Once there was a man named Silas, a good and quiet man, a farmer, and known in all the country around for his honesty and his generosity. He had three children: two older girls, now grown with families of their own, and a younger son, just now coming into his strength. They were good children, though the elder daughter was perhaps too proud, and the younger daughter was perhaps too vain, and the son was perhaps too willful, but something of this kind could be said about us all, and Silas was proud to be the father of three such fine children. Indeed, the only thing that gave him sadness was that his wife had not lived to see her children grow, for she had died of a fever when her son was only a few months old. Silas had not mourned much, for that was not his way, and there were many who said that the marriage must have been an unhappy one if so few tears were spent at its ending, but Silas had loved his wife deeply, and he never married again, though there were many women who would have been glad to have a man as honest and gentle as he was.
One day, just before midsummer, the year his younger daughter married, Silas set out to drive a few cows from his own farm to the farm of his new son-in-law who lived some way to the west. The journey was a long one by the main road, because it led first southward through the nearest town, but there was another path of sorts, a cattle trail and a woodcutters’ track that ran more directly westward, bending only slightly to skirt Charcoal Hill and then joining the main road close by his son-in-law’s farm. The path had been often used in earlier days, despite the many strange stories that were told of Charcoal Hill with its blackened and fire-blasted summit, but the woods had been mostly logged now, and there were fewer farms now also, so the track had fallen into disuse and become almost overgrown in places. This suited Silas very well, for the tall grass was no obstacle to his cattle, and he was less likely to meet someone on the way who would want to talk with him if he was the only one on the road.
He had taken this path many times, first rambling as a child and then driving cattle as an adult and now visiting his children in his old age. He had even now and again seen the forest folk who lived around Charcoal Hill, though always from a distance, just a glimmer and a shimmer and a glimpse of something unearthly, and he had always made sure to give the forest folk a wide berth, for there were too many stories of travellers who had angered the forest folk and been taken into their halls forever. There were other stories as well, of course, where the forest folk granted wishes or wisdom to those who pleased them, but Silas had never much wanted for these things, and he had been content to see the uncanny forest dwellers from afar, though he had not seen even so much for many years.
Silas was thinking idly about these and other things as he drove his cattle along the track, whistling to himself in his quiet little half-whistle, when the air became suddenly dim and thick and golden, and he knew that forest folk were near. He continued quietly on his path, knowing that the people of the forest most often leave alone those who mind their business, but a little man, slender and lithe, soon appeared on the path in front of him, and the cattle stopped so stiffly that they might have been frozen. The little man looked at Silas closely and then placed his right hand over his heart. “Mortal,” he asked, “what is it that you most desire in all the world?”
Silas chose his words carefully, not wanting to risk offence. “Spirit,” he said, for he knew that the forest folk were pleased to be addressed in this way, “though you honour me with your question, truly, my happiness needs nothing more than it has to be complete,” though even as he said this he remembered to himself his long dead wife, and his voice betrayed him.
Your words are well chosen,” said the little man, “but they anger me, for they are untrue.”
Silas was frightened because he knew that even the least of the forest folk could be terrible when angered. “You are wise, Spirit, to see so keenly,” he said. “There is indeed something that my happiness lacks, but it was not my intent to deceive you, since the thing I desire lies not within the power of any to grant, neither man nor spirit.”
“Do you presume that I will grant what you desire?” answered the forest man. “And are you so wise that you can judge what is possible for me? There is much within my power. Only do as I ask, and speak your desire truly.”
Silas did not want to speak of the wife that he had lost, but he knew that the forest man would tolerate no further lie, so he said, “Please, Spirit, the only thing my happiness lacks is the wife of my youth, for she died many years ago, and I have never found another to love so much.”
“Would you have me return her to you?”
Though Silas knew that he should be wary of gifts offered by the forest folk, his mind was suddenly full of memories, and he yearned to see his wife again, and he spoke with his passion and against his judgement. “Oh, Spirit,” he cried, “if such a thing was possible, I would desire nothing more from this life.”
“The thing you desire is possible,” replied the forest man, “though it is difficult, even for me, and it must come at a cost. You must go with me under the hill, and you must obtain something for me, something that lies beyond me because of my power, but that you may gain because of your weakness. This will be our bargain: your wife in exchange for the Leaf-Crown. Are we agreed?”
Though Silas felt even more now that he should accept nothing from the little man, he could not overcome his longing for his wife, so he bowed his head, and he said, “We are agreed,” and he felt then a sudden hurt like a knife in his left palm, and he saw his blood drip onto the forest floor to seal the bargain he had made.
“You may call me Metsan-Vaki,” said the forest man, “and you must follow me closely. Leave your cattle behind. No harm will come to them, but if you do not follow in my very footprints, great harm may come to you.”
So Silas followed the little man, and they made their away around the base of Charcoal Hill, first in wide circles, and then narrower, until they were winding their way around its very slopes, and all the while the sun did not move in the sky, but hung still like a distant lamp. Their path wove this way and that in its circuit, squeezing between trees and climbing over rocks, until at last they came to a tall stone of white quartz, roughly hewn, standing where the forest gave way to the blackened summit of the hill.
The forest man turned then and said to Silas, “Here lies the marker between your lands and mine. Once you pass it, you may not return until our bargain is complete,” and Silas stepped past the stone.
Their way now turned uphill, toward the summit of Charcoal Hill, but it was much higher now and no longer blackened or barren but covered with a huge grove of trees that would have reached high above the rest of the forest even had they not been standing atop the highest ground in a hundred miles. They seemed to Silas like a great fortress or cathedral, stern and massive, and he was afraid, but his feet took him ever closer to that imposing height against the little will that remained to him.
