Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Pinedaughter's Grove
    by Ville Meriläinen

Pinedaughter's Grove
Artwork by Scott Altmann

Snow sifted down as the last rays of red bled away from the treetops. Our guides had insisted we walk without torches until night was upon us in full, and shivers of relief overcame me when they struck flames to bring our small group out of shadows. Having light with us felt warmer than all my furs and the thick gloves the vicar had bought me.

From the corner of her eye, the Pinedaughter observed me with an amused look. I turned away from her, fixed my gaze on the elk-made path of trampled moss at my feet. She made the strange sound I'd come to take as suppressed laughter, a kind of low hum deep in her chest that made the guides shift with discomfort and the vicar glower at her.

"Scared of the dark, fishwife?" the Pinedaughter asked. She'd given me the nickname during our voyage from England, when I was the only one who didn't get seasick.

"Of the northern dark," I replied, without turning. "It's much too deep. Cold and bitter."

Her hum overflowed into laughter. "This wood, it is my home. You have no need to fear it. You are my guest. The others, though . . ."

"Be quiet, demon," the vicar said. "And you too, Constance. If it won't stay silent otherwise, gag it again."

I glanced at the Pinedaughter to find her answering the vicar's warning with a grin of bared fangs. She said something that made the pair of Swedes the vicar had hired start whispering amongst themselves. "What did it say?" he asked.

"Nothing that matters," said Olof, and gave me reassuring nod. "Empty threats to keep itself warm. I made sure the chains are strong."

He spoke English with a thick accent, thicker even than our prisoner, but his brother didn't at all. We had left our translator along with our other companions in Gothenburg, after they'd fallen ill on the seas and the vicar had refused to waste time waiting for their recovery. Olof was the vicar's acquaintance, a rugged man in his thirties, and from what I understood, familiar with his work. The brother, Johan, was a man of the wilds Olof trusted and felt was suited for the task. They had clear reservations, but so far had kept their wits after seeing the creature without the disguise we had made her wear amidst people--though I suspected much of it was due to the vicar's promises of the riches awaiting in the Pinedaughter's grove.

Each, however, always kept a hand near the hilt of his shortsword. They were large men, brown bears on two feet, yet the Pinedaughter towered over them.

We came to a rocky climb, where the trees grew sparser and I could see the lonely waning moon. There were no stars tonight, no northern lights; it seemed even the sky was getting blacker the further into Lapland we went, and as the new year approached, we'd lose the moon over the coming days. The closer the Pinedaughter's grove was, the more I feared there'd come a day when the sun would set and night would stay, everlasting.

Snowfall had hidden the path here, and my feet sank deep in the drifts that had rolled down the hillside. Johan helped me up the steepest places, now and again making remarks he underscored with nervous chuckles. I thought at first he made fun of me, but then I noticed how effortless the Pinedaughter's ascent was, despite her manacled arms. Olof later confirmed my new suspicion: They had begun to wonder the same thing I did, whether we were truly taking her anywhere or if she was allowing us to bring her home.

We made camp on the bank of a forest river, where the Swedes hacked a hole in the ice to refresh our water supply. I held the Pinedaughter's chains while Johan built us a fire, until she began to groan as she watched the process. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"These men, they think they are clever," she grunted. "Take me away from the fire, fishwife. It hurts me."

With the fire set, Johan took his hunting bow and returned along our tracks towards the valley. He had ensured we stayed well fed over the course of our journey. We'd kept the Pinedaughter hidden in the cabin on the seas and smuggled her through port cities, but otherwise avoided settlements where we could. Her willowy figure of near seven feet made her fetch looks despite a coat and hooded cloak hiding her green skin, lichen-like hair and long limbs with nails the length of my fingers.

Olof tied the Pinedaughter's shackles to a tree, then went to sit with the vicar to listen to him read psalms. He couldn't understand all of it, but nodded along with pious seriousness. It was more about the gesture, I supposed, of hearing words of God spoken in the presence of something he thought a devil. They forgot about me, as they were prone to, and when I thought the vicar wouldn't notice, I slipped away from them and sat on the other side of the Pinedaughter's tree, out of sight in the shadows.

