The mistweaver had served the court long and well. She had conjured armies of wraiths to frighten off attackers, she had wrapped foes in mist to confuse and dishearten them, she had even summoned fogs to deter rude court visitors from staying on another day. But she had wearied of her work at last, outlived all those she cared for. She retired to the deepwood, where dew dripped from ferns, where the smell of mulch was a richness in the nostrils, where sunlight diffused into a vapor, where greenshadow was a soothing balm and there was no stink of middens, only the fecund natural decay of moldering leaves. The most complex intrigue was a snarl of roots below an ancient oak.
These woods were no shortcut from one place to any other. No one came here. No one logged these trees; many had stood for as long as there had been trees. This was first-growth forest from the time of the world’s beginnings. An old, old place, fit only for the old.
The willows wept, the aspens laughed, the oaks endured.
Her skin was brown as bark tea, steeped in tannins. She slept on a bed of bracken, fog her blanket. Cold did not affect her. There were no fires in the wood; lightning strikes smoldered but did not ignite. The deadfall was too sodden to catch a flame.
For days, or months, or years she existed thus, until her world-battered heart was healed, her spirit whole again.
One night a wind came up, sudden and aggressive. Dappled moonlight was flung in sprays of quicksilver from jostled trees; then the clouds came, sensed rather than seen, sky-mist thick as wool. The storm battered the ancient wood, sweeping to the floor dead branches and dry husks of tree.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the deepwood, casting a second wood in stark relief, a wood within the wood: a forest of shadow branches, barely glimpsed between heartbeats.
It was to that wood the mistweaver would go.
Lightning strikes, she knew, cleared room for new trees to grow, fed by the old as they crumbled year by year into mulch.
She found the oldest, strongest oak she knew, a massive growth in the center of the forest. She stood in the whipping, howling, rainless wind and waited.
Lightning rent the great oak—once, and then, impossibly, again.
The mistweaver cried out, inarticulate, yearning. Thin bones aching, threadlike sinews straining, she pulled herself into the smoking V of the split trunk and stood in heartwood fresh opened to the air.
The third strike took her squarely, as if the blazing, jagged river of light originated in her and streaked up into the sky. For an eyeblink, the forest of shadows was blinded by a glare more intense by a hundredfold than any sunlight filtered through its canopy. Then darkness closed in, a hand fisting around a retaken possession. Where the mistweaver had stood, in the crotch of the smoldering tree, lay a pale, human form.
The infant rested placidly in the sticky heartwood. When it thirsted, it gathered damp from the air with a curl of its pudgy fingers, catching a fine spray in its open mouth. When it hungered, it sucked oozing sap—regarding, perhaps, the ovals within ovals of the grain, like patterns on the tips of great fingers pinched to keep it safe. When it could crawl, it left the tree and sank into soft bog, steeping in tannins, fed by the nutrients of decomposition, turning brown as a nut.
When she could toddle, she foraged for berries, staining her lips and hands purple and dark red; sometimes she craved bitter herbs. She twined the evening mists around her fingers like a string toy, learning the manipulation of them. She conjured legions of playmates, and cavorted with diaphanous spectres in the gloaming. Her hair came in pale, grew to her waist, was dyed a lucent silver by the moon as she slept; her eyes never lost the color of smoke.
The moon intrigued her. She could never see the whole of it, strain though she might to make it out through the dense weave of leaf and branch above her. How big was it? Was it round, or oval, or crescent? Her mistwraiths eddied about her, dimly suffused with moonlight, but they could not appease her now. They drifted slowly off through the trees. When she followed—her steps, in spongy moss and damp bracken, as silent as the wraiths—she found herself at the deepwood’s edge.
She had not known it had an edge. She had not known the moon was so small, centered in a profusion of stars.
The creations of her chill heart beckoned her forward—into moon-bright meadow, a terror and exhilaration of open space, then through a thin barrier of firs and onto a road of molten silver.
Where did it lead? Some half-memory surfaced briefly, along with snatches of sound—words spoken in tongues she did not yet know.
