The Heart of the Forest
Part 3 – The Vessel
Robin smelt leaf-mould and damp earth, felt the crush of twigs beneath his skin. Gradually, cautiously, he opened his eyes. He was lying face down on the ground; beetles crawled across the leaves inches from his head. He jerked into a sitting position and wiped his hands across his head, fearful that bugs were in his hair. His skin crawled at the thought, forcing him to stand, leaning against a nearby tree for support. He was back in the forest, though it was no longer the green, peaceful idyll in which he had walked with Esther. It was winter here; the leaves gathered on the wet ground, rotting and reeking, and their trees stood bereft, bare branches stretching to the sky, like skeletons railing against the heavens. The sun hung low in the sky and cast its glow through the forest. There was no gold or gentle dapple; everything was turned to fire.
Drums echoed through the trees from somewhere off to his left, beating a repetitive tattoo, punctured occasionally by the keening of a horn. The smell of smoke accompanied the sounds, drifting to him on the cutting wind that whipped his cheeks until they stung. He shivered, grabbing his arms and rubbing them against the chill. He had a jumper in his backpack, but that seemed to have disappeared. The smoke nagged at him until he realised that smoke meant fire and fire meant warmth. Moving quickly, but still alert to the possibility of dangers, he moved towards the smoke, towards the sound of the drums. Briars and brambles caught at his clothes, tore his skin, and rain began to fall, making the forest floor slippery and his skin more cold. Each new drop was like a wasp’s sting on his skin, made raw by the cold caress of the wind.
The drums grew louder and black smoke curled in the air about him. He ducked behind a thick trunked tree and looked ahead. People were gathered near the summit of a short incline. They wore thick tunics made of some coarse fabric and their hair hung lank and dirty about their shoulders. Some carried drums, others spears. It seemed to be some sort of celebration – everyone was happy, some even dancing and drinking, all focused on something towards the centre of the ring, hidden from Robin’s sight by the crest of the ridge.
Despite the spears and the pounding drums, the people did not look threatening, so Robin approached cautiously, thinking that he could ask them if they had seen Esther and how he could get out of the forest. Wanting to be cautious, but not appear to be sneaking up on them, he walked in plain sight, slowly ascending the incline. Before long one of them, a man with dark hair and a spear, spotted him and began running down towards him. Robin stopped, waiting, preparing to run if he needed to, but the man merely came and took him by the arm, smiling and laughing, and leading him up the hill.
When they reached the top, the man took up a cup and thrust it into Robin’s hand. It smelled vaguely of fruit, but tasted bitter. Not wanting to offend, though, he sipped at it as he took in the view. There was a depression at the centre of the hill, a sunken piece of ground in which hundreds of people were standing, dancing, and enjoying themselves. At the centre of the depression there was a platform with a frame above it. It was hung with cloths that obscured the activity on the platform, though the orange light cast shadows of people moving within.
“What’s going on?” Robin asked the man, hoping that he understood English.
“It is a celebration – a festival to help the Heart of the Forest,” he said. His speech was accented, but he spoke English, perfectly.
“The Heart of the Forest. She is the Maiden of the Spring and Summer, who walks in flowers and trees. She keeps the forests green and gives the flowers colour with her touch. She is very beautiful and that is why the Old Man of the Frosts loves her, but she denies him, for his realm is ice and cold and death. He makes winds blow and causes the flower of the sun to wither in the sky. She cannot love him, but he tries every year to break her spirit by sending his minions to weaken her. In the early days, she was stronger, but each new year she becomes more and more weary. If she relents and marries him then she will go to live in his kingdom and the forest will surely die. We have pledged to keep her green, to help her keep her will strong in these last days.”
Robin nodded and sipped at the drink. It was a good a story as any about why winter came and the trees shed their leaves, he supposed, and it was a good reason to have a celebration when the weather was miserable. It didn’t really help him, though, and he was about to ask the man about Esther and the way out, but a hush fell over the whole crowd. The drums stopped and the horn’s keening note died away just as it was coming to a crescendo.
“Look,” said the man, tapping Robin’s arm.
The crowd on the opposite side of the depression was parting, making an artificial path to allow a group of people to march between them. The marchers were all dressed in green robes, decked with evergreen leaves and winter flowers, and they carried a sort of sedan chair between them. Robin imagined that it contained someone important, but he could not see in, since green fabrics shielded its occupant from view. The procession made its way towards the platform, where people began taking the cloths from it, so that Robin could clearly see a plinth on which sat an amber gemstone. He recognised it immediately, turning away, but the no light emanated from it.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at it.
“That is the Heart of the Forest. See how dull it is, how close to death. Soon it will be lit anew.”
The procession came to a halt and set the sedan chair down. The marchers in their robes and branches cast one side open began bringing something – or rather, someone – out. It was a young girl, dressed in a flowing white robe. She seemed unable to walk by herself, her head hung down to her chest. There were flowers woven into her chestnut hair. Chestnut hair. Esther!
