The Shadow & Herbs I Gather by Ellie A. Goss
Editor’s note: The presence of nature spirits and of a natural cure in this tale grabbed my attention, as did the ending that left me pondering the protagonist’s future.
Living on the edge of a bustling village, made so by a crossroad for travelers, lived a wise woman. She always offered her services for a fair fee, and it was because of this transient population that few bothered to give a thought to the life story of an old woman, let alone specifics such as her age or occupation. Until one day, when a boy of around 11 or 13 did notice, in the way that children do. He asked around about her in an innocent manner, but none could give an answer. He thought to ask the wise woman directly, but when he mentioned it to his ma, he felt his ear being clipped by the back of her hand, and so he thought better of it. Instead, he began to follow the wise old woman around like a shadow as she went about her business—in the village at first, and then, growing bolder, he began to follow her on gatherings within the woods. On this particular day the village was full of activity as preparations unfolded, revealing the scene that would burgeon into the Summer Solstice Festival that evening. Seeing the hustle and bustle, Ash gave a good-natured grin, his spirits high as he made his way towards the home of Hylde. He almost missed her leaving and quickened his step, as the old woman set a good pace. Into the mountains she went, a bird on her shoulder and her gathering bag swinging against her thigh. He followed along until midmorning, when the old woman disappeared behind a boulder. Ash searched for a way to find her while the sun rose; then, discovering a crevice hidden behind a large rock, he edged his way through, emerging into a sparsely covered area with a lake at its centre. The lake itself was a wonder, with luminescent lime green shining from its surface. Ash spotted Hylde making her way to the other side of the lake, gathering peach blooms as she went. Judging the distance and the light cover, Ash moved towards the lake. Kneeling at the water’s edge he skimmed his hand across the surface, able to see now how algae made the lake glisten. He turned his hand this way and that, examining it before having his attention was diverted to the sound of a violin playing. Ash looked up. A shadow had begun to fall across him, and the sun was obscured from its path. But Ash no longer noticed, nor did he hear the pleas from Hylde, who had stopped gathering blooms and had begun hurrying to reach the boy, stumbling on the smooth rocks in her haste, skirts giving hindrance in the bustling motion. Flying ahead, the small feathered companion of Hylde darted quickly to the dreaded water spirit Nokken, who, intent on the boy, continued to play his tune. Hylde’s bird dashed and darted in front of the water monster, but to no avail, as he was sent sprawling through the air by a gust of wind escaping from the Nokken, who was annoyed by the interference. Hylde’s screams penetrated the air. Meanwhile, Ash had risen from his place beside the lake, walking slowly, entranced by the violin into the luminescent water. From Hylde’s vantage point, she saw the two, boy and monster, moving ever closer to one another, and she searched frantically about herself for something to use against the Nokken; there was nothing. In desperation she called out: “Nykr! Nykr!” she bellowed. “Leave the boy alone. He knew not to enter the waters. It was a mistake,” she screamed, desperate. “You know the price, Huldra. You should not have bought him here. How long have you been sneaking here? Too long, but still the same as when I saw you last. Your husband remains uncured, I see. Annoying choice, a bird really. Huldra, couldn’t you have transformed him into something a little grander to keep his life unspent?” “Nykr. The boy wandered here by accident, a shadow he has been to me. I thought I had lost him today,” she said. “I am hungry, Huldra. I may have spared your husband’s life when last we met, but this boy is nothing, he is not one of us.” Hylde remembered back to a time when she was known as Huldra the forest spirit. Her marriage to a human was to have been the start of a new life, but it had been short lived when they had happened upon the Nokken, Nykr. Hylde’s now-recovered bird swooped again and again at the Nokken who fended the bird off, swinging bow and instrument about. The pause in music broke the trance Ash had been under long enough for him to run to shore. Falling to the ground with exhaustion, he lost consciousness. In an instant, Nokken submerged, his prey lost to the Huldra. Hylde quickly went about stripping the wet clothes from the boy and laid the blooms she had gathered at several points along his limp body. As the color drained from the flowers, the blue tinge that had spread across Ash’s skin abated, and his natural color returned. When his eyes opened, they looked directly into the blue eyes of Hylde, which were bordered by the creases of age. “It's your lucky day Ash, for on any other day, before or after Summer Solstice, these blooms would be near useless for gathering—one of the shortest windows for gathering I know of, and I know many.” “The blooms have many uses,” she continued, “but most especially, they draw the poison of the lake's algae from the blood streams of unsuspecting adventurers, such as yourself. Mind you, most will not know this, even if they make it back to shore.” She shook her head sadly. “Unlike you, of course, most will spend time being digested in the belly of the Nokken, but those that do find the shore again will usually be drawn into a deep sleep and be eaten slowly alive by the creepy crawlies.” Hylde had said her piece, and before Ash could reply, she motioned for him to follow her. And he did, as all shadows do.
Ellie A. lives and works nestled between the Tarkine Forest and Cradle Mt National Park. She is published in books, ezines, magazines and anthologies across genres. She likes forests and old buildings and strangely trains. The image of a nokken is by Theodor Kittelsen