The Knight, by Gene Wolfe.
This book is one of my favorite fantasy stories of all time. A boy from Earth is vacationing with his older brother at the family’s woodland cabin before one day going off to explore alone among the trees. Out of sight, and growing lost as the day darkens, he gradually leaving behind the land he knew, unknowingly entering the medieval fantasy world of Mythgarthr where Aelf, dragons and more lurk in the worlds below while heroes and angels carry the banner of honor and courage in the worlds above.
Our young hero, Able, has just left the knight and squire he was travelling with after he hears a cry for help from the forest surrounding the nearby robber town ruled by Saxneat. When Able goes out to investigate alone, however, he finds nothing human…
“Help…” It was not so much a cry as a moan like that of the wind, and like a a moaning wind it seemed to fill the forest. I pushed through the brush that crowded the forest’s edge, trotted among close-set saplings, then sprinted among mature trees that grew larger and larger and more and more widely spaced as I advanced. “Please help me. Please…”
I paused to catch my breath, cupped my hands around my mouth, and called, “I’m coming!” as loudly as I could. Even as I did it, I wondered how she had known there was anyone to hear her while I was still walking down the rows of sprouting grain. Possibly she had not. Possibly she had been calling like that, at intervals, for hours.
I trotted again, then ran. Up a steep ridge crowned with dreary hemlocks, and along the ridgeline until it dipped and swerved in oaks. Always it seemed to me that the woman who called could not be more than a hundred strides away.
The woman I felt perfectly certain had to be Seaxneat’s wife Disira. Soon I reached a little river that must surely have been the Griffin. I forded it by the simple expedient of wading in where I was. I had to hold my bow, my quiver, and the little bag I tied to my belt over my head before I was done; but I got through and scrambled up the long sloping bank of rounded stones on the other side.
There, mighty beeches robed with moss lifted proud heads into that fair world called Skai; and there the woman who called to me sounded nearer still, no more (I thought) than a few strides off. In a dark dell full of mushrooms and last year’s leaves, I felt certain I would find her. She was only on the other side of the beaver-meadow, beyond all question; and after that, up on the rocky outcrop I glimpsed beyond it.
Except that when I got there I could hear her calling still, calling in the distance. I shouted then, gasping for breath between the repetitions of her name: “Disira? … Disira? … Disira?”
“Here! Here at the blasted tree!”
The seconds passed like sighs, then I saw it down the shallow valley on the farther side of the outcrop—the shattered trunk, the broken limbs, and the raddled leaves that clung to them not quite concealing something green as spring.
“It fell,” she told me when I reached her. “I wanted to see if I could move it just a little, and it fell on my foot. I cannot get my foot out.”
I put my bow under the fallen trunk and pried; I never felt it move, but she was able to work her foot free. By the time she got it out, I had noticed something so strange that I was certain I could not really be seeing it, and so hard to describe that I may never make it clear. The afternoon sun shone brightly just then, and the leaves of the fallen tree (which I think must have been hit by lightning), and those of the trees all around it, cast a dappled shade. Mostly we were in the shade, but there were a few splashes of brilliant sunshine here and there. I should have seen her most clearly when one fell on her.
But it was the other way: I could see her very clearly in the shade, but when the sun shone on her face, her legs, her shoulders, or her arms, it almost seemed that she was not there at all. At school Mr. Potash showed us a hologram. He pulled the blinds and explained that the darker it was in the room the more real the hologram would look. So when we had all looked at it, I moved one of the blinds to let in light, and he was right. It got dim, but it was stronger again as soon as I let the blind fall back.
“I don’t think I should walk on this.” She was rubbing her foot. “It does not feel right. There is a cave a few steps that way. Do you think you could carry me there?”
I did not, but I was not going to say so until I tried. I picked her up. I have held little kids who weighed more than she did, but she felt warm and real in my arms, and she kissed me.
“In there we will be out of the rain,” she told me. She kept her eyes down as if she were shy, but I knew she was not really shy.
