By: Julie Daines
Copyright 2010; author retains all rights to the story. Please do not use the story without author's permission.
I should not have come so far into the woods. Crossing the borders into the Forest Beyond is opening wide your door and inviting danger to rest at your hearth. Of more importance, I should not have brought Colwyn with me.
But we are hungry.
So we come. Searching for wild mushrooms, acorns, and Colwyn’s favorite—blackberries.
We should have turned back when the sun dropped low. But the berries taste sweet and delicious, sating our grumbling bellies.
Darkness falls, bringing with it an eerie fog, rising from the ground, cold and heavy. A cry, like a woman suffering great sorrow, floats across the haze and shivers down my spine.
“Run!” I cry, snatching Colwyn’s hand and dragging his small body behind me. His feet flail, trying to keep up.
A light flickers through the mist ahead. I stop dead in my tracks, my heart still racing.
“Brynn, look,” Colwyn says, gasping for breath and pointing at the glimmer. “A house. We made it back to the village.” He tugs on my hand.
“Hush,” I whisper. “That’s not Rhos-fawr. It is a Gwyllion.”
I thrust my hand into my satchel, searching for my knife. I throw it, as far away from me as possible. Fairy-folk do not take kindly to the presence of a metal blade.
I swallow hard and place myself between Colwyn and the creature. If anything happens to Colwyn . . . The thought makes me ill. With mother and father gone, he is my responsibility. Food in the stomach is not worth the life of my brother.
She emerges from the mist. Long, bony fingers clutch a lantern where a bright flame burns, illuminating her gaunt face.
“Stay back,” I say, weak and tremulous.
A Gray Maiden. I’d never seen one before. Whoever named her must have been blind, or at least half-blind. For a maiden, she is not. A hag; with stringy, gray hair, a gray, woolen cloak draping over hunched shoulders, and a frail body floating in the gray fog.
She speaks and her voice sounds like an ax on a whetstone. “My dears, are you lost in the Forest Beyond?” Her tone softens and fills with trust. “Poor little ones.” The harsh features smooth and round out into a kindly, benevolent woman. “Follow me,” she says like honey. “I will lead you home.” She reaches out a plump and gentle hand.
Colwyn pushes past me, his arm stretched out to meet hers.
“No,” I cry, catching him by his cloak and jerking him back. But not quick enough. Her tender features vanish and her claws lash out, scratching across his face. Three cuts, burning red in the lantern’s light.
I stare at them, and my heart sinks to the toes of my boots. Colwyn has been marked by a Gwyllion.
Three marks, three days to live.
She cackles a wretched laugh and her body poofs into gray smoke, evaporating into the air, taking the mist with it.
The first day he wails without ceasing, wringing my heart like wet washing.
I do what I can to relieve him. A poultice of comfrey for the marks on his face. Tea, with yarrow for fever, and primrose, to cast out evil.
On the second day, his cries wilt into soft moans. By nightfall, he neither eats nor drinks.
The morning of the third day dawns dark and stormy. His skin burns, and as the sun travels the sky, his eyes, once windows of delight, turn vacant and glazed.
A wind howls and blows open a shutter. I rush to close it, noticing the lateness of the hour. Colwyn’s three days are nearly up. When he leaves, I will be alone.
A knock at the door startles me. Who is out on a night like this? Another knock, strong and insistent.
I slide the bolt and open the door. A scream fills my mouth, but I catch it in time and bite my lips. Nothing can hide the fear in my eyes.
Stooping in the wretched rain, the icy wind whipping her tattered, gray robes, stands the Gwyllion. She frightened me greatly in the Forest Beyond. Here, on my threshold, she terrifies me near to death.
“Let me in,” she says in her strident voice. “The night is cold and I seek shelter.”
I glance at Colwyn’s frail body, shivering by the fire. Then back at the Gwyllion. I must invite her in. To refuse hospitality is to beg for retribution.
I step aside and gesture her enter. “Please, be at home.” I close the door against the storm.
She sits in my mother’s chair by the fire, sipping a cup of tea, and eating a slice of bread.
The precious moments of Colwyn’s life slip by.
Her eyes move constantly, flicking to him, to the door, and to the table.
Curious, I stand and look.
There, under the bread cloth, glints the tip of our kitchen knife. The one I’d used this morning to cut a few pieces of bread. I’d not the stomach to eat them, and they lay on the table until the fairy-witch appeared, and I offered her one.
Had I noticed it before, I would have hidden it, not to offend.
Desperation fills me with a new plan.
I seize the knife and press it to her chest, hoping she can’t dissolve away. The teacup shatters on the cobblestone floor.
She glares at me, anger tightening her wrinkled face.
“Heal him,” I say. My hands shake and my voice cracks, but I don’t back down.
We stare at each other for a long time.
Colwyn’s breathing eases. The burning red retreats and his flesh calms.
“It is done,” she says.
I withdraw the knife, and she disappears in a vapor of smoke. A cold wind blasts through the open door, stirring the ashes in the fireplace.
I bolt the door and turn to Colwyn.
He sits, leaning against the hearth. “Brynn? What happened?” His smile is sunshine in the bleak of night. “Do we have any more blackberries?”