The King sat on his throne, legs swinging in the afternoon sun. The wilderness spread out before him — a boy’s paradise of twisting dirt tracks webbed with ancient tree roots, full of shady hollows and secret hideaways. Behind him, the copse thinned until it met the road that would take you back to the village, but before him was the arena of countless battles, the base camp of every perilous expedition, a land of untold adventure. And — for today at least — it was all his.
“Halt!” he shouted. “Who goes there?”
The little girl looked up at the boy sat in the tree. Long before either of them had been born a storm had done its best to uproot it, but the tree was an obstinate one and it had refused to give up its claw-like grip on the earth. Now it was a twisted and gnarled thing, bent over like an old man. It was perfect for climbing and the thickest branch dipped in just the right place to form a seat directly above the path.
“It’s me. Who are you?”
“I’m the King, ain’t I?” The boy puffed up his chest in indignation. “Now — are you friend or foe?”
“Friend or foe?” the girl repeated.
“Yes,” said the King. It had seemed a straightforward enough question.
“That depends,” said the girl.
There was a rustling in the bushes behind them.
“What’s happening?” a voice said. A chorus of shushes drowned it out.
“No no no.” The King shook his head at the girl. “You’re s’posed to say friend.”
“But what if I say foe?”
“Well,” the King said, fearing that he was losing his grip of the situation, “in that case, everyone jumps out and chases you back to the river.”
There was a groan from the bush and a head popped out. The face was grubby and the hair was full of twigs.
“It ain’t an ambush if you tell them,” it managed to say before a hand reached up and pulled it back under.
“Silence, peasant!” the King shouted, certain at least that shouting things like that was still part of the game, even if other events were quickly running away from him. You had to assert your authority if you wanted to stay King for very long.
Appeased, the bushes were quiet once more.
“Alright then,” said the girl. “Friend.”
“Ah-ha!” the King declared, raising one finger to indicate that the girl had been got. “That’s exactly what a goblin would say!”
“Do I look like a goblin?”
“Well, uh.” The King floundered again. “No, not exactly. But that’s because goblins is the master of disguise, right?”
The bushes rustled in agreement.
“I take it that a goblin would also say that they weren’t, in fact, a goblin?”
“Exactly,” said the King, nodding sagely. This newcomer was catching on quickly.
“Oh dear,” said the girl, all big eyes and innocent expression. “Then it would seem that we are at an impasse.”
The King did not know big words and chose to ignore this.
“Whatever,” he huffed. “You can’t come past here till you prove you’re a good guy. I’m the King so you has to do as I says, and I says no dirty little goblins can come in the village. Even if they are little girls.”
A few more heads were popping up now, craning to see who was there and what the delay was. Generally, this game had less talking and more running around and screaming.
“Oi, Dylan! Knock it off!”
“That’s King Dylan, to you,” Dylan said, turning to face the dissenting bush dweller. It was his squire, otherwise known as Fred Carson, the butcher’s son.
“Just give it up, alright?” his friend said. “She’s not playing with us.”
“Why not?” Dylan turned back to the girl. “You want to play, right? You have to be a goblin though. Everyone’s a goblin, first time they play. You get to hiss at people and do cunning schemes, but you always lose in the end on account of being evil.”
“I’d like that,” the girl said.
“She’s not playing with us,” Fred growled.
Fred was bigger than the rest of them, older too. He may have been on the rotund side, but once he picked up enough momentum it was like having a steamroller after you, and whilst his fingers looked all the world like his father’s pork sausages, they made a mean fist. The children in the bushes glanced back and forth between the two of them, trying to pick a horse to back. There was a general shuffling in Fred’s direction. King Dylan suddenly felt very exposed.
“Why not?” Dylan asked nervously.
“My Dad says not to mix with folk like her,” said Fred. “She’s not one of us.”
“But I’m the King—“
But Fred wasn’t looking at him any more. He was looking at the girl.
“We aren’t playing, Dylan. It’s time for little witches to go back where they came from.”
The girl shrugged and turned around, starting her way back down the path. She didn’t look upset. That somehow made it worse, Dylan thought. Next moment he was falling out of the tree at Fred, yelling at the top of his lungs.
The onlookers weren’t quite sure what to do. Real fighting didn’t happen very often.
“Goblin king?” a bush voice suggested.
“Goblin king!” the cry became, and suddenly everyone had joined the skirmish.
Five minutes later, all squabbles outside of the game were forgotten. The goblins had infiltrated their ranks and there was no time for such trivial matters. It was a good game, although Dylan lost, of course.
Her name was Ivy, he found out at school. She lived with her mother in a house on the outskirts of the village. They were not from around here, said Ben Hudson, the grocer's son. They were, it was widely agreed, Bad Sorts. They didn’t come to church any more, which was a telling sign said Lucy, one of the pastor's daughters, and it meant they were certainly heathens.
