Knots are many things, my son. They're the nets down at the dock, spread out sea-green and weed-tangled to dry. They're the end of a seam, the whipped ties of rope, the belt around an ash-girl's waist or a horse-thief's neck. They're the ribbon in a maid's hair, and the coy braids under the wimple of a priest-promised girl. They're the doom of men, wrists knotted for the conscript service of ships and the rum-stinking holds.
I know my knots, and so shall you. Three generations the men of this family have served the lords of High Hallow Holds as mule-breeders, and held land in the hard winter against the wolves that come skulking around for a crust of food. Let me tell you, then what we sworn in bond to our lords saw on the questing for the death of Bad King Bor down in the valley of the Blackwood and the barrows of the Bornwounded fallen.
Down three months and down to the hardtack in our pouches, the clear streams in the wooded hills of the bordering lands, and the largesse of the land. Snorri pulled mushrooms and I could take a bird or rabbit with a knife and my own good eye. Half dozen of us rode the Blackwood with our lord, and the other half with his brother, the Lord Gunnar, kept watch from the hills and the high places. Their horn had yet to sound, so the Pretender King's men had yet to come harrying down the game paths and deer passages.
Blackwood's about as deep as it decides to be, so they don't put the Lords closer into the High King's hall out there. They get to imagining and storytelling, and bringing bards with them, and there's such in the depths and barrows as like to sing themselves into the shadows and not come back. Some parts have been civilized, and the god's men will carve up runes to mark the rest. For the rest, us further out know to avoid the ringling mushrooms, the skeletons of trees, and the heaping of cairns where men have been laid down in the good fertile dirt. You see things in the hills, you learn to not touch the trees or disturb the hollows where the violets make shadows. You learn to keep the cold iron close, or at least you do if you've my sire, who gives us all good nails from the gate of High Hallow.
So we rode, all of us on good sturdy mountain stock, down in the green and the hollow, hand to sword and axe. My Lord of the Hallow Holds was speaking of the movements of the Bad King's men and the accounting of them for the destruction of the freeholds along the border. Seven years before, he declaimed, they'd been put down in Bornwounded with ropes by the Kingsmen where they stood. They were forsworn, and on surrender, had even the small coin that a child might keep in pouches around their necks, each and every one. Worst of all, they'd set fire to part of the wood.
Then the birds broke cover while Milord spoke, and Snorri let out a call, and the chase was on. Bored of border duty and the old dead, our blood was up and hot, and we sent our sure-footed mounts dancing along the path. My knife sang true, and the bird, somewhere ahead in a clearing, went plummeting down into the sunlit underbrush. We went charging through the woods, and then the forest went sideways as the tales say they do, and my horse went out from under me while Snorri went shouting out his own dismay.
The hall of witches, the weald, had us both now, and as my head cracked the rock, I wondered if the godsmen would raise a cairn in warning over me.
When I woke, the woods were dark and my horse was gone. The arches and pillars of the wildwood were gone to strange shapes, and off in the distance was a singing such as I'd not heard, as if a dove was cooing and a woman was wailing all at a once. At my throat, the iron was cold as the bark of the river in winter, and I felt a tingling as if a thousand feathers were brushing my skin. In the night, cairns of stone rose in the moonlight, and I made my way as if it were clear as day.
Sitting there on a cairn was the loveliest woman you ever saw, and she was fair as the woods were deep, as pale as the moon sails high, and dressed in greens such as grow on the trees of the Blackwood themselves. But her eyes were black as pitch, her hair stretched about her like a bridal train, and I knew fear, for the bones of her face were strange and pointed like a wolf or a hawk.
And all half-dozen armsmen but me and my Lord of the High Hallow Holds lay about her feet like dogs, pale as if death itself had touched their skin. And though my hand was tight about the nail of virtue at my neck, I could not move, for her eyes held me surely as any chains mortal men might make.
"Son of Iron and swordsman," she seemed to murmur, though her lips did not cease their singing. "Will you not lie with me and be my love under the weald for all time?"
I longed, as all men long, for as her voice rose and fell, lilting and mourning in turns, her face turned fair and her form turned lithe, and it seemed roses bloomed in her cheeks. But as her hair seemed to fade to gold, then silver in the moonlight, the little nail grew colder yet in my hand, and the sharp bones of her witching face betrayed her.
