Echo of the Forest
She heard the twang of a bowstring beyond the glade. The arrow hummed through the air like a beam of light, nicking her upper arm to leave a deep stripe of blood. Echo felt a searing pain. She squealed, dropped her basket of herbs then darted for the undergrowth. Crouching among the ferns she looked behind to see the arrow, quivering in a branch. In the space beneath the tree’s roots lay her den and wood-framed pack, but she had no time to collect her few belongings. She leapt to her feet and sprinted along a faint path through the bracken as another arrow whizzed past her ear.
She entered a clearing, startled by the dozen red deer that scattered in fright. She dashed across to the far side and huddled down, taking deep breaths. The shadows of the ferns mingled with the brown markings that dappled her arms and legs, adding extra camouflage to her flame-red hair and short, russet-coloured dress. Echo peeped out from her hiding place, her hazel eyes scanning the glade where early morning light slanted through fans of oak leaves. Moments later her pursuer charged out from among the trees opposite. She gasped as she recognised the burly, bearded man, his hair a dark mane, his outfit of black horsehide. His name was Wulfric, a forester who a year earlier had fought alongside the enemy at the siege of Evil Hold when Echo’s parents and all their friends had been killed.
She knew why Wulfric had tracked her to this part of Wicca Forest. A week before, on a still moonless night, Echo had raided the castle of Lord Hugo de Mortain to steal the tax money he’d collected from his starving people. She’d returned the money to the village folk, causing the enraged Lord Hugo to put up a reward for her capture – dead or alive.
Wulfric lurched out into the centre of the glade, longbow and arrow at the ready. A rustling in the undergrowth distracted him. He spun around and released his arrow, narrowly missing the wild boar as it retreated into the tangle of bushes. Echo shot out from her hiding place and raced across towards the forester. When Wulfric saw his young attacker he reached for his quiver and took out another arrow, notching it in his bow. Echo performed a handspring and took off in a series of forward flick-flaks, flipping over and over. As Wulfric loosed his arrow Echo leapt up and out of its path, completing a high double somersault over the forester’s head to land soft-footed behind him. Wulfric whirled around and, in the same moment, she sprang up and spun in mid-air to unleash a flying drop-kick, the soles of her deerskin boots drilling into his chest. With a cry he toppled over and hit the ground with bone-shaking force, the wind knocked out of him. Echo caught her breath and stood a pace away, snatching up Wulfric’s bow then breaking it over her knee.
“See the cowardly stink-toad, who cannot even fight a girl of twelve years,” she said.
Slowly the forester sat up, gulping for air, the sweat glistening on his forehead. He fixed her with narrow, cat-like eyes.
“Breaking my bow will do thee no good,” he snarled, his face contorted with fury. “Thou hast vexed the lord of this manor for many weeks, but soon thou wilt be dead like thy parents. Mine arrows are tipped with poison more deadly than an adder’s tongue.”
“I am of dryad blood,” Echo told him. “I have only to touch the living wood of a tree to be cured of all illness.”
Wulfric bared his rotten teeth as he laughed in triumph. “Not if I take thee clear of the forest.”
Echo inspected her arm. The edges of her wound were white and blotchy as if stung by many nettles. Part of her wished to attack this man with his own sword, but she couldn’t bring herself to kill.
“Already the poison is working,” said Wulfric. “There is a price on thine head, and the reward will be mine.”
As he struggled to stand, Echo aimed a side-kick at the forester’s chest. But Wulfric was too fast and he grabbed her foot with both hands, wrenching sharply, causing Echo to twist in the air as her other foot left the ground. She landed face down and Wulfric dragged her towards him, grabbing first her dress then a fistful of long red hair. He placed a strong hand between her shoulderblades, pinning her down. Echo squirmed and lashed out with all her strength, backfisting Wulfric on the end of his nose. He yelled and released his grip, clutching his face as he rolled to one side. Echo vaulted away in a reverse hand-spring before landing on her feet.
’Tis no use fighting, said a voice in her head. If poison is in my blood, then I must escape.
She hurtled across the glade, looking back to see Wulfric on his feet, lumbering after her. With a cry he took another arrow from his quiver, waving it like a dagger. Echo slipped between two holly bushes then ran along a mossy path, red hair streaming behind her, the trees flashing past. She heard Wulfric’s shrieks and curses but knew she could outrun him. Eventually the path petered out near a gigantic beech tree. Beyond it the rough wilderness ended at the edge of a steep ravine, a fast-flowing stream some twenty yards below. Over to her left she saw a long, narrow tree trunk, spanning the ravine. She dashed to the makeshift bridge then quickly crossed it with arms outstretched. At the other side she paused to wipe the drops of blood that trickled from her wound. She looked across the ravine to see Wulfric, emerging near the beech tree. He spotted her and headed for the bridge, still waving the poisoned arrow. Echo crouched down at the place where the trunk met the ground. Even with her injured arm she had greater strength than most adults. Teeth clenched and muscles straining she took hold of the trunk and pulled hard, dislodging it from the opposite bank to send it tumbling into the stream far below.
“Thou canst not catch me now!” she called. “Thou measle-mouthed nut-hook with a face like a hound’s bottom!”
“Catch thee I will!” Wulfric roared back, raising a fist. “Thou toad-spotted knavelet!”
With this he began to scramble down the steep side of the ravine. Echo looked again at her wounded arm. For the tree magic to work, she had to make contact with living wood. But Wulfric had already threatened to drag her clear of the forest, should he catch her. She decided to escape through the treetops so he couldn’t track her. She hurried into the forest and came to a huge chestnut tree, the gnarls and broken branches on its trunk offering many foot-holds. Her arm was beginning to stiffen but she managed to climb up, resting as she came to a thick bough. She clambered higher then shinned across to where the branches connected with another tree. Taking a deep breath she leapt across, soaring from tree-to-tree like a squirrel until she was in the densest part of Wicca Forest. But now she was losing the feeling in her fingertips, and her body felt cold and sweaty as the poison took hold. With one final leap she landed in the limbs of a huge, ancient oak tree, some of its branches dead but others awakening into spring leaf. Her stomach began to clench, her arms and legs shuddering, and she found it hard to swallow. She saw movement below, a shifting of the ivy at the top of the tall trunk. Two large eyes appeared and a tawny owl flew out, hooting in surprise.
She was saved. The tree was hollow! She scrambled to the top of the trunk, jabbing with her toes at the place where the owl had appeared, feeling an empty space beyond the ivy. A few more kicks revealed a hole wide enough to take her. She began to slip down, parting the strands of ivy with her feet before sliding her legs inside. She stretched up her arms and slithered into the trunk until her world became clammy and dark. Only now, with the hole out of reach, did she realise her mistake. The trunk was taller and narrower than she’d thought, and her hips were stuck. Her eyelids became as heavy as iron, her body quivering as the venom coursed through her veins. Her tongue turned to stone and the strength ebbed from her limbs. In her stunned mind she saw visions of her father and mother. Large tears began to roll down her cheeks as she drifted into unconsciousness.
But the mighty tree looked after its own folk. The oak and the girl-dryad drew power from one another; the preserving force of ancient woodland magic. Echo McCool departed her own time but, cocooned in this protective place, her soul would never fly from her body for so long as the tree itself remained alive.