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Old Sep 29th, 2020, 10:08 AM
Menzo Menzo is offline
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Holly and Iron

1. Jack
1. Jack

It was finished.

Jack took the leaf into the yard and held it up to the sun’s light, turning it this way and that, admiring its shape, its symmetry. Its surface was so finely polished that it seemed to glow. It was more than a leaf--it was what a leaf should be. And whilst other leaves fell to the ground and decayed, this would be forever.

“What’s that?” asked a neighbour, peering over her back fence.

“A holly leaf.”

“Ooh, it’s pretty.”

“It’s perfect,” said Jack, his heart aching with pride.

“Who’s it for?” the neighbour asked, grinning slyly.

“I don’t know. I might keep it for myself.” As soon as he said it, though, Jack knew it wasn’t true. The leaf was a gift for someone. He just didn’t know who yet.

“It’s very pretty,” repeated the neighbour, hopefully.

But Jack didn’t hear her.

==========

Jack had the carpenter make a display case for the leaf, paying for it with five bags of nails. Every evening he would peer through the glass front at the leaf resting on its sea of green velvet; and once a week he would take it out and carefully, almost reverently, clean and polish it.

Others heard about the leaf from Jack’s neighbour, and many came to see it. Sometimes, it was someone he knew, and they stayed for a little while. Other times it was an important dignitary--the mayor or a travelling magistrate--and they stayed for longer. On those occasions, Jack’s neighbour would turn up with extra food and drink. Everyone agreed that the leaf was extraordinary.

He became very busy. Although he refused all requests to produce more leaves, he had a great deal of ordinary work--nails and tacks, brackets and handles, horseshoes and ploughshares, candlesticks and chamberpots, and much more of that sort. He took on an apprentice, teaching him everything he knew--well, almost everything he knew.

“How did you make the leaf?” asked the apprentice.

“I don’t know.” When the apprentice looked sceptical, he added, “It’s something I can’t teach. You might teach yourself, though. But it won’t be a leaf. It’ll be something else.”

Jack knew it wasn’t a very good explanation for a thirteen-year-old, but it was the best he had to offer.

Last edited by Menzo; Oct 31st, 2020 at 09:35 AM.
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Old Sep 29th, 2020, 10:11 AM
Menzo Menzo is offline
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2. The Girl in the Wood
2. The Girl in the Wood

For many years there had been talk of the girl in the wood--a wild girl who lived in a crude hut deep in the wood. A number of people had seen her, or claimed to have seen her, though no two accounts of her seemed to match.

Jack tried to ignore the talk. He didn’t much like gossips, and in truth his business required all his attention. Even so, he couldn’t help but notice that talk about the girl was on the rise.

“They say she’s taken livestock,” said the neighbour one day, as Jack was cleaning and polishing a candlestick. “They say the mayor might ask for King’s soldiers to help hunt her down.”

The apprentice came over, shaking his head. “They won’t go into the wood. They won’t dare. They’re afraid of it.”

==========

That night, Jack dreamed. It wasn’t something he did often. Most evenings, exhausted by his day’s work, he went to his bed early and slept soundly. But that night he had the running dream. He woke once in the night, his legs still moving and the fear of unknown pursuers still on him, and half-asleep he heard, or imagined he heard, the baying of hounds.

In the morning he woke later than normal. The cold spring light seeped under the curtains, and his apprentice stomped about the workshop. Jack recalled little of his dreams except their potency, but he knew who the leaf was for--the girl in the wood. He did not know how he knew, but there was no doubt in his mind.

Despite his excitement, for the rest of the day he tried to focus on his work. After dinner, he opened the display case, wrapped the leaf in some cloth, put on his cloak, and strode off towards the wood.

Darkness closed in before he finally came in sight of the wood. Looking back, he could just make out the light escaping from under the doors and shutters of a farmhouse. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than the warmth and light of his kitchen, but then he steeled himself and trod on into the wood.

It was harder work than he had imagined. He tripped over roots, thorns caught at his cloak, and he found his way barred by saplings and low branches. He began to wonder, rather belatedly, how he intended to get back to the town. When he stopped to catch his breath and try to get his bearings, he heard movement all around him. He knew there wasn’t anything really dangerous in the wood--there had been no wolves or bears in these parts for many generations--but it unnerved him, and he didn’t stop again. He pressed on, not knowing whether he was going deeper into the wood or heading back the way he’d come, or simply walking in a circle.

