The girl’s scalp was gripped by a bony green hand that caught strands of red hair in broken black fingernails. Wincing, she was pulled closer to his hook-nosed visage that reeked of bitter fermentation. Dabbing a finger into the wooden bowl beside him, the child’s emerald eyes watched his withered digit poke forward dripping near-black purple before a chill touch smeared another sigil upon the fair skin of her face.
His eyes were pools of black surrounding shrunken green rings that pulled back and surveyed the marks on the child. Nodding, he reached beside the bowl and grabbed the long glass neck of a bottle. Raising it in the moonlight, he sloshed the contents within its onion-shaped base before pulling out a cork with toothless gums.
“Drink,” he said spitting the cork to the dirt.
Shaking her head, the girl squirmed away from the mouth of the bottle.
He pulled her forward by the hair, evoking a cry as he shoved the sour-smelling wine to her lips. “Drink!”
His hand slid from her scalp to her face, an iron grip forcing her mouth open before he poured a draught between her lips. Struggling, she choked down the fermented elderberries as his fingers pinched her lips and jaw shut.
“Yeh have no idea how costly difficult this preparation was to brew for meh… But yeh ain’t right without it!”
He felt a forced swallow travel down her throat and let her slip away before she coughed and gagged. Gathering a loose pile of black ribbon on the bare earth by the bowl, he ran the length of the silken strip over his tongue while leering at her. The silk left his toothless mouth and he snapped it taught, whipping it over her wrists before it wrapped her hands painfully tight with its own animation.
“Ah’d like to see yeh snap meh gleipnirs now an’ be so spirited!”
The red-haired girl struggled with the unyielding bonds in her smock dress and apron, then looked at him with black-stained lips and defiant eyes.
Rising withered, green and naked, the old man handed the free end of black ribbon to a skeletal hand that gripped it with wooden ligaments. The woodsman lurched away, axe in its other hand before it was followed by a monstrous brother. It dragged a struggling snow white pup painted with sigils that matched her fellow captive.
The animal pulled against the silken lead and collar that choked her before the red-haired girl bent down and scooped her up between steps. Now following their captors together, the old man was subjected to the girl’s defiant gaze once more as she hugged the whelp. His black eyes unmoved, they were yanked away behind the lumbering woodsmen.
He looked to the full moon above. With knobby forked fingers he measured the shrinking distance between it and the Elven Star, then smiled. His eyes fell to the twelve stumps that formed a broad circle around the thirteenth in the center. The burning wolf-tallow candles placed upon them warded the lifeless dirt within the desecrated grove with a smoky stench. Beyond, a white mist hugged the forest ground leading all mundane men astray.
The Old Man of the Elder Trees turned and watched his woodsmen bind the gleipnirs of the sacrifices to the large central stump. “Make ‘em tight to the altar, Sambucus. Particularly the girl. ”
A wood-bound skull nodded with pale green elderberries bobbing in its eye sockets. Bone talons pushed the girl and the wolf-pup almost nose-to-nose on the block before the ribbons that bound them wound around the stump.
“Rose! You should’ve run,” the pup whispered as the gleipnirs pinned them down like iron bolts. “You should’ve left me!”
“I’m not leaving you,” Rose said reaching out to wipe away the whelp’s lone tear. Then the black ribbon snapped and she winced after her wrists were slammed to the stump’s side.
The pup struggled to breathe in the tightening bonds, then spoke again in her girl’s voice. “What was in the bott—”
“—Silence!” the Old Man commanded slamming the wine bottle on the table beside the altar-stump. “Ah feast but once every seven years… an’ Ah detest dinner conversation!”
He left the long necked bottle wobbling on the warped grey table atop layered stains of red. Moving naked and hunched beside the children, he tapped a green finger on the napes of their necks and pointed to the larger of the two woodsmen in attendance.
“Stars are almost right. But Ah want clean cuts this time, Sambucus! Yeh’ve been gettin’ sloppy lately!”
The monster shrugged and nodded, raising an axe with a wood shrouded arm. Its smaller counterpart opposite them did the same on the other side of the altar-stump, and beyond the ring of tallow candles shadowed figures in the mist followed suit as well.
