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Children of the Forest God

Chapter Text

My name is Brigenta, and my father was the Forest God.

Each year in the autumn, the tribe chooses a maiden and offers her as bride to the Forest God. He is the Lord of the trees, guardian of the beasts, giver of fruit and nut and fungus; they say he appears as as a man with the legs of a deer and antlers upon his head, or if he wishes, as a stag or a man entire. When the night grows longer than the day, she goes into the forest to meet him. Some do not return, and we bury their possessions with honor and mourn them, but again the next year, we offer the god a bride.

Some return, pale and silent. At first, they do not speak; later, they recover, and most marry, but some choose to make a household with another woman as companion instead. They do not tell what happened in the forest, and no one asks.

Some, however, return and never speak again, nor are they ever well. The god is too strong for some, they say. He means us well, but he is too strong. They remain with their kin, living like children all their lives. My mother was one of these, as I will tell.

But every bride who returns from the forest has this in common: They have all gotten with child by the god.

I was still a babe in arms when the other women knew my mother would never be well enough to tend me. So I was given to a woman still nursing, who still had plenty of milk though her own child was soon to be weaned, and she was the mother I knew, and her husband my father.

I was seven or eight years of age before I learned otherwise. I remember that year it turned cold early, and the offering of the bride was a great doing; perhaps I witnessed it then for the first time. I saw the bride, crowned with leaves and cloaked in a bearskin, and walked with the procession that led her to the edge of the forest, hearing the flutes and drums, seeing the torches waver in the dimming light. I clung to my mother's hand, while my brother Brigan walked ahead with our da. Brigan was a year older than I, but they called us twins, for we had nursed together.

As the bride walked alone into the forest, my mother stooped and spoke in my ear. "Brigenta, do you see her over there, with the fair hair uncovered? She walks with her mother and her aunt."

I saw her, a tall woman, younger than my mother, bare-headed and with her straw-gold hair loose about her shoulders like a child. Two older women walked to either side of her, holding her arms; she herself walked with her chin raised, gazing upward as if she saw nothing about her, only the moon.

"In a past year, she was the bride of the god. She came back to us fertile, but did not speak, ever, and so the child she bore was given to me." My mother smiled at my fearful look and took my face between her hands. "She is your womb-mother, lass, but she does not know you. I am your milk-mother and your ma, and your da is your heart-father, but your true father was the Forest God."

To know this strange truth troubled me for a while, but not for ever. Later I made bold to ask da if it was true, and he said it was, and said he was glad to have a daughter. I asked of my brother, and he said that da had already told him, and that it did not matter; I was fortunate that my milk-brother was ever a true brother and a friend to me.

Nor did anyone in the tribe treat me any differently, now that I knew; of course they had known all along. I was not the first child of the god to be fostered thus, and likely not to be the last. So it ceased to trouble me, and indeed, I mostly forgot about it. It was not important to daily life. Only every year, when another bride went into the forest, I was reminded again, and I wondered about the other children of the god, and about my true father.

It was not long after I had seen my first moon blood and began to be counted among the women that it happened: A bride went into the forest and did not come back. The seers waited for her, returning to the path at the forest edge in the morning and remaining there all day. They waited through the night, her mother and other women of their clan coming to join them. The village was silent and anxious, awaiting the news. For three days and nights they awaited the bride's return before returning to the village. The seers took their omens, and when the moon was past its full, they came out and declared the year's bride dead to the tribe.

My ma cried, and so did I. We went out from our hearth with hair unbound and breasts uncovered and wailed over the bundle of clothing and jewelry, shoes and trinkets that was all we had of our sister, the lost bride. The men drank and the women wailed as the bundle was burned and the seers and elders threw herbs into the fire, and then the cool ashes were raked and gathered into a vessel and it was done.

No one saw where the ashes were scattered, far from the village, near to the forest.

Again I was troubled and could not sleep. No one would speak of what had happened, not my ma or da, not the elders or the seers. Every time I saw one of the seers and spirit speakers, they frowned on me, so gravely that I dared not ask any questions. We sought the god's blessings, but he took away our kinswoman as in payment? I, his daughter, was counted as a blessing, but my womb-mother was still silent and helpless, these many years later, like a child that never grew up. My brother and I remained close, but not even to him could I speak of my trouble.

As the moon waned and waxed again, I made up mind to act. It was nearing close to the Door of Winter, when the dead and other spirits roam freely, but I recklessly thought that might help me. I laid my plans carefully ahead of time, and on the coldest night of that year, I rose in the deep of the night, wrapped myself in my father's furs, and went out of the house.

From the village hearth, I took a coal and put it into a pot to carry. By that faint light I went to the borders of the village, and found the torch I had concealed within the hedge that bordered the past to the forest. I carried it with me unlit as far as I dared go, then lit it from the coal. I left the coal in the pot on a spot of bare earth by the path and went into the forest carrying the torch, seeking the Forest God.

