Tor.com blogger, fantasy writer, and insatiable reader Mari Ness makes her Tor.com short fiction debut with a beautifully told tale of complicated and conflicted love, a translation and transformation of a very old story that is sure to be familiar to every fan of folklore and history.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
Afterwards, neither could agree on where they’d first met, or when. She thought she’d been six; he said four. Both agreed he’d been older than she, although how much older was something they never discussed, nor tried to figure out, quite deliberately. He’d been infuriating, she remembered. She’d been aggravating, he said. He’d once thrown rocks at her. No, they’d been sticks, and she’d thrown them at him. He stood right in front of her eating a sweet seedcake and never once offered her a crumb. She was always eating apples and plums and hiding them from him. They’d played together nearly every day, every summer. No, only on feast days and holidays, and not at all during some of the very long summers.
When he said that, she remembered long days trapped in the manor house learning to weave and sew and dance, learning to speak terribly accented French that almost no one could understand. Certainly not anyone from France.
But that they’d been friends, they remembered, and agreed on. Even if she sometimes thought they were remembering entirely different childhoods.
Her wool gown itches. They cannot afford the finer, softer wools, let alone the premade woolens and linens that she has seen other ladies wear, that might be purchased in the great city of the south. She has not traveled any farther than the nearest market towns, but she has met some women who have been to the great city, and even beyond, coming back with tales of France and Rome and the great pilgrimage sites of Spain and the Holy Land. Her feet itch, hearing the tales, although she knows that her chances of ever seeing any of these places are low indeed. She does not have the money or the skills to go on pilgrimage or crusade. Thinking of that makes the dress itch even more.
The sheriff is coming, with his knights. She wishes she did not feel so ill.
The boy had been the first one to lead her into the woods, seizing her hand and pulling her painfully right through the darkest knots of trees, the worst brambles. She’d been caught by terror, she remembered, her heart in her throat. Even then she knew that the woods were dreadful places filled with witches and wolves and bears, dark places where little girls might disappear and never be found again. She wanted, desperately, to be found again. She clutched his hand in tight desperation.
For him, the woods were altogether different.
The position the sheriff offers her—to be the keeper of his castle, with assistance from his other servants—is not so bad. It is also not precisely an offer: since her father’s death, and in her unmarried state, she is, ipso facto, the sheriff’s ward. In any case, if she remained at her father’s manors, the lands would be seized, and she would be left homeless, unprotected. The sheriff does not need to tell her how few options she has: none of the villagers and crafters need her labor, and her father—though not improvident—left no cash and few belongings; only land, which the sheriff can hold in trust for her, as long as she goes to his castle. She will have her own room in the keep, if a small one; duties to keep her occupied; and the companionship of a few ladies of the castle and the town. Neither she nor the sheriff dwells on the fact that none of these ladies are anywhere near her age. She would even receive a small allowance of her own—separate from the value of her manor, the sheriff carefully explains—that she may use to buy her own clothing, and other trinkets she might desire . . . a musical instrument, perhaps. The country has been at peace for some years now, and with increased travel to the Holy Lands and Byzantium has come an influx of luxury goods that she might wish to indulge in. It is, she is well aware, an almost generous offer. The sheriff’s long nose twitches as he explains it.
It is farther away from the woods. From him.
But it is not a choice at all, truly.
As she rides off to the sheriff’s castle, she can feel her friend’s eyes burning into her.
When she was ten, she demanded that the boy teach her how to use the bow and the sword. He laughed, and she stomped her feet and screamed. He found a small bow, light enough for her to pull, and a long knife that was almost-but-not-quite as good as a proper sword. They practiced in the woods, and she sometimes thought she heard the trees laughing. Or sobbing.
When she enters her room at the castle a few days later, he is there, grinning at her.
For a moment, she wants to slap him—does he think this is all a joke?—but then she is hugging him. He is her best friend, no matter how long or often they might be separated. When she holds him, she feels something—something more—but he breaks away before she can think about it too much. It is disturbing.
He has come through the window, he explains.
She gasps, runs to the narrow window in horror, looks down. He could have been killed. She could have shot at him. Pointing that out, of course, would be useless. He has been reckless, fey, ever since—
“If they find you—”
He points to his rope, still hanging out the window. She must admit that no one would wish to follow him that way.
They sit on opposite ends of her narrow bed, facing each other.
“The keep will be opened soon. You could have waited.”
He shakes his head, clenches and unclenches his fists. “I don’t think—I don’t think I can wait anymore.”
She does not need to ask him for what. They have discussed it, time and time again.
“The villagers are starving,” he whispers.