He tripped over yet another root. This time, before he could rise to his feet he felt a sharp point press against the back of his neck. He froze.

“Have you no fear, man of the town?” said a voice.

Jack took several steadying breaths. “I came to speak with you.”

“With me?”

“Are you the gi--” He stopped, suddenly unsure of himself.

“The girl in the wood?”

“You know that’s what they call you?”

“I have ears, don’t I? You should not have come here. It is not safe for the men of the town to wander the forest at night.”

“I came to warn you. The townsfolk are upset that you have stolen their livestock. The mayor plans to bring soldiers into the wood.”

“Stolen their what?”

“Livestock. The farms hereabouts keep sheep and goats and chickens. They say you’ve taken some of them.”

After a while, Jack felt the sharp point leave his neck.

“Get up,” said the voice. “I want to see you.”

He stood up and turned to face her. It was too dark to make out her features, but she was short--probably not much more than five foot--and she carried a short spear like she knew how to use it. Her eyes glinted in the darkness.

“You are hard to read, man of the town, but I think you do not lie.”

Jack tried to smile. “You can trust me.”

“I did not say that. Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. Time will tell.”

“What do you intend to do?”

She seemed to consider that for a while. “I had not realised the people of the town thought of the animals as their property, like a bowl or a knife or a spear. It seems very odd to me, but I have no desire to antagonise your people. You may tell them that I will not take any more. There are plenty of animals in the forest, just none so easy to catch.”

She hefted her spear over her shoulder and brushed past him. He followed.

After a dozen steps, she turned back to him. “What are you doing?”

“Following you.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know the way back to town.”

She sighed. “Are all men of the town such fools?”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never been in the wood before.”

“Oh, very well,” she said sharply. “Follow me. And stay close.”

For the next hour or so he stumbled along behind her, doing the best he could. He could not help but admire how surefooted she was. He was starting to feel he couldn’t walk any further when they entered a clearing. Looking up, he could see the stars.

She busied herself around the clearing. He heard a clacking noise and saw a brief point of light. Moments later, there was fire, small at first but growing. In the light of the fire, he could make out a small shack close by. She went into the shack for a few moments, and when she came out she was carrying something.

“You interrupted my hunting,” she said, “but I’ve got a little cold meat. It’s not much, but I will share it with you.”

“Thank you,” Jack said, “but I’ve already eaten tonight.”

She shrugged and sat down next to the fire, chewing at something and periodically feeding the fire larger and larger branches. He could see her more clearly now. Her hair and eyes were dark and untamed as the night. And she was younger than he’d expected. There had been talk of the girl in the wood since before he was born, yet the girl in front of him looked still to be in her teens.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She stared at him intently, but didn’t answer.

“I’m Jack,” he offered.

Her eyes widened in surprise, and she laughed. “You don’t have any fear, do you? Aren’t you worried what I will do with your name?”

“Not really.”

“Names have power,” she said, as if reciting a lesson.

“Well, I don’t know anything about that, but they’re awfully useful. I mean, what do I call you? It seems rude to call you the girl in the wood.”

“But fitting. Call me Lystra, if you wish.”

“Is it your name?”

She just smiled.

In the silence that followed, Jack suddenly remembered his original mission. “I brought something with me... for you.” He felt the skin of his neck and face prickling as he pulled the leaf out of his pocket and unwrapped it. “A gift.”

She held her hand out. “Let me see.”

He tipped the leaf into her hand. She hissed and jerked her hand away, and the leaf fell onto the ground. He stooped and picked it up.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Hold it up. Let me see.”

He held the leaf up to the stars.

“So cold,” she said, frowning. “Cold, and beautiful too.” She took the cloth and carefully wrapped the leaf in it. “You made this?”

He nodded.

“For me?”

“Not at first, I don’t think. But once I made it, it seemed wrong to keep it.”

She nodded. “I understand. The things you covet have power over you.”

Jack wasn’t certain that’s what he’d meant, but he didn’t want to argue.

“You must be tired, man of the town,” she said.

“Call me Jack,” he said, then yawned.

“Jack of the town.” She shook her head. “No, that isn’t right. Jack hare. Jack fox. Jack-in-the-green. No, no, no.”

“Just Jack, please.”

