The night was warm but the twisting silver of the trees was cold to the touch. Regardless, the Witch ran her weathered fingers over the smooth metal, marveling at the power it must have taken to create such an enchantment. She peered closely at the leaves, delicate but sharp as a blade.
Between the trees was only darkness and fog. Above a canopy of leaves blocked out the moon but it's light was reflected all they way to the bottom most branches.
All she could hear was the metallic crunch of her pointed boots as she kicked through the leaves under foot. And, every so often, there came the long lonely cry of something caged.
The sound was getting closer which she found encouraging. Even as it filled her veins with ice and tore at her heart, she was encouraged.
The spell had been cast centuries ago and even then the Witch had been an old woman. The walls of the house where she might once have raised a family had long turned to ash. She hadn't been able to help then, though she'd tried.
Many had tried. Witches with spells. Hunters with arrows. Priests with prayers.
All had failed. Many had fallen beneath its claws trying to do the right thing.
The Witch had woken weeks after her own encounter with the creature with clawmarks raking down he whole right side of her body. Villagers had gathered at her bedside to tell her of the miracle, of the great Enchantress who'd sealed the beast away.
Thus she'd never met the woman but she'd often wondered about her. Who was she? How did she learn such skills? Was she a witch or something other? And where had she gone when it was all done?
Everyone had reasoned there was no need to come this way again. Only a fool would travel to the heart of these woods.
The Witch was no fool. She had something those hunters and priests never had. A relic from a time long forgotten.
She reached the edge of the woods, where the silver trees fell away and at last there was nothing but darkness. Not even the moon shone here. Just the shadows of the tall dewy grass.
A long and terrible keening filled the air. It could only be a few yards away.
With a steeling breath the Witch removed her coat from her shoulders and looked down at the label stitched its collar.
The name, "John Doe" was written there.
Looking back into the dark she called back, "John!? John!?"
Her voice echoed and was swallowed by the long pause that followed. Then a pair of yellowed eyes appeared from the void.
They stared at her hungrily but she raised her chin stubbornly in turn.
Lifting the coat she announced, "It's time to come home now, John!"
Did she imagine it? Or had his gaze softened.
The Wolf crept forward, slowly edging into the reflected light from the trees. The silver light glowed off his black fur. He was tall enough that his head was leveled with hers.
She held her breath as she waited patiently for him to come before her.
At last he stopped and a deep understanding passed between them as they watched eachother.
"That's enough now, John." The Witch told him.
Slowly the Wolf laid down and the Witch struggled to contain her shock and relief.
She threw the coat over him and at once the Wolf was gone. All that remained was the much smaller, lumpy shape beneath the coat.
Slowly the Witch knelt and lifted the collar of the coat. The dazed eyes of a man looked back at her.
She smiled at him tearfully and she cupped his face in her hands like she might have done when he was a child. He blinked at her, his eyes growing clearer.
"I've missed you, my child." She whispered to him.
At once he crawled into her arms and the pair of them wept.
The Wizards Tower
Ellery was about as familiar with the Arcane Forest as anyone could be, but he’d never ventured this far into their depths before.
He had often entered the forest in his youth to play games with the other children, and recalled feeling as though he were in the middle of nowhere. Now he could obviously recognize that he’d barely made a dent in his explorations of the forest but such was the fancifulness of children. He had not bothered to think much of the world outside his village and yet the world had seemed vast all the same.
The forest he knew back then had been made from birch trees and poplars which stood at an arms length from each other, leaving enough space between them for plenty of foot trails even with the shrubbery. Sunlight had shone plentifully through the green canopy above. Their parents and guardians had only asked that they keep back from the river which swept ever more violently through the trees than it did through the town. This was as much to keep them from getting swept away as it was to keep them from crossing the bridge, for their parents feared that if they went any further, they’d get lost in the woods, attacked by some animal, or even lured away by the fairies.
Though Ellery had been told many horror stories all through his youth and even into his adult hood he’d yet to be told of a child drowning or vanishing into the woods in his lifetime. He figured that all the fearmongering must have made them smarter.
That wasn’t to say that Howling Tor didn’t have its problems. For all that the children of the village seemed safe Ellery often heard of grown men who he’d known vanishing into the Arcane Forest. In addition, there was the problem of the Great Wizard of Nightmares and Mirth, Odell Lachlan Melvoin, the one threat that not even the children seemed safe from.
Though the Wizard didn’t pray on children often there were occasions where he was suspected to have stolen them. Mostly the Wizard kidnapped young brides to be, often making clear that he was the one taking them, sometimes going so far as to grab her off the alter and vanish.
Ellery had seen him only once at a wedding he’d been attending. He was too slow to look up as the Wizard Odell came to block the bride in a flourish of fire and shadows as she walked down the aisle. It all happened so quickly that Ellery had failed to see more a flash of white hair and what he thought to be a long coat or cloak, and then the Wizard was gone.
Husbands and fathers were always traveling into the forest to try and get the women back but no one ever succeeded. They returned from the forest battered and stunned and unable or unwilling to recount what had happened. Occasionally they didn’t come back at all.
It didn’t seem to matter how large a horde of rescuers they managed to gather to go bring the brides back, no good ever came of it. They kept trying none the less, and Ellery was no different.
He’d long since crossed the bridge that had been forbidden to him as a child, but that was an adventure that had already lost its thrill. In his adulthood Ellery regularly crossed the bridge into the denser parts of the woods, where the only trails beyond the main road were those made by animals and the hunters who sought them.
Ellery didn’t find much joy in hunting though he’d done it a few times. He came to the Arcane Forest mostly to gather herbs and plants that wouldn’t grow in the garden. Things that only grew in the dark beneath the dense foliage or wrapped around the trunks of certain trees. Walking here was tricky once one left the path, for the shrubbery was thick and there was need for care around the wolf pits. Once in a while he caught the fairies spying on him between the trees, but he kept his eyes averted and tried not to engage.
Unfortunately, Ellery had left all those familiar dangers behind, now navigating solely by the use of his map. He suspected he’d now gone far beyond where even the bravest hunters normally travelled, only those seeking brides would come this far. As men on a rescue mission weren’t often inclined to study landmarks there were no maps made of the exact stretch of forest around the Wizards tower. As Ellery was anticipating getting to the edge of the map it seemed that what was ahead would certainly be unknown to him, aside from what he’d heard in vague stories he’d heard from the villagers. It didn’t give him a lot of faith as the ones most likely to know the most were also the ones who seemed inclined to speak of their journey the least.