When they reached the summit of the hill at last, the trees of the great grove rose above them to such a height that Silas could not guess at it, many hundreds of feet, and the tunnels that ran between their trunks, close-spaced and massive, were like the galleries of a vast cave, dark and cool and still. There was no brush on the floor of the great wood, so wholly did the canopy shade the light of the sun, and the branches of the trees all lay high in the dimness, so there were only the trunks of trees to be seen, huge, like pillars for the sky. Silas followed Metsan-Vaki among these vast trunks, but he shrank from touching them, though his guide ever chose the path that came most closely to them and never lost a chance to run his hands along the cavernous crevices of their bark.
In this way they came at last to the centre of the wood, though there was little to mark it, lying as dark and as still as the rest, only there was also a small sapling, the first that Silas had seen in all that forest, no taller than himself, with small leaves, deeply and darkly green, and with still smaller berries, wetly and lusciously red, and with a crown of many-coloured leaves, interwoven gold and green and red and brown, set on its topmost branch.
“There,” said Metsan-Vaki, “on the topmost bough, lies the Leaf-Crown. Bring it to me, and I will restore to you the desire of your heart.” As he said this, he cupped his hands together, and droplets of water began to bead on the trunks of the trees and on the litter of the forest floor, like a sudden dew, and the droplets rushed toward the forest man, one following the other, running up over his body and filling his hands, and then they subsided again, with a sound like a sigh, and disappeared once more.
“Look into my hands,” the forest man commanded, “and see that I can do as I have said.”
Silas was afraid almost to sickness of what he would see in those hands, but he could no longer command himself, and he stumbled to his knees before the little man and looked into his cupped hands. There, just as he remembered her, was the face of his wife, so many years gone from him, and he began to weep at the sight. Her eyes were closed, as though she were sleeping, and Silas knew that he would not now refuse anything the forest man asked of him.
He rose to his feet and rushed toward the sapling at the centre of the clearing, neither knowing nor caring what might await him there, but as he reached to take the crown from where it lay on the highest bough, his sight was overcome by a vision of such power that he could move no further. No longer could he see the sapling or its crown, but in every direction he seemed to be surrounded by the most beautiful figures, tall and grave and green-gold and filled with light, and their voices spoke as one, like a great chorus, and the sound of it was like a great music.
“Mortal,” they asked, “by what right do you take the Leaf-Crown?”
Silas was filled by a great dread, and he despaired that he would ever see his wife again, but he was by nature an honest man, and he felt besides that these spirits would surely penetrate any deception, so he spoke his heart truly. “I take the crown by no right that I know,” he confessed, “but only by the instruction of another, so that he will restore to me my wife who has been dead now these fifteen years.”
“To whom would you give the crown?” the spirits sang, and there was concern now in their singing, though their faces remained unmoved. “Who promises to return the dead to the living?”
“His true name is unknown to me,” said Silas, “for he is one of the forest folk, and they guard their names closely, but he told me that I might call him Metsan-Vaki, if this name is known to you.”
The faces of the spirits were suddenly moved, and they swirled among each other, blending themselves together into one great light of green and gold, and their song became filled with anger. “Mortal,” they said, “the laws that govern the Leaf-Crown compel us to grant you the Leaf-Crown, for you will not purpose to do evil with its power, but you must know that great evil may be done if you give the crown to Metsan-Vaki. Though he is a creature more of mischief and trickery than of evil, he will certainly do great harm should he have the power of the Leaf-Crown. Though we cannot deny the crown to you, still we would beg that you refrain from taking it, though we know that it means sacrificing what is most dear to you.”
As they said this, the column of light began to dissolve into separate figures once again, still tall and grave and beautiful, and Silas could see that their faces were saddened and grim, and he thought to himself that they had little hope in his choice, but were prepared already to have Metsan-Vaki wear the crown. Silas felt in himself the demand of both his duty and of his heart, and it seemed to him that they waged a very war in his spirit, so that he knew nothing but their conflict. “Please, Great Spirits,” he asked, “is it true that Metsan-Vaki has the power to return my wife to me?”
“Yes,” they replied, “once he wears the Leaf-Crown, Metsan-Vaki will be able to do many things, even make the dead live, though the cost to him will be very great. His oath to you binds him, and he will grant your wife to you as he has promised. Is this your choice then? Will you take the crown?”
Such was the conflict in Silas that he could not at first reply, and when words came to him at last, they seemed not of his choosing, but of another who spoke through him. “Please,” he begged again, “I know my duty, but I also know my heart, and I cannot choose between them. Is there no choice that might bring them into unity?”
“No,” the spirits sang, gently now, “Our nature will not allow us to return your wife to you, and your weakness, even with the Leaf-Crown, would make it impossible for you to raise her yourself. If you were to attempt this thing, you would surely join her in death rather than have her join you in life.”
These words, though they were not meant as a consolation, came to Silas like a fresh hope, and he suddenly knew his course. “I will take the Leaf-Crown,” he said, and the singing of the great spirits lapsed instantly into silence, and they disappeared from his sight, and he awoke to himself and found that he had indeed seized the crown in both his hands.
“Yes!” cried Metsan-Vaki, his face filled with a sudden and terrible joy, “now give me the crown, and I will grant you what your heart desires!”
Silas held the crown in his hands for a moment, and he felt the certainty of his choice, and he set the crown on his own head, and he willed nothing other than his own death, that he would be where his wife lay waiting for him, and then the clearing was filled with a fierce light, white beyond all whiteness, and he was gone, leaving the Leaf-Crown on the branch where it had first rested, and it is said that Metsan-Vaki’s eyes were ever after blind.