Into the Heartless Wood – Joanna Ruth Meyer

THE GWYDDEN’S WOOD IS QUIET TODAY. THERE IS NO HIGH, eerie melody woven into the air, pulling at my mind and my body, tempting me to come among the trees, though I know very well what would happen if I did. I’m more able to resist the music than most. But it’s easier when it’s quiet. The wood smells as it always does: of loam and earth and the sour hint of decay. Branches hang over the chest-high boundary wall my father built too late. Leaves scrape against the stone; they’re a luminescent green, new-furled. But they can’t trick me into admiring them—I know what they conceal. What they’ve taken from us. Awela tumbles like a new puppy in the grass, nearly in the shadow of the wall. She doesn’t understand the danger that lurks so close. How could she? She’s only two. She doesn’t remember our mother. She doesn’t hear our father’s gut-wrenching cries in the dark of night when he thinks I’m sleeping. Father would be angry that we’re out here at all, but Awela is part wild thing.

She can’t be kept indoors all day. Besides, there’s no music coiling out of the forest at present, and Father is away working at Brennan’s Farm. He doesn’t need to know. And it’s not like I take my eyes oʃ her, even for a second. I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in. Awela races about in circles, squealing with joy until she’s so dizzy she falls down. There’s dirt on every inch of her, and she’s managed to rip her dress. Her skin is freckled and tanned from the sun, her dark curls—the same ones I have, inherited from Father— springing out in every direction. She never sits still long enough for me to properly comb her hair, which right now is tangled with grass and twigs. She has Father’s brown eyes and Mother’s broad smile and more mischief than any person so small should be able to contain.

She exhausts me, and I adore her to bits. “Awela!” I cry, as she trots up to the wall and stretches up her tiny hand, reaching for a low-hanging branch. Panic jolts through me, and I leap up from where I’ve been sprawling in the grass. In another heartbeat I’m at her side, grabbing her wrist and tugging her back to the safety of the open sky. She screams at me and wriggles loose, but I catch her again and twirl her around and around until she laughs, forgetting her desire to run back to the wall and that devilish branch. I don’t dare fetch the axe from the shed and hack the branch oʃ. Not even Father would dare. I try to forget my own uneasiness, try not to hear the faint thread of a song coiling out from the depth of the wood. “Time for a bath, little one,” I tell my sister. “No bath!” Awela shrieks.

But she trots along after me as I fetch the wash basin and ɹll it from the pump in front of the house. When it’s full, I put the basin by the garden—the ɻowers and vegetable seedlings will appreciate the water Awela is absolutely going to splash out. I strip her of her grimy dress and plunk her in, grabbing a bar of soap and scrubbing vigorously. She shouts and laughs and splashes, thoroughly enjoying herself. I ɹnish scrubbing and let her play in the water, my eyes wandering sometimes to the wood beyond the garden and my father’s wall, and sometimes to the house I’ve lived in for as long as I can remember. It’s a small stone house, ordinary except for the tower that serves as my father’s observatory, the silver dome closed until evening, the telescope safe inside. Flowers wilt in the bright blue window boxes, like they never did when my mother tended them instead of me. I’ve tried to keep all the pieces of her alive. I’ve tried not to surrender the whole of her memory to the Gwydden’s Wood. Everyone says we’re fools to live on the border of the wood itself.

Maybe we are. But there was nowhere else far enough away from the village for my father to observe the stars in solitude. Few people know he’s an astronomer. No one knows he charts the stars for King Elynion himself, on the king’s coin no less. Father works as a day laborer at Brennan’s Farm to keep people from asking questions about how he earns his money and adhere to the king’s condition of secrecy. Brennan is our closest neighbor, a threemile walk northeast of our house. The village is another five miles north, and even that’s considered perilously close to the wood. It grows chilly as the wind picks up. Clouds knot dark over the sun, and it smells suddenly of rain. The music is stronger now, loud enough to hear clearly over the rising wind.

It pulls at me. I shudder, clench my jaw, steel myself against it. “Time to go inside, little one,” I tell Awela. I pour a pitcher of clean water over her head and she screams like I’m murdering her. I just tickle her chin and scoop her out of the basin, wrapping her in a large towel and carrying her toward the house. The music follows, sinking into me with invisible barbs. The same music that lured my mother into the wood, where she was lost forever. I wonder if anyone heard her scream when the Gwydden’s eight monstrous daughters fell on her and rent her to pieces. I wonder if any part of her remains, or if she is nothing more than dust now, strewn about the forest floor amongst the molded leaves. I carry Awela up the two steps to our front door in a hurry, reaching for the handle.