Rolling up his map he tucked it away before glancing around uncertainly. The forest was strange here, packed tightly with unfamiliar trees that twisted into each other and blocked out the sky above. With all the interlocking branches it was difficult to tell what time of day it was, but he suspected night had begun to fall. He cursed himself that he hadn’t set out earlier in spite of having been up before the sun rose.
It seemed a wonder to him that anyone had found the Wizards tower in the first place.
Within three steps after putting the map away, Ellery reached his first unfamiliar obstacle as he went to step through the underbrush and his foot slipped into a hole hidden beneath it. Unprepared for such a deception so soon in his new landscape he found he could do little to keep himself from tumbling straight into the pit, taking the wretched foliage down with him.
As he found himself crumbled face down in the bottom of the pit with his legs propped up against the narrow walls of stone and dirt, he observed the broken branches and crumbled leaves beneath him, and thought desolately that at least the hole was more visible now. If not for his benefit than for the next traveler who came through here.
Slowly he curled his legs beneath himself before turning over his aching body to prop himself up on his elbows. As he looked up at where he’d fallen from Ellery startled to find Golden eyes staring back down at him.
He couldn’t see the rest of the person loitering above him for it was too dark to discern their features, but the golden eyes gave him plenty of warning for what he was dealing with. His heart beat quickly as he grew still.
The Fairy spoke in a sweet, musical voice. “What are you doing so deep in the woods?”
Swallowing hard he asked, “Did you make me fall?”
“It is just like a human to blame me for your own clumsy feet just because I happened to be nearby.” She chuckled dismissively, “Now answer my question. It feels like it’s been ages since I first saw you walking.”
“You’ve been following me?”
“Naturally.” She seemed impatient now. “I thought we’d have reached your destination a long time ago, though I can’t deny I hoped you’d be going somewhere far and mysterious.”
“I am going to confront the Great Wizard Odell for kidnapping my friend, Harriet Alcastor.”
“Oh! A rescue mission? It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen one of those pass through.” Her voice brimmed with excitement. “Do you need a hand getting out of there?”
The shadowed shape of her hand stretched down into the pit towards him. Ellery stared at it skeptically for a heartbeat as it hovered in the air above him.
“Will it cost me something?” he asked, his heart still beating quickly.
This seemed to give her pause. The Fairy blinked her golden eyes at him with surprise, her fingers curling as if she were about to withdraw her hand, and then at last she shook her head.
“No,” she answered reluctantly, her fingers stretching out to their full length again. “It would be silly to expect payment for common decency.”
“Then we’re agreed.” Her voice was tight and over pleasant. “Take my hand, I require only your thanks.”
Ellery looked at her outstretched fingers a moment longer before reluctantly reaching to accept her offered hand. With a bit of scrambling on his part she pulled him out of the pit. He came to rest on his knees between the Fairy and the pit with her hands resting on his shoulders.
He looked up into her face and felt as though he’d been punched by her beauty. She looked as though she’d been carved from ivory, her hair like spun gold woven with flowers as it toppled in waves around her shoulders. Though the shadows stull hung heavily around her she seemed to emit a light that made him wonder how he’d been unable to see her even from the bottom of the pit.
Her gold eyes watched him intently as she spoke again, “You seem a bit in over your head. Perhaps you could benefit from my assistance.”
Ellery wished she would release his shoulders, the way she held them made him feel like she might push him backwards into the hole again.
Swallowing hard he answered, “No, I think I will take my chances.”
“But surely you could use directions? Or even advice on the Wizards weaknesses?”
“Again, I wouldn’t want to owe you anything.” He told her tightly.
“Just like a man to refuse directions. What would be so terrible about accepting my help?”
“I might disappear.”
“The Seelie Court is a beautiful place, dear.” She answered sweetly, “you should love to see it.”
“Just as well.” She sighed and released his left shoulder to pull a single pink blossom from her own hair. “I’m not your enemy here, pet. I’m the Lady of the Arcane Forest, centuries ago this land belonged to me. It was given to my family by the Seelie Queen herself, but then he came and laid claim to it. I would love to see him destroyed so I may rule the forest as I once did.”
“I’m afraid I will not be the one to destroy him.” He told her anxiously, “I’m only going to get my friend down.”
“And how will you manage that without destroying him?” the Fairies gold eyes searched him beseechingly as she reached to tuck the flower behind his ear, making him grow tense. “Many have sought to get their brides back over the centuries and none have succeeded. What makes you think you can get yours without defeating him once and for all?”
Ellery hesitated, her question struck too close to home. Her doubts were the same ones he’d been avoiding since he packed his bags that morning.
“I guess I’m just going to hope for the best.” He answered weakly.
She smiled at him indulgently, as though he were a child, and he couldn’t really blame her for giving him such a look. “Then you will need all the help you can get. I insist you allow me to give you something.”
Ellery looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, his heart still drummed violently against his chest. there were so many things that could go wrong when dealing with Fairies, but while he’d hoped not to come face to face with one on his travels, he had prepared for it.
“Okay,” he began as he slowly reached into his bag. “I will make a deal with you, but this is the only thing I’ll offer. No more, no less.”
At last she withdrew her hands from him entirely as she watched him rummage in his bag with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. He withdrew a glass bottle filled with pearly white cream and presented it to her.
The Fairy grew still as her eyes brightened with interest. “Does it have honey in it?”
She stared at the bottle for a breath longer before conceding, “Okay, I will show you the way and tell you his weakness. Normally I’d make you choose between the two, but I need little convincing when it comes to the Wizard.”
She reached out for the bottle and Ellery passed it to her. Cradling the bottle against her chest like a baby she rose to her feet.
“follow me.” she smiled sweetly and began walking without waiting for Ellery to get to his feet.
A dress of green silk with pink flowers blossoming out of the fabric swirled around the Fairies legs as she walked. Ellery walked a bit behind her keeping a careful eye on her feet, which were protected by silver shoes, so that he could step exactly where she stepped. Her gold mane bounced along her back with each step and the rest of the forest seem even darker by comparison.
As Ellery follower her into the thick of the woods she began to speak. “It would be remiss of me to talk of the Wizards weaknesses without mentioning the bloodstone. Have you heard of it?”
“It’s protective, isn’t it? It creates a sort of barrier that Wizard Magic can’t get through.”
Ellery knew Bloodstones to be rare, at least they were in rural towns far out in the hinterland between kingdoms. There were about three people in town who were lucky enough to acquire them, either they’d been rich enough to send a trader specifically to look for them or they’d it happened to be some family heirloom passed down for generations.
