A Babe in the Woods
Ilere, the Dark Earth Faerie, was in the middle of a staring contest with a young snip of an Ixi named Sophie. Her and her older brother had run willy-nilly into the Woods and right into Ilere. The brother had begged her to take Sophie and keep her safe. Apparently, the kind, simple townsfolk of Neovia were no longer kind, and no longer simple townsfolk.
This had only been but a few moments ago, and with the brother now gone, it was down to Ilere and her new young charge.
Who, apparently, did not want to be the 'young charge'.
Sophie was balking at the idea of leaving with Ilere. All things considered, Ilere could understand Sophie's reluctance. The Earth Faerie's tall stature, wrapped in a dark hooded cloak, was foreboding to some people, to say the least. Ilere chose to believe her icy demeanor was more off-putting. And that demeanor was losing patience.
Ilere sighed. She didn't really care if the girl stayed or went - it made no difference to her - but didn't the girl realize it wasn't safe for her here either?
With a sharp movement, she shrugged back her hood and let her dark curly hair fall free around her face. It framed her piercing green eyes well, and imparted a look that often haunted people afterwards. In an effort to soften the blow, she extended her hand in a friendly manner.
To her surprise, the little Ixi backed away with a shout, "No!"
Having gained a few choice inches of distance, Sophie then stood her ground, staring up at Ilere, arms crossed against her chest. Icy demeanor or not, this little girl was not scared of the mysterious faerie.
Ilere's strained attempt at a natural smile began to twitch. It's got to be the wings, she thought. Sometimes they gave the less fortunate souls the idea they were dealing with a typical faerie.
They were not. And this little waif was a little too belligerent for Ilere's taste.
"Come with me now, child, before I change my mind," Ilere warned, hoping the sound of her patience wearing thin was not too audible.
"I need to go home first," the girl began.
"No!" Ilere snapped. The haunted trees around her shook -- was the forest itself afraid?
Meanwhile, Sophie's lower lip trembled, if only slightly, but she did not cry.
This one's got a spine for one so young, Ilere thought. She's going to need it.
But why isn't she afraid of me? And then she looked around. The girl had been living among mutating townsfolk that wanted to kill her after all. It did make some sense.
"It is no longer your home, child." Ilere stated.
"It is so still there," Sophie insisted. "And I need to get something. Something important. Then I'll go with you."
This last was said with a resigned sadness that momentarily caught Ilere off guard.
"It's too dangerous," Ilere answered after a time.
For one so little, she was very adamant on the matter. Sophie just stood there resolutely, with her arms crossed.
This better not be for some little dolly or some such, Ilere thought, already relenting.
"I will give you five minutes, " Ilere began, but Sophie was already hopping with glee.
"But!" Ilere shouted, pointing a stern, warning finger, "You will do exactly as you are bid, and, at the first sign of trouble you will follow me with no argument. Understood?"
Sophie was already nodding happily - eager to please as long as she was getting what she wanted.
They traveled carefully through the once bustling town of Neovia. For the most part, Sophie stayed hidden, if not silent, beneath Ilere's voluminous cloak.
A pointing finger shot out from between its folds.
"That's Mr. Weatherby, our postman."
Ilere tucked the little hand back beneath the cloak and shushed Sophie.
It did no good.
While she didn't point again, she simply wouldn't stop talking.
She made introductions for the mutants that she once knew as townsfolk, before the curse that caused them to wish her dead.
"That's Mr. Ironmaster, the blacksmith. His son, Billy, gave me a little iron token in the shape of a heart. He said he made it himself, but I think his Da helped him."
Ilere didn't care about the mutants, the people they were before they were mutants, or Sophie's running commentary about the mutants. It was more than irritating.
Right before they arrived at Sophie's house, she said, "Ooh. There's Mrs. Crumpetmonger. She doesn't look so good." And then a little quieter, she added, "I never liked her much anyway."
When they reached Sophie's house, she was ready to run straight in. Ilere stopped her, turning enough to face the little girl fully.
"You will wait here. It will do no good to run into family members." And she tucked the girl down behind some shrubbery. Ilere hoped her eyes were piercing enough to make the command stick. "Now stay put! I'll be right back."
Ilere, thus prepared, entered the house without a second thought about whether the girl would heed her order.
In hindsight, she probably should have.
In the brief space of time it took her to make sure the house was clear, Sophie had only just managed not to get mauled by a mutant.
Sophie was trying to keep the bushes between her and the angry advancing mutant. There was shrubbery in the monsters mouth, and some in Sophie's hair and clothes, but otherwise the girl was unharmed.
Ilere took two swift steps in the direction of the attacker, a mutant dressed suspiciously like a librarian. When the mutant turned to look at her, it stared directly into her brilliant green, glowing eyes.
It was a critical mistake.
One minute the mutant was there, the next, it was not.
"You killed her!" Sophie exclaimed with shock.
"Not exactly. Look there," and Ilere pointed at the ground.
Sophie came out from behind the shrubbery, squatting and squinting. "All I see are grubs and an earthworm." She looked up at Ilere. "You turned Ms. Dixon, my English teacher, into an earthworm?" She didn't sound upset or disappointed at this idea, just curious.
"Even the land in the Haunted Woods has its needs. You might be surprised to discover the soil in these woods is more fertile than in most places. A clue to why most of its plants are filled with magic. Now, in you go, and don't dawdle."
Sophie didn't make her wait. She ran into the house and moments later back out again. Whatever she felt compelled to retrieve must have been small because she carried nothing in her hands.
No dolly, Ilere thought. Interesting. She didn't inquire about it and Sophie didn't offer. She stepped toward Ilere and hid herself once more beneath the cloak.
