1. The Dreams of Trees
'Young Adam Cupid, he that shot so trim,
When King Cophetua loved the beggar maid!'
Romeo and Juliet. ACT II Scene 1.
Chapter One: The Dreams Of Trees
"The trees they do grow high, my love,
The leaves they do grow green,
And the time is gone and past, my love
That you and I have seen . . ."
Traditional English Folksong
Last night she dreamed she went again to the Emyn Duir. The old path wound away from her, through dark scented pines; her feet knew it well. Yet somehow, it seemed different, strange to her, for a change had come upon it. It looked narrow, unkempt, and she realized that the forest, always seeking to reclaim its own in the good days, and a dark menace in the latter ones, had crept back in, triumphing in the end. Tall beeches stood like gaunt skeletons, their bare pale limbs entwining in the sensuous embrace of dead lovers. She saw other strange trees among them, too; ancient elms and gnarled oaks that had not been there before, and their roots snaked out to block the path and catch at her unwary feet as she passed.
She had pressed on and found herself in a spot where the tree limbs met overhead in high arches. An airy palace had stood there once. As a trick of the moonlight, it had seemed that it existed still; that she might stare in the delicately traced windows and hear the sound of silvery laughter drifting from the halls. But a cloud had crossed the moon then, and she beheld the truth. Only a few rotted beams thrust up through the tangled undergrowth or lay fallen on the mossy forest floor. She saw before her a sepulcher, deserted. The voice she sought was heard here no longer; the place was home to her no more.
This vision had haunted her dreams since childhood and it made her heart ache, although she could not have said why.
A wind out of the west rustled the branches inside the wood now, calling to her, caressing her face like the hands of a lover . . .
"Stay out of those trees, girl, or you know what'll happen to ya."
The voice of her stepfather -- her uncle, really -- brought Sigrid back to reality with a jolt. Her hand closed reflexively around the fistful of grain she held, and then she opened it again, scattering it to the chickens she had been feeding. She looked at Wulf and shook her head.
"Lasses that go into that wood meet up with trouble. They say there's an evil Elf-king lives in there, and any girl that he lays hands on must leave him either her gold or her maidenhead. And I don't see you having no gold." He said this last with a leer.
Sigrid stared at him blankly. She could sniff the scent of home-brew on him already, at this hour of the day.
"Course I don't know why you're so eager to hang onto it," he went on. "Three fine young men have come to court you in this last year alone, and you'll have none of them. Olaf's boy -- now that would have been a useful match for me. His Dad and I could have joined our fields and had a decent crop for once, but no -- you're too fine to wed the likes of Rolf."
Sigrid swallowed nervously. This was becoming a sore subject between her and Wulf. She really could not say why she felt such a reluctance to let any of the boys of the settlement pay court to her, much less touch and fondle her as they did with the other girls. "I saw Rolf kicking his dog. And he smells."
She also suspected that Rolf was the one who had gotten Olge with child last summer and then cast her aside. The poor girl had quickly been married off to a widower three times her age and her life was a misery now, with both a squalling infant and a dotard to tend. This made Sigrid like Rolf even less, but she said none of that to Wulf.
Her uncle grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her back against the rough boards of the shed. "Look, Missy, it's time you stopped acting like such a princess. I've been feeding your useless mouth for eighteen years, and I'm sick of it. Either you get yourself a husband to take you off my hands, or I'll find some other uses for that mouth." He grinned and moved in closer. "It's not such a bad idea y'know. Your Aunt's been looking mighty old and tired lately. And you're no blood kin to me."
Sigrid shrank back as far as she could, feeling Wulf's breath on her cheek and sensing the heat of his crotch nearly touching hers. She began to inch to her left until she felt free space at her back. She ducked away and ran toward the house. Wulf's laughter followed her as she fled.
When Sigrid came in the door, she found Asa sitting at the table, sifting the maggots out of a batch of flour. Wulf had been right about one thing, Sigrid thought with a pang. Her aunt had begun to look old. Thirty-eight years old next Yuletide, and her hair was greying and deep lines marred her face. Life with Wulf was not easy. Life for a woman of the Woodmen was never an easy thing, but having Wulf for a husband made it worse than most.
