by N. K. Blazevic
Copyright © 2018 by N. K. Blazevic
There was once a virgin forest to the north, shrouding the ragged peaks of mountain ridges and misty hollows in endless miles of trees. It had lain in stillness, untouched by man, since the first flux of life began on this earth. Slowly men did come creeping, exploring its fertile bounties, claiming land, charting and mapping its depths. They found it empty of inhabitants except for its wild and naive creatures who had never before seen men. Man was quick to claim it, quick to plunder the trees and build homes for himself and give names to the rivers that flowed with clean water and schools of fish. The King of the southern lands set his crown upon it and because the forest had the whims and the mood of a woman, he named it Grimenna. He sent pilgrims to settle it and they brought with them their tools, their strong backs, and their horses to cleave a path for themselves and begin a new life.
When their tools and their backs were broken, when the King became distant to their suffering, the only things the settlers had left were their own prayers to guide them. When even their God did not hear their prayers and the great forest threatened to consume their lives, they turned their prayers to the forest itself. Through starvation, disease, wolves and the bitterness of cold winter, they prayed to the forest to relent. As the years passed, it became common for men to offer their thanks to the forest instead of their God. For when man had no control beyond his own means, what was there left but to hope and to pray to the forest on which his life depended?
That was how the first spirits were created. Man gave each of his prayers its own personhood, made them beings as elemental and primal as the forest itself. Man gave a face to fear, a face to hope. There were age-old stories of a man in the woods, a spirit, who would watch over those that were lost and suffering. There were myths and legends of a hideous woman who lived in the trees and swooped on the wings of an owl, the bringer of ill luck and death and ruin for the wicked, used to scare children and warn men who were cruel to others. It happened somehow through collective thought that the spirits made by man settled into the likenesses of these myths. The great forest mysteriously conjured them into physical forms, and through the spirits was channeled all that was good and evil of the human heart.
Over time, the forest changed. Mountains crumbled stone by stone, trees were felled and hills were cleared. Man became comfortable in the forest as his numbers grew and it came to pass that he forgot the old stories that had guided him. The spirits he made were shunned and forgotten as manís beliefs turned back to a God that promised heaven on earth. He neglected to give his thanks to the forest and the spirits lost their hold in the hearts of their believers, losing their purpose, their identities. Yet they did not vanish and disappear as memories do. They did not cease to exist. Only those who came from the old blood of the first people of Grimenna remembered, but even they were ignored when they cried out their warnings. Nobody listened. Nobody cared. Man thought he had tamed Grimenna at last.
But villages began vanishing. Hellish creatures rose from the earth and drove men from their homes. Some called them demons, while others called them the Folka, angry creatures of the old spirits. Fear restored itself in the hearts of manófear of the unknown, fear of forces greater than himself against which he was helpless.
Instead of being humbled, man became hateful.
Ramsi Lier was the most handsome young man Paiva had ever seen. His hair was perfectly curled, deep brown with auburn highlights, and it framed his youthful and spectacularly carved face. Every rise and fall of knitted bone beneath his soft skin gave him the perfectly molded look of what might be pictured in the mindís eye of a hero in any fable. It was his eyes above all that caught her -- a hazel coloring that reflected only warmth and steadiness. Wearing the deep wine-red tunic of a ranger, he dressed in finer clothes than most young men because he was the Wardenís son. He rode a roan charger, the same deep russet brown as his own hair, marked by a spray of flea-bit white on its rump. The horse was a stunning beast, with heavy iron hooves and polished mane. Yes, Ramsi was the most handsome man Paiva had ever seen.
She watched him ride down the laneway of her little village, Birchloam, named so for the thick cropping of birch that surrounded the pastures. He sat in his seat, absorbing the momentum of each striking hoof, as if he were but an extension of the horse itself. Behind him followed the other rangers, each dressed in their own red tunics clasped in brass brooches over their shoulders. Some had bows across their backs, others held spears, while Ramsi carried a gilded sword at his hip. He led the procession down the laneway to the Wardens Quarters in the heart of the village, next to the market, trades guilds, and lawyers. Paiva stepped aside to let them pass, hoping he would look her way.
He did, turning his tousled head towards her and smiling winsomely. She smiled in return as he called her name.