"Could you cure the people in Neovia?" drifted up from under the cloak as they walked back towards the Woods. Ilere remained silent.
"Could you?" Sophie tried once more.
"Probably." Ilere sighed after a moment.
Sophie stopped dead in her tracks under the cloak with indignant shock. "Why not!?"
Ilere pushed a little to get her moving again. "It is none of my affair. As in nature, things happen for a reason. It is best not to trifle with the natural order of events."
"But you turned Ms. Dixon into an earthworm."
Sophie was quiet for a time.
They were at the edge of town, ready to enter the depths of the Haunted Woods when Sophie emerged from the cloak to look Ilere in the eye. Not an easy thing to do.
"If the curse is lifted, will Ms. Dixon return to normal?" she wanted to know.
"Do you wish that it be so?"
Sophie thought for a moment and shrugged. "She never like me much anyway. Always told me how sloppy my handwriting was." She turned to brace herself upon entering the woods when a wandering mutant lunged at her from the edge of the forest.
Before Sophie could utter a sound, or Ilere could react, another large and lumbering mutant, this one a vibrant blue, tackled both Sophie and the first mutant to the ground. Ilere gathered her power.
She was preparing to call forth roots to restrain the mutants and extract the girl, but the larger of the two mutants, the blue one, seemed to be fighting the other off of Sophie.
They rolled off of the girl in their tussle, and Ilere stepped between the wrestling mutants and Sophie to prevent any further mishap. Sophie scrambled to her feet and tried to move past Ilere. Ilere put an arm out to restrain her.
"No!" she shouted, but not at Ilere. She was transfixed by the struggle before her, and all but leaping back into the fray. Ilere felt the girl hold her breath as the big blue mutant dropped a two-fisted blow to the top of the other mutant's head. As the defeated mutant crumpled to the ground, Sophie broke free of Ilere's protection and ran towards the blue monster shouting, "Bruno!"
He dropped to all four feet and leveled a menacing growl at the advancing girl. She stopped, and said more quietly, "Bruno?"
Ilere walked up, eyes glowing, to stand behind Sophie and get a closer look at this specimen. He didn't try to attack the girl, which Ilere found interesting. He glanced up at Ilere, produced a mournful howl in her direction, and then ran off the way he had come. Apparently, I'm not the only one looking out for this little one, thought Ilere.
They were still standing at the edge of the forest when, to Ilere's surprise, the little Ixi took her hand and only flinched briefly before entering with her into the Woods. Ilere was certain the child was going against years of warnings, ingrained in her to keep her well away from the Haunted Woods, and to never, ever, under any circumstances enter the shadow of its trees.
When they had passed beneath the first line of trees, Sophie grasped Ilere's hand a little tighter, put on her brave face, and followed in Ilere's footsteps.
Ilere knew Sophie could stay hidden and unaffected within the Haunted Woods.
The formidable forest itself would keep her safe. If she learned its ways, it would keep her tucked away indefinitely.
Ilere led her to an abandoned hut on the edge of a swamp that Ilere, herself, had used once upon a time. But this would be no fairy tale life for the young girl. She would have to learn how to take care of herself - and quick. The woods could be unforgiving. And unpredictable. Ilere would know. She was its keeper.
They entered the hut through a crooked front door that groaned from disuse, and scraped along the warped wooden floorboards. Ilere lit a candle and used it to walk around the spacious room lighting a few more.
"There's likely a stack of firewood on the porch. See if you can find some dry pieces."
By the time Sophie returned, the soft, flickering glow of candlelight revealed a large workroom coated in dust and cobwebs.
Together they lit the fire. Ilere, brushing her hands of soot, stood to survey the situation. All seemed well enough if the girl kept her wits about her. This little shack had served as a home once before, as it would again now. She nodded to herself and prepared to go. "A good sweeping and a stiff brush to that kettle should set things right." She replaced her hood and reached for the door handle.
"You're leaving?" Sophie cried out in alarm. She sounded more frightened now than when the mutants had attacked her. Ilere never could understand how a child's fear worked. They were scared when there was no reason to be, and not when they should be.
"Were you expecting me to stay and keep house like your mother?"
Sophie's lip started to quiver as she looked around the empty room and back to Ilere.
Ilere crossed her arms and waited. She thought she had been most gracious and patient thus far, but her patience was near it's end. She wasn't used to spending so much time with, well, anyone.
"Won't you at least stay and help cure the people in town?"
"No. If you wish the people of Neovia returned to normal, you'll have to do something about it yourself."
"But I don't know anything about magic and curing curses!"
"Then I guess you'll have to learn. There's a trunk in the back that should help you get started." And with that, Ilere turned and walked out the door.
From her position outside the window, she saw Sophie pull something small from under her shirt. As she watched, Sophie placed a framed, black and white family photo on the dusty mantle.
Ilere shook her head and scowled. She was being foolish. The girl would be fine. Maybe she would even check in on her from time to time. She told herself all of this as she drifted away from the old shack that had once keep her hidden. And alone.
Looking down around her feet, she spied a grubworm, some beetles, and a caterpillar. She thought for a moment and, making her choice, bent down to pick up the grubworm. This particular variety could eat just about anything. That might come in handy. Cupping it in her hands, she headed back towards the porch of the shack, mumbling under her breath.
When she was finished, she walked back through the swamp and disappeared behind an ancient, twisted tree. It was from here that she waited and watched as Sophie slowly peeked out from behind the creaky old door.
She could hear the girl's exclamation of "Oh!" as she gingerly picked up the baby Meowclops from the front porch. She watched as Sophie hugged it to her chest and take it inside.
I must be getting soft, Ilere thought to herself.