Sigrid looked away quickly to hide her distress from her aunt's keen eye, but she was not fast enough. "Come with me, child, now," Asa said, taking Sigrid by the hand and leading her out to the secluded kitchen garden behind the privy. "All right; out with it."
"Wulf," Sigrid said miserably and shook her head. How could she tell her aunt what had just passed? She felt a callused hand cupping her chin and she looked up into piercing brown eyes.
"Has he . . . been at you?"
Again, Sigrid shook her head. "No."
Asa's brows knitted. "Not yet, anyway. But I've been seeing the way he looks at you when you bend over the fire." She sighed. "Oh, my little Sigrid. I've loved you since the hour you were born. You're all I have left of my little sister -- my only real kin.
"To think such a joy could come out of such a grief! It was the fault of those fool men, you know, bringing your father home drowned from the river and plunking him down without a by your leave -- him with a wife seven months gone. It sent your poor Ma into labor at the shock of it, and there you were, born before your time, so blue and so still, and me and the midwife trying to get the bleeding stopped. Oh, my poor sister, how we tried, but I don't think she wanted to live, seeing your Pa gone like that. And when it was over, I turned to you, thinking I'd be sending you to the grave in her arms, but there you were, pink and wiggling. It was a miracle!"
Asa ran out of breath and Sigrid smiled. Her aunt never seemed to tire of telling the story.
"You started out so tiny, but you grew so fine and merry. You were like my own daughter -- the only child that the Allfather saw fit to give me." Asa paused and a cold, calculating tone crept into her voice. "But Wulf's my husband; the only one I'll ever have. I don't want to lose him, not even to you. I love you, Sigrid, but, unless you're willing to take yourself a husband right quick, I think that for all our sakes it's best if you were to be leaving us now."
Sigrid nodded slowly, unable to muster even sadness. Her aunt spoke true. There was no life for her here. There never had been.
"I'll leave some cram out on the table tonight. And a few coppers. It's precious little but it's all I can do. May the Lady Starkindler protect you, child!"
* * *
That night, Sigrid lay on her pallet until the grunting and creaking from behind the curtain that concealed the bed Asa and Wulf shared had died away and the snoring began. She rose, already fully dressed and took up the small bundle of her spare clothing and belongings. She found the cram on the table, wrapped in cloth. Sigrid's hand wavered over the three pence that lay beside it. She did not know where she was going, or how she would live when she got there, but something in her heart told her not to take what little was left to her aunt. At the last, she left the pennies lying and let herself out the door, letting the latch fall silently behind her.
It was late summer and the night was warm. The trees whispered to her as she walked down to the river. She stood on its banks, watching the waters flow past. Which way to go? To the south, the Celduin plunged between banks covered in tall trees. She felt safe under the comforting leaves and wished to remain.
But to the north, where the trees thinned out and died away, she had heard tell of a long lake. One or two of the settlement men had been there and brought back tales of a town resting on pilings out in the water. She had not even a coin to toss to help her in her choice.
She stood on the banks, indecisive. North, the trees whispered, and a warm wind from the south seemed to push her gently. Her heart agreed. She nodded and headed upstream, leaving the shelter of the forest behind and moving silently under the wide, starlit shy.
* * *
To be continued . . .
* * * * * * *
Author's Note: Some readers may find that the opening paragraphs of this story bear a passing resemblance to the beginning passages of Daphne du Maurier's novel, Rebecca, with its haunting, 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.' This was completely intentional, and I am not attempting to deceive. I wrote it closely enough to evoke the feeling, yet with enough difference to make it clear that I am doing the work of writing myself. This was a challenge to myself, and I hope I was successful.
The opening quote is from the traditional English folksong, The Trees They Do Grow High.
For those interested in the geography, Sigrid lived on the eastern borders of Eryn Lasgalen, formerly known as Mirkwood, in the area where the River Running, or the Celduin, runs briefly through the woods on its way southeast to the Sea of Rhûn. I judged it would take her about three days to journey on foot north to the Long Lake.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.