I did not hope to find the bride who had not returned. She belonged to the dead now. Rather I was determined to have answers, to meet the one who had begotten me and ask him why he treated us so. My anger and my need to know had overcome my proper fear of a god and his mysteries, and so I went forth, knowing that I might be lost myself, that I might find the god and meet his wrath, that if I returned and confessed my trespass, I would surely be punished for the good of the tribe. None of that mattered any more; there was a madness upon me.

I was deep within the woods when a pain in my side made me stop and gasp. How had I been running--for yes, I had been running, and now was gasping--running through the forest with no heed of where I was going or when I had come? With the pain came fear, and then a blast of cold wind that nearly knocked me off my feet and blew out my torch.

I stood in total darkness, alone, unarmed, helpless. The darkness around me conjured the shapes of wolf and bear, sprite and ghost. The hair rose on my arms as I thought of meeting the spirits of dead brides.

The light that broke into my darkness made me cry aloud in shock. “Who walks here? Who walks in my woods?”

The voice came from everywhere around me, booming, rustling, piercing, bellowing. I cowered to the ground, covering my head, only hoping I did not soil myself in my terror.

I heard slow footsteps approach me, and the light grew brighter. I also felt its warmth and smelled something like wet earth and wild beast. “Who are you, child?”

The voice was closer, but softer, more human, and less angry. I raised my eyes a little and saw two hooves, a deer’s hooves. A deer’s long legs, clad in russet pelt, up to the hind and hips. Then shocking pale skin, the hairs thinning out about a flat navel, a long-fingered hand that cupped a ball of golden light, and I looked up and up into the face of the forest god.

It was my face, almost. Many times I had looked into still water and wondered why I resembled neither my mother and father, nor my womb-mother. Now I saw that his curling brown hair was like mine, and the eyes that gazed at me not with wrath but with confusion were green like mine, and the angles of his cheekbones and the shape of his mouth were like mine. I was his daughter, a child of the Forest God.

“I am your daughter, lord,” I heard myself say. “I am your child.”

The god sank down on his haunches before me, spreading out his hands. A bubble of golden light spread forth that encompassed us both, and in that light he gazed on me, his head tilted like a wary bird’s, until a smile possessed his solemn face.

“A daughter! By the moon and the sun, you are my daughter! My likeness is in your face, and in your spirit.”

He took my hands and drew me to my feet, still gazing on me with wonder. Standing, I was still but little taller than his head as he stooped, not reckoning his antlers. His hands on mine were as warm and solid as any human touch, his grasp gentle.

“A daughter.” He sounded as astonished to see me as I was to see him. “I always hope that my seed will prove fruitful, but you are the first child who has come to me.”

“The first?” For longer than human memory, we have sent a bride each year. Not even the oldest grandmothers can remember a time we did not. Yet of all the children born before me, none had sought out their begetter.

“Lord, every bride who returns to us, every year, bears you a child. Your seed winds through the blood of the tribe.” Then I remembered that I was angry with him, that I had come to seek answers, not acknowledgement or affection. “But what of those other brides, forest lord? The ones who do not return to us, who are never seen again? And why do the brides who return come back dazed and dreaming, unable to speak of what they endured?”

The god’s face fell; he turned away from me, and let fall his hands into his lap. “I… can explain. Will you come with me, child? And how do they call you?” His eyes sought mine.

“My name is Brigenta,” I said.

 

“Brigenta.” He rose to his feet, towering over me once again. “If you will, come with me, and we will speak of these things.”

He turned and began walking away. After a moment’s hesitation, I rose and trotted after him, gathering my furs closely about me. He walked slowly, but with long strides that still kept him ahead of me at first. As we went deeper into the forest, he seemed to change, becoming shorter, less animal; simple clothing of fur and leather gathered about his form; his antlers diminished.

We came to a clearing in which was a lake that glowed from within, as if a new-risen full moon had sunk there. He turned to me then, and I might have taken him for an ordinary man, tall but not eldritch, if I had not felt his power all about me, the light rising from the lake in the depths of night.

“You must take my hand, daughter.”

I was cold, and his hand was warm. So was the water of the lake into which he led me. Still I shook with fear, expecting almost to be drowned. Yet when the water had come up above my waist, the god bowed his head beneath it and we both sank, together. I lost my senses for a moment, and then found myself standing with the god by a hearth in a hall made of stones and tree roots.

It was warm and dry, lit by torches about the walls, with thick furs strewn near the hearth. Here and there I saw glimpses of fair things, a copper knife with an antler for its haft, a cup made of gold, carvings in the stone.

