The Withy King

In this “deep cut” from my WIP novel, The Winter Warrior, a small group of fugitives is hunted through a wintry wasteland, where cold and hunger aren’t the worst enemies…

lion image: Denis Marsili

They made camp that night in a dense thicket of broad-leafed bushes, clustered within a ring of giant silverbarks. Djoran studied the formation of the grove with some interest; Iain, like the rest, cared only for its remarkable security. However, as Britha gives, she takes away: a branch had snagged Iain’s precious pouch of meal, and all but a few grains had spilled out somewhere along their trail.

When Djoran left to forage for more food, no-one so much as offered to help. They looked too numb to have been any help anyway, and Iain saw the need to do something to lift their spirits—his own as much as anyone’s. Considering how well hidden they were by the bushes, he allowed Skulë to light a small fire. It gave out just enough heat to thaw their drawn, weary faces, and had begun to warm through to Iain’s heart as well, when a deep voice boomed out.

“How dare you bring fire into my sacred grove?”

The outburst—the loudest sound they had heard in days—seemed directly behind him. Iain sprawled forward, tangling with his companions. Before anyone managed to fumble out of their cloaks to stand or draw a sword, something had stepped into the middle of their circle, right on top of their fire.

Staring down at them was perhaps the strangest of all the creatures they had yet encountered. The first thing Iain noticed was its massive head, like a lichen-covered stone—egg-shaped, bearded with moss, and crowned with creeper-like hair which seemed to be in bloom. As the figure was no taller than Skulë, its head accounted for a third of its height, nestled between hunched shoulders. A tunic of leaves, like densely woven ivy, clothed the round body, while grey skin like gnarled bark showed below. Arms like the trunks of young silverbarks ended in hands that were its most human feature. Supporting the whole were two stumpy legs—thick as a man’s torso—that seemed to have taken root in the soil.

“Now, begone,” it said, “and plague me not with your sorrows. I have already spared your lives out of pity, for it is unseasonably cold.”

Only, Iain realised, it was not. Despite the loss of their fire, the air seemed warm and fresh. Light, not from any visible source, filled the space about the green figure. The snow around its rooted feet had given way to grass, which grew even as he watched.

“If you cannot move, I shall have to move you!” the thing said, but his audience were so stunned that none of them had moved more than their eyes.

With great effort, Iain found words and stammered out a reply, wishing for once that the know-it-all harper was with them. “Please, lord, we do not seek shelter from the cold alone, but there are fell creatures hunting us.”

“This is none of my concern, and I grow impatient.”

“But we carry news that must get through,” Arethain said. “The fate of the world may depend on it.”

The creature’s laugh was like the crackle of leaves underfoot, though its blank expression did not change. “What care I for the world of men, who use my trees for burning and building?”

“It is not only the world of men,” said Brienna. “The very sun has left the sky. How can your trees grow without the sun?”

Her sharp thinking gave the creature pause. “What makes you think you can save the world?”

“We seek to find and destroy the evil that blights the land,” replied Arethain.

“Pah! That alone will not stop the King of Night.”

“But it will help, surely,” Arethain said. “We are of the same side in this.”

“I do not take sides, child. I walk my own way. Always have.”

“And if that means you will walk forever in darkness?” Brienna asked.

“The gods would not allow it.”

Iain thought he heard tones of uncertainty. He also noticed it spoke of gods as if it were not one; after meeting Baegeri, he had assumed it was. Recalling what Djoran had once said to him, he replied: “The gods help those who help themselves. If we do not get through, there may be no hope for the gods here in the east.”

Again the creature paused to consider, its stony face impassive, its bottomless eyes staring into the distance. Iain wished he knew what it was, but felt it rude to ask.

“Perhaps what you say is true,” it said at last. “You may stay here this night, as long as there are no fires.” The green figure turned away, to the sound of ripping roots.

“Wait!” Iain called. “We need not stay here if you can show us a secret way through the hills, a path where no-one goes.”

“And a bridge,” added Skulë, his voice smaller than Iain had ever heard.

“You dare ask more of the Withy King, when I have been most generous!”

The name meant nothing to Iain, but he used it. “Yes, O Withy King, because our need is so dire.”

Leaves rustled over the stony bulk. For a moment Iain thought he had gone too far, but the moment passed and the Withy King grew still again. Iain now saw how the yellow flowers ringing its vine-covered head made a sort of crown, but what it was king of, he had no idea. Perhaps it was these woods; perhaps it was all forest everywhere, or all trees. It was obviously no king of men.

“There is such a path I could show you, that will be safe from all hunters. Know it is not my path, but the run of Lady Gwil, and if she likes you not then so be it. This path will lead you to a ford of boulders that you can cross.”

“That fits our need perfectly, O gracious king!” said Arethain. “How can we thank you?”

“You shall know my price in time,” the king said, turning away and walking from the glade with deceptive speed. They had to gather their possessions quickly, but at least its shroud of light made it easy to track through the pitch black forest. It lead them up the hill and into thick evergreens, a path seeming to open before it and close afterwards. Iain worried that Djoran might not be able to track them, but the Withy King moved so swiftly that there was nothing he could do. He thanked Gryf the march did not last long.

“Here is the path; follow it and none shall track you.”

Stretching before them was a narrow deer-run, straight and clear, between thick walls of leaf and branch. It looked common enough, but they would never have found the entrance if not for their guide.

They turned back to thank the Withy King again, but it was gone.

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