“Mummy, I’m going to play in the woods!” Clover shouted as she closed the gate behind her. Her mother replied, distracted as usual, but the white Kacheek didn’t hear. She was already running down the road towards what was known in Meridell as the Sunny Forest.
When she stepped into the forest, the sounds of the street with its crying children and shouting mothers faded away like a cobweb swiped away. It was peaceful and quiet, with only the rustling leaves and chirping birds for company. Clover stopped suddenly, having spotted a symol on the path ahead of her. It was snuffling at the dead leaves, no doubt looking for something tasty to eat. When it caught sight of Clover, however, it seized up for a moment then dashed off into the bushes. Clover was unable to stop from giggling at the sight. She continued on her way.
Finally, she reached the stream and walked along it for a few minutes. The water added an even more magical sound to the atmosphere for the forest, its soft gurgling almost like a faerie’s laugh. Or at least Clover figured that was what a faerie’s laugh sounded like.
She spotted a perfect tree for climbing up and sitting in. It was sunny enough to give her light but shady enough to keep her from being too warm. She leapt up as carefully as she could, catching hold of a thin branch and her feet scrambled on the trunk for a second before catching hold. She held still for a moment, looking upwards for her next foothold. There was a branch less than a foot away, and she reached carefully for it, but in doing so, the branch she was holding snapped and her feet lost their grip on the trunk. With a loud scream, she fell to the ground.
The impact was softened by the grass and spongy river-side ground, but Clover had still gotten injured by her fall. Her ankle had hit the ground first and was now aching underneath her, and her paws had scraped against the bark as she slipped and were now sporting angry red marks. She felt her eyes start to sting, and surely enough two tears popped out of her eyes only seconds later.
“Oh my! Are you alright?”
Clover looked up. Standing over her was a giant white blur, obscured by her teary eyes. She wiped her eyes with the back of her paw and looked up again. The figure was by the river, taking something out of the water. As it came back towards her, Clover realised it was a tall white Aisha, and the thing she’d taken out of the river was a handkerchief.
“Come on, stop crying,” the Aisha said. Her voice was calm and soothing, not unlike the sound of the river. She took Clover’s paws in her own hand and used the wet handkerchief to wipe away the dirt. “Will you tell me what happened?”
“I f-fell,” Clover stuttered, chin wobbling. The Aisha sighed sympathetically and stood up, holding out a hand to help Clover up. Clover took it. Her fur was now as spotless as the Aisha’s, so she could barely tell where one paw ended and the other began.
Clover hissed at the sharp pain in her ankle, but as she put her weight on it she found it to be just bearable. The Aisha offered her arm to Clover, and leaning on her, she managed to make it to the edge of the forest.
“Will you be able to make it home?” the Aisha asked. She hung back in the shade offered by the trees, her eyes suspicious of the sunny road leading into Meridell. Clover followed her gaze, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. A tired, dusty path. Many tired, dusty cottages. Even more tired, dusty people. This late in the day, both the crying children and shouting mothers had run out of energy and were lazing in the shade.
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” Clover said. The Aisha smiled warmly, all suspicion gone from her face, and offered Clover a small hug. “You be careful now, and get plenty of rest.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.” Clover watched the Aisha disappear back into the trees, then turned and started down the road, using the dirt-splashed fences in front of the cottages for support.
Her mother cried and fussed over her when she got home. Her paws may have been as clean as freshly-fallen snow, but the rest of her fur was a right mess and there was a large rip in her frock. When Clover explained what had happened, her mother just sighed wearily, helped her over to a chair and went to fetch some bandages. Her ankle was quickly wrapped up and she was carried up the stairs to bed by her father when he got home.
The doctor was called round. He was a jolly old Lenny who laughed when he heard what had happened. “Climbing trees, I hear?” he said to Clover. “That’s no good, then. Young girls have got to stay out of trouble!”
Her mother fretted by the door as he inspected her ankle. He prodded Clover’s ankle for a few minutes, bending it back and forth. Finally he nodded and stood.
“It’s fine, just a sprain. A bad one, at that, but nothing a little rest won’t cure.” He gave Clover a cookie and told her relieved mother to keep her in bed for a week.
It was horrible for Clover to lie in her too-warm bedroom for an entire week, thinking of the cool river and the gentle breeze blowing through the leaves. Her mother was busy downstairs all day and her father was always in town, so she was alone. She read so many books and her room filled with so many colours of smoke, that her mother had to take the remaining books away. Her father brought back newspapers from the village to try and ease Clover’s boredom, and since she didn’t have any interest in them, he read them aloud to her after dinner.
“Hmm, tomato crop ruined, that’s not very interesting. King Skarl turns away another court jester, that’s hardly news. Ah! Here we go. Darigan spy captured! Bet this will be interesting, eh, Clover?” He chuckled before continuing. “‘Late last evening, a Darigan spy by the name of Frances was captured near Illusen’s Glade–’ say, that’s not too far from here, just north of Sunny Forest, isn’t it?”
Clover looked over at him. The evening sun streamed through the window, turning his spectacles into two circles of light.
“Where was I? Oh yes. ‘The spy had been planning to kidnap Illusen in part of an elaborate plot to bring magical plant life to the Citadel. She is currently in prison at Meridell Castle and is awaiting King Skarl’s judgement.’ Well! That’s certainly interesting. There’s a picture too. Pretty lass; shame she’s so evil.” He held the paper out to Clover.
Clover lazily took the paper and glanced at the article, her eyes widening when she saw the picture. A white Aisha, her fur now ruffled slightly, but the face as familiar as ever.
“Well, my little Clover, it’s time for you to get some sleep. Sleep well, dear. The doctor says you can walk a little ways tomorrow, so be sure to get plenty of sleep.” He father kissed the top of her head, switched out the light and left the room.
Clover was left alone in semi-darkness, the sun having just sunk below the horizon, leaving nothing but a faint purple glow at the window. Alone in the darkness, she was less ashamed to cry, and cry she did, warm tears dampening her fur and the pillow beneath her head.
If the Aisha had been planning to kidnap Illusen, if she had been an evil spy, a dark-hearted Darigan, then why? Why had she been so kind, Clover wondered. If she was capable of the kindness needed to help an injured young girl on her way home, then how could she summon up the cruelty to take part in such a plot?
Clover lay in the darkness, confused and afraid, and wept.