“I would just rather be Outside with Ambrose, that’s all I’m saying.”
Laurel finished the argument with Weigela for the twelfth time since sunrise.
“Or at least, I would rather be back at the clearing, getting ready for their return.”
Disapproving, but resigned, Weigela sighed, setting her into a fit of forceful coughs. She wiped a drop of blood from the corner of her mouth. Though her mother tried to hide it, Laurel saw the Blight tightening its grip on her.
“Only two more maples, and an oak, and you can enjoy the festival. You take the oak, I will do the maples,” her mother croaked softly. “The sooner we are done here, the sooner we can prepare for your ceremony.”
“Yes, Mother,” Laurel replied and knelt at the base of the great oak tree.
Laurel placed her hands on the large rough trunk and closed her eyes. The tree’s pulse burst to life in her hands. The thunderous ripple of water from its roots floated up into its branches and back down in an endless magical cycle of life. There was no sadness here. There was no illness. There was no fear. There was only life. Magic. Taking a deep calming breath, Laurel imagined the green leaves shaking and shivering in the crisp, still air.
Thank you for your life and cool air, but it is time to rest for a while, great Oak.
Laurel opened her eyes, and high above her head the shivering leaves started glowing. A yellow haze surrounded the tree and settled on each leaf one at a time. After only a moment, the supernatural glow faded. On each leaf, red and yellow faded together creating the natural orange flare of Autumn.
Laurel regarded her handiwork. This oak tree was not her best painting. The reds didn’t blend into the yellows as seamlessly as she would have liked. She and her mother had been painting for the past eight days without rest. She was gettting sloppy. And magic did not always come easily to her. It was especially difficult to perform more than one kind of magic at a time, and Laurel already had one spell brewing. But it was tradition to paint before the festival. It was her duty. Though she was exhausted and slightly displeased, a smile spread across her lips. Tradition pleased her mother, and Laurel loved to see her mother happy. Therefore, she loved painting the leaves for the Autumn festival.
“Laurel,” Weigela called out to her daughter sounding healthy and strong again.
She sat cross-legged in the dirt between her two trees. They were perfect. Yellow leaves at the edges of the branches turned to red around the trunk.
“Mine looks like a child painted it,” Laurel complained.
“It is beautiful, Laurel. You’ve always had such great talent with painting.” Weigela stood and wrapped a forgiving arm around Laurel’s shoulder.
Laurel smiled appreciatively at her mother, and the pair of them walked silently toward the centre of the forest, admiring the trees. The canopy only held Laurel’s attention for a moment before her wandering mind stumbled again across Ambrose.
What had he been doing Outside? Was it like the stories? What did he eat? Drink? Could it be as fun as she thought it would be? Was it scary?
Is he thinking of me?
Ambrose had ventured Outside on his first trip as a man of the Goodfolk, and Laurel knew the kinds of trouble men got into during the Harvest. Last year at the Bonfire, her father shared a story of a lazy farmer who he had cursed for a week with an uncountable number of beetles. The Bonfire’s flaming image of the farmer, swarmed by little yellow and orange bugs had never left her mind. Afterwards, she had laughed along with the men as her father showed them being chased from a village by a flock of angry Human women holding torches, broomsticks, hammers. Trickster Folk always found more fun than fear Outside.
What if I went Outside and see the world of Humans? Someone else could paint the foliage. A hundred little girls would melt with anticipation for the task. It is an honor to paint for the Harvest.
Her father’s voice echoed throughout her daydream .
“Humans aren’t like us, Lovely. They have no respect for life. Those who do not rightfully fear you would kill you without question. Outside is no place for my fair daughter.”
Regardless of her father’s warnings, his souvenirs and stories from the Outside called to Laurel like a Siren’s song.
They would kill me? I worry more about the Blight.
In the past, only Folk who had left the Ring fell to the disease. Without the protection of the Wood, the Goodfolk easily fell prey to the Blight. Recently, the Blight had infiltrated the Ring like that swarm of flaming beetles. And no kind of magic could stop it.
A light cough from her mother further reminded her of the dire situation within the Ring.
