Chapter 1

 

I am Grandfather Oak, the Keeper of the Wildwood.

If you venture far enough into my realm I will know of your coming, and eventually, you and I will meet. I stand in a clearing, my branches heavy about my crown, and we will gaze upon each other, and perhaps, if it is appropriate, if you are willing to learn and follow the ways of the Wildwood, I will gift you with an acorn, a seed from which to grow.

But for now, the Lady of the Grove, who is also a Lady of the Forest, dreams. Her visions ripple through my woods like the wind, and I capture her seeings in my leaves. They shiver with tension, droop with the despair of her dreamings, and I know I must go to her.

For dreams are permeable and the worlds are connected, as are thus we all.

I find Morghan of the Grove and step into her dream, and in doing so, create a space in it where she can see me. Where we may speak.

Where I will be able to remind her of the way the wind ducks and dives, of the way the tree grows, of the flowing of sap, of the singing of a bird, the soft slither of a worm, of the moon burnished between branches.

The space created becomes a room, and I – I fashion legs for myself, long and lean, and a torso that bends, hands and arms, a man’s head, hair a bushy halo of leaves and twigs. The transformation makes me shiver as though the wind tousles my leaves, and I smile.

The still-dreaming Morghan slaps her hands against the window, calling for those out there in her dream to stop, to stop the nightmare.

I speak to her, and for a moment, my voice is still that of the forest – the bird, young and featherless in its nest, the tapping of twig against branch, the bell call of leaves in a silvered breeze. I clear my new throat and the hum and buzz of my voice becomes words.

Morghan turns, looks at me, her face soft and slack in surprise, and then she recognises me.

‘Grandfather Oak,’ she says, and I laugh and laugh and laugh and sweep my arms out to draw her over to sit with me. I stoop against the dirt ceiling of the room I have fashioned.

Morghan sits, and I fold my long limbs onto the seat opposite her.

‘What are you doing here?’ Morghan asks, and looks out the window again, where her dreaming is interrupted.

‘Your visions tumble and blow through my woods,’ I tell her. ‘I come to speak to you because of them.’

She glances out the window again, where terrible things are happening, where flesh, soft and vulnerable, grows bruises the colour of plums, and wild red blooms.

Morghan, Lady of the Grove, Lady of Earth, Sky, and Sea, of Life and Death, shakes her head. Her fingers are splayed against the table between us. She glances down at them, curls them into fists.

‘How?’ she asks, and for a moment I think she means to question how we are where we are, how I am there with her in this fashioned space, this room in the middle of a dream.

But of course not. This is not her question. This, she has taken in stride.

‘How do I stop it?’ she asks, with another glance outside at her dream. ‘All the time, all over the world.’ Her shoulders are tense with the question, and I shake my head.

‘You know the answer to this,’ I tell her, and she tips her face back, her eyes closing for a moment.

‘Remind me,’ she says, and I see the white line of her throat move as she swallows.

I shake my head, unused to the flexibility of this form, and the twigs in my hair rattle against each other. ‘You do as you always must.’

She looks at me, for we both know.

As do you.

‘You continue to dig your roots deep.’ In my voice is the echo of the rabbit burrowing down into the soil.

‘You continue to spread your branches wide.’

She nods and breathes, shoulders straightening. Her hands unfurl, like buds upon a branch.

‘You grow your acorns,’ I say, and I think of all the acorns I have gifted to those who venture into my Wildwood, seeking the heart of things, finding me, finding themselves.

‘And you shake your branches so that the acorn may fall, and begin life anew,’ I finish, for there it is, the entire cycle, what we all do, what we can do.

What we must.

Over, and over again. Lifetime to lifetime. Season to season. Sunrise to sunrise.

Breath to breath.

Morghan touches the silver oak leaf and acorn that hang from a chain around her neck, along with the egg that is a gift from her Goddess, and she smiles.

‘Come now,’ I say, and look up from the diner table to the waitress bringing our milkshakes on a tray. ‘I have taken the liberty of ordering for us.’ I wink at Morghan, who looks at the tall glasses placed on the table. Hers is brown, the colour of soil, chocolate.

Mine is green, chlorophyll, for I am a tree, after all.

We toast each other and laugh and laugh and I reach out over the table, extending a twiggy finger, and touch her chest.

To remind her.

To remind all of you.

Dig deep. Spread wide.

 

Chapter 2

 

Erin took a slow breath and tried to gather her wits about her. They were a little frayed with nervousness, and she breathed into and through the feeling, looked down at Fox by her side.

She’d come so far since Morghan had set her the gardening task. Even further since she’d come to Wellsford in the first place – that seemed such a long time ago, she could hardly fathom it.

