‘The Forest of the Others’, an original short story, is inspired by the Scottish ballad of ‘Tam Lin’.
'When Grace unexpectedly glimpses her father, who’s been missing for three years, she discovers he’s been trapped in the forest of the dreaded Others. She vows to do whatever it takes to free him. When she realises her only option is to enter the forest and face the queen of the Others, she begins to doubt her own courage.'
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THE FOREST OF THE OTHERS
The shout, as sharp as a slap, jolted Grace back to her senses. Blinking rapidly, she half-turned away from the forest before flinching as Sarah’s bony fingers bit into her upper arm.
“Come away. You know not to go close to that place.”
“But I saw–”
“No!” Her pale blue eyes wide with ill-disguised fright, Sarah dragged Grace with her as she started to run. “Not you. I won’t let them have you. You’re all that’s left to me.”
“Stop. Mama, please stop…”
But Sarah only slowed down when they were back on the path. “Why did you go so close to the forest? Were you tempting fate?”
“No, I wasn’t. But they only take young ones, remember.”
“I don’t care. I won’t take any chances.”
Grace lowered her gaze, not knowing what to say.
“Pull your hood up, cover your head,” said Sarah as she wrapped her own cloak tight around her. “With all this damp in the air, I don’t want you to catch a chill.”
“I’m not a child.” But Grace did as she was told as they continued their journey home.
“Why did you stray from the path?”
“I didn’t mean to.”
Sarah kept looking around as if she expected some horror to leap out at them. “Come, walk quickly. I want to be back home before it gets dark.”
Glancing up at the scudding clouds, Grace frowned. “There’s still time, it’s nowhere near sunset.” She reached out and took her mother by the hand. “Mama, it’s alright.”
But Sarah didn’t return her smile. “I hate that place. It’s always so dark, even in summer. I hate having to walk past it every time we return from Greenlee.”
Grace opened her mouth but didn’t speak; she couldn’t think of anything to say to calm her mother’s fears. She quickened her pace as her mother was walking so fast, she was almost running. Grace looked back at the treeline. I know what I saw, she thought. She hadn’t ventured close on a whim for she’d caught sight of someone she never thought she would see again. I saw you, Papa. I know I did.
It had been three years since Grace had last seen her father; three years since he had left to look for her beloved younger brother, Conor. Sweet, funny Conor, he’d been taken by the dreaded Others soon after his eighth birthday, and Grace had cried for more days than she could remember. Unable to bear his loss, she’d refused to eat, was too scared to sleep, and had fallen ill. Sarah had put aside her own grief to care for the one child she had left but became little more than a walking ghost. Her father had retreated into himself, and when Grace had recovered her health, he’d entered the forest, determined to find his son. And he, too, was lost.
After she’d finished her chores, Grace went to the house of her best friend, two houses away. Kate had been born a week after Grace and the girls had grown up as close as sisters, maybe even closer; they called each other ‘first friends’. Kate was the middle child in her family, with an older brother and a younger sister.
The girls sat on Kate’s bed, facing the window set in the wall. Her back to Kate, Grace looked through half-closed eyes at the darkening clouds framed in the window, enjoying the soothing feeling of having her hair brushed by Kate.
“I know I say it all the time,” said Kate, “but I wish my hair was like yours.”
“And I never understand why you say that. Your hair is beautiful, like marigolds in a sunny field.”
“But yours is so thick and soft; I don’t know anyone here with hair like yours. And I swear sometimes it changes colour.”
Grace laughed. “Oh, Kate. No one’s hair changes colour.”
“Well, you can’t see it but, trust me, sometimes when the light is on it a certain way, your hair isn’t just black, sometimes it looks like its blue or purple.”
“I’ll take your word for it then.”
They lapsed into silence as Kate parted Grace’s hair and started braiding it. After a while, she said, “Did something happen today?”
Grace started slightly. “Why do you say that?”
