For the first time all week, Mary regretted running away from the orphanage.
It had been great at first—a grand adventure away from the stuffy, gray manor with its bazillions of rules. Since it was nearly midsummer, the weather was soft and pleasant, the woods full of edible berries and plants whose names she’d spent so much time memorizing in the dusty library. She could curl up in grass and moss to sleep, which was nice if sort of damp, and she didn’t need to use the rickety lantern she’d brought. Four straight days and nights of eluding people from town—shimmying up and down trees, picking her way through parts of the great wood that bordered Bakersport on its northern side—made her feel invincible in the way only a seven-year-old can: she had thrown herself into the unknown, and she was flying, and anything was possible.
Then she found the sleigh.
She was moving north, using the Great North Mountain as her compass point—towards the lakes that lay scattered around its feet, where people carved great clear blocks of ice from the frozen expanses year-round. Of course she wouldn’t go that far yet, she thought; she’d need to get a good pair of winter boots for that. Maybe if she found a hunter to apprentice herself to—
A small sound tugged her back into the moment. Small, but consistent... a sound she recognized from the orphanage. Someone crying and trying very hard not to let anybody hear.
Cautious, she moved towards it.
As she got closer, the wood opened somewhat; she could see a well-worn path, not quite smoothed down into a road yet... and great slashes carved into the turf, perfectly parallel scars that curved straight towards the base of a thick oak tree. Chunks of board, painted in faded green and purple and pink, lay shattered where the scars ended; further back along the path Mary could see the sun glinting off the iron hoops of several barrels, also tumbled and broken.
The crying was coming from under what had probably been the front seat. Mary peered under it.
Curled up like a field mouse, shaking with little sobs, was a girl about Mary’s age. Her eyes were huge and brown and frightened, her cheeks grubby with tears.
“Are you hurt?” Mary asked.
The girl shook her head no.
“Can you get out of there?”
She thought about it for a moment, then gathered herself with a hiccup.
“They’re not there, are they?”
“Mum and Dad.”
“I didn’t see anybody.”
The girl’s eyes filled, clouded with fresh tears.
Mary sat down in the churned-up grass, squirming out of the straps of her backpack so she could plop it down next to her. She was a lot sharper than the grown-ups at the orphanage thought—she listened to the groundskeeper, to the hunters who came the summer there were so many deer they nearly ate through part of the royal orchard nearby, to the town guard who brought back unsuccessful runaways. And by listening, she’d learned enough to know you had to be prepared for a lot when you packed to camp out in the woods.
It took her a moment of rummaging to find her handkerchief.
“Here,” she said, holding it out.
The girl hesitated, then took it. Mary busied herself with the pack while the stranger scrubbed at her face and blew her nose.
When the little snuffling sobs beside her had quieted somewhat, Mary pulled out a biscuit and a lump of cheese.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Molly,” the girl said. Mary noticed how her gaze strayed to the biscuit and cheese, held it out to her just as she had with the handkerchief.
Little by little the story emerged: Molly’s mum and dad were merchants, on their way to deliver a shipment of supplies up to the ice miners, but they’d never taken this path through the forest before. They hadn’t known about the wolves who slid out of the shadows at night to chase anything that moved. And there had been a horrible crash and she’d been thrown under a piece of the sleigh as it fell apart, and for the whole night she’d huddled in her makeshift shelter in terror.
There was a smear of red at the base of a nearby tree. Mary tried very hard not to think about it.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Mary asked, when Molly was done unwinding her story. Molly’s shoulders hunched, and a lonely little sound that might have been a ‘no’ came from her corner under the sleigh.
“Then I’ll be your sister.”
And she’d coaxed Molly out from under the sleigh with stories of how she was going to be a hunter or an explorer, maybe even find the Hidden Folk who were supposed to live in the woods and the hills, and for six days and nights the adventure got a little grander. Molly wasn’t squeamish or scared of bugs, and in her own pack (salvaged from the wreckage of the sleigh) she had a fat book on healing herbs and how to use them to treat diseases; they huddled together under the light of the lantern reading about how to cure summer shakes and winter fevers.
But on the seventh day things started to go wrong, right from the very beginning of the day. As she was waking up, Mary accidentally knocked over the lantern, and most of the oil spilled into the grass. When they stopped for lunch Mary realized with a sinking jolt that the food she’d brought was almost gone, now that there were two of them sharing. All the blackberry bushes they found were full of prickles, unripe green fruit, and big croaking ravens who tried to bite them with clacking beaks when they reached into the brambles. And though she could still see the Great North Mountain rising above the trees, they hadn’t seen any other people—or even a road—since they’d left the shattered sleigh behind.
As night fell, misty streaks of light feathered their way across the darkening sky; owls began to call to one another in the wood. Much as Mary wished that the light above them or the fireflies that winked in and out of the warm air would begin to pick out a magic path for her and her new sister, the forest stayed dark and unfathomable.
They were lost, and they would be out of food the next day, and somewhere in this forest were wolves hungry enough to chase a sleigh—
And then Molly grabbed her hand.
“Listen,” she whispered.
Mary went still. Somewhere distant was a familiar, urgent sound: hoofbeats. Horses. Getting louder—coming closer.
Coming towards them.
She barely had time to pull Molly back when the horses came charging out of the wood. There were two of them, and they carried a sharp stinging wind in their wake—so cold it froze the grass in a long streak behind them.
