She asked you what may have been 20 times if you were sure you were fine going on the hiking trip alone. You two had planned it a while ago, since you knew you were going to be in town for a while. It really wasn’t even much of a hike, more of a forest adventure bordering on some mountains. If you were honest, you were glad about that and you knew the forest well enough from spending your summers in the bordering cottage you were housesitting. Cottagesitting? Was that a word?
Regardless, you assured your friend you were going to be just fine. That you knew the forest, you had a satellite phone with you and enough experience staying in a forest for a day or two. But you knew her, you two having been roommates, and you knew Leah was prone to overworrying. She was especially good at guilt-tripping herself, and you knew she didn’t want to send you on a hike alone just to look for plants and other bits she needed for whatever witches needed all of them for. Even made you a list covered in descriptions and small drawings of the plants, as well as any that looked similar, but weren’t the same.
You’d been walking deeper into the forest for two hours at most and already had most of what was on the list with a few exceptions you were confident you could find. It was kind of peaceful, almost relaxing to just walk. The air was crisp and clean, nothing like the air that flooded into the open windows of the city apartment you were used to. The soft crunching of leaves under your boots made for nice background noise as well. You swore you could hear more crunching than you were causing a couple times, but you knew it may as well just be birds. The sound of quiet bells, however, caught you completely off guard and you stopped dead in your track. Straining your ears, you tried to go off what could have made that sound in your mind. There weren’t many things that sounded as distinctive as high pitched, soft bells and that unsettled you slightly. A few minutes passed, then more. The sound wasn’t there anymore, neither were crunching or extra steps. There actually wasn’t any noise at all. All you could hear was your breathing and you knew enough about nature to know that that was unusual. You felt uncomfortable just standing there, almost as if you shouldn’t be there. and you decided to just keep walking at first. Then you remember the stories Leah told you about fairies, the books she always had laying around when you two lived together. You remembered them describing odd sounds when entering fairy territory. Bells. Soft music.
As soon as the thought popped into your head, you heard the sound of distant laughter. You whip around into the direction of it and catch a large figure moving between the trees and out of your sight. There was no malice in the laughter, none whatsoever, but it was distinctly male. A hearty but gentle laugh, evoking the feeling of soft sunshine on your skin. Continueing on felt like the best idea to you, especially now knowing you were being watched by someone. Or something.
You kept going into the opposite direction of the figure as that seemed sensible, not wanting to disturb whoevers territory you had walked in to, and soon the sounds of the forests returned. The soft crunching of sticks and leaves and trickling of a distant river were very welcome after the minutes you spent in silence, that surely were much less than they felt. You remembered all the summers you spent with Leah and your other roommate whos holiday home you were housesitting, all the time you three spent in the forest exploring and camping. Digging up bugs, examining mushrooms or waiting quietly for deer and foxes to observe and you felt yourself almost zoning out a little.
Maybe a little too much, because next thing you knew, you were face-down on the wet ground and covered in mud.
You choke out a quiet “Oh, Fuck” and let out a long goan. Rolling over on to your back and assessing your surroundings, you find the cause of your fall rather quickly- in the form of a small tree stump covered in moss. You make a mental note to focus on the ground you’re walking on a bit more, especially after recent rainfall. But for now you have a slightly different problem- Your face, clothes and hair covered in mud and leaves. There’s a river through the forest and you vaguely remember it coming to a drop at some point, creating a small waterfall with many flat stones to step on through it. And as slippery as a shower under a waterfall was, anything would be better than running through the forest caked in mud and having to sleep in that same mud later, so you made your way to the small clearing the waterfall was located behind. You hum a small tune while you find a place for your things to rest while you clean up.
