Charlotte had never wandered so deep into the forest before.
She held up her mud covered skirt, stumbling over jutting roots and moss covered boulders, desperate for a landmark. The abandoned mining road underfoot had long since disappeared, crumbling off into little more than discombobulated patches of dirt in the forest floor, wending aimlessly through the trees.
She had been fuming when she set out to find her brother, muttering threats and scolding him under her breath as she trekked into the woods bordering her family’s Gloucestershire estate. But there was no trace of him– not a footprint in the mud nor the distant shriek of laughter.
Charlotte could not recall a single living thing since embarking on her search, a realization that gave her pause. It was mid May, and usually the woods were alive with the twitter of starlings, or the chatter of crickets. But as she listened, there wasn’t so much as wind to stir the branches.
“John!” She called miserably, eyes stinging under threat of tears, “John!”
But in the place of an answer, or even her own echoes, there was only a vast, heavy silence.
Panic began to gnaw at her. The dim light of dusk had long since receded, leaving a shadow that spread over the tall, moss covered trees like a veil. Night had settled, swift and deep.
Lower branches snagged the hem of her dress, clawing at her ankles as she stumbled over uneven terrain. Confound this, Charlotte thought, quickening her pace.
But she could not outrun the smothering darkness.
“Confound John,” she muttered, stepping over another coiled root. Confound him for slipping away so easily.
What had been so important that her brother felt compelled to go running off into the woods alone?
For this question, Charlotte had no answer. It wasn’t normally like John to cause mischief – out of all the Freeman children, he was the least likely to seek out trouble. But as of late, she’d noticed changes in her brother’s behavior: he’d been spending more and more time off alone, either in his room or near the border of the forest, skulking at the edge of the trees. When Charlotte inquired, he merely went quiet, pursing his lips and turning away in silence, refusing any attempts to broach the subject.
Charlotte couldn’t help wondering if she would find the reason for her brother’s strange moods somewhere in the woods – provided she can find him first.
She supposed there was a chance—a dismally small one—that he had managed to find his way back to the estate on his own. And if that was the case, then she had inadvertently become the one who was lost.
“They shall look for me,” she decided, speaking aloud in an effort to alleviate the suffocating silence. But her voice fell small and weak amid the trees, and even she heard her own doubt.
As the night deepened, Charlotte continued her trekk in a direction she could only pray was East. By now, her limbs were heavy with exhaustion. She slowed to a disheartened stagger, achingly aware of her heart thudding in her chest. The smooth soles of her boots slipped and slid over leaves and decay as she worked her way along a ragged hill.
All at once, the leaves underfoot gave way to a sudden, moss slicked rockface that Charlotte hadn’t seen in the dark. With a cry, she lost her balance, skidding headlong down the slope.
She slid through mud and dead leaves, coming to rest in the belly of the ravine, her skull a hair’s breadth away from the jagged edge of a split boulder. Groaning, Charlotte clambered unsteadily to her feet. Her dress was as good as mud and tatters by then: hems soiled, the lace unraveling. And her stockings too were in ruins, now a ripped and bloody mess from a throbbing gash in her knee.
The sight of her would have sent her governess into a swoon.
It might yet, Charlotte thought darkly, if I ever return home.
Head swimming, she leaned against the rock face to gather her bearings. Towering above her on either side, the walls of the ravine were too steep to climb back up the way she’d fallen. Just ahead, a narrow pathway slithered down the length of the ravine, a pale ribbon illuminated by the soft blue light of the waning moon – the only obvious route forward.
She’d only just mustered the resolve to set off, when she heard it:
Charlotte’s breath caught. It was the first sound she’d heard since she’d entered the woods – the first sign that she wasn’t completely alone.
It was a violin, that much was unmistakable. But as much as the sound of the instrument was familiar, the song – the very quality of the melody – was entirely foreign, unlike anything she had ever heard before. It was as if, for a terrific moment, the violin itself was speaking, calling out to her on its own volition, a sentient, breathing, intelligent voice on its own.
Charlotte didn’t even realize when she set off down the path in pursuit of the song, straining to see in the moon-drenched dark. She stumbled on, hands outstretched to guide her. Following even as the tapered edges of the boulders closed around her– until it was a struggle to squeeze through the crevice.
But there was an opening just ahead, and what was the loss of a few buttons if it led her to someone?
Beyond the opening lay a small clearing; for the first time since she entered the woods, she could see the sky overhead, uninhibited by the clutter of branches. The music was close, bright and clear as starlight. Charlotte followed the sound, casting around for the source.
There—a glint of moonlight. Something was hovering just beyond the tree line on the other side of the clearing. It was small, barely the size of a moth or a cricket – Charlotte could make out the pale, darting flutter of translucent wings.
Cautiously, Charlotte advanced, wary that her footsteps would startle it off. But even
as she closed in on the insect (Though, was it an insect? It certainly didn’t move like any insect she could recall, bobbing and twisting midair in time with the melody, almost as if it were dancing), it paid her no mind.
Charlotte was still a few yards off when the creature performed a grand, sweeping tumble that sent its matchstick-thin limbs sprawling wide, and she glimpsed its face.
Charlotte gasped– for it unmistakably had a face: pointed and delicate as one of her own china dolls, with large black eyes like a set of polished ebony stones that grew even wider as it, in turn, caught sight of Charlotte.
The thing froze midair. Quite distinctly, beneath the sound of the melody still flowing from somewhere amid the trees, Charlotte heard a sharp, tiny gasp.
A fairy, the impossible thought flickered into Charlotte’s mind. A real fairy.
But before Charlotte could react–could cry out or reach out or stumble back in shock–the creature recovered first, zipping off into the trees, its wings a glinting, thrumming blur of speed.
“Wait!” Charlotte cried, launching off into the undergrowth in pursuit.
It was only her determination that kept her moving, twigs scratching her face as she stumbled over jutting roots and uneven ground, biting back the pain still blooming from her knee. But despite her haste, the creature soon disappeared into the leaves.
The music was louder now, almost as if it were coming from every direction all at once. Charlotte could even feel it in her chest, thrumming between her ribs, filling her blood with its vibrant, alien pulse. The source had to be close – and perhaps she’d find the fairy with it.
Fairy. The word sent a shiver running up her spine. Fairy’s weren’t supposed to be real. Even as her surprise faded, Charlotte felt doubt begin to claw its way into her mind. Suppose it was just a trick of the light. Suppose it was her exhaustion making her eyes blur, making her see things that weren’t there– that couldn’t be there.
But Charlotte was too busy supposing to herself that she nearly walked straight into the pedestal of a lone, carven stone figure that had appeared suddenly out of the undergrowth.
She gave a cry, only barely managing to catch herself before she toppled backward.
Immediately, the music ceased, a minor note soured into silence.
Charlotte held her breath. She thought she had heard a whisper from the other side of the statue.
“Hello?” She said softly, “Who’s there?”
There was a long, impassable silence. Then a voice, smooth and airy as a draft, came out of the dark.
“Do come into the light,” it drawled, “the shadows are no place for a child.”