"Are you weary of the priest's stories?" she asked when I'd settled down on a seat of frozen berry bushes.

"He's not a priest," I replied quietly. "I thought to keep you company."

"You're a kind thing, fishwife. Not many like you are."

"My name is Constance."

"You keep saying that. I like this name better."

I waited to answer, listening to the vicar's private sermon. He had adopted a bombastic tone, and I pictured him waving a fist in the air as he read. "Would you tell me yours?"

"I like this one you've given, too. Pinedaughter. It suits me." She made the peculiar hum, as though a proper chuckle would've drawn too much attention. "He is a strange man. Why do you follow him?"

"I have to. Wherever he goes, so must I."

"Is he your father?"

"I am in debt to him."

The Pinedaughter scoffed. "I would never follow someone who was not my father and disrespected me. I am indebted only to he who gave me life. All others must earn my favour." She rattled the chains. "You have mine because you are brave, fishwife. You are afraid, and yet you are kind."

I tucked up my knees and rested my head against them. "We aren't so different, you and I. Your chains are iron, and mine is my good word."

The Pinedaughter's hum changed, from amused to inquisitive. "Your debt is a promise?"


"Ah, I see now. Is your skin your own, fishwife?"

The strange question made me frown. I thought I'd misheard, or that she'd used the wrong words. "What?"

"Is your skin your own?" she repeated. "My father, he rules over a people. Trollkvinnor, they are called--witches. He is the king of this forest, and all animals are his loyal vassals. He despised the witches for killing beasts to appease their vanity, so he killed them in turn. Now their strong are dead and their weaklings are his vassals as well, and I despise them for following a conqueror."

"Are you saying you despise me, too, because I stay with the vicar?"

She laughed brightly, as if I'd surprised her. The vicar paused for a moment, doubtless to glare, but continued without calling for me. "No, silly fishwife. For the third time, I'm asking if the skin you wear is your own. What is there not to understand?"

"Of course it is," I said after a pause. "Whose else could it be?"

"The trollkvinnor, they are not beautiful like I am. They take the skins of animals and cloak themselves so they won't have to look at their ugly faces when they drink from rivers and puddles and ponds." Her chains made a single chink, the sound of a shrug. "You aren't beautiful like I am, either, but you are honest and don't try to hide it. I do not despise you for following this man. If you say it is your choice and not because he conquered you, then it must be true."

"I think I'm quite pretty," I murmured.

She giggled softly. "Silly fishwife."

From the slopes came hollers that made me jump to my feet. Johan was back, and the others had gone to help him carry up the reindeer calf he'd killed. When they slung the carcass beside the fire and began preparing it, I glanced at the Pinedaughter, then did a surprised double take. She'd never looked as sad--no, as profoundly miserable--as now, despite the huntsman's proven skill.

"Fishwife," she growled. My brows rose from the violent shift in her composure, how she fell from sorrow into fury within a breath. Her jet-black eyes seemed to catch the fire's glow and churn it into a coming thunderstorm. "When I kill the others, I will eat their wicked hearts. If you touch this meat, no amount of kindness will save you."

I blanched, stammered, "You've never been upset with our hunter before."

"Before he did not slay someone precious to me. This is my kingdom. Now my father will come."

I hid my hands within the sleeves of my coat to keep the others from noticing how they trembled. When we ate, I made sure the Pinedaughter saw me taking some of the grouse breast Johan had smoked the night before instead of the cut I was offered.

The Swedes regarded my declination with curiosity, and Olof said, "Fresh reindeer is very good. You must try some."

"No, thank you," I said, with my best effort to smile. I tried to come up with an excuse, but before I could, the vicar spoke.

"Did the creature say something to you?" he asked dryly before biting into his piece. "I find it worrisome you'd rather sit with it than listen to me read. I don't like this attachment of yours."

