The Queen and the Hermit
The hermit lived, as hermits are wont to do, alone. For some years he lived at the head of the valley, coming down into the little town at the foot of it every few months to trade his surplus produce, and his skills in reading and writing, for salt and flour. But of late there had been an abbey set up, and new farms started, and since being close to people is not of the essence for hermitry, he had forsaken his old cell and moved farther away, out of the valley altogether.
The abbot had tried to persuade him to join his monks, but the hermit had only shaken his head and smiled.
“No,” he said; “even your monks are too much of a crowd. It’s only by being all alone that I can feel truly godly.”
And the abbot had nodded and said he understood, and reflected that the hermit must indeed be a very holy man. It never occurred to the abbot to ask which god the hermit had been referring to.
So the hermit took his books, and his two black goats, and his chickens, and such other sundries as he could carry on a handcart, and struck out for somewhere less inhabited. The place he chose was an old farmstead, abandoned long years before, when the Romans had marched away from the Wall. Since then the Forest had encroached upon it, and almost eaten it up, and the trees pressed upon the ruins. There was a burn hard by, frothing down from the fells, and beyond the burn was an old howe, a mound of grass-grown earth raised by some long-forgotten people for reasons no-one now knew. The valley folk believed the howe was haunted by dark spirits, and avoided the place, and pastured their sheep elsewhere. But the hermit was not afraid of any dark spirits, and the absence of people was, for him, the chief attraction of the place.
When he got there, he walked about a little, weighing up the prospects, and decided it would do very well. The first thing he did was to mark out his boundaries. He did not do this with fences, at least not to start with, but by walking around the edges of his new home and scattering a little holy oil and a few particular herbs, and chanting a litany that might have surprised the abbot, had he been able to hear it. Then he turned to making his new home habitable. He repaired the roof, and built a shippon for his goats, and made himself as comfortable as hermits are allowed, which is to say not very, and then he took his axe, an axe he had kept for many years, many handles, and several heads, and began to fell some of the encroaching trees. For though he was reckoned an old man by his folk, and was bald, and had a grey beard, he was yet hale, and could swing an axe as well as any.
As the third tree fell, right on the very edge of his invisible boundary, the fall revealed a woman, standing right in front of him, not an inch from where the tree had been.
She was a tall woman, dressed in green, with silver hair and yellow eyes, and, just in case anybody should get the idea she was some ordinary common or garden woman, her ears were slightly pointed.
She was glaring furiously at the hermit. She was not, he judged, a very happy person right now.
“Who told you,” she asked, in a low and vicious tone, “that you could chop down the trees in my Forest?” She spoke in the British tongue, which the hermit knew well; it was still spoken in parts of Bryneich in those days, although the hermit’s folk would have called it Welsh.
The hermit leant on his axe, and smiled, and replied in the same language.
“Your forest, is it? I might argue with that. King Oswald, now, would say it was his forest, and since he, through his ealdorman Gufrith, has given me leave to dwell here, I would be minded to allow his claim.”
The woman laughed, but not with mirth.
“Kings!” she said, contemptuously. “I have seen so many men who called themselves kings. He who lies in yonder barrow called himself a king; he thought this land was his, but he was wrong, and now even his name is forgotten. I saw the Romans come, with their lines and their numbers and their writing, and they thought this land was theirs forever, but they left and passed away as all mortals do. And now your folk come from over the sea, and claim it for their own. But while all the mortal kings have come and gone, I have been Queen of the Forest all the time, and I gave you no leave to dwell here, still less hurt my trees. Begone, lest I turn you to a tree yourself!”
The hermit made no move, and carried on smiling.
“Try it,” he said.
“I said, if you can turn me to a tree, try and do so.”
The woman gave a cry of fury.
“How dare you speak to me so? Very well, I shall - ”
And then she stopped, for she had tried to take a step forward, but found she could not.
“If this is your land, lady, step forward, and claim it.”
She struggled for a moment, trying to force her foot forward, but did not move. She gave another wordless cry of rage.
“It seems your claim is denied, lady. This corner of the forest would appear to be mine. Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve more trees to cut.”
He did not see the lady again for some time, but now and again he saw a silver haired cat, with yellow eyes, walking around the unseen edges of his hermitage, and looking at him balefully. Meanwhile, he worked to put his little land in order, raising fences against more earthly depredations such as wolves, and planting out vegetables, and a herb garden. He set up a fish trap in the burn, which formed one edge of his boundary. Beyond the burn was bare moor, sloping down to the valley where the abbey and the new farms were, and where at whiles he would go with eggs or other produce, which he traded for salt, and flour, and other items he could not grow or make himself. On all the other sides of his steading was the Forest: and there he did not go.
