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  • Matthew Warren

The Alderking

This is an extract from the opening of my newly drafted short novel, titled The Alderking. The story, inspired by Goethe's poem Erlkönig, is intricately interwoven with folklore and Manx-influenced nature writing. The following extract is the third draft of the opening chapter.

Low breathed the Wildwood, little Starling, when you flitted like a sycamore into its midst. The breathing—so sharp with biting frosts and squalls of stinging hail in the days before—slowed, holding all the world in unmoving expectation. Hope—a pittance of light—seemed to guild the skeletal canopy and I thought, just faintly, I could hear the spritely hum of new life passing like a whisper through the yet unthawed mattings of roots and earth.

I prayed that day to death; gave fare and fire to her to ask that new life—whatever new life there might be—would be blessed, that she would light its growth with grace and strength and that her blade might leave a while—a goodly while—before it cut its thread.

Your crystal-cut cries broke through my meditations. When I first heard them peak and roll out of the trees like a murmuration, it was as if the whole wood had come into the greatest inheritance of spring. Deep within the ground, I felt the sound echo in the stirring bounty of the coming year.

I saw them pass by, a way off through the trees. A train—half solemn, half chattering the news of your birth with a babbling wellspring of unseasonal good cheer. At the head of the procession was that tight-lipped lawgiver, Jyrna. She must surely be long passed below by now. A brittle nettle, she was, and you seemingly never warmed to the unkind. From somewhere in the folds of rough swaddling, that cry came again—short and sharp, like the streak of a kingfisher, startling the scowl from Jyrna’s face. Amongst the excited followers, your objection set up much gasping and delighted chattering.

To me, though, it was a summons. My soul burst to hear you, scattering any good sense I had like finches from the hawthorn. My insides twisted with a boundless, buried burnish of golden fire. It consumed the gentle repose of the morning and I did not care if I burned in it. No, I wanted to burn in this ecstatic white-hot lust. I had waited very many seasons for it.

Costs, danger, consequences, they all shrivelled and fled with the need to see you. I felt you in my arms from afar; the beating of the vital bulb of your heart; your hand, blindly grasping at the rough wool of my mantle. You drew me, little one, with an unquenchable marvel that I had never before felt.

As the train passed out of sight away through the trees, I stepped outside into the gold-tinted grey morning. I pushed aside the hanging thatch-moss that, undaunted by winter’s bleak touch, continued to spread, lolling from the eaves. It caught me in its wet grip every time; still, I had thought, the more overgrown it was, the more forgotten I would be.

I surged to a run, barefooted, over the seven-stride of open ground to the trees and then into shadow again, entering the forest. I weaved a path along a little-trod and much overgrown way; my skirts catching on briars and grasping branches snapping in my hair. The roots under my feet wound like serpents, hungrily waiting to snap and catch about my heels, tripping and trapping my breathless body. Dense thickets of gorse and hawthorn span past me, treading their slow season-steps of an age-old dance for life. The crooked hulks of the wood bowed and hunched into my path, but I could still just hear the joyful gathering and could only press on, ducking and vaulting.

Finally, I burst into a clearing, stopping in the light to seize on the rough, wrinkled skin of an oa'kin trunk for support to catch my heaving breath. And there you were, a bundle of loosely wound hessian, at the centre of it all; a squirming shrouded speck of life on the reed-strewn mound at the heart of that broad, bright clearing of whispering grasses that had sprung spring green early in the lee of the still bare wood.

The baptismal mound was already wreathed with strands of platted myrtle. I could smell it rising on the near-still air, a blessing of new life with health and hope. So many times before, I had woven such tokens. I made them for your mother, even. But not for you. Perhaps if I had made them; I could have made them powerful—beautiful and strong, like you.

But not one of the arrayed villagers—my own kin—who were now spread along the edge of the clearing had come to tell me of your birth. Not one. You were in the breath of the wildwood, though. I felt you enter this world and even the Hamadryads’ chatter—usually constant in the rustle and whisper of the woods—fell silent.

As I looked on, they set you down on the centre of the reed-strewn hillock. A little arm emerged from the bundled cloth as sunlight suddenly struck the mound. You reached out into the warm light, tasting the day like a seedling. A ripple of gasps ran around the entourage, who were intently staring, holding one another, whispering as if they had never seen the rooting before. Mind, that day, I felt as if I’d never seen it before. There was that stirring again, a churning tempest in my veins and I only wanted to cast myself into it from the highest place and fall through the ages in this wonderful, barbaric feeling.

But then I felt it. Something dark seeded far below the veneer of the moment, hovering over the scene like a hanging route, reaching down, ready to envelop. Some slow, thirsting hunters. The air seemed to chill and darken. In the shadows of the trees, I started to conjure to my mind cloaked shapes sloping through the shadows of the trees, as if with the gentle sway of the breeze. But as my gaze flitted over the hollows between the arching trunks, the apparitions fused back into the thickets and boughs.

The sight of the crowd had stayed my step and I lingered, watching, concealed and concealing the tumultuous concoction of love and fear within my breast. I watched as Jyrna unwrapped your body, laying you naked before the earth and sky; I heard the gahling begin—the song of the sky raised by Howda and Huundr, who stood either side of the mound. They platted their voices—Howda’s high and glistening, arcing over the clearing, Huundr’s grainy and strained, having never quite healed. They interlocked like vines over your unwary head, as Howda effortlessly laced and held up her brother’s limping tone.

I watched as the clouds turned a shadow over the clearing and the firs began to whisper and creak. Jyrna picked up one of the myrtle plats and passed it under your bare body as you wriggled with the newness of every sense. Huundr took the loose end from her and, still singing, looped the strand over you, relinquishing the little length that was left free to Howda, who gently tucked it under your head. One by one, each of the onlookers stepped into the circle, picking up myrtle bonds and winding them about your little frame.

Soon, the binding was complete with many of the score of villagers addressing you with blessings or coos of admiration as they tied you into the family, into the land, and into the forest. Though you had started to breathe with the touch of the delivering mother, you only now became truly alive, bound to the land and to your kin by much more than by blood—now you were bound by Death and the final reckoning of the world. You were bound to the gifts of the forest as well as to the shadows of the darker reaches. For, just as there are gentle and benign fathers and mothers, so too are there those elder spirits who would mean you harm. And they were all your kin from that moment, closer even than those devoted folk who surrounded you could know.

It’s strange how sounds linger, little Starling, latching onto feelings and sinking with them far beyond waking memories. Being near you now, I can hear Huundr and Howda singing as if just behind the thinnest of veils. I can hear the silence of the whole wildwood that held its breath for you. And I can feel, rising up through my bare feet, the sound of the underearth titans that stirred their sleeping hulks with the sense of moment that shivered through stem and root.

Suddenly, I could not control it. The desire to take your little myrtle-bound body, to snatch you from this vulnerable place and hold you close—to bind you to me forever so that's no harm could befall you. I moved to step out into the open—to declare myself to the hostile assembly and take you under my lee. I would have done it, and maybe all this could have been different, but a hand from behind me seized my forearm.

“Alanda, wait, I need you.”


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