“The sheriff will order more soldiers.”
“Not woods-trained soldiers.”
“They only need torches.”
“The greenwood is not so easily burned.”
She doubts that, but it is of no use to argue the point. And it is not the greenwood she is worried about.
“I’ll wear a hood, perhaps something over my face. They’ll guess, of course, but they won’t have proof. I’ll have my men wear the same.”
“No women?” She cannot help but ask.
“If you can find me another of your skill.”
She keeps her hands folded in her lap.
“I doubt I’ll even need to go to the greenwood for a while. It will simply be a last retreat, as long as I have the manor.”
And how long will that be? But she does not ask this question. They both know.
He does not ask for her help. He doesn’t need to. She will give it unquestioningly, unasked.
That begins it. The robberies. The skirmishes. The archery contests. The hoods: as he suggested, all of his men—and, as she soon learns, there are many men, some merry, some less so, who join him at his manor and at scattered places in the villages and woods—are soon wearing them, dark green or brown hoods that make them seem almost part of the trees. Practice fights with staves on narrow wooden bridges, then real ones against armed men with swords. Her heart leaps into her throat when she first hears this; are they trying to get themselves killed? But perhaps the sheer unexpectedness works in their favor.
He still comes to the castle occasionally, sometimes openly, sometimes through the window. The sheriff does not know who he is yet, although suspicions are growing. The window is still safe. He never stays very long.
When he is in the greenwood, he tells her, he can feel its heartbeat. It throbs, he says, although not quite like the human heart. Slower, deeper, moving the leaves and bark of every tree, holding firm against the wind and the rain and the journeys of the sun and stars. He has felt that heartbeat engulf him, felt his own heart slowing, settling into the steady rhythm of the trees, as the birds laugh above him.
He says it is not a place he can ever leave for long. He tries to pass it off as a joke, but she is not sure whether or not she believes him.
Sometimes she joins them. She brings her own small staff, which she uses only to help her walk over rough terrain—she prefers other weapons for sparring—and the bow that they have designed for her. She dresses in men’s clothing for comfort, her face well-hooded. She cannot shoot quite as far as many of his men, but she is more accurate than most of them—more accurate than he is, truth be told, although this is a truth she is careful not to speak aloud. The legend must be maintained, after all. And he has become a legend. She has heard the songs in the inns below the castle, the refrains drifting up to her window. Sometimes he even sings them to her. She half suspects he wrote some of them himself.
In the winter, he brings her ivy leaves and bright green berries. She clutches them to her tightly, as if they will bring back the sun.
He and his men grow bolder. They seem kindly, and courteous enough, although she does not need his whispered warning to know that she must not travel anywhere alone with the red-bearded man; that the shortest man has killed, often and without concern; and that the singer is very willing to place his hands on more than just his musical instrument. She helps them when she can; hides them when she must; tells others to resist the sheriff when she is able.
He plans a grand attack upon chests of gold on their way to the prince’s coffers, filled by unlawful taxes. He rescues fair maidens—none as fair as she, he hastily explains; steals gold from over-greedy abbots; eats the king’s deer. He spends more and more time in the greenwood.
And finally, one moonlit evening, he steals her there.
When they were young, he kissed her in the greenwood. When she brushes her fingers across her lips, she still remembers.
She is wearing her men’s clothing—no sense struggling through the woods in heavy skirts. When they reach his camp she is only slightly dismayed to find that the other women there—three of them, peasants—are all wearing skirts. No matter. He does not notice her clothing; he never has. She throws back her hood, revealing her long chestnut hair, brushed endlessly into rich smoothness. If he notices this, he makes no comment.
The camp, it must be admitted, is not very nice. In fact, the poorest, most desperate serf might take one look and decide to move on. He and the others are nearly always on the move. They travel lightly, and do not take time to clean their belongings as they go. They seldom sleep beneath more than their own cloaks and hoods, if that; and, at the moment, they have but one pot among them. And the camp’s smell . . . but she will not let herself think of that. No one has time to create a privy, much less ensure a sweet-smelling one. One of the outlaws simply squats in front of everyone—she has seen this before, of course, but it still makes her a bit ill. He’d warned her, of course, but it was one thing to hear the warnings, and another to be there, in the wild, in the trees.
And even now, on a mild spring day, it is cold; she wraps her cloak around her, and finds herself wishing she had brought another. She thinks of her own stone walls, of the fires in the castle’s great halls, of the warming braziers, of the layers of furs and other coverings on her narrow bed. She knows that on the harshest nights of winter, he returns to the manor, and the rest of them go to various hiding places in the villages—the sheriff had neither the heart nor the strength to force searches through the snow. But now it is spring, and chilly or not, they are safer in the greenwood, no matter how much warmer thick stone walls might be.
He comes to her and kisses her lips, lightly, before she can think too much about it. Then they are merry and laughing and he is off to hunt beneath the trees—which, to her dazzled eyes, almost seem to be dancing.
When she follows him that night, through tangled trees, to a small hollow filled with soft mosses and smelling of lilies, she never once thinks of resisting. It is time, past time, for this, and she pulls him towards her with a cry of gladness.
She catches a distorted view of herself in her dagger the next morning and presses her hands to her cheeks in dismay. Her hair is tangled, wild, filled with dry leaves, and her skin—But then she realizes that it hardly matters. He looks almost wild himself this morning. Before she moved to the castle, when she could visit his manor freely, she could occasionally make him sit still while she combed and cut his hair and trimmed his beard so he would look “civilized.” She laughs, reminds him that he comes from noble blood, though no one would know it now. He laughs back at her. He left nobility behind long ago, he tells her. She does not want to think about what that means.
The forest almost seems to press upon her. But she is not going to think of that either.
That afternoon, she finds herself standing by the largest of the men, the one that they both trust above all others, never mind that he is peasant-born and no friend to those of noble rank. He is honest, this giant man, and good-hearted. A man that aims at legs and arms, not hearts, and never misses. “Why do you follow him?” she finds herself asking, not knowing why.
He looks at her. He is about to give her some simple answer, some quote from one of the songs, but something in her face stops him. “Because he is the spirit of the trees. The green man. Wasn’t born like that, but the wood has taken him, and now he is taking the wood. And a man—a spirit—like that, I must follow.”
Her hands itch. She rubs them absently on her rough woolen hood.
She does not stay in the greenwood very long. She is of more use in the castle, everyone agrees, and after a few days, she returns with a vague tale of troubles with friends and delays on the road. The sheriff, who should be suspicious—by now he is suspicious of nearly everybody—is not, mostly because he does not have the time. He has criminals to pardon and sentence, and desperate explanations to make to an increasingly angry king, who has raised the tax rate on their shire—and their shire alone—as punishment for the late delivery of the last taxes. He has also threatened still more taxes, reminding the sheriff—and everyone underneath the sheriff—that the country has wars to fight and crusades to support. The very thought makes the sheriff sweat.
No one, it must be confessed, really likes the sheriff. Even his hangers-on, she sees, despise him. Part of the problem is that he has a slight crook in his shoulders. It is superstitious and unchristian to notice this, but everyone does. A second problem is his voice, high-pitched, squeaking like a squirrel, with an accent that clearly shouts elsewhere. It is one they all associate with city merchants and traders who cannot, everyone agrees, be trusted. His clothes, too, shriek of the city, cut following fashions that the majority of them will never see.
But even she must admit that the sheriff is trying, in his own way. She sits in on many of the disputes that he judges, and he often asks for an opinion, or advice, from her or other locals. In many—even most—cases, she must admit that his judgments are generally fair, even generous, to widows and to the poor. He is also working diligently to improve the sanitation systems in the villages and beneath the castle—not merely to help with any lingering smells, but also, as he explains earnestly, because many ancient scholars posited a connection between cleanliness and health. And she has seen him deny some of the requests made by the king’s messengers, even if he quivers as he does so.
Over dinner one night, the sheriff tells them—she, the other ladies of the castle, the better-connected knights—of his origins. He is from the city, as they knew, with distant noble connections—rather distant, he admits, self-deprecatingly, although she suspects that he would not have been chosen by the king if they were all that distant. He had been a student of history and the law. It had been the prince’s hope that he and other sheriffs spread throughout the land might restore law and order to this area. After all, a peaceful country would provide more food and coin to support the king’s crusade. The sheriff’s nose quivers as he tells the story.
She does not tell the sheriff her own tale. She throws the curtains in her tower window wide that night, and waits for a visit from the greenwood.
That night, another three chests of coin vanish from the castle. The sheriff almost cries as he announces that he will need to collect the vanished money from the villages, before the king arrives from the city with troops hardened by holy war to do his own collecting.
Sometimes she wonders about that city. It is almost a fable to her, the place where the great chests of coin and wagons of grain trundle to feed the prince and pay the king’s redemption and crusade. She does not—quite—feel deprived; her own town has Roman ruins aplenty, and traveling entertainers, and an ample supply of plain and luxury goods, even if the luxury goods are for the most part unattainable given the small income allotted to her by the sheriff. More often, she finds herself wondering about the lands beyond the city, those fabulous places with their marvelous animals, and glowing art, and cities of gold and silver, and mountains, real mountains, where the snow never melts, where the high peaks are tossed by winds or seem to dance in the fires they give off.
