Once, there was an ancient forest that had always been growing, as long as there had been plants to grow and dirt to grow them in. Its trees were as tall as mountains and so wide that ten deer could hide behind a single trunk. Flann Brónach, a spirit of the air, protected it and everything inside it.
The heart of the forest was a wide, still lake. The sun cast rays of golden light through the branches of the trees, and the water sparkled like diamonds. Flann Brónach swam on the lake as a red-throated loon.
One morning, as she moved through the water, in and out of the sunlight, ripples flashing in her wake, a cloud of songbirds met her. She raised her head and listened. In a flurry of wings and chirps they said men had invaded the forest, shouting, breaking branches, collapsing burrows, smashing nests. Eggs might even now be smashed.
Flann rose up from the lake, her head thrust forward. She soon found three knights of the king, hacking their way through foliage with drawn swords. She landed in their path and shed her loon form. Her eyes were crimson and she stood tall, dressed in gray and white linen.
“You may go no further,” she said.
The men pulled back a few paces.
The youngest knight bowed. “We’re here on the king’s orders, looking for someone who disappeared into these woods.”
“A knight, like us.”
Her red eyes flashed. “Does the king order the desecration of sacred ground for every errant knight?”
The men glanced at one another but did not answer.
“There are no knights like you in this forest,” said the spirit. “Follow your tracks of destruction, and there will be no knights at all.”
The young knight bowed deeply. “We are careless from worry. The knight is our friend. We offer our apologies, but we can’t leave without him.”
The second knight lifted his sword. “We will not leave without him.”
“After what you have done, you will be fortunate to leave at all.”
With ropes of the north wind, she gathered the knights. She swung them high above the trees and flung them down outside the forest.
All day, the spirit followed the knights’ trail, raising up tendrils of honeysuckle and blades of grass, restoring moss and lichen. She set broken branches, repaired burrows and nests, and put mushrooms aright. By the time the sun touched the western horizon, there were no signs any knights had passed through the forest at all.
But she was not satisfied. She didn’t know whether a knight had truly crossed the forest’s borders, or whether the story had been made up as an excuse to assault the forest. She needed to find out.
A stream ran through a tangled part of the eastern forest. Green willows hung over its banks, and birds called to one another from rocks in its midst. Nearby, a man was repairing a hut. He whistled as he bent and shaped the branches, weaving them together.
Across the stream, a loon fluttered to the ground, and Flann Brónach took on her human form. “You don’t look like a knight,” she said. “No sword, no armor, no horse.”
The man had frozen, his lips still rounded, his hand gripping a bouquet of willow branches.
She blinked her red eyes. “Three knights came into the forest. I spent a morning getting rid of them and an afternoon undoing their destruction. They thought another one in here was in need of finding. Was that you?”
The man leaned his forehead against the heel of his hand. “Yes.”
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t have one. It was taken.”
She stared at him for a long time. Scars on the man’s hands and arms swirled in concentric circles and knots. The patterns shone palely in the evening light.
“That’s a nasty enchantment. No wonder they’re looking for you.”
The man’s head snapped up. He extended his arm. “You can read it?”
“And taste it. Like blood and sulfur in the air.” She tilted her head. “I can’t undo it, if that’s why you’re here. It’s cast in fire.”
The man said, “I hoped for nothing more than a hiding place.”
A finch let loose a long, warbling song.
“You’ve taken many lives,” the spirit observed.
“I didn’t want to.”
She nodded. “Live now by the rule of the forest. If you take life, yours will be forfeit.”
The man smiled bitterly. “Out there, my life is already forfeit.”
“Then consider this a respite.” Flann flapped into the sky, a loon disappearing into the west.
The man’s hands began to shake. The branches and brush around him seemed an ever-tightening snare. They were looking for him. They might even now be searching. The sun set, but the man did not light a fire.
Screams on battlefields with moonless skies echoed in his dreams. Alone in his hut, he woke choking. Chipmunks snored, curled in their nests. One cricket played for the stars. Deeper in the forest, frogs laughed to each other from green bulrushes in the shadows. Nothing more.
