Set during the time after the Palace leaves but before the Long Sleep.
Jonur paused in cutting his wood when he thought he heard a distant howl. He looked up towards the heart of the Spiritwood and listened. The sound did not repeat as he sat for long minutes. The Woodcutter did not like coming this far into this haunted place but the trees needed cutting. His job was to be the one person in the village to cut them. It had been like this for over a century with his village. One person would be selected as the Woodcutter in the Spiritwood. No other member of the village was allowed to do it. The reasons why were lost to even the village Elders. But no one violated the Rules.
The last time a second person had entered the Spiritwood to harvest timber the man was found weeks later gibbering mad. His condition was otherwise healthy but he was mad beyond reason. The Spirits had taken him and returned him. The Rules passed down from the previous Woodcutter were still clear in his memory even after a decade.
'There can be only one Woodcutter at a time.'
'When a new Woodcutter is named, he must place an offering on the blue stone in the forest himself. It will allow the Spirits to know he is now the Woodcutter and not harm him. The Woodcutter is then considered a Spirit and does not talk to the villagers'
Then the Rules for cutting trees:
'Never take a tree less than twenty seasons old.'
'Never clear cut a section. Always leave some trees behind.'
'Never take a misshapen tree unless it is deadwood.'
'Never cut a second tree while the previous is still unmoved.'
Then the Rules for how to act in the Spiritwood:
'Do not spend the night in the Spiritwood.'
'Never cross the river. That is the spirits' territory.'
'If you try to light a fire in the Spiritwood, your life may be forfeit.'
'Follow these rules as passed down to you and pass them down to your successor.'
Jonur paused in his work. The latest tree he was cutting was an old one. It had been left behind the last time this section had been worked. It was misshapen but it was dead as the rules dictated. He was a superstitious man and followed the rules completely. The knots on the trunk seemed to be open on the inside and large enough for a child to climb inside. To him, this was proof the spirits existed.
The man resumed chopping and fell into a quiet rhythm of work. The echoes of his chops sounded and the chips flew under his blows. He would have this tree down before sunset.
A crack sounded and he looked to see a section of branch falling at him. Jonur tried to move out of the way but the branch fell on his leg. The sound of the bones in his calf snapping was sickening. Jonur screamed in pain and fell to the loam of the forest floor. Darkness claimed him.
Pain woke him after a time. He noted the sun was close to setting so he had been unconscious for hours. He knew he would not be out of the Spiritwood before dark. He could only hang his head as the pain in his trapped leg warped his sight and hearing as he faded into blackness once more.
Jonur dreamed. At least he thought he was dreaming. Sounds like footfalls approached slowly but when he tried to look, he would see nothing. Branches rustled as if pushed by a breeze but the air was still. Each time he moved his head to look, he still saw nothing. He thought he saw a large butterfly light on a branch but it was like no other he had ever seen. He thought it had arms and legs and wore a hat. But when he blinked it was gone. Darkness fell once more.
Jonur opened his eyes in the darkness. Night had come and he was still trapped under the fallen branch. But his ears caught more sounds. He heard soft voices but he could not see anyone or make sense of the words he could hear. He realized the spirits were coming for him. He had broken the Rules. Even so, he did not want to die badly. He thought of the fair Hannah back in town. He always fancied her but his life as the Woodcutter came first. So many things he would have said to her. He knew she would accept his court in a moment but he had nothing to offer her but his labors.
During the years he had been the Woodcutter he had composed a song to express his feelings for his forlorn love. As he felt his death would be coming soon, he began to sing in a slow cadence. His verses were simple but equal to the beat he heard in his head. He sung of how he had seen her as a boy. He had loved her from afar as she was of a good family and he was but an orphan boy. The forest seemed to pause after his first stanza but his words rang out loud without echoing back to him.
He sang of his desire to prove himself worthwhile. He had grown to be a man while she had married young to another. Without hope, he had taken the position of Woodcutter when he came of age. A handful of seasons later, the fair Hannah was widowed when illness passed through the village. No one would take her as wife so she lived alone. A brief meeting during a festival and a hurried night together had left a child between them. Jonur could not give up his position to be with Hannah. Being the Woodcutter was not a position given up on a whim. The Elders forbid him from quitting. The Woodcutter was considered to be one of the spirits of the forest who lived among the villagers. He could not just stop being what he was.
Jonur sang of his frustrations as duty became torture. The beat of his song seemed to start to echo amid the trees now, as if the branches themselves were playing music to accompany him. He watched as Hannah's baby grew to a boy while he did his duty. So near but forever apart. He longed to be father to his son but had to content himself with providing in secret. Hannah knew but said nothing. He could see her eyes follow him when she should be ignoring the Woodcutter like everyone else.
The whispered words of the spirits comforted him once his song was over. Jonur merely said, "I am ready to pay the price now for breaking your Rules."
"Silly man, they are your rules not ours," sounded a gentle voice on the breeze. "We appreciate being left alone so we left your people to think they were. The sadness of your song touched us so we shall help you. But for now, sleep."
Jonur suddenly found his eyes heavy and fell into a deep slumber.
Bright sunlight and the shouts of children woke Jonur. He opened them to see he was on the edge of the forest in the meadow between the fields and woods. A group of people was running up to see what the commotion was. He glanced down at his broken leg to see it braced and wrapped with what looked like spider webs. The pain had gone and it felt almost normal.
A tall stick had been driven into the ground next to him and a strange roll of paper was attached to it. The village elder was pushed to the front and took the message with great hesitation before reading.
'This Woodcutter has pleased us. He was hurt in the woods by a falling branch and we return him to you. His time as Woodcutter is now over. He is free to rejoin your people as one of them. Choose another.'
Jonur closed his eyes to hide the tears in them. Hannah and his son rushed up to him and helped him up. That broke the people out of their shock. The men then helped carry Jonur back to the village.
Cutter smiled weakly as he watched the injured man being helped back to the village next to the forest. His heart understood the pain the human felt as similar to his own. He had cut another notch in his tree recently as he marked the counting of seasons passing. Nearly seven eights of eight had passed since they had been taken from him. He could still feel the echo of his family as they were still here but not here. The wolf in him only knew that they would return to the Now at this place, in this forest. So he waited. One last look at the crowd of humans moving off made the spark of hope for that day glow a little brighter as a kind man was reunited with his family, at last.