He went to some of those places, she knows, the one time he truly left the greenwood. His leaving for so long is one of the things that is largely unspoken between them. She might try to go to those lands someday. She can think about that when their current adventure is finally settled.
Slowly, the adventures start going . . . badly. The sheriff has begun to learn the outlaws’ tricks; they, in turn, have grown more violent, more deadly, as the sheriff guards his treasures and the collected taxes more carefully. The rich, too, who were once easy pickings, have now hired more guards who do not surrender as easily. Some of the guards and outlaws, she hears, are dead.
The first time he took her to the greenwood, it was to say farewell to her. She did not know why they had traveled so deeply in the forest; had hoped—assumed, even—that it might be for a question, a proposal, of an altogether different nature. (That had worried her: he might be heir to a small manor, but she knew even then that however much land her father had, due to his lack of coin and her nearly dowerless state, he had wanted to see her wed to a man of greater wealth and even vaster lands.)
Instead, he told her that he was leaving.
She wept, fiercely, until it seemed that the trees wept with her.
She wonders now what might have happened if she had gone with him, that first time.
She hears of more and more deaths. On both sides. The miller and his son; two strange knights from France, hired for their cheapness—and killed by their incompetence, mutters the sheriff, who immediately institutes a plan to test all newly hired knights for basic weapons aptitude. A few random men-at-arms. Some of the people from a hamlet some miles off, too small to be called a village. Another knight. A wisewoman known for herbs and wisdom. Another miller and his daughter. The prayers of monks and priests fill the air. The nuns no longer leave their convent walls.
Not him, she thinks. Not him. His men, perhaps, but not him. He robs. He jests. He threatens. He gives. She is the lady in the tower, who steals secrets and sometimes kisses; and he is the archer in the forest; and she loves him, she loves him, she loves him.
The sheriff orders an end to the tavern songs, requiring the minstrels and singers to instead sing holy songs of the great crusades and the lives of the saints. The tavern keepers smile and nod. But sometimes she still hears fragments drift up to her window, from the houses where the songs of the outlaws are still hummed.
She sees it when he comes to her window, when he tumbles in, exhausted, hand stained with blood. “Self-defense,” he mutters. “I had sworn never to do it again.”
“Or tell you about the first time.”
She would press, but she has no time. “It’s getting—”
“I know,” he interrupts. He kisses her, hard—more, she feels, out of need than affection.
“I know.” He rises, stretches, looks out the window towards the greenwood. “I would if I could. But the greenwood—”
“You once said that the greenwood is indifferent to men.”
“And it is, much of the time,” he agrees. “But that is not the point.”
“Is lost to me now. You know that.”
They could argue with the sheriff, with the king, but she knows even better than he how unlikely they are to see a favorable result. And she is certain that that is not his main concern.
He comes back to her, takes her hands in his. “I am part of it now, the greenwood. You know that.”
And she does. She kisses him, and drags him to her narrow bed, determined to have at least this one part of the forest behind her strong stone walls, at least this one night. He does not resist.
In the towns and villages, the songs spread quickly, of the green man and the noble maiden, together despite the sheriff’s orders. Her wool dress itches. She has never felt less noble.
“He massacred my men,” the sheriff tells her.
“I don’t believe you,” she tells the sheriff.
He sighs, rubs his eyes. She notices, for the first time, how utterly tired he looks, realizes that he has barely slept in a month or more. “I know. I know.” He buries his head in his hands. Behind him, the fire crackles, so loudly that she almost jumps. “What if I showed you?”
“My men are still . . . clearing up the area. It will take some time. What if I show you what the outlaws have done?”
“I still won’t believe you.”
“Perhaps not,” the sheriff agrees. “But you might talk about it anyway. And perhaps—just perhaps—it might start to change the stories, a little.”
She rides out with the sheriff and one of his knights, a tall dark fellow who has been eyeing her—she suspects he would make an offer of marriage despite her nearly dowerless state if she gave him the slightest bit of encouragement. Which she does not. Her heart is pledged to the woods. To the green man. She looks up at the trees along the rutted road as they pass under them, imagining that they are bowing to her, the lady of his heart. She also looks for him, or for any of his men, but theirs is a small group, and the outlaws—and the woods—let them pass unmolested.
She cannot resist letting out a small cry when they come upon the scene.
There must be, she realizes—her stunned mind counting slowly, but completely, the way he taught her—at least a hundred men-at-arms and knights. All dead, most with their armor pushing them into the mud, save for the few bodies that had already been pulled into a pile at the side.