Throwing the pack off your back and freeing your hair from a ponytail, you start to strip down. You figure leaving your boots on wouldn’t be a bad idea, but the sound of wet shoes on a hike doesn’t appeal to you much, so you take them off with the rest of your clothes. The benefits of the forest was that almost nobody lived near or in it, as there were practically no neighbors and only one cabin as far as you knew. At least you hoped the neighborhood hadn’t acquired any new inhabitants in the past years, otherwise this shower was about to get a lot more awkward. The mist above the water felt freezing even from a few feet away and you were having second thoughts. You took off the last pieces of clothing on you, plucked a hoodie from your pack and make your way into the small stream. The rocks look slippery but they’re fairly flat, so getting on to them doesn’t pose much of a problem. The temperature of the water however does- As you suspected, its freezing cold so you decide to just wash out your hair as quickly as possible. You take one deep breath and position yourself under the waterfall, and let out a cross of a gasp and a scream as the icey water spills over your naked body. You feel your muscles tense, your nipples harden from both the sudden impact and temperature of the water and decide to close your eyes and get it over with.
And then you hear it again. The gentle ringing of bells. The soft laughter, now more of a chuckle. All of the sudden the feeling of the icey water is replaced with the same warm feeling as before, like golden rays of sunshine and the welcoming warmth of a mild spring day. A soft sigh escapes your lips as you tilt your head back and savor the pleasant feeling- Almost like tingles or vibrations running up and down your entire body and seeping into your bones. You run your hands down your thighs and your sides in almost a state of dream when your original task re-enters your mind. All at once, you snap out of the feeling of tepid water and sunrays and back to the biting cold of the water and shriek out a series of curses loud enough for the next County over to hear. With no concern for your safety, you jump across the sleek rocks and look around for the source of the laugh. A massive blur of orange and the glinting of metal is all you see before it disappears yet again.
“Hey!” you scream, aimed towards the odd character following you. “I would really appreciate it if-” you cut yourself off, remembering Leahs warning words about talking to things in the forest. A sense of dread fills the pit of your stomach and you pause. Ending your sentence couldn’t do much worse than acknowledging its presence already has, you thought. You continue your sentence in a much meeker tone, the quivering in your voice indicative of your fear. “If you could stop following me, please. Its freaking me out.”
You pull on the socks you laid on the edge of the river and find your boots moved just enough you unsettle you. The rest of your clean outfit finds its way on to your body fast and you throw your hoodie and pack over your shoulders. Whatever was watching you didn’t seem malicious, but that sure as hell didn’t mean you wanted to stick around. In your racing mind, you kept thinking about your friends parting gift.
Leah had given you bread and cream when you left, which you found quite odd, but you didn’t think to ask about it- She had her quirks and would often give you little dodads when you were travelling or stressed out. But this time, she specifically stressed that it wasn’t for you. To leave it out on a mossy stone or trunk if you got lost or felt something following you.
A pressed out a loud sigh and set your pack down again. Finding the trunk you stumbled over shouldn’t be too hard, it did seem like the place she described to put the cream and bread on. An offering of sorts. You didn’t really know why or who or what for but if it meant you could take the rest of your journey in peace, you didn’t really care. The sun had begin to set and was draping the forest in a eerie pink mist which meant you had to set up a tent for the night soon. Staying outdoors overnight didn’t bother you, it never really had- But with the fact someone was watching you, even when you thought you were alone scared you. Fear wasn’t an emotion you usually associated with hikes or being in the woodlands, it was entirely alien to you, and part of you felt like Leah just gave you the items to calm you down in case you got scared. Something to distract you from the fear rather than an actual gift for someone.
After rummaging around in your backpack for what you felt was already too long, knowing the items of your search were contained within, you realized two things. The first one was that the package of cream wasn’t in your backpack. And the second was that someone had gone through your backpack. The loaf of bread she had given you was still there, but you could for the life of you not find the cream. You wished it would be enough, suddenly having faith in the offerings. While you had no idea what was following you, you prayed it wouldn’t mind the kind of gift it recieved. All you wanted was to get home and not be surrounded by looming trees that felt as if watching you all at once. The tree stump hadn’t been too far from the river and flipped your pack back on to your shoulders. At the least the noises of the forest hadn’t gone again, you thought. The pack felt unusually heavy on your back as you made your way to where you came from, a strange sense of unease in the air. Even quickening your pace, you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere at all. The forest seems so much larger and foreign and you find yourself wishing you’d waited to take the hike until you could bring a friend. None of the trees or even the path before you seemed familiar anymore, as though you’d been dropped into a completely different land. Dread sat heavy on your shoulders as you turned to look around you in every direction, attempting to find a familiar tree or plant, anything to help you find your way. But no such luck was had. In all directions there were trees and thick shrubbery, occasional clearings between them. If you could find a bigger clearing, so you thought, you may be able to make out where you are. The woods here had many clearings but the larger ones all looked fairly distinct- Different tones and shades of green, a different selection of flora or differing amounts of mushrooms, all features you were confident you could recall if you were to happen upon them.
