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Though I've traveled farther now and know the world is vast, I still think the Kingswood, inside its compass, may be endless.
Our village was an island in a sea of trees, one of many such islands, each with crofts, fields, hedges, orchards and pastures, scattered across the great round waves of the mountains. The Dame held that village and two more at her father's pleasure, and at King Thyrse's pleasure too, for her holdings lay within the Kingswood and under forest law. The king had given her dispensation to take dyestuffs from the woods, as he prized the tapestries she wove. So she had wandered at will, and I'd attended her, and thought I knew more of the Kingswood than the other drudges of manor and field.
The villagers had leave to travel the market road that threaded the wood from one village to the next, and certain grants to underwood, pasture and forage, clay pits and such. All for fees, of course, always something owing to the king's foresters and woodwards. It was said King Thyrse was so jealous of his belongings that he kept a tally of every deer and oak in his forest; and the pigherds swore he counted every acorn too, when they drove the pigs into the woods in autumn to fatten on the mast. The drudges could cut no wood save hazel and ash poles from the coppices, and every man had leave to fell an oak when he took a wife and built his house. Otherwise they were not allowed past the wards.
But I found signs of their trespass: a burned patch planted with a fistful of grain, a tree felled or stripped of fruit, a deer strung up in a snare. I never saw a poacher. They were too cunning, and for cause: the foresters would take a man's eyes and hands and leave him to the mercy of the wolves for such an offense. It was bad enough to steal the king's game, but snares were an abomination. The gods abhor weapons that leave the hand, cowards' weapons such as javelins, bows and arrows, slings. No man or beast save vermin should die by such means.
The village folk kept other secrets, and I found those too: great circles of ancient elm, ash, or oak, their limbs so entwined that no sapling could take root under them. I supposed the groves deserted, but still I felt the prickling on the nape of my neck when I saw the lofty spaces and blackened stones inside. I'd heard tales of such places from Na when I was small. Late at night she'd whisper to me of the old gods in the woods, the numina of trees and groves, stones and rivers, until I feared to sleep. The Dame had given these tales no credence, so I too had come to disbelieve them. When the Blood took these lands many generations ago, they said the gods of the mudfolk were not gods at all, but rather malicious wights. They banned even their names.
It's one thing to forbid the worship of a god, and another to command that it be forgotten. One day I found the oldest tree of all, a black oak bigger than twelve men could encircle with their arms, and I knew it for the one Na called Heart of the Wood. Dolls of twigs and shucks dangled from its branches: right side up to cure barrenness, upside down to bring on a miscarriage. Mudwomen had dared to put them there, knowing that if the kingsmen had caught them in the woods out of turn, they might also hang from those branches.
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