I started off, hoping I was going toward the cave she knew about, and I said that it was not going to rain.
“Yes, it is. Haven’t you noticed how cool the air has gotten? Listen to the beds. To your left a trifle, and look behind the big stump.”
It was a nice little cave, just high enough for me to stand up in, and there was a sort of bed made of deerskins and furs, with a green velvet blanket on top.
“Put me on that,” she said, “please.”
When I did, she kissed me again; and when she let me go, I sat down on the smooth, sandy floor of the cave to get my breath. She laughed at me, but she did not say anything.
For quite a while, I did not say anything either. I was thinking a lot, but I had no control of the things I thought, and I was so excited about her that I thought something was going to happen any minute that I would be ashamed of for the rest of my life. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life (she still is) and I had to shut my eyes, which made her laugh again.
Her laugh was like nothing on earth. It was as if there were golden bells hanging among the flowers through a forest of the loveliest trees that could ever be, and a wind sighing there was ringing all the bells. When I could open my eyes again, I whispered, “Who are you? Really?”
“She you called.” She smiled, not trying to hide her eyes anymore. Maybe a leopard would have eyes like those, but I kind of doubt it.
“I called Seaxneat’s wife Disira. You aren’t her.”
“I am Disiri the Mossmaiden, and I have kissed you.”
I could still feel her kiss, and her hair smelled of new-turned earth and sweet smoke.
“Men I have kissed cannot leave until I send them away.” I wanted to stand up then, but I knew I could never leave her. I said, “I’m not a man, Disiri, just a kid.”
“You are! You are! Let me have one drop of blood, and I will show you.”
By morning the rain had stopped. She and I swam side by side in the river, and lay together like two snakes on a big shady rock, only an inch above the water. I knew I was all different, but I did not know how different. I think it was the way a caterpillar feels after it has turned into a butterfly and is still drying its wings. “Tell me,” I said, “if another man came, would he see you like I see you now?”
“No other man will come. Did not your brother teach you about me?”
I did not know whether she meant you or Bold Berthold, Ben, but I shook my head.
“He knows me.”
“Have you kissed him?”
She laughed and shook her head.
“Bold Berthold told me the Aelf looked like ashes.”
“We are the Moss Aelf, Able, and we are of the wood and not the ash.” She was still smiling. “You call us Dryads, Skogsfru, Treebrides, and other names. You may make a name for us yourself. What would you like to call us?”
“Angels,” I whispered; but she pressed a finger to my lips. I blinked and looked away when she did that, and it seemed to me, when I glimpsed her from the corner of my eye, that she looked different from the girl I had been swimming with and all the girls I had just made love with.
“Shall I show you?”
I nodded—and felt muscles in my neck slithering like pythons. “Good lord!” I said, and heard a new voice, wild and deep. It was terribly strange; I knew I had changed, but I did not know how much, and for a long time after I thought I was going to change back. You need to remember that.
“You won’t hate me, Able?”
“I could never hate you,” I told her. It was the truth.
“We are loathsome in the eyes of those who do not worship us.”
I chuckled at that; the deep reverberations in my chest surprised me too. “My eyes are mine,” I said, “and they do what I tell them. I’ll close them before I kiss you, if we need more privacy.”
She sat up, dangling her legs in the clear, cold water. “Not in this light.” Her kick dashed water through a sunbeam and showered us with silver drops.
“You love the sunlight,” I said. I sensed it.
She nodded. “Because it is yours, your realm. The sun gave me you, and I love you. My kind love the night, and so I love them both.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand. How can you?”
“Loving me, couldn’t you love some human woman?”
“No,” I said. “I never could.” I meant it.
She laughed, and this time it was a laugh that made fun of me. “Show me,” she said.
She kicked again. The slender little foot that rose from the shimmering water was as green as new leaves. Her face was sharper, green too, three-cornered, bold and sly. Berry lips pressed mine, and when we parted I found myself looking straight into eyes of yellow fire. Her hair floated above her head.
I embraced her, lifting and holding her, and kissed her again.