“Is Calon Merrick at home?” I jump at the overloud voice, turning to see what is obviously one of the king’s men striding up, his long cobalt coat ɹxed with gold-plated buttons, his smart blue cap trimmed with gold to match. A tall oilcloth satchel hangs over one shoulder, and he’s somewhere between my father’s age and my own seventeen years. He has dark brown skin, which speaks of Saeth descent. “I’m Owen Merrick,” I reply. “My father isn’t here right now. You’ve come for the star charts?” The king’s man’s eyes ɻick between me and my baby sister with obvious distaste. He taps his ears, and I realize he must have put wax in them, to protect against the tree sirens’ song—he can’t hear me. I open the door and wave him inside. He steps through, but only takes the wax out when the door is shut ɹrmly behind him. His eyes ɻick uneasily to the wood outside the kitchen window.

“I’m here for the charts.” “I’ll fetch them,” I promise. “Just a moment.” I set the kettle on the stove while I ɹnd Awela a cloth diaper and a clean nightgown. She scampers about, shrieking. The king’s man frowns, pressing his back against the wall by the ɹreplace because he physically can’t get any farther away from her. I scowl at him when he’s not looking—does he suppose he sprang from his mother’s womb as fully grown and thoroughly dull as he is now? I leave him with a cup of tea at the kitchen table and carry Awela up to the observatory with me to collect the month’s star charts. Ordinarily I wouldn’t take her, but there’s no chance in hell I’m leaving her downstairs with that dullard. “Don’t touch anything, little one,” I instruct with great futility as I set her down in the middle of the observatory. For a few moments she stares around her with huge, fascinated eyes, and then the next instant she’s racing round the room in circles, shrieking with mad delight.

The charts are in bundles on the bookcase beside the telescope. I gather them under my arms and manage to herd Awela out of the room in front of me. She half tumbles down the stairs—it’s past time for her nap. “Here they are,” I tell the king’s man, piling the charts on the table for him to examine. I give Awela some milk and sit with her at the table; she nestles into me. The king’s man takes each chart from its casing and gives it a cursory glance before putting it back. He’s clearly new to this job—King Elynion normally sends the same few servants to collect the charts and bring my father’s payment, and I’ve never seen this man before. I can also tell by the way his eyes dart around the star charts that he doesn’t actually know how to read them. “Everything appears to be in order,” he says when he’s perused the last one. I don’t call his bluʃ.

I’m annoyed that he hasn’t even touched his tea, leaving it to go cold at his elbow. I shouldn’t have wasted it on him. Outside, the clouds break, and rain slants hard past the window. Awela is half asleep in my arms. “Your father’s payment, as agreed upon.” The king’s man takes a blue velvet pouch from an inner pocket, and sets it on the table with a faint clink of metal. “You can count it, if you wish, but be quick about it. I want to be back in the village by nightfall.” Nightfall isn’t for hours, but I see how his gaze travels once more to the window, to the shadow of the wood that lies just beyond his view. I wonder if he’s ever laid eyes on it before today.

“I don’t know how you stand it,” he says in an undertone. “I don’t know how you sleep at night, so near her wood. So near her.” The Gwydden. Few say her name aloud, but everyone thinks it: the witch who rules the wood, powerful enough to bend the things of God to her own will, just as she bends her daughters, the tree sirens. She wields them like weapons, commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them. “We don’t bother her.” I shrug, attempting nonchalance. “She doesn’t bother us. But I don’t need to count the money.

I trust His Majesty.” Awela rubs her eyes and I stand, hefting her up against my shoulder. The king’s man stands too, awkwardly bundling the star charts and stuɽng them into his oilcloth satchel. The satchel is deep, but a good third of the charts still poke out the top. He studies me for a moment, as if debating whether or not to say something. “Do you know why he does it? His Majesty, I mean. Why he pays your father for these charts every month?” I shrug. This man really must be new. None of the other servants the king has sent to us ever questioned him in such a way. “If my father knows, he’s never told me.

But I’m sure you know the importance of—” “Secrecy.” The man scowls at me. “I’m not a simpleton. Just wondered if you knew. That’s all.” Personally, I like to imagine King Elynion as a bit of a scientist, that he keeps his hobby to himself to avoid appearing superstitious. If the people of Tarian knew their king consulted the stars on a monthly basis—whatever his real reason—they would distrust him. He’s their hero, their champion against the Gwydden and her wood. If they thought he was seeking his future in the stars, they might whisper of magic; they might begin to think he was no diʃerent than the witch and her monstrous daughters. There is a thin line, after all, between magic and science.