I froze, but as he didn't admonish me further, said, "She asked me not to eat it."

Now Olof stiffened, so noticeably that Johan asked one of the few phrases I'd come to recognise: "What's wrong?"

Olof turned towards the bloody remains and said something in Swedish. Johan choked, coughed the bit out of his throat, and answered with something that sounded like a curse. After some more exchanges, each reply more heated, Olof asked me, "Why should you not eat?"

The fire shone in their eyes as well as the Swedes stared at me. Not as a storm, but turning their pupils frail as glass to let me clearly see their fear. The flummoxed vicar observed all this without a word. "She told me the calf was dear to her."

Olof bounced up, leaving Johan and the vicar calling after him. He crouched before the Pinedaughter and conversed with her in murmurs.

The conversation ended when she spat in his eye. She stared back defiantly as Olof rose, and shrieked when he slapped her.

"Vad i helvete?" said Johan, gaze darting between Olof and the Pinedaughter as the man walked back.

Olof rejoined us with a distraught face, wiping the spittle with his sleeve as he slumped between the vicar and myself. "Are you sure this grove is close by?"

The vicar searched the pocket of his coat for a stone, small enough that it would've fit snugly on my palm, and sank in his. He brought it closer to the flame until it began to glow with a soft white hue. After watching it pulse for a moment, he simply said, "Yes," and stashed it away.

Olof nodded, eyeing his brother. His expression was grim, his voice shaken when they spoke. His concern infected Johan, who shook his head silently as Olof's tone dwindled to a whisper. When they seemed to reach consensus, Olof said to the vicar, "Tomorrow, before it gets dark, we leave. Whether we find the grove or not."

"We will leave when I decide so," the vicar said, voice hardening. "After so many years of derision, I will finally earn recognition for what I've done for the safety of my fellow men. We are not turning back when we've come this near."

Olof gave him a silent stare, then turned to me. "Did this creature tell you it planned to kill us?"

I wilted under his gaze. "You said they were empty threats."

He sucked his teeth, swept an eye over the woods around us. "It is too late to do anything about now. We feed the fire and hope it keeps us safe, but tomorrow we will leave. With or without you."

"Olof, be reasonable," the vicar said, in a tone that sought not to negotiate, but overwhelm. "We are so close to riches beyond your dreams. Stones from the sky fall into the grove, stones with magic in them. You could return as wealthy as George and Charles combined."

"So you say, but I have not seen proof. All I have are stories." He tossed a glare at the Pinedaughter. "And maybe your prisoner is a fraud. Maybe you've made another of your slave girls dress up as a monster. Did you know the Skogsdotter bleeds sap?"

"Then cut her to have your proof."

Olof choked. "What are you--"

"If that'll make you believe, cut her and watch sap pour out. What do you think was the first thing I did?" He gestured for me to rise. "Show them, Constance."

I lit a piece of wood from the campfire and went to the Pinedaughter. "I'm sorry," I whispered, and pulled her cloak aside. Above her left breast was the scar from the cut the vicar had made when he'd first captured her. Once he nodded, I retied the cloak and whispered, "Are you cold?"

"You're a kind thing, fishwife," she said, and nothing more.

The Swedes were back to conversing amongst themselves. "If we believe you and what she is," Olof said, "that only proves the danger. Can you prove the riches?"

The vicar gave a deep sigh, pulled out the stone from his pocket. He looked at it until it began to glow from the fire's heat, then said, "Give me your sword."

The vicar pressed the stone against the metal. The Swedes scrambled closer when a golden splash began to spread from the stone, covered the blade and the hilt. When he raised it, half of the stone fell off and crumbled to dust before it hit the ground. "Imagine, now," he said, "if each of us had one of these, and ones that did not break. When we bring her back to her grove, we may ask for them, and she must oblige."

The Swedes now looked at the sword and the Pinedaughter in turn, greed replacing fear. "You swear it's close?"