The god gestured and I sat down by the hearth, unwrapping my cloak of fur. He went to a spring that came out of the wall and filled two cups from the basin beneath it, one of which he gave to me. I drank warily, finding it cold as ice in the mouth, yet sweet and somehow green.

“It is a long story, and begins longer ago than any mortal can reckon,” the god said, sitting down with me. He held the cup in his long pale hands and gazed into it as he spoke. “Long ago the tribe was part of the forest, as much as any bird or beast or tree, as much as I am. When you left it to roam in other lands, I wanted not to lose you. I sent messages to those who still lived close to my world, who still depended on the forest, asking them to send me a mate. So they did, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. Sometimes I got them with child, sometimes I gave them other gifts.

“But we grew farther apart, your tribe and me. The tribe spent less time in the forest, learned to tame beasts and grow crops, met other gods who helped them. They needed me less, spoke to me less, understood me less, and began to fear me more.”

He looked up at me, lifted a hand, pushed his long locks back from his face. “I hoped that getting children on the tribeswomen would help keep us joined together, but it has not been so. No child has ever sought to know me. Most of the brides I am sent are frightened of me; some are so afraid that I cannot even touch them. A few of them flee, and come to grief, or do themselves harm.” He sighed, looking away. “The last bride who was came to me ran in terror when she beheld me. I followed, but before I could stop her, she fell into a deep ravine and broke her skull and many bones on the rocks below. All I could do was give her an easy death and open the way for her spirit to pass through.”

He gazed earnestly at me again. “I will show you where she lies, if you wish. But will you not tell me of yourself? And of how the tribe chooses the women who are sent to me? Why are so many of them so afraid?”

I told him then, hesitantly and wanderingly, what I have already spoken of myself. His face was grave as he heard how my mother did not speak, and was too weak to nurse or tend me, and still lived with her own mother like a child. I told him how we had held the funeral rites already for the lost bride, as we had done before when they did not return. And I told him how the wise people of the tribe, the seers and spirit-speakers, looked for signs and chose the bride by lot.

When he heard that, he grew angry; his heavy brows drew together, his eyes flashed golden, and the corners of his mouth drew down. “The women are not asked for their consent? Those who are chosen have not declared themselves willing? No wonder they flee from me!” I cringed away from him, and his mood changed again. “I am sorry, child. My anger is not for you. I am angry because I do not understand.”

He rose and walked away from me. I inched closer to the hearth, feeling cold despite the lively flames.

“Are you hungry, daughter?” he said presently. I said that I was, and he made a sign for me to wait. He went through a doorway hung with vines and returned with a flat sheet of stone on which were a large apple and the cap of a large mushroom. He sat down again with the food between us and with a small knife of stone cut both apple and mushroom into slices. He gestured that I should help myself and took a few slices to eat when I had done so.

The apple was the sweetest I had ever tasted, and the flesh of the mushroom as rich and satisfying as meat. We ate silently together till all was gone, gazing into the flames.

“I am too far away,” the god said at last. “Already I am too far away to speak directly to the tribe. They fear me, the very thing I had hoped to avoid.” He looked at me keenly. “Tell me in truth, if you spoke to the elders and told them that you sought me out, that I said I wished for no more unwilling mates, would they listen?”

It gave me a great feeling of pride and wonder to imagine that, for a moment--me, barely a woman, bringing a message from a god to the elders! But it was only imagining. “No, forest lord,” I replied. “Why should they? Our ways seem good to them; they do not reckon the feelings of those who are chosen, or that you might think differently than themselves. And you have not denied us your blessings, as they think.”

He sighed deeply, almost a groan, and stood up. “Then I will ask you this, Brigenta, my daughter: Sleep here tonight, and all will be well for you. My blessing will always be with you, and you may call on me for help at need. And as soon as I have the fortune of a bride who comes to me willingly, I will ask her to stay, and take no more brides from the tribe.”

He took away the food then and brought me a smooth stone to lay my head on, bidding me sleep by the hearth. He sat some distance from me, his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped round them. The room became dim, and my last sight was of the god sitting against the wall, his eyes glowing golden in the dark.

When I woke in the morning, I lay beneath a great fir tree, wrapped from head to toe in furs. The sun had risen, and by its light I could see that I was close to where the trees thinned out and the path led back to the village. I felt stiff and hungry, but not very cold, and clear of mind; I remembered all that had happened the night before and did not doubt its truth.

Feeling at once satisfied to have met the god, and sad because I had made him sad, I stood up and gathered the furs around me so I could walk in them. Something fell to the ground, which I picked up. It was the prong of an antler with a green gemstone bound to its base by fine gold wine. A hole pierced through it just above the base where I might run a cord or a thong, and so hang it about my neck.

With the gift of my father in my hand, I raised my head and began to walk back to the village, knowing now that it was not my only home.