Ralph Hind, the pub landlord's youngest, said that heathens could do all sorts of black magic, and that Ivy’s mother must have used some black magic to make her husband disappear because no one knew who he was. Ivy, whispered Lily Evesham, the shopkeeper's daughter, didn’t have a father. Arthur Perkins didn’t have a father either, but that was different because he had been killed in a ploughing incident and had gone to live with Jesus. Ivy didn’t have a father because her mother was a witch and a hussy. Those were the words Fred Carson used, and his father was generally considered a reliable source of information. You learnt all sorts, slicing people’s bacon. Not that Ivy’s mother bought any. You couldn’t trust people who didn’t like bacon.
Dylan’s father told him not to go around asking those sort of questions and gave him a thick ear before bedtime. He was not to play with Ivy or talk about her Mother in this house again. They weren’t from around here.
It was a few weeks before he saw her again. He was stood daydreaming in the shade, his back up against the rough bark of an oak tree. In the distance, he could hear the squeals and laughter of his friends causing chaos. He nearly jumped out of his skin as she sidled out from behind the tree.
"Good morning, my liege," she said.
"It's just squire today," he sighed. "Tom is King now."
Kings was getting boring. There were whispers that by next week they'd be back to playing pirates. They could steal old bits of wood and rope from their Dad's sheds and the flag from the market square and build a raft to sail down the river like last year, try and beat the record before it sank.
"And how goes the war with the goblins?"
"It's boooring," Dylan pouted. "I'm guarding our base, see? But we're thrashin' 'em so it's dead quiet here."
"This is your base?"
"Yeah." Dylan gestured at the small hollow in the ground behind him, half-hidden by the trees. "And that there's the scone of stone or somethin'. If you have that you win, so I’ve got to stop anyone pinching it."
“Oh,” she said, adjusting her satchel. “Only I like to come and sit here.”
They regarded each other dumbly. Dylan didn’t notice the unasked question floating in the air.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked, when the silence and her dark-eyed stare got too much for him.
“Books,” she said.
“Like... spellbooks?” Dylan shifted his weight slightly.
Ivy tilted her head to one side, face scrunching up as she gave this serious consideration.
“In a way,” she said. She gave nothing else away.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
She pointed back along the track towards the river.
“Up on the hill,” she told him.
“But there’s nothing past the river,” he said, brow furrowing.
“There is,” Ivy said. “There’s my house and Mr Lowe’s fields and Mr Digby’s flock and a few other families.”
“Nothing much,” he conceded, not about to be proven wrong about his own village.
“The whole world’s beyond the river,” Ivy pointed out.
Dylan blinked. The village was the world, all the world that Dylan needed. It was easy to forget about the rest of it, the bits that only existed on maps in geography class or in adventure stories. Here was where all his friends were and where everyone knew who he was and said hello to him on the street. The rest of the world didn’t seem all that important.
“True,” he said. “And you... you’re from there?”
“From... the world?” she looked at him as though he had three heads. “No, I’m from the village. Same as you. Only,” she pointed again, “the other side of the bridge.”
“Just... they say you aren’t from around here. Were you born somewhere else?”
“Oh, yes,” she nodded as though she finally understood his question. “At the hospital.”
Dylan didn’t think that this was what they meant. He tried a different question.
“They say your Mum’s a witch,” he said, knowingly.
“Yes,” she replied.
“They say that, yes.”
“Oh,” said Dylan. He hadn’t expected her to be so upfront about it. If his mum was a witch, he’d have kept it a secret.
Ivy rocked back and forth on her heels.
“So can I come sit in your base?” she asked at last.
Dylan bit his lip. He looked around, but there was no one except her, looking up at him with her big round eyes and serious expression.
“I guess so,” he gave in. “But you can’t touch the rock.”
“That’s what I normally sit on.”
If she was sat on the rock, Dylan reasoned, no one could take it. Probably not even Fred could lift the rock if a girl was sat on it. Even a small one from across the river. Really, he was just doing his job if he let her in. She wasn’t playing with them, so it wasn’t like it mattered.
“Alright, then.” He motioned her past him with a conspiratorial nod.
The game carried on in the distance. Dylan dug his hands into his pockets and leant against the tree to wait. Every so often he snuck a glance over his shoulder, keeping a close eye on the witch’s daughter as she read her book of spells.
“You’ll miss your tea, boy,” said Mrs Hayes from her front doorway. “Your mother’ll go spare.”
“SorryMrsHayes,” Dylan said in one breath, lowering his head and pumping his arms furiously as he scuttled home.
He hurried past the familiar stone cottages with their carefully pruned gardens, up onto the high street and through the market square. He rounded the corner at the butcher's shop, almost colliding with Mrs Richardson coming the other way.
