This story is for Cirdan - Happy Birthday! Thanks go to Dwimordene, for suggesting the idea for this story, and to Deborah, for all sorts of reasons.
Disclaimer: No, I don't own any of the characters, several of which are gratefully borrowed from Professor Tolkien, who would doubtless be bemused at this particular use of them!
Of Leaves of Gold and Petals Red: A Faery Tale
Chapter 1 - A Walk in the Woods
"I don't care what the locals say! It's too nice a day to stay inside, and anyway, I'm sick of working on this stupid project. 'The depiction of female sexuality in traditional European folk stories' - gah, could Professor Bautista have come up with a less interesting list of suggested topics for this paper if she'd tried? I'm in the mood for a hike, and I've never seen Carterhaugh Woods, so I'm going off explore them now, and that's all there is to it, Deborah. What's the point of going away to college if you never check out anything new?" Janet stood up and casually tossed the battered copy of "An Anthology of Classic Fairy Tales" onto the floor beside her desk, then determinedly walked over to the small (and very overfilled) closet she shared with her roommate, and began to sort through the garments. "Do you think I should take a jacket? I know it's almost October; if I were at home I wouldn't bother, but the weather here is so different from what I'm used to, I don't know whether I'll need one or not. Would you wear a jacket, Deborah?"
Deborah sighed softly, in recognition of defeat. Typical freshman, she thought to herself. I guess I was no different my first year, but still... "So you'll take my advice on clothing, just not on the advisability of hiking through Carterhaugh Woods in the first place. Yes, I'd definitely take along a jacket. Janet, I really wish you'd reconsider this whole thing. I grew up in this town -"
"Which is why I asked you about the jacket," Janet replied absently as she sorted through the clothes.
"And those woods have an unsavory reputation," Deborah continued doggedly. "People say they've seen all kinds of eerie things in them. Lots of people believe they're haunted."
"Oh, give me a break," Janet replied as she pulled the soft, apple-green Irish traveling cloak off its hanger. "Haunted? I suppose you'll be telling me the Blair Witch lives in there next. Don't tell me that after two years in college you still believe in ghosts!"
"Did I say I do?" Deborah replied. "No, I don't believe in ghosts. But I do believe in rapists. It's not smart to go off wandering off in those woods all by yourself, Janet, ghosts or no ghosts."
"Well, if no one goes into Carterhaugh Woods because they think they're haunted, then a rapist looking for someone to attack would hardly waste his time hanging out there, would he?" Doffing the cloak, Janet turned and smiled at her concerned roommate. "Look, I know the RA assigned you to be my official big sister as well as my roommate, and I appreciate your advice. But I'm not a child, and I can take care of myself, really. I'm just going to go for a brief walk to stretch my legs, and I promise I'll be back before it gets dark. If you're really that worried, why don't you come along? Surely the Blair Witch won't bother two girls walking in the woods!"
"I would take you up on that offer," Deborah replied, "but I simply can't afford to take the afternoon off today - my Physical Chemistry exam on Monday is going to be a killer, and I'm definitely not ready for it. Promise me you'll be careful, O.K.?"
"Oh, I promise," Janet laughed. "Don't worry - nothing is going to happen, except that I'm going to go for a nice, relaxing hike, and come back ready to wrestle with that stupid Folklore paper again. Walking though the golden woods in September - I just know I'll have a lovely time!"
* * * * * * *
How long has it been,he wondered, since I've laid eyes on a maid - even a mortal one? Long years, certainly, so very long and lonely...
How many Ages had passed since he'd first been ensnared, he no longer knew, for he had no way to mark the passing years. What a fool he'd been, defying the summons of Mandos in his rage against the Valar! Too angry to submit to their authority once more, unwilling to be confined to the bleak Halls of Awaiting, and thoroughly unrepentant, he'd ignored the Summons when it came. A mistake. My last, and greatest, in a life that was filled with them, he thought sadly. For he'd forgotten to take the effects of his Oath into account until it was too late.
