Succat trudged doggedly northward along the ever diminishing trail that led to the Ribbon-wood and the Lianhan Shee. His spirits were low, dampened by the rain, and fear that he was not up to his task.
The trail was rain slick beneath his feet, his white woolen robe was soaked, especially the hood in his eyes, and his thick woolen stole felt like iron around his neck.
Succat was sure his quest was of God, but the powers Lianhan Shee were legendary. It was said, by those who had never seen her, that if you could not resist the Lianhan Shee, you became her slave forever. Of those who had seen her, there was no witness living.
Miserable, Succat approached a daunting hedge of woodland. He shivered as the darkness resolved itself into mighty trees rising into the mist. Between the imposing tree trunks there seemed a way, a way into darkness, a fearful way.
Doubt assailed him. Phillipians, his soul friend had warned him against this quest at the instigation of Exodus, the abbot. Without their blessing he felt isolated and alone.
“Lord God, I know this quest is sent of you.” Succat fell to his knees in the pouring rain, “It is written, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, but I doubt myself. Please me, I am weak. Give me your peace, I am in fear. I doubt. . .” The rain hammered down without relenting, Succat despaired, “Lord, be with me now, I need you.”
Leaning heavily on crozier, his staff, Succat clambered to his feet. He was stiff from the cold, shivering from the soaking and from fear. Clutching his crozier for comfort he made his way into the mysterious wood.
The rain abated immediately. Beneath the trees, the air seemed strangely close, warm and dry. the way was lit by a strange glow that did not rise much beyond where he set his feet, but it guided his steps and kept him from crashing into the giant trees that loomed all around.
Succat felt the light brush of things he feared to know. They might be cobwebs or dry tendrils of moss, and he chose to ignore imagination that paralysed him with fear. Thus he travelled through darkness with light at his feet, until he stepped into a meadow. Above him shined Bright, the great moon, glowing in her three colors of red and blue and yellow.
God be praised, He thought, Free of the wood and the rain too. Succat looked up at a normal sky with stars and moon, and as he watched, the Traveller tumbled across the sky. All seemed well, but then he chanced to look across the little clearing. He was stunned.
A radiant woman stood at the edge of the meadow. She seemed to gather every bit of light from the moons and cast it out in scintillating brightness. Her dress was modest, but plain fabric could not contain the sensuality of the creature, the Lianhan Shee, for she was beauty in every line and curve.
With growing fear, Succat recognized her, formed of his fondest imaginings, the image of the abbess of Kirnarven, but voluptuous and fertile, as if she were a courtesan or goddess of love and not an ascetic of a holy house. The coal of his doubt was blown into flaming fear.
“For what have you come, oh man?” Her smile was inviting, or mocking, or enigmatic. Whatever, it was utterly enticing to Succat.
The hard wood of his shepherd’s crook, brought him back to his duty. I am bound to God’s work and seeing her only shows it more necessary. If I am fuddled by her how much more a young man? They are helpless against her wiles.
He lifted his crozier in both hands and held it as a weapon, as a shield. “You have no hold on me,” he lied, “you will cease your foul concourse with the men of the village.”
She looked bemused. “Is that truly what you wish to say to me, oh man?” Her laugh was like a tinkling of silver bells, “It is late, and you are weary. I will forgive your harsh words this once.” Smiling she turning away into the deeper wood. “You will find rest, and then we will talk,” and then she disappeared taking the faery light with her.
Succat quaked with fear. I’ve faced the Lianhan Shee and given my warning, perhaps that is enough. For a moment he hoped it might be true, but he knew it was not.
The abbot’s edict returned to mind, and it yet rankled. Succat would rather die than give abbot Exodus the satisfaction of being right, but would he risk his immortal soul?
Shame struck like a blow. Was this quest nothing but his need to prove the abbot wrong? He should flee now if this was only a sop for his pride. No, there was much more to it, the widow Alban came to mind, her tears for her son, Gerald, struck down when it seemed he’d overcome his sickness.
Stopping the Lianhan Shee was the Lord’s work. Succat knew he must stop the beguiling creature from making tatters of men’s lives, and for Gerald she led to his death. Still, having met her, Succat feared failure even more.
“No, I can do all things” He reminded himself, In Christ even Succat, the monk who never mastered a book, even he could face her.
How long he warred with himself he couldn’t say, but when he looked for the Lianhan Shee, she was gone. The forest was again cold, dark, and foreboding. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he reminded himself and followed her deeper into the blackness of the Ribbon-wood.
Again his path was lit with a soft iridescence. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” Succat quoted, feeling a bit smug until, with a sick twist in his gut, he realized that this was more likely sent by the Lianhan Shee.
