“The Wildwood’s Wife”–Catherine Bedwell

3rd Place Fiction

Grandmother’s dry lips pressed against Agathe’s cheek.

Father’s hands stirred restlessly by his sides.

Brother’s eyes darted away.

Sister sniffled.

The woods groaned in the misty morning as their rotting leaves dropped from dripping branches and coated the muddy trail with slimy skeletal remains. The family’s boots slid against the carpet of autumn and Agathe’s train picked up the colors of the earth. Grandmother tried to keep the veil from the mud, but in the end it was still splattered with water and specks of dead leaves. Sister clutched the bouquet of lavender tightly, their blooms wilting in the mist.

Father stopped, and the rest of the family followed. They stared ahead at the moss-covered trunks, shaking slightly in the chill.

Grandmother arranged the veil to make sure the golden thread pressed close to Agathe’s clay-red hair was in place. Agathe smiled through the white gauze, and Grandmother returned the expression. Her wrinkled palms, as soft as worked leather, slid under Agathe’s chin and held it as she whispered a few words of an ancient prayer over her.

Father shifted his weight and interrupted after a few moments, bringing his daughter around to stand in front of him. She could already look over his head without straining her neck, and her thin legs were far outgrowing his. His long fingers, the ones she coveted so much, wrapped around hers and he stared straight into her eyes.

“My child, may your angels watch you,” he said, leaning in to kiss her forehead through the veil. Sister handed her the small bundle of lavender.

Agathe nodded, hands shaking and throat tightening as her family gathered together and began to back away.

“Thank you,” Brother said, dipping his chin in her direction but never looking at her.

Sister bit back a few childish whimpers, her mind still too young to understand that all this could not be stopped now. Father and Grandmother were the only ones to keep her in sight as they edged down the path. Their eyes, the same murky blue as her own, took her in as if trying to memorize her every feature. She knew they must be doing exactly that. She did the same, noting each line on Grandmother’s face, how Sister’s knees stuck out from under her short dress, the leathery tan on her father that stood out against the mist, and the way Brother’s hair stood up in the back. She would miss them more than air.

When they turned the corner and slid from her vision, a small gasp burst from her throat. She startled at the sound of it, quickly shaking her head and disposing of the tears that threatened to be known. She could not cry if she wanted to save them. She must be willing. No signs of sadness…

…No signs of fear.

Her shoulders straightened and she grew thankful for the thick blue wool of her gown. It looked silly and garish when she first put it on, but now she found it was more functional than it seemed. Even the lavender managed to ward off a bit of the chill on her fingers. She only wished her embroidered slippers of deep sapphire were not quite so prone to leaching in the damp. Her toes felt like stones, hard and frozen. She wiggled them, but didn’t dare move from the place she had been left.

An hour slid by, though the sun did not burn away the mist. The half-light of dawn persisted even as morning birthed fully. She did not know how long she was to wait. To her, time passed with no real meaning. She felt as if she stood there for years and yet seconds, all at the same time. No birds stirred the air with their cheerful song. No rabbits or squirrels dug for food. The woods hung silent. It must be near the time.

When the sound of footsteps broke through the mist, Agathe startled. She turned, heart hammering, to see a stranger dressed in a black tunic, carrying before him a leather-bound book. He smiled amiably when he saw her, and she breathed a little easier. It took a minute more before he reached her side, and when he did he reached out and placed his palm over her forehead.

“You are indeed a wild thing,” he said, his voice as lazy and slow-moving as a river in the heat of summer. “I can see why it would want you.”

“I am willing,” she stuttered.

“I know,” he said, “for there could be no other way.”

His hand withdrew and he took a step back. He began to thumb through the book, showing for just a few moments a blur of brightly illuminated pages. She saw lions and birds and men with spears. There were flowers and rivers, every living thing. Power and life spilled from the bindings, warming her hands and sides like the breath of a child. She pulled back, uneasy. The man looked up.

“Do not be afraid. It will not harm you.” He stopped on a page that merely bore words. They ran like bugs along the page, thin and spindly, and written in haste. His voice lifted up as he began to read them.

“Vicious wind that tears, mighty tree that withstands centuries, dangerous beast which hunts. Thus is the wildwood, owner of them all and being of them all. The wildwood cannot be tamed, and its anger cannot be dissuaded.” He looked at her sideways and she swallowed slowly. “Woe to the one who draws its anger and insults its ancient magic. Death be to the man who steals from its bounty.” He closed the book silently, and stood staring up at the dark branches above him. Agathe ducked her head, biting her lip and trying to keep her knees still.

The man did not speak for a stretch, and when he opened his mouth again, the tone of reverence and solemnity was replaced with one of almost cheeriness.

“But glad tidings to the maiden who may soothe the beast’s anger. She that captures the heart of the woods is lucky indeed. May she be a willing and dutiful servant that her devotion may take the place of the price that is owed by another.”

He held out his hand and Agathe placed hers in it. He smiled up at the branches, as if there were an invisible audience in their depth. “Here is the hand of this maiden. I place upon it a binding, that she may forever be reminded of the vows she takes today.” From his pocket he retrieved a plain golden band, which he slid on her middle finger. It settled like a heavy weight, chilling Agathe’s heart.

“And now, the wildwood comes forward to speak its love and the word-binding unto the maiden.”

The man stood back, and Agathe was left alone in the path. She forced her eyes to stay open as the wind gathered and whipped the veil from her hair. The lavender burst into a cloud, and Agathe struggled to stay upright. The scent of ancient trees and deep magic filled her nose.

The wildwood came to claim her.