Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wonen, Lord of the Mistlands

This is the story of Wonen. Of course you know that he roams the Mistlands, guiding our ancestors as they pass from death into the world beyond, just as he will some day guide you and I. And you know that late every winter, we celebrate Wonen’s Day, honoring those who have died in the previous year. But it was not always so. Wonen was once a mortal man. This is the story of how he became lord of the land between death and the afterlife.

Wonen Selkirk lived in the outskirts of Tobermory, a small village set on the edge of a plain. To the west of Tobermory stretched a thick forest. One needn’t venture far before the branches and leaves overhead grew thick and blocked out the sun. On cloudy days, as many are, even those familiar with the woods could become lost. At night, only the brave, the foolish or the pursued found cause to enter. Wonen lived with his father on the side of town nearest the Bràigh Forest, as it was called, hunting and trapping for fur and meat. His father taught him the skills of tracking and killing animals at such a young age, that when he grew into a young man he could get near enough to spit on his prey before setting loose an arrow. He had spent so much time creeping through the trees, that he was one of the few people in Tobermory who could stay in the Bràigh after sunset and still find his way out before sunrise.

Of their time not devoted to hunting, Wonen and his father, Gareth, spent a fair amount at the Inn, which did not have a proper name by virtue of not needing one. It was the only inn Tobermory could claim. Time at the Inn for the Selkirk men doubled as leisure and business. As a watering hole for locals and travelers, the Inn functioned as an ideal location to advertise their services and take any orders in need of filling. Wonen tended to leave the task of making business connections to his more gregarious father. This gave him time to make fleeting conversation with Arabella, a comely lass who worked at the Inn. Her parents had died when she was sixteen, and she had no other family. The Inn’s owners, the Cruickshankses, a miserable duo, had taken her in and put her to work immediately. After years of secret smiles and stealing away for moments of privacy, however brief amongst the noise and clatter, Wonen had confessed to Arabella that he loved her.

When he did, she wanted to fall into his arms and tell Wonen that she felt the same for him, but she dared not risk an open display of affection. Her stewards, Mr. and Mrs. Cruickshanks, would not share in her joy. They kept an ever watchful eye on her. Especially Mrs. Cruickshanks. She saw how her husband leered at Arabella, always keeping a hand on her as he muttered his orders. Even so, Mrs. Cruickshanks valued the free labor Arabella provided more than she mistrusted Mr. Cruickshanks, and she would let nothing take away the ward providence had granted her.

When Wonen made his confession, the only acknowledgement she could offer was a slight smile and an excited nod, imperceptible to anyone more than a few steps away. He could read her acceptance from this reaction, and in the elation in her eyes. Not more than a moment later she was gone in a twirl of skirts, gathering up pewter mugs and plates from the tables around the dining hall.

Wonen remained at his seat, admiring Arabella as she moved around the room and in and out of the kitchen, casting a broad smile when he could catch her eye.

“Do you need something else, boy?”

Mrs. Cruickshanks slammed a her knotted hand down in front of Wonen, jarring him from his thoughts. His smile wavered when his eyes met hers. He told her that he supposed he could use another beer and cup of soup. The lines in her face deepened as she glowered at him. She tried to loom menacingly over him, but her spine was old and weak and would not allow it.

“Thank you,” said Wonen, hoping his tone of finality made it past the hair in Mrs. Cruickshanks’ ears.

She humpfed and then left to find her husband. Mr. Cruickshanks was not pleased being cornered and scolded. His wild eyebrows danced like river reeds while his wife spoke conspiratorially. She gestured towards Wonen and Arabella, occasionally adding a jab to Mr. Cruickshanks’ chest. This did not escape Arabella’s attention. Later, while Mr. Cruickshanks scrutinized the young hunter and his wife fawned over a customer of means, she slipped a note to Gareth Selkirk. She instructed him to not read, and that he may only present it to Wonen after the two had reached their home. The sternness of her voice was such that Gareth feared what she might do if he disobeyed.

On the walk home, Wonen’s father spoke mostly of the business he had conducted. He also managed to work in a few questions about The Inn’s proprietors and the girl who worked for them. He sensed a change in Wonen when the topic of Arabella came up, but Gareth did not press further, fearing that it would go against the spirit of her orders. Eventually they arrived home, where it was safe for Gareth to present the note to Wonen.

Arabella wanted to meet him. The next night, after she had finished working at the Inn, and the Cruickshankes had fallen asleep, she would go to Wonen’s house and wait for him at the edge of the Bràigh.

