There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.
When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.
An enchanting story of old forests, forgotten gods, and new love, Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood is available June 18th with Tor.com Publishing.
It was the middle of an autumn downpour when Tobias first met Henry Silver. Summer had come and gone, and the wood was quiet. Tobias was snug inside his neat little cottage with Pearl asleep on the hearth, tail twitching occasionally as she dreamed of catching sparrows. He had all his knives laid out in a row on the table and his oilstone to hand. He looked up through the cloudy panes of his one good window and saw the young man in a well-fitted grey coat stumbling along the track with wet leaves blowing into his face and his hat a crumpled ruin in his hands. Then Tobias didn’t even really think about it, just stepped outside and hollered for him to come in. The young man looked up with a startled expression. He had a soft boyish face and pale grey eyes, and his mud-coloured hair was plastered to his skin.
“I said come on in, you’re getting soaked,” called Tobias from his doorway.
The young man stared at him a little longer, and then carefully opened Tobias’s garden gate, closed it again behind him, and walked down the path to the cottage. Tobias stood aside to let him in. “Need some help with that coat?” he asked.
“Thank you,” said the young man, and once Tobias had taken it off him—it was a damn good coat, even Tobias could tell that, the kind so perfectly tailored it required a servant to pour you into it and peel you out again—he saw that his new guest really was soaked through. “I’ll get you some clothes,” he said.
He went into the cottage’s one other room and fetched out some of his old things. “I’m Tobias Finch,” he said as he came back to the main room. The young man was crouched by the fire. Pearl had opened slitted eyes to consider him, but she was a very unflappable cat, not likely to be startled from her warm spot by a stranger who did not disturb her.
“Silver,” said his guest after a moment. “Henry Silver.”
“Pleasure’s all mine, Mr Silver,” said Tobias, and offered him the pile of dry clothes.
Silver got changed and then sat down by the fire again. Pearl graciously crawled into his lap and butted his hand with her head to indicate he might have the honour of petting her. Tobias sat down by the window and returned to sharpening his knives. He let himself glance over once in a while, but Silver didn’t seem inclined to chatter and Tobias had never been the talkative type. He often intimidated people, being a big and grim-looking sort of fellow; he’d accepted it years ago and had long since stopped trying to be the kind of man who smiled enough to make up for it. Silver’s hair dried into fluffy curls, and although not a particularly small man, he looked like he might disappear inside Tobias’s shirt and trousers.
An hour or so went by. Silver stroked the cat, who eventually began to purr. Tobias finished sharpening his knives, put them all away in their proper places, and got out his mending. The rain was still going strong, rattling on the roof and through the trees. An occasional distant boom meant there was thunder in the wind somewhere. “Might go all night,” he said at last, owning the truth. “You can have my bed.”
“They say a madman lives in Greenhollow Wood,” said Silver, looking over at him.
“Who’s they?” said Tobias.
“The people I spoke to in Hallerton village. They say there’s a wild man out here—a priest of the old gods, or a desperate criminal, or just an ordinary lunatic. He eats nothing but meat, raw, and it has made him grow to a giant’s stature; or so I was given to understand at the Fox and Feathers. They informed me I would know him by his height and his hair.”
“His hair, hmm,” said Tobias.
“Waist-length and unwashed,” said Silver, looking at Tobias.
“Now, that’s a slander,” said Tobias.“It’s not past my elbows, and I wash all over every week.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Mr Finch,” said Silver.
“The rest’s all true,” said Tobias.
“Old gods and banditry and lunacy?”
“And the one where I eat people,” said Tobias, unsmiling.
Silver laughed abruptly, a splendid peal of sound. “Maidens, they told me. Yellow-haired for preference.”
“Nothing for you to worry about, then,” said Tobias. He finished darning his old sock. “I’ll make up the bed fresh for you, or as fresh as it’ll go.”
“You’re very kind,” said Silver. “You don’t even know who I am.”
“Figure you must be the new owner up at Greenhallow Hall,” said Tobias. “Which makes you my landlord. Not being kind, just buttering you up.”
He made up the bed in the other room with the clean set of winter blankets, which he hadn’t been planning to get out for another week. The old blankets were stained with moss-green markings. Tobias bundled them up in the corner to wash.
“Are you sure about this?” said Silver when Tobias waved him towards the bed. “Where will you sleep?”
“Floor,” said Tobias.
“It doesn’t look very comfortable,” said Silver. “The bed’s big enough to share, surely.” He gave Tobias a smile.
