She stood among the green: the sharp dark of the pines that added whispers to the wind, the soft green of the oak in spring, the long and torpid leaves of the willow, the twisting ivy that crawled its darkest colors over its brethren. All green was her green even as the slanting, fading sunlight slowly drained the color of its vibrancy.
Cooling her and heralding the coming night, the breeze played with her unkempt hair. The twilight air carried the scent of her forest, so thick it tingled her throat, exhilarated her and lifted her from her dream. Eyelashes fluttered. Green eyes watched the day begin to die. Something had defied her; someone had encroached, breaking the stillness, lurching, nudging time into motion. Feathers of aqua blue above and fire red below shifted as silently as the owl’s wings, though her wings were larger, stretched wide and came forward, enclosing her, blanketing her lithe body within a rainbow of flight that barred the chill of the night from her breast.
A whisper mocked softly behind her: "The forest’s allure, the wind’s sigh seduces more sweetly than the Lorelei."
She turned and greeted her shadow faerie, "No. It cannot be. I left the rushing waters, the cold and sharp stones. I am alone now." Her voice chimed with the wind, sang with the leaves, echoed in the twilight, though she had meant to speak softly and had only breathed her words past her lips.
Her shadow laughed, but only a whisper, always a whisper, "Sweet sound, sweet release, final peace."
The trees rustled more than the wind should disturb the forest. Her gaze darted through the limbs, leaves, and ivy; she knew that her shadow faerie had spoken truly, that some faeries heard too keenly for their own good fortune.
Some loped in bestial, furry guises; others slithered across the dark soil; most flew to Lorelei on diaphanous wings, no larger than the dragonfly’s. Night crept closer, and the shadow faeries grew darker, longer, stronger.
Faeries and their shadow faeries crowded around Lorelei; they moaned and pleaded, "Speak, speak, speak!"
Lorelei heard it as a lamentation, a crushing desire that only the river Rhein had ever coldly quenched.
She had to know, but to know she must ask; the bonds of silken music would grow stronger. But these faeries were already trapped. Lorelei whispered, "Who comes?"
A chorus of moans swept through the assembly. The small groundling faeries encircled her as they continued to chant for more words from her: A cacophony of growls and yowls and strained whispers surged over the wind.
Her slender ears plucked a coarse voice from the crowd, a voice that did not plead for her music: "A wanderer comes; a mortal man has started the night to fall over your frozen woods. The stars will come and turn to your voice with the entrance of usurping Man. One man will hear you and die, as all men do, just as all faeries who hear you bow and scrape to your voice. This is my prophecy for you, Lorelei: The enchanters shall become enchanted by a grim sidhe Queen who does not love her crown."
Lorelei turned. It was good to hear a new voice, even one that mocked her with a timbre of splintering bones. Any tone was better than the sensual agony that always burst forth from the small faeries and men who had heard her whispers.
Lorelei saw the speaker perched on a dead limb of an oak, though no tree near her should have rot or any decay. This new silhouette added itself to the moon shadows of the leaves. It, like her, had wings, but grey wings that were motionless and spread to cast a thick and wide shadow across Lorelei’s face. Atop that curved neck the bald head of the vulture peered at her brightly colored wings with eyes that saw only shades of grey.
The carrion bird spoke again, clacking its beak, "I greet my sweet sister who is not Death, but a death: sweet to pain, a desire shining the path to death. Greetings, greetings, Lorelei, harbinger of delight’s doom."
Lorelei had not forgotten that some sidhe enjoyed their death dancing enchantments. She asked, "Who are you? Why has Man come? Why have you come?"
When Lorelei spoke, the faeries clutched themselves and hushed each other to catch every nuance and tremor in her voice.
The vulture cackled, "Three, three questions. Would you compel me? could you compel me?"
The faeries of the dark forest begged her to answer, not from curiosity, only to hear the music of her voice.
Lorelei stared into the eyes of this grim sidhe who had dared entrance into her new home: Stagnant pools, black stones greeted her.
The vulture stared into green life and the memory of blue rushing waters. The vulture heard the whispering of the green and the thrashing of a river within her eyes.
Grey wings folded back as the vulture averted his gaze from hers. "Enough. You answer my questions hotly. Sailik am I, grim sidhe and bringer of plagues. Unlike my brethren, I did not sleep with the coming of usurping Man. I fly before the sucking spirits and harass the vassals of this wandering man who flees the shadow of my wings, who searches to cut the boughs of your adopted forest to make a home for a village, which pays him and suffers me: Danan Leah, the bruised warrior, the sidhe stalker is he called. Honor me. I have warned you."
