The old grenz in the corner of the inn stretches his legs out in front of him and leans back in his chair. He takes a sip of his mulled wine, pauses, tilts his head as if listening to the pop and crack of the log on the fire. Finally, he sets down his cup, leans forward, and clears his throat.
How shall I begin?
Shall we start by saying “once upon a time?” Stories such as these often begin that way, but no. Not this one. That is far too vague. If I started this story like that, or something else like “Long ago and far away” you will think the story is not true. That the old man is making things up again. That won’t do. No sir, not at all. I will be as specific as possible, for this is a true story.
Sixty-two years, 7 months, and….5 days ago I think, there was a village in the land of Genn. In this village lived Ayla, the daughter of Aster. Aster did not give birth to Ayla, but in their village it was known: Aster is Ayla’s mother, and there was truth in that.
At the time, Genn was known as the land set between the Sea of Sorrows and Wandering Wood. But, as is its nature, the Wood began wandering. This time it wandered towards the sea. It wandered all the way up to the village where Ayla and her mother lived, and the villagers were afraid.
“What shall we do!?” they cried. “The wood will wander over our fields and farms! It will tear up our streets and crush our houses, and we will be left with nothing!”
The Lord of the village knew his people could not stay in the way of the Wandering Wood. The Wood went where it pleased, and no one had ever turned it aside. Great Kings and Empires had tried to corral the Wood, but all had failed. Many a brave champion had sought the Wyrd at the heart of the Wood, to plead him or force him to turn the Wood away, and none had ever returned. Though it grieved him to leave, for the Lord of the village was himself a man of the land, he ordered that all the people of the village pack up as much as they could carry, and they would leave to find a new home. Though it grieved them all as well, the people of the village did as their Lord bid them. All except Ayla the daughter of Aster.
“I will not leave,” she said, “What right does the forest have to tell us to leave. This is where we live, it should go somewhere else.”
The people of the village laughed, for Ayla was but a child, and children are expected not to understand such things.
“Ayla, the Wandering Wood goes where it may.” said the Lord of the village, “No one can turn it aside or command it save the Wyrd at the heart of the Wood, and none who’ve gone in search of him have ever returned.”
Ayla nodded, “Well I’m going to find this Wyrd and tell him to leave us alone.”
She said it so matter-of-factly, that the villagers almost took her seriously. But then they laughed and said to each other, “The little girl thinks she is a brave knight or a champion. Is that not cute? Is that not adorable? That a little girl might succeed where grown men have failed.”
Even the Lord of the village, who was a friend to Aster and Ayla, stifled a chuckle.
Ayla simply stuck out her jaw and stormed away. She went to the house of Aster, and while her mother was busy collecting the things they would need for the long journey away from the Wood, Ayla prepared for her journey into it. She took her sturdiest traveling boots, a cloak made of oiled cloth to keep her dry, a satchel she filled with oat cakes, cheese and some pork, and her mother’s best knife.
Ayla was the best at the game of hiding, and so that evening, while the villagers were preparing to leave, she made her way without being seen to the edge of the village and into the Wandering Wood.
Ayla traveled the whole night, heading deeper and deeper into the Wood. The Wandering Wood was not meant to be traveled by mortal feet though, and as Ayla went further and further, she became more and more lost. For hours Ayla walked, not knowing where she was going or how to get back, only hoping that she might eventually find the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood.
“What are you doing?” came a voice from the trees. Ayla looked up to see a sleek black bird perched upon the branches above her. “What are you doing?” it repeated.
“I’m looking for the Wyrd of the Wood,” She replied.
“You are far from there. And no mortal man who has ever reached him has lived to tell of it,” the bird croaked.
“Then show me the way, good raven,” Ayla implored, “The Woods shall wander over my home unless I find him.”
“Even if I showed you the way, you have no way to convince or compel the Wyrd to turn the Wood aside,” the raven said piteously, “Better to go, find a new home. I can show you the way out of the forest.”
“No. I must stop it. I will not abandon the village where I was raised, the village of Aster who took me in as her own daughter. I cannot let it be trampled by the Wood.”
“You will not be turned aside?”
“No more easily than the Woods,” Ayla said defiantly.
“Then I will show you a path through the woods,” the raven croaked and flew down to land on Ayla’s shoulder.
“To the Wyrd?” Ayla asked.
“No. To one who might know how to turn the Wood aside.” And so the raven lead Ayla through the woods, over hills and through valleys, until they came to a great tree, so tall that it seemed to pierce the clouds. This tree was Father Ash, an ancient and proud tree, who had seen the Woods before they wandered. Ayla stood before the tree, straining to see the top, and asked the raven, “Does Father Ash know how to stop the Wood?”
“Father Ash does not. But there is a wizard who sought to make a wand of Father Ash’s limbs. Father Ash trapped him inside his trunk. Foolish, but he does have much arcane knowledge. If anyone can tell you how to compel the Wyrd, it will be the wizard.”
Ayla nodded, and walked up to the giant ash.
“Father Ash,” She cried.
The tree groaned and creaked, and said, “Is that Ayla I see down by my roots?” It was not surprising that the tree knew Ayla’s name, for the truly ancient know most things.
“Yes Father Ash, I come to speak to the wizard who is your prisoner,” said Ayla.
“Hmmf,” said the old tree, “That young upstart? I will not allow it.”
Ayla pleaded, “I beg of you Father Ash. Raven says that he might know how to turn the Wood aside.”
“Turn the Wood aside!? Hrmmf. Not possible. Only the Wyrd can tell us where we may and may not go.”
“Could you tell the Wyrd to take the Wood elsewhere, Father Ash?” Ayla asked.
