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Delia jogged into the forest, smiling as she listened to her mother’s cry to be careful. She was going to play with the fairies, they would keep her safe! Running over upturned roots and thick underbrush, Delia’s slipper-clad feet barely touched the ground as she sprinted past the tall Elms, moving deeper into the Worley Woods. Streaks of sunlight breaking through the thick canopy became fewer and fewer the deeper into the Woods she ran until she reached a moss covered, sunken grove that seemed to be in perpetual twilight, glints of sunlight from high above flickering like stars in the night sky.
Standing on a boulder overlooking the grove, Delia slid down to her rear, folding her arms around her knees as she stared out over the expanse of crimson that covered most of the grove; blood-red flowers, their petals wide and rich lined the forest floor like a thick carpet. Staring out over the peaceful scenery for a few moments, Delia reached into the small sack she’d slung over her shoulder as she’d left home today. Pulling out a biscuit, hard and cold from the time that had transpired between breakfast and now, she tossed it idly into the air a few times, catching it only to study the crumbing edges.
The flowers rippled, like the surface of a pond you threw a rock into, as the quiet calls of far off birds fell silent. Delia smiled, looking down at the sea of red expectantly.
“It’s okay,” she said, catching the bread in one hand, “it’s just me. Come on out.”
A faint buzzing, like the wings of a bee, fluttered from several points beneath the red petals, glittering points of light glowing from beneath the darkened leaves.
“I brought food again,” Delia said, holding up the biscuit high in the air.
A faint wind blew over the vale, a slight coppery scent filling the air that Delia savored; it smelled so familiar. The shepherds’ daughter could never place where she had smelled the slightly sweet scent before, but the flowers fragrance was something she had smelled before. It was sweet, it was salty… it was something she couldn’t put her finger on.
A small head breached the bed of flowers, black and shiny as if moist from morning dew. The head was dominated by one silvery eye and a pair of pointed catlike ears, devoid of fur. Instead, strands of tar seemed to connect the ears to the head, which stretched and pitched as the ears rotated atop the misshapen head. In the perpetual twilight of the grove, Delia could see dozens of glimmering eyes hiding beneath the flowing red petals, watching her.
Winding her arm back, Delia pitched the biscuit out over the grove, smiling as the tar-like Fae buzzed into the air with glistening wings, stretching out three-fingered hands to catch the biscuit, which was half its size, midair. The creature gave a flash of sharpened fangs as it bit into the bread, fluttering slowly back into the foliage below, rending off a piece of crispy bread which it noisily chomped on. Arms stretched out, tiny yellowed bones visible beneath the holes in the tar as they elongated, tearing off small portions of bread as it came within reach. Slowly, the black fairy was engulfed in the sea of crimson once more, the petals parting and flowing around him like the ebb of the tides.
Pulling another biscuit from her sack, she broke it in half and hurled it across the grove, giggling as another of the twisted little creatures leapt into the air. She entertained herself for a few minutes, unloading bread into the grove to the waiting maws of the ravenous sprites until she came across a strip of cold bacon.
Eyeing it carefully, she pulled it out and sniffed it. She could feel eyes roaming over the strip of meat, practically hear mouths salivating- the sprites were obviously intrigued.
“The stories all say you can grant wishes. Is this true?” Delia asked, finally bringing up the subject matter after weeks of visiting the small folk. She’d discovered the vale nearly a month ago, almost falling from the circle of mossy boulders that surrounded it. She’d dropped her honeyed treat into the grove while regaining her balance, the lemon bar disappearing like a drop of water into the sea. She’d almost gone after it until she’d heard the sounds of the little creatures eating it just below her.
Now, after weeks of feeding them, she wanted to know more about them.
“Answer me or no more food.” She threatened, holding the bacon over the lip of the boulder, dangling it enticingly.
Angry chatter echoed from beneath the red tide until one lone voice remained. It was thick and heavy, with its words sounding like the bending of wood in a storm. “Food. Wishes for food.”
“Alright,” she said, tossing the bacon out lazily, smiling as three separate sprites leapt out, and tearing into the bacon mid-air while violently scratching at each other with inch long talons. She watched the buzzing forms tumble back into the flowers, their wings clacking angrily before she continued. “You know of my family, right?”
Hisses and clacks rose from the flowers, the voice finally emerging once again, “Yes…”
“Good. Then you know we struggle to make ends meet. The sheep produce just enough wool to clothe us, and their meat is just enough to keep us fed. Between the animals we raise and the herbs we sell from the forest, we can barely pay our taxes. And now my father has fallen ill.”
The voice, hoarser this time, rasped, “Food?”
Delia grunted irritably and fished out another slice of bacon, holding it above the red field, the wind blowing softly through her hair, carrying the copper-scented pollen with it. The chattering rose in tenor. “I want silver, silver and gold. Enough to pay for the medicine we need to make my father better. Give me this, and I’ll continue feeding you as I have been.”
She threw the bacon down into the flowers to punctuate her statement, smiling as she heard the tiny beings scrap amongst each other, jockeying to get a slice of the salty meat. Scraping her slipper along the mossy boulder, Delia looked down to watch the flowers pitch back and forth, rippling chaotically until the meat was gone. The flowers swayed gently from side to side, their wide blossoms waving over the tiny black fairies.
“Can you give me what I want?” Delia asked, pulling out her last strip of bacon.
“Lower a basket… lower a basket and give us food… you get what you need…” The voice clucked, the sound of rustling leaves telling her that her forest friends were moving to and fro beneath the crimson petals.
Pulling out the roasted leg of lamb and three biscuits, Delia shook her sack empty of crumbs before looking over the edge. “I’ll lower my sack, you just fill it up.”