The trail of impossible ice sparkled, reflecting back little fragments of the rippling colors above them, as the horses raced off into the night.
“Mary.” Molly was trembling, but her voice didn’t shake. “Did you see them?”
“Yeah.” It had only been for a second—only enough to see that one rider was a man and the other a woman, each of them possibly carrying something. The chill drifted out of the air, but the ice remained, a path to follow.
Mary grabbed Molly’s hand, and together they ran, the frost crackling underfoot.
Molly’s heartbeat rattled around in every part of her body like a moth knocking against the glass walls of a jar. The air around her rippled strangely: the night breezes were warm, but ice seemed to sting her face as she ran. Little dancing pinpricks of cold, in her nose, on her lips—she had to squeeze her eyes nearly shut so the ice didn’t sting them. Ahead of her, Mary’s wild gold hair glinted with the green and purple of the shimmering sky.
She ran till her feet were numb with cold, till her lungs felt like they would burst. She ran till she felt like she had been running forever, like she had been born running, like there was nothing in the world but running—
—and then suddenly the ice needles stopped, and Mary was tugging her up a little slope, their pace slowing as they navigated rocks and slender trees and, at last, dropped down behind the great gnarled shell of a tree stump.
From where she lay, blinking moisture out of her eyelashes, Molly realized she could see down into a clearing. A small circle of stones, standing upright in the grass, shone palely under the summer starlight.
Making their way to the center of that circle were three figures: a man, a woman, and a gangly boy. When the woman turned, Molly saw that she held something in her arms—something big, wrapped in a blanket or a cloak.
The man stepped forward. He was dressed in a fancy jacket and trousers almost like a soldier’s, and—she could have sworn she recognized his face from somewhere. A book, maybe. Her heart was still beating too hard to let her think very clearly.
She watched him raise his arms. Though she knew that his voice broke the thick quiet of the night, heard its commanding ring, they were too far away to make out the words.
And then the Hidden Folk came.
Melting out of trees, unfolding themselves from the shapes of rocks, rising out of the grass and mist, they came. They looked like people, with the same comfortably familiar shapes of people, but they seemed to be made of the landscape itself. Their skin was bark and stone and earth and smoke, and they moved almost silently, a curious murmur rising as they began to cluster together at the outer edge of the stone circle.
One of the Folk stepped forward into the circle—a figure that Molly might have mistaken for someone’s grandma, if she hadn’t had curly brambles for hair and tiny green leaves sprouting all over her birchbark skin. And the man who had spoken gestured to the woman, who stepped forward and held out the thing she was carrying.
It was another boy.
His face was as pale as the stones. His eyes were closed, and he wasn’t moving, except for little shivers now and again. As if he were freezing.
The tree-lady put a hand on his forehead, frowning for a moment. When she looked up, she said something that Molly didn’t catch but that made both the man and the woman seem to light with relief. A few steps behind them, the other boy stood, tense, hesitating.
All of a sudden a light rose from the tree-lady’s hand, blossoming in the air above the circle, forming pictures. Just like the voices below her, Molly couldn’t quite make out what they were, only the vague shape of them.
All of the pictures contained the same two boys, one smaller than the other; even at this distance Molly thought she could see them both smiling. Then the tree-lady sang something, and the pictures changed—not the smiles, only the colors and shapes around them. The cloud grew lighter and lighter, its glow seeming to pulse in time with the lights above, and then it curled in on itself and sank gently back into the pale boy.
His shivers eased, and the woman folded him in close again. The words still weren’t clear, but Molly could tell from the soft high sound of her voice that she was thanking the tree-lady.
Then the other boy stepped forward. Molly saw him square his shoulders, like so many boys she knew would do when they were trying to look braver than they felt. When he spoke she could hear him trying to imitate the clear tone of the man now a few strides behind him.
The tree-lady lifted her arms, and another shimmering picture appeared in the air, as if it were being spun out of the lights above. In the picture, a man’s silhouette—outlined in blue so brilliant it made Molly’s eyes smart—stood surrounded by dimmer figures, around him in a ring just like the standing stones. The brilliant figure lifted its arms, and tiny white shapes like stars began to dance around it, swirling back and forth, in and out of strange patterns. For a moment Molly thought the other people in the picture might be dancing too, swaying in sheer delight.
Then a cloud began to appear over the figure’s heart: small, red, glowing fiercely. That red light spread through the circle of people, like blood leaking into water. Though the brilliant figure held up its hands, the circle closed around it—tightening suddenly, the red drowning out the brightness, condensing into a cloud of rusty smoke.
There was a loud noise, like something snapping. Molly realized, as she turned her attention back to the boy, that there was a nearly perfect circle of frost at his feet. His breath was a slow white coil of mist.
The man stepped forward, put a hand on the boy’s thin shoulder, said something that sounded—not exactly sharp, Molly thought; it was more like he was saying something in the way grown-ups did when they were going to tell you something only once and you had better remember it.
Then the man and the woman and the boy all bowed deeply to the Folk, and left the stone circle. One by one the Folk melted back into the landscape, winking out of sight like stars right before sunrise, until only the tree-lady was left.
She stood a moment, looking up at the slow movement of the colors above them, almost as still as a real tree for a moment. Except then she turned, her face still tilted up, and Mary squeezed her hand tight at the exact moment she realized the tree-lady knew they were there.
“You poor dears,” said a warm and creaking voice in the dark. “That must have been awfully confusing.”