A Small Night For The Moon
First published in The Writer's Cafe magazine
The deeper into the forest heart the peculiar little couple went, the faster its unnatural change crept behind them. Its leaves and flowers were made monochrome by the night, its bramble stems fortified by coiled thorns, among which were nestled small flowers blanched the texture of starlight.
Looking upwards, they saw the sky had shifted.
It had been real, a small night for the moon - now they saw a sculpture of yellow-white stone, set in a clear dome of the heavens which was either painted with bright stars, or reflecting the trails of silver flowers that outran their very eyes.
Had they really walked so far without seeing ... this? ... and what had happened to the valley?
They appeared to have mislaid it.
A voice reached out to them, one whose clarity betrayed its age and whose many harmonies required no accompaniment, from instrument nor fellow singer. The voice of a dangerous woman.
It claimed their attention, and they followed until the trees opened, to reveal a dark-haired lady in an embroidered gown. Her long fingers skillfully reaching through winding nests to pick the achromatic flowers, placing most into a reed basket, but an occasional one to her mouth to be savoured.
She turned to face the children.
Neither had heard of her, but the Queen required no introduction. Not when met in her own realm, a place given a hundred vague names to describe its nothingness - underworld; starland; otherworld; dreamworld; barrowland; shadowland; or the one that truly described what it was - the elf-hame.
The Queen spoke, they heard the words, though her face remained an immobile mask.
-It is rare that your kind enter my realm, welcome son of the earth.
While April heard;
-It is rare that any of your breed dares enter my realm, but your company is all-the-more welcome for it, welcome daughter of the moon.
-Come, it will not be said that my guests are permitted to go hungry.
April was unsure how to respond to -your breed. She had heard Mummy use the word and others like it after too much wine. It was never meant with kindness. But the Queen had been correct, she was hungry.
Each child took care how they ate, to rush would seem disrespectful somehow. And the protective thorns were small but wicked
The Queen did not smile in any apparent way, but they felt it all the same.
-The ghost orchid are only for my folk and my guests. At night they are silver, for that is our time, through the day they are the richest red, to warn foolish mortals from them.
The Queen indicated for them to take another.
-But lately, some thief has been taking what is mine.
Delicate fingers plucked another of the flower buds, placing it between soft-red lips overlaid with silver gossamer. April noticed Matthew shiver, though she suspected he didn’t know why.
She didn’t quite know why herself, which was unaccountably irritating.
-They come under the sun, which my folk will no longer tolerate, and they take what is not theirs. They remove them, and keep them. That alone is an insult.
The Queen stared at the two children. Her eyes seemed to contain a thousand stars - or was it the reflection of the flowers they saw? - and they felt her smile once more. Had it appeared on her lips, it might have been shrewd.
-You are hungry, I see. Starved. For food, and for something more?
Though neither knew what she meant, they nodded. The voice did not encourage difference of opinion.
-Poor children, forced to run. Does this small taste please you?
They nodded, enthusiastically this time.
-So sweet of you to say.
Another unmoving smile.
-Would you care for more?
They nodded, hunger in their eyes.
-Ah, if only there were enough. But with this theft, barely enough remains to feed my family.
April and Matthew looked out at the great forest grove, it shivered with reflected moonlight for countless miles.
-It is a large family.
She received dismayed looks in reply. Both were hungry, but desire for the ghost orchid ran deeper - they melted on the tongue, then spread through the body in spiked waves of pleasure that both wished to feel again.
If only there were some way for me to find this thief, then perhaps tomorrow I could give you your fill.
Despite the shrewd enchantments woven through the voice, and the rising swell of delight, and the simple need for another taste - April was becoming annoyed. She hadn’t fled her truculent household, to be so belittled by a woman in a bonnet.
-You mean you want us to find out for you?
Expected a rebuke, April made her speech a shrill imitation of the Queen’s, which suddenly seemed rather grating. Instead she was swamped by the sensation of a delighted and surprised smile.
-Such an offer. Such nobleness of character. You shall have our eternal gratitude!
The Queen looked down through imperious jewels, set in a porcelain mask.
-You have three days.
-What? asked a confused Matthew.
April stared up, folding her arms at the intimidatingly tall woman.
-You spoke your promise, and so we have a compact.
-I didn’t. Matthew looked scared now.
You will not leave these woods, and you must fulfil your promise within three days.
A sharp -No! in reply from both.
My guards shall ensure this.
-What guards? scoffed April.
The rustling of innumerable leaves answered her, before she saw the severe and beautiful beings who surrounded them. Clad only in skin, theirs and others, which they decorated with shrouds of wild silk and soft wool, and crowned their shining hair with antlers and horns. They were armed with long knives, bone-white in the starlight.
You will sleep now.
The Queen departed, her voice lingered suspiciously and then followed. And where her guards had stood, only tall trees, swaying in a breeze neither child could feel.
Copyright John Conway - January 2021