By the Forest Gate

The Londonist magazine ran a storytelling competition in February for original short fairy stories set in London. I entered, but didn't win (c'est la vie) but here is my entry below....




By the Forest Gate


All that summer I waited for him, patient outside the Forest Gate watching the unseeing come and go. One warm day stretched into the next and the next, the squirrels’ antics at first distracting from the growing sense of concern. Yet those flashing red tails conjured thoughts of his burnished copper hair spilling down his back. Humans are so fragile – a simple accident, an ague, or an imaginary dread will render them bed-bound for weeks. Or leave them broken so beyond repair that they must shuck the warmth of flesh and assume another, fresher guise. They call us shape-changers, yet they alter their form far more often than we. Yet I confess myself drawn so strongly to that strange fusion of softness and angular strength that I found in his body that I yearned to see him come to me undamaged, unchanged. It was the third time I had sat beside that very Gate waiting for him.
First, when it was a much simpler affair of carved oaken posts marking the entrance to a military encampment – and he a Greek medicus, enslaved to some Roman general. He thought me a deity on our first encounter. To be seen at all was a thrill, let alone to be worshipped! I would have liberated him from his chains then, yet the general led them off to Londinium to deal with a rebellion from which he never returned. Near forty decades passed before that gentle soul crossed my path by the Gate again, no longer olive-skinned and doe-eyed, but by then a blonde giant of Saxon stock, đeow to some belligerent đayn who was convinced that his handsome slave was cuckolding him by the Gate! How could my love say who he was truly visiting there? Had he done, they would scarce have believed him. They lynched him from the Gate. I could not bear to wake again for nearly ten centuries.
Finally I awoke and found him again, a serf to an avaricious merchant. That spring life flowered anew for both of us, yet as summer shortened he stopped coming to the forest edge. The minds of farmers and merchants are easy to divine, and I searched each milkmaid and peddler that passed for trace of him, but none of them knew him or gave me any clue as to his absence. As the branches were stripped by the winds a woman passed out through the Gate and beneath the missing canopy on her way into Epping. The scent of him was about her, but acrid with pain and decay. My hearts skipped out of harmony, fretful as I watched the apothecary gathering herbs for whichever physic she was preparing. I drew closer, careful not to draw attention lest she be one of the few who can see us. The herbs she gathered were for the treatment of fever.
I wanted to follow her back through the Gate and go to him in his sick room. Yet the iron rods that the blacksmith had inserted into the rebuilt Gate, at the behest of the priest who had good reason to fear my kind, held me back. I could do no more than hang by the Gate and stare in the world of humankind beyond.
When the snow began to fall I drifted into sleep, for I am not one of the Unseelie that relish ice and frost. Time means so much to humans, and so little to us. Deeper and deeper I drifted into the dark as the snow piled higher and higher. So deep had I sunk that spring passed me by, and the next and the next. How many years before I awoke I cannot say, but the Gate to the forest had fallen away to nothing, and the great forest itself gone with it and my love long since buried. Where oak and ash upheld the welkin, now towering structures of false stone punctured the sky. The aroma of leaf mulch was gone, replaced by an indescribable stench of such fumes as of a thousand alchemists’ chambers.
With the Gate gone, I can move beyond the boundary, but find that I no longer want to. I have slept too long. Too many winters have left this land changed beyond all recognition. Buildings I no longer recognise, more humans than there were once trees, and such metal monsters as I cannot begin to comprehend. My fellow Kin of the woods are long gone and new ones walk the city now. Though I have never seen one before, our kind recognise each other. The djinni and I bow to each other in distant respect. He a creature of fire and smoke, unseen by the humans he influences, and I born of wood and fur. A wish-granter, the djinni does not even need me to speak to know, merely pointing towards a filthy alley between two wretched buildings.
There, in the pooling twilight, I find him for a fourth time. A slave still, the marks upon his arms bear testimony to his new master, hungry-eyed and terrified to once again see an entity that this age of rationality says cannot exist. He always sees, and he always yearns, yet always holds back. Some spark, some inner enduring spirit, recognises me from lives past. The thin, grimy hand reaches tentatively out, expecting to pass straight through me as if a ghost. The solidity of my arm surprises him, as does the warmth of fingers on his cheek. Green eyes now, and the echo of Ireland on the gasped word, “You!”
His fingers touch my beard, reach up to the antlers beginning to bud forth with a new season’s growth. I kiss him and taste the man he once was, might yet be again. Whispering, I ask him to join me – throw off his slavery finally and for good, to pass with me through the Forest Gate into the Great Wood beyond. I await his answer.

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