“You’ve hardly spoken. That usually means you’re thinking of something.”
“I-I was enjoying having my hair brushed. Besides, we were just talking, weren’t we?”
“You’ve never been this quiet though.”
Grace stared at the wall as thoughts of her father filled her mind. She was desperate to tell someone what she’d seen. Pinching her bottom lip, she wondered if she could trust Kate to keep her secret. But if she couldn’t trust her first and best friend, who could she trust? Even though she took a deep breath before she spoke, still her voice trembled. “You’re right. Something did happen.”
Kate didn’t respond, but Grace could feel her hand movements slowing.
“When Mama and I were coming home from Greenlee, I went close to the forest–”
Kate’s gasp interrupted her and she let go of Grace’s half-braided hair.
Grace turned to look at her wide-eyed friend. “I didn’t mean to… I saw him, Kate,” she finished in a strangled whisper.
Kate’s brows drew closer together. “Are you sure?”
Grace nodded. “But I don’t know if he saw me.” Leaning forward, she trapped her friend’s hands in hers. “Promise you won’t tell anyone.”
“Promise, Kate, please. Mama can’t know. I worry for her as it is.”
Obviously torn between what her friend wanted and her own need to tell, it took a few moments before Kate spoke. “I promise. But what will you do?”
She looked Kate in the eye. “I’ve thought about it. I’m going to look for him, try to bring him home.”
“Grace, no.” Kate leapt to her feet.
“Shh.” Grace grabbed her by the hand and pulled her down. “Stop shouting. Your parents will hear.”
“Please don’t do this. You can’t go into the forest. What if they take you? What about your mother?”
Closing her eyes, she shook her head slightly. “But they only take young ones.” Even though she spoke the words firmly, Grace couldn’t ignore the chill around her heart; what if the Others did take her as punishment for entering their forest? What would happen to Sarah? Would she find the strength to carry on with life? Grace wanted to look after her mother, but she also wanted to find her father. If she was successful in bringing him home, her mother would be well again and her father would be here to look after them. “I have to do this, Kate, as much for Mama’s sake as anything else. I know I’m asking a lot, but I need you to promise to keep my secret.”
Concern rippling across her face, Kate stared at Grace but said nothing.
“Kate, please. If anyone finds out, they’ll stop me. Then I’ll never know.”
“Please.” She clasped her hands tightly before her.
Kate’s shoulders sagged. “I promise. But you must promise to be so very careful. And…” Clearly uncomfortable, she glanced at her door, which was slightly ajar. “Put a handful of oatmeal in your pocket,” she whispered. “And sprinkle some on your clothes.”
“It will afford you some protection. Against them.”
“How do you know that?”
“My ma… she learnt it from… someone.”
It was obvious Kate knew more than she was letting on, but Grace decided not to pester her for an explanation; she was too relieved that her friend had agreed to keep her secret.
Panting to catch her breath, Grace stopped at the treeline, the ground under her feet soft and springy. The earthy smell around her evoked thoughts of her mother’s small garden. No breeze disturbed the leaves, and she heard no sound except her own pounding heart.
Staring past the trees, she took a handful of oatmeal from her apron pocket and sprinkled it over her head, on her clothes. Impatience threatened to cloud her judgment as she contemplated stepping into the forest. This was the fourth time she’d managed to get away for long enough on her own. And the fourth time she’d stared into the forest, which, yet again, yielded no sign of her father.
Grace took a step forward then stopped, holding her clenched fists tight against her legs as if to hold herself in check. “Oh, Papa, did I imagine it? Was it only a shadow that I wanted to be you?” Her throat tightened and she blinked rapidly to keep her tears at bay. On the verge of admitting defeat, she started to turn. And stopped, her attention caught by movement amongst the trees. Clasping her hands together, silently praying that it was her father, she edged closer to the tree line.
The figure stepped between the trees and paused in a rare shaft of sunlight, head tilted back as if to drink in the warmth.