Laurel and her mother arrived at the opening in the middle of the woods to find that the Bonfire already roared, and pipers and drummers played a lively tune to which the flames danced happily. Nearly a hundred pairs of feet had already begun their shuffling steps to the music. Arms and hands waved back and forth like falling leaves in a gentle breeze. Cloaks of green, red, yellow, orange, and brown leaves rustled as the dancers twirled around the fire. Children ran between the dancers, screaming and giggling. A large group of women chatted, eating berries and nuts, finally resting from over a week of painting.
Laurel led her mother across the clearing to a small raised platform that held three silk cushions. Though ancient, moth-eaten, and fraying, her father’s plump central cushion looked inviting. This would be place at festivals one day. With a cough, Weigela lowered herself down onto the cushion to its right.
Laurel looked to her own cushion to the left of the ancient one. It did not look nearly as pleasant, though Laurel could not pinpoint the difference between the two cushions.
“I am not ready to sit yet. I would like to dance for a bit.” Laurel kissed her mother on the head and walked back to the fire. Her mother’s heat dissipated from her lips, the Blight’s heat carried away by the clean air.
She has got a fever again.
Laurel closed her eyes said a quick prayer to all the Spirits of the Earth that her mother would get better—that the Earth would get better. Then she spun around and clapped along with the music until only the very last remnants of sunlight clung to the clouds making them shine like pink and orange flames in the purple sky.
Laurel leapt, twirled, and flipped like a dancing leaf over to the long table that held large wooden bowls of almonds and cashews. Fruits had been piled high on silver plates. Taking a bite from a plump apple, Laurel heard a tiny voice squeak from behind her.
Laurel turned to find her family’s young servant. The girl handed Laurel a soft bundle of fabric with a deep bow. Laurel took it in one hand, keeping the apple away so as not to drip on the bundle.
“Please, Rose. There is no need to be so formal at festival,” Laurel replied.
With an enormous smile, Rose bowed again and scurried away.
She was never good at being informal. Her parents died of Blight several seasons ago, and the King’s family took her in. Rose had not been less-than-formal since then.
Laurel grinned across the festival ground at her mother who nodded and smiled with a cough. Leaving her apple unfinished, Laurel scampered out of the clearing, hugging the bundle close to her chest.
Nearly a mile from the bonfire, Laurel arrived at her favourite place in the Woods. Roots blended with branches and trunks intertwined with one another to make five thick protective walls like one of those Human fortresses she had heard about. She was alone here. Surrounded by Nature’s protection, she found respite from being Princess Laurel, Heir of the Trickster Folk.
She unrolled the bundle to find a lavender gown. Holding it at arm’s length, she admired the beauty of the rough silk gown with a smooth orange sash, and one billowing sleeve. Little Rose had started making it after Ambrose had proposed at Harvest last year. She had even made the silk herself. The girl had a gift.
Nearly ripping it in several places, Laurel stripped off her simple brown painting robe and replaced it with the lavish garment. Using a tall, thin sap-glazed mirror that she had stolen away from her bedroom, she tied the sash into a neat bow at her back.
It is perfect.
She rolled up her old gown and placed it in a box full of garments stuffed between a couple of roots. With a final glance in the mirror, she walked back toward the festival. She walked slowly, picking her steps carefully, breathing steadily to keep her nerves at bay.
At last, Laurel could see the light of the fire in clearing ahead of her. But something did not seem right. Something was out of place. Laurel froze where she stood and focused on the scene before her. Straining to see, she found stillness. Listening, she found silence. The music had stopped. Even the children stood still and silent. Only the Bonfire continued its dance.
I’m missing the Toast!
The most important part of the Harvest festival, the Toast was holy and missing it, unlucky. The Goodfolk toasted to give thanks to the Spirits of the Earth for the rewards reaped due to their favor in the growing season. Ambrose would say the traditional words this year. He had been practicing for weeks, and Laurel would never forgive herself if she missed it.
She lifted her skirt up above her knees and stepped more quickly than before. As she moved closer to the festival grounds, the Spirit of the air became different, heavier. She was not missing the Toast, something was truly wrong.