"So close I could throw the stone there if it weren't for the trees. We'll find it tomorrow morning."

Olof began to nod with consideration and relayed the answer. Facing the vicar, Johan nodded as well.

"You won't live to see the morrow," the Pinedaughter said, startling us all. "This night, my father will come."

"Not as long as our fire burns," Olof said. "We lit it with wood from outside the forest when the sun was wholly gone. It will protect us."

"From him, yes." A howl rang through the air, and the Pinedaughter gave a fanged grin. "From his vassals, no."

The men clambered to their feet, swords drawn, a reflection of gold cutting into the dark. From the shroud emerged a legion of wolves, bears, wolverines--all with patchy fur, exposed rotting flesh, and the dullness of death in their eyes.

Chaos broke out when the necromantic horde fell upon us. Johan fell first, and as I scrambled to get away, I heard Olof scream. It made me turn, and I found myself facing the open jaws of a wolf.

The vicar struck it with a torch. I stumbled on my own feet trying to get away, found Olof's golden sword on the ground before me. Olof himself lay still, and just before the vicar grabbed me and dragged me away, I watched a wolverine tear into his throat.

We escaped, scratched but alive. It seemed the poor Swedes had drawn their attention, giving us time to run down the frozen river. The layer of snow was thick enough to keep our feet from slipping, but shock and the vicar's pace still made my balance falter. The sight of Olof haunted me, and when I pictured the Pinedaughter digging her claws into his chest, I shook myself free from the vicar's grasp, fell onto my knees, and threw up.

The sphere of light left my hand in the dark, and I looked to my side to find the vicar walking off. "Wait," I called weakly, wiped my mouth and hurried after him. He didn't stop to glance behind.

"The grove must be near," he said, fishing the half of the stone from his pocket. The glow had waned, but it still pulsed as rapidly as my heart beat. "We must get there before the demon does, so we may still make demands. You will ask for our safe return to civilisation."

I stopped, watching his leaving back aghast. "Is that still the first thing in your mind?"

"Nothing is lost yet." He took his gaze off the stone and scouted the river ahead. "When we return to England, I will have the recognition I deserve. The church will at last hail me as a hunter of demons, and I will be knighted for my services to the people."

It took so long for my stupefaction to wear off I had to jog to catch up to him. "You used to say you didn't need recognition, that helping people was its own reward."

"And what a fool I was. All I was rewarded with was the reputation of a madman."

I hastened to his side, stepped in front of him. "Because you lost sight of what you were doing and began to see monsters everywhere."

The vicar grunted, and I caught a flash of emotion--shame, I hoped--on his face before he wiped away the wince and pushed me aside. He said nothing further until we came to an enormous pine growing out of the river. An ominous feeling overcame me when he went to investigate its coat of moss and lichen. Perplexed, he raised the torch. "What a strange place for a tree to grow. I've never--"

I shrieked when eyes opened amidst the lichen, as large as the vicar's head and as black as the Pinedaughter's. From the trunk grew arms with claws like scythe blades.

The claws slashed through the vicar and shattered the ice, plunging me into the freezing stream.

I clawed my way out downstream, where the river widened and the surface hadn't frozen solid. How I avoided drowning, I couldn't begin to fathom--nor how I'd survive now, soaked to the bone and coughing up water. I was alone, would soon freeze, and didn't know where I was. Fear crept in with the cold, threatening to paralyse me as I lay on the bank and rolled onto my back.

I found a light above me, and thought at first the sun was rising. It was our fire, and that answered my first question: I must've only been underwater less than a minute, though terror had stretched it to feel like miles.

It was quiet now, and knowing I was close to warm clothes and food gave me a surge of vigour. I forced myself to my feet, arms wrapped around my shoulders and teeth chattering, and started back towards the camp. I was on the other side from our first ascent, and though still steep, I made fair pace even with my whole body shaking and without Johan to help me. Thought of the Swede made my chest ache and reheated the acid in my gut, but I persevered until I found the aftermath of our guides' last stand.