Lorelei stood motionless, save for her wings that beat to push a warm breeze at Sailik: a veiled threat, a demand.
Sailik dug his talons into his perch, tucked his wings tightly around his body as he said, "The third question I must still answer. Then, take it! Rejoice, sister!" The vulture mocked and spread wide his wings in triumph. "I come to prepare the way for the grim sidhe host; the winds carry their howls of waking from the tunnels beneath the ground, for our brethren wish to return to the green after their long sleep. This forest you have frozen for your idle faeries will make a home for the awakening grim sidhe."
Lorelei spoke in thunder and monsoon, "This is my home. I am no grim sidhe."
The vulture snapped up a starling that had alighted on his perch. After grinding the bones, he lifted his head skyward, undulating his neck to drag the morsel down his gut. Then, Sailik spoke, "Your tricks are more fitting for faeries and men. Your voice does not frighten me. I have killed more men in a day of plagues than you had ever lured to death in your cold river. Come, we are kin. We shall play a game, you and I, for this forest: I would see who cools the flesh quickest. Two score of men, women, and children approach your forest to cut your green. As I have already begun with them, I will grant you the advantage of numbers. You need only concern yourself with Danan Leah. My pawns shall die ere you can smite Danan Leah with your delicious voice. What say you?"
Lorelei replied, "No. I do not love death. Life am I; green have I chosen. I left the men to spare them from the drowning in the cold river. I’ll make no game with you. Leave." She almost wanted Sailik to stay with her. Even the bleak words of the vulture were a balm to loneliness. So few could endure her voice.
Grey wings lurched through the air. Sailik circled over her three times. Lorelei looked upward. His flight paid his homage to her as a sidhe of death.
As his silhouette slowly glided under the round moon, Sailik called down, "Men will come to your forest. Alone, you cannot keep the woods frozen from the mortal world for your tiny faeries. I am herding mortals here. You must join the awakening grim sidhe, join with me, if you would save the silence of your forest from the cold iron of usurping Man. You delude yourself: escape from serving death? Hah!" the vulture cackled and circled once more. "Look about you, faerie Queen, grim sidhe. It shall be a great game, my sister."
Lorelei looked to the ground and all the faeries of the green were silent and still; eyes wide, besotted beyond dreams, stared at her. She sang softly to her tiny faeries, a song of waking, but they did not stir, ensconced in the memory of her voice, listening to her music, not her words. The last grace note punctuated the silence, admitted defeat before her song had ended. A tear cascaded down her cheek.
Storm clouds gathered.
Slick, smooth, wet, dark covered Danan Leah in anonymity, though the crackling of the dead leaves under his brown leather boots gave notice of his locale, even over the rain’s allegretto. His eyes glinted with a hawk’s predatory awareness, shifted and danced, searching for movement within the forest.
A leaf turned. Something scuttled there, a spidery shape, pitchy as the stormy night; but its movement to escape Danan had betrayed it to his eyes.
Predatory glint shifted to cold satisfaction. Moonlight feebly peeked through the clouds; the glint of steel emerged above his hand.
The air whistled softly as the blade sliced through the wind and rain.
A puff of thick smoke bitterly tainted the forest.
Danan didn’t breathe; he listened. Now, now, they would move, when one of theirs had been banished back to shadow.
But only the snapping rhythm of the rain gave a descant to his expectations.
He retrieved his blade, then. The metal was pocked, almost burned. He slapped it against his iron cestus and the blade shattered. He tossed the moot hilt to the ground and nodded softly to himself.
Let them find it. Let them know that men had come to live here, that he had prevailed. The villagers of Bremerhaven limped over his path, two days old. They had no strength left to defend themselves from the grim sidhe, to forge a new home; and Danan Leah felt it in his bones beyond the wet cold of the night: The enchanted folk dwelled here. The forest had the mists on the ground and the moon rays sparkled against dull trunks: All signs of their touch.
With a light cutpurse’s step, he journeyed always toward the thickness, the age of the forest. That was where their faerie Queen or King ruled: the heart of the green.
After some time, the rain fatigued to a drizzle and finally stopped. Once again, sound became his ally.
A tree was scratched, pecked.
Danan froze. New metal came to his hand. His arm came back with pent up vigor.
The woodpecker’s wings fluttered against the wind as the bird weaved around the trees.
He tracked it with his eyes. Still, he could smite it.