She took one last hesitant step between two ancient trees and into the clearing. Every eye stared at her. Silhouetted by the Bonfire, her father, surrounded by the other returning men standing in a semicircle, loomed before her.
Most of the returning men surrounded him.
Ambrose was missing.
“Laurel…” Her father began to speak but his voice trailed off, his eyes softening.
Laurel said nothing. She looked around the clearing, searching for her future husband. Everyone stared quietly at her. Her mother looked solemnly at her own feet and began to cough quietly.
Rose, curled into a ball on the ground, sobbing, cried out, “My brother!”
Unfeeling, Laurel waited for her father to say more.
“Laurel,” he continued quietly, “…Ambrose…”
A moment of emptiness.
And then a crash.
Realisation struck her like lightning striking a tree. Her heart and her spirit shattered into molten pieces, erupting in all directions. And as if her spirit had truly exploded, she found she could not breathe.
“Where is he?” Laurel asked between sharp breaths.
“I do not know, Lovely,” her father said finally. “He failed to meet us outside the Woods this evening.” The King of the Goodfolk took a step toward his daughter.
“Why would he do that?” Laurel backed away.
“We do not know.”
“You left him? You didn’t wait?”
“No. How could you do this? He is alone. He is Outside, and he is alone.”
Laurel spun around and ran.
She ran and she ran. Brush and already fallen leaves crunched under her feet. Nocturnal creatures screamed as she ran. A root from an ancient maple tree grabbed at her feet.
Not knowing, not thinking where she she was going, she continued running. All she knew was that Ambrose was alone.
Spirits, let him be safe.
Trees became more sparse as she ran. More of purple sky showed itself to Laurel, encouraging her run. This was the edge of the Wood. Her first dream was of going Outside for years, but Laurel had never actually seen the boundary between her world and the Humans’ before. Now that she was here, every terrible story she had ever heard flooded back to the forefront of her mind. Vicious animals. Horrible diseases. Blight.
Laurel shivered, not from the cold, but from fear, she assumed. Fear like this had never attacked her thus. She did not have the courage to leave the Ring.
But Ambrose was out there. She would never see Ambrose again if she could not face her fear.
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she closed her eyes and recited the sacred vow to the Ring in a trembling voice.
“I will protect you. You are sanctuary for all. I will protect your sanctity.”
The magic words protected the Ring. So long as Laurel adhered to this promise, Humans could not find their way in.
She steadied herself on a thin tree and took a step forward with her right foot, but a firm grip on her arm held her in place. Laurel turned to find the tear-blurred image of Robin, King of the Goodfolk standing before her.
Of course he would have followed her. The king knew the Wood as well as he knew himself—maybe better. Though he was nearly five hundred years old, he was still the fastest of the Trickster Folk. It was impossible to escape her ancient and wise father.
Majestically, the king loomed above her, looking into her eyes. Laurel’s eyes darted around, unable to match his gaze.
Finally, Laurel blurted out, “Where is he?”
“I do not know.”
“But why would he leave?”
“He made a choice. It is not my place to dictate. I am sorry.”
Laurel said nothing, glancing for a moment behind her to look to the Outside.
She turned back to find the man’s eyes softened. He became once again the father who raised her, taught her to climb trees, and told her epic stories until she fell asleep in his arms.
“Laurel,” he spoke softly and clearly as he pulled a square of cloth from his pocket. Smiling with his lips, but not his eyes, he wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“I need to find him, father. I love him.”
“There is nothing I could say to stop you, I assume,” her father asked as he unbuckled the dark leather pouch from around his waist.
Laurel shook her head.
“Good. You are Goodfolk and a Trickster. I would expect and accept nothing less.” Her father handed her his pouch.
She took the bag in her hands and clutched it closely to her chest. The scent from the soft leather wafted into her nose, calming her nerves.
“Tears, sweat, and blood, Laurel. That is the only way you will find him Outside.”
She tried to step across the boundary into the Outside, but once again, her father stopped her.
Eagerly, he added, “Outside, magic is rough. Trickster magic can be especially harsh.”
With a curt nod, she stepped across the barrier, leaving her father in the Ring, hearing his voice faintly and distorted behind her, “And keep your name to yourself!”
The world changed before her eyes.