“Papa will fell you like you felled the trees,” Rose choked out with her face bound downwards by the gleipnirs.
Snarling and toothless he looked at the girl. “Quiet!”
“The old woman showed me in a dream. You’ve taken what wasn’t yours and done terrible things with it!”
“Yeh has witchblood in yeh for sure, but yeh dream is wrong! ”
“Dreams with her in them always come true.”
The Old Man slammed his fist on the table, causing ritual tools and eating utensils to jump above a cracking board. “Yeh dream is wrong! Ain’t in the stars, child! They didn’t fall for her! They didn’t fall for meh! They won’t fall for yeh papa… An’ they certainly won’t fall for yeh! ”
“There was a stag,” Rose said before a branch snapped in the night.
His black eyes turned to the woods outside of the circle, across a carpet of fog that suddenly rippled in the moonlight. Bursting from shadows, a stag leapt into the clearing that separated the desecrated grove from the Easrune Wood. Cloven hooves kicked chunks of leaves and moss as it sprinted through the mist bellowing a panicked cry. Behind his velvet antlers, a herd a dozen strong erupted with the snap of branch and bush… and a long wolf’s bay.
“Neh! Not the bitch, again! ” he shouted as the deer were driven towards them.
Waving his arms to flag the great stag away, it instead jumped the ring of candles as he screamed. Hitting the bare earth within the grove white-eyed, the animal reared and bellowed before narrowly missing his bald green head with a cloven hoof.
The stag cried a second time as broken black nails gripped its horns, then was silenced by a sudden wet snap.
The Old Man lifted the still kicking carcass of the deer over his head with an enraged cry, throwing it at the herd that poured into his ritual space. They swept past him in a panic, one smashing into the table and flinging his tools in all directions. He leapt forward nimbly but in vain as they fell to the dirt… Save for the bottle of wine that he snatched from the air with a spry swipe.
Turning, he glared at whence the deer had come while they thundered out the opposite end of the grove. The grey she-wolf hurled herself headlong at him, slamming into the invisible barrier of the ward paces away from his throat.
He nearly buckled-over cackling, then pointed as Autumn scrambled to her feet. “Clever, clever girl! But no man or beast topples this ward but meh!”
The she-wolf bared her fangs. “I’ll see you die!”
He juggled the bottle and snatched it with a laugh “Not tonight! The stars ain’t right!”
The root-like foot of a woodsman stomped to her side, and Autumn dashed out of the reach of the swinging axe that whizzed past her tail. A second and third monster of wood and bone lumbered in to surround her.
With a satisfied nod, the Old Man motioned towards the minions behind his back. “Sambucus, go kill ‘er with the others before she has a chance to make a significant distraction…”
The huge woodsman lurched forward, taking a tall stride over the tallow candles while its master took in the sight of the she-wolf barely avoiding one axe swing after another. Glancing over his shoulder, he shouted at the woodsman that remained standing guard over the children.
“Yeh too, Adox. Ah can cut meh own meat tonight…”
He turned and immediately saw the black, sappy juice dripping from the inanimate woodsman’s ribs. It pooled onto an empty stump dangling cut gleipnir ribbons.
His screech turned the skulls of the remaining monsters to their master.
Seizing the moment of distraction, Autumn darted past the woodsmen to escape their encirclement. Only the low hefted swing of Sambucus’s axe tried to stop the she-wolf. Bounding over the attack, her eyes were locked on the red cloaked poacher running with his daughter clutched under an arm… and the white pup just behind them.
Reed reached the candle-topped stumps marking the grove’s boundary before the Old Man began his scramble to catch them. Raising his hunting sword while Rose clung to his shoulder, he looked back at the furious green face of the inhuman wizard before putting his daughter down.
“To the woods, both of you! We won’t let him follow!”
Snow leapt past Reed’s oxblood cloak high enough to clear the flickering wicks and see her mother loping towards them. “Rose! It’s Mama! We’re—”
The white whelp smacked into the same invisible barrier that had blocked Autumn. With a whine, she fell to the dirt before a dry voice hollered behind them.