Then, distance preserved it from his sharp metal.
Danan smiled. In the faerie forest the woodpecker’s keen senses and smooth feathers in flight had been good to see, refreshing and reassuring, as was his discipline. He had never wanted blood to be his mead.
Two weeks past: A child breathed in short gasps. Wounds in Bremerhaven would not heal, but fester. The black death had come to Bremerhaven, and not all the leechmongers in the world could comfort the afflicted.
Light began to play with the colors on the trees and ground. The sun began its rounds, and Danan’s heart thumped. The dawn hour was the most dangerous. The grim sidhe owned the changing times. Nothing moved save the rise and fall of his chest. The air chilled him as he stood, silent and still among the trees.
Then, he heard a flapping in the trees. Another bird? He crouched, turned toward the sound: a rustle behind a tree behind a tree, just beyond his sight. Something fell to the ground and moaned, a man’s moan.
Danan drew a long blade, coldly forged in Bremerhaven. He stepped on exposed roots and soft grasses, avoiding the crackle of the dead leaves. A large, grey lump moved at the base of an oak. Danan froze and watched.
A man, robed and hooded in grey fur, rose slowly to his feet. He muttered weakly, "Christ save me. The faeries have struck me down."
Danan rushed to his side, for he had recognized the man. "Sailik, Sailik, how did you get here? How are the people?"
Sailik replied, "Have I ever lied to you, Danan?"
Danan looked at his friend strangely. Sailik’s breath smelled of soured meat, of corruption. Danan replied, "No, you haven’t. Sailik, you have the black death."
Sailik laid his hand on Danan’s shoulder, and the bruised warrior could almost feel the sickness, the tremor of weakness, in that grip. Danan suppressed a shudder. Sailik deserved better than his fear.
Sailik spoke, "I left the villagers on horseback, for I had a vision to save the village, a true dream, a prophetic dream."
A mist clouded Sailik’s eyes. Danan thought his friend raved from fever madness, but hope surged in the bruised warrior. Danan asked, "Have you found a cure?"
Sailik swooned. Danan held him tenderly. Sailik said, "When I left, they were sicker. I rode my horse to its death to catch you, for the dream spoke true to me: The grim sidhe who caused this plague is in this forest, this very night."
Sailik’s breathing grew shallow; his words, softer, husky with weakness. Danan urged him, "What did you see?"
Suddenly, Sailik gripped Danan’s shoulder tightly and stared at the bruised warrior with his clouded eyes. "Listen, Danan." Sailik pleaded, "The grim sidhe is a lady with great wings. You must subdue her, make her speak her name, and your cares will be gone. She stands in the center of the woods, in the heart of the green. Do the Great Cycles speak true of you, Danan? Have you the strength to face a grim sidhe and compel it? Is your heart edged in cold iron?"
Danan looked into Sailik’s eyes and watched the lids slowly sink. Sailik’s head abruptly lolled to the side, as if he were trying to hide his pain from the bruised warrior. Danan murmured, "Yes, Sailik. Minstrels speak truly of me. I will not fail Bremerhaven."
Sailik smiled and said, "Do not fail me." His body became heavy; his limbs slackened.
Danan laid his friend’s body on the ground. It was cold to his touch now. The bruised warrior spoke softly in the night with eyes that could not stare at his friend, "It is ever the same when men die. The flesh bruises so easily from within; the heart tires and can bear no more grief." Danan raised his eyes to the heavens and cried, "What would you have me say, Sailik? Tell you that all minstrels love their words more than the truth? You died well, my friend. You comforted the sick in my absence. I will honor my debt to you. I will find this winged grim sidhe, this bringer of plagues. I shall forge my heart into the cold iron as you have asked and kill this grim sidhe Queen. Let anger steal my grief and keep my sinews hot. I’ll spill sidhe blood to cool my own and this one time I’ll shed not a tear for Death’s harvest."
Danan left his friend at the base of the oak. He walked, setting his thoughts to his task, driving his fear of the faeries from himself with the memory of his new friend, so quickly taken from him.
Sailik’s eyes opened. The north wind howled, carrying the hungry moans of his brethren who waited and watched for entrance into Lorelei’s faerie forest. He stood and murmured, letting his breath and words catch the wind, taking his voice down to the deeps of the earth, where the grim sidhe host hungered for the green, "Ah, it will be a great game with Danan Leah. I must watch him fulfill his oath. The villagers of Bremerhaven must wait a little longer for another caress from me. Danan Leah shall give me the frozen woods if he smites Lorelei. He may succeed; his gaze is strong. But perhaps Lorelei will willingly sing to him to save herself from cold iron and, thus in murder, become a true grim sidhe." Sailik smiled and deepened his voice to catch the next gust: "Either way, the game is mine. These woods will be mine. Fear not, brethren. Your home shall be made ready for when you awaken."
