There is a wold folded within weeds that stretches between Barnaby and Rosses. There are no trees, no hills, no valleys, just a flat field of wild wheat tangled up in a woven pattern of faded gold and shadows. You can see all the way across the wilderness to the bright heart of Rosses, but all you can see of the wold is the still, still weeds as high as the waist. It is an easy enough stretch of land to travel between Barnaby and its liege-lord, but no one ever dared to take the overgrown road—they would instead walk the several miles around—for the wold was a place that devoured the ordinary.
Just looking at it, you knew it wasn’t right. The wind blew but the stalks would remain unmoved. They would only shiver occasionally in a waving motion as the little gremlins stalked the briar rabbits for their dinner. Or sometimes a harrowing voice would lift itself over the fields and sing, its song haunting the sky in constant wanting. They said that the ghosts of women lay enclosed in the kernels of the rotten corn, and that if you ate them you would wither away with a spirit in your stomach. Gypsy shadows played there without the benefit of light. Witches brew grey clouds to constantly rest over the field, or else they would melt in the sunlight. There was the Wild Man as well—half-human, half-wolf, all beast. Whenever the villagers of Barnaby heard the screams they knew it was the Wild Man venting his spleen, howling madly.
It is necessary that I start with the wold, because it is necessary that you understand it. It is necessary that you understand how terrified we all were in Barnaby to live in its shadow. The young lord of Barnaby had crossed the wold to answer the challenge of his father, the King of Rosses, and had never been seen again. Well, I’m not a prince or a lord. I’m just a peasant lad, plain as can be. What chance could I have to survive the crossing of the wold? But still I was determined to do so, because my father was dying and the finest apothecary was in Rosses, just a few miles through the field. So into the wold I went, staying carefully on the narrow path, for my mother had told me shrilly that if I did not keep to the path the gremlins would eat me.
At first the going was easy enough. The path was overgrown but beaten down enough to follow. Deer darted out of the brush like flashes of light, all flying legs and searing hooves. In some places fog clung to the ground like fetid breath and hid the path. In other places water drowned it and obscured it with mud. Still, I kept on. I do not know for how long—the sky over the wold has a way of not betraying time. I walked until I could no longer see my feet in front of me. No curtain was more opaque than the night, and I had the good sense to not test the acuity of my senses against it. So I stopped to rest then and built a fire in between a briar patch and a twisted dead tree next to a fetid pool.
No moon shone that night, and the only light for miles was my meagre fire, glinting weakly in the pond like a gleam in the eye. As far as I knew I was the only living soul in the whole world. I took out a rabbit out of my pack and skinned it. The meat smoked over the low flame, the soul of the animal rising into the breathy darkness. It spiralled up like an invisible tongue, the smell of burning meat snaking through the weeds. That’s when I heard the unmistakable rustling of movement through the long grass. It came closer and grew louder. The tension strung me like a bow so that when a haggard, shaggy face popped out, I shot a scream. The face jumped back in alarm. In the shifting firelight I could see it was the face of a bearded mean, rugged and torn by wild living.
“Steady on!” he cried, “I’m not going to eat you!” And he climbed out of the weeds onto the path with his hands in the air defensively.
He was clothed almost entirely in rags raked by long talon marks. However, here and there was a trace of finery—an embroidered sleeve, a hint of lace that suggested past riches. He was furry, but behind the beard were youthful eyes, and sticking out of the clothes was the hard lithe body of a man in his prime.
“Is there any harm in a gypsy sharing your diner?” he asked with a wolfish smile.
“You’re the Wild Man!” I cried. He laughed.
“Well, I am definitely wild. I did not know I had been given a title. My fame has spread.”
“You’re a wolf demon eating out the heart of a man!” I cried. He laughed again—far longer this time. It was like a howl.
“I cannot deny it. But here, I do not intend to eat your heart. Merely your food. And if you happen to have some hot water and a razor, you can tame me with a shave.”
Admittedly, I was leery of sharing my meal with him. The wold was full of deception and the night had eclipsed all sense of time and place and person. How did I know this was not some sort of secret danger? But the man seemed so harmless—almost playful like a dog. My heart relented and I offered him a seat by the fire.
“Thank ye kindly!” he yipped. “What’s your name then?”
The man smiled with all teeth. “It’s a good name. I’d give you mine, but you already named me—‘The Wild Man.’” He chuckled and I grinned in spite of myself.
“Come now!” he said. “Boil some water, and I’ll catch us some sport!”
“But the water here is poisoned, fetid with evil spirits. I dare not drink it.” He rifled through my things and found my kettle.
“Nonsense!” he cried. “This water is as pure as moonshine. I’ve been living on it for years. Your head’s been poisoned with superstition lad, that’s what’s wrong with you!”
So he dunked the kettle in the black pool and set it over the fire. While it boiled, the Wild Man ate the raw kernels from the ghost women cornhusks, offering me a half-rotten one.
“They’re good!” he insisted. “They make you remember all sorts of ancient, forgotten things!” But I’d have none of it. “Suit yourself!” he shrugged, throwing the rest of the husks into the boiling water. They screamed a bit when they splashed into the pot.
He hung up his thin-soled shoes on the dead tree and watched as little fairies wove their nests within the toes and patched up the holes. The fireflies rose from the weeds towards the fire and he cupped them in his hands, trapping them in lanterns made of moth wings. These floated in the air like dim stars, blinking lazily.
The kettle began to hiss and steam and he took it from the fire, grabbing some half-cooked meat on the way. He ate only half, attaching the rest to a string and casting it a yard away from the fire.
“For the gremlins,” he explained when he saw my perplexed look, and busied himself with his beard. He leaned over the still mirror of the pool, squinting by the dim light of the lanterns, as he began to scrape the hair from his face with my razor, sculpting his features into something human.
While he shaved I sat nervously. What face would be revealed to me? But I was soon distracted as a small impish thing wandered out of the tall grass, sniffing daintily at the tender meat. He took a bite, the string snagged his tooth, and he could not pull free. The Wild Man snatched the gremlin by the scruff of his neck. At first the demon bit and screeched, but he was subdued with tickling.
“The trick is,” the Wild Man said, ruthlessly poking at the imp, “to get them to tell you their name. Then they are yours for life.” I nodded, wondering vaguely why anyone would want a gremlin for any period—let alone a lifetime.
The gremlin soon gave in and told us his name was Betel. So the Wild Man asked him to play. Betel sat down beneath the twisted roots of the dead tree and broke off a notched twig, playing it like a pipe. The sound he made like an owl’s howl, chilling as the breeze at night when it puts its cold hands on your back in desperate proposition. At first the tune was slow as a dirge, but then it picked up to a reel as complicated as a knot.
The flames of the fire swayed back and forth in time with the music, and a shadow leapt out of the fire in the shape of woman, skipping across the ground jaggedly. The Wild Man danced with her, dashing here and there, trying to catch her in his arms. One minute he would have her and then she’d slip away. She’d stroke his cheek with firelight, and then pull away. He would cradle her in his arms and then she would be dashed by a sudden lick of wind that laid the fire low.
I was mesmerised watching them pass in and out of each other—so much so that it took me a long time to notice that the weeds too were dancing, skipping in time to the tune and its rhyme. That’s when they parted to show a Stonehenge gateway—a witch’s doorway—standing between the dead tree and the briar patch.
“Ah!” the Wild Man cried in alarm, losing his footing and stepping on the fire for a moment. The music stopped as he cursed and hopped on his other foot distractedly. “I knew it was here! Patre, if you’re a sane man then take my advice: don’t ever go through that doorway!” I looked and saw the path walking under it like a bride.
“But underneath it lies the path to Rosses.” I replied. “I must go that way.”
He shook his head. “No. There’s nothing more dangerous than following the path. I’m amazed you haven’t been eaten already by the Three.”
I gulped. “The Three?”
He turned and looked at me. The light of the fire flew back onto his shaven face and I could now see a finely sculpted profile and warm, golden eyes—an overhanging brow that was intensely regal and familiar.
“My lord!” I cried, bowing my head, for it was none other than the Lord of Barnaby who had disappeared within the wold all those years ago. His eyes hardened.
“I gave up that title years ago,” he said, “but mark my words Patre, avoid the path like a plague, for under that gateway lies the threshold and beyond it nothing will ever be the same.” He would not say anything else for a time and sat in a mood while the gremlin Betel roasting his hands by the fire. I waited, but he would not speak.
“Clearly,” I said coyly, “if a prince can walk through it and become a Wild Man then there is some evil magic to it. But I am only a peasant lad, what can it possibly do to me?”
He snorted. “Being a peasant lad, you cannot know its danger. Fine then Patre, I’ll tell you, stupid as you are you will not understand and think you know better, but here nothing is worse than a well-laid path.
“I was your age when I decided to try my luck in the wold and win my father’s throne, if not his love. I was ambitious then, full of plans for the people that really were only plans for myself. So I stepped into the wold, abandoning everything I said I loved, for everything I said I didn’t want. My first day in the wold was much like yours. But the next morning when I went through the threshold, I met a parting of the ways. The path split into three and each new path was guarded by a witch’s gate. I stopped before these three gates and was met by three women, each one emerging from a separate gate. They sang:
We are the Three of the wold,
queens of treasures, tales untold,
light and laughter, sight and spring,
dark disaster, silver rings.
Three paths lie open for you, three chances lie ahead,
be careful in your choosing; a false step and you’re dead.
“The first to step out had red hair ruddy with sunbeams. Her eyes were feverish and bright. Her skirt was black string threaded with doubloons. Her blouse was black and hung off her white shoulders in slit peasant sleeves. She held a golden sceptre in her hand studded with black obsidian. Against her glorious throat lay a pendant of the sun, bright as light—a mirror. She sang:
I am the queen of fire and light,
power and savour my true delight.