She sighed, as if disappointed. “It doesn’t seem right, but it’ll have to do for the moment. You must sleep in my bed tonight, Just Jack.”

Jack felt himself blush. “I wouldn’t dream--”

“You cannot sleep outside. If my mother were to find you, she would take you and you would never return to the town. Therefore, you must sleep in my bed. Don’t worry, I still need to complete tonight’s hunt. I was interrupted by Jack the blunderer, Jack the gift-giver. I will return with the sun.”

She led him inside the hut. It was too dark to see anything, but he was assailed by the smells of a multitude of herbs. She led him surely to a mound of ferns and furs, and he collapsed onto it, yawning.

==========

Jack woke to a gentle pressure on his chest. He opened his eyes. Lystra knelt beside him, her right hand on his chest, examining him closely. Sunlight streamed in through the door of the hut, silhouetting her.

“I have never seen a man of the town at such close quarters before,” she said, with a shy smile. “Are they all as hairy as you?”

“I couldn’t say,” he replied.

He lifted her hand off his chest. The skin was rough and there was earth under the fingernails, but it was small and slender. The palm was marred by a welt, such as might be caused by nettles or poison ivy.

“You are a worker of iron?” she asked. “You mould it into whatever shape you desire? Like the leaf?”

“I’m a blacksmith, yes.”

“And the iron does not hurt you?”

He sat up and contemplated this odd turn in the conversation. “I wouldn’t say that. I’ve been burnt more than a few times, when I was careless.” He rolled up his sleeves and showed her some of his scars. “The iron has to be very hot, you see.”

She touched some of the scars. “Hmm. Iron Jack. Yes.”

“Pardon?”

She stood. “Come, Iron Jack. It is time for you to return to the town.”

She left the hut. He stood, stretched, and followed her. It was still early morning--the air was chilly, and the shadows long. Lystra stood at the edge of the clearing, waiting for him.

She led him back through the wood without conversation. Her footing was sure, although her feet were bare. She wore trousers cut off at the knee and a ragged, inexpertly-repaired shirt. It was an odd thing, to see a woman in a man’s clothing, but he supposed it was more practical in the wood.

At the edge of the wood she stopped and waited for him.

When he caught up with her, she said, “Fare thee well, Iron Jack.”

“Wait,” he said, slightly out of breath.

“I cannot tarry.”

“The holly leaf. It’ll rust, so try to keep it away from moisture. Oh, and you’ll need to polish it once a week.”

“I... what?” She seemed confused.

“I should have brought some polish with me.” He thought quickly. “How about I bring some back in a week’s time and show you what to do?”

She frowned. “I must go.” She re-entered the wood and was soon lost to sight.

==========

A week later, about an hour before sunset, Jack arrived at the edge of the wood. A leather bag containing rags and several cans of polish hung from his right shoulder. Half a dozen goats grazed on a nearby hillock, but the herdsman was nowhere to be seen. Nor was there any sight of Lystra, so he sat with his back against the bole of a silver birch and waited anxiously for her.

The sun sank lower and the air grew cool, and he began to worry that she wasn’t going to show. The birds began their evening chorus. One curious sparrow swooped down and alighted nearby. It cocked its head at him, and hopped back and forth. The little thing made Jack nervous. He knew it was ridiculous, but he felt as though he was being scrutinised.

A stick landed near the sparrow and, startled, it flapped away.

“Shoo!” Lystra yelled from beside him. He hadn’t heard her approach. “Shoo, you miserable thing! Leave him alone! He’s not for you!”

Jack lumbered to his feet, a broad smile creasing his face. “You came.”

She watched the sparrow fly away, then turned to him. “A good thing too. Be careful of the sparrow, Jack. The sparrow is my mother’s bird.” Before he could ask her what she meant, though, she took him by the hand and pulled him into the wood.

It was dark by the time they reached the clearing. Within minutes she had a campfire going, its flames dancing and leaping merrily. She fetched the leaf from inside her shack, cradling it carefully, almost reverently, in a bed of cloth.

He took the leaf from her. As he took out the rags and polish, he explained how to clean and polish it. He presented the leaf back to her. “Here, you do it.”

She shook her head. “The iron burns me.”

Remembering the welt on the palm of her hand, he nodded, though it still seemed strange to him. “You don’t need to touch it. Use the cloth to hold it, and you should be fine.”