Not entirely sure how late it was or how long you had to find a campsite for the night, you picked the direction looking like it was the most well lit. A flashlight would only help you so much in finding your way after dark, while also drawing attention to your location. It wasn’t that you felt hostility from your pursuant, if anything it felt more like curiosity. It seemed that it, or he, had stopped following you. Or at least you hadn’t noticed if he was, the woods were alive with sound of birds and flowing water, the soft popping of the ground under your feet a pleasant accompaniment. Crickets and other insects had begun to chirp and the pink of the sky was turning purple.
The surrounding plants were getting less and less dense, what looked to be a somewhat empty area forming before them. No matter how small, you thought, you were content with not having to sleep directly on top of sticks and on a flattened ground. Setting up your tent for the night now seemed like the most sensible thing to do, as you had a feeling if you tried to get home right now this evening would only get worse. The trees parted to let the last rays of sun shine down into what looked almost like a small meadow. It looked so unreal in the violet-tinted light it was basked in. Dusk painted the grass in rosy pinks and warm purples and you carefully brush the higher stalks aside as to not destroy them. A small path emerged behind the thick of what looked to be a massive hawthorn.
It seemed like an unlikely spot for it but nevertheless you were thankful to see it, as you recognized it to have been near before you reached the river. You brushed the blooming branches of it aside to ease your way around it and found that there was an even, flat space before it. However tight it would be to cram your tent on to it, it seemed more than comfortable enough for a night, while also providing a bit of shelter from the wind. Reaching around your back, you take hold of your rolled up tent on the side of your backpack. It wasn’t anything fancy, it being a one person tent you got on sale years ago, but it had survived worse nights and days than this one. You laid it down, released it from its rolled up state and begun to shove in various sticks meant to keep it perky and upright. It was a fairly quick job though you struggled to secure it on the ground, the dirt around the shrub seeming to be weirdly loose. Eventually you managed to secure it and decided to find a place with less leaves and shrubbery on the ground to heat up some water for soup. There was a patch of empty space surrounded by watchful trees you decide to make your way to.
As you near it, you spot a small white blur inbetween the darkening mossy greens and warm shades of the forest at dusk and as you near it, you begin to make out what it is. The package of cream was sitting on the stump you tripped over only hours prior. It had been opened at the side and clearly drank from as drips of the white liquid ran down the opening and on to the old wood. The confusion was visible on your face and you found yourself wishing to be angry. It felt like you’d been toyed with, pranked almost, but you soon realized that whoever this was, they may as well have lead you back here. That didn’t help the feeling of having been played with much, but it made you feel more at ease. At this point, a small bit of comfort was enough for you. You weren’t sure if you still wanted to eat though, the worry sitting heavy in your stomach. Surely by this point only tepid water from your flask would do, lukewarm soup wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
Dropping your pack down next to the stump, you got on your knees and brought out the dark loaf Leah had baked for you. She had made it specially to take with you on your journey and you set it down on what remained of the tree. With it, you pulled out a small bowl and settled it down next to the loaf, grabbing the carton of dairy intended to fill it. From the feel of it, it was more than half empty but it would do. At least you presumed it would. You take a deep breath and recall all the stories of people leaving out gifts of milk and bread, ale and gold for the Fair Folk. You did have a small bit of gold on you, in the shape of a ring. Did they need a coin or would any gold do? Exhaling and inhaling deeply, you poured the cream into its vessel and took off your ring. “I’m sorry if-” you spoke gently, stuttering enough to make you start over again. A hushed tone on your lips, you ended you sentence. “I’m sorry if I was rude earlier, I didn’t mean to be.” The ring had left an empty space on your finger, visibly lighter than the rest and you placed it between the bread and cream. “I just got scared by you, but I know you mean no harm. I only want to return home in the morning.” Talking to yourself in the woods felt about idiotic as you expected at first. Then the tingling returned, and along with it the mental images of warm daylight illuminating your skin like a shroud of gilded lace. “I didn’t want to trespass.” you breathed, your voice reduced to a shivering exhale. A glint of gold shimmered in your peripheal and you inhaled sharply as the heat you felt pooled in your stomach and the back of your neck, knowing it to mean he was watching you. Maybe even standing behind you, but you didn’t dare to turn around and face him. Your hand stroked over the empty space the ring had just covered and wondered if you would ever see it again, should it be gone by morning. The dusk begun to turn to twilight and encased your skin in a tint of bruised blue and violet and the aurous sheen faded from your vision.