“Evening, Dylan,” she said. “How’s your mother?”
“FineMrsRichardson,” he told her, jogging backwards as he spoke to her. His father worked for her husband.
“Hurry along, young man,” she waved him away.
He turned and skipped his way into a full canter. Curtains twitched as he ran past. The sun was quickly disappearing behind the church spire. He could see his house now, his mother stood at the gate tapping her foot, apron still tied around her waist.
It wasn’t pirates the following week. Everyone still wanted to play Kings. Someone had borrowed their mother's mop so they could try jousting, but it had been a bit one-sided, what with only the one mop. After a while, Dylan had grown bored and wandered off. No one seemed to notice.
He found himself coming by the hollow without knowing why. Ivy was there, head stuck in a book.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked.
“A book,” she said, then noticed that he seemed to be expecting more from her. “It’s about a boy on a desert island.”
“I thought you said they were spellbooks?”
“Oh, they’re magic alright. You can go anywhere with a book. Anywhere at all, without moving.”
That did sound like witchcraft.
“Are there pirates?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t finished it yet.”
“Mind if I sit with you?”
Ivy shrugged. He peered over her shoulder until eventually she sighed and passed the book over to show him the pictures. Palm trees and beaches. And pirates. Witch’s books have pirates.
Some of the boys were going to go up to the cottage on the hill. It was for a dare. Someone’s brother had seen all kinds of terrifying things in there — bubbling cauldrons and demon statues with glowing red eyes and severed hands wrapped in spiders webs. Ivy’s mother was a black widow, and she worshipped the devil. They were going to take eggs to throw at the windows.
Dylan thought it all sounded quite unlikely. Ivy seemed quite nice, for a witch’s daughter. It wasn’t as though they were hurting anyone. He told them what he thought about the whole thing.
He went home with a black eye. He never told his parents who did it, but everyone in the village knew.
“Been anywhere good?”
Ivy looked up from her book, her face as unreadable as ever. He came here every day after school now. That was where she usually was. Some of the boys had tried to tell her that she couldn’t have a spot in the forest, that it wasn’t her forest to have, but Dylan had seen them off. He wasn’t talking to Fred anymore.
“To the moon,” she said. “And then a thousand leagues under the sea.”
“So where next?”
“Verona,” she said. “You won’t like this one.”
“Oh.” He scratched his head. “What happened to the one about the giant? You were just getting to the good part.”
“I threw it away,” said Ivy, turning the page.
She sighed. Closed the book.
“It got muddy. Fell apart.”
“Who did it?” he asked, fists balling as he rose to his feet.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does. I’ll fight them for you.”
She stood in front of him, pushed his arms back down to his sides.
“There’s no point fighting,” she said. “It won’t change their minds.”
She met his stare. There was a fierce calm there. If the village had eyes, they would look like that. Unyielding. Unmoving. All-knowing. Dylan looked away first.
“Aren’t you lonely?” he asked.
“No.” She looked confused. “You’re here.”
And then he bent down and planted his lips on her cheek, just for a second. Ivy blushed, pressed a hand to her cheek.
The witch’s daughter smiled.
Dylan felt the stares as he walked back through the village. Old Mrs Hayes sat in her doorway as always, rocking on her chair as she knitted, surveying her street. Her father had lived in that house, and his father before his, back as far as anyone could remember. She would die in that house.
“Evening, boy,” she said.
He could feel her eyes on him, as though she could see Ivy on his hands and on his lips. He mumbled some reply, turning red as he spoke.
“Strange child,” she said, though he could still hear her. Half the village probably heard. “He’d do well to stay away from that one.”
Ivy moved away a few months later. Her mother had given in to the other adults’ barely concealed contempt and taken a job somewhere else. No one would tell him where.
Ivy was right — you couldn’t fight the village. Her mother had lived here for eight years, Ivy’s whole lifetime. She had tried resolutely to plant her roots, but the earth here was poison to newcomers, too full of ancient roots that stretched back for a hundred years without ever touching the outside world. No one understood where Ivy’s mother had come from or the life she had had, and no one cared to find out either. They weren’t from around here. Ivy’s family was different and that was that. Ivy had shown him the world, and now she had gone out into it, the only place she could belong.
Eventually, he stopped going to the hollow to see if she had somehow come back, returned to the other boys. People started smiling at him again when he walked down the street, but they didn’t look as friendly any more. What once had been comforting now seemed stifling. They knew every inch of him, every secret. They couldn’t bear not knowing someone, of not having the clout to tell someone who they ought to be.
Within a few weeks, his friends had forgotten the summer he had spent with Ivy and all was forgiven. They played cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians, but it wasn’t the same.
Nothing was ever quite the same.