Harriette’s family had possessed one such heirloom and she’d been meant to wear it on her person until a few days after the wedding, but somehow, she’d failed to do so.
“Yes, it stunts such magic. It could render him helpless if wielded correctly.” She sighed as she ducked beneath a branch and Ellery mirrored the movement behind her. “Unfortunately, no magical creature can properly wield it against him due to an age-old pact, and humans have no magic to unlock its true potential.”
“Yes, well I don’t have a bloodstone on me in any case.”
“I have one.” The Fairy paused and turned towards him as she pulled on a cord around her neck. A jet-black pendant with deep scarlet flecks emerged from beneath her neckline. “But I can’t give it to you. The Seelie Queen sent it to me for my protection after the Wizard took over.”
“I understand.” He answered quietly, unable to humor the idea of making another deal with the her anyways.
Tucking the pendant away she turned forwards again. “Odell himself often stores his spells inside of inanimate objects. It is easier for him to release them from these objects than to produce new ones on the fly. The objects are small and he keeps them in the many pockets of his coat. I would suggest confronting him outside and trying to get him away from his coat.”
“Alright, I could try that.” But Ellery didn’t see how he was going to manage either of those things. If anything, this conversation only made him feel more hopeless.
“You could kiss him!” the Fairy announced suddenly and Ellery tripped over the underbrush and only barely managed not to fall. The Fairy turned around and grinned at him.
“I’m sorry?” he asked.
“Wizards are forever releasing their magic in sudden little bursts, infecting random things with magical properties. If you kiss him, particularly if you kiss him suddenly, you might startle him into accidentally giving you a little magic of your own. It’ll be weak magic and it might take a while to figure out how to use it, but it would level the playing field a little.”
“I’d rather not kiss him.”
Still grinning she shook her head as if disappointed, “Typical, you’d rather let this tyrant continue to abduct your women than kiss another man. It’s not as though it’d have to mean anything.”
“I don’t want to kiss someone who abducts people and does–” he hesitated for a moment as he fumbled for the end of his sentence. “whatever terrible thing he does to them.”
She put a hand to her chest as if offended, “So you wouldn’t want to kiss me, then?”
“No, I don’t want to kiss anybody.” Ellery answered tightly, “Can we move on now?”
“Just as well,” she sighed as she turned to lead him onwards. “It’s as likely he might have wound up cursing you.”
“I’m sure he’ll do that on purpose anyways.”
“Yes, that’s most probable.” She mused. “You could try to hold his familiar hostage, that would probably scare him. The tricky part would be capturing her since she’s also quite powerful. You wouldn’t want to mess it up or your punishment will increase tenfold.”
“No, I’d rather not anger him any more than I have to.” Ellery agreed a bit fretfully, “But the stories never mentioned a familiar, what form does she take?”
“A black cat, the usual.” The Fairy shrugged delicately as she stepped around a tree that appeared to be growing sideways.
Ellery supposed that a cat might be easy to miss, “I’m sure you’re doing your best but your definition of weaknesses leaves something to be desired.”
She glanced back at him with a smirk, “You thought I’d have some fix all? Wizards are very difficult creatures to kill, nearly impossible if you don’t do it before they learn to use their powers, that’s why they live for so many centuries. Why do you think no one’s been able to get rid of Odell before?”
“Yes, I know.” Ellery conceded. “You’ve told me everything then?”
“Everything I know, yes.”
The pair of them walked in silence for a while. The only sound was the creaking of the trees, the distant skittering of animals, and the sloshing of the cream in its jar every time the Fairy ducked beneath a tree or hopped over a root.
“Have you lead other travelers to the Wizards Tower?” Ellery asked her after some time had passed.
“A good few, yes.” She answered pleasantly.
“You aren’t mentioned in any of the stories. I mean you have stories of your own but no ones mentioned being guided by you.”
“I don’t believe they’d be too proud to admit they accepted my help.” She laughed with soft joy, “but I’m not offended. I don’t want to be associated with their failures, though they’ve suffered their own punishments for them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Surely your village has noticed that just because someone returns from the Wizards Tower doesn’t mean the Wizard will leave them be.”
Ellery understood, grooms and fathers did often go missing after attempting a rescue mission. Sometimes it was thought to be the Wizard but other times people suspected it was Fairies or that they’d gone somewhere private to end their suffering. He wondered if the Fairy was suggesting that all such occurrences were the Wizards doing or if she were merely confirming what he’d already known, that the Wizard was responsible for some of them. He supposed it didn’t matter either way.
“Here we are.” The Fairy told him and he looked up over her shoulder to where something in the distance glimmered silver through the trees.
The Fairy turned to Ellery with a smile and he tensed as she reached towards him again. Her long fingers grazed the side of his face and then withdrew, delicately pulling away the flower that had remained tucked behind his ear.
“Be a dear and don’t mention my assistance to the Wizard.” She implored as she tucked to blossom back into her own hair. “I don’t need him having a reason to seek me out.”
She smiled at him sweetly as her golden eyes flickered over him. “It’s a shame you aren’t all that vulnerable to my charms.” She said as she floated past him.
Ellery followed the movement, turning slowly in order to maintain eye contact. “It’s not for a lack of beauty.” He told her.
“Clearly,” she smirked for a brief moment before her face broke into a wide grin. She reached out to place a hand on his shoulder and he grew still beneath her touch. “But feel free to call on me should you escape the Wizards clutches. Should he come after you, and he probably will, then you ought to know you’d be safe from him in the Seelie Court.”
Ellery swallowed hard and nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.” But he didn’t really think he would.
The Fairy gave him a last look of appraisal before slipping away into the trees. Ellery turned away from her and kept going towards the silver glow coming through the trees ahead.
Her Majesties Ring
“I want to give you a gift.” The words fell unexpectedly from Queen Florentines mouth. Having thought the Queen to be sitting alone on the garden bench Hadley paused in trimming the topiary to peer curiously back at her. it was with a start that he found she was looking at him, her book laying forgotten in her lap.
Queen Florentine’s wide mouth split into an all-consuming grin as she spoke in a laugh. “Yes you.”
Lowering his shears and turning to regard her majesty hesitantly, Hadley asked, “What was that, My Queen?”
“I want to give you a gift.” She repeated and his thick eyebrows lowered over his green eyes in a perplexed expression.
“For what?” asked the gardener, who’d just now already broken his previous record for words spoken to the Queen in one sitting.
“For nothing, it’s a gift not a reward.” Her green eyes twinkled at him brightly. “Now come and accept like a good subject.”
