Into the Heartless Wood - Joanna Ruth Meyer



I WAS BORN A TREE. IT WAS EASIER, THEN. ALL I NEEDED WAS THE earth and the wind and the rain. All I needed was the sunlight warm in my dappled leaves.

There was no fear, just growth. No wanting, just sky. No thirst, thirst, thirst.

Only starlight.

But my mother wanted daughters, and she chose the birch ring.

I remember the day of my birth: the stretch of wood becoming sinew, of leaves becoming hair. I felt the dirt under my toes and I opened my eyes for the first time and saw what I had never seen before: the deep green wood and the wide blue sky, the gray and white forms of my seven sisters.

And my mother, who is neither tree nor woman nor anything that there are words for. She is power and beauty and binding. She does what she wants, and woe to anyone who stands in her way. I understood that, in my first moment of life, and I bowed before her, my green and yellow hair spilling around my shoulders like a shining stream.

What I did not understand was that I was born to be a soldier. What I did not understand was that I would no longer be free.

At first, I thought I loved my mother. She opened my eyes and loosed my tongue. She taught me the names of all the things in the wood; she taught me to sing. And the music, music, music, that welled up inside of me and spooled out from my lips was a thing of such wonder, such beauty, that I thought it was good, because how could it not be? So I sang and I grew, and I allowed her to shape me into her monster without realizing she did so.

When I was old enough to lure a man with my song, to trap him in the heart of the wood and break him like so many dead branches, I did it without question, without thought.

And when I had done it two times and ten and twenty, when I had lured a hundred men to their deaths in my mother’s forest, I forgot that I had ever been a tree.

I forgot I had ever been anything but my mother’s youngest monster.

Part One


Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, both dark and bright, and they will ensnare your soul.

—Robert Beatty, Serafina and the Black Cloak

Chapter One


THE GWYDDEN’S WOOD IS QUIET TODAY. THERE IS NO HIGH, eerie melody woven into the air, pulling at my mind and my body, tempting me to come among the trees, though I know very well what would happen if I did. I’m more able to resist the music than most. But it’s easier when it’s quiet.

The wood smells as it always does: of loam and earth and the sour hint of decay. Branches hang over the chest-high boundary wall my father built too late. Leaves scrape against the stone; they’re a luminescent green, new-furled. But they can’t trick me into admiring them—I know what they conceal.

What they’ve taken from us.

Awela tumbles like a new puppy in the grass, nearly in the shadow of the wall. She doesn’t understand the danger that lurks so close. How could she? She’s only two. She doesn’t remember our mother. She doesn’t hear our father’s gut-wrenching cries in the dark of night when he thinks I’m sleeping. Father would be angry that we’re out here at all, but Awela is part wild thing. She can’t be kept indoors all day. Besides, there’s no music coiling out of the forest at present, and Father is away working at Brennan’s Farm. He doesn’t need to know. And it’s not like I take my eyes off her, even for a second.

I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in.

Awela races about in circles, squealing with joy until she’s so dizzy she falls down. There’s dirt on every inch of her, and she’s managed to rip her dress. Her skin is freckled and tanned from the sun, her dark curls—the same ones I have, inherited from Father—springing out in every direction. She never sits still long enough for me to properly comb her hair, which right now is tangled with grass and twigs. She has Father’s brown eyes and Mother’s broad smile and more mischief than any person so small should be able to contain. She exhausts me, and I adore her to bits.

“Awela!” I cry, as she