A fluttering like the wings of a languid butterfly stroked Gwen’s sleeping cheek. She stirred in her cloak and lifted an unconscious hand to her face.
The fluttering wings tinkled in her ear, a tiny bell. Gwen blinked open one eye. She was dreaming. She thought she’d grown used to the night noises of this unfriendly forest – the soughing which may or may not be the wind in the treetops, the trembling whistling which may or may not be night birds, or the smothered scratchings of prey burrowing under rotting roots.
This tinkling was a different sound, a man-made sound.
Gwen opened both eyes, closed them briefly and opened them again. She freed her arms from her tangled cloak and sat up.
The round eyes of an elfin face, half hidden by a mass of curls gleaming silver in the starlight, stared at Gwen.
‘Who are you?’
The girl laughed and the tinkling sounded again.
‘What’s happening? Gwen? Who are you talking …? Oh.’ Mark heaved himself upright. ‘It’s a girl,’ he said.
Gwen nodded. ‘A Danae girl.’
The girl was very young, younger than Callie. Her knee-length dress, pale in the starlight, swirled gently about her legs in a breeze Gwen couldn’t feel. She gazed dreamily from Gwen to Mark with eyes which were a little too large for her fine-featured face, and deeply dark.
‘Who are you? Where have you come from?’ Gwen said. ‘Where’s your ma and da? Where’s your family?’
‘Here,’ the girl whispered. She lifted an arm to indicate the forest all around them.‘Are you Danae?’ Mark said.
‘Danae? Danae!’ There was the tinkling laughter. ‘Yes, yes, Danae.’
‘And your family’s nearby?’
‘Yes, yes. Come, come with me. See them, see my family.’
Gwen frowned at Mark. ‘Is this going to end up with me in a pitch black hole underground?’
Mark was already standing. ‘No caves here, and if there are, well, we can just refuse to go.’ He hefted his bag onto his shoulder. ‘On the other hand, we might find someone who knows about the Sleih and can help us find them. Don’t know about you, but I’m tired of wandering around this strange forest with no idea where we’re going.’
Gwen stood too, wary eyes on the elfin girl. ‘I don’t know. She doesn’t look, well, quite right, to me.’
‘It’s this dull light. It’ll be day soon and we’ll be able to see her properly. Come on, let’s go,’ Mark urged, for the girl was skipping with slow, unhurried skips into the trees.
Gwen picked up her bags and followed.
When would it be day?
Gwen was certain it must be well past the time when dawn should have broken. But the light hadn’t changed. There was no birdsong.
The silence was as deep as midnight. Not as dark, though. Starlight gleamed on their guide’s bobbing curls and the way ahead was marked, faintly, by a faded path which wended its narrow way, back and forth, around stands of ferns and wide-girthed oaks and tall beeches whose higher branches were lost in a murky gloom.
They were lost.
They were already lost, so what did it matter?
The girl halted at a stream flowing silently across their way. A low grassy bank led down to the dark waters.
‘Are we nearly there?’ Mark said. ‘Is your family close by?’
‘There.’ The girl pointed across the stream.
Gwen shivered. Despite the warm summer night, her skin was cold, prickled with goosebumps as if a damp mist had wrapped itself around her.
‘Are we meant to cross over? Is it deep?’ Mark kept asking questions.
‘Not deep, no, see.’ The girl walked into the stream. Her boots slid into its inky waters with no break in the smoothly running surface.
Gwen wondered how deep the stream was. The girl walked confidently into the middle of the current, paused to glance over her shoulder, and was soon on the far shore.
The water hadn’t reached to her knees.
Mark had stepped down the bank, poised to follow.
‘Take your boots off,’ Gwen said, sitting to remove her own boots.
Mark pulled off his boots, tied the laces and threw them across his shoulder. Gwen did the same, aware of the girl watching from the far bank of the dark stream.
‘Here we go,’ Mark said. ‘Doesn’t look any worse than the hundreds of other streams we’ve crossed.’
Gwen didn’t share his certainty. Streams which could be easily waded were, in her experience, dancing waters curving noisily around rocks, pulling at her bare toes, silken mosses taunting her with their slipperiness. Not smoothly silent like this stream.
Mark waded in. ‘Ow! It’s freezing.’
He took long strides, trying to hurry, pushing hard against the stream’s flow. It didn’t work. Rather, he appeared to find every step difficult, like straining through a snow drift. His breath rasped loudly in the hushed forest.
How had the girl crossed so easily?
The girl watched. Her pale dress lifted in the unfelt breeze, her silvered hair gleamed like a lantern.
Gwen took a breath and placed one foot in the stream. She gasped at the iciness, found herself wading slowly through water heavy as honey. She kept her eyes fixed on Mark, who had reached the far shore.
He gazed back at her, unsmiling, making no jokes about the coldness or the force of the noiseless stream.
Gwen stared at him. His boots dangled over his shoulder.
Why was he silent? Why hadn’t he put his boots on?