Tobias looked down at him and said, “Really?”
“Well,” said Silver, after contemplating the bulk of Tobias for a moment or two, “maybe not.”
“I’ll be all right. I sleep out by the fire plenty of nights this time of year. Pearl’ll keep me company,” said Tobias. “Get along to bed with you.”
“I’d argue longer but I am tired,” said Silver. “You must let me make it up to you somehow.”
“Cut my rent,” said Tobias.
Silver went off to sleep in Tobias’s bed in Tobias’s shirt, and Pearl treacherously went and joined him, so Tobias sat alone by the fire, not sleeping. As it burned lower and lower, the rain died down to a drizzle, and then it quieted and there was only the gentle drip-drip from the leaves of the old oak tree behind the cottage. Tobias took up a newly sharpened knife and trimmed his fingernails. He’d meant to do it earlier, but then Silver had been there. Afterwards he swept up the scattered dry curls of dead leaves and tossed them on the embers.
Sometime after midnight, sitting in the near dark and thinking about nothing very much, Tobias suddenly snorted with laughter. Silver had been inviting him, and not just to share a bed that definitely couldn’t fit the two of them. How long had it been, if Tobias couldn’t even recognise a handsome lad suggesting a bit of mutual entertainment anymore?
A long, long time, that was what. A long time, whispered the low rustle of the breeze in the leaves outside. A long time, sang the drip-drip-drip of rainwater, softly, while Tobias sat clear-eyed and sleepless in the dark, listening to the wood.
In the morning, Silver thanked him and bade him farewell cheerfully enough. Tobias pointed out the road to the Hall and handed him his clothes, dry and not too weather-stained, to change back into. “Heaven knows what the housekeeper will think,” said Silver, “when I tell her I spent the night with the wild man in the woods.”
“She’ll have the reverend come and visit to check you over for black magic, most likely,” said Tobias.
Silver laughed as if he’d been joking. “Thank you again for your hospitality,” he said. Then he was striding off into the woodland. Tobias watched him go, trim in his good coat, hat-less and light-footed among the leaves. A nice young fellow, certainly.
He finished his mending that morning, and rehung the cottage door that had swollen in the rain, and went looking for mistletoe. The old oak obliged him as usual, but more never hurt, and Tobias had learned over the years it was worth his time to walk the woods after a rainstorm. He went down to the gully where the stream ran quick, up to the edge of the hills, skirted round the village, and checked the old shrine. It was looking pretty ragged since they’d built the village church, but someone had left a handful of blackberries. Tobias ate them one by one as he went to take a look at the woodsmen’s copse. The chief there knew his work, so there were no problems. They’d set up a crossed circle of white stones facing east, casual-looking enough to fool a priest, but there wasn’t much power in it. More of a habit than a protection, these days. Still, Tobias appreciated the gesture. It made his work easier.
The woods had been cut back around the Hall back in the year ten, and Tobias couldn’t get close, but he stood at the edge of the pretty garden they’d laid out and eyed the old building with its dark windows. Silver was a nice fellow. Tobias didn’t regret inviting him in out of the rain.
He didn’t find any more mistletoe in the end, but really the oak’s offering was enough. He went back to his cottage, fixed himself some dinner, strapped on his knives and oiled his crossbow. A sprig of mistletoe in his belt, clean socks with darned heels, good boots, and he was ready.
He’d found the trail a few days ago up on the hills, among the twisted gorse. It was a sad thing when a dryad went sour. They were sweet ladies for the most part, and Tobias liked them. He had four or five in his wood, not counting the old oak, who was his own manner of thing. This one wasn’t a local; she smelled rootless and angry. Lost her tree, most likely, and no one had asked her mercy or planted her a sapling. She’d go for the woodsmen, who slept in a long cabin just outside the village. Damn thing was wooden, which wouldn’t make Tobias’s task any easier.
He took up a station on the edge of the copse just before moonrise and waited.
It took her a long time to get there. More than half the night was through by the time she arrived, and she’d missed the midnight hour, when she would have been strongest. “How now,” Tobias murmured when he saw her swell into being on the edge of the clearing. She was twisted and reddish, and her eyes lacked the sunlight-in-the-canopy gleam of a healthy dryad. “Now then, miss,” Tobias said. “There’s no call for this.”
She hissed at him.
“Why don’t you come along with me,” said Tobias, “and we’ll plant you a sweet willow, down by the river, with water to sing to you and sun on your leaves?”