When the night came, Wonen was anxious for the hour to arrive. He wandered his house to pass the time, unable to sit still or think of anything other than his love. He crossed the living room countless times. Finally, his patience exhausted, he went out into the night. Visions of Arabella carried him towards the forest’s edge. Walking across the field towards the trees, he composed an eloquent speech that he imagined would earn him many sighs and kisses. As he refined a bit honoring her fair complexion, a shout arose from the direction he was heading. He took off at a sprint. More shouts came from the darkness. Over the sound of his own breathing and footfalls, Wonen heard the sound of Arabella struggling with at least two men.

When he reached the border of the forest, a weight struck him from behind, knocking him to the ground. It felt like two bags of boiled potatoes had landed on top of him. It was the Cruickshankses. Wonen tossed them aside and was back on his feet before either of them had managed to roll over.

“What are you doing? What’s happened to Arabella?” he said in a hushed shout.

“She’s gone. And it’s no use going after her. She wants nothing more to do with you,” huffed Mr. Cruickshanks from his hands and knees.

“Tell the truth or stay in the mud,” Wonen said with a boot to Mr. Cruickshanks’ side.

“We’ve sold her,” growled Mrs. Cruickshanks. “We know what you two were planning. You were going to take her from us. Leave us with nothing. We sold her off so we could get something in return.”

The couple hadn’t missed the looks between Arabella and Wonen. The previous night, a man looking to recruit or acquire girls Arabella’s age had also been at the Inn. Seeing what was blossoming between the two, they decided to take action and ensure a return on their loss.

“I will return with my love. And then I will return to collect your debt,” said, looming over them.

Mr. Cruickshanks stumbled backward at this declaration. Wonen turned and disappeared into the forest. The couple  watched him disappear through the trees, and, when they were sure he was gone, wobbled quickly home. Over the next days and weeks, they would look uneasily through their windows expecting to find him outside. But he never appeared.

Though it is true that Wonen knew the forest like no other, whoever had taken Arabella was also skilled at moving amongst trees and underbrush. He found himself stopping more frequently, listening for signs of their movements. Eventually there were no more and he was moving blindly into the night. The occasional freshly broken branch, or hint of a footprint, would bring hope that his direction was true. He walked all night, never feeling as though he gained ground. When day came, there was a haze like thick fog all about the forest. He saw no rays of sun, only a gray glow. He walked for the entire day. And he walked through the next night. As the second day came, still with skies like a gray sheet, he reached the far side of the Bràigh forest. Before him stretched a field with wisps of tall grass standing in bunches. Never before had he come through the other side of the forest. Wonen scanned the new landscape before him, aching for a hint of which direction to continue. He shook away a feeling of defeat and walked away from the Bràigh into the field.

Once out of the trees, he could see how thick the mist truly was. It was not long before the forest was erased from sight. He walked on for an hour before deciding to return to the edge of the Bràigh. He would backtrack in the hopes of regaining the trail of Arabella and her captors. Wonen was careful to follow his own footsteps in the damp grass, but they seemed to fade as he traced his own path. Unable to see beyond several hundred feet, he became disoriented. He was unsure if he faced the woods or not. Still determined to free his love, he concentrated on progressing in one direction, until he could find a landmark and his bearings. Wonen pressed on for many more days and nights, never finding so much as a sapling or fallen log. Only tufts of grass. The haze never lifted, keeping the stars at night from him.

There are some who believe that Wonen died in the Bràigh Forest, and that Arabella was sold as a house servant or worse. There are even more who believe that Wonen never stopped walking through the gray field, never stopped searching for the woman who returned his love. They say that, so dogged and relentless was he, death itself could not catch up to Wonen. He stalks the lands between this world and the next, one step ahead of death and one behind Arabella’s captors. But always pressing forward.

Back in Tobermory, Mr. and Mrs. Cruickshanks never again saw an easy night’s rest. Even many years after they sold off their ward, when the Inn hosted a crowd, they still scanned the sea of faces, fearing to see Wonen’s, knowing that he would return to repay them for what they had done. They’re only relief come on their deathbeds, because they did not know Wonen awaited them slipped into death’s embrace.

The people of Tobermory took to saying “Wonen unto him” regarding a person who had cause to look over his shoulder in dread, or committed an act that deserved reprisal. This was eventually shortened to “won’unto him,” which became “woe unto him.”

Woe unto him who looks upon love with anger and hate.