"Will you be out for Mummers-eve?" he called, his white teeth flashing.
"I will," she replied. "And is the forest safe for gathering tonight?"
"It is," he said. "It is time for us to set aside our horses and our swords and find a dancing partner." She felt her face grow hot, felt her toes curl in her shoes.
"I will be in the square as soon as my chores are done," she called.
"Then I will see you there. If you can recognize me."
The next step she took seemed jolted full of energy. She felt like skipping the rest of the way home but restrained herself, for in the crook of her arm she carried a basket wherein a precious item was safely stowed in a scrap of wool cloth. She had spent all afternoon in the market square sorting through the wares in the apothecary shop run by an old woman named Mama Hexava. She offered an array of intriguing clay masks to wear for Mummers-eve, each finely made and painted by the dark haired and quiet woman who was Hexavaís apprentice. The shop had been full for nearly two days as people prepared for the festival, searching for an unusual face to hide behind on the coming night. Paiva had chosen hers through careful deliberation, placing it in her basket with the utmost care, then had gone out to help other young maids braid garlands of fresh spring flowers to string with ribbons across every post in the village square. She was filled with excitement, and as the sun waned in the sky she knew it was time for her to be getting home to prepare her own costume. She was only too happy to have encountered Ramsi coming back from the woods along the way.
She hurried along the dirt road to the farm nestled in a pasture at the edge of the village and hurried inside the timber house that was her home. Her mother, Kess Ibbie, stood over the fire simmering a stew of fresh spring herbs and mutton. Her father was nowhere to be seen and she presumed he was out in the fields yet tending to the last of his lambs. She placed the baskets atop the table before the hearth where they ate and did most of their work, and then threw her wool cloak over the wood pile to warm.
"Warden Lierís son says heíll see me at the dance tonight," she said to Kess cheekily. She was expecting her mother to say something smart, perhaps rebound with a comment or two, but she said nothing. She stirred the soup and simply acknowledged Paiva with a nod.
"He said it in front of all the rangers when they came riding back from the woods, I saw them in the laneway," Paiva said. She felt her exhilaration drain. Her mother was distant, lost in a worried thought over her soup.
"Mother?" she asked, frustrated her zeal was not shared.
"Yes, Warden Lierís son is very fetching," Kess replied. "Did you finally decide on your costume? Youíve been gone for some time."
"I have, and what is the matter with you?"
"Nothing, nothing." She smoothed her greying hair back and dusted off her apron, then turned to Paiva and her basket. "Perhaps you should stay in tonight."
"Not a chance. Did you not just hear me?"
"Yes, I suppose." She turned back to her soup, not caring to look at the mask in the basket. "Did you help with the decorations?"
"Yes. Where is Father?" she asked, thinking to find him instead to restore her spirits. It was Kessí yearly routine to be unnerved on Mummers-eve--the rest of the year floated by with ease until spring came and her mother began muttering things about spirits and the coming season under her breath.
"He went up to the woods--brought the last of the offerings up to the altar," Kess replied. That was how it was in the far-off village of Birchloam: Where peasants in any other village gave thanks to the holy God of the new era, those of Birchloam suffered a double faith, giving thanks both to the God they swore their lives to, and to the spirits they feared in the forest that surrounded them for miles. They belonged to the most remote, most northern settlement of the land, the lower villages more easily connected to the Keep of Lord Pratermora, who oversaw them all. When men were afraid of wild spirits in the lower villages, Pratemora sent armed men. When the people of Birchloam were afraid, they gave bread, wine, and other offerings into the trees to try and appease the whims of these beings. Lying in the shadows of the hills of the great forest Grimenna left most men humble and afraid of the powers that be, of the powers that were ungodly and misunderstood.
Paivaís father, Viviel, was the greatest believer in the mysteries of the forest. Some in the village supported his beliefs, joining him in laying out offerings and listening to his peculiar wisdom. People who didnít know him could have easily accused him of witchcraft, but everyone who was familiar with him loved him for his warmth of character and kind disposition. He was easily the unspoken village chief, the one they turned to for hope and direction when there were problems within the village. He had more than once helped a neighbor pay his tiff, more than once settled an argument between friends, and always offered food and drinks to anyone who walked in through his door.
