are my only true lover and the desire of my heart. I will stay with you, my lord.”
He, too, was weeping. “Then you shall tell me your name, and I will tell you mine.”
As the sun was setting on the night of the full moon, I returned just once to the village of my birth. I was clad in green and crowned with flowers, and I had no cloak, for I no longer felt the cold. In my hand I carried a gift from my lord husband, one of the antlers which he had shed.
There were cries of fear and astonishment as I appeared suddenly in the midst of the chieftain’s hall. “Listen to me!” I called out. I raised the antler in my hand. “There shall be no more brides for the Forest God, never henceforth. He has made his marriage with me, and for my sake he will bless you.”
Above the murmuring of the people, Kenmale spoke in response. “Why should we believe you? How could you be worthy of a god? Perhaps you went mad in the forest. Perhaps you coupled with a stag and took that antler from him.”
I swung my arm down and struck the antler on the flagstones of the hearth. Sparks like golden lightning shot forth where the antler touched the stones. “The god shall treat you as you have treated me.” I pointed at Kenmale with the antler, and he fell down dead.
After that I did not go back to the mortal world. I dwell in the forest, and tell my tales in the whispering of the trees. You have heard one now.