Grace’s breath caught at the sight of the dear profile, the dark hair curling against the collar, the familiar gesture of hand rubbing whiskered chin… Tears smudged her sight. Impatiently drawing her hand across her eyes, she ran into the forest, all else forgotten save her father. “Papa! Papa.”
The man swung around and stepped back, raising his hands as if to ward her off; it failed to slow her. Grace was about to throw her arms around him but stopped as he grabbed her by the arms and held her back.
“Papa. It’s me,” she said, smiling through her tears.
His head jerked back. “Why do you call me that? Who are you?”
Grace’s movements stilled, her mouth fell open, her eyes bulged as she struggled to take in his words. “Papa? Don’t you know me? It’s Grace.”
Shaking his head, he continued to hold her away from him.
“Don’t you know your Grace?” Tears started to run down her face to fall in the space between them. “You carried me on your shoulders; you showed me how to catch the fish in the stream… I made flower garlands for your hair. You called me…” She covered her face, unable to bear the pain of being forgotten by her father. “You called me… your…”
“Blossom?” His voice was so soft, she almost didn’t hear him; his grip on her arms softened.
Grace’s heart leapt; she looked up at him. “Yes. That’s what you called me.”
His breath ragged, he shook as he said, louder this time, “Blossom. Your daisy chains were my crown–”
“Yes. Yes,” said Grace with a laugh. “You remember. You remember me.”
He stared, his grey eyes seeming to pierce right through her. Then he pulled her close, held her tight.
Crumpling his tunic in her fists, she sobbed against his chest.
When she finally allowed him to step back, he rested his hands on her shoulders. “My little blossom. Look at you; you’ve grown…older?” As his voice faded, his gaze lost focus. “You’re no longer twelve?”
An inexplicable chill wrapped her in its uneasy embrace. “No. I’m fifteen now.”
He paled. “What? No. Three years? I’ve been here for three years? It cannot–Sarah. Your mother, is she–”
“She’s at home, Papa, she’s alright.” There was one question she had to ask. “Did you find Conor?”
His frown deepened; he looked around. “I remember, when I first came into the forest, I called him. I called and called but there was no answer, no sound.” As he spoke, his voice got stronger, his tone surer. “Then they came. They took me to their queen. She said those taken would never be found for we’d never recognise them again.”
Grace shuddered as a finger of ice crept up her spine. “You didn’t see him?”
“I looked, Grace, still I kept looking. But I saw none who were familiar to me.”
She bit her lip in a vain attempt to stop her tears. “Why didn’t you come home?”
“I wanted to. I was going to, but she wouldn’t let me. No one had ever entered the forest like I had.” His jaw clenched; he shut his eyes. “She said she would keep me. For amusement.”
“Oh… Papa.” She hugged him. “But you can come home now. With me.”
“Ah, my girl. It’s not so simple. I’m trapped here.”
“I’m not leaving without you. Oh. Wait.” She dug a handful of oatmeal from her pocket and threw it at him.
“What are you–what is this? It stings.” He brushed it off.
“Oatmeal,” she said, her mouth turned down. “It’s supposed to protect…”
“Oh, my blossom.”
“After all this time, to see you again. I won’t believe that you’ll never be able to come home. You belong with us.”
He smiled, a small, sad smile. “I wish I could see your mother. Tell her… tell her…” He shook his head. “Never mind. Now, my beautiful blossom, you must go home.”
He placed a finger against her mouth. “You must. You don’t belong here. And I will not chance you being trapped here like me.” Cupping her face in his hands, he smiled. “I want you to live your life free. Get married, have beautiful children. Look after your mother.”
Her hands against his, she tried to shake her head as tears fell down her cheeks.
“Hush. Say you will. Then I will have that to comfort me through my days here.”
“Papa…” By now she was sobbing.
“Promise me, Grace. That is all I ask.”
Finally, she nodded, and they embraced one last time.