And now. Now, she was ready, she thought, to venture beyond the gates of the garden. This was the next step, Morghan had told her. Erin turned and looked back at her imaginary garden. It was barely recognisable from the overgrown jungle it had been just weeks ago. She’d been coming here every day, armed with pruners and trowel, determined to bring order and discipline to the unruly beds.

It seemed to have worked. Erin had to admit that she felt steadier, sturdier. Well planted. Well-tended. She stifled a giggle at the gardening terms, but it was true. How something like imaginary gardening had managed to have this effect on her, on the way she felt, was still a mystery.

But it was true.

She had tended her garden, and in her waking day, had made decisions, pruned her thoughts, always asking herself if what she was doing, thinking, saying, belonged in her garden. If it would grow strong and true.

And in doing so, Erin’s imaginary gardening had turned into visionary gardening. And now she was ready to take what Morghan had said was the next step – to go through the gate and out into the Wildwood. Someone would be waiting for her there, Morghan said.

The spirits would become her teachers.

She shouldn’t be nervous, Erin chastised herself. After all she’d already been through – Kria and the loch, watching Morghan help Blythe – this next part should be a bit of a doddle.

But the spirits becoming her teachers? What, exactly, Erin wondered, would that entail? Who would it be? It didn’t sound…safe. Not entirely. Why couldn’t she just continue what she and Morghan were doing every day?

But Morghan said she had to do this too. This was following the Ancient Path. As far as it would take her. If she wanted to take up her calling, this was what she did. She had to step out into the Wildwood and do it with just Fox by her side.

Erin winced and looked down at Fox, who stared up at her with narrowed eyes, as though she’d heard what Erin was thinking. Erin rubbed sweaty palms against her skirt and grimaced.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘That was phrased badly.’

Fox’s eyebrows rose as though she wanted more.

‘I’m just a bit anxious, that’s all.’

Fox flicked her ears and got to her feet, trotting towards the gate as though she’d run out of patience. When she got to it, she turned and eyed Erin steadily.

‘Okay,’ Erin said, walking along the path on legs that were the teeniest bit unsteady. ‘Here we go, then.’ She huffed out a breath. ‘Out into the Wildwood.’

Really, she thought. She oughtn’t to be so worried. After all, Morghan did this every day. Even Stephan – he went back and forth, Bear Fellow meeting him to teach him about the plants and their healing properties. Erin put her hand to the gate and steadied herself, pushed it open.

Perhaps that was why she was so nervous. Stephen had told her, wide-eyed, his first meeting with the great Bear God, and how he’d squirmed around on the ground like a worm, practically soiling his trousers before he’d got himself under control.

Of course, she’d already met her Goddess. Perhaps she’d see Elen of the Ways again today. That wouldn’t be so bad now, would it?

Erin shivered, imagining the gaze of the shining, antlered Goddess settling upon her once again. She swallowed, remembering.

But Fox trotted towards the trees, the white flag of her tail waving. Erin followed it, gritting her teeth, then taking long, slow breaths to keep herself present and steady. She knew that in her waking reality, her body stood beside the well in the garden behind Ash Cottage, but she wasn’t really there with it. She was in spirit, going off on an adventure.

‘That’s right,’ Erin said out loud. ‘An adventure into the Wildwood. People have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years.

‘I’ve done this before.’

The sound of her own voice calmed her, and she steadied in her spirit form, slipping between the trees and looking around herself with unexpected, bright-eyed wonder.

‘Wait for me!’ she called to Fox.

Fox flicked a glance back at her but didn’t slow her pace, and Erin found herself picking up her skirts and breaking into a run, ducking in and out of the trees, thick branches laden with green leaves, to follow.

‘I said wait for me!’

Fox stopped, a grin on her face as Erin ground to a halt behind her, cheeks red, her hair come loose about her shoulders, bits of leaves and twigs in it.

‘Wow,’ Erin breathed. ‘What is this place?’ She turned and looked back at the forest that sat like a thick curtain behind them, then gazed again at the sudden broad lake, where the sun, angled low in the sky, set the lapping waves glittering with diamond sparkles.

Fox gazed out over the water with Erin for a long moment, then turned and set her dainty feet over the stones of the shore and followed it in its wide curve. She turned her head and checked that Erin walked behind her. There was much to do, to learn. To become.

The lessons couldn’t start soon enough.

Erin lifted a hand and squinted out over the water. There was an island in the middle of the lake, and she shook her head briefly at the vision of it.

‘That’s not, um, Avalon, is it?’ she asked, shaking her head even as she asked the question. Of course it wasn’t. Avalon was just a story.

This was real.

Besides, it wasn’t big enough.

There was something familiar about it though, and with a jolt, Erin remembered the lake in Morghan’s personal Otherworld place. This wasn’t the same one as that, was it? Hadn’t there been a small, conical island there as well?

She had so many questions, but with each asking, each desperate desire to know, she felt herself tremble, the vision around her waver slightly, and Erin discovered that she needed to relax, to go along with the experience. Too much struggling with it, questioning, was dragging her back to her body again.

