A/N: I wrote this a year ago, posted it, hated it, took it down the next day, and recently rediscovered it. I think I like it. I think. I never quite like anything I write, but there you have it. I hope you like it!
Shifting sunlight flashed on the man's spectacles as his horse galloped through the forest. The horse was a majestic mount, black and glossy; a horse of war and conquest. Its hooves kicked up moss and sticks as the rider expertly maneuvered through birch boughs and root-broken ground.
The rider himself was no less of a regal specimen. Tall, broad shouldered, with long, strong limbs and a stern face. He carried himself with confidence alike to a king's, but his eyes, sharp and green in the golden evening light, were alert, restless.
To almost any other human, the trees and the rocks, the leaf mould and secret dark places where the eyes of woodland animals glistened were normal. A part of the world like any other. Nothing special, nothing sacred.
But Berwald Oxenstierna was no ordinary human.
He could sense a life in the trees and rocks and dark places much greater than a simple thirst for sun and air. It was all-knowing, omnipresent. A life like his own. A life whose presence had brought him here, to a forest far from his own lands, with its draw.
The journey had not been hard. Sailing across the sea was as natural as walking to Berwald and his people, as was camping on the moonlit beaches. Following the rivers inland, through misty meadows and valleys had been no challenge either, but now it was different. Alone in this great wood, however uninteresting it was to human eyes, Berwald felt ill at ease, as if he was being watched.
Anticipation lay heavy in the air as he rode on, deeper into the heart of the woods. Gradually the sun began to sink behind a distant ridge, and twilight settled over the tops of the trees. Fog began to wind its way about the trunks of the trees, and suddenly the wood was full of noises.
To Berwald it seemed the world was shifting, as if there was a glow to the air that had not been there before. Dusk was the magical time, after all. The time in between when neither the sun nor stars could bear witness to the mischief of the spirits.
A sudden movement to his left caught his attention, and as he turned his head he saw a flash of something flitting through the trees. Instinctually Berwald knew that it had not been a deer or other animal he had seen, and he spurred his horse into a brisk trot to pursue the mysterious creature.
Ahead of him the pattering of feet (or was it the dew shaken from the trees by his passing?) quickened. As he rode on, he could only catch glimpses of the skipping figure ahead of him, its edges blurred by mist. It seemed to be dancing. The trees around him began to rustle as a breeze passed, but to Berwald it sounded like exuberant laughter. Pulled on by some force apart from himself, he sped his horse across the uneven ground.
Suddenly, as if they were being conjured away by the fog, the trees around him spread out and vanished, and the horse and its rider were standing in a large clearing wreathed in mist and fireflies. In the center stood a small figure, still indistinct from a distance.
Berwald dismounted, and stood awkwardly next to his animal, squinting towards the person in the center of the field.
He was a boy... no... a man. A small man. Pale and slender like the birches he had so lithely slipped through earlier. Eyes the colour of the twilight sky above them peered curiously back, the face surrounding them still warm from laughter and exertion. For a moment there was no movement, no sound, in the little clearing as each stranger examined the other. Berwald was entranced by those eyes, so wide and clear. Yes. This was one like his own. Not quite human, not quite a god. A symbol, a representation, a world of his own.
"You are... different. Like me." The sudden words broke the tense silence. Jarred into awareness by the voice of the other, Berwald stepped forward, but the little man jumped back, startled. He immediately stopped advancing and returned to his horse's side, gripping the reins, his eyes trained on the other's nervous face.
"Why are you following me?" The man's voice was like bells or water. Berwald wasn't sure which. It flowed and sang with equal timbre.
"Sensed ya." Berwald's voice- low, gruff, and mumbling- was a great contrast to his noble appearance and bearing, but the other man didn't seem to care. "Wanted t'find ya. T'make sure."
"Oh." The as-yet-unnamed stranger sat down in the grass and absentmindedly began weaving strands of tall barley into braids. Berwald only stood there, not sure what to do. He was used to being treated with deference and awe. Not like this. It unsettled him.
"M'people call y' 'Österl'nd.'"
The laugh that was like whispering trees rang out across the field. "That's a very silly sounding word. I am Suomi. You are from across the sea. I can tell. You smell of salt water and different soil. My people call you Ruotsi."
"I like Ruotsi better." As he said this, "Suomi" stopped braiding stalks of grass, and walked towards Berwald until he was almost next to him. He was a whole head shorter, almost small enough to pass as a woman or a child. His flaxen hair fell from his forehead as he looked up into Berwald's face, into his eyes. "You want me to come with you, don't you?"
Inexplicably flustered by the little man's approach, Berwald only stared, perplexed at the bluntness of the statement.
"Why else would you have come? You are a great warrior. You conquer and burn and kill. You want to feel my land is a part of you, just as it is a part of me."
Suomi laughed that little, rippling laugh and suddenly danced out of arm's reach again, twirling through the air and kicking up fog in great billowing clouds. "You'll have to catch me if you want me. And you cannot ever chase me without failing. These woods are deep and dark, and I am their master. You will lose your way, and I will be always be gone before you find it again."
For a while, Berwald watched the cavorting Suomi pass around the perimeter of the field, reenacting a ritual far older than the humans and the gods they worshipped. He was so cheeky, like a child, but there was hidden wisdom in those eyes and power in his dance. It was a dance born of the earth and of the past, one Berwald knew well. As night fell and the air began to chill, Berwald turned to go. He would return, but tonight it was not yet time for action.
Leaving the clearing silently, Berwald made his way back into the snarl of birch and pine he had come from, picking his way over fallen branches and broken stones. He turned one last time to look at Suomi as he passed into the woods. The little man was no longer skipping about, but was standing and watching him leave, smiling, his eyes sparkling. For a moment, Berwald could not tear his gaze away from that face. There was more magic, more mystery and ethereal beauty in that face than there was in any spirit, place, or person Berwald had ever known. It shone, pure and powerful, from those pale, entrancing eyes.
"Goodbye, O Sverige-from-across-the-sea. I know you will be back for me again in time, but whether I am here, there, or in between places, you will never find me."
Berwald only nodded and turned, swinging himself onto his horse and trotting it slowly through the trees. Behind him joyous song swelled from Suomi's throat, and a sudden ache of longing gripped at Berwald's heart. He almost turned back, but instead continued on through the darkened trees, back towards his boats, his people, and his land.
Above him the first constellations twinkled through the highest branches and the moon began to shine over the ridge in the distance. The hour for spirits was over, the in between time fading slowly and inexorably into night, but Berwald could have sworn that on the way back the trees bowed back and the stars shone bright, allowing him to pass with ease through the lands of Suomi.
I rather like pagan-ish Finland. In this particular headcanon of mine (one of many), he is not initially afraid of Sweden because he has a greater connection with his people through their animistic beliefs. His personality is not effected by Christianity or domination yet. He is still a child, I guess. I don't know. Watch me ramble!
Reviews would be appreciated, of course, but no pressure. c: