Season 1, Episode 4
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
A strip of forest, known locally as Barrow Wood, separated the tiny village of Kukendor from the farms of the Rilke valley. Though it was but a half-day’s walk through the forest, the villagers seldom met the farmers on the other side of the wood. This was not out of pure provincialism, but because it was universally believed that Barrow Wood was haunted and unsafe. Children would dare each other to step beyond the line of the trees. Even grown men, like Addie the blacksmith, would only go gathering firewood in the brightest part of the afternoon, and then only took fallen branches, as things tended to happen to people who encroached on the wood by cutting down trees or taking animals.
The inhabitants of Kukendor blamed the evil in the woods for the exceptionally poor soil the village sat on, and the Rilke farmers blamed the woods for failed harvests and cows that stopped giving milk. There were stories of much worse things, but all were local legends, and only half-believed. Still, the people on both sides of Barrow Wood stayed out of it, and it was a several days walk around the forest, and even longer by oxcart, as there was no good road, so the short distance that separated them might as well have been an ocean.
Isa lived with her extended family on a Rilke farm, one right by the edge of the woods. She was one of nine children, and lived in an extended family of about two dozen. Two of her older sisters had been extraordinary beauties by local standards, and her family had only had to come up with a dozen cows worth of dowry for each one. Isa, however, was a middle child and knew she was very plain because she had been told this since she was a little girl. Her younger siblings were all boys, except the very youngest, Astrid, and their father was already talking about coming up with a dowry for her, though she was only in her eighth year.
Once Astrid was old enough to sleep alone at night, Isa had moved out into a corner of the barn. The smell of the cattle and their lowing bothered her less than being crammed into a room with four of her siblings. Isa knew full well what life had in store for her: she would continue to help her mother, Gran, and spinster Aunt Jannie for the rest of their lives, and then it would be her turn to be the spinster aunt and go off to live with one of her brothers’ families, where she would cook and clean and garden and take care of the children. She would probably get to hear every day what a burden she was, and how grateful she should be, if her mother’s treatment of Aunt Jannie was any indication.
On good days, she daydreamed about meeting a prince in disguise, just like in the stories. He would fall in love with her and take her away to a castle on a high hill, and her entire family would come on bended knee to beg her favor. On bad days, she fantasized about running off into the woods to get eaten by beasts or frightened to death by ghosts, or, more likely, to die of exposure. Most of the time, she tried not to think of anything at all.
After a particularly bad day, in which a cow tried to kick her, her younger brothers poured pig slop into her straw pallet, and her mother had said that she was just as useless as Aunt Jannie, she couldn’t sleep. She left the barn and wandered around for a while. The trees beckoned to her. She wasn’t quite ready to die, but she was angry and sad and shamed enough that she hardly cared if she lived. So, wearing only her hand-me-down nightdress and a pair of beat-up boots, Isa set out into Barrow Wood by the light of the waxing, gibbous moon.
The trees rose up around her, but the path was clear and even in front of her. It must be a deer run, she thought, as no manmade trails went into the forest. She walked quickly, fear of the evil of the woods overcome by a strong desire to get away, to be anywhere but back on the farm. For over an hour she made her way deeper and deeper into the forest, hearing only her footsteps and the occasional creak of a branch or trill of a night-bird, and seeing the trees and the path before her only by the broken moonlight that made its way through the branches above. It was a shock, then, when she rounded a thicket and suddenly found herself in a large clearing. In the center of that clearing was a great mound of grass-covered earth, three or four times the length of the barn, and sloping slowly up to twice her height.
Looking up to the top of the mound or hillock, she could see the night sky above, and the moon and stars seemed unusually bright and somehow strange. Exhaustion fell on her sudden and strong, as the day’s work and the night’s journey came to rest on her shoulders like a stack of sheepskins, and she staggered. She yawned deep as she made her way to a comfortable-looking spot on the side of the hillock, and slumped to the ground in a hollow. Lying back, she looked at the stars as they turned and swum above her, and then she was asleep.
She dreamt of the gentle brush of skin on skin, of sleek, warm bodies that crowded against her, thighs that pressed against hers, fingertips that traced down her arms and back, lips that brushed her hair, cheek, and the nape of her neck. She dreamt of becoming bold and returning those caresses, of stroking her hands over soft breasts and hips as well as tangling in chest hair and grasping firm buttocks. She presented her fingers to be sucked, and nipped at the tips of fingers that stroked her face, and her hand passed over a smooth belly and groin, down into soft curls of hair, down…
She awoke with a start. She wanted badly to find out what was just a fraction of an inch lower on that body. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to know or care what was down there. It was something bad, something dirty. She’d seen farm animals, so she knew that boys had a prong and girls had a hole they bled from, but that was all.
