“The Children of the Forest”
by Michael M. Jones
In the Brambles, it’s always October. A full moon hangs orange and bloated in a cloud-streaked night sky, dry leaves crunch underfoot, and the encroaching nip of winter competes with bonfire smoke in the air. Two Faerie queens lay claim to this odd little patch of land between the Autumn and Winter realms, but the Brambles swears allegiance to no one save its own master, the Wicker King.
The Brambles is a place of tricks and treats, shadows and secrets, death and rebirth. It’s the jump-scare, the nervous laughter, the stolen kiss. This is where the monster under the bed retreats in the daytime, where the things which go bump in the night go to lift a drink and trade boasts. It’s where sex and fear walk hand-in-hand, accompanied by their spectral children and unspoken wishes.
And yet, even the residents of the Brambles, experienced mischief-makers every one of them, grow anxious in anticipation as Samhain approaches in the mortal world, because they all know the time is coming. The moment when the Skeleton Tree loses its last leaf for the year, and the forest itself comes out to play.
The Skeleton Tree is an ancient, twisted thing which marks the heart of the Brambles itself, the seed from which everything grew. It’s the oldest living being in the immortal forest, and some say if you hold your ear to its trunk long enough, it’ll whisper unfathomable secrets which will strike you mute and mad. Others chuckle uneasily and say that’s just a myth. But they’re not about to test it for themselves… All year long, the Skeleton Tree’s leaves fall in a riot of red and orange and gold, and it’s a Brambles tradition to take one—only one!—for luck. But when the last leaf falls, and the Tree stands cold and naked in the light of the full moon…
…its children emerge from every tree, every bush, every exposed root and dead branch. Trunks split, the ground shudders, caves open, and out they come, a vast horde of men and women and both and neither and every possibility besides. Some are lean and lithe, with craggy brown bark-like skin, leaves for hair, long twigs for fingers. Others are thick and curvy, their bodies shaking with every movement as they stretch and re-acclimate themselves to this rare physicality. Naked and unashamed, every one of them, proud to show off these bodies they’ve crafted for the occasion. Some are almost indistinguishable from humans or Fae, others are crude effigies who’ve gotten just one or two features almost right, and yet they all have that same wildness of spirit, that eagerness to live, to experience.
The children of the forest pour forth into the shops and taverns of the Brambles to fight and frolic and fuck for the night, as is their tradition. They drink to the dying of the year and its rebirth, they toast the cycling of the seasons. And the normal denizens of the Brambles welcome them whole-heartedly, for how can they not accept the purest expression of their land, their very essence?
As the long night draws on, the children of the forest pair off with willing partners, with humans and Fae and each other. They take to the bedrooms and alleys, streets and fields, rutting in the twos and threes and fours and more, until the entire Brambles seems nothing more than one long series of gasps and moans punctuated by orgasmic cries and rustling leaves.
And at some point, the Wicker King himself comes forth to embrace the Skeleton Tree itself. As his name suggests, he’s just a framework of a human form, a living collection of twigs and branches shaped into something like a person, with gangly limbs and a twisted smile and blue balefire for eyes. For the occasion he’s shed the well-tailored suit he usually wears, for it wouldn’t do to go clothed before the Skeleton Tree, which represents the Brambles even more than he does. And the Tree silently greets him, the chill autumn wind groaning through its naked branches.
The Wicker King embraces the Skeleton Tree, the two somehow becoming one conjoined entity… and they fuck. The King and the Land, together, and the Brambles shakes. It shudders. It gasps. It whimpers. It cries out…
…and the Skeleton Tree bursts back to life, a thousand thousand leaves sprouting from its limbs, even as the Wicker King collapses at its base, spent and exhausted, his balefire eyes flickering in dim satisfaction.
One by one, more and more, the children of the forest slowly disengage from their partners, from each other, and trek back to their true homes, to the trees and rocks and bushes. Some carry new life within them; others have planted seeds in their partners which may bring new strangeness to the Brambles in the years to come. Satisfied, satiated, the children of the forest vanish from sight for another year.
The Wicker King bows to the Skeleton Tree, before picking up the first fallen leaf of the new cycle and walking away. He has a land to run, and Samhain fast approaches…
Michael M. Jones lives in southwest Virginia with too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who prefers trick to treat. He has appeared in numerous Circlet projects, including Superlative Speculative Erotica. For more, check out his single-author collection, Puxhill by Night, or visit him at www.michaelmjones.com