“Yeh can’t escape! Yeh kin can’t pass in… or out! ”
Reed clenched his teeth and swept the blade of his sword down into the candles above the whelp. It bounced off the tallow as if it were solid iron, denting the weapon’s edge. With the wizard seconds away, Reed reared back slamming the heel of his boot into the waxy sticks. It had no more effect than the sword.
“None topples the ward but meh, Fool!”
Reed turned and shielded Rose behind his back as the Old Man charged with an almost simian gait. “Go to the wolf-mother, Rose! He shan’t have you both! ”
Autumn came to stop outside the ward in time to see Rose looking at the white pup by her slippers. “But Papa! Snow can’t—”
“—I’ll protect her! Go!” he shouted leveling his sword at the fiend skidding to a halt beyond the weapon’s reach. The Old Man’s leering visage eyed the quartet before he began a throaty, low chuckle.
Wide-eyed at the sight before her, Autumn pressed grey paws against the invisible barrier. “He’s vulnerable to steel, Reed! But his grip is death! ”
The she-wolf looked to her white daughter trapped behind the ward, then to a shaking Rose meeting her gaze.
“Listen to your father, child! Come to me!”
Rose reached out to embrace Autumn’s neck, but touched unyielding force instead. She pushed harder, hands held inches away from wolf-mother’s paws as if a pane of glass separated them.
Ears flattened, Autumn shook her head as the Old Man’s snickering gave way to taunting guffaws. “How can this be, Reed?”
Rose withdrew from the barrier and cast a puzzled look as her father glanced back.
“What’s this trick, Old Man? Your ward didn’t stop me!”
He cackled with a toothless smile, shaking the bottle in his hand. “Her soul wasn’t right, yeh fool! Ah had to add what Ah needed!”
Reed tightened his sword-grip and snarled. “What. Have. You. Done?!”
Rose lifted Snow up from the ground, silently holding the pup tight as the white whelp growled at the Old Man’s continued laughter. Behind them, Autumn glanced at the nightmarish woodsmen lurching closer and back to the children trapped behind the candles.
Then Reed lunged forward with his blade of steel.
The Old Man ducked the swipe of the hunter’s sword, then swept up and forward swinging the bottle of wine he held. It exploded on Reed’s face, spraying sour brew and biting glass while the blow sent him sprawling backwards.
Rose screamed as her father hit the ground several paces outside the circle. Blind and swordless, he skidded to a stop on his back but immediately clawed onto his knees. Choking and spitting out the fowl concoction that mixed with his blood, he wiped his eyes and rushed drunkenly back to the fight.
He crashed headlong into an invisible wall that knocked him back to the verdant, misty ground.
Autumn came to Reed’s side, helping him rise with teeth on his cloak before the green figure behind the candlelight let out another roll of laughter.
“Now yeh is as right as yeh daughter! An’ yeh can bay with the bitch as yeh watch her die!”
Staggering to his feet, Reed pushed against the ward while the black eyes and hooked nose of the Old Man of the Elder Trees loomed behind its protection. He shook the broken neck of the wine bottle at the struggling hunter, then casually tossed it to the side where it landed outside the circle.
Autumn growled a warning as the Old Man turned his back on Reed and faced Rose with Snow in her arms. The poacher looked to the she-wolf just in time to see her scramble out of the way of an axe-strike that pounded the ground. Darting out of range, she stopped as her paw touched cold steel on the ground.
“Reed! I’ve found your—”
A rusty axe-edge was swung through the night, and Reed dodged the swipe pulling a dagger from his belt. His stab missed the woodsman’s heart as his vision heaved and rolled from his injuries… or so he thought before the weapon sailed from a loosening grip as he stumbled to the ground.
Autumn watched wolfish feet slide out of Reed’s boots as he fell. Then every hair on her back bristled as the form under his clothes receded and flowed like water. He tumbled bewildered, losing the shape of a man as an axe-blow chopped a now empty cloak and trouser leg.
Awkwardly wearing Reed’s green tunic, a red wolf plunged out from under the cloak.
…The third and final part of The Old Man of the Elder Trees will be posted on Saturday, May 21st.
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.