“Can’t you do it?”

“It needs to be done once a week, in order to keep its sheen.”

“You could do it.”

“I’ve got my business to run.”

“Please?”

He sighed, then laughed. “All right, all right.”

“Good, that’s settled then.”

He settled down near the fire and began to apply polish to the leaf. In the fire’s flickering light, the leaf took on an autumnal hue. Lystra sat nearby, watching him work and asking him questions about town life. He talked about his smithy and the apprentice, about the townsfolk, about the fairs in the spring and the great feasts in the winter, and about his mother and father who lived in the next town.

“I never knew my father,” Lystra said, wistfully, “My mother sent him away before I was born, and she never talks about him. I only know that he was a man of the town, like yourself.”

“I’m sorry. Where does your mother live?”

“In the forest, of course.”

“It must be a hard life, for both of you.”

“No. We are part of the forest, and the forest is part of us.”

In the silence that followed, he scrutinised the leaf carefully and gave the stem one last wipe. “It’s done.”

She wrapped the leaf and took it back into her shack. When she emerged, she was carrying her spear. “Time for me to hunt, Jack. You can sleep in my bed.”

“Can’t you stay a little while?”

She shook her head. “Night-time is for the hunt.”

He rose to his feet, but she was already gone.

==========

He woke to someone sliding into bed beside him.

“Lystra?”

She laughed. “Who else?” She wriggled closer and laid a hand on his chest.

“What are you doing?”

“Shhh.” She moved her hand to his face and played with his sideburns. “Jack. Iron Jack. My man of the town. I’m glad you came back.”

He covered her hand with his.

“You’ll be gentle, won’t you Jack?” she said. “I’ve never had a man before.”

He took her hand and kissed it, then kissed her mouth. It was warm and tasted of blackberries. “Always, my girl of the wood.”

Last edited by Menzo; Oct 31st, 2020 at 09:36 AM.
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Old Sep 29th, 2020, 10:12 AM
Menzo Menzo is offline
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3. Mother3. Mother

Jack returned to the shack in the wood every week to polish the leaf. The routine was always the same: they would talk as he worked, then she would hunt, and when she returned they would make love until they fell asleep. It was the most extraordinary time in Jack’s life. He only wished he could spend more time with her, but he couldn’t abandon his work. A town depended on its blacksmith.

One night, as he polished the leaf, she said to him, “You never ask me about myself.”

He shrugged. “What would you have me ask?”

“Aren’t you even a little curious? I mean, you must know by now that I am not like you, not like the men of the town.”

“Thank the gods,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think I could make love to you if you were.” Then, seeing the hurt in her eyes, he put down the leaf and the polishing rags and took her hands in his. “Where would a woman be if she weren’t a little mysterious? I know what I need to know--you are strange and beautiful and proud, and I love you.”

“I don’t know if I can love.”

“Do you not love me, then?”

“I feel... It is more like we are two parts of a whole, like a spearhead and its haft. Only together do they make something useful. Is that love?”

He leaned in and kissed her. “It will do, I think.” He let go of her hands and resumed polishing the leaf. A gust of wind sighed through the trees, and he shivered. “It’s going to be a cold night.”

She stood, staring off into the wood. “Something is wrong.”

“What is it?”

“Some mischief of my mother’s, I think.”

“How do you know?” Even as he spoke, a second, stronger gust shook the trees and stirred the leaves in the clearing. “We should go inside.”

She shook her head. “I should find out what mother is up to. Will you come?”

He stuffed the leaf in a pocket and stood. “I will, if only to meet your mother.”

“Stay close then,” she said.

She moved quickly and surely, and he thought he would lose her, but periodically she would stop and wait for him to catch up. The wind picked up steadily, until it whistled and moaned through the trees.

“Mother! Mother!” she yelled, but the wind snatched the words away.

Trees bent and creaked under the onslaught. A sapling slapped Jack in the face, dazing him, and he hesitated. He couldn’t see her. “Lystra, wait!” There was a voice on the wind. Though he couldn’t make out the words and he didn’t know if they were Lystra’s, he tried to follow them.

Finally, he could go no further. The fury of the wind defeated him. It picked up leaves and sticks and pummelled him with them. He held on to a tree and called Lystra’s name, again and again.

Suddenly the wind died away. He blinked to clear his eyes, and saw that there was a small stream to his left. A dozen or so paces in front of him were two figures--small, like children.