Hadley hesitated a moment before bending to set his gardening sheers down upon the cobblestones and obediently crossing to where she sat. she bent her head to look down at her slightly weathered hands, each finger fixed with a plethora of jewels, and Hadley found himself studying the silver streaks in the Queens intricately woven red hair. It took him a moment to look down and see her majesty tugging off a thick gold band set with a pearl roughly the side of a cherry pit.
Hadley stiffened at the sight of it, his breath stopping in his throat for he could tell at one glance that it was worth more than everything he owned put together. The Queen looked up at him with distinct fondness and held out her hand expectantly.
Hadley shook his head nervously, his hands stuck rigidly to his sides. “That’s too much.”
“Is there such a thing when it comes to gifts?” the Queen asked sweetly.
“I should think so, your highness.” Hadley kept his gaze fixed to Queen Florentines aged face for he could not stand to look upon the ring.
“Don’t be foolish,” she chuckled, the lengthy stretch of her mouth gathered into an endeared smirk. “It would be rude to turn away a gift from your esteemed Queen.”
“I would feel I was taking advantage of you.” He insisted weakly as he took a step back from her.
“Now you imply that I don’t have my wits about me?” her eyes narrowed to green slits though her smirk remained, “You would treat me with such little dignity.”
“I– I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.” Hadley protested fervently in spite of her laughter.
“The least you could do is accept my gift.” Queen Florentine wagged the fingers of her raised hand beckoningly, drawing his gaze down once more.
Swallowing hard Hadley raised a shaky hand and laid it in her firm grip. He watched tensely as the Queen slid the ring onto his finger, its weight instantly apparent. Miraculously it seemed to fit his thin fingers in spite of its size. Even so, it looked extremely out of place on him.
Queen Florentine continued to hold his hand in both of hers as she gazed wistfully down at the ring she’d placed upon him. “I don’t know what it is, perhaps something in the way you move, but you remind me of my son.”
Hadley wasn’t sure what to say to that. His lips parted as if to speak and then he closed them again, his mouth going dry. “You had a son?” he managed to ask at last because he was sure he would have heard about a Prince being born. The Queen currently had no heirs to the throne, her only child being the Princess Heather who’d passed from a sickbed to a coffin at fifteen.
“It’s been such a long time now.” she murmured quietly as her smiled faded. “My husband viewed him as a humiliation, a threat to the line of ascension, so he had him killed.”
Hadley flinched more from the words than the tightening of her hands around his fingers. “You should not be telling me this, My Queen.”
“I wish we knew each other better.” She stroked the back of his hand absently.
Hadley thought the Queens eyes, which had been so bright only a moment before, seemed lost now. He reached out to clasp her hands back and said nothing, allowing her to sit quietly and stare out at their joined fingers in thought.
He had heard rumours that Queen Florentines mind had started to go in her age, that she spoke nonsense and was overly friendly, but Hadley didn’t interact closely enough with her to form an opinion. Now however, it seemed like the court’s speculations had been true, at least to a certain point. Florentine being old and delirious would explain why she was confessing her dark secrets to random servants in the garden, but Hadley was not inclined to believe what she’d said was untrue or nonsensical.
At length the Queen looked up at him and smiled a bit more sadly than before. “Promise me you’ll keep the ring. You won’t sell it or give it away.”
“Someone’s going to think I stole it, your majesty.” He answered tentatively, regretting having let her put it on him.
“You will not lose this ring.” She spoke with conviction, her eyes bright once more. “Do you promise?”
Hadley didn’t really feel he had a choice. Swallowing hard he gave a single nod, “I promise.”
She smiled a bit wider and he was struck by how lucid she suddenly seemed. So much so that he questioned whether he’d simply misinterpreted her quiet reflection earlier. Finally, she released his hands and tucked her book under her arm as she reached for her cane.
“And I can trust you to keep my confidence, can I not?” she pressed on, “You won’t speak of my son or my husband.”
Again, the shock of her words made him feel like she’d dealt him a blow, but he nodded obediently. “Of course, I wouldn’t say a word against you, My Queen.” And he did mean it too. Regardless of having no prior relationship with her Hadley felt fiercely loyal to the Queen, who’d employed him for so many years when he’d turned up at her court with little to no memory.
Queen Florentine stood with grace in spite of the use of her cane and met his gaze intently, “Then you won’t tell anyone that I was the one who poisoned King Melvyn.”
The statement left him dumbfounded. Hadley opened his mouth but nothing came out. For a moment he stood rock still as his heart beat wildly, and then he noticed the Queen watching him expectantly. Closing his mouth, for he knew he would not be able to make words come, he nodded again.
“I did it for my son,” she continued quietly.
“I– know nothing of what you’ve done.” He answered feebly.
Thankfully this seemed to satisfy her and she reached out to give his head an almost motherly pat. “Be sure to use my gift wisely now.” she cautioned before turning and striding away regally.
Hadley watched her go, his body robbed of feeling save for where the weight of the ring dragged at his finger.
Hadley removed the ring the moment Queen Florentine was out of sight and hid it safely within his pocket before bearing it back to the Gardeners shed. He slipped into his room in the back where he knelt on the rug beside his cot, and only then did he pull out the ring again.
His insides squirmed at the sight of it as if it were some ill gotten gain. Truthfully, he wanted no part of it but he’d promised the Queen he would not get rid of it. though it seemed unlikely that she’d ever find out he was reluctant to go against her majesties wishes.
It wouldn’t do to have it laying around for anyone to see. He lifted the rug and carefully pulled up one of the floorboards in order to make a hiding place for the it.
As he hid the ring Hadley made himself forget the lucidity he’d seen in Queen Florentine’s gaze. He convinced himself that she was delusional, that what she’d said wasn’t true, because if it wasn’t true then he couldn’t be held responsible for not telling anyone about it.
By the time he rolled the rug back over the newly placed floorboard he felt sure of his own deception.
The morning after his encounter with the Queen, Hadley forced himself to put it out of his mind as he went to tend the flowers as usual. As he sorted through each repetitive task, however, it seemed his thoughts kept circling back to it. it was difficult not to, interesting things didn’t happen to him that often, but that didn’t change the fact that he wasn’t sure what to think of it.
The only thing that seemed capable of steering his musings away from this trajectory was the frequent occasions where he’d look back and find a cluster of what had once been closed buds now partially bloomed. It had seemed only a little odd at first and he’d been able to conclude that he must have remembered wrong, but the more it kept happening the stranger it was. Hadley took to keeping a close eye on the flower buds and discovered that they were in fact blooming at a rapid pace. Moreover, he began to notice that it consistently only seemed to be happening to flowers he touched.