The next time anything happened was on the night of the full moon, when he was awakened at midnight by the sounds of horns, and galloping hooves, and shouts and cries as if a hunt was passing by. He got up from his bed, and looked out into the moonlight, but saw nothing.
“Ah, I see,” he said to his goats. “She’s trying to frighten me. Well, she’ll have to do better than that.” And he returned to his bed, and took no further notice of any noises in the night.
The following day, as he was extracting four fine fat brown trout from the fish trap, a door opened in the side of the howe over the burn, and a dark haired man, clad in grey and brown, and wearing a torc of bronze around his neck, walked out of it. The dark man strode up to the burn, shook a spear at the hermit, and declaimed haughtily in a language the hermit did not know.
“Sorry, old lad,” the hermit replied pleasantly, “I no speak whatever that was.”
The Queen of the Forest appeared suddenly. She was standing on the same side of the burn as the hermit – but on the other side of the fence.
“He said,” she told the hermit, impatiently, “that you are fishing in his sacred river, and would you kindly leave off before he calls the Wolf-spirit down on you.”
“Shan’t,” the hermit replied. “He’s no use for fish, what with him being dead and all, so there’s no call for him to be playing dog in the manger at this time of day.”
The dead king, meanwhile, had seen the Queen. He pointed his spear at her, and jabbered angrily.
“He doesn’t seem to like you,” the hermit observed.
“Yes, well, there was a bit of a misunderstanding between us,” the Queen replied, “and I had to have him killed. Look, aren’t you even a little bit frightened?”
“Let me think … no, can’t say I am.”
“But all mortals are frightened of ghosts!”
“I can’t see for why. Yonder king can’t do me any harm, being naught but spirit, nor can he cross this burn. Anyway, he’s only here because you woke him up. Put the poor soul back in his barrow, and let him rest.”
The Queen pouted.
“How do you know he can’t cross this burn?”
“Same reason I know you can’t. If he could’ve done, he would. I reckon he’d like to stick that spear in you.”
The Queen frowned, and waved her hand, and the dead king faded away, still waving his spear at her and (by the sound of it) cursing.
“And why do you think I can’t cross the burn, hermit?”
“Like I said, if you could, you’d have done it afore now, and turned me into something unlikely the minute I left my steading to go to market. Which tells me that the burn is the edge of your country, and your power doesn’t run outside of it, no more than it runs inside of this fence.”
“You think you’re very clever, hermit, but this land is mine, and I shall have it back, whatever you say.”
“Please yourself,” the hermit said, and carried on gutting trout. The Queen vanished.
A raven landed on the far side of the burn, and eyed the pile of fish guts. The hermit nodded at it, and threw the offal across the stream.
And the next time the silver haired cat came prowling around the steading, a raven flew down and swooped on it, and the cat had to make an undignified dash for the safety of the Forest.
When the Queen came back again, she tried a new tactic. As the hermit sat outside on a fair day, eating his simple meal of hard bread and goats cheese, the Queen appeared, sat on a silver chair, at a table draped in white samite, on which was laid all kinds of marvellous food and drink. She was sipping wine from a silver chalice, and smiling.
“Are you enjoying your food, hermit? Do you not crave a finer meal?”
The hermit glanced briefly at the feast laid out on her table, and cut himself another slice of cheese.
“I’ve seen better,” he remarked.
“Nonsense. How could a simple hermit have seen better than this?”
“I’ve not always been a hermit, lady. I’ve travelled far, in my time, and been in the service of many a lord, aye, and not a few kings. I’ve had my fill of rich food, and fine wines, and I need no more of it. My own fare will do for me, thank-you kindly.”
“But surely this wine would be preferable to water from the burn and goats milk?”
“Gives me indigestion,” the hermit said, firmly. “And terrible wind.”
The Queen sighed, and with a wave of her hand the feast vanished.
“You are beginning to annoy me,” she told the hermit, and then faded away into the Forest.
“Good,” said the hermit, after she had gone.
There was a lull of a few days before she turned up again, during which time the hermit managed to capture a swarm of bees, and build a hive for them. It would be a while before he got any honey out of them, but in the meantime they took to the hive at once, and buzzed around industriously.
When the Queen returned, it was at sunset on a warm day, and she strode out of the Forest with her hand on one hip, a sly smile on her face, and clad in naught but a silver circlet in her hair.