I couldn't keep from weeping when I came to the fire. There were no animals left, but the Swedes lay chewed and raked near the fire. The Pinedaughter was gone. I didn't care to find whether she'd fulfilled her promise.

My backpack was intact, and so was the Pinedaughter's disguise. I changed into dry clothes by the fire, and though the cloak and coat were overlong for me, they were warm. When I was done, I could only sit there, chew a piece of cured meat and sob. I didn't have enough food to make it back to the last village we passed, but that made no difference. I didn't know the way back as it was.

A snort from the dark made me gasp. My legs were still stiff, but I hobbled behind a tree as quickly as I could and watched a reindeer gingerly enter the camp, notice Olof's golden sword and trot over.

From its throat emerged long-nailed fingers like the Pinedaughter's that parted open the skin. As the cut spread, the body transformed until it shrunk into a cloak with an antlered hood around an old, uncomely woman. She snatched up the sword and admired it in the fire's glow, with quiet oohs and aahs as she turned it.

I chewed my lip, debating whether to wait for her to leave or ask for her help. This must've been one of the witches who served the Pinedaughter's father, but after our encounter with what I suspected to be him, I doubted he was sympathetic to my plight. With the Pinedaughter freed, perhaps I could call upon her favour . . .

My thoughts trailed off when the witch carefully laid the sword down, then went to Olof's body and began to carve his flesh with her nails. Her back was towards me, but I listened with stunned horror and sparking fury at the sounds of tearing and munching.

Fear clutched me as I approached the sword behind her, but I could not stop now; I had run and left these poor men once already, and would not watch idly by when they were desecrated. The witch was so preoccupied with her meal she didn't notice the gleaming blade over her head before I drove it through her neck.

She slumped to the ground, mouth and hands red with blood. Only then I realised I had cried out when striking, and my voice still echoed in the woods. A howl answered it, making my already pounding heart beat so hard I could hear my blood rushing in my ears.

I'd die out in the wilderness, but neither could I stay here. I had killed a vassal of the Pinedaughter's father.

Another howl came from closer by, and I bit my lip, looking at the witch and her antlered cloak. I whisked it off her and donned it instead of my own, expecting nothing--and gasped when it sewed itself onto my skin, burning like nettles even through my garments. When I threw it away in shock, however, it came off as easily as any piece of clothing should.

A second wind of courage came to me, and with another try, I sealed the cloak around me. I felt no different save for a slight warmth and sharper tingles, but when I looked down, my body had turned into a reindeer's. I didn't need to relearn to walk: My four legs fell into a trot as easily as two. The dark around me became lighter, and I took off into the woods to search for shelter from the hunters.

Though I didn't know where to go, the cloak gave me a prey beast's instincts along with its other boons. I strode along the river with a sense of purpose, certain there weren't threats ahead. My mind felt as though it was split from the middle--while one half was still in turmoil over the murders I had witnessed and committed, the other was unburdened by human trauma and cared only for survival. It was this part that guided me upriver and off the ice where it was thin, and towards the deeper woods where the howls were more distant.

My ears pricked at the sound of a song. It was the Pinedaughter's voice, and though my rational mind hesitated, a wave of trust from my borrowed skin silenced its doubts. Down a slope, past fallen trees and cradled in a nest of boulders, I found the path to the Pinedaughter's fabled grove.

The canopy parted, showing me a sky where the stars had returned and the sickle of the moon was bright. They shimmered on the surface of a frozen pond and in the eyes of the Pinedaughter, who sat on a rock and sang to them.

Only after she paused her song and noticed my approach I realised I should have strayed far. She hated the witches for wearing stolen skins, and now I'd done the same. My only hope was that she might not recognise me, but no--she cocked her head with a sniff and an expression of surprise. "Fishwife? Is it you, or does my nose fail me?" She gained her feet and approached me with a smile, a genuine one. "Come, now. Let me see you. This skin, it does not suit you."