But that couldn’t be right, he told himself the moment this realization reached him. It had to be some sort of coincidence. Still, out of curiosity he experimented with touching a few tightly closed buds and leaving others un-fondled.
He watched them carefully until he could confirm that only the ones he’d touched had started to break open.
Hadley was kneeling before a yellow rose bush when the realization sunk in. It was definitely happening, whatever this was, he knew he wasn’t imagining it. So, what exactly did that mean?
It was like the situation with Queen Florentine all over again, a strange occurrence that was far beyond his understanding of how it might affect him.
Around the time he was thinking this Hadley’s speculations hit a wall and stopped dead. He had nothing to go on from there and so he was forced to continue his day as if he hadn’t discovered anything shocking at all. Still, he went over the events obsessively in his head throughout the day and went to bed that night still trying to make sense of them.
Three weeks passed without any sort of change. The ability to make flowers bloom neither dwindled nor intensified. Nothing came of it and so Hadley simply didn’t acknowledge it. It was what it was.
Unfortunately, in that same time a plague that had been sweeping across the kingdom finally managed to make its way past the castle walls. Fewer and fewer nobles were seen wandering through the garden where Hadley spent most of his days. All of them, presumably being moved to the sick bay.
It was surreal knowing that so many were falling fatally ill while the garden remained as peaceful as ever. The brightly coloured flowers unfurling slowly beneath the sunlight seemed to exist in an entirely different world from the rest of the kingdom. So much so that it was genuinely startling when those two worlds collided.
A scream tore across the vibrant reverie, sending birds scattering as Hadley turned towards the commotion.
A woman raced after her daughter as the child dashed away from the castle shrieking, “I don’t want to go back to the sick bay!”
The girls foot caught on the hem of her long night dress and sent her sprawling forwards. Hadley reflexively dropped his gardening sheers and reached out to catch her before she hit the cobblestones.
The girl looked up at him through watering eyes and Hadley saw the full extent of the plague. Anywhere the thick black veins spreading across her check hadn’t reached had grown red and irritated. Perhaps the redness was from the crying but Hadley didn’t think so.
The girls mother swept forth and swiftly snatched her daughter from his hands. “Quit acting foolish, Rebecca! How are you going to get better if you won’t let the physician treat you?” she steered her weeping daughter back towards the castle without looking at Hadley.
Hadley met Queen Florentine in the garden again only once more after she gave him the ring. Nearly a month had passed when he was kneeling amidst the carnations and plucking off the deadheads to place in the basket he kept at his side.
The Queen stepped up behind him, throwing her shadow over the pink flowers. He looked back and startled at the sight of her leaning on her cane.
“How are you liking your gift, my dear?” she asked him softly.
“Oh, it’s lovely.” He fumbled for words and looked down at his hands which were notably void of any adornment. “I’m not wearing it now because– because I don’t want it to get dirty.”
He glanced nervously up at her but she only smiled kindly back, “I got the same gift from my mother.”
Hadley’s heart thudded violently against his chest, “It was a heirloom then?”
“Of sorts,” her green eyes glowed fondly at him. “It has left me now though.”
Swallowing hard Hadley began, “I– I could give it back, your highness.”
“Heh, even if you returned the ring you could not give it back.” She told him coyly, “Do you understand what I mean.”
Hadley hesitated and then fidgeted slightly as he nodded. “I think I do.”
“I had to use the gift for something very important, and it has only gotten farther from my reach since. I worry it may have shortened my life.”
“I– I’m sorry.” Hadley stammered, fearing she must be speaking something of the Kings death again. “Do– do you regret it?”
She looked at him very seriously for a moment and then her wide mouth stretched into a sizable smile. “No.”
A chill went up Hadley’s spine in spite of the summer heat and his throat grew tight. “Why give me the ring?” he asked Quietly, “I mean, why me out of everyone? I’m sorry I don’t understand.”
“I’ve told you, you remind me of my son.”
“And that’s enough?”
Hadley wasn’t sure what to say to that but that was nothing new, so the Queen was used to it when he found himself sitting in dumbfounded silence. Still smiling Queen Florentine came forward, her cane clicking against the cobblestones, and dropped her hand to rest on the top of his head. Hadley stiffened in surprise.
“I want you to be happy.” She told him kindly, and then added before he could respond, “can I have those?”
She pointed down at the straw basket he’d been filling with deadheads.
“They’re dead.” He told her.
“So, I can have them?”
He blinked up at her and then nodded. “Of course, my Queen.”
He gathered the handles of the basket together, the straw bending around the decapitated flowers easily, and placed them in her weathered and jewelled hand.
Queen Florentine took the basket, gave the gardener her widest, sweetest smile, and turned to wonder away. Hadley watched her go, her white striped red hair glowing beneath the sun, and felt something grow tight inside his chest.
Within the next two days Queen Florentine went to her sick bed and was predicted never to rise from it.
Hadley felt a twinge of pain at the news, he’d always liked the Queen even in all her strangeness. He felt close to her in spite of never knowing her, but that wasn’t reason enough to demand he visit her sickbed. He left her be.
It seemed that Queen Florentine’s nephew, Lord Wilburn was poised to succeed her. Hadley saw him in the garden sometimes, staring up at the balcony attached to the Queens suite in thought, his face unreadable.
The gardener wondered if Wilburn knew about the Queens ring, but did not let himself worry about it. He had half convinced himself that some small animal might have gotten beneath the floorboards and carried it away by now.
Hadley carried on with his duties as usual. One evening, a week after his final encounter with the Queen, he glimpsed a gaggle of children fluttering amongst themselves beside one of the fountains. The gardener stopped dead in his tracks, amazed and bewildered by what he saw.
The plague-ridden girl he’d stopped in the garden only a few weeks prior was now sitting amongst her friends, her face clear of any marks or blemishes as she grinned from ear to ear. She seemed perfectly healthy and for a moment Hadley doubted whether it was the same person at all, but when he looked around, he spotted the girls mother lurking nearby.
Hadley crossed a bridge over a small stream and approached the noble woman. She didn’t seem to notice him as he stepped up beside her.
“My Lady,” Hadley began softly.
She turned sharply towards him and the gardener hastened to bow.
“I’m glad your daughter seems to be doing better.” He continued respectfully, keeping his eyes lowered.
The noble woman scrutinized him with distaste before answering, “Yes, we are all glad of that.”
“Have they found a cure for this plague then?”
“No,” she turned stiffly away from him, “She just got better one day. The illness seems to have just passed.”