I can make gold fall like rain.
I can make the world your domestic domain.
So kneel before me and tell me you’re mine,
my champion warrior—the next-in-line.
“The next was dressed all in white with pearlescent skin and dull hair, charcoal-black. Her dress was plain, but so white that it glowed. Her eyes were black and soulful, deep as a tree hollow. She held a glowing lantern before her bouncing with fireflies, her body swaying as though in a perpetual motion of giving. She sang:
I am the mistress of darkness and touch,
born too pure, loving too much.
I can make your heart shiver like frogs’ cry at night,
I will make you resign from the brightness of light.
So take me in your arms—I’m yours, I’m yours,
together forever on forgotten shores.
“The last one, well, what can I say? No beauty graced her face that I could see. It was covered by a stone mask so that she resembled a statue. She was well-dressed enough though, I grant you. She was dressed in kettle green, her soft brown hair overflowing behind the mask, tumbling with flowers. She held herself stiffly, as though she really was half stone. She sang:
I am a woman of inscrutable face,
look at me and you will see your fate.
I am earth, not moon or fire,
I am dearth, not rule or desire.
We will be partners, we will be true,
accept my offer and I will choose you.’
“Then they all repeated:
Three paths lie open for you, three chances lie ahead,
be careful in your choosing; a false step and you’re dead.
“Who did you choose?” I asked eagerly. He gave me a sour look.
“I wanted the first one very badly. The second also tore my heart with her eyes, but I knew, I knew, I was not supposed to take either. It is always the third one, the third choice, the third door that is meant for the likes of us. The ordinary path that is supposedly extraordinary in its honest dullness. But that wasn’t enough for me. The more I looked at them, the more I realized how much I didn’t really want any of them. The first one was a flame who would consume me. The second one was a rag who would smother me. And the third pledged honesty and hid her face! What is a man supposed to think of that? I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want the responsibility of a choice.
“‘Well?’ the three women asked me impatiently, ‘Which is it? Hurry up and choose. It’s not difficult.’
“They already knew I had to choose the third one. You do not know how terrifying it is to have your fate chosen for you, like a random page turned in a book. Perhaps it’s joyful, perhaps it’s misery, or perhaps it’s merely boring, but you don’t get to choose. And the more I considered it, the more convinced I became that the third woman was hideous and was being forced on me for her sheer virtue of ugliness. The other two were just there to mock me and be everything I was not meant to have.
“Not for me were the ambitions of power. Not for me were the lusts of love. Not for me were the merits of hard work. I made no choice upon that fork, but turned around and ran off the path into the wild wold. So I warn you now, young Patre, make your choice beforehand, not which young woman you would take, but whether you’d take any and their price. Which would you choose?”
He looked at me with bright eyes that were slightly mad. And I realised then that he was no longer human anymore, not with the gremlin Betel next to him and fairies nesting in his shoes, and a little spider whispering in his ear like some sort of muse. He could see what none other could see, but in return had given up his humanity—for that is best defined by the choices you make, and he had refused to make any. Instead he waits at the brink of everything, unsecured, unsafe, undetermined.
The sun began to rise over the thicket, tinging everything was the sickly grey of morning light. The Wild Man stood up and stretched, giving me a toothy smile.
“Well goodbye Patre,” he said to me. “Safe journeys. Remember what I said.”
He unleashed Betel and shook out the fairies from his newly repaired shoes. Then he slid back into the wheat, running on all fours like a wolf in human skin, howling madly to the skies.
And I? I had business in Rosses. I packed up my things, grabbed a half-empty corncob and bit in. I felt a woman’s soul drop deep into my stomach, making it cold, steeling my resolve for what I had to do. So I followed the path and went under the threshold and met the Three. They were as lovely as the Wild Man had described them. I asked them their names and they told me. Astrid was inlaid with gold, Laura was soft as ash, Faye wore her stone cold mask. And I chose Faye as I knew I must and she took off her mask.
Her face was like a mirror. In her I saw all my own feelings. My fears and longings: my bewitchment, my duty, my need for someone. Her face was unblemished, completely innocent, and yet so fierce with great want. She took me by the hand and together we walked down the path to Rosses. When we arrived they hailed me as the Prince who disappeared so long ago. Who knows, perhaps I was. Such things do not matter so much anymore, because such is how I remained.
Such is how I remained, with Faye as my estimable queen, and three daughters who returned to the wold. They guard the path night and day making sure no one falls off it again. I never saw the Wild Man again, though I wonder about him daily and consider going back—back to that night on the edge of everything. I am still not sure if I lost or won something of tremendous value.
Incidentally—I came too late. The apothecary arrived at my home two days later. He told me my father died from his illness. I never went back to Barnaby.