The three knights flung down by magic in the north marsh had been separated and lost. The youngest knight found his way to the castle first, after midnight. Filthy and soaking wet as he was, he entered the throne room and told the king what had happened, about the woman who could turn herself into a bird and call on the elements of the earth.
The other knights returned in the same condition and told the same story.
“What is this?” the king hissed at his tall, bony advisor.
“Sire, it sounds remarkably like Flann Brónach.”
“Cowards! Three of them together couldn’t find him, convince him, or overpower him, so they blame their failure on a spirit.”
The advisor twisted his fingers together. “She may very well be interfering, sire.”
“To what end?”
“I couldn’t say. Who knows what these spirits want?”
“I should have sent the entire army after him.”
“Sire, you know it’s best if the truth about the Champion is confined to as few people as possible.”
The king grunted and waved his hand. “I have half a mind to leave him to his forest vacation and enchant another one. One with less of a conscience.”
“And leave the Champion unchecked? Think of the havoc he could wreak. What if he fights for the enemy?”
The king ground his teeth. “Then I’ll recover him myself. He won’t be able to disobey if I’m there in the flesh.”
The king whirled to the three dripping knights. He clasped his hands behind his back. “This witch has entrapped our Champion. He must be rescued and recovered. We ride on the forest at first light. Pray that it is not too late. He may already be enchanted to attack us.”
The three knights bowed and left. Their mail-booted feet clipped and echoed in the stone hallways. A distance from the throne room, the youngest knight pulled the other two into a dark corner.
“Do you believe the king?” he whispered.
“Of course not,” said the second knight. “We fought alongside his Champion during the Invasion, same as you.”
The mustached knight grunted. “If he fights us, it won’t be because of some witch’s spell. He has incentive enough for desertion without another enchantment.”
“I don’t think she is a witch,” said the youngest knight.
“It doesn’t matter what you think,” the mustached knight said, and shoved his way out of the corner. “The king has spoken.”
A thunderstorm rolled over the forest, and the sun rose behind a gray veil. Rain whispered against the earth, dripped from branches, gathered in wide-rimmed leaves. The surface of the lake dissolved into rippled circles.
A group of wet-furred animals gathered among the brown cattails. Badger, chipmunks, rabbits, foxes, skunks, deer, and hedgehogs should all have been tucked safely away from the rain, or at least quarreling. They waited at the edge of the lake, soaked and quiet. Flann Brónach paddled through the reeds and climbed ashore.
The striped badger spoke for the animals. Fifty knights were headed for the forest, led by the king. All armed for battle and on horseback.
The spirit met the approaching army near the forest’s edge. The trees grew far apart, and rain fell unhindered, plinking against fifty sets of armor.
“Didn’t your knights tell you?” she said.
The king reined in his horse and held up his arm for a halt. He shook his wet hair aside and put on a smile. “Tell me what, lady?” he said.
“Murderers and death bringers may not enter.”
The king’s smile withered. “One of my knights fled into these trees. Show us where he is, that he may be brought home.”
“Leave now, while you still can.”
The king drew his sword. The spirit caught the blade in a vice of air. She flung it into the wet earth and it was swallowed, hilt and all.
The knights drew their swords. With rain-lashed wind, she collected the knights, their horses, the king’s horse, and scattered them beyond the forest like dry leaves. Alone and abruptly unhorsed, the king fell to one knee in the mud.
Flann stood over him. “The forest is under my protection, and as such is beyond your reach. Do not cross its boundaries again.”
She wrapped wind all about the king and threw him as far away as she could.
At the outermost forest tree, the spirit collected her fading energy. She gathered a skein of north wind and one of the south and knit them together. Then, as a loon, she flew around edge of the forest, wrapping it all inside the woven wind. She knotted the ends and stitched them together. A fork of silver lightning raced across the sky and sealed the forest with a roar of thunder.