I parted the cloak, averting my abashed eyes under the antlered hood. "Are you not upset with me?"

"Why should I be? I am pleased you survived the encounter with my father. He does not take kindly to people, even those with my favour." She took the skin off me and smelled it. "Ah, you mean because of this? I don't think you took it from an animal, but from a rogue, one who disobeyed my father's command. It smells of blood, and I think you killed her. It is good you did. They are allowed to take only the skins of dead beasts, and this one did not."

The Pinedaughter turned from me and went back to sit on her rock. I waited unmoving until she cocked her head and said, "Come, come. Sit with me and watch the stars."

I did as told, but without the effect of animal instincts on my emotions, I was soon flooded with the sense of loss they'd dampened. The Pinedaughter must've noticed how upset I was, for she pressed a hand on my shoulder and said, "You are shaking, fishwife."

I choked back tears. "We never should've come here."

The Pinedaughter hummed, but it didn't sound as though she laughed anymore. "Curious, fishwife. I think you should be happy. The priest does not hold your obeisance anymore, and you are free."

My feet were growing cold, and I pulled up my knees to be closer to the Pinedaughter. A strange warmth radiated from her, as though I was back beside the fire. "He wasn't a priest. He took the title of vicar because he saw himself as a man of god who fought demons." I sighed, wrapped my arms around my tucked knees and rested my chin between them. "He saved me from one, gave me a home and asked for nothing in return, and so I swore I'd help him help others like me. I thought his 'demons' were like mine, but . . ."

"They were like me."

I nodded. "My father was possessed only by liquor, but I learned there were things far more frightening that only the vicar saw. He'd fought them a long time, endured people's mockery, how they called him a lunatic. It was all worth it, he said, for keeping those near him safe. But, no matter what he claimed, it ate at him from within."

"I've watched your people all my life, fishwife," the Pinedaughter said, stroking my hair. "I know good people when I see them, and he was not one."

I brushed my running nose and looked up when a shooting star crossed above the clearing. "I thought he used to be, and wondered when he changed. I'm not sure if he did. I've travelled with him for years, and he opened my eyes to frightful things. But . . . he saw demons everywhere, in everything that was different. Long before we met you I wondered if all the things he killed were evil, or if he was simply more afraid than I was."

"What do you think now?"


I snapped around at the sound of trees creaking, saw a shadow moving through the canopy. The Pinedaughter thrust the cloak at me and said, "Quick, fishwife. Hide under this."

I threw the cloak around me, but when my form shifted, I found myself unable to move. My reindeer legs were frozen in place, but the Pinedaughter whispered, "Worry not, my friend. It is not fear holding you, but trust."

From the woods emerged the giant from the river, pushing treetops apart as it entered the grove. The ground thawed where it walked, and its stump-legs left behind footprints laden with moss and shrubs.

"Ylva, you've let a fiend into the grove," he grumbled, in a language that was neither English nor Swedish, but clear in my ears despite its arcane rasp. "Do you not smell the blood on her hands? What a night--first came the men from afar, then you sit and skywatch with someone I've hunted for weeks. Give her to me."

The Pinedaughter laughed and replied in the same language. It turned her voice soft and bright, full of childlike spirit. "Silly father! There's blood in your beard. You've followed the scent of your last meal, not your quarry." She patted my neck. "My new friend is the kindest creature you've met, not an insurgent."

The Pinefather rumbled, scratched his beard of lichen with rock-formed nails and found them smeared. It wasn't the beard that was bloody, but the claws themselves from cutting the vicar--yet he stared at them, then threw back his head with a laughter like a full forest of crows cawing. "Would you look at that? Now I've gone and made a fool of myself in front of you." He leaned down to scratch my chin and stared intently at me. My reflection looked peaceful in the obsidian orbs, but my rational mind screamed against the beast's calmness. "Ho, and right you are. These are kind eyes if I ever saw a pair. No need to be scared, little one. You are welcome here." His tangle-vine eyebrows furled. He sniffed once, twice, and inhaled deep a third time, then rubbed the lichen under his nose once more. "I cannot shake this stench," he grumbled, frowning at the same old stain. "Ylva, I shall clean myself. There must be more of it on my face than I thought."

