THE FOREST LORD By Susan Krinard
THE FOREST LORD By Susan Krinard
Once upon a time, there was a great and mysterious forest at the heart of Westmorland in the north of England—a place where few mortal men dared trespass. This forest lay on the estates of the Flemings, men of wealth and property, who long ago had sworn an oath to protect the forest and all its inhabitants from the ravages of mankind. In exchange, the Flemings and their kin should never suffer want or ill fortune.
The ruler of this enchanted wood was not of human blood, but of the Faerie, or Fane, an ancient race of near-immortal magical beings. He had lived among mortals for millennia, wearing many names and guises, and had become one of the last of the Elder Race to remain in the realm of man. But he wearied of his exile from the Blessed Land of his own people—Tir-na-nog in the language of the men of Eire—and sought to leave behind the forest he had guarded.
The Fane had grown few in number, and their blood was thin. To save the race from extinction, each Fane stole or sired a half-human child to increase their numbers. The Forest Lord alone had not provided his people with such a child, and so the queen of the Fane commanded that he should not enter Tir-na-nog until he returned with an heir of his making.
Despising mankind, the Forest Lord withdrew to his wood. He watched, and waited, and kept his oath with the human masters of Hartsmere.
The Flemings flourished beyond their wildest dreams. The king granted an earldom, and the Fleming lands grew. Hartsmere became only one estate of many, and the age-old pact was all but forgotten.
So it was that one day the oath was broken. Cyrus Fleming, the Earl of Bradwell, did not believe the stories of the bargain that kept his pockets filled and his lands prosperous. He had almost everything a man could desire, including a beautiful daughter and the leisure to pursue his passion for hunting the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.
One autumn day, he traveled to Hartsmere in search of prey and followed his baying hounds across the fells and dales and to the very edge of the forest. There he glimpsed the most magnificent creature he had ever beheld: a stag of immense size and nobility, waiting as if to invite his shot.
Lord Bradwell fired at the beast and pursued it as it fled into the forest. But he found himself alone. His hounds had vanished, and even the trees seemed to bend down with twisted arms to catch and hold him.
In the place of the stag stood a man such as he had never seen: tall, handsome, and dressed in skins and rough cloth. Upon his head he wore a crown of antlers woven with holly and mistletoe.
“You have trespassed upon my realm,” the man said in a voice of thunder. “You have sought the life of one of my own and broken the pact. For that you must be punished.”
Lord Bradwell realized at once that the stories were true: This man—if man he could be called—was the guardian spirit of the forest, deathless and merciless, a creature of fey power beyond the ken of mortals. Struck mute, Lord Bradwell had no defense to make as the Forest Lord raised his hand to strike. All at once the ground about his feet swarmed and danced with a hundred woodland creatures.
“Should I let my brothers and sisters decide your fate?” cried the Forest Lord.
“Mercy,” Lord Bradwell whispered.
“As you have shown mercy to those so much weaker than yourself?” He stroked the head of a fox that crept up to lick his hand. “I could take away all the bounty and fortune you and your lands have enjoyed. You would be left with nothing but your life.” His smile chilled Lord Bradwell’s blood. “Death might be more merciful. But I will grant you both life and continued prosperity in exchange for one small thing.
“You will give me your daughter.”
Horrified, Lord Bradwell thought of the girl who waited for him far to the south—girl no longer, for she had just turned eighteen. Eden, her beauty pure and untouched, her innocence unsullied, had been groomed all her life for marriage to a man of consequence and title.
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