The sound of rushing water grew until he came upon a lovely brook. The light was more pronounced, a phosphorescence that bled from the moss bearded trees, and even from tiny floating things high above him. It was a wonderland of soft light in, yellow, pink, and blue. He drank from the brook’s cool water. Weariness came over him and he barely lay down upon a carpet of soft moss before sleep claimed him.
Succat woke to bird song, and sunlight filtering through leaves. He felt energized, in fact, Succat could not remember ever feeling better than he did after a night on the mossy brook side. The pastor almost leaped to his feet when his custom was to work the stiffness out slowly. Here in the Ribbon-wood he felt spry as a callow youth.
Succat saw a riot of flowers filling the border of the clearing, and with a start he noticed berries, ripe to bursting, all around. It isn’t possible, ripe berries in Spring? It almost seems I’ve slept all through Summer. Succat wondered as he sampled the juicy profusion and found it all good.
Shaking his head, he bent down by the stream, splashed his face, and washed his hands of the berry stains. He drank deep of water cupped in his hands. staring into the surface of a deep pool, Succat was shocked to see his image on its glassy face. He hardly recognized the man staring back.
“You look well after your rest,” said the Lianhan Shee. “Are you hungry? I’ve brought something to break your fast.”
Succat spun to face the Lianhan Shee. In the light of day she might have been any other human woman. But looking at her, all he wanted in the world was to crush her to him, to kiss those perfect lips, and. . .
He turned away, though it was the last thing he wanted. “You want to possess me,” he managed. “And I would be helpless, but the Spirit of God strengthens me. I did not come to tryst with you, Lianhan Shee.”
“That is not my name. Not to tryst, what then?”
“I came to stop you.”
“Stop me? Why should I be stopped,” She laughed, “I stay in my place, I do nothing but good.”
“You are deceitful. . .”
“Deceitful? I break no promises, I tell no tales. Who has deceived you? I promised rest, which you’ve had. I’ve offered you breakfast. Do you mislike my bread? Are the berries in your beard not to your liking? You all come to me and not once have I deceived. . .”
“So! When Gerald Alban came he asked for death?” Succat accused, “No? Well woman, if he was not deceived by you, why is he dead?”
“Gerald? The sick boy? I did him no harm, I would not. I healed Gerald Alban, just as I healed you.”
“Like you healed me?” Succat was puzzled, “What is this?”
“Simple truth, I do no harm. You feel that I can do what I say, for I healed your many hurts. Gerald could not have walked home without my help, and you accuse me.”
Succat was undeterred, “What face did you show him? This one?”
“Of course not.”
“Of course not? Ah, this face is for me. Gerald saw another, a face so he would love you. Is that not so?”
“What you are accusing. . .”
“You, Lianhan Shee, always show a perfect face. For Gerald, a face stolen from his dreams, and a different perfect face to every man who comes.”
“They want to give me their essence and they are comfortable with. . .”
“Comfort is it? You make them lust and then you suck out their life.”
“I never do that. I heal them of their hurts.”
“Oh, but what an awful price, eternal wanting you. Is that not so Lianhan Shee?”
“Don’t call me that name you despise. You talk of wanting and stealing life, but I never would.”
“Said the pretty face, in form and manner to drive a man mad. Does eliciting lust, please you? Does it flatter you that they would die to love you just once more?”
“I don’t understand.”
Succat stared at her, she was rigid with anger, but beautiful nonetheless. He was sworn to chastity, a pastor among his flock, blessedly free of desire for years, but this creature brought stirrings so deep and frightening he did not know what to do with them. It made Succat angry.
“Don’t understand?” he spat, “Yet you show me this guise, this, this flesh. I know you are false, still I, a man of God, would ravish you. Don’t you understand? Truly? Can’t you read my mind? Isn’t it our thoughts you use to make the perfect flesh to taunt a man, to tempt me?”
Anger flare in her eyes, “I don’t understand you Succat. You talk and talk.” The Lianhan Shee strode toward him, careless of herself and the way her clothing strained against her and how each step moved her in ways he would never forget. He was only human, he reached for her, but she had already grasped his head in her hands, “Then show me what you want of me Succat, so I will understand.”
Succat thought she was offering herself to sate his lust, but in this he was frustrated. Her touch paralysed his body, but it unleashed his mind to show her everything he wanted in humiliating detail.
His lust, set free, shocked Succat to his core, and the Lianhan Shee was no less shocked. She recoiled, trying to cover herself, as if she had not seen that he had imagined her completely. “I would never want that!” she shrieked and struck him so hard that he fell in a heap.
Succat wept for the shame of his lust, for his defeat, for failing his Lord and his people, and he wept for the ruin of his life. The Lianhan Shee had won and his soul was forfeit, owned by the faery woman.
In growing horror, Succat realized that he was weeping too, for having wanted the demoness, though it was his ruin, he still desired her. She would never give him what he wanted. “I would never want that!” she had said, words that were a final dagger in his heart.