It was a delicate thing, she realised, this walking in the Otherworld.

Fox stopped at a place where the beach widened, became a fat crescent of pale stones, wet at the edges by the tongue of the lake. There was a tree, growing from the ground under the stones, and Fox sat down patiently under its branches, and looked at Erin.

Erin’s eyes widened, and she gazed at the golden pears hanging from the laden branches. Tentatively, she reached up a hand and touched one, then, following some inner imperative, she plucked it from the branch and lifted it to her lips.

It was sweet, and juice ran down her chin. She ate it all, even the pips, Fox waiting silently for her to finish.

Before leading her down to the shore where she stopped and looked again at Erin.

‘Okay,’ Erin said, the taste of the pear still sugary against her tongue, and she looked out over the water, frowning when she spotted something under the gentle waves. A dark shadow.

There was a rope tethering the shape and Erin leant down, dipped her hand under the water and grasped the rope, tugging at it, feeling resistance. She pulled harder and the dark shape moved, rose towards the surface, the water rushing from it, and Erin’s face broke into a smile.

It was a boat. Of course it was a boat!

She hauled it towards the shore, a long, low-slung canoe, and Fox leapt nimbly into it, running to the bow to sit looking expectantly at the island. Erin coiled up the rope and threw it into the boat, then clambered in to sit on the miraculously dry plank seat across the middle.

The boat floated out over the water and Erin leant slightly to look over the side, down into the water where shadows darted and flashed, coming closer, then swimming away. She sat back up and inhaled, concentrated on her breathing for a moment as the island came closer and closer. The boat ground against its shore and Fox jumped out, turning to wait for Erin.

Erin wasted no time, picking her way onto the shore, wondering briefly if she ought to tie the boat to something, so that they could make their way back when they were done doing whatever they’d come here for. But the rope was at the wrong end of the boat, and she stared at it for a moment, biting at her lip, then shrugged. There was nothing to tie the boat to, anyway. And the island was not very far from the shore.

If she had to, she could swim to it. Something snuffled at her shoulder and Erin jumped, giving a little squeal. It was a horse, the colour of milk, its eyes like pale toffee. It snorted and nibbled at her shoulder again, then turned and ambled away, Fox falling in behind it.

What was this place, Erin wondered? Boats that moved themselves, horses that lived on tiny islands.

She breathed deeply and smelt woodsmoke. It made her squint up towards the top of the hill that was the entire island, then hurry after Fox and the horse. A path spiralled up around the hill and Erin walked along it, feeling the warmth of the sun on her head.

She rubbed nervous palms against her skirts.

There was a shack on the top of the hill. Erin stared at it only a moment before turning her head towards the figure beckoning her.

‘Come,’ the old woman said. ‘Come sit down.’

Erin drifted over to the white-haired crone, astonished at the sight of her. She sat on the stool across from the woman. Between them, a cooking pot hung over a fire.

‘Who are you?’ Erin asked, her voice little more than a croak. She hadn’t known what to expect, coming here to the Wildwood, but if she’d had to guess, it wouldn’t have been this.

The old woman stared across the fire at her, then sniffed.

‘Manners are the first lesson you’re needing then, I see,’ she said, and for a moment, her voice sounded of wind and wave, of far-off dreamings and seeings.

Fox turned her head and glared at Erin, white tail tip twitching.

Erin bent her head immediately. ‘My apologies,’ she said, and she took a breath. ‘I am Erin.’ Another quick breath. ‘Erin of the Grove.’ She risked a look at the figure hunched on the stool opposite, skirts bunched around, thick fingers clasped in front of her. The woman stared at Erin, eyes shrewd and bright in her creased face.

‘May I know your name?’ Erin asked.

The woman pursed her lips. Shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘My name is not important.’

Erin’s eyes widened. She’d not expected that answer. ‘Then what do I call you?’

But the old crone merely sniffed and reached for a bowl and ladled something into it from the pot hanging over the fire before sliding a spoon into it. She got up from her stool and waddled over to Erin.

‘Eat this,’ she commanded, holding out the steaming bowl.

Erin looked dubiously at it. ‘What’s in it?’

‘Take it,’ the woman insisted.

Erin took it. Fox looked expectantly at her.

‘But what’s in it?’ Erin asked again.

The woman was back on her stool, looking Erin over. She blinked her pale eyes. ‘Why are you here?’ she asked.

Erin licked her lips, holding the bowl. What was she supposed to answer to that?

The woman looked at her, brows raised, waiting.

‘Um, Fox brought me here,’ Erin said.

Fox’s head drooped.

Erin took a breath. ‘I’m seeking,’ she said.

‘Ah.’ The old woman perked up. ‘What are you seeking?’