Sailik stretched his cape as the fur shivered and lengthened and spread into grey feathers, which quietly bore Sailik above the forest on a fetid wind, above the plodding Danan Leah.
The forest warmed to Danan Leah’s senses: Everywhere else it was a thickly cold autumn, but here the leaves did not fall to the ground. And the air was alive with the insects of the night. No colors of red or brown or orange painted the trees. Only the green of spring surrounded Danan Leah now, and the vines and ivy blocked his path. He climbed and pushed through the undergrowth laboriously, as if the forest itself wanted to impede his path.
Danan drew his sword and prepared to hack at the green.
The vines relented before the blade touched them. The underbrush moved from his path: Tendrils of leaves retracted, leaving only the soft black mud between him and the center of the dark forest.
She stood before him. Vines wound tightly about her legs. Her wings were spread widely, imperiously. She was as Sailik had described her. At her feet were motionless faeries: Winged human-like bodies, no larger than his hand, slept with open eyes next to spidery shapes of coalesced shadow. All, quiet; all stared at their faerie Queen.
"What is your name?" Danan demanded.
Lorelei looked at him, but kept silent. Her long, pointed ears heard the soft rush of the vulture’s wings bending the air far above them.
Danan approached and lifted his blade.
She looked at the metal; then, at him.
He answered her gaze. Lorelei saw blood and fire in his eyes, constructions of wood to throw burning oils, massive and grey stones carved from the earth only to be battered to rubble by scores of Danan Leahs in armor and flags. His dark eyes knew death, wandered to escape it; Lorelei saw foreign lands within him, shifting sands and curved blades–more blood, more wandering. A tired man was within him, homeless and lost. Within his eyes Lorelei saw bruises, memories of the sword, embraced by cold metal armor that irritated the bruises, that never allowed Danan Leah to forget.
She answered his gaze. Danan Leah felt as if he were falling down towering cliffs above a roaring river; mortal men flocked to him, skewered themselves against a blade of music–no blood: a cold death like her grey cliffs and rushing waters. Then came the green, soft and silent and alone: no men, no women, no children, no faeries, only the green without hearing, immune to the deadly music in her voice.
This was not what the bruised warrior had expected to find within the green waters of this grim sidhe’s eyes: compassion. He pushed his gaze; she welcomed the mortal freely. He saw no corruption in her eyes, no pestilence.
Danan Leah spoke, "I will bring mortals to your woods."
Lorelei silently nodded.
Something moved behind him; a sudden wind buffeted him. He could not believe her eyes capable of treachery: They had beheld too much sadness, too much death. A blade whisked to his other hand with a flick of his arm. Danan Leah turned on the intruder.
Sailik. The foul stench of corruption accompanied Sailik with a cold, grey mist. "Make her speak. Avenge my shade! Strike her down!"
Frightened and amazed, Danan Leah cried to Sailik, "Friend, O! dead friend, you were wrong. Her music is not the black death, and she is silent, sorrowful amid green life that she has preserved. She did not kill you."
Sailik shouted through his mist, "She will not allow the mortals in her frozen woods; she seeks to kill them. You are a warrior, a killer! Slay her quickly before she can speak and the woods will be yours."
Danan’s fear gave way to an old pain. He said, "I am no killer, but a warrior and a reluctant one. Has death treated you so coldly that you have become cruel, Sailik? You never spoke so to me when you lived."
"You are a fool, Danan Leah." Sailik turned to Lorelei and said, "Lorelei, if you do not kill this mortal who bears cold iron, more will come. Your woods will become infested with mortals, who burn the branch and drive out the faeries. Kill him, Lorelei!"
The blue sky feathers lifted and the red feathers pushed a hot breeze at Sailik; the mist dissipated.
Danan Leah gazed into Sailik’s eyes.
"Uh," Danan gasped. The pestilence lurked in Sailik’s eyes, danced over the misery of Bremerhaven while disguised as a healer. Sailik’s eyes were deep with shadow, did not reflect the light as mortal eyes did, but sucked the light from the world: a grim sidhe’s eyes.