Let the Everlasting Darkness take me if I fail in my Oath, he'd called out to Ilúvatar in his grief-borne madness - and after his hröa had burned to ashes, the Darkness indeed came to claim him. He had been defiant at first, but She who had once bound the Black Foe himself in her webs quickly ensnared him with her net of foul power, and after that he was doomed.
He could not escape her now, for She'd forced his fëa into this cage she'd built for it, a hröa identical in every way to his lost one save that it was so laced with her venoms that his fëa could not depart from it no matter how hard he tried. Not that he tried at all, now, for the passing of the long Ages had painfully taught him the futility of that struggle. Nor could he flee physically, for the poisoned hröa he now wore could not bear the touch of light, be it sunlight or moonlight - even starlight burned faintly where it touched his skin, and he was certain that She could track him through the shadowy night in any case, following the ethereal taint his corrupted presence now left in its wake. He remained by her side without protest now, bound to the Darkness She had spun, where She could force him to couple with her to produce her monstrous offspring, and where he forged by day the fair jewels She demanded to feed her insatiable maw. The pain he experienced as he watched her devouring the beautiful works of his hands was far worse than any torments Mandos might have inflicted on him in judgement, he now knew, and this pain was destined to continue until the world's end, when he, along with his Queen and her other foul servants, would at last be swept into Nothingness.
And She knew that he was beaten - and so She permitted him to wander in the shadows near her dwelling place while She slept off her gluttonous feasts. And from the safety of the deep shadows he would watch his Silmaril rise to signal the approach of dawn, notwithstanding the fierce burning pain that its hallowed light caused his eyes, and remember a time when he had himself been pure enough to touch that crystalline fire, and mourn.
But tonight was different. He'd come to the glen, where he could briefly slip out from the gloomy forest to look up at the burning stars, only to find a young mortal woman wandering there - alone and apparently lost, for she kept looking about as if searching for something, her shoulder-length hair disheveled, a limp bundle of flowers cradled in her left arm and one deep red rose blossom tucked behind her ear. A blond - not a redhead like my own lost Nerdanel, he noted, scowling briefly as he remembered the sharp pain that had marked the severing of their bond; for since there was no possibility of his ever being free to return to his wife, the Valar had permitted Nerdanel to dissolve their union. He was destined never to know any more of love...
Or was he?
No, I should not do it,he thought firmly, shocked by the sudden, unexpected thought. It would be wrong; I should not even think of touching her... But the sight of her golden tresses gleaming in the starlight brought back memories of his own lost, beloved wife, how her flaming hair had shined when she had danced before him, clothed only in the Treelight, and he suddenly found himself shivering with desire. To hold a woman in his arms again, to feel the silkiness of that hair under his hands, to breathe in the sweet fragrance of her breath while their lips touched softly... It would only be one night - but such a night of passion might lighten and sustain his poor spirit for many long Ages to come. And she was but a mortal; he knew mortals did not interweave their fëar into the unbreakable tie that knitted lovers of his own people together eternally. She would not be harmed by their joining. And she would surely be willing - oh, yes indeed, for were not mortals easy to beguile? Fallen he might be, but he remained an Elda; a simple mortal maid was no match for his will. Feeling an old, familiar fire beginning to build in his loins, he stepped out into the glade.
* * * * * * *
How did I ever get so lost? Janet thought in despair. I only stepped off the path for a few minutes! She looked around again half-heartedly, but nothing in the glade seemed familiar, and not a trace of a path was to be found.