She laughed then, and it was the sound of breaking, cracking ice, the squealing of shattered waters. "You are no fool to come to the Blackwood, Son of Iron."
I spoke, then, though my words fell clumsy and leaden like stones into her glen. "Daughter of the Blackwood, let my lord and my brothers go from your spell. We have done no harm here."
Again, that dreadful laugh. "Son of Iron, trespass has been done, for you hunted my brother through these woods, and felled him with your weapons. For this, I have claimed my boon, and I find your lord as fair as your crime is foul!"
My blood ran cold, then, for under her tresses lay the still and broken body of a gamebird, and indeed, as I watched, it seemed to be both man and bird and neither, a terrible, shifting monster such as only the Blackwood might birth.
Still, I forced myself to speak on. "Lady, a geas is upon me then, but six men for one is a foul trade. Would you reckon yourself a slaver, then? Place your geas upon me, but no claim can you have over the Lord of the High Hallow Holds or my brothers in arms, who have done no crime."
Her voice buffeted my ears in wailing, cooing euphony, and at last, she said "There is a grove, one third the cycle of the moon to the west."
"Ten men lie beneath cairns and their spirits stir by virtue of the Blackwood, darkening the halls of my home and turning the green against the touch of my sisters. For the touch of your cursed metal driven into the earth, my own self and my sisters cannot send them forth."
My lips were dry and parched, and I forced out in the chill of the glen. "Draw out the swords?"
"And carry them forth. Take your foul metal from my weald before the night is ended. Fail, and your lord and brothers will remain."
She took up a silken fall of hair then and smiled at me as she began to knot and plait it in strange patterns. "Return before dawn, or I will weave your brothers and lord into my own crown, and they will dwell with me ever more as my faithful hounds, and tear you to pieces."
Snorri, at her feet yawned, then, with sharp teeth such as no men have ever had, and I shuddered, feeling the cold of winter down my very spine. "I will do this then. But if I succeed, you shall free my brothers and my Lord."
She smiled, then, and the woods began to shift, the shadows calling her from view, and beneath my feet was placed a twisting deer path through the dark and the green of the Blackwood. The wailing song of doves, though, clung to my heels as I moved along the trail placed before me, and it seemed as if the glowing eyes of owls opened in the branches about me. There was no wind in the upper reaches of the forest, and if light of star or moon shone above, I could not see it for the mazing patterns of the canopy.
As I went, the shadows moved strange, and time itself moved oddly. My path went through weirdling glens studded with glowing moonstones and swamps riddled with black water; the trees parted and rejoined, straight as walls or columns in the King's Hall, and as low and twisted as the knuckles of a crone in others. I saw not a living thing but the glowing eyes of the owls, moving from branch to branch, and heard nothing but the singing of the witchwoman. At my throat, the nail of my home grew at turns burning and chilling, and it seemed years passed under my feet and a great weariness came into my limbs.
It seemed seconds, though, until I came to the place where the cairns of the Bad King's men.
At first, it seemed as if strange, crooked crosses leaned over those heaped piles of stone, and the grass was gilded as if liquid silver had been spilled over the green grass. Glancing up, then, I glimpsed the moon, full and swollen, and nearing the lower places in the sky. Upon second glance, I saw only the swords, the stones, the grass, and the nail at my throat calmed and ceased the burning against my neck.
It took no time at all to draw the swords from the stones, and as I did, the cairns crumbled inwards, falling into themselves as if nothing lay beneath. Perhaps it did not, for with each unsheathing of the rotten, rusting blades, a thin wail rose up, and the grass grew thicker around the bases of the graves. Surely the ill virtue of the witchwoman had taken them. For a moment, I wavered over the first, crossing myself and shuddering till I remembered the slain of Bornwounded and the words of my lord.
For all the rust, the length of the blades looked newly bloodied in the moon as I took them on my shoulder. I reckoned by the stars, then set off, racing the faint light that grew through the branches of the trees. Above, feathered forms paced me, from tree to tree, hooting derisively. Surely, I thought, these were the foul sisters of the witchwoman, come to harry me in the task set.
The woods both grew back and towards me as I ran: the roots of the trees knotted and cast themselves under my feet, but the limbs drew back as if ashamed of the iron burden I carried. But I am of the mountain stock, and though the weald turned against me, I turned my feet against it, leaping from writhing extremity to lower pit where the ground grew back with ease. It seemed to me that the hoots grew even more derisive before I found the ridgeline running the edge of the Blackwood and my boots struck stone.