The king’s man hesitates at the door, pulling two lumps of wax from his pocket but not putting them back in his ears yet. He clearly doesn’t relish the thought of going outside, even if the alternative means staying in here with me and Awela. “Just seems like a waste of coin,” he says. “It could be going to the railroad.” Awela lays her head against my neck, yawning. The tree sirens’ song is slipping through the cracks in the stones and into the house now. I might be stuck with the king’s man for a while—I don’t know that he can resist the pull, even through the wax. “What’s wrong with the railroad? It’s been running smoothly for a year now.” The king’s man grimaces. “It was until the wood grew up around the tracks.

” “It did what?” I stare, shocked. “Just west of your village, the train to Saeth runs almost entirely through the wood. Been that way since the winter.” “Since the winter?” I’m repeating things stupidly, but I don’t care. Horror grips me. Along with the telegraph lines, the railroad is one of King Elynion’s crowning achievements, making travel swift and safe across Tarian, strengthening ties with our neighboring country and trade partner, Saeth. When he built it, the wood was miles away, the tracks running over long stretches of grassy plain. And now … “How is that possible?” “The wood witch grows stronger, year by year. I’m surprised she hasn’t tumbled down that wall of yours.” He glances out the window.

“But it’s worse than you know. The tracks in the forest are being torn up. The metal is twisted, the railroad ties ripped from the ground and set to stand upright like the trees they once were and hung with garlands of ɻowers. No matter they were never her trees;we brought all the lumber in from Saeth—His Majesty plays by the rules. It happens at random, delaying whole shipments. We have to repair sections of track nearly every week now. There will be trouble with Saeth if we can’t sort it out.” He’s right. Tarian imports wood and coal from Saeth. We would be in bad trouble without it.

Besides the slow, perilous sea routes, there’s no other way to get to Saeth, unless one was foolish enough to go through the wood on foot—horses won’t go near her trees. Awela shifts on my shoulder, her small hands ɹsting my shirt. Outside, the rain drives on and on, and the tree sirens’ song fades into nothing. “You’ve been in the wood, then,” I say, not missing his use of “we.” He shudders and nods. “I worked on the railroad six months, and I’m often sent out to guard the repair crew.” My pulse throbs in my neck. “Have you ever seen them? The–the witch’s daughters?” His hands twitch, the star chart casings in the oilcloth satchel rattling against each other. “Once. It was two months ago, the ɹrst time we were sent to repair a section of the track in the newly grown wood.

We stuʃed our ears with wax against their songs. We armed ourselves with knives and guns. But when they came, it wasn’t enough. There were three of them, and their devilish music was loud even through the wax. They were fast as snakes, with glowing eyes and bony hands, and they bound our bodies with living branches that twisted and squeezed, winding into our flesh.” I stare at the king’s man in utter horror. “It was our captain who saved most of us, with a bundle of kerosene-soaked rags and a packet of gunpowder. Scared the devils oʃ long enough for us to escape. But our captain died anyway. He’d lost too much blood.

” I eye the king’s man with new respect. He shakes his head, as if to shake the memory away. He seems to realize the music has faded from the wood. “Good day, then.” He stuʃs the wax into his ears and steps outside, shutting the door behind him. I’m not sorry to see him go. I tuck Awela into her little bed on the ɹrst ɻoor, then climb up to the second ɻoor, passing my and my father’s bedrooms before taking the narrow stair to the observatory. Assuming the storm passes, it won’t be dark enough to use the telescope for some hours yet, but I like the quiet peace of this room. When the dome is open, the glass ceiling is a window to the sky; when it’s shut, there’s only a small window to the left of the cast-iron stove operated with a crank. I turn it and stare into the Gwydden’s Wood, my eyes straining to see past the rain and into the heart of the forest.

No one touches the Gwydden’s trees —they are sacred to her. The stories say she thinks of them as her children, that she even made children from them: her eight daughters, the tree sirens, whose eerie song twists up again through the window. There was a time when the wood was signiɹcantly smaller than it is now, but it grows year by year. More rapidly, according to the king’s man’s report, than I realized. I wonder if by the time Awela is as old as I am it will have swallowed all the world the way it swallowed my mother. For a moment more I stare into the trees, listening to the song of the Gwydden’s daughters. The music rakes through me with jagged claws, and I ɹnd myself leaning out of the observatory, stretching my hands to the trees. Awareness slams through me. I jerk my head back inside and crank the window shut again.

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