"Pray the good spirits are watching over me tonight," Paiva remarked, ignoring her motherís somber mood. She was about to race out into the yard to fetch her father when he came through the back door, almost blundering into her.
"Father!" she exclaimed. "Warden Lierís son said heíd see me tonight."
Her father smiled, spreading deep lines in his weathered face about his eyes. His brown beard was littered with hay and his hat was damp around the brow despite the chill of late spring. His eyes, a strange golden brown, lifted to hers.
"Youíre not still going on about him, are you?" he asked, brushing passed her into the house.
"He is the singularly most beautiful and brave man I have ever laid eyes on."
"Iíd always hoped youíd fall for a sheepherder or a field boy. The dowry would have been much more manageable," Viviel teased.
"Donít set your hopes too high," Kess warned with pursed lips. "Often when one expects something so greatly the disappointment of not having it is very bitter."
"Go on, get dressed," Viviel said. "Your motherís worrying again. That is what mothers do." He brushed his hand across Kessí back soothingly and smiled.
"It is Mummers-eve, Viviel," she said, looking worriedly into his eyes.
"And sheíll be in disguise. Sheíll be with the wardenís son." He kissed her temple. "And in a circle of friends. Sheíll be fine."
Paiva laughed and dashed up to the loft where she slept and kept her assortment of things.
"Will you not go with her?" she asked.
"No, I will stay in," said Viviel. "Iíve an ewe that wonít take her lamb and the poor thingís half dead. Iíll see if I can find a bottle and get her milk into the wee beast before the sun comes tomorrow, or the poor creature will be lost. The woods are quiet, my love, they stir only with the life of a new spring. The altar has never been so full with offerings. I fear not for our future."
Kess smiled wanly, soothed by his presence. "I will not try to change your mind then," she conceded. "Of all people you know these things better then I."
# # #
"Do not take your mask off," Kess warned. "You may let them guess who you are but do not reveal yourself. That is the trick to Mummers-eve. Not even if Warden Lierís son wants to kiss you all over your face, he can wait until the next day when heís not half as drunk."
"What is the point of even going then?" Paiva complained.
"To trick and confuse evil spirits who may wish to find out who you are."
Paiva rolled her eyes and put her mask to her face, tying it securely behind her head. She was pleased with her costume, having made it herself with any available material she could get her hands on. She wore her wool cloak, over which she laid a pattern of young aspen leaves she had woven into a shawl. They were wilted now, giving her the air of a green lion with a tired mane. Atop her head was an intricately woven laurel of feathers and leaves she had stolen from her motherís garden. She had been collecting feathers for some time ó most scavenged from the chickens in the barn ó and had taken her time in placing them. Most others in the village would do the same, only the more well off would buy materials and have more intricate costumes made.
"Promise me!" Kess hissed.
"I promise I will not remove my mask, even if the Lord himself or a Prince from the South should arrive in Birchloam and wish to kiss me."
"The Lord is an old man." Her motherís nose turned up in disgust. "There are other old men in disguise tonight, and spirits, and possibly men from beyond the Panderbank. If you dance with anyone, make sure their right hand doesnít have a brand on it. If they do, make sure you alert the Warden at once."
"Really, Mother, you might as well come with me."
"I never have and I never will. I trust you, just heed my warnings. Your father will come to fetch you at midnight. Donít leave before, and donít leave the crowd."
"Remember the old stories, of the Strix in the woods who punishes children for misbehaving. Tonight is the night she is out and looking for wicked children to take for herself."
"I am not a child," she groaned. "Good night."
Viviel was leaning on his shepherdís staff by the front door, waiting for her. A warm smile spread across her face as she skipped towards him.
"You make a very fine Mummer Paiva. Who are you supposed to be?" He swung the door open before her. Her mother followed close behind and handed Viviel a lantern.
"I am a spirit of the meadows," said Paiva. "One who watches over stray lambs and keeps wolves at bay."
"That indeed you are," he chuckled. They headed out into the yard as her mother bid her good luck. Paiva hoped it was given in regard to the wardenís son.
Her fatherís brown dog slunk out of the yard and trotted close on their heels, following them down the laneway to the heart of the village. As they passed the neighboring farms and drew closer, Paiva saw the spark-filled column of smoke rising from the bonfire in the village square. Her heart leapt as she saw figures dance and heard music lift high above the slanted rooftops.