She set off down the moonroad, puzzled, pulse quick. Her wraiths dissipated into the clear night air. She would summon them again should she need them. For now, the sensation of openness was a novelty to be reveled in.
The road was long, and silent in the night, and ended with the night’s ending: at the gates of a towering, dark structure, frozen shadows spun into walls and arches, turrets and galleries, charcoal against the moonset but paling to opalescence as the blush of morning caught up with her.
The drowsy gatekeeper, stirring, seemed to recognize her. He admitted her through a complexity of wrought iron as if she were coming home.
“I knew your mother, though she had no name—only mistweaver, as we have called you.”
The prince was slim and supple as a sapling, his hair the yellow of oxalis root. His nose was crooked, his mouth was thin; his eyes were kind. When he smiled, it was like coming upon an expanse of meadow in sunlight.
“What is my purpose here?”
“I don’t know. To weave mists, I suppose. As the others have done before you.”
So she wove mists. She conjured an army to frighten off the prince’s foes; she hid the palace in a fog, that attackers could not find it; she entertained children at court with cat’s-cradles of dreams and vapor. She loved the prince but did not make love to him; that was for the woman he took to wife, who bore him golden children. But often she sat with him on his high balcony, pale as the moon beside his sunlit glow; and when he was crowned king, it was she who placed the circlet of gold upon his head.
“Are there others like me?” she asked him, surveying the teeming life below the balcony.
“In far Linroeven, they say, the mistweavers ebb and flow like tides, created by the mating of moonbeam and wave froth. In Golsk, rainweavers are common as droplets. Indrilan boasts stoneweavers who make mountains dance; such as they move slowly, and come but once in an age. The flameweavers of Yorr wage war with fire legions who cannot be defeated, but they are fickle and brief, quick lives that gutter when there is no war to stoke them. When Ktharon’s waterweavers leave, others come on their heels, a river of weavers that flows through the years like a current. Windweavers are rarely seen, except by sailors, who claim they sleep on beds of cloud, and will hang you by a noose of air if they feel you’ve insulted them—which they always know, for the winds carry all words to them in time.”
“I would like to see these marvels,” said the mistweaver.
“You cannot,” the king replied. “It is not done.”
She did not believe him. She summoned her wraiths and set out for the borderlands, the sere no-lands that separated one realm from another, one world from another. But the wraiths lagged behind her, reluctant; it took all her will to keep them from flying apart on the hot border wind. With each farm she passed, each hill she surmounted, she grew weaker. Then there were no more farms, there was no more life, only an endless dusty plain; so she turned and set her eyes on the opal tower, her mind’s eye on the deepwood somewhere beyond it.
“It is the order of things,” the king said, kind eyes sad. “A mistweaver could cause a sailing ship great harm; a flameweaver’s fire soldiers would be quenched by a waterweaver; a lightweaver could weave arrows of sunlight to disperse a mistwraith army. Each could do equal harm to the others. So the weavers keep to their own quarters, aiding men as they will, but never encroaching on each other; among yourselves, you would destroy the world, and what would you have then?”
The king aged, fell, was supplanted by his golden sons, and they by their golden sons in turn. Each time a prince came of age, she asked him, “What is my purpose here?”
“To weave mists,” he would say, “as you did for my father before me.”
To weave mists. It was enough—to spend a lifetime engaged in gratifying work, then to return to the deepwood, sink back into the soft loam, steep again in the waters of childhood.
It came to her that she was old, and weary of the palace air, the strain of pulling moisture from it and molding it into useful forms. For the second and last time she walked the long road to the meadow, dusty rose now in the setting sun—a bent, brown crone, skin striated as bark, hair a moonfall over hunched back, eyes a grey-smoke swirl. She sighed into the balm of greenshadow; and at last a night came when the moon was swallowed by clouds, and a great, rainless storm racked the ancient forest. She stood in the crotch of an oak twice lightning-blasted, and opened her heart to the third strike.
In the crumbled ruins of other trunks, green shoots strove for the sun. Courts came and went; one day, soon now, the palace would have its mistweaver again.
The willows wept. The deepwood endured.
This story originally appeared in Sword & Sorceress XVI, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
©1999-2019 Terry McGarry.