As they did, the swords grew cold, then hot, and the nail at my throat buzzed angrily, setting tooth to tender flesh. In my ears, the jabbering of men rose, the wailing, displaced spirits taunting and begging in turn. Though I might have stoppered my ears, nothing could slow my feet, nor turn to drop my burden of blades to the ground.
The voices spoke of the witchwoman and of their deaths, wailing and berating me. They spoke of my lord; they cursed myself, my mother, my legs. They spoke of the hounds on my trail, and indeed, I heard the baying. They wailed and begged for me to cast down my burden and free them; they promised safety, they promised death and vengeance to me and the damnation of my soul. And at last, as I gained the edge of the ridgeline and the skyline burst forth, tinted pink and gold, they wailed a last time as I flung them forth over the edge of the hill where the Blackwood breaks and the border falls.
As the blades left my arms, the wailing dovesong of the witchwoman enfolded me, and the nail at my throat grew piercingly, painfully hot. About me was the buffeting of wings and the furred bodies of hounds. Teeth sunk into my thigh, and I scrabbled for my knives, for a weapon as I was brought down. Above me, the triumphant weirdling laughter of the woman sounded.
"Dawn, Son of Iron, dawn, but what use have I for you now? The sun will restore your lord and his men, but they shall wake with your blood on their teeth and your flesh in their bellies! Let it not be said that the women of the weald are not hospitable!"
She loomed over me, silver and beautiful, horrible and victorious, and I saw her hair knotted in crowns and pouring still, her bridal train and spell both.
And I tell you, I am of the High Hallows Hold and my family have been mulekeepers and thegns well on three generations. I am of the High Hallows, and I know my knots, both the tying and the untying - and I tell you, the swiftest way through a knot is to cut it asunder.
As the hounds bayed, and the sun fought to win free of the horizon, I flung myself at her, back into the knotted and mazing trees of the Blackwood. She shrieked out a baying as if she were one of the ensorcelled men who now tore at my back with stinking teeth, but as she clawed my face and cursed me, I took ahold of her crowning glory and began to saw away at the tight-braided hair atop her beautiful head.
The wings of owls buffeted me, the stench of the hunting back enfolded me, and the nail was molten, running in rivulets down my chest. I heard my own shrieks, I heard her scream, and as the sun broke the horizon and the first braid came away beneath the kiss of my knife, I heard the hunting horn of the High Hallows rising true above the trees and ridgeline, and the thundering of hooves down the stone. The dogs raised their voices in hailing, falling back from me, and the witchwoman shrieked as my knife struck true, again and again in the spelled knots of her hair.
"Hold! Hold in the name of the High King and the mountain holds!" cried out Braias of the High Hallows, and I came back from the witchwoman, scrambling back with my hands full of liquid silver. About her, then, were the lithe forms of the witchwoman's sisters, their eyes amber and hooded, their bodies clad in green. Their hair was knotted in foul patterns, and they enfolded their cruel-shorn sister in their number.
"Your man has struck down our sister, and he must pay the price!" cried out the tallest of them. "No man may set hand upon us and live to brag of the tail. His bones will feed the trees of weald, his blood will feed the soil!"
The trees writhed about me as if they might seize me, and then, the voice of my lord rang out. "Dawn, witches, and the bargain done. You are forsworn and dishonored in seeking my men to pay the teind of others; you are forsworn for seeking kin's blood and the death of one who serves. Go back into your barrows and trouble us no more!"
"He must pay!" they cried as one. But even as they spoke, the sun broke over the far curve of the land, and they fell back, hiding their eyes, and the wood stilled, the voice of the wildlife returning, and the sun through the leaves casting light on the cronelike folds of their faces. Once more, the horn of the High Hallows rung out, and they exploded in a mass of feathers and cries, fleeing back into the depths of the woods with the sun harsh on their backs.
And that, son, is how we came to serve at the right hand of the High Hallows, and how your father came to bear this twisting root of iron against his breastbone. Now you see why you carry a nail at your throat and iron even now at your wrist, for when the sons of the Bad King seek to claim the edges of the High King's Peace for their own, you too must ride the Blackwood with the Lord of High Hallows.
The witches of the woods have long memory, you see and the trees have longer. And the Blackwood, even now, is always hungry.