"Look at all the Mummers," she exclaimed at the disguised revelers. "Look at the costumes!"
"How are you sure some of them are costumes?" he teased. "Iíll be waiting for you at the bakerís shop by midnight. You had better not have too much wine and forget." As they joined the Mummers, Paiva gazed around in awe. There were faces flickering through the bonfire light about her--shaggy shapes covered in furs and feathers and leaves. She thought it could very well be that there were spirits walking amongst them that night, unnoticed in the multitude of creature costumes, laughing and dancing and drinking about her.
"Mr. Ibbie!" a tall man in a beaked mask called out. The man was dressed in a brown linen cloak, and when he raised a tankard of ale in greeting, long strands of cloth mimicking feathers fell from his elbows to the ground. She recognized the voice and the costume as those belonging to Wernard Weeler, the miller who her father was great friends with. He wore the same disguise every year, and his red beard stuck out defiantly from below his mask.
He offered Viviel a drink and they fell into talk, laughing and enjoying the spectacle before them. There were musicians gathered on a stage piled with sprigs of flowers and ribbons: a wolf with antlers played the fiddle, a goat with wings kept rhythm on a heavy skin drum, and an ox with a crown of woven barley wailed on a set of pipes. There were figures about the fire dancing in pairs and by themselves. Wine and ale ran freely from barrels propped against the musicianís stage and there were lanterns and lights glowing from every post and hanging from the garlands of flowers.
There were candles behind the windows of houses that invited Mummers in for drinks and jokes; those that were unwelcoming were dark. There were packs of Mummers that gathered and went from house to house, drinking freely until their identities were uncovered and they were thrown out to move on to the next house or return to the fire for dancing. The air was rich with laughter and music, and shrill delighted screams rang out when someone was spooked or tricked.
Paivaís father finished his drink and saw Paiva off with the millerís daughter, Rorna. Rorna simply had an old sack of flour stuck over her head with slits cut out for eye holes and hay stuffed out the bottom of it and from her coat sleeves. She had on her fatherís old straw hat and wore his britches which were too long for her and held up by lengths of rope over her shoulders. Paiva laughed at her costume, and Rorna explained the delights of wearing menís clothes.
The first house they visited belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Switch who brewed ale and were both muscular and strapping from hauling barrels. Mrs. Switch was middle-aged, her forearms the same size as her bearded husbandís. They both called each other Switch because they were inseparable and often when they drank too much ale they couldn't remember the others real name anyways. Mrs. Switch studied the two visitors as she poured them each a mug of their own spiced brew.
"The only thing I can see of whoís hiding under them costumes is a pair of green eyes and a pair of brown," she mused. "Must be a pair of sweethearts eh, Switch?" She laughed to her husband. Rorna thrust out her straw stuffed chest and swaggered over to Mrs. Switch where she promptly sat on her knee and began trailing a finger over the womanís whiskered chin. Mrs. Switch threw back her head and bellowed a hearty laugh while her husband watched worriedly.
"Been a long time since I had a young lad sit on my knee," she laughed, then with a thick hand reached up and pulled off the flour sack, revealing Rornaís smiling face and the tumble of her curling russet hair. Both Mr. and Mrs. Switch boomed in laughter.
"Why itís Rorna Weeler!í Mr. Switch thumped his fist on the table. Paiva lifted the bottom of her mask to take a swig of the delicious ale, and Mr. Switch narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to try and glimpse the shape of her face.
"By my soul, that one is none other than Paiva Ibbie!" he bellowed. Paiva nodded happily and watched as Mrs. Switch levered Rorna over her shoulder and carried her out the house. She set her on the front steps, then grabbed her broom and chased them both off with it.
"Ha!í she bellowed, "Havenít been fooled by a Mummer yet." Paiva and Rorna laughed as they ran on to the next house. In each house they visited they were given a drink of wine while the patron studied them and either laughed or marveled at their costumes.
# # #
Mrs. Switch headed back indoors, shaking her head in mirth, to sit back down at their table to await the next visitors. She left the door wide open and readied another brew to serve. Mr. Switch heartily threw back his head and downed the rest of his drink. Upon lowering his mug he startled at a figure that appeared suddenly in the doorway and nearly spat out his swallow of ale.