“I know her,” he said, starting forwards and shouting her name, “Esther!”
The man laid a hand on his shoulder and held him back.
“No is allowed to speak above a whisper when the Vessel is revealed,” he said, “It is a great honour to be chosen.”
“What are they going to do with her?” Robin said, taking a sudden sense of foreboding from the man’s words.
“There is only one way life can be bought for the Heart; life must be given to pay for new life. The Old Man of the Frosts must have a life.”
“They’re going to kill her!”
He did not wait for the man’s response, shrugging off his hand and running at full speed for the platform. The slope was steeper than he had imagined and he stumbled, nearly falling as he pushed his leg’s to go faster. He could hear footsteps behind, which meant he was being chased. The people ahead moved aside; some looked confused, others angry.
He could see Esther’s face now; she was being held up by two of the marchers directly in front of the gemstone. Another stood behind her, pulling her hair away from her shoulders and neck. The last of them stood with his head bowed, his hands clasped around the handle of a knife, chanting words that Robin did not understand. The knife looked like it had been fashioned from human bone.
Robin leapt from the centre of the depression at the platform, felt hands close around his clothing, but they were pulled free as he sailed forwards. He hit one of the bars around the platform and barely managed to grip on as the air was driven out of him. Pain exploded through his ribs. Pushing it aside, he managed to fling himself over the rail and drive forwards, tackling the man with the knife to the floor. He did not stop there; he was wild with the adrenaline, striking left and right, kicking and biting. He managed to drive one of the men backwards and the other hesitated long enough for Robin to grab hold of Esther. A collective cry went up from all the people in the hollow. The man behind her let go his hold on her as if he had been electrocuted, and the sudden change in weight made Robin sink to the floor, Esther coming down on top of him.
“This woman is with me,” Robin shouted, struggling to his knees, “you can’t kill her.”
“If we don’t, the forest will die. She has been chosen. We were all chosen in our turn. We all died.”
Robin looked at the man who had spoken and from him to the others on the platform and those nearest its edges. For the first time he saw that the orange light of the sun that permeated the place defined them, gave them shape and form, with white sparkles in the backs of their eyes. Scrabbling wildly on the floor, his hand caught the handle of the bone knife and he took it up.
“You’ll have to kill me first,” he said, “then there’ll be no one here to die next year.”
“Then we will wait. Someone always comes and we are very good at waiting.”
Tears rolled from Robin’s eyes and he looked down at Esther’s face. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the Heart of the Forest, sitting on its plinth, the faintest of lights at its depths. He stood slowly, turning the knife towards himself, and moved in front of the plinth. The marchers watched him, but they didn’t stop him. He raised the knife pointing it towards his own heart.
“I am the Vessel,” he said, “and life must pay for new life.”
With that he plunged the knife down, but not at himself. He stabbed downwards as hard as he could, ramming the point into the centre of the gemstone, which shattered instantly. Amber light burst out of it, streaming towards the heavens, and a wind roared through the hollow screaming like a banshee in the night. Then all turned black and all that was left was the scream.
“Robin! Robin! Are you alright?”
The voice was Esther’s. His head was pounding and he felt as if every part of him had been beaten with rocks. Parts of his body didn’t feel his own. He slowly opened his eyes and saw Esther above him, the ends of her chestnut waves tickling his cheek and he realised that the strange parts of his body were actually her, sitting astride him, her hands gripping his shoulders.
“Oh, thank God. I thought I’d lost you.”
He tried to sit up but the action made him feel sick and he laid himself back down on the ground. She ran a hand down his cheek. She looked worried, distressed, like she had been crying. He lifted his head enough that he could see about him without feeling like he was going to black out.
“Where are we? Are the marchers gone? What happened to the gemstone?”
“We’re back in the forest, in some sort of tower. Don’t worry about the gemstone; I shattered it.”
“What?” Robin asked, “But I was the one who broke the gemstone. I stabbed it with the bone knife.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, and then cut off, “No, it doesn’t matter, I’m just glad you’re okay. You are okay, aren’t you?”
“I hurt all over, but I’m okay.”
He was about to ask her about the gemstone and why she thought she had shattered it, when it had been him, when she moved down towards him, kissing him full on the lips.
“Sorry,” she said, “it’s just when I saw what they were going to do to you, I realised how I felt about you.”
“Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
She kissed him again, for longer this time. He reciprocated, though his head was still pounding, he pushed that away, drowning the pain in the feeling of her soft skin. He couldn’t stop thoughts racing through his head though and one of them caused him to break away from her, a frown over his face.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I was just thinking…”
“Life must pay for new life.”
He brushed the chestnut hair away from her face and smiled up at her. She shook her head a little, but smiled back. Then, the summer sun broke through the canopy, turning her pale skin to gold and her eyes sparkled like jewels.