Now, however, she knew something else. She knew she wanted something, something she had no name for. There was a warm, relaxed, almost ticklish sensation between her legs. She’d felt that sensation before, especially when she was lying on her pallet thinking about the prince who would come rescue her from her dreary life. She knew that the feeling had to be bad, so when it came, she just tried to think about chores, about nothing, about the small shrine to the High King that her mother knelt before every morning and evening.
That usually worked, but this time she couldn’t stop thinking about smooth limbs and soft fingers, lips kissing and tongues…oh, tongues! She was no longer tingling, now she was throbbing, and she felt like she was going to melt into the hillside. Something electric and a little frightening was happening to her, and though she was fairly certain it was a wrong and forbidden thing, she didn’t want it to stop.
Waves of heat rippled through her and she felt simultaneously tense and relaxed, humming with energy like a plucked bowstring. She pulled up her worn nightdress and felt the air on her skin. Her hand reached between her legs and her nipples felt like they were on fire. The back of her mouth was dry and sweat trickled between her breasts. She felt a moment of terror right before she came and, as the waves of pleasure rocked her, she wondered if she was dying. Afterwards, she lay looking at the stars, wondering at their profusion and beauty, and feeling the slippery wetness on her fingertips.
In Kukendor, a gangly young man named Bess lived with his mother on the outskirts of the village, in a miserable hovel barely large enough for two to sleep in. There was but one fine possession in that hut, an embroidered blanket, but Bess’ mother kept that rolled up in a corner most of the time. When merchants and other outsiders passed through Kukendor, they sometimes came to visit her with gifts of money or food, and she would unroll the blanket on the floor of the hovel and send Bess away. The men of the village also came to visit Bess’ mother, but only late at night, and they brought only scraps of food or a few copper pence.
Bess hated his mother’s night visitors because, when they came, he would be woken from a sound sleep, kicked out of bed, and warned not to make a noise. He liked the day visits from merchants, as they always ate better for a few days after those.
Bess knew that his mother was a whore, and that he was a whoreson and a bastard, long before he had any idea what that meant. As a boy, he’d tried a couple of times to make the other children take their insults back, but they ganged up on him, and afterwards, none were punished. Once, when one of the miller’s sons had been about to drop a large stone onto Bess’ head, Addie the blacksmith had stepped in and stopped him. Bess learned his lesson that day, and avoided the other children as much as possible, and bore their abuse as best he could.
Bess did what he could with their pathetic vegetable patch in the poor soil behind their hovel, and learned what he could by watching and listening to the other children and adults. A priest of the Unmoved God came through once a month when the weather was good, and Bess and his mother went to hear him preach. On those days, it was almost as if they had a place in Kukendor, and in the world. On the other hand, there were the occasions when a cleric of the Cult of the High King came through. Bess avoided them, because they always came by the hovel, usually to screech at his mother, sometimes to bed her, and on one particularly bad occasion, both.
Bess’ mother was the one bright point in his life. Hard as her life was, she did what little she could for her son, and tried not to curse at him or strike him. She taught him that one couldn’t always be good, but that the gods are forgiving, and she told him that it didn’t matter how much you had, as long as you were generous with it. She feigned fullness for his sake when her gut twisted with hunger, and he learned when to speak comfort and when to be silent through her fits of shaking and weeping.
Then she took ill. No charity was forthcoming, and what little coin they had was barely enough to buy food, let alone medicine. Bess tried to sell the embroidered blanket, but no-one in town would touch it. They called it “pestilent.” So he watched as his mother succumbed to a high fever and a racking cough. It turned out that the priests of the Unmoved God, while constrained from healing without payment, were willing to perform funerary rites free of charge.
With his mother gone, there was no reason for Bess to remain in Kukendor. That night he lit a fire in the hovel, and fed it twigs and hand-cracked branches until it was bright and hot. Then he threw the blanket onto it. Immediately regretful, he attempted to pull the blanket out, but it was too late. He was only able to save a corner by beating it on the dirt floor, collecting small burns on his hands and legs in the process. By that point, the fire had spread to the thin, patched walls of the hut. As his home blazed in the night and the good people of Kukendor came out to watch, Bess fled sobbing into Barrow Wood.
© 2012 Copyright Tof Eklund
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