Spirit of the Aspens
They carefully rationed their supplies, finding with some relief that the previous occupant had left a stash of grains and dried fruits, which by some miracle had stayed sealed and dry in the pantry and the loft was filled to the brim with only slightly moldy straw, the rafters hung with herbs. Whoever had left the cabin had likely not done so by choice, or else planned to return come summer.
They scavenged the land surrounding the cabin while the snow was still light and the frost had not set into a bone chilling cold. Roldan found himself increasingly impressed by his mother’s skills. She was not the frail Lady of the house he’d thought her to be. She knew herbs and plants, as sparse as they were in the onset of winter. Yet where the frost had not entirely taken hold and berries still clung to the bushes, she was able to harvest surprisingly bountiful meals.
Roldan and Aldrich worked day in and day out chopping the fallen trees he’d found, shoring up their supplies. The old horse they let loose to find his own way, despite Roldan’s half-hearted protests. The thought of killing the great beast only brought back the horrifying flashes of that flame filled room and his old nursemaid, her guts spilled across the floor. So while he hunted game and brought home meals of small furred creatures, he left the skinning and gutting of them to his mother and Aldrich.
And so it was that the three refugees from the Land of Dwennon spent the long harsh winter. Many were the days that they were snowed in, wary of adding another log to the fire for fear that they would run low before the weather allowed them to hunt for more. Old Aldrich and the Lady Dulcina’s quarrels over the spirits of the trees increased in length and volume as their stomachs grew smaller on rationed meals and watery soup and the nights grew chill, as they huddled around the dwindling fire.
It was a bright and sunny day, the snow painfully bright in the sun’s rays that the felt the eyes of the Aspens heavy upon them. Dulcina and Roldan did not go on their separate paths to hunt and forage through the knee deep snow as they often did on clear bright days. No, today, the forest was silent and unyielding and they feared what loomed ominous around them. Aldrich had left early, slipping out before they’d awoke.
“The spirits are not with us today,” Dulcina whispered. “They look upon us with hungry, angry eyes.”
Roldan nodded. “We’ve done nothing, though,” came his muted reply. “We’ve not been out for days.”
“Perhaps they tire of us in their presence.”
“No, I have felt them watching before, they do not mind us. I’m sure of it,” he paused, glancing up and the towering white trees all around them. “At least, they did not mind us before. I could have sworn they’d guide me home each night, parting to show me the path when the light grew dim.”
“And when I was searching for the last fruits and greens, I am sure they showed me the path to the sheltered meadow still untouched by snow,” Lady Dulcina added. “But today, they are not happy to have us, we must go back,” she hissed into his ear.
“What of Aldrich?”
“That old fool can find his way back for all I care,” the Lady snapped. “He’s likely brought this upon us.”
Roldan’s eyes widened at the thought. He’d heard the arguments but refused to think the old watchman would dare to defy the Lady’s wishes. “Do you think he...”
“The axe was gone this morn,” she cut him off. “Now hurry back. We shall wait for him, and think over an offering to the spirits. Without their generous nature to guide us through the last legs of winter…” she shook her head. “I dare not think it.”
Aldrich did not return that night. The wind howled and screeched through the trees in a manner they’d not yet heard. They’d weathered two great storms already, but the sounds they heard that night were an unearthly din. Sleep did not come as Lady Dulcina worked feverishly to create an offering of worth to the creatures that clawed at the window and pounded the door of their cabin. She cut her long braids and gathered the last remaining items of value from her days at the castle, keeping only the ring, her signet, the last evidence of her claim to her husband’s land.
Roldan huddled near the hearth, refusing to give in to fear, to cling to his mother. He would be a man soon, and young men do not cower in fear at their mother’s apron strings. He followed her lead, gathering his last items of sentimental value.
“What now,” he whispered when the howling wind had died down for a moment.
“We wait till morning. Aldrich has not returned, either he has abandoned us, or more likely has angered the spirits. He is our first offering. These shall be the second. You know that great tree…”
“What do you mean by He is our first offering?” the boy snapped. I had not yet occurred to him that Aldrich might be dead. He was a tough old man. Surely he could survive one night…
“The trees are screaming out in their anger and anguish. Aldrich has not returned, they have taken, him Roldan.” Her tone was solemn, matter of fact and determined. “We will get through this, though. I promise. They will not take you too.”
Roldan only nodded, for the first time believing that they could all die on this mountain if they were not careful.
They set out at dawn, the clouds heavy and dark above them, a thick mist rolling through the trees. It was a stark contrast to the brilliant, bright day before. The young lord and his mother carried their offerings deep into the thick aspen woods.
It was there, in the densest part of the forest that they found him. If it weren’t for his clothes and the Ax buried deep in the great tree, they would not have known it was him. Aldrich, once tall, strong and determined was reduced to little more than bones wrapped in leathered skin. Sucked dry, a shriveled husk of a thing.
Roldan buried his face in his mother’s back, clinging to her as the reality set in. Blood, flames and death in his castle home were one of the horrors he’d long been prepared to endure. That was life in their lands, the threats of invading armies well known and planned for. This, though, this made no sense. Nothing he’d seen before could have prepared him for what lay before him now wearing the clothes, the skin of the man who’d become like a father to him.
“Give me your offering,” his mother whispered.
He nodded, stiffly handing her the bundle.
“Do not move,” she said, taking it and kissing him on the head. “When this is through, you will go back to the cabin. You will ration and survive the last of the winter. You will escape to the northern lands. What you do from then, is your choice. Raise a family, or raise an army, I do not care. But you must live,” she told him.
He nodded, words caught in his throat as he watched. The Lady Dulcina, her fair hair now shorn and loose about her round face knelt before Aldrich’s shriveled form and placed the offerings upon him.
“Spirit of the trees, Dryads of the Aspens. I bow my head in your presence and beg your forgiveness. We bring offerings of all that is of worth and value to us. Nothing we may own is of greater value than your kindness, your watchful eyes and your forgiveness. I offer myself as well, in the hopes that you will smile once more upon my son, the young Lord Roldan…”
And with that she took hold of the ax handle, wrenching it free from the tree and flinging it away. “Heal and be w hole again,” she managed to choke out before collapsing beside the old man. Roldan dropped to his knees as he watched his beloved mother shrivel and waste away before his eyes. Her eyes wide in pain and fear, her mouth working to form her final words.
“Live on, my love…”
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bit·ter·sweet: being at once bitter and sweet; especially: pleasant but including or marked by elements of suffering or regret. A collection of short stories I've written since joining Wattpad for various contests, challenges and publications. The...