The last flickers of sunlight shone lazily into the dull night. No night birds sang. The once-clear, purple sky turned deep grey and became crowded with blackened clouds. Carrying a foul stench unlike anything she had ever smelled before, Nature’s breath threatened to throw her back into the forest as she emerged from the Wood. The air weighed on her body, heavy with pollution. She felt the Blight already seeping into her skin. It hung in the air all around her like shimmering heat after a summer rainstorm. But it made the air grey. Her heart racing, she drew in breath, but no air came. She gasped again, trying to suck in air. It was like trying to breathe underwater as her body and soul adjusted to the Human realm.
How do they do this? Why do the men do this every year?
Realization hit like a sudden rainstorm.
Ambrose has been out here for eight days!
Once she could breathe almost normally, she continued moving forward, toward a glowing fog on the horizon which she took to be the city, all the while praying that Ambrose survived.
In the distance before her, silhouetted by the pale mist of the city, there slept a small farmhouse, a square building, only two stories tall. She approached to find chipped white paint and a second floor with boarded up windows. Though, the shutters still looked greener than summertime grass. A gust of wind pulled at the curtains through one of the open windows, and the flapping of heavy fabric produced a cloud of dust that disappeared into the air, joining with the rest of the dust in a merry dance.
Her head flipped inside out. Dizziness and confusion overtook her, and with her hands suddenly on her knees, the almonds and apple made their reappearances. When she knew she could throw up no more, she stumbled as fast as she could away from the farmhouse into a half harvested cornfield.
She ran again. Her feet slammed into the ground, jarring her knees and back. More than once, she tripped and nearly fell to the ground. She tried to breathe as deeply as she could, but only managed to wheeze loudly. Still she pushed forward without thinking until she emerged on the opposite side of the field, the dizziness behind her. Finally breathing, she took her next step and felt something new, strange. She had never felt this sensation before. Stabbing? Cutting? Slicing? This was pain. Her sides wanted to split, explode outward. Small red scratches burned, decorating her exposed arm.
Pain. This is pain.
Putting a hand to a bleeding lip, she felt the warm liquid on her cold fingers. The strange taste in her mouth proved that even her own blood seemed wrong in this foreign land.
Wiping the blood from her mouth with her silken sleeve, she took a deep breath to try to regain her bearing. It proved ineffective, the pain in her side amplifying, doubling the amount of knives in her lungs.
Again the wind picked up and tossed her braided and matted hair around her face and into her eyes. Her dress, now covered with dirt, whipped around her legs, tripping her. The wind brought with it more strange smells and sensations of the Human world. This current came from a forest of tall boxes surrounded by a halo of orange haze. It was Urbana. She walked toward it, feeling its presence grow stronger as she approached.
After several eternal minutes if trudging, her feet landed on hard ground. Flat, carefully-placed rocks paved the road into the city. Laurel followed the pathway of stones through a great gateway built into Urbana’s ancient wall.
These Human buildings were monstrous. Laurel counted three, four, five floors in some of them. Other buildings deeper into the city towered above her, even taller than those on the outskirts. Buildings in the Ring rarely had more than two rooms.
Why do Humans need so many rooms? And Ambrose could be in any of them.
Humans chatted in groups under flickering street lamps. The group of Humans closest to her consisted of a squat woman, a tall woman, and a dark skinned man. The gathering rather reminded her of all the traditional Goodfolk jokes her father loved to tell. But now she realised the jokes might have basis in truth.
The squat woman dug around in a small drawstring handbag, pulled out a pair of gloves and said, “That Tomas is a revelation. I see why people come from all over the country to see him!”
Each Human wore a floor-length overcoat of dark green and blue plaid wool. Yellow ribbons tied their hair into large buns on top of their heads. Studying their attire, Laurel realised she was terribly underdressed. She felt the cold air against her exposed skin, the freezing stones under her bare feet, and her tangled mess of braids hanging loose around her shoulders. Tears streaked her dirt-covered face, and her lip still tasted like blood.
The dark man added, “He was a brilliant trickster!”
Trickster? Tomas the Trickster?