"I'll say goodnight to my friend and send her off," she called after him. "I think she'd like to ask me for a gift. Is that all right?"

"Of course. A sweet creature deserves a queen alike."

When he was gone, the Pinedaughter took off my cloak with a smile. Her voice regained its low, familiar quality when she spoke in English. "My father, he is not such a clever one. And rude, for interrupting us!"

I returned a wry smile. The effects of the cloak made me weary, as though having my very being parted was taxing in itself. Fear was gone now, replaced with the same solemn mood as before the Pinefather's appearance. Nothing that occurred during the transformation appeared to stick.

"I think he was wrong," I said, a delayed answer to her question from before. "Some things, I'm sure, were evil, and it's good they're gone. Like your witch. And some . . . I think they weren't hurting anyone and he should have left them be. They weren't evil, only different. Like you." The Pinedaughter smiled, and I asked, "What were you doing so far from home in the first place?"

"Wandering! I want to see the world, fishwife. It was not so easy to get to your island, mind. I would have wanted to stay a while longer." Her gaze darted towards the way the Pinefather had gone. "And I think I hear my father returning. Fishwife, if you would ask me for riches, I will give them to you. It is your right for bringing me home. But, I think it would be cleverer for you to ask for a safe return. Gold will not feed you on your way."

"Then, will you grant me safe passage?"

"I shall." She leaned down to pick one of the pebbles poking out from the snow around us and closed it in my fist, careful not to scrape my skin with her nails. "You will need some wealth for your travels. It will crumble fast, but will take you home once you get to people. Now, as for your proper gift . . ."

She pressed a finger to my forehead and muttered words I didn't understand. It sounded like the language from before, but was mysterious now. Listening made me dizzy, and she guided me by the hand to the frozen pond.

"The stream will take you to a river, and the river to a lake by a village. From there, you will forge your path with ease." My legs lost feeling and I fell, unable even to cry out, but her smile was soothing, hypnotising. The ice steamed under me, melting away. "Well, one path. The other, the one you walk alone now . . . that is for yourself to find."

She lowered me into the water, and for a moment I flashed back to an hour past, when I thought I'd drown--but now the water was only cool and I could breathe. Still smiling, the Pinedaughter leaned closer to the water's surface, and said, "Oh, and fishwife? My name, it is Ylva."

She pressed a finger through the surface and the water churned, carrying me away. I was not sad or afraid anymore, but thrilled, moving with and through the stream with the same ease with which I'd run through the woods before.

The Pinedaughter's boon melted the rivers all the way to my destination, made them rush with such force that, by the morning after, I was near a village we'd rounded four days ago.

When the thrill of riding the river receded, I could part my new salmon's body the way I had the reindeer's. When I climbed out of the water, my clothes weren't wet, and in my hand remained three silver fish scales.

Though I no longer had a translator, I found that as long as I squeezed the scales in my hand, I could speak and understand Swedish despite my tongue thinking I was speaking English. I stole a horseshoe from the village blacksmith, spent some of the stone's magic to turn it into gold, and sold it back to him. Even with the pittance I asked for, I could afford a horse, a hot meal and a bed for the evening in the house of a widowed wife.

That night, when I dined with the widow and her young boys, I watched the children eat with haste and run outside to watch the northern lights. Other children joined them, and together sang a jolly tune: "Daughter of the woods, daughter of the woods, will you light the sky for us? Springtime comes, springtime comes, when you guide the sun to us."

The widow and I watched them from the porch, and though I had already guessed, I asked her, "Who are they singing for?"

