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We were forbidden to go there: The Mystic Forest.
Although it was just outside the village, it beckoned with its beauty and wonder. The way the trees towered over the bright path, and the sunlight streaked through the leaves.
"You must never enter the woods," my grandmother said. "Strange beasts lurk in its shadows, and many have lost their way."
I knew that was true, because my father had never come home.
I remember waiting on the front steps, watching the path and waiting for father to arrive, always with gifts for us girls. I was a five year old girl then, with wishes and dreams, even hope.
My sisters allowed me to sulk for a week before they reminded me of the chores to be done, and I became my mother's strength as the neighbors arrived with questions.
Even now, ten years later, I still have a seed of hope that my father will return. But it is buried under the stories that people told in the market, and the mysterious cases of merchants who never set foot in the village again.
The lucky few always returned wide eyed and pale, as if they had seen a ghost.
But I knew better.
I found my father's research, hidden under his inventory lists. He had been searching for something, and I was convinced his search was tied to the tragedies that the villagers faced. But what was he looking for? I found my answer at the bottom of the drawer of father's desk in the study. It wasn't much, just a map with the route clearly drawn in black ink, and half a sheet of paper that was slightly burned at the edges, and contained half a paragraph of broken sentences.
The one word that appeared again and again was circled in that same black ink. Faerie.
These were not small friendly creatures who brought magic to the common garden. These were illusionists, masters of deceit and subtlety.
Once, I had gone to the library, hoping to find the book that the page was from, but I was met with a blank stare when I asked the book keeper for information.
I had only songs, rumors and mysteries to go by.
"Tamara!" my mother called from the sewing room. I cringed. I had forgotten to dust the spinning wheel, and my mother would not work with dusty thread.
As I went down the long staircase to the front room, I felt like someone was watching me. I turned to the window, and there was a rustle of leaves as something or someone ducked from view.
I could only stare for a moment before my mother made my name echo through the house, and my little sister opened her bedroom door staring at me with one sleepy eye and rubbing the other.
I found mother standing by the spinning wheel tapping her foot.
Without a word, I got to work, never taking my eyes off the window, wondering if what had seen me was still there. But the moment had passed, and soon I was back to the daily routine of cleaning and cooking.
It was almost evening, and the first star appeared when I gathered vegetables from the garden.
I heard more than a rustle this tme. It was a musical sound, like the ring of a bell. And I caught a glimpse of a wing as I turned.
"Alright you!" I said, "No more of this nonsense! Come out now!"
I suppose it was silly to expect whatever it was to listen, but for some reason it did. A spritely creature, green, blue and purple stepped from the tree and stared at me.
It looked slightly human, and even more interesting, it had long hair and gleaming eyes.
"Who are you?" I asked.
It didn't answer, but it did laugh for a long time, and that annoyed me. I had only twenty minutes to cook dinner, and if this thing had nothing to say, I wasn't going to waste my time.
I picked up my basket of vegetables and turned away.
"Wait!" it said. The voice was strange and almost feminine.
I stopped, but I didn't turn around.
"Don't go. I need help." it said.
"Who are you?" I asked again. Turning toward it. "And why are you here?"
"I am Lethe, of the Spring Court." it said.
"You're a faerie." I said, even though it was obvious.
"And you're a human, clearly." Lethe said.
"And why should I help you?" I asked. "You're from the Mystic Forest. How do I know you're not one of the fae who capture humans?"
"I was sent here, by your father." Lethe said.
I froze. How did it know my father?
"Prove it." I said, more harsh than I intended.
Lethe stared at me, and held out her hand.
It was my father's compass. The familiar carving of a stag was etched in the wooden case, and his intials R.G. were inside the lid.
"How did you . . .?" I asked, but the words wouldn't come. I was too surprised to see even a trace of father after years of his absense.
"Your father gave me this, and he told me to find his eldest daughter. He told me you would understand." Lethe said.
I wasn't sure what my father thought I would understand. Maybe he believed I had found more information than a ripped page.
"Come quickly." Lethe said, "We don't have much time."
I stared at the compass. It was real. Fae couldn't create illusions for objects, and even if they could, there was no mistaking my father's artwork. He had carved the stag himself, long ago, and his art adorned the fireplace in the form of deer taking shelter in the very forest we were told never to enter.
The very forest this Lethe was telling me to brave.
"Wait there." I said.
Lethe stared, but nodded.
My cloak was just outside the door, hanging on a hook. Diana, the cook, was busy stirring a stew.
There was no way to explain this to my mother, and I was horrible at goodbyes.
I left the basket filled with vegetables on the table, grabbed my cloak, and I didn't look back.