The day was hot and dry. Across the bare fields, dust devils cast straw about like embers from a fire. On days like this, the children played in the woods and swam in the streams, while mothers span wool in the shade of their cottages and men slept through the noon to work in the evening. Sweat poured from glistening faces and the air was too hot for laughter.
When the week was over, most people in the village were long dead.
The food was stored well when the king’s men rode into town. Meat hung salted from hooks in the butchers, silos of grain were near untouched, and the cows were well fed, and yet the men found only starvation among the corpses. Flies buzzed around the bodies thick as the cream on fresh milk and already they had bitten through painfully thin skin, bulging ribs showing white against the tanned leather flesh. The skeletal arms of mothers still held babes, now mere bundles of bone and flesh to their emptied breasts. Worst was the local lord’s corpse, found in a circle of people. He had not lost the grotesque belly he’d carried all his life, and beneath the sickly flesh things still crawled.
The cadavers were all found in a neat circle around a thick, stout, and ancient oak that dominated the central square. No man present could recall such a loathsome tree as having been there before.
The captain vomited against the wall of the empty inn, he heard a weak call. Still someone stirred in one of the squat little farmer’s cottages that lay on the bank of the stream. With all haste the men found him, made him drink and eat and, when his stomach was painfully distended and his frail limbs had regained some vigour, they listened, and bade him tell his tale.
The boy’s name was Tom, a farm hand on the lush wheat and barley fields to the north of the village that spread across the rolling hills and drank greedily of the irrigation ditches. He told them about the harvest festival, how the moon had hung wide and honey-coloured above the merrymakers who drank greedily of the irrigation ditches. He told them about the harvest festival, how the moon had hung wide and honey-coloured over the merrymakers who drank their fill and laid with whomever they wished and set carefully down their offerings on the altar in the town square. He told them of the way Annie had looked that night, the way her dark hair spilled down onto her shoulders like the waterfalls in stories about the Western Mountains. He told them about her amber eyes and her limps as plump and full as the swelling river that coursed through the town, filled with the melting snows of the mountains that were so distant and yet so important. He told them of all this and had to stop, tears flowing freely as he realised what he had lost.
He told them then about the following morning. Most had been asleep at first, but something had nagged at him and tugged him awake. So it was that he was awake to see the sun rise bloody and terrible that morning, and the stranger that seemed to ride forth from its fiery maw.
At first he saw her as something sexless, something beyond humanity that moved with the fluidity of a force, an existence and inevitability more than an individual being. When she drew near though, her golden mount placid and kingly, he was astounded by her beauty. Golden hair reached to her waist and framed a face as noble and symmetrical as any he could imagine. Her eyes glittered like the sun on rushing waters and shone with the hidden fires of opals, and her slender figure was clad in a delicate ermine cloak. He found himself rushing to welcome her, to find her accommodation, but one glance from those achingly beautiful eyes sent him powerless to his knees as she rode on past him.
Soon the whole town was awake and gathered around her in stunned and enchanted silence. Her horse had gone now, and where the altar had been before she now sat nude and serene upon a throne of gnarled and dark wood that looked like it had grown from the very earth. He wondered aloud whether to the women she appeared as a man, for they were no less devoted than the rest, but he would never know. All he saw was the queenly disdain of her gaze, her perfect beauty. The days melted together and the nights seemed barely there, for her glory shone like the sun.
His concentration was broken and his life saved by Annie. Where she had been so perfect just (moments? days? how long?) ago, she was now wasting away. Her clothes hung off her and looked grimy with days of sweat. Her face was pinched and drawn into a grimace of pain. He felt something break in himself with sorrow and looked away in agony. his own clothes were now ill-fitting, and had his legs always been so scrawny? His ribs were jagged and painful where the skin rubbed against his scratchy wool shirt.
The stranger had changed and metamorphosed as well. In fact, he saw her not as a woman now, but as a sapling, slender and new. He saw the roots break the stones of the altar and saw what he had to do. He had to save them. He ran as fast as his exhausted legs could carry him, past the farm and the butchers, past Annie’s house and the priest’s cottage, to the house of Alex the lumberjack. Taking the axe, almost too heavy for his bones, he scrambled back to the tree and, with a great cry, swung the blade into the plant.
It left not a scratch, but he saw the stranger for what she had been. She was the heat of the sun on a farmer’s back, the tongue of fire that starts an inferno in the forest. She was the famine that bleeds a nation, that draws flesh close to the bone and kills children before they even have a chance to live. She was the dry riverbed, the empty well, the vulture that circles the lame. She was the sands of the desert and the great death that comes from the south and creeps up slowly but surely. She was summer and she was terrible.
He hadn’t the will to try again. The oak tree was stronger than him, stronger than all men. He hadn’t eaten for five days since then, and had simply watched as everyone he knew and loved simply stopped living. He cried in relief that they had not seen the horrors he had seen. At last his story was over.
No one came to the village much after then. The bodies were buried in a mass grave, and as the houses fell apart and the farms grew untended even the thieves and the squatters stayed away for fear of the tales that were told of the place. Over time, a forest grew around the oak. Blossom littered the town every summer.