When I was not yet a man, I loved to swim in the river with my friends. There were dozens of us who, nearly every day of the long, hot summers we faced in the valley, would play in the stream that ran down from the cold and distant mountains. It flowed through the fields and the hills, through chalk and over slate beds, and sparkled with the shoals of slender silver fish that leaped and splashed away from us.
One of my greatest friends at the time was a lass called Niamh, who every day came down there with her father’s sheepdog down to the riverside and played with us. Whether he was ever annoyed at our rough play or the shrill squeals of our laughter, he never showed it. Always he would fetch the sticks we threw and swim in the river with us and, when the day was done, he would sit calmly and let us tease out the knots and burrs in his fur (we had to do this after his coat had been so matted that Niamh’s father thought it warranted a lashing). Looking back, I really think that I might have been friends with the dog rather than I was with her.
Well, one day, there was a great fight among our group. The smith’s son, a chubby little lad who was far too easy to bully, had been given specially made spectacles from the town across the ridge for his seventh birthday. In his pride at being able to swim and play with the rest of us now, he refused to take off the little, gold-rimmed glasses when he plunged beneath the water. Within minutes, he’d lost them after one of the older boys held him into the current.
The smith’s son began to cry, of course. He sobbed over how they’d cost half a month of his father’s earnings, how angry he’d be when he got home, and we just laughed. We called him piggy and bat and, though I’d like to say I did this with regret and felt sympathy, I cannot. Soon he flew into a great rage as his last shred of dignity burst into inflamed and burning anger.
He started trying to punch a simple minded lad called Thomas, the only target beneath him. Someone quickly tackled him, holding his head under the stream between his legs. The smith’s son quickly bit into the tackler’s ankle, gnawing as his milk teeth fell out and the girls began to shriek. When he had been let go and stood up, blood staining his gums, he had a handful of smooth river pebbles which he started hurling at people, missing everyone.
Niamh’s sheepdog was barking his head off all the while, and when the boy took aim at her, the dog rushed in, biting firmly onto his arm. He screamed and, with his free arm, brought one of the river rocks down hard onto the dog’s heard. A crunch of bone was heard, far louder than anyone’s shouts or curses, and the animal went limp as a boned fish. We all paused and watched him drift away.
Suddenly, every boy there was yelling and abusing the boy. You could hurt each other, you could hurt the girls, but the dog was our friend, everyone’s friend. He had broken a rule and he knew it as he sat quietly under the blows and curses of the incensed crowd. By now everyone was hitting him, kicking him, everyone but me, me and Niamh. She was crying alone on the river bank, and the sight of her bright tears as they dropped into the water made me too sad, too heartbroken to be angry. I knew it was up to me. I knew that I had to get her dog back.
I swam quickly, the current at my back, pushing me onward. Ahead, I saw The Twins. Ancient willows that arched above the stream, seemingly joining into one above me. All my life I’d been told the stories of the trees there, that those who passed between them were unlikely to come back out. Those who did manage the journey, though, came out changed.
It didn’t even occur to me to slow or stop, all sense of caution had left me. I had to find him.
I gasped as I went through them, nearly swallowing the suddenly murky river water around me. I was surrounded by thick and terrible forest that, although it seemed older than time, I knew had not been there before. Tall trees that were older than all humanity stretched into the twilight and disappeared, their leaves brown and copper. A thick layer of moss covered the rocks and roots. I was so astonished by the sight that I forgot to swim, and let the current carry me, for how long I know not.
Suddenly I found myself in a secluded bay, a bend of the river with a small clearing at its edge, the humus bordered with willow saplings that gave way to darker trees beyond, too thick to walk through. The body of the dog, its black and white fur matted with blood, had also come to a rest, waves lapping against it. On the riverside was a mushroom circle, pale flesh that crowned stunted stalks.
Two figures danced in the middle, skipping and waltzing to a tune only they heard, or perhaps they danced only to the sounds of the forest, the rushing of the river, the distant chirping of strange birds. They were a boy and a girl, twins, seemingly twice my age. The girl was beautiful. Auburn hair lay lightly upon her bare shoulders. Her green eyes were framed by her high, elven cheekbones, and her skin carried the hue of a late summer’s tan. Her supple, toned body was clothed in green and fresh leaves that contrasted with the colour of her hair. She turned her emerald eyes on me, and whispered something to her brother. He looked at me then, and I him.
I cried in shock. He was dead, yet his grey, blind eyes still looked at me with a vivacity I’d never seen before. His skin was tight across his white skin, and bones jutted against the blue flesh of his elbows. His mouth was drawn into the tight grimace of someone who’d seen the force of famine, the cold of winter. He was nude save for a loincloth of brown, dead leaves at his waste. Worse than his body was the way that fungi and mushrooms sprouted around him and even up his legs. He was decay incarnate.
The girl hesitated a moment at the edge of the mushroom circle, looked back at her brother, then crossed the boundary. She calmly came to me at the riverside and, lifting my head, looked at me with those green, opal fires that were set deep in her tanned face. Never have I understood anything so clearly. Her brother was autumn, an end to the prosperity and goodness, the dying of the plants and the shortening of the days. Yet she was also autumn, and she was life. The blooming of the flowers made more beautiful by their scarcity, the shooting growth of colourful toadstools, the rutting of deer that begets dewy-eyed fawns come the spring. Lowering me gently, she waded deep into the water, the smooth skin of her naked legs prickling with its persuasive touch. With a hand as tender as a mother holding her child, she began to stroke the dog’s fur, tidying it and smoothing it away from the wound atop its head. Tears seeming to brim in her eyes dropped and soaked into his coat as she leaned down and kissed the injury. The dog’s eyes opened and the warm brown orbs gazed thankfully into her leaf green irises. She smiled shyly.
The brother was looking over at the three of us with anger. At first I thought he was angered by his sacrifice slipping away, but then I heard something as she gazed sadly at me and, dejectedly, sloped back into the circle. Deep within the woods beyond, where the trees grew thick and dark, the twisted, tangled forms that plunged deep into the word and filled me with dread to see them hid something. A predatory, hungry roar that pierced the still air like a shard of ice filled my senses, fearsome in its might and its need to be satiated. My heart chilled to hear it, yet when the twins began their dance again, it died away, echoing off mountains that I’d never know.
A sudden, calm stillness gripped me. I had floated through the Twins and seen what there was on the other side, what no human should. The willow trees where miles away, and the current too strong for me to swim, and yet I knew that there would be nothing to harm me. The girl had blessed us, and we would be safe. I closed my eyes then, praying silently to the old gods, to the new gods, to Spring and Summer and Autumn and Winter. I had saved Niamh’s dog, and it was time to go home. I opened my eyes as I felt the water cool and the bump of a river bank. It was a chill night, the end of summer. Against the starlight, I saw the Twins, the trees again now, shiver and dance with the touch of the wind. I found out, once home, that I had gone missing for four days straight.
No one remembers now what the dog’s name was before, but now we had a new name for him: Gift. In time, he died, and was given a small grave by the river, where a willow grew up out of him. Niamh said that he had always liked it there. Years later, we married and had sons of our own and they had sons of their own. Throughout all that time I have kept a shrine to the Twins in the fairy circle, and prayed to the girl that, should my sons wander, they would protect them. I still fear what would have happened had the brother come to me instead.
For Niamh, who brought Kopparberg to my barbecue one time