One of the figures reached an arm out to him. “Come to me, Jack.”

He stepped towards it. “No!” commanded a voice from behind him, and then Lystra was moving past him. “Mother, no!”

“Darling daughter,” said the figure. With a start, Jack realised that it wasn’t a child but a woman. Although she stood only about four feet tall, the fullness of her figure and the deepness of her voice were unmistakable.

“Mother, what have you done?”

“I have only done what you have done. I have taken a mate.”

“You cannot take what isn’t given, mother. And the boy is too young.”

“Too young? Nonsense. Yours is about the same age.”

“No, mother. Maybe, by our standards... but by theirs, the one you have taken is only a child.”

“And yours?”

“A man.”

Lystra’s mother seemed to ponder that for a while. “Then give him to me.”

“No.”

“You’re being selfish, dear.” She moved forward, and the figure at her side collapsed to the ground.

“No!” Lystra turned to Jack. “The leaf!”

Already bemused by the conversation, he briefly wondered what she was talking about. Then he remembered the leaf of iron, and with fingers made clumsy by the cold he fumbled it out of his pocket.

Lystra’s mother hissed like a cat. “You would use iron against me?”

“Throw it!” Lystra yelled.

And Jack did exactly that.

Just before the leaf would have hit her, Lystra’s mother screamed and, in a flurry of leaves, vanished. Lystra rushed to the fallen figure. In a daze, Jack followed behind her, and as he did so he realised who it was.

“It’s my apprentice,” he said.

She looked up at him. “You’ll have to carry him.”

He leaned down and easily picked up the boy. “What is he doing out here?”

“Come. Mother won’t be put off for long.”

They returned to Lystra’s shack, and Jack laid his apprentice down on the bed of ferns and fur. When they emerged from the shack, he asked her, “What is wrong with him?”

“My mother called him to her,” she answered. “She took his will, and not gently. Never gently. You saw how strong she is. She called you, and you would have gone to her had I not prevented it. It is how she took my father.”

“Will he recover?”

She nodded. “Her hold on him was broken by iron.”

“The leaf.” He started. “The leaf! I left it there by the stream!”

“There is nothing that can be done tonight. Mother will be very angry. The iron stung her, but she will recover. Tomorrow, when you and the boy are safely back in the town, I will go to her and tell her how it is between you and me.”

“But the leaf will rust--my leaf of iron, my perfect leaf. It was my masterwork. I put my soul into it.”

She smiled. “I sensed it, that night you first came to me. It was if you had chipped off part of yourself and imbedded it in the iron. And it was beautiful. All things have magic in them, you know, even the men of the town. This is your magic, your iron magic.”

“It was my gift to you,” he insisted, frowning.

She wrapped her arms around him. “You gave me a gift, but not the leaf of iron. It was never the leaf.”

==========

One day, some years later, Jack took his apprentice aside. “You may go home early today.”

“Off to see the girl in the wood?” the apprentice said, grinning cheekily.

“Yes, and I shall not return tomorrow.”

“When will you return?”

“I will not be returning.”

The apprentice frowned. “But you are the blacksmith. The town needs you.”

Jack laid his hand on the shoulder of his apprentice. “Tomorrow, you will be the blacksmith.”

“I’m not ready.”

“You will be fine. You have been a good apprentice, and you will make a fine blacksmith. Besides, I have nothing left to teach you.” Jack turned his head, as if straining to hear something. “My lady needs me. She has shared me with you, with the town, and she has been very patient. But now she calls me to her, and I must go.”

Jack gave the apprentice his keys, put some clothing and a few things that he could not bear to part with into a leather bag, and set out for the forest. Lystra waited for him at the edge of the forest. He kissed her and rested a hand on her rounded stomach, trying to sense the new life that grew within.

“I have come,” he said, “and I will never again be parted from you.”

She smiled, but wistfully, sorrowfully. “No, there will be one last parting. It cannot be prevented, because you are a man and no man is forever. Neither your magic nor mine, nor even my mother’s, can change that. But many years and much joy lie in between, and I will try to be content with that.”

Then Iron Jack took the hand of his lady of the wood, and together they walked into the forest. And they were never again seen by any man, or woman or child, of the town.

Last edited by Menzo; Oct 31st, 2020 at 09:37 AM.
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