"We have a story in our village," the woman said, "of an old man who wandered into the woods long ago, and loved them so much he became a tree himself. Eventually, his roots reached so deep that he could no longer move. When summer came, Thor crossed the sky and ground clouds into lightning beneath the wheels of his chariot. A bolt set the woods on fire, but the man was rooted in place and could neither flee nor save the woods."

"How awful," I said. "What became of him?"

"A young girl happened to be hunting in his grove and became trapped by flames. The tree-man had often seen her, and knew that she was a kind soul who respected and cared for the woods. She prayed for rain, but the gods did not answer; the tree-man took such grave offense in this that he ripped up his roots to bring the girl to safety.

"But, when he came out of the woods bearing the girl, the villagers who'd come to control the fire were frightened and threw rocks at him. They thought it better to let the forest burn if it housed such monsters."

A lump formed in my throat, but I did not interrupt her.

"They drove the tree-man back into the forest, but whether by the gods' blessing or chance, a downpour put out the flames and he survived. The girl, however, did not, and the crestfallen tree-man took her to his grove to be buried amidst the trees she loved.

"It was night by the time he got back, and a shooting star passed overhead. The tree-man followed its flight and, with all his heart, wished the girl wouldn't have had to die only because others feared him, but the star winked away and he buried the girl. Next spring, an arm grew out of her grave, a wooden limb, and with the tree-man's help, she pried herself out of the grave and left her bones behind, having shed her human skin and become a part of the woods. This was many hundreds of years ago, and from then on, she lived in the forest with the tree-man as her father. They keep it safe from anyone who doesn't love it as much as they do to this very day."

The children still sang, and had now joined hands as they swayed in rhythm with the colours in the sky. "A bittersweet story, but I supposed it ended more happily than not," I said. "Though I don't see the tie to northern lights."

"Ah, but that is only the first of many tales. The Skogsdotter, you see, is said to be a wild soul with a habit for getting into mischief. On one of her adventures she learned to sing so beautifully the stars fell in love with her and threw themselves at her feet." She pointed to the sky, farther north than the children faced, where a shooting star dove towards the forest. "The northern lights are mothers looking for their children, and if she keeps them enchanted for long enough, eventually the sun will come looking for his family."

Earthly mothers also came for their children before long, and I retreated indoors with the widow's children. Even after I heard the residents dozing peacefully in their rooms, I lay awake long into the night, thinking about the Pinedaughter. I was inclined to believe the story as more fact than mere pagan beliefs; if anything, it proved the vicar was not alone in causing her grief out of fearing those different from us. Being such a beloved figure of myth led me to wonder if the children would still run away screaming if she emerged from amidst the trees--or if they'd run to her, and their cries would be for delight. If the very heavens loved her, it seemed strange that humans could not bring themselves to feel the same.

In the morning, my horse waited saddled outside, with some goods for the road as a courtesy from the blacksmith and the grateful widow. I began my way back to Gothenburg, and when my horse tired, I chipped away more of the stone, travelling by carriage, sleigh and horseback, depending on weather and availability. When I eventually reached the city, I learned that the group of Englishmen who'd arrived in October had all perished from their unknown sickness.

As I watched the Nordic coast sinking below the horizon from aboard the Fair Lady, I wondered if the seasickness that had ailed our crew had a sinister origin. The vicar had insisted upon leaving them, without worrying they might speak to others of the Pinedaughter. Of Ylva, my friend.

I used the last of the stone to buy myself a small cottage near Edinburgh, where no one knew me or of my affiliation with the vicar. The men who'd accompanied us had funded our travels, and their deaths still rippled in the south. The vicar had finally earned some recognition: He was rumoured to have stolen the wealth of his patrons, killed them and disappeared in Sweden.

His notoriety faded with time, but there lived on a story he had unwittingly inspired. Years later, when our excursion was long forgotten, people still spoke of an old woman who walked the shoreline in winter. When the moon turned dark, she was said to gaze out to the waves, press fish scales to her forehead and vanish into the sea, where she swam together with the mermaids and selkies.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by