“That’s good to hear, my Lady.”
Her manner did not welcome farther conversation, but Hadley had already heard what he needed to. He knew that plagues didn’t simply just pass.
His head was busy as he retreated from her and at last, he made a decision.
Late that night he slipped inside the castle, where he remained for only a few minutes before he could be seen making his way back across the garden to his shed. Not once did he look up to notice Queen Florentine watching him from where she sat on the balcony in her nightdress, absentmindedly laying flowers across the railing.
Five days afterwards everyone was released from the sickbay and proclaimed to be free of plague, though the doctors still worried.
Hadley walked into his sleeping quarters at the back of his shed the night after hearing the news and noticed a lump beneath the rug. He tucked a toe under the edge of the rug and kicked it to the side. Greenery was pushing up between the cracks in the floorboards, boasting emerald leaves attached to thin branches.
He stared at it for a moment, and then, swallowing hard, he knelt beside it. Carefully pulling up the floorboard Hadley looked down at where a small, shrub-like tree was growing below the shed. The Queens ring, with its distinct cherry-pit-sized pearl, was wrapped around the growth’s spindly trunk.
For a long time, Hadley could only stare at it, but at last he came to another decision.
Hadley dug up the tree with great care, careful to keep its roots in tact, and carried it out into the garden. Queen Florentine’s balcony was empty when he came to stand beneath it. He buried the tree there under the light of the moon.
When he’d finished Hadley bend his head low over the sapling and brushed his fingers first across its leafy crown, and then along the smooth white surface of the pearl still hanging from the trunk. He had no idea how its power worked or under what circumstances it might answer to him, but he had to try something.
“Please,” he asked the ring softly, “I need to get into Queen Florentine’s room. Please, help me.”
He watched the ring as if it might answer him, his reflection staring back from the pearls glimmering surface. At last he withdrew silently and returned to his shed.
The following night he made sure to look towards the balcony before turning in and found the tree had grown to roughly his size. The next night he saw the tree had grown half the distance to his balcony. On the third night there was no mistaking that the tree had grown high enough.
He waited until it was dark and everyone was sure to be asleep before steeling out to where the tree stood. Its existence was miraculous and his heart swelled at the sight of it.
The trunk had the likeness of thick ropes that had been twisted together, and provided easy hand holds for him to grab onto. He scaled the tree determinedly though scrambling up the branches proved to be more difficult than the trunk. They were a bit too flexible for comfort and bent steeply beneath his weight. He made it to the balcony none the less.
Hadley was prepared to attempt picking the lock, though he was horribly inexperienced, but when he grabbed the doorknob, he found with a start that it was already unlocked. Growing suspicious he wondered for a moment if he shouldn’t enter, but then that seemed silly as he’d already climbed all the way up here.
He stepped into the Queens darkened bedchamber, illuminated only by the moonlight coming through the door. Hadley stepped around a straw basket laying on the floor, overflowing with brightly coloured flowers, and drew nearer to the bed.
Queen Florentine looked small and grey as she laid sleeping, her red hair with its grey streaks fanned around her head in frizzy knots. The loose skin of her neck and arms that she must have so carefully concealed was suddenly very apparent.
Hadley could only seem to acknowledge that even while sleeping and weak her mouth seemed to stretch for miles.
He knelt silently beside her bed and reached a shaking hand for her arm. His fingers closed around her elbow and he waited one breath, two, and then looked up to find the Queens eyes had opened into shining green slits.
Hadley froze, his heart thudding wildly in his chest as he stopped breathing completely.
The Queen raised her hand, and in a movement that seemed to take forever she slowly reached out to place it on top of his. “It’s no use, dear.” She croaked so quietly he almost couldn’t hear her.
She smiled weakly at him and then her eyes closed once more.
Hadley was not surprised to hear of Queen Florentine’s passing the next morning. He spent much of that day neglecting his duties to lay on his cot. The garden practically tended itself these days anyway.
He wasn’t sure why it hurt so much but such aches are not always worth questioning.
The day after that he watched them burn her funeral pier, and the day after that he went back to tending the garden.
For a month he continued his duty in a blind haze, feeling inexplicably lost. Finally, one evening he passed by the tree he’d planted beneath her balcony and a glimmer caught his eye.
Hadley turned to see the pearl ring wedged in the truck like a bejewelled knot. It didn’t look like it would move but he reached for it anyways. The ring came away easily into his hand.
He stared down at it for a long time, the pearl winking back at him gloriously in the daylight. He wasn’t really sure what he felt.
After an eternity of loitering beneath the tree with the ring held in his hand it finally sunk in all at once, the realization that he had no reason to be here.
Slowly he picked up the ring and turned over a trembling hand so he could place it on his finger. He blinked down at it, the thing looking just as out of place as when he’d first gotten it, and then he looked up at the garden and took his time staring around at it.
He continued to stare around at everything as he took his leave, touching everything he could as he walked past. He stopped only to grab his clothes from his room before he exited first the garden, and then the castle.
Once King Wilburn was crowned, he was forced to hire a new gardener, seeing as no one was really sure what happened to the last one. By the time winter came the plague affected only very few, many having miraculously recovered without knowing why.
As the snow fell in the garden everyone marvelled as the flowers continued to bloom jewel bright beneath the frost.
Visions of a Future Queen
The moonlight streaming through the floor to ceiling windows illuminated the throne room where the Queen sat, hidden in the shadow of the throne. A silver-plated crown was balanced between her adoring hands as she peered at it from beneath her downcast eyelashes. Her warped reflection looked solemnly back at her from within the polished silver.
For a small, forgetful moment she imagined herself to be her father, sitting on his gilded throne of gold and jewels, looking down at her. She searched her own face for signs of weakness or any indication of her deepest wishes. With the knowledge of all that had been done at the forefront of her thoughts she wondered, what would he see?
She figured that he most likely would find nothing to be proud of, or rather that there was nothing to be glad about. Still, at the very least she possessed no small measure of strength and that surely demanded recognition.
“Have I made the right choice?” her reflection spoke softly and earnestly from the crown. She could not bear thinking of herself as her father might in a moment of such honest regret.
Returning to her own self she pondered the question for only half a breath before quickly disregarding it as irrelevant. The moment she was no longer her father, and found herself utterly separated from whatever anguish he might feel, she found that it didn’t matter what was right. Why should she care what some dead king thought of her? All that mattered was that she’d won.
Drawing back her shoulders and pursing her thin lips she asked the crown instead, “Have I proven myself?”