She'd meant to be careful, she really had - but the bright sunlight streaming though the golden autumn leaves arching overhead had sent her spirits soaring, and she'd skipped quickly along the faint trail she'd spotted leading into the trees, delighted to be away from her small, cramped dorm room at last and back in communion with nature. When she'd seen the daylilies blooming near a crumbling stone foundation just a short distance from the path she was following, she had unthinkingly left the rough, poorly-marked trail. Obviously the ruins of an old, abandoned house - and with an old, overgrown garden full of beautiful flowers just asking to be picked. I'll bring some back to Deborah, Janet decided, as a peace offering. A few flowers will certainly brighten up our dull old dorm room considerably! And so she set about harvesting a bouquet - daylilies, anemones, purple asters, even a few sprigs of goldenrod. And then she saw the old rose garden, half-hidden by the sapling trees, and she wandered over to it, walking happily between the overgrown and shrubby bushes, delighted to find a few late blooms still remaining on the plants. She stopped to sniff one voluptuous blossom after another, now and then stroking the silky petals between her fingers, before plucking a large, fragrant, velvety red rose to tuck into her hair. Deborah will laugh when she sees me like this, Janet thought happily as she carefully tucked the flower into her hair, anchoring the prickly stem behind her ear, but what does she know? That's a science major for you - absolutely no sense of romance! And then she looked up to admire the leaves once more - and to her shock saw the sky was growing dark; in the west, the vivid oranges and reds bespoke a setting sun. I somehow lost all track of time! she realized. It will be after dark before I get back to the dorm; if I don't hurry, the cafeteria will be closed before I return. Time to take my flowers and leave. And she turned back to find the trail - only to discover that she could no longer spot it in the rapidly fading light. She'd been stumbling around now for hours, frantically searching for the path, having lost all sense of direction as the daylight waned. When she first staggered into this clearing, her hopes had lifted at the thought that at least she'd managed to find the site of the old house again, if not the trail, and she now knew where she was - but as she'd looked around she saw no sign of the crumbling foundation or the disheveled garden, and she realized sadly that she was still lost. Exhausted and on the verge of tears, and more frightened than she wanted to admit to herself, she let her pitiful bouquet drop from her arm and sank down beside it on the grass.
"And what brings so lovely a maiden alone into this dark place? Are you perhaps lost?"
Janet sprang to her feet, heart pounding in panic, and turned towards the source of the sound. There, near the edge of the glade, peering out from under the inky shadows of the forest, stood a strange man. How could I have failed to spot him earlier? she wondered, feeling a faint tendril of fear touch her flesh as he stepped completely out from under the lowering trees and walked slowly towards her. "No," she replied firmly, backing away slightly, "no, I'm not lost. Thank you very much for asking - but I'm fine."
"I do not believe that," the man replied quietly as he continued to approach. "I have watched you wandering for some time now. These woods are no place for a maid to roam alone, especially after dark. They are Her abode, and should you continue to stumble blindly about in the darkness you might well fall into one of her traps, and be forever lost. Let me escort you back to your path."
"You... You know where the path is?" Janet replied haltingly, still backing away; although her heart was racing, she found her eyes increasingly drawn towards this mysterious stranger. Tall he was, with hair as black as a crow's wing and clothes to match, and thin, but with a pale face that almost seemed to glow in the starlight, angular and yet beautiful, and intense, glittering grey eyes. There was a strange fire burning in those eyes, and for a brief moment Janet had a vision of herself as a moth, being pulled inexorably towards the light that shone out from that compelling gaze. For an instant, she considered looking away - but stopped instead, and allowed her own gaze to lock with his. Smiling faintly, the man stepped up to her and gently reached out to touch the rose nestled in her hair.
"So, you are lost, after all," he laughed softly, and Janet felt herself blush in shame. "I rather suspected as much - don't look away," he continued gently when she tried to drop her head in embarrassment at being caught in such a transparent lie. The stranger's voice was smooth, and deep as the night that surrounded them both, and held a subtle music nearly as fascinating to Janet's ears as his gaze was to her eyes. "You were being prudent - there is no shame in that. But your caution is quite unnecessary, and it will not lead you from these woods - only trust can accomplish that now. I mean you no harm - will you trust me to lead you to safety?" As he spoke, he slowly reached out to take her hand - and Janet felt a deep hunger slowly begin to awaken at his touch. She nodded wordlessly, unable to speak as the strange feelings washed over her. What is happening to me? she wondered as, hand still grasping his, she silently began to follow the man as he lead her into the woods.
She had no clear recollection of how long they walked together, the man softly singing in an unfamiliar tongue, she close beside him, her hand firmly grasping his, her mind drifting with the music. Then suddenly he stopped, and broke off the song - and Janet blinked, emerging from a mist, her mind her own once more, and saw that they were standing next to a crumbled stone wall. The foundation of the house! she realized, elated. He brought me back, just as he said he would. Now I can go home.