Flann Brónach used the last of her power to fly to the Champion’s home. Rain drummed against curtains of willow, and the rising stream rushed over its rocks onto grassy banks. She was too tired shed her loon form, so she waited, small and gray in the underbrush, for her strength to return.
A sparrow had become trapped in a thorn bush. The Champion sat cross-legged in the mud, leaning over the bird. He spoke to it in a quiet voice. It lay still, panting. Bit by bit, he pulled away the sharp spines and tangled stems, making a tunnel to the bird. Once it was big enough, he put his hand in among the thorns. The bird did not flinch. He took it gently and, protecting it from the thorns with his fingers, drew it out. He opened his hand, and the sparrow darted away, cheeping.
With effort, Flann shed her loon form. She leaned against a willow tree, her face pale.
He jumped to his feet. “Are you all right?”
She held up a hand. “The king and fifty knights came to the forest. They’re gone. I have set protections in place that will not easily be overcome.”
He said nothing.
The spirit closed her eyes. “I fear his anger will tear the world apart. He will not stop until he has won.” Her voice ached with weariness.
He looked at his hands, where the sparrow’s heart had vibrated against his palm. Thorns had gouged his skin more than once, but left no blood and no mark. “He’ll stop if I’m dead.”
Her eyes snapped open.
“I can’t do it myself. I’ve tried. The enchantment stops me. But you have magic. You could do it.”
“Taking your life helps nothing.”
He stepped nearer to the stream. “I ask you to take it.”
The spirit’s eyes blazed. “If I used my power for death, I would become a demon, and the forest would be left without a guardian. Is that what you want?”
Her eyes closed again. “Even if I wanted to, there’s no getting around the enchantment. Even for me.”
Rain fell hard and fast, then settled into a soft patter. “It’s hurting you, though, isn’t it? Protecting a coward who can’t die? I can’t ask you to do that. I won’t.”
Flann smiled. “Not your decision to make.” Her wings beat against the air and she flew into the rain.
He was alone.
The king had been in the forest. Rain still pattered overhead, but he could not hear it. His heart pounded at the walls of his chest, trapped within his own body. He opened and closed his hands, watching his fingers, checking for any sign of hesitation. They obeyed him every time.
He tried to sleep, but whenever he nodded off, his body leapt awake. He checked for control, flexed his toes, bent his knees, turned his head. Once, he slept long enough to dream that he was watching his hands rip apart sinew and bone. They wouldn’t stop. He woke shaking. He held his hands in front of his face. Opened and closed them, one finger at a time. Open, shut. Open, shut. Still in control, for now.
The king had found himself half sunk in the north marsh, twenty miles from his castle. After hiking all day in rusting armor, he was muddy, furious, and coming down with a cold. He sat before a blazing fire and raged against the spirit of the air who had defied him.
“Does she think she can sit in that forest and keep my Champion from me? We’ll burn it the ground, and her inside it!”
“Sire,” his advisor said, “Is it reasonable to declare war on a spirit who can displace so many armed knights at once?”
The king flung the sheepskin rug from his shoulders. “What if she’s lifted the enchantment?”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“Why else would he go to her?”
The king’s face flushed and his voice went flat. “That sorcerer. This is all his fault. Cináed! Spirit of fire! Face me, you traitorous coward.”
Orange embers showered upward. From beneath the burning logs, a salamander emerged, glowing red. It crawled over the grate and onto the rug. The king’s advisor backed into a shadowed corner of the room.
The king glared down at the salamander. “When you swore to protect this crown, were you already planning to betray it?”
Cináed shed his salamander form and stood on two feet before the king, tall, skin smoking. “I only have power in the service of your protection,” the spirit of fire said in a voice like gravel. “Why would I give that power up?”
“Power,” the king scoffed. “Your enchantment failed.”
“The enchantment holds.”
“Then explain how he’s able to walk free in the forest.”
“Yes, yes, the forest, the forest, blast and burn it all to ash! A spirit of the air is harboring him there.”
Cináed looked into the fire. “Flann Brónach.”
The king snarled, “If I hear that name one more time, I will chop off the lips that pronounced it and shove them down the throat that uttered it. How was he able to get that far away in the first place?”