Sailik was quick to see Danan’s blade rise. He grabbed Danan’s sword hand.
Danan felt his blood go cold in his sword arm while the skin heated: a burning infection. He sweated and shook as a fever assaulted him with a cold fire in his marrow.
His left hand still had some strength: A short blade embedded in Sailik’s thigh.
Sailik cried out as a cloud of bitter black smoke swirled around his leg, but Sailik did not turn to shadow. "I am no faerie to be so easily banished by your cold iron." Sailik stretched his other hand toward Danan’s face.
Danan leaned backward, almost fainting, and pulled at his numb arm with the last of his strength. Sailik’s bony grip held him fast, burned the fever into Danan.
But Sailik was not so heavy, and Danan was broad of chest; he used his weight to toss Sailik.
Sailik hung onto Danan’s arm as he was catapulted into Lorelei. Danan tumbled to the ground. The world hazed; everything mixed in his fever: Shadows danced and wings of blue and red swirled in whirlpools before his eyes. He tasted the salt in his sweat.
Sailik stood and cackled before Lorelei, "The men will come; I shall lead them and tell them you killed Danan Leah. I shall rage through your forest with the ignorant mortals until the mortals and faeries you seek to protect are naught but corpses piled high over your body. Give way, or I shall steep you in their blood until you become one of us. You cannot deny your true calling, grim sidhe Queen. Death lives in your voice."
She held his gaze. Her eyes burned into Sailik.
Sailik laughed at her passion.
Lorelei whispered, "Danan Leah."
The voice cut through his fever, smashed the haze with vibrant music, filled him with desire amid his sickness.
Danan brought his sword up: It swished through Sailik’s chest. Sailik cried out as his eyes closed in reflexive pain.
Thick smoke engulfed the small glade. Danan coughed as the bitter taste burned his throat. A gentle hand lifted him to his feet with a sure and steady grip.
A cool wind cleared the smoke: Lorelei’s wings slowed their beating, stopped, and covered her body again. She looked at Danan Leah sadly, knowing the madness of her voice was now within him.
But Danan Leah gazed into her eyes, and she saw only a dim memory of her whisper, muted by his fever. She smiled, but her ears caught the wind’s sigh as it carried their enemy. She pointed skyward.
Danan followed her gaze. A vulture plowed the skies. Sailik flapped and arched his wings to catch a southern wind.
A blade appeared in Danan Leah’s hand as he tracked the vulture with his eyes.
Still, he could smite it.
His people were south of the forest. His arm shot forward; the blade twirled and sped from his hand.
Sailik beat his wings.
He lurched in the air, plummeted, fell.
Lorelei heard the ground groan after Sailik’s body had hammered the earth.
Upon hearing the echo in the deeps of the Earth, the host of grim sidhe slowly closed their eyes and returned to their great sleep.
At the edge of her green woods, Lorelei and Danan quietly watched as the plague ridden wanderers from Bremerhaven threw their packs and blankets onto the ground under the autumnal boughs of the dark forest. Their illness made their sleep hot and the forest was filled with their coughing and moaning in the night.
At last all the people slept. And they dreamt of a music, wandering through their camp, that caressed and cooled their fever sweat, that lifted them from their sickbeds. The next day, they rose and found that the forest was rich with healing herbs: A winding path of vibrant green had sprouted in the night. Finding a new strength in their limbs, the survivors cut some of the autumn trees for their homes, for a new Bremerhaven; but they stayed where the seasons changed and never walked into the frozen woods, where the flowers were always in bloom and the leaves, always green.
On the first day of spring as the children were wrapping strips of berry dyed cloth around the maypole, Danan Leah rose quietly from his musty bed and listened to their raucous shouts of delight. The leaves were sprouting on the trees; all seemed new to him, all except himself. He rubbed his arm that always burned coldly hot, even in the spring sunshine. A child ran across his doorstep; then, remembering his manners, the boy came back and solemnly bowed to the bruised warrior of Bremerhaven before running to rejoin the merriment. Danan slowly shook his head. Children could see the death in his scarred face. Age had not yet filtered the truth from their eyes.
No mortal heard him whisper, "Spring and I are old enemies. Ach, I do not belong, too cold now, too cold for the maidens, too dark for the children, too long with the sword."
Beyond the maypole, beyond the village, he saw her. Their eyes met. And, as before, they understood each other without words.
The next morning the village elder came to the hut of Danan Leah, but he only found a rusty sword against the wall and stiff chainmail in a heap on Danan’s straw mattress.