Sliding the satchel through her hands, she slowly began to lower it into the crimson sea of flowers below her. Resting on her knees as she did this, she could only marvel at the countless flowers that seemed to move of their own accord, swallowing up her satchel as she lowered it the few feet from where she sat. She felt a few tugs on the material, heard the clattering voices and the clacking wings… the flowers scent was almost overpowering, flooding her senses with the coppery odor she could not place.
Slowly, she felt the bag grow heavier. Heavier and heavier, and heavier still. Shifting it between her hands, she heard the clinking of metal on metal, the sliding of coins against the fabric of her bag. The clattering voices fell silent as she began tugging up the satchel, grunting as she did so. The bag was so heavy now!
Smiling as the edge of her sack broke the surface of the red petals; her smile grew wider when she caught sight of the hundreds of silver coins weighing it down. Hefting it up to her and over the edge of the boulder, she heaved a sigh before laughing. Grabbing a biscuit, she threw it out over the grove in thanks before plunging her hands into the bag of coins. Each coin was thin but heavy, with a worn face embossed on each one, etchings around the edges in a strange language she couldn’t make out.
Shifting her knee, she was surprised to see the boulder beneath her bore a similar symbol beneath the fuzzy moss. Dropping the coins back into the satchel, she scraped away a few feet of moss, to reveal a myriad of unidentifiable sigils. They were carved around the lip of the grove, at the edge of the boulder; beneath them were crude engravings of fairies, not like the ones in the vale before Delia, but with butterfly wings and childish grins. Taking out one of the coins, she flipped it over to examine the raised features of a regal looking figure. The sigils on the other side of the coin looked like the ones forming a ring around the grove, the carved stone twinkling merrily as the carvings had been inlaid with metal.
“Food…” the voice hissed, catching Delia’s attention. “Food for treasure!”
“Oh, yes… here, the main course!” Delia said, grasping the leg of lamb and tossing it out into the vale as far as she could. Spinning in a lazy arc, a dozen black tar fairies leapt from the ruby forest floor, latching onto the leg and dragging it down into the depths below.
“Why is there a ring of fairy writing around your grove?” She asked, one hand cupping the bulging sack of silver in her lap.
The voice didn’t answer at first, but after a few moments of gnashing teeth and noisy chewing, she got her answer. “Cage… keeps us here.”
“You’re caged? Who would do that?” She asked, outraged that her friends were kept imprisoned. Fairies were supposed to live in the forest freely.
The voice crackled as it answered. “We did… end fighting with others goes into hiding… shhh… keeps them out while keeping us in.”
“Oh,” she said, moving to stand up. “Well, then I guess I’ll leave you to your meal. Thank you for the silver!”
The fairies hissed low, moving amidst the flowers as she stood over them. “Meal isn’t over…”
“Well, that’s all the food I brought. I’ll bring more next time, I promise!” She said, grabbing the slings of her satchel.
Lifting the satchel up as she pushed herself to her feet, Delia grunted from the weight on her back before hearing the sound of fabric ripping. Before she could react, the back of her sack split wide open, pouring the coins back into the vale below, the silver coins clinking together as they hit the boulder and bounced about wildly. Spinning, Delia mad a mad grab at some of the falling coins, dropping to her hands and knees to scoop at some as they fell below.
“No!” She screamed, her hands grasping only air. The satchel over her back stirred, catching her attention. She screamed once more as she heard the buzzing of wings from behind her, catching sight of one of the one-eyed Fae launching itself from her sack, two firm handholds on the back of her dress as it flew over the edge of the boulder, clattering loudly.
Delia wobbled from her precarious position, slapping her hands onto the mossy boulder’s side to try and brace herself against her the miniature creature’s tugging. She felt secure too, at least until her blue eyes met the silver ones beneath the petals.
Leaping with savage hisses, three fairies buzzed up from their vermillion cover, their three-fingered hands grasping onto her forearms. Their skin sizzled against hers, searing tar being poured over her pink flesh like water over hot coals. Their grips sank into her arms, drawing blood, causing her to scream in agony as they pulled her over the side.
Landing amidst the flowers, Delia quickly found herself overwhelmed by the scalding creatures, each one hissing and clattering the same word.
“Now the meal will begin,” the voice said as the fairies closed in on her.
Their teeth bit into her flesh, tearing it away in long stringy bits while claws pulled away muscle. Delia screamed and thrashed, the scent of her own coppery blood filling the air… mixing with the same odor of the flowers. Howling madly, she struggled to stand, to knock the hungry pests away; but she was feeling warm as if she were going to sleep. The pain was slowly fading away as her eyes blinked wearily, her head rising up to breach the crimson canopy above her.
Fresh air! She tried to take a gulp of it, but she found she couldn’t breathe. Looking around, she tried to scream as instead of a sea of flowers she was greeted by a sea of bloody faces.
“They got you,” One head rasped, sounding dejected. It was that of a young boy that had gone missing a few years before.
“Of course they got her!” Another head hissed, this one that of a handsome teen.
“They always get us…” A few heads said in unison, blinking back tears of blood that were welling at the corners of their eyes.
“We’ll just have to warn others like we warned her.” The boy said, turning on a stalk made of chitinous bone. It cracked and popped as he twisted, snapping as he turned to face Delia. “Now you see the grove for what it is. Hopefully, our smell will keep away the next person unlucky enough to stumble by.”
Delia wailed her voice dying on the wind as the fairies below wormed their magic over her, changing her appearance from that of a talking head on a spine to that of a beautiful red flower. Delia spread her petals wide, opening up the bulb of her flower, coughing out the stench of blood for all to smell.
Her blood, which would hopefully warn away the next child to stumble by the Crimson Grove.
Credit: Nicholas Paschall