The dryad swayed and muttered. Tobias didn’t have much hope for her. There was a dry rotted scent rolling off her; she was in no mood to put down roots. Her dim eyes were fixed on the cabin full of sleeping men. “Now, miss,” said Tobias gently all the same. “No need for anyone to get hurt.”
“Them,” hissed the dryad.
“They’re good woodsmen, miss. I watch ’em myself. They cut clean and plant after. No shame in being builders, miss, and it’s a nice little copse. What do you say to that willow, now?”
“They killed me,” moaned the dryad, swaying on the spot. There was a deep rumbling sound under her words. Tobias stopped hoping. She was older and madder than he’d thought. “They killed me, and I—”
She screamed. The timbers of the cabin all shook with the sound.
Tobias quickly raised his crossbow. The bolt made a solid thunk as it lodged in her dim eye. She howled again, and the undergrowth shifted and sprouted pale vines that snatched for Tobias’s legs. She’d forget her victims till she was done with him.
Most of the grasping vines changed their mind about Tobias when they touched his boots. This was his wood, and one uprooted dryad—even a strong old one—couldn’t turn it against him all at once. He drew one of his knives, plain steel with a good edge, to hack apart the few that kept coming. The dryad screamed and screamed the whole time. She was putting herself into the vines to make them attack him, spending the last of her ancient strength to do it. Tobias advanced on her slowly and steadily, reaching for the mistletoe sprig in his belt as he came. She stumbled back before him and stepped straight into the crossed circle of white stones the woodsmen had set up. They blazed with pale light, and in that gleam Tobias finally got a good look at her. She was ruddy-skinned for autumn and there were still some withered flowers in her dried-out papery hair. The stone circle had her trapped now. Poor creature, Tobias thought.
He put another crossbow bolt in her. The force of it snapped something inside her; she shuddered and fell, straight and heavy in the way of her kind, with a creaking noise. “Rest well,” Tobias said, standing over her. He laid the mistletoe sprig over her heart and brought his old flint blade down through it.
She wailed one last time, a winter-wind shriek of rattling boughs. Tobias sighed. He turned around to check on the cabin.
The door was open, and half a dozen men were crowding out of it staring at him. Before Tobias had time to say anything, one of them lifted a pistol and fired it.
His hands were shaking, which surely saved Tobias’s life, that and the dark of the night. Tobias clenched his teeth around a yell when the bullet went into his thigh. Time went slow around him, heavy and green after the way of the trees, and he saw the trembling man with the pistol try to aim again. Probably never killed anyone in his life, Tobias thought. Probably thinks he’s being a hero. What could the woodsmen see, after all, but the wild man coming for them, and the hideous tangle of the dryad’s death throes?
The slow green time carried on pooling around Tobias’s feet, and the pain of the wound felt distant through it. Tobias lurched away into the trees and limped as fast as he could go towards his cottage. Bracken brushed itself out of his way and low branches moved aside. He caught sight of a slim figure in the trees off to his left; golden-eyed like all her kind, but moving swift, so she was Bramble, the youngest of Tobias’s dryads and the one with the nastiest temper. “Leave ’em be, miss,” he said to her.
“You’re hurt!” she cried.
“They’ll hack you back to a stump if you’re foolish,” Tobias said. He was stumbling now, but his cottage and the old oak were looming ahead, both much closer to the woodland’s edge than they usually were. “I’ve had worse. Leave people things to people, dear heart.”
She cried out in protest, but she didn’t go off to chase down the silly youth with the pistol, so that was something. Tobias lurched into his cottage and time abruptly poured itself back into its proper shape. He saw the shadows settle over the floor as Bramble took up a guard all around the place, calling up blackthorn and dark holly on every side, planting herself by the door in a menacing tangle. Well, there went Tobias’s vegetable garden.
The hole in his leg was bleeding sluggishly. Tobias washed it out with yarrow, wincing at the sting. Then he bound it up in clean bandages and went and lay down on the bed without getting any more undressed than that. Pearl came and sat by him, lashing her tail silently. Tobias closed his eyes. Time went slow and green around him again, and the pain fell back a little.
Bullet lodged in his thigh, and he was no doctor; nor was anything that lived in his wood. Well, there it was. He’d live or not. If he lived, he’d manage, and if he died, he’d die in the shadow of the old oak. Maybe it was time. He’d seen nearly four hundred midsummers come and go by now.
He kept his eyes closed and tried to go to sleep.
Excerpted from Silver in the Wood, copyright © 2019 by Emily Tesh.