“Fire binds the Champion to your commands.”
“And I commanded him to stay at his post.”
“With your own voice?”
The king swore. “Is he to sleep in my bed with me at night?”
“The strength of the enchantment is in your voice. If you did not give the command to him, he is not bound to it.”
“It is too late for admonishments, spirit. Keep your oath. Fix this.”
Flann Brónach woke in the dark. A dull glow lit the western horizon. Smoke hung in the air. She gathered all creatures to the center of the forest, to the lake, where any fire could be quenched. The Champion was there already.
“This is dragon fire,” he said. “I know the smell.”
Flann turned away. She stretched her arms through her exhaustion for the strength to fly.
“Wait,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
“Protect the forest.”
“Against a dragon?”
She looked at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were dim, her lips pale. “If I don’t, the forest will burn.”
“You’re going alone?”
She straightened her back. “I am a spirit of the air.”
“And I’m sure normally, a spirit of the air like you could handle ten dragons without breaking a sweat. But the last days haven’t been normal.”
She raised her eyebrows.
He held his ground. “Do you have the strength?”
“I have no choice.” She fell into her loon form and flapped up, scarcely clearing the tree line.
He clenched his jaw, and ran in the direction of the fire.
At the western rim of the forest, a dragon, red hot and smoking, reared on its hind legs. Fire poured from its mouth in a steady stream, breaking against the woven wall of wind. In many places the wall had cracked and splintered, boiled away to scorched charcoal. Leaves on near trees smoldered black.
Flann called, “Cináed!”
The dragon tasted the air with his forked tongue, lashing his head from side to side. He roared wordlessly.
She shouted, “Look at what you have become, guardian, what shape your master’s hatred bent you to.” She held a still air over the wall, and the flames grew less. “The king would have you attack another spirit and kill a sacred forest. Your magic is only as pure as what you have sworn to protect with it. The king is corrupt. Serving him has poisoned your power.”
“Yet it is stronger than yours.” Cináed raised his neck. He expanded upward six feet. A crown of spikes blossomed around his head.
The Champion burst from the underbrush, panting. He stared through the wall at the growing dragon.
Flann said, “Anger and hatred will swallow you whole. You’ll never be able to put aside that monstrous skin.”
The spirit of fire laughed. “Anger and hatred will burn your forest, and you will have nothing left to defend yourself with. I will consume you.” Fire splashed against the wall. Tree branches swayed and groaned in the heat.
The air over the wall slipped. Flann steadied it, stilled it.
“What do we do?” the Champion asked.
She did not turn to answer. “I will hold the wall as long as I can.”
“Then nothing. If the wall burns, the forest burns. I only have the power of what I protect. Without the forest, I can do nothing.”
Flann Brónach raised her arms to grasp for a strong north wind. It sliced through her fingers and knocked her to the ground.
He watched her rise. Before the spirit could stop him, and before he could stop himself, he sprinted at the forest wall. It opened around him, and closed shut tight behind.
He stood between Cináed and the wall. Fire billowed and engulfed the Champion. He passed through it unscathed. The dragon backed away, shoulder blades rippling with scales and spikes.
He advanced on the dragon. “You forgot what you made me, when you tore me apart and put me back together.”
The dragon’s tongue flicked in and out.
“I am indestructible. I am invincible. I slew tens of thousands, went without water or food or rest for weeks. An always-victorious slave of my master’s will.” He held out his arms. “But my master isn’t here.”
Cináed turned to flee. Faster, the Champion blocked the dragon. “You can’t outrun me.”
The dragon tucked his head low to the ground. “If you take a spirit’s life, you’ll be cursed.”
“More cursed than I already am? I will never be free of what I’ve done. And neither will you.” The Champion gripped the dragon by its collar of horns to break its neck. The adrenaline of an imminent kill bubbled beneath his skin.
“Wait.” The dragon’s head bobbed. “Let me live. I’ll renounce the king. Give up the oath I swore. I’ll diminish, play in fire pits, a powerless salamander. The enchantment will fail! There will be nothing to bind you with.”