The eerie quiet and the pale darkness were oppressive. Gwen felt as if someone had thrown a heavy blanket over her. Her heart slowed. Her skin grew as cold as her bare toes. Her arms and legs were leaden.
She reached the bank and lifted a hand to Mark, wanting help to get out of the water.
He turned his back on her.
The girl was skipping her languorous skips along the faint path between the dark trees. Mark followed her.
Gwen’s heart burst back into life as she hauled herself from the stream. There was danger in those trees. More than the ever present danger of twisting roots and spiralling low branches catching at her hair and clothes.
She wanted to shout, ‘No, don’t follow her!’Her mouth wouldn’t form the words. Her mind lost them even as she tried to cry out. Her pulse slowed.
Gwen trailed, barefoot, along the hazy path behind Mark and the girl, fighting the dimming of her thoughts, chilled to her inner soul by the coldness from the stream and the hushed twilight of the forest.
Mark didn’t know where he was or why he was following a small Danae girl through the trees. His head was thick with soft, curling wool. He was cold. He walked behind the girl for a long time. Or a short time. He couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter. He wondered once when the sun would come up. And then forgot about the sun. The shadowy, silvered forest was the only place he’d ever known.
The girl stopped. ‘My family, here.’
Mark stopped too. Someone – did he know the person? – stopped beside him.
‘Come closer, see them.’ The girl beckoned with a thin, white finger which she pointed downwards, behind her.
Mark moved forward, together with the person next to him. His gaze followed the girl’s finger and even in his dreamlike state his eyes widened.
She was pointing into the black nothingness of a pit, a yawning gap which slashed the forest floor in each direction for as far as the night would let him see. It was far too wide to jump.
The person beside him said, ‘Down there? They’re down there?’ Her tone was breathless and she stuttered the words as if she had to force them from her mouth.
‘Yes, yes, Danae there. Come, meet my family.’
The girl’s too large eyes locked with Mark’s. He knew he would sink into those eyes, as he would sink into the black pit.
But it was what he wanted to do.
There would be rest down there. He needed rest, from the endless trekking and the futile searching for … for something … whatever it was. The pit would wrap him in its dark comfort, would rock him to sleep and dreams … He moved a step closer to the edge of the pit, leaned forward, wanting to fall …
Gwen stared into the pit, aware of the girl’s eyes fixed on the boy beside her. Her mind struggled to escape the wet clouds smothering her thoughts.
Something was wrong.
She closed her eyes, holding the warning morsel close.
‘Aaaggh! Get off me!’
The boy cried out. Gwen knew this boy. She knew … She swung towards the cry as long brown feathers whipped at her face. Wings encircled her, clamping her arms tight to her sides. Gwen cried out too.
Shrill calls and shrieks splintered the sullen quiet.
Gwen struggled to escape the wings, uselessly. She was forced backwards, away from the pit. Her body was lifted from the ground. The wings released her. She fell to her knees, bent over, gulping in air, her lungs bursting as if she’d been running for her life.
Mark lay on the grass a short distance away, coughing and wheezing.
The warm summer air instantly banished Gwen’s deathly chill. The sun glowed bright and high in a brilliant sky. Birds quarrelled and fussed, filling the forest with their boisterous comfort.
‘Eagles.’ Elbows to his sides, Mark flapped his arms in short, rapid bursts. ‘Huge eagles. They attacked us.’
‘Attacked us?’ Gwen sat on the scrubby grass, her breathing slowing.
‘I was about to find a way across the chasm, there.’ Mark pointed to the wide and crooked gap opening ahead of them, an uncrossable line disappearing to either side. ‘The eagles came out of nowhere and pushed me down.’
Gwen ventured close to the chasm. On the far side, stunted bushes and colourful wildflowers clung to rocky walls which plunged steeply down. She crept as near to the edge as she dared, lay on her stomach and peered over. A long way down, a tangled mass of leaves and branches hid the bottom of the gully.
‘Mark, how did we get here?’
‘Get here? Well, we walked, like we always do. What do you mean, how did we get here?’
Gwen wriggled back from the gap. ‘I can’t remember waking up, or having breakfast, or starting out today. It’s like the morning never existed.’
‘Umm. Well, we woke up early … it was dark I think … and … and … I don’t remember having breakfast …’ Mark stared into the blackness of the chasm.
‘A dream,’ Gwen said. ‘I remember a dream, with a little girl in it.’ She paused. ‘I can’t remember what happened in the dream.’
‘You sound like Callie, talking about dreams.’
They stood silently.
Finally, Mark said, ‘I’m sure we didn’t have breakfast. I’m starving.’ He glanced up at the midday sun. ‘Time for lunch anyway. Let’s eat and wait to see which way is west. It’d be good to know if we have to cross this chasm somehow or go another way.’
‘The eagles … ’ The lost morning nagged at Gwen. ‘We were at the edge, right at the edge, and about to fall in. Everything was dark.’
‘I don’t remember anything else.’ Gwen waved a shaky hand at the chasm. ‘If it wasn’t for the eagles, we’d be down there. Dead.’