Laurel turned a corner, following the vast flow of Humans into a grand open space where six streets met in one central location, a clearing much like the one inside the Ring. But towering buildings instead of ancient trees surrounded this one. Rather than a glorious Bonfire, an ornate fountain like a three-tiered cake bubbled in the center. Men and women in their strange long coats and tall hair replaced dancers in leaf-cloaks. The dirty-faced children seemed the same, however— running, screaming, bumping into people. But the Human adults looked upon the children with disdain. Goodfolk found only joy in children’s play. Trickster Folk especially encouraged frolicking.
More ladies with hair in intricate buns, shoes with high heels, and ornate skirts and men with equally intricate buns, tall boots, and tight pants filed out of the building to Laurel’s right.
“That was the best Tomas has ever done, I think,” stated one of them matter-of-factly.
Laurel looked in the direction they had come. It of the smallest buildings on the circle, but it seemed to emit an unlimited stream of Humans. Laurel tiptoed up the stone steps to the front door of the building. She stayed in the shadows, and no one even spared her a glance.
The wood of an ancient oak tree had been painstaikingly carved into ostentatious doors. She placed her hand on the cold wood and felt the remnants of its pulsing heartbeat. It was there still, but faint. Its essence had changed. The artist’s energy overshadowed the tree’s original Spirit. Though beautiful to look at and beautiful to feel, it made her sad.
She pulled her attention to the work of art at her hands, and peered around the door and into the building. Complicated dangling lights hung from the ceiling, making the golden wallpaper and statues glisten like sun-kissed snow. Laurel looked through an interior doorway and into a room filled with cushioned seats and an elevated stage.
A stage surrounded by walls? Theatre? Strange creatures indeed.
Laurel backed out again and hid behind the great wooden door. She glanced to each side. There was a small trickle of people filing out of the theatre, going into the alley to the left. She followed them.
A single gas lamp on the wall of the theatre lit the alley. Laurel mused at the Humans’ need for flames. Although, on closer inspection, this light was not produced by fire. A magical hum resonated from the glass ball that held the light captive. Laurel listened and the humming grew and came from every direction until more of her warm blood trickled down from her ear. Humans walked by without seeming to notice.
Attempting to ignore the sound, she looked up at the moon—where the moon should be. But the black clouds had blocked it out. Still, by the light of the black-shrouded moon, Laurel saw two dragons painted on the walls on each side of the lamp, They guarded a door that she supposed was meant to be hidden, as it was flush with the wall and had no keyhole or doorknob. The crack around it was only as thick as a hair, but the air moved differently there making it obvious to Laurel.
She watched from the shadows as a pair of Humans walked through the dragon-protected doorway.
She could not enter the doorway until the people entering from the alley turned from a seasonal spring into the slow drip of melting ice.
Laurel listened closely, focusing her energy through the door. She heard the murmur of a lively party, just getting started.
A man with ginger hair and a woman almost as tall as herself walked into the alleyway, sending Laurel back into obscurity. Leaning heavily on a cane, the woman glanced about the alleyway as if waiting for something to attack her. Her gaze lingered on Laurel for a split second— long enough for Laurel to take note of her mismatched eyes. One brown, the other a mix of green and blue like spring water. The woman looked Laurel up and down, then drinking something from a tiny bottle, she leaned against the wall, looking away.
Laurel ignored the woman and turned her attention to the man. He was a beautiful Human specimen. This man must be a child of the Spirits, for upon his head gleamed the sacred Bonfire. His bright red hair hung down to his shoulders, tied back at his neck with a black ribbon.
Inside her head, her parents danced with Rose and Ambrose around the Bonfire in a beautiful scene from last year’s Harvest festival. The image changed and she saw herself hand-in-hand with Ambrose. In his other hand, he held their son.
The door sprung open as the man flipped the secret switch.
As the door eased open, the man whispered so faintly to himself, that Laurel barely heard, “Let’s go see Tomas.”
They slipped into the doorway and disappeared.
“That fire-haired man,” she whispered to her prince within her yet un-swollen belly. “He is our gift from the Spirits.”
Her eyes filled up with tears as she slid further into the shadows and tried to figure out her next steps in this vast and austere world of Humans.