Her fingers ran along the knife-like edges of the crown as she stared into her own dark eyes. A few heartbeats passed before her lips curved into a delicate smile.
“I did it, mother.” Her voice held notes of glee as she spoke to the crown. “I’ve avenged you and seized the throne, just as you wanted. Just as I promised I would.”
An elated laugh lurched in her chest, “Now,” she sighed in complete relief, “It’s between me and that fool of a prince who thinks himself my brother.” Sinking back into the gilt frame of the throne she stroked the blade like plates of the crown lovingly and peered at the spires stretching above her. “A minor piece, great as his magic might be he can’t prepare for an attack he doesn’t know will take place. Father could tell him that.”
Her gaze drifted across the throne room, painted in the moons white light. Slowly frowning as she contemplated her private thoughts, her grip growing tighter around the crown until its sharpened plates dug into her hands.
“I almost,” the murmur carried tremulously across the room, “Feel sorry for him.”
Her attention slowly fell to the crown and seeing her own distant gaze she blinked once, twice and then rolled her shoulders as if to shrug off some filthy cloak. “But it serves the bastard right!” She leered in distain, “Sucking up to the king like that! How dare he try to steal my crown? And while thinking I would still call him my brother too?”
This time her laugh emerged a little too loudly as she shook her head in pity. Shutting her eyes, she drew herself up and let the night air fill her lungs like blessed poison. When she sighed the breath out again it was with a self-assured smile.
“He brought it upon himself,” she affirmed. “And now that I’m Queen I will not tolerate such foolishness as the likes of him and our father have demonstrated. Anyone who’d think they can rely on magic to get things done will be taught a good hard lesson. There’s no place for such debauchery in my kingdom and I’ll see them all removed.”
Raising the crown to eye level she spoke to it once more, “I keep my promises mother, same as you.”
At long last she raised the silver crown and set it delicately into the coarse black braids wrapped tightly around her skull. She let her hands float down to the jewel encrusted armrests of the throne with satisfaction and turned her head deliberately to the right.
There she met the kings gaze. Walled within a magnificent golden frame his portrait stared back at her. She smiled wickedly.
“Hello Father,” her fingers drummed playfully along the gilded armrests, “You must be very surprised to see me sitting here. Of course, I’m not.”
She swung her feet back and forth like a child, her velvet slippers falling loose to hang from her toes. She refused to look away from the picture or lower her chin so much as a fraction. Her smile remained stubbornly pressed into place.
“I always knew my destiny, even when you lost faith. You’d almost convinced me for a moment there though.” Her laugh was short and mirthless, “To think anyone would believe some bastard of yours would be a better candidate for the throne! And based on what? By virtue of his magic?”
She shook her head impatiently but held her smile, “Yet somehow I’m here, magicless, and with a crown upon my head. Impossible things happen every day if you have the cunning to make it so.”
Tilting her head to one side she observed the portrait, regarding it as if it might answer her. gradually the swinging of her feet slowed to a stop, her slippers still hanging from her toes. Leaning back into the throne she stared up dreamily at the intricate, arching spires above her.
“How foolish you must feel,” she breathed, “for all the great magic at your disposal you still couldn’t see that I was killing you. I suppose that must mean I possess skills greater than magic, no?”
Her dark eyes drifted closed as she shook her head wistfully. The cold light of the moon bleached her face as her head came to rest against the thrones gilt frame. For a brief respite she looked peaceful with her dark eyelashes fanned over her round cheeks.
The illusion broke as a low, ugly laugh bubbled from her throat.
“When you realized it was me!” her hands gripped the armrests tightly as she struggled to contain her mirth. “No one could dare to claim that mere herbs could kill you! No one could ever be so clever as to defeat you without magic! But you won’t admit that you were wrong, will you?”
Flashing her teeth, she opened her eyes to glare at the portrait, revealing them to be glassy and shinning in the moonlight. “Of course not, you stubborn, grotesque, mule of a man. Rest assured this is far from the end. How could it ever be the end when I have so much more proof to offer you? Starting with the bastard.”
At leisure she distractedly stretched her fingers around the lion heads on the ends of the jewelled armrests, her tendons flexing beneath her skin. She cast her gaze over the throne room painted in ghostly white light from the windows.
“I wish you could see me sitting on your throne.” She said absentmindedly, “Of course, I’ll have to tear it down and build another to match my crown. Do you like it by the way?”
She turned sharply towards the picture, her eyes narrowed and inquiring as she studied its vacant stare. “Does it look familiar? Like it might have sat on the head of a woman you pushed from a tower window?”
Silence stretched between them as she continued to glare at the picture. The still image wouldn’t flinch. At length she sat straight and raised her chin, her eyes still shinning.
“You wanted to know why. At our last meeting you asked me why. We didn’t have time to discuss it then, but I’ll tell you now.” Her fingers thudded against the lion’s head armrests. “Mother gave me this crown. She passed it to me with her blessing after you told me I’d never be Queen.”
She put her hand to the crown for a moment as her gaze grew foggy with moisture.
“As I grieved my lost status in the courtyard I looked up and saw her falling from the tower. The crown was thrown from her head and it skipped its way across the cobblestones to me like a final wish, an answer.” She dropped her hand from the crown and draped both arms over a single armrest as she leaned towards the portrait. “I swore I would honor that gesture and become the Queen she deserves. I did this because I know she didn’t jump. She may have often been sad but I know she wouldn’t have jumped”
The Queen blinked once, twice and the wetness left her eyes. She stared down the portrait.
“Is that what it takes to rule a kingdom, Father? Because I think I can manage that.” Her grin widened savagely, “In fact I have managed that.”
Slowly she lifted herself from the throne and put her back to the painting. She kept her posture tall as she folded her arms behind her back and paced across the dais. When she reached the far end she paused and closed her eyes, keeping her head raised even as the tears swelled once more.
“I’ll never know why you did it,” she said softly, her voice steady in spite of the tears, “you have all the answers, and I’m left with nothing but my own speculations.”
She raised a single shoulder as she pondered, “Maybe she stood in your way when you wanted to bring in that bastard to replace me, or maybe you were just angry she couldn’t give you a powerful heir. Would it really have been so bad…”
The Queen hesitated a moment before giving herself a little shake. She blinked once, twice and her eyes were clear. at last she turned back towards the painting now obscured in the distant shadows. She could still make out his expressionless eyes.
“It doesn’t matter now, we’ve made our choices. Whatever the consequences may be there’s no going back.” Her gaze hardened as she slowly stepped back towards the painting. “death was the price of your foolishness. Now don’t you think the rein of magic has run its course?”