"Yes," the man spoke sadly, "now you can go home," and Janet was not surprised to learn that he'd somehow heard her thoughts. "I thought to take what I desired from you by guile," he continued, looking at her strangely, "but though you would have yielded gladly to my will in the end, to my surprise I have found I am not yet wholly corrupted. It seems a spark of light still lives within me that even She has not been able to extinguish. Go now - stay on the path, and do not stray!"
Janet looked at him again, this fey stranger still radiating power, but with sorrow now damping the light she'd seen before in his eyes. For the first time, she noticed how alien his face seemed - almost human, but... different, somehow. Who are you? What are you? Surely not a man? she marveled as she studied his strange, pale countenance intently, still drawn to his gaze despite the pain she now saw reflected there. On sudden impulse, she reached up and plucked the rose from her hair, handing it to him as though the sweet fragrance might drive away this strange creature's despair. Almost mechanically he reached out and took it when she proffered it to him, and when her fingers brushed against his as he plucked the bloom from her grasp, she felt the deep, aching hunger welling up inside her again - and this time, her mind clear, she recognized it for what it was. "Perhaps I do not wish to leave yet," she whispered softly, letting her own longing shine forth as she gazed at him. You're crazy! a dim voice sounded in her mind. He's a complete stranger! And you've always said that you were going to wait until your wedding night! But the faint protests from that tiny part of her brain seemed unimportant when set against the powerful longings she now felt, and she brushed them aside almost unthinkingly as she reached out to stroke his face.
The sorrow had left the strange man's eyes, to be replaced by a look of stunned surprise. "Are you sure?" he asked after a long moment of silence. She answered by reaching up to pull his head down, and he surrendered to her kiss; then, still embracing, they sank down together onto the dewy grass.
* * * * * * *
I told Deborah it's getting too cold to leave the window open,Janet thought groggily as she slowly awakened, shivering slightly. "Close the window," she murmured - then sat up, startled, when she opened her eyes to see golden leaves, and not the cheap ceiling tiles of her dorm room, floating over her head. As she sat up, she promptly became entangled in her travelling cloak, which she'd been wrapped up in, protecting her a little from the night air. After a moment's confusion, she suddenly remembered where she was. I was hiking, and became lost in the woods, that's right, she thought. And I dreamed I met a Faery, and we... A deep blush stole across her face as she remembered the exact nature of that dream. You need to control yourself better, Janet! Good girls don't do such things, a little voice inside her head scolded. "Shut up, conscience," she said aloud. "It was only a dream - and a very nice one at that! Anyway, it's time to find that path and head back - Deborah's probably called Campus Security by now. If I don't get back soon, she'll probably try to roust the National Guard or something." She stood up, started to walk off and saw to her surprise that she'd taken her pants off during the night. What the heck? I don't remember needing to pee... She reached down to pull her pants back on - and stopped, shocked by the faint smear of blood she saw on her thighs.
That was no dream,she realized slowly. I met a man - no, not a man, a Faery, and we... and we... I can't believe I actually did that! I could have been killed, or worse... She shivered, remembering the stories she'd studied in Dr. Bautista's Folklore class; hollow hills, strange glamours the Fey Folk used to enchain mortals to their will, a person awakening to discover that hundred years had passed overnight. Sobered, she quickly finished dressing and wasted no time returning to campus.
Janet found, to her initial relief, that a hundred years had not passed her by during her strange nocturnal interlude. It was Sunday morning; she had been gone overnight, and no longer - which meant she still had to write that dreadful paper for her Folklore class. 'The depiction of female sexuality in traditional European folk stories' - no thanks, I think I'll choose another topic after all, she decided when, that afternoon, she surrendered to the inevitable and began again to work on her assignment. Throwing her initial draft in the trash, she opened her anthology and slowly began to draw up an outline on the role of seventh sons in traditional folklore. Thank goodness this class is half-over; only a few more weeks to go, and I can put this all out of my mind, she though as she began to work. No one besides me will ever know about any of it, and soon it will be as though nothing had happened at all.
(To Be Continued)