“No. The Wyrd will not listen to me.”
“Then I must speak to him, please Father Ash.” Ayla cried out. Her eyes were filled with tears, but Ayla the daughter of Aster stood tall. Father Ash saw that she would not be turned away. And so he groaned, and opened his roots, releasing the wizard from his prison.
“Thank you for saving me,” the young wizard said, “What can I offer you to repay you for my freedom?”
Ayla helped the young wizard to his feet, and it was then that the wizard realized that his savior was a girl of no more than 10 winters.
“I seek a way to turn the Wood aside, and to save my village,” Ayla declared.
The wizard looked down with sad eyes, “Little girl I am sorry, but the Wyrd will not be as easily swayed as Father Ash. The Wyrd goes where he wills and pays no heed to mortal words. Not from kings or emperors or even great wizards. He is not likely to be turned aside by a young girl. You should have the raven take you home.”
“No!” Ayla shouted, “I’ve had enough of people telling me to turn back. The Lord of my village, the raven, Father Ash, and now you. You say you owe me your freedom, then I demand you help me. Tell me how to compel the Wyrd.”
The wizard was taken aback. It is not often that a wizard is shouted down by a little girl. He stared at Ayla long and through his Art, looked deep into her. Though he said nothing at the time, it is said by some that he saw great waves crashing against the shore, where they were broken and the shore remained unchanged. The young wizard nodded.
He said nothing, but reached into his robes, where he pulled out a war hammer. Not an ornate gilded and jeweled war hammer like that of a lord or knight, a simple war hammer for a common soldier. He handed it to Ayla, and clapped his hands, and the wind came to carry him away.
“Go now into the heart of the Wandering Wood, young lady. The raven will show you the way. Good luck to you,” he called as the wind took him above the trees and out of the forest.
And so the raven led Ayla to the heart of the Wood, begging her one last time to let him lead her home instead, but as always Ayla refused.
They walked and walked, until they came to a dark and murky glen, where the Wyrd was holding his court that wandered like the forest. The Wyrd felt the approach of one who would compel him, and called out into the forest.
“Come forth, mortal champion! I am the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood, and I bow to no man or beast of this earth! Step forward into the light, and I will face you in combat. If you defeat me, then the Wood shall wander where you demand. But know this: all who have attempted to do so, have died.” The boast was not idle. The Wyrd held aloft a sword carved wholly of ironwood, sharpened and tempered by deep magic, and stained with the blood of thousands who had sought to turn the Wood aside. The court of the Wyrd of the Wood parted to make way for the approaching challenger, and they readied themselves to watch the fight. Many of the forest folk began to place bets on how long this latest challenger might last.
Ayla stepped out into the clearing of the court.
There was a pause.
Then the Wyrd began laughing.
His laugh was not a quiet chortle or a stifled chuckle, it was the full hearty laugh of a man who has lost control of himself. He laughed at the little girl of 10, dressed like some character from a tall tale, carrying a hammer to large for her, with a raven perched upon her shoulder. The court laughed with him. This was the champion who thought to compel the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood? What a lark. What a right and proper lark.
The Wyrd and his courtiers laughed so hard, they did not notice that Ayla was walking across the clearing. They did not notice her raise her hammer. They only noticed when she brought the hammer down on the Wyrd’s head. She struck him so hard that he dropped his ironwood sword. The Wyrd cried out in pain, and Ayla struck him again. The court gasped and stood in shock as the Ayla the daughter of Aster struck the Wyrd again and again with her hammer. She struck him until he was driven into the ground like a nail into wood, and the Wyrd finally cried out, “Enough! Enough, mortal! I yield the fight to you. The Wood shall Wander as you compel it.”
“It will wander back to the land it was in before the latest wandering, and there it shall stay, until I say otherwise,” Ayla demanded, “And along the way, you will stop at every village the Wood wandered over and apologize to the people whose homes you ruined. Or I shall return and strike you again.”
The Wyrd agreed, and with head hung in shame, he turned the Wood aside and began the wandering back to the lands it had left. The court of the Wyrd dispersed, not wishing to invoke the anger of their liege who’d been defeated. All left in shocked silence, save one mischievous forest folk who had bet on the mortal champion.
Ayla was led home by the raven, where the village welcomed her back with cheers. All except Aster, who demanded the return of her best knife, which had been taken, and immediately sent Ayla to her room for running off without a word. But Aster, the mother of Ayla, took the hammer of Ayla, stained forever green by the heartsblood of the Wyrd, and displayed it proudly above the hearth of their home. And all in the land of Genn were told that Ayla Green-Hammer had defeated the Wyrd of the wood that would wander no more.
The old grenz sets down his empty cup, and nods. Done with his story and his drink. The small group who sat and listened begins to leave. Some return to their own tables, some to their rooms, some leave the inn entirely. All except a little girl who sits on the floor by the fire. She sits there looking at the old green-skin as the barkeep brings him a new cup of wine.
“The story is over little one,” the grenz says, “I’m too tired to tell another one tonight.”
“Did all that really happen mister?” she asks him, “With the talking raven and the wizard and the Wyrd getting beaten by Ayla?”
“It most certainly did,” the old man smiles, “Sure as the sun rises and sets.”
“Then I don’t like it,” the girl says with a sulk.
“Oh? And why’s that?” he asks.
“Cause after all that, Ayla just goes home. If it were me, I wouldn’t go home after that. I’d just go looking for another adventure.”
“Oh ho ho,” the old grenz chuckles, and a light flashes behind his eyes, “You think that’s the only adventure Ayla went one? Why don’t you come back tomorrow night, and I’ll tell you about Ayla’s greatest adventure. How she became the Warrior Queen of Genn.”