Cold rain brought him back to his senses. The mossy carpet was gone, so too berries, the flowers, and everything but the bleak bones of the trees. All that remained of the wonderland of the Lianhan Shee was the rivulet dancing over the rocks. Had it all been a dream?
Was the healing gone with the mossy bed? The deep pool revealed nothing, the rain ruining it as a gazing glass. Despite failure, Succat felt strong. Looking down, Succat saw a younger man’s hands without the rheumatism that had plagued him. He clambered to his feet without the ache he would expect. The comforts were withdrawn, but not his healing.
Shrugging, he stooped to take up his crozier. He traced the hook and cross with new fingers, but Succat remembered old responsibilities. He’d failed, but what could he do but return? Feeling devastated in spirit, but new in body, he headed South through the dreary wood.
As he walked, the new strength in his body brought euphoria. Without thought, Succat broke into a run. Whatever else, this battle was over, he had never felt better in body, and youthful exuberance banished his spiritual malaise.
Succat broke out of the wood into a clearing at a ground eating lope. A man sat on the wet ground, his body was emaciated and his eyes looked feverish with need.
Succat skidded to a halt before the creature. Succat marvelled that after a handful of breaths his breathing was normal. “Who are you, and how came you here?” he asked.
The old man regarded Succat from his low place in the mud. “Do you not know this face, Man of God?”
Succat frowned in recognition, “It is the guise of the Fear Gorta you now wear, Lianhan Shee.”
“Lianhan Shee was never my name, a pleasant face for pleasant conversation only, curiosity’s face. Now I hunger to know, I must know. This face, hunger’s face, is appropriate.”
“I have no alms to give you.” Inspiration came, “Here, take this crozier” Succat tossed his shepherd’s staff before the Fear Gorta.
The stick figure man sighed. “It is not your walking staff I desire, Man of God.”
“What then? Should I thank you for healing me? How did you?”
“Tis’ easily done, I see in you how you aught to be. I fix what has gone wrong. I confess I find your kind endlessly fascinating, you and all the myriad life you brought, so perfect and yet so damaged.”
Succat stared at the old man in the mud, “Thank you for not taking the healing from me. . .”
The Fear Gorta waved away the words with an impatient hand, “I do not require thanks.” The old man turned his intense stare on Succat, “I need to know. You spoke of your god, but you were so damaged, so in need of healing, how could your god be Creator of All. Yet I know there is but one author of life. How can this be, oh Man of God?
Succat laughed without humor, “It is age, we grow old and die, it is the curse of sin. As it is written, Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Succat shrugged,”And so I wait, and I die.”
“You will cease to be, like you say Gerald has?” Succat nodded but the Fear Gorta was not finished, “and this Christ of whom you spoke, who was he to die for this curse.”
“He is God, and He was a man too.”
Before Succat fully realized his danger the Fear Gorta seized him by his robe. Succat struggled, but he could do nothing to free himself from the fanatic grip.
“This can not be the Creator.” The Fear Gorta desperately searched Succat’s face. “Why would he do it?”
“Unhand me!” but Succat needn’t have asked, the bag of bones had already released him and was weeping uncontrollably in the mud. Succat backed away slowly, hoping he might escape.
Succat fled. He ran as fast as he could, hoping the Fear Gorta would let him go. Ahead he saw a stream of water, fast flowing, that he’d crossed on his way. by was an apple tree in full bloom of Spring. Succat hadn’t noticed it when he’d crossed before. He slowed at the strangeness, he stopped dead when he saw the man of hunger, the Fear Gorta, step from behind the tree.
“You’ve forgotten your staff.” he said simply, but there was nothing simple in the creature. Stretching out his hands, stems of apple wood grew from his palms. As Succat watched, they wound about each other and grew into the shape of a staff. The wood stretched and curled and it grew. More and more the living thing took the form of his crozier even as it budded, broke into flower, then leaf, and finally dropped yellow leaves over the white flower of its blossoming.
The Fear Gorta handed Succat a crozier of intricately knotted apple wood. “Why do you carry this, Man of God?”
Stunned, Succat blurted, “It is my office. I am a shepherd like the Lord Jesus was, I have gone out into the world to preach.”
“Why do you do that, Man of God?”
“Because He commanded it. It is written, go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
“Where is it written? I must know.” Before Succat answered, another idea seized the old man. “Here is water, why might I not be baptised?”
A hundred objections burst on his mind, but in the end, the need on Fear Gorta’s face drove Succat to his waist in the pool with the withered old man.
Succat intoned, “Our Lord commanded: baptise them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is in that name I baptise you, Fear Gorta, Lianhan Shee. . .”
“I am The Mind of the Ribbon-Wood.”
Nodding, Succat lowered the man beneath the water, but when he would have brought him back up, there was naught but a drifting of orange mud carried away on the current.