“They had surrendered,” the sheriff says, quietly.
“No,” she says, or tries to say, her voice coming out strangled.
“That’s not the worst of it,” the sheriff says. His weariness and pain is evident, even to her, who wants to hate him, whose skin recoils from his touch.
She swallows. She knows she does not want to hear this. But she is the lady of the castle and the greenwood, and she must have courage. She must have heart. “And what is the worst?”
The sheriff’s face turns towards her. “The king,” the sheriff says hoarsely. “And his brother, the prince. They’ll demand—they’re already demanding—retaliation for this. I may be able to hold them to one village, a few peasants, for now. May. Even so, it is an offense that the outlaws will not take lightly. They will take their revenge, of course, on the king and his men, and the king will attack in turn. Make no mistake of that. And this time . . . this time they will not be content with a few peasants, a few outlaws. They will burn villages.”
“The greenwood,” she breathes.
“That, too, if I cannot deliver enough outlaws to satisfy them,” the sheriff agrees. “Though I haven’t much worry for the greenwood. They might try to set it on fire, and parts might burn, but I don’t think it will be destroyed so easily. No. It’s the villages and the crops I’m worried about. We’ve had to pay so many additional taxes and reparations to the king already that we have no cash, none, for food. I could wall myself up in the castle, perhaps, but I doubt it would be a refuge for long. I could even escape, if necessary, as can my knights. Find another place of employment, or go on crusade, or find a monastery that might take me in for a few coins.” He nods. It has begun to rain, but he does not pull up his cloak, does not try to conceal his face. “A kinder end than my incompetence would justify, I suppose. I am still too fond of life to give myself up entirely to its justice.”
He sighs. “At least this lot had a moment to try to run away. Not like the other ones, caught and stuck in the mud and water while the outlaws cut them down.”
She stares ahead at the fallen men, her vision blurring. But it is clear enough to see what the sheriff does not say: that many men in this field were shot in the back.
She is the lady in the tower, stealing secrets when she can, kisses when she cannot.
He is the thief in the woods, stealing from the rich when he can, from the poor when he cannot.
The night sky is lit by a half moon, just enough to show her the dark greenwood from her tower room. She sits by the window, hands utterly still, her skin for once not itching beneath the coarse wool. She thinks of the iron-clad men sinking into the mud, and places her hands around her throat. She remembers his lips on hers, the sound of the trees.
When they were children, he stole berries from the wood, and brought her the ripest and the sweetest.
She wonders why she feels so terribly calm.
“And what if he were not here?” she asks the largest man, the one they both trust.
“I’d go home,” the hooded man says.
She takes one of the sheriff’s finest horses from the stable—if she needs to run, she does not want to be caught—and rides for the greenwood, bow and arrows carefully concealed beneath her cloak.
He is there. For a very long moment she lets herself rest in his arms, lets herself pretend that she is only the lady in the tower and he only an archer, escaped for a summer’s afternoon together. She breathes in the scents of fall, the slight chill that has entered the air. She listens to his heart.
“Come,” she tells him, and for once, it is she who leads him into the greenwood.
It is minutes, or hours, or days before he thinks to ask where they are going. The question surprises her. He has always known where they are going, always. Or at least where he is going—which, for a long time now, has been almost the same thing. She is not sure he has ever asked this question, at least not of her. She conjures up a smile, the same sort of smile that once led him to climb up to her tower window, to swing through the great halls of the castle and duel for her hand, to nestle with her beneath the trees in the heart of the greenwood. She remembers the touch of his hands, his legs, his skin.
“To the heart,” she answers, and he smiles back at her. She blinks, and clutches her bow tightly.
She stops at a twisted old tree whose roots have climbed up out of the ground and toward other trees—almost ready to strangle them, it seems. She leans against the tree. “I need a moment.”
He grins at her. “You never used to tire so easily.”
She cannot think of an answering quip or jest. Instead, she strokes her bow. She can almost feel the greenwood pulsing around her, just the way he described it: almost like a heartbeat, but slower, broader. She breathes in the rich air, stuffy with the scent of fallen leaves. He leans back against another tree, almost as ancient, almost as twisted, grinning his old grin, the one she has seen so infrequently of late. She feels her arms and legs relax. She thinks of everything she owes him. Of how he kept her truest self alive. How she breathes because of him; lives because of him; loves because of him. She feels the greenwood thrum.
And she raises her bow and shoots him through the heart.
“In the Greenwood” copyright © 2013 by Mari Ness
Art copyright © 2013 by Allen Williams