Silver-etched ferns dipped into the road, shimmering every now and again as the morning sunlight filtered through the canopy overhead. Leara kept her eyes on the way down into the valley. Though she had traveled the path every day from her cottage in the hills, the path was never the same.
The locals gave the woods their name and, unlike the irony of many places in the southern lands of Aier, the name fit. The Magic Wood, they called it, and rightfully so. If there was anything Leara knew for certain it was that those with strange and unusual magic made their home in the forests of Aier.
And Leara was no exception.
When she was a baby, her mother had left her just at the edge of the wood and fled. It would seem wrong, uncanny, that she remembered the moment, being that she was not but twelve days old, but she did. Leara remembered the smell of lavender and boiled mash that clung to her mother’s dress as she ran for the wood under cover of dark. She remembered the tears that tasted of sweat and salt. She remembered her voice, like a lark that danced through the meadows, that sang a song of protection over her.
She remembered that day and every day since she had been saved by the shifters that inhabited the wood; shifters whose blood ran through her veins. They had rescued her from the edict of the Aierian king who tried to purge the land of magic. Healers and dream weavers, seers and shifters were among just a few types of magical beings that had been placed on a list to be hunted down and destroyed. Demi-fae creatures that still clung to the world of Aier.
Her mother had likely died to bring her to safety. In the seventeen years since the war in Aier began, she had not once heard her voice or seen her form near the wood. Every day she went down into the valley that butted up against the Magic Wood, but she never caught her mother’s scent.
Today had been no exception.
When Leara reached the edge of the path, she paused under the protection of a giant oak to look out on the valley. It was a mix of faded greens and golds with hints of bright purple and yellow and white flowers that were taking their last breath before the coming season of cold. Just past the field was a river, thick and wide with a bridge built over it. It was crumbling stone, fallen into disrepair since the war had started, but still, Leara looked, hoping to see her mother’s form coming striding across it towards her.
Her mother, the queen of the Night Fox.
“Likely dead,” her aunt had told her. Her aunt who had raised her in her mother’s place. “Why do you bother every day to look?”
As she stood now, just at the edge of her line of safety, she wondered it too. Why did she cling to an invisible hope? Perhaps she was just as foolish as those of her clan thought she was. A daydreaming princess of the shifters who took too much after her human father.
She had never thought to look for him in all the years since she had been left at the edge of the Magic Wood while her mother had returned to fight against the king’s hunters. She had just imagined that he had died, as humans were frail things that never lived long due to disease, or war, or old age.
Not that she hadn’t seen humans over the years come to the valley to pick self-heal or mugwort, or other medicinal plants that even they knew the useful properties of. There had been many that dared to traverse the borders of the magical wood of oak, ash, and hawthorn, but the numbers had dwindled over the years. Dwindled like the hope she still held onto that her mother was still alive.
She had expected silence when she came to the meadow and therefore surprised when a body emerged from the river, as though it had dared to swim across the expanse. Leara held her ground, just on the edge, watching the human male shake the water from himself like a kit. He stumbled forward into the field of flowers and collapsed, disappearing from sight.
Shouting sounded in the distance and she turned her attention to the horizon, the direction of the village that she had been born in. The place where her mother had headed to on the last day she saw her.
Small specks at first that gradually grew larger by the moment, came towards the river, their voices carrying on the wind that blew towards the wood.
It had been a long time since she had heard human words. Practiced them she had, since the day her mother left her with her clan. Practiced near the edge of the woods where the others who expected her to take over her mother’s place couldn’t hear her.
She was a halfling, but she was one of them and they expected her to be their queen when her next birthday came. To take the blood oath and swear her allegiance to the clan, solely. To deny her human form and the human blood that ran in her veins and settle for only being a shifter, a Night Fox, for all her life, until the next. To take the crown that her mother had rejected for a human.
It was less than three turnings of the moon before that day would come.
The soldiers approached the bridge with caution, deciding to send just one across. He fell through the crumbling stone, breaking what was left of the decrepit bridge further apart. The soldier cried for help as the stream carried him away, his gear too heavy for him to swim against the current. The other’s spread out along the river bed, looking, she could only surmise, for clues, as if they didn’t care about the life of their comrade.
When enough time had passed, Leara could see them gather again and then point to the south, following the flow of the river and the likely drowned soldier.
She stood quiet. Motionless. Waiting until they disappeared from sight. And then she waited more.
The man who had come from the river had still not moved from his spot and she wondered if he was injured… or dead.
“You can’t leave the Wood, dear one.” Her mother had whispered to her the day she left her. “You must stay, or the king will find you.”
It was a short distance to where the human was. Short enough that she could run to where the man was and back without anyone knowing.
Surely her mother didn’t mean the meadow, the valley. Surely she meant to not return to the village. And in all her seventeen years, she had obeyed, without fail.
But the man… he might need her help.
And so she crept, just out of the edge of the wood. The birds still sang and the trees still swayed in the wind. There was no one there to watch her, no one there to spy.
Two more steps, just outside of the line that separated the Magic Wood from the valley.
Half-way to the man, she found her courage. She would look and see and remember what the humans looked like up close. See if he was dead so she could tell the others, without having to tell them what she did. A half-truth that didn’t need to reveal what she had seen or done. Dead bodies would set disease in the flowers that the creatures of the woods used them just as much as the humans.
Nothing wrong, she told herself. I am doing nothing wrong.
He was face down in the grass, his dark hair had fallen over his face. She thought she saw red.
When she reached out to touch him, he didn’t flinch.
She gently wiped the wet strands of hair off of his face and scuttled back a bit, in case he stirred, but he didn’t. He didn’t move an inch, not even when she felt for a breath and then checked again for a heartbeat, and then rolled him to his back to see what had been done.
Even when she changed, in broad daylight, to her massive form and picked him up in her jaws as gently as she could, the man didn’t wake.
And so she snuck him across the barrier deep into the woods to her cottage, hoping she wasn’t making a huge mistake.