He looked into the dragon’s eyes. He didn’t want to kill it, he realized. He didn’t want to kill anything, but had never been allowed to show mercy. “Do it.”
The dragon blinked, swallowed. “I forfeit the oath to protect the king and willingly relinquish all the power of protection.”
The dragon shrank. Rough scales smoothed, claws retracted, tail shortened. A black and yellow salamander scurried through the grass trampled flat by dragon feet.
“Stand ready,” shouted the king.
The Champion’s body locked at attention, waiting for orders. Despair crowded his mind in a mist. The enchantment held. Had Cináed lied to him?
Three men on horses waited at the edge of the clearing. A fourth, the king, rode forward and dismounted. He brought his boot down on the salamander, crushing it.
“Well,” the king said. “I meant him to destroy the spirit in the forest so I could get to you, but this is better. Tidier.” He scraped the salamander from his shoe, and approached.
Fear ran along the Champion’s limbs, but they didn’t shake. He was caught in the enchantment’s vice.
The king sniffed. “Impressive. Not even dragons and spirits match you. I must have been too easy on you before. I won’t make that mistake again.”
He fought against his numb lips.
“Something you want to say? Go ahead. Speak.”
“I won’t go back.”
The king spat to one side. “Oh, you’re going back. I’m curious, though. What did you think would happen if you ran away? That I’d just let you disappear?”
Something shifted in the Champion, like earth beginning to erode. “I gave you ten years of slaughter.” The king hadn’t commanded him to talk, but his lips had loosened. Was the enchantment fading?
The king surveyed the forest. He didn’t seem to notice the Champion spoke out of turn. “Were you hoping for something that would kill you? That witch, maybe?”
Anger flared through his fear. “She’s not a witch.”
The king glared. “Be silent.”
His mouth tightened, but the command ebbed. He pushed at the enchantment’s limits. “She is a spirit of the air. More noble than you’ll ever be.”
The king’s face twitched. “Enough. You have acted treasonously against this crown. Return, fight for me, and all will be forgiven.”
The order pulled his legs, but he maintained his footing.
His knee jerked forward, but again he stood.
The third time the king called, his body didn’t respond at all. The impulse to obey flowed through him like water, but washed away. “No,” he said.
The king’s face blanched white. “You can’t say that to me,” he snarled. He drew his sword and advanced.
The Champion blocked the king’s swing. He wrenched the sword away by its blade and threw it as hard as he could. It flashed end over end in the sunlight and disappeared into the distance.
The king looked wildly after it.
The Champion’s hands bled freely. He held them out. “Look. It’s over. The enchantment is gone.”
“It can’t be,” the king said. “You’re bound to my words. Stand ready!”
He turned his back to the king and walked toward the forest.
The king drew a dagger. He flung himself at his lost Champion, wrapped an arm around his throat to cut it.
The Champion ducked forward and pulled the king over his head. The king landed hard, his dagger caught beneath him. The silver tip protruded from his abdomen. His eyes stared, frozen in an expression of fury and hate.
The once Champion and the three knights talked for a long time. A pair of yellow butterflies flitted among the wildflowers at their feet. Together, they buried the body of their king. They covered the place with grass and did not mark it. The three knights rode away.
The nameless man and the king’s horse approached the forest’s edge, but did not enter. Fireflies glittered among the dark tree trunks. Flann Brónach stood in shadow.
“You’re free,” she said. “How does it feel?”
“Like a dream.” The man breathed in the night air, sweet with grass and dew. “I came to say goodbye.”
“The knights will say the king was ambushed by enemy soldiers. It won’t hold up for long, but it’ll give me a head start. They’ll hunt for me.”
She did not answer him.
“I wish I could do something to repay you.”
Fireflies danced green and gold in the roots of the trees. He thought she had gone, but her voice whispered on the breeze. “If you return, you will be welcome.”
A flutter of wings disturbed leaves and underbrush. Over the canopy of the forest silvered in moonlight, a loon called.