A short, slightly odd story I came up with after reading Fraser's "Golden Bough." PG, Caution 1998

I can hear the Healer speaking softly to my family, outside my room. Of course they don't want me to know what his examination of me found. My family, though, my son and his mate and their teenaged daughter, they've given that information without meaning to.

It doesn't matter if they tell me or not. I know already that I'm dying, that I won't see winter come. I've known that for longer than they have.

My grand-daughter makes a sharp little sound of denial, and the front door opens, closes.

I settle myself more comfortably in my bed, leaning against pillows so I can see the world outside, the leaves red and yellow, the grass still green, the sky turning purple and blue and pink with dusk. If I could, I'd go out there to die, out into the forest I roamed in my youth. Out to a very special grove of trees, oak and ash and thorn, weeping willow and birch, by the side of a river. I close my eyes, remember first finding that grove, and taking shelter from the day's worst heat under the willow. I'd brought with me bread and cheese and a little dried meat, and a flask of water; I left the food there, ventured to the river to see if the water were clean enough that I could refill the flask. In this weather, it tasted better than anything the gods might drink.

I turned around, and found I had company. Tall and inhumanly slender, he was, his skin like smooth dark amber and the long hair falling loose around his naked shoulders as green as his eyes, as green as the summer leaves. I'd heard of the sylvans, the wild sprites who dwell in the forest, but I'd never seen one before. This one was regarding me curiously enough that I wondered if he'd ever seen a human before.

He came nearer, and smiled, and ran one long-fingered hand down my cheek. I swallowed, hard, somehow understanding his intent, and more than a little shocked at my own reaction. With never a word, he started puzzling out how to remove my clothes; finally I found the presence of mind to help him.

Never a word, as we lay together in the willow's cool shade, with the river dancing beside us, the long trailing branches brushing the ground on all sides to hide us from the world, the leaves shimmering silver and green in the wind. He was endlessly inquisitive about my body, the differences, the similarities, and having never had a lover I was equally fascinated. It seemed like too short a time before I realised how late it was and that I had chores to do at home, that my family would be worried.

"I have to go," I told him unhappily.

The words meant nothing to him, but he understood the meaning, I think, because his expression turned sorrowful.

"I'll come back," I promised. "As soon as I can. Here."

He looked perplexed for a moment, then smiled, and kissed me once more, and climbed agilely up into the willow. I gathered my things, got dressed, he watched me all the while, and reluctantly I brushed through the living curtain of branches and turned my steps towards home.

My bedroom door opens, and my grand-daughter steals quietly in, drawing me out of my memories. I smile at her, offer both arms; she joins me on the bed and accepts the hug as she always has.

"I know I'm going to die," I tell her. "I don't need a Healer to tell me that."

"I don't want you to die," she says miserably. "I need you here with me."

"Not any more, little one. You're old enough now to stand on your own, and you have your parents behind you always." I run a hand over her lion-tawny hair, she got that from her mother, my son is dark like me.

She sniffles, and starts to cry; I hold her while she cries herself out, cries herself to sleep still huddled against me, her weight so warm and human. Not like the slightly cool touch of a sylvan in the woods.

Insatiably curious, he was. He had no concept of language, but he understood my meaning in some mysterious way of his own, and made me understand him without words. As often as I could, I slipped away to be with my sylvan lover. Sometimes we made love; sometimes we sprawled together by the river and watched the forest go on with its life around us.

The winter came, though, and he disappeared; I was fearful at first that something had happened, but it dawned on me that the trees slept, and many of the animals; perhaps my sylvan slept as well. It was a long, lonely winter, and I spent much of it with a young woman of my village. I never told her about my sylvan, though.

My bedroom door opens again, this time it's my son. He sees his daughter asleep, my arms still around her, and his expression darkens.

"Don't be angry with her," I tell him firmly. "She's done nothing wrong. What did the Healer say?"

He evades the question, of course, and comes to the bed. "It's getting late, she should be in bed." Gently, he wakes her, leads the sleepy girl away.

I sigh to myself. I'm glad I already know, or I'd be highly frustrated by now.

Left alone again, I gaze out the window at the dark sky, stars beginning to appear.

Spring came, long ago, and I went to the grove, and my sylvan was there, greeted me eagerly. As though there had never been an interruption, we were together again. I left the village girl I'd spent the winter with, without anger on either side, I think perhaps she had some idea.

There was little rain, that year. The crops grew poorly, the river shrank, and all around me in the forest I could see the consequences. My sylvan was affected as well, I could see it, but always he welcomed me joyfully.

Another interruption, my son's mate. She sets a steaming cup on the table within reach, touches the witchlight globe to activate it. I wish she hadn't, I like the starlight better.

"I thought you might like some berry tea, before bed."

"Thank you." My son chose well, I think, his mate is a wonderful woman, strong and gentle at once.

"Would you like anything else?"

"No, that's fine."

"All right. Sleep well."

"And you."

I pick up the cup, wrap my hands around its warmth. Water. There was no water for tea that summer. No water for anything.

There came a day when everyone realized, this wasn't merely a dry spell, it was a drought, and that many would be hungry come winter. No rain at all for a full month.

My sylvan was strangely grave, when I came to him, that day, hoping to escape the gloom of despair in the village. He was suffering too, his skin lacked its normal healthy sheen and looked painfully dry, normally wild hair hung limp around him.

I sat beside him, in what shade the poor willow could offer, and he raised his eyes to mine, and I knew what he was asking me to do. Sheer horror made me shrink away. How could I possibly?

He insisted, though, and reached for the knife I always kept at my side when I was in the woods. He held it out to me, hilt on one hand, blade on the other, waiting.

I wanted to cry as I shifted to kneeling and grasped the hilt. He laid down on his back, closed his eyes.

"Please," I whispered to whatever gods of humans or forest might hear. I never knew what I was praying for, that I not have to do this, or that the rain would come. "Please...."

There were tears in my eyes as I brought the knife down, convulsively, drove the blade hilt-deep into the middle of his chest.

Sylvan blood is as red as human, garishly bright against amber skin. He shuddered, once, and the slow rise-and-fall of his chest stopped. I pulled the knife free, and dropped it on the parched ground, and wept.

When I could, I found my way back to the village; I refused to speak to anyone, just went to my room and curled up on my bed, quite sure I'd never be happy again, and that I'd never stop crying.

I didn't remember falling asleep, but I remember waking to the low rumble of thunder and the flash of lightning. More of both, as the clouds moved in, masking moons and stars as I stood by my window and prayed. Lightning tore the sky, brilliant as the sun, and thunder cracked sharply enough that I felt the wooden floor beneath me tremble.

Then came the rain.

That was the end of the drought. It was still a poor year for crops, but no one starved, and the forest recovered.

Not until the next spring did I find the courage to return to the grove, terrified of what I might find.

The willow was dry and dead, but the others grew healthy still. Nothing remained to show that a sylvan had offered his life to end the drought.

I didn't understand then; I do now. Only willing sacrifice gives the gods the power to act in the mortal world, and his was his blood, and mine was my tears. Yet death had brought life. I think he knew something humans have forgotten, about the relationship between life and death; certainly he showed no fear.

A good example to follow.

If only I could visit the grove once more... but I'm too old and lame, now, I could never make it so far.

With another sigh, I set the empty cup aside, stretch over to touch the witchlight and darken it. I nestle into my bed, under the warm blankets, and listen to the nightbirds singing me to sleep.


(c) 11/98, last revised 02/02