She chuckled darkly as she reached the throne and draped herself over its back. “Now your beloved bastard child rides back from his lessons to come to your side, but will instead find himself riding into my hands. All your doing, dear father.” She chuckled again, “it seems we’ll soon find out whether magic is really more powerful than cunning. I hope they’ve trained him well.”
The Queens grin grew wide and cruel as she slipped past the throne and took another step towards the painting, her stare full of venom. “I would hate to think of what he might suffer if they haven’t. Of course, I’d have to make an example of him in order to make the intent of my rein clear. Once he’s out of the way I’ll do everything in my power to erase you from the history books, even if that means destroying all of them.”
With each word the Queen drew closer, “I will burn every painting, tear down every statue, and defile every law with your fingerprints on it. No one will remember your name, I swear it.”
Her eyes are glassy and hateful as she stops before the painting and her gaze draws level with the kings. “And you think magic’s so invincible? We’ll see how it stands under my rein. All traces of it will have to go, the objects it possesses, the wretched books, and especially the creatures who practice it! none of it will be tolerated in my kingdom!”
Staring into the deceased kings face she reached out with a trembling hand. “And it all starts here.” She finished quietly as her fingers reached the gilt frame, growing steady as her hand laid flat against it. Smiling softly, she blinked once, twice.
“My only regret,” she breathed with an almost loving edge. “Is that you’ll never get to see any of it.”
If Not the Ravens
I heard crying from the forest the night my daughter disappeared. The sound wasn’t unfamiliar as it drifted in through the opened bedroom window along with the scent of the autumn air. The ravens taught themselves to mimic these haunting wails to perfection and often practiced their art from within the Weeping Woods which loomed on my back doorstep like some vast, imposing castle.
The rumour was that some beast lurked within the woods and that the ravens learned how to cry from its victims. This was a theory I’d never put much stock in, for no one had ever seen much of a beast, and their tales always differed on what exactly it was. Furthermore, the stories would have you believe that far more people disappeared around here than seem likely.
It appeared that every time I went to town to sell my pumpkins there was someone who could not seem to contain their concern for me. They warned me often of the dangers of living so close to the Weeping Woods and usually illustrated it with some new tale of what lay beyond my own doorstep. The villagers were compelled to commend me for my bravery if not assert their own unwillingness of being in my shoes. I never minded for they were well meaning, but in truth I was never afraid of the Weeping Woods. I was well aware of the dangers, that there might be wild creatures lurking about, but I kept my head about them. After all, there are bound to be dangers and rumours anywhere you go, and when I came to this house with a babe under my arm it was to elude a different kind of beast. One much realer and entirely more threatening than anything within the forest.
But the idea of hearing the likeness of someone who’d once suffered and died was, I’d have to admit, terribly upsetting, and restless nights were a thing I knew well. The night of my daughter’s disappearance I’d woken from a dead sleep to a wail of ferocious sorrow that had momentarily frozen me in place. Its desperate cry had chilled me through to my core but I’d decided upon the conclusion, which I thought was most reasonable, that it was only the ravens. After all it was always the ravens, wasn’t it?
I rose from my prematurely disturbed slumber to approach the window and close it tight, and then I returned to my warm bed and thought no more about the cries I’d muffled that night.
But I thought about it the next day, and every day since as I stood on my crumbling doorstep with the Weeping Woods only an arms length away. There are things that a mother just doesn’t want to believe, and I fought to deny the truths my heart told me, but when I looked back on that night there was no denying what had happened. In spite of every alternative I frantically scraped together I knew the reason I’d been so unsettled by the wailing I’d heard that night was because I’d known it sounded familiar.
Even to this day I’ll try not to think about what I’ve done as I stare into the unfathomable darkness between the trees and wonder what’s become of her. There are many things I’ve grown doubtful about such as the safety of the forest. Perhaps she was carried away by animals or lured out by some stranger, but maybe it could have also been a beast. Perhaps there’s more going on in the Weeping Woods than the mere crying of ravens. The knowledge that I might not have ever been as safe here as I’d once hoped I would be has cost me sleep nearly to the point of madness, but I won’t move home, for what if she came back and I wasn’t there?
This particular morning, I step out onto the topmost step of three crumbling cement slabs to find that It’s been raining. The sky is quiet now but puddles litter the ground and a vast array of orange and red leaves were plastered to every surface, their colours muted by the trauma of the downpour. I pull my cloak tightly around my shoulders to defend from the chill, the air tastes crisp with the scent of dead leaves and petrichor.
It’s the second anniversary of her disappearance today and I find myself at a loss for what to do. I stare distractedly down at the overgrown cobblestone path that winds away from the foot of my stairs to vanish into the trees. The trees arching above the path frame the darkness beyond them like a massive doorway. Listening to the ravens carry on with their pitiful noises from where they hide beyond the forests entrance, I wonder to what location the trail leads for I’ve never traveled its length.
I should be harvesting my pumpkins which have grown ripe in the front yard but I can’t bring myself to move from the top step.
Beneath the all too familiar wails of the ravens I hear another noise. It’s softer than anything I’ve heard come from the woods before and I think it sounds a little like a child humming. I’m prepared to assume I’ve imagined it, but as the tune grows louder I realize that I recognize it.
Before I can fully appreciate my own intent my foot flies forward, passing over all three steps before landing directly on the overgrown trail, and then I’m running straight into the Weeping Woods.
My home is quickly swallowed behind me as the darkness presses in and I stumble along the crumbling path. From the edges of my vision I see flashes of golden and orange leaves winking at me from the shadows like twinkling stars. It feels like I’m running for days with the tune growing ever closer, but its source continues to evade me. still, my conviction is strong and true as I rush forward with mad determination.
Then I catch sight of what I’ve been hunting for and I skid to a halt, my breathing ragged. Up the path, just a little ahead of me is a small figure sitting in a crouched position and humming quietly.
“Bethany?” I ask shakily as I take a tremulous step forward.
The figure turns to me and my heart shatters with disappointment. For a moment I feel as though I might collapse.
The child before me is not my daughter. This girl has ebony skin and the hair and eyes to match. Perceiving my presence, she halts her tune.
I stare down at her breathlessly and she looks steadily back.
“Where did you learn that song?” I ask her but she only stares up at me and doesn’t answer.
We are completely alone, there’s no parent, or sibling, or nanny to look out for her. The little thing is thin, dirty, and covered in scratches.
She’s not my daughter…
Slowly I reach out my hand to her and say, “come with me.”
She hesitates only a moment before taking my hand.