‘I don’t know,’ Erin admitted, feeling her shoulders slump.

How was she supposed to know? She had no idea what she was doing.

‘I’m following the pin cushion,’ she said, then swallowed.

The old woman tossed back her head and laughed raucously. It was the sound of ravens and crows crying harshly to each other. She smiled widely at Erin. ‘You have met my sister, then?’

Erin frowned. ‘Your sister?’ she asked uncertainly.

‘The Yaga, of course.’

‘Oh.’ Erin shook her head, even though it seemed to swim on her shoulders. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve only heard stories of her.’ She blinked, looked again at the old woman. ‘She is your sister?’

The old woman raised her shoulders in an elaborate shrug. ‘In a manner of speaking.’ Her white hair bobbed around her head like floss in the low sunlight.

‘Well then,’ she said, thrusting her chin at the mug in Erin’s hands. ‘Eat.’

Erin looked down at the food in the bowl. She sniffed it cautiously, but it smelt only like the lentil stew her mother had made years back, during her vegetarian phase. That had only lasted a week before Erin’s father had put a stop to it. She grasped the spoon in a hand that shook a little.

Weren’t you supposed to avoid eating when you were in the Otherworld? Erin frowned. Or was that only when you were with the Fae?

‘Are you one of the Fae, then?’ she asked, spoon between her fingers.

The old woman tossed her head and laughed again, thumping her hands against her thighs as though Erin had said something enormously entertaining.

‘No,’ the old crone said at last, her laughter wheezing to a stop. ‘Now eat it.’

‘But why?’ Erin asked, unable to help herself, even while lifting a spoonful of the thick stew to her lips. Her mouth watered, and she tasted it. Swallowed the stew down.

‘Because you’re too skinny,’ the old woman said and laughed again.

Erin glanced at Fox, but she just twitched her ears and watched as Erin scraped the stew from the bowl and ate it. It was rich and flavoursome, better than anything Veronica had made, and Erin was surprised to find she’d eaten it all in just a moment.

‘Thank you,’ she said, holding the empty bowl.

‘Ah,’ the old woman said. ‘Already your manners improve.’ She nodded in satisfaction. ‘Now ask your questions.’

Erin’s brow rose. She had a lot of questions. Was the woman serious?

But the old woman sat placidly upon her stool, nodding her head gently, and Erin swallowed, searching her mind for a question to lead with.

‘Who are you?’ she asked.

The woman shook her head, swept her arms out in a wide gesture. ‘I am the crone who sits at the top of the hill, red-faced from her cooking pot and waiting to answer your questions.’

‘Is this some sort of puzzle – a riddle?’ Erin asked.

The woman’s eyes narrowed. ‘A riddle?’

Erin guessed not. She tried again. ‘Why am I here?’

‘To ask your questions.’

Erin bit back the retort that came to her lips. She was asking questions.

Obviously not the right ones, however. She leant back on her stool, gazing around for a moment at where she sat, the bowl and spoon still on her lap. The ground underneath them was worn to dirt, and the cooking pot blackened with age and use. The shack was little more than a lean-to, and for a moment, Erin wanted to get up and go and look at the things she could see piled in its shade. They were just shapes and she squinted at them. Bedding, maybe. More cooking things.

Questions. What questions should she be asking?

‘Why a pear?’ she said, the words falling from her lips before she even knew she’d meant to speak. ‘Why a pear, and a white horse – and the boat, what about that?’

The old woman sat back and regarded Erin steadily.

‘Good questions,’ she said with a benevolent nod. ‘But not the right ones.’

Erin’s heart sank. Was this what it was to be like, here in the Otherworld? Everything in symbols and riddles? She thought furiously.

Then cleared her throat.

‘What wisdom do you have for me?’ she asked, feeling herself flush with the temerity of asking.

But the crone beamed and reached into her pocket, pulling out a clutch of bones, stones, and twigs, which she threw down onto the ground beside the fire, bending over to decipher their message.

‘Ah, yes,’ she said, leaning forward to pluck up three of them and pass them over to Erin. ‘Welcome,’ she said, and for a moment, her voice was the rattle of rain, the gusting of dust. ‘Welcome to the path of initiation.’

Erin’s brows rose. The path of initiation? She reached out and took the stones and twigs from the old woman, blinking and looking down at them to find that they were etched with symbols.

‘These are runes,’ she said in surprise.

‘Of course,’ the old crone said. ‘Do you not work with those?’

Erin nodded, closing her hands around them. She cleared her throat. ‘Where does it lead?’ she asked. ‘The path of initiation. Haven’t I already done it?’ She thought of Kria. 

The old Goddess leant back, a smile on her face.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘Each lifetime has its own initiation, one which leads you into the heart of the world, and your place in it.’ She laughed.

The old Goddess bent forward, still chuckling.

‘Where else would it take you?’

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