Mary turned to look back one last time at the only home she had ever known. Leaving had been the hardest thing ever – yet she had no doubt that harder things still lay ahead. She had packed hurriedly, wanting to be gone before the townsfolk showed up with their kindness. She took care while packing, not wanting to take anything that would be missed. Her plan would only work if the town believed that she had been taken against her will, as the other girls had been, with no hope of ever being found.
Her mother’s pleas still echoed in her head, “Child, don’t do this… there has to be another way… please Mary, stay… for me. What will I do here all by myself? With no one here who can see or hear me, I may as well be dead.”
She had stroked her mother’s cheek and in the gentlest voice she could muster said, “Mother, you are dead.”
The pained look in her mother’s eyes as she recoiled from her only daughter’s words burnt itself into her mind for eternity. “Yes… yes, I am, but…”
Mary didn’t know where she’d found the strength or the wisdom that seemed to be as natural a part of her as breathing was, but the innocent dark haired girl she once knew stepped aside to make room for someone she hardly recognized as herself.
“It is time to let go, mother. You remained in this world only because I could not let you go. I imprisoned you here with my selfish needs. I am letting you go now. There is a world beyond this one and it is a place of beauty.”
“My sweet Mary, you were a gift from God, how can I leave you here by yourself?”
Mary smiled. “Life is a borrowed gift mother, God will always have ownership and He is calling you back home, as He will call me someday. Leave me in His care; no harm will come to me. Tell father that his wee Mary is no longer a child. She will make him proud. I love you.”
She had always been aware that she was different, but her upbringing in a steadfastly Christian home had kept her from exploring a part of her that she could no longer ignore. The pain in her mother’s eyes was too much for her to bear, but even with her eyes shut, she could see the white glow that washed over the entire room. The last thing she heard was her mother’s quiet sobs as she severed the link that bound them together. She felt something inside her give way, like a snapping twig, before she collapsed to the cottage floor.
She awoke to pounding in her head and emptiness in her heart. The sun had almost fully risen, so she grabbed her meager belongings and made haste toward the forest – a place she had never before been brave enough to enter. The evil she had sensed the previous night was no longer there, but still a darkness hung over the forest the way a man walking through mud leaves behind his footprints.
As Mary entered the forest for the first time since the night of her birth, she unwittingly stepped into a dark realm where every battle she would wage would be a battle for her immortal soul.
Mary spent her first night away from home sleeping on a pile of leaves at the edge of a cherry alcove, her fingers curled around the silver pendant she had not taken from her neck in seven years.
“Hush ye now wee child, On mother’s breast rest yer sweet head, Yer slumber be guarded from harm, As angels draw near to yer bed.” Something about the voice whispering in her ear felt familiar to Mary, soothing every part of her that felt ragged and raw after crying herself to sleep. “Arwyn. Aaarwyn. Open your eyes, dear Arwyn.”
Mary opened her eyes to find a woman smiling down at her. “Who… who are you?”
“My name is Yllanys.”
“I don’t know how you found me, but you should not have come here. The forest is filled with dark terrors.” Mary trained her sternest look on the stranger, who merely responded with soft laughter that tinkled like a brook in spring. “You should leave now, before the night grows deeper.”
The woman cocked her head to one side, still smiling. “And how is it a youngling like yourself is safe here?”
“I… I… I did not say that I am safe.” While she sensed that the woman was teasing her, she never felt like she was being mocked. “Now leave this place, Yllanys, I cannot protect you here.” She smiled at the woman to soften her harsh tone. “It is a beautiful name.”
Yllanys touched Mary’s arm, it was the lightest touch she had ever felt, yet its warmth spread from the roots of her dark hair to her cowhide covered toes.
“Know this, dear Arwyn, you will always be protected here.” Her arms swept to encompass the alcove. “You are never alone.”
“Who is Arwyn?”
“It is the name your soul will answer to someday when it is called home.” A far-away look entered the stranger’s eyes and she was silent for several seconds before continuing. “But that may not be for a long time yet, child.”
“My name is Mary. Mother says that I was a miracle, so she named me Mary, after the mother of the greatest miracle.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she spoke of her mother.
“She is at peace now, your mother is. Your father too, his soul has crossed, even if his body is not yet in the ground.” Yllanys sighed. “They are searching the woods for you. The one they call Tom won’t rest, he wouldn’t let them bury the holy man until you are found.”
Mary’s eyes mirrored her distress at the news that the townsfolk were in the woods at night. “They can’t be here.” She hadn’t thought that far into her plan. She had believed that she was doing the right thing, acting like a grown-up, but she had been thinking like wee Mary. “What if something happens to one of them? It will be my fault?”
“Hush dear Arwyn.” Yllanys patted Mary’s knee, her touch bringing instant comfort. “They will not find you here; this place is cloaked, and can only be found if one of us wants it to be found. They will not find you and soon they will leave.”
“Maybe I should go back to the village?” Mary spoke softly, more to herself than to the stranger. “I do not want Tom to worry about me; he has always been kind to me even when others were not. Mother