He wiped the spittle from his mouth and offered the stranger a seat at the table. "Halloo Mummer," Mrs. Switch regaled and came to sit down again. She peered at the Mummer and tried to discern who might be hiding beneath the costume. It was a man, she knew, for he was tall and broad in the shoulder. He remained for a moment, unmoving in the doorway, staring at them from beneath his strange mask. Mrs. Switch beckoned him to sit down again and silently he stepped closer.
Without warning a chill swept over her. He was dressed in pale white robes and beneath he wore fine clothes, finer than any peasant could ever afford. The mask he wore resembled a ghoulish creature that might have been half-cat and half-owl, and it was covered in such perfectly placed tiny feathers and hairs that Mrs. Switch had to blink again and marvel at its craftsmanship. There was a mane of white hair about it, covering his neck and running down his back where it began to mix with pale feathers. It was the eyes that chilled her, for they were dark as coals. The Mummer sat but didnít touch his drink, staring at them while they silently absorbed him and tried to discern his identity.
"Show us your hands," Mr. Switch said testily. The Mummer cocked his head curiously at them, then raised both his pale hands palm up. Both his palms were smooth and unmarked and Mrs. Switch smiled to know he was not branded. She began listing names quickly to distract him from being offended, thinking only of the rich merchants she knew, for no one else would be able to afford such a costume. The Mummer shook his head at each one, his eyes never wavering.
Their session was cut short when more Mummers appeared at the door. The white Mummer rose and Mrs. Switch was almost sure his mask was smiling at them.
"I donít have a clue," she said, readily hoping he would soon be gone. The other Mummers stepped out of his way as he passed and left the dwelling to head out into the square.
Mrs. Switch looked to Mr. Switch, who absently touched his forehead to ward off ill luck. She broke into another wild cackle and poured ale for the new visitors, ushering them in to rid the room of the chill the stranger had left behind him.
# # #
A few houses in and both Paiva and Rorna were tipsy and flushed from the wine. Paiva did not care for Mummering; she wanted to search the crowd by the fire for Ramsi. She excused herself, saying she wanted to dance, and returned to the bonfire while Rorna careened off with other Mummers to visit the next house.
She knew it was him by his boots. She had memorized every facet of his person, down to the polished fine leather and silver spurs on his heels. He strode towards her from across the fire and she saw his dark eyes glitter beneath his fox faced mask. When he was before her, he tilted his head curiously.
"Is it you?" he asked, his breath sweet with wine. She bent her head back up to him and let him study her. He lifted his hands and pushed his fingers into her hair, gently searching for the string to undo her disguise. She stiffened as she felt the ribbon let go, only for a second remembering she had promised her mother not to take her mask off. But then the warmth of him so near sent her heart beating deafeningly into her ears, drowning out all distant echoes of her motherís warning.
"Is it you?" he asked again. He lifted the mask from her face.
"Oh, Paiva!" she heard him laugh behind his fox face. He looked down at the mask in his hands. "And who are you supposed to be?"
"A spirit of the meadows," she said. Her voice seemed small in her throat, for she realized then that he had been hoping it was someone else. She took her mask back from him and tied it back around her head.
Someone came up to him and slid their hand in his. It was a woman clearly, for she wore a pale dress fitted tightly with a bodice stitched with feathers. Her face was disguised behind that of a feminine cat mask, sequins caught the firelight and glowed beneath the eye hollows. Paiva felt herself sneering behind her own mask, recognizing the flow of darkly curled hair that tumbled down to the womanís waist. It was Miriel, a lawyerís daughter who lived in a stone house in the middle of the village. She looked at Paiva through the eyeholes of her expensive mask, gave out a sharp laugh, and pulled Ramsi away to the fire where he took her in his arms and led her into a dance.
Paiva swallowed a bitter taste in her mouth and watched, suddenly realizing how pitiful her hopes had been. She watched them circle the fire, watched how perfectly they molded to each other, the way she clung so close to him. When the music waned and the song finished, she hoped they would separate, that he would return for her. She waited; she did not move from her spot.
He did not once glance her way.