“It must be many a long year since you had a woman, hermit,” she said, in honeyed tones, “and never a one so fair as I. Come here, and I will pleasure you in ways you would not believe.”
But once more the hermit shook his head.
“Why do I think you don’t really get the whole idea of being a hermit?” he asked her.
“Don’t try and pretend you can resist me, man. All men are slaves to their lusts, even hermits.”
“Well, I won’t deny I’ve had my share, and a bit over,” he replied. “Three proper wives, to say naught of the others, and I’m not sure how many childer could call me father, did they but know. You might not think it now, but I was held handsome in my youth, and many a maid fancied her turn with a young warrior. But those days are over, and I’ve no wish to recall them. As for you, you’ll catch your death, standing about with no clothes on.”
“Why would I catch my death? It’s a warm day, and I can wear as little as I please.”
“I wasn’t thinking of the cold; I was thinking more that you might catch it hot.”
And at those words there came a loud buzzing noise, and all the bees in the hive took to the air at once and headed straight for the Queen. She gave a yelp, and turned to flee, looking considerably less alluring as her glamour slipped and she concentrated on running. The sound of laughter pursued her, and not all from the hermit. It’s terribly insulting to a fairy queen, to be laughed at by a goat.
Her next try was to appear surrounded by sacks overflowing with gold coin.
“Oh, come on,” said the hermit.
“Yes, all right, that was a bit desperate,” the Queen admitted, as the fairy gold disappeared. “Look, hermit, what do you want?”
“Naught you have the power to give, lady,” he told her. “Unless it be that I’d like you to leave me in peace.”
“I am never going to leave you in peace, not until you leave my Forest.”
“Well, now, is it your Forest? Let’s study that question. How is it yours, h’m? Did you make it? Did you plant all the trees? How did you get to be Queen of it, exactly?”
The Queen shrugged.
“How does anyone get to be a queen? My mother died, and I killed my sisters before they could kill me. Which made me Queen, of my Forest.”
“You didn’t answer the question about who made the forest.”
“So? I’m still Queen of it.”
“Tell me … do the trees know that?”
“Another stupid question!”
“D'you think so? Let's see ...”
The hermit turned to a tall ash tree that stood close by, and looked up at it. He held up a hand toward it, and said:
“Sprecan thu, æsc!”
And the tree moved, as if waving in the wind, save that there was no wind, it being a still summer's day. It turned, and despite it having no face, or eyes or any features that could be seen, it seemed to be looking down on them. And then it spoke. It spoke slowly, with the sound of timbers creaking, and it said
“Who wakes me?”
“I wake you, old Ash,” the hermit said. “I would ask you a thing.”
The tree seemed to bow slightly.
“Ask, friend, and I shall answer if I can.”
“Tell me, old Ash, how long have you stood here?”
“Nigh on ninety summers have I stood.”
“And for how long has the Forest been standing?”
“For many a long year before that, longer than the life of any Tree. We grow, and we die, but the Forest remains. It was here before Men came, and that is long indeed, even for trees.”
“And who rules the Forest?”
There came the sound as of a high wind in the branches, and the tree shook. It was laughing.
“Rule? There is no rule in the Forest. Each tree must strive for sunlight as best it can.”
“So there is no Queen of the Forest, then?”
The tree laughed again.
“She who stands beyond your fence calls herself so, but whatever she is Queen of, it is not us. We were here before her kind, and we will be here when they have gone.”
“Thank you kindly, old Ash; sleep now, and stand for many ages.”
“Be hale, friend! Oh, and if you could do something about the squirrels, I should be grateful. They nibble at me so.”
“I'll see what I can do. Slǣp nu, æsc!”
The tree turned back, and became still once more.
“Yes, well, of course I do not rule trees, fool. I am the Queen of the Forest, not ruler of vegetables. I rule the land!”
“And who gave you that rule?”
“I told you: I took it from my mother.”
“Aye, but who gave it her, eh?”
The Queen looked uncomfortable for a moment, but rallied.
“It matters not; I am the Queen of this land, and you are on it. Get off.”
The Queen seethed with fury.
“You are insolent, hermit, and trespass upon my patience as well as my land. I have been kind up until now, but now you shall feel my wrath!”
“Guff. Did your people build this farm?”
“No, but -”
“Well, somebody did, and it must have belonged to them, and not you. Shall we find out what they have to say about it?”