A soft gust of wind behind you took the heat with it as it brushed your shoulders.
A sob much lounder than you anticipated escaped your lips, pining after the warm feeling that had been taken from you. With shaky knees you propped yourself up against the stump and decided to walk back to your campsite as quickly as the unstable joints attached to you would allow. Dragging one foot after the other seemed so much harder to you now than before, unsure if it was the exhaustion rising in you or something else. You knew now that he had heard your apology as well as your request, somehow that comforted you. Kneeling before your tent, you crawled into it to make yourself at home in your plush sleeping bag. The ground was neither comfortable nor particularly hard, so you felt your muscles relax as you begun listening. The sounds of the woods at night, chirping from birds and insects alike, still brought as much enjoyment to you as it had when you were a child. Small scurries of mammals at home in the woods let you know you weren’t alone with the creature overlooking your steps. Sleep fell in you tenderly and the scurries noises faded to soft, slow crunches. Then flat footsteps. You jolted back into consciousness recognizing the heavy steps as the ones who had followed you when you begun your walk. Was he coming back?
Straining your ears to listen to the pattern of steps emerging from the forest, you tried to make out where they were headed. It sounded as if they had begun almost right behind the tree you had positioned your tent under, emerging out of thin air. The warmth you felt now wasn’t nearly as intense as earlier although still making you shiver. The footsteps were getting lighter and more distant ever so slowly, as if he was trying not to disturb you, knowing you lay there drifting off to sleep. The pacing paused for a moment somewhere not far from you.
The sound of a sip followed a quiet dragging sound, letting you know he must have found the cream. You heard a low, satisfied hum and licking of lips before a chorus of bird sounds erupted. “Fuckin’ hell!” the male voice shouted. More aggressive squawking from what sounded like a singular bird followed. You weren’t sure what it was but its caws resembled a ravens, although much louder and more demanding. Unsure what to do, you decided to just listen and first and could hear wings flapping and angry groaning. “Not now.” His voice sounded a mix of annoyed and angry, much softer this time and clearly trying to keep quiet. Something about hearing his voice made your insides swelter and your head spin, clouding your vision in the same glinting mist as before. The cawing went quiet before you heard the male whisper angrily. “Don’t ye even think about it, thats my bread.”
A small, disappointed bird sound was heard before you heard the flapping of wings again and you struggled to stifle a laugh. You heard more soft rustling of leaves, followed by a long exhale. Sensing him near you didn’t bother you as much now, having heard his voice. He seemed to have sat down or so you assumed, as the footsteps were replaced by the soft sound of tearing you imagined was him eating the bread. You hadn’t tried it before you left, obviously, but your friend had always been incredible at baking so you hoped he would enjoy it. Wishing for him to enjoy his meal seemed a little strange to you- You didn’t know what he looked like and he had scared you pretty badly earlier, but his tone even when angry had little malice in it. And how he quietened his shouting immediately made you think his intention really wasn’t to startle you, much less terrify. You shifted under the blanket to turn towards the stream, focusing your hearing more on that than him.
It felt safe now to sleep, even more now than before. The heat his voice had struck ablaze inside you made it all the easier to doze off and you found yourself drifting into a deep slumber. Vivid pictures of green landscapes and crisp, salty air filled soon filled your dreams. Visions of glittering gold and vast valleys accompanied them.
“Thank you, mo mhuirnín.”