I see you, child.
The words slithered into her brain, as if they were her own thoughts. The world flashed a momentary red. And then they came again.
I see you, child.
Monika’s eyes snapped open, immediately awake. “Who’s there?” she demanded of the darkness, leaping the chasm from sleep to awareness in an instant. “Who speaks?”
There was no response.
The silence was stifling and somehow mocking. Monika could feel the very air vibrating with tinkling laughter. Had she imagined it? Conjured up the voice out of nothingness? Had she finally gone mad? Was this it, was she now standing before the brink of utter insanity?
Mikel fluttered before her eyes, flashing a vibrant turquoise. The soothing colour washed over her, splashing beautifully across the tree’s innards. She closed her eyes and smiled as the calming aura enveloped her. He could always sense when she was growing tense. She had the sneaking suspicion that he shared her emotions – her tumultuous ups and downs. If it were true, if he really did feel what she was feeling… well, she felt sorry for the little guy. “I’m sorry, Mikel,” she whispered to the little fairy. “I didn’t mean to startle you or upset you, it’s just… I could’ve sworn that—”
I see you, child.
She sat bolt upright. Monika knew she hadn’t imagined it that time, and, as if to confirm this, Mikel emitted a warning crimson flash. Her breath caught in her throat. “Mikel…” she said, breathily.
The fairy flickered yellow, a confirmation.
“Are they close by?”
A pause. And then a slow orange glow. Uncertainty.
“Are… are we in danger, Mikel?”
The slow orange glow again. He didn’t know. He knew as much as she did. Monika eyed the entrance to the hollowed-out tree trunk which she currently occupied. It was small hole, hidden away between a snarl of roots – small even for her, and she was both skinny and agile. Her mother had once said she could pass for a field mouse, should she have the inclination to do so. This was before her hanging, of course.
Come out, child. Come to me.
She knew that voice. She knew it. All of a sudden, Monika felt as if she might vomit right then and there, in the tiny cavity of the empty tree. Her stomach lurched drunkenly, and her bowels grumbled.
“No, no, no, no,” Monika whispered to herself. “I won’t. I won’t. I won’t. I won’t.”
Come to me, child. I can see you, child. I can see you’re afraid. Fear no more. Come to me.
“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t,” whispered Monika to the hollow wood, eyes screwed tightly shut. Behind the thin veils of her eyelids, she saw Mikel intermittently blooming red.
They’re not dead. None of them are. They’re all here. With me. Come to me, child. Come home. Everyone’s waiting.
“They’re not. They’re dead,” Monika hissed to herself. “I watched them die. All of them. You had my mother hanged; you had my father—”
She’s here with me. Monika, she tells me she loves you and she wants you to come home.
“You hung her!” Monika was dimly aware of the sound of creaking wood and splintering bark. But only very dimly.
No, the townsfolk hung her.
“You did it!”
They said she was a witch, didn’t they?
“You made them do it!” Somewhere, Mikel was flashing aggressively. Red. Yellow. Orange. Red. Yellow. Orange. For the first time in her life, Monika wasn’t paying her fairy attention, and thus did not see his warning.
And your father?
“No!” Red. Yellow.
And your father?
“I won’t say it!” Orange. Red. Yellow.
Very well. And what of the others? Hm?
“You turned them against each other!” Red. Yellow. Red.
I simply used what was in their minds already.
“You did it! Not them! They never would have!” Red. Orange. Yellow. Red. Yellow. Red. An exasperated fluttering of delicate wings, close to her face, where her eyes were still clamped shut, in the dogged refusal only known by small children.
They wanted to. And now, what of them, Monika of the Trees?
“I told you, they’re dead, you killed them all, you murderer!” Red. Red. Red.
No, I told you. They’re with me. They’re all with me, Monika. Not even their little fairy companions could stop it, in the end. You’ll see. Take a look around you, my child.
The last words that slithered around inside her brain dripped with gleeful venom. Even though Monika could not see the woman, she knew that a smile adorned her haggard face. The girl snapped her eyes open and was instantly blinded by the whiteness of the world. Monika tried to raise her hands to her face to shield herself from the brightness and found her arms to be paralysed.
Red. Yellow. Orange. Red. Orange. Red. Yellow. Mikal was cycling between his colours of panic and distress with alarming rapidity. Slowly, Monika opened her eyes to face the horror that had undoubtedly found her. She had thought she’d been safe, in the hollow of the tree, even Mikal seemed content, after the chaos back in the village, but—
Her eyes adjusted.
At first, there was only confusion and a slight hint of relief. There was no haggard old crone towering over her, hellbent on taking her soul for nefarious consumption.
After a moment, Monika realised, there was no more tree. Her hiding place was gone. Well, that wasn’t entirely true – the hollowed-out husk of wood might still be where she’d found it… but Monika was no longer residing within its oaky heart.
She was deep in the pits of the woods.
Woosh! A tree flew past her, narrowly missing her by inches. “What—” Monika began, but she was cut off as another tree with reaching branches flew past her. Trees were flying all around her, towards her. What black magic was this? To uproot an entire forest, to—
And then the child realised.
She looked down at her feet and saw that they were several feet above the snow-covered floor. Fresh powder adorned the twisted roots and warped limbs… and Monika left not a single footprint in it. The girl flew above and across undergrowth and scrub, through boughs and branches. She did not feel the fingers of the trees scratching at her skin, for as she travelled, the woods bent away before her, bending and weaving to get out of her way. Trying to flee from the inky black stain of the witch’s magic.
Do you see now, my child? Do you see?
Monika tried to scream and found that she couldn’t. Her jaw wouldn’t open, and her vocal cords didn’t stir. After a panicked second, she realised, she couldn’t even control her breathing – the witch was doing it all for her.
And still, as she was transported through the woods, Mikel persisted. Monika wondered whether he was under her spell as well… but no, he was still flashing his alarm bell rainbow, still fluttering his tiny birdlike wings in panic, still buzzing and bouncing into her face, like he did when he woke her in the morning.
Perhaps, you’d like to hear, as well? Would you, my child? Would you like to hear? Aye, perhaps you would…
She tried to refuse, to scream, to fight back, but it was no use. Monika was under the haggard woman’s spell. When the realisation of the futility of wasting her energy hit her, a moment of understanding struck the child. As the seconds before the witch subjected her to the incoming aural assault tick-tick-ticked away, Monika locked eyes with her fairy and sent him a message with all of her heart.
Go, Mikel. Flee. Run, my sweet. Save yourself.
The fairy flashed only once. A deep purple flash, that bordered on black. Monika had only seen Mikel flash that bruise-like colour a few times in her life, and she knew exactly what it meant. It meant he – the fairy assigned to her at birth, sworn to obey and protect her – had refused her commands. He was going to stay with her. All the way. Until the end.
Before any more could pass between fairy and child, the screams of everyone she’d ever loved filled her ears. Her mother. Her father. Her brother. Her friends. All of them. All of them. Begging, pleading, asking for mercy, asking for it to be over, asking for death. And behind it all, in the background, was the throaty chuckling of the witch.
And so, Monika floated through the woods, far beyond the reaches of the realm she’d once called home.
Onwards, towards the witch.