And before the Queen could reply, he stooped over a patch of bare earth, and spoke some words over it. The dry earth cracked, and a hole appeared, and grew wider, and the figure of a man rose up out of the ground, until he stood tall, shaking the soil off himself. He wore a helmet, and a breastplate over his tunic; a short sword was at his belt, and a javelin in his hand. He looked at the hermit keenly, and then looked about him, and nodded.
“Well met,” the hermit greeted him, in Latin; “what is your name, soldier?”
“Lucilius Atellus, late decanus of the Twentieth. How long have I been in the earth, citizen?”
“At least three hundred years, soldier. I take it this was your farm?”
“Good Goddess! That's a long time asleep! And, yes. This is my farm. I was given it when my service had ended, or so I thought. Aye, this was mine, though it is much changed.”
“There were no trees here then; the nearest the Forest came was a good mile away, over the hill.”
The hermit raised an eyebrow, and looked at the Queen, who was looking uncomfortable again. The soldier followed his gaze, and put his hand to the hilt of his sword.
“You!” he said, angrily. “You were the one who stirred up the Votadini after Magnus took his legions to Gaul! But wait – that cannot be, if it is as long ago as you say. You should be long dead.”
The hermit shook his head.
“Her kind don't die, unless you stick something sharp in them,” he told the soldier.
Lucilius gave a bitter laugh.
“I see,” he said. “I wish I had known she was that sort at the time. I'd have made sure to stick something sharp in her. Great trouble she caused me! I had to go back to the army, and fight, and it was all for nothing, seeing as I got killed. I don't suppose I can stick her with something sharp now, can I?”
“No, I'm afraid not, since you are not really here.”
“Pity. Do you keep this farm now, citizen?”
“Aye, that I do.”
“Keep it well; a good man died for it, though I say so myself. And keep her out of it!”
“I'll do my best. Rest now, soldier, and thank you for your words.”
“You're welcome; it's good to see the old place being cared for, after so long. Farewell!”
After the soldier had returned to earth, the hermit cocked an amused eye at the Queen.
“Nobody ever seems pleased to see you,” he observed.
“You have only seen my enemies,” she retorted.
“Ah yes … I was wondering about that. How is it I never see any others of your people?”
The Queen scowled, unattractively.
“Never you mind,” she told him. “I have my reasons. That isn't the problem here. The problem here is I have a holy man trespassing on my land. Trespassing is bad enough, but I hate you holy monks and hermits, waving your crosses and praying and following your outlandish god.”
The hermit sighed.
“Your kind never do notice anything outside themselves,” he said. “Do I wear a cross? Have you heard me singing hymns, or praying to anybody?”
“But I thought … I thought all hermits were of the church?”
“You thought wrong, lady. Have you learned nothing? I have shown you that the Forest doesn't know you as Queen. I have shown you that this farm was built outside the Forest; you didn't bring the Forest here; the trees did that by themselves. Have you not thought to ask why you can't set foot on this farm? One reason is because you have no right to do so.”
The Queen stared at him with her yellow eyes, as if she were seeing him for the first time.
“Why have I not asked that question? You keep me out. But how can you do that? Who are you, hermit? Why are you here?”
The hermit smiled.
“I'm not so foolish as to tell you my name, lady. No more than you'd tell me yours. As to why I'm here; I am here because my folk have no need of me now. The cross-wearers have taken over, and the old ways are gone. And so I live alone, out of the sight of my own folk, and out of the hearing of church bells.
“But I am not alone in being alone, am I? Who is left of your people, lady, besides you? How long have you been the last of the People of the Forest?”
There was a silence, and then the Queen said, in a small voice
“How did you know?”
“Like calls to like, shall we say. Enough, now. I can keep you out of here forever, or … I can invite you in. But if I do, it shall be as I wish it, not as you might like. Which is it to be, lady: live alone in your Forest, where the trees do not care, or step across, and have company? Choose now!”
The Queen stood awhile in thought, remembering all she had been, and what she now was, and for a moment she drew herself up, and looked proud. But only for a moment. Then her head fell, and she nodded.
“I will come in,” she said at last.
The hermit smiled.
“Then come in, and be welcome,” he said.
And the Queen crossed the border, and stepped into the hermit's enclosure, and wondered why she had never before noticed that the hermit had only one eye, and that there were two ravens sitting on the roof, not one, but even as she thought these things she felt her power drain away, and she ceased to be a Queen.
The hermit smiled again.
“Her kind never see ought outside themselves,” he said. And he turned, and carried on with his work, and lived on alone at the edge of the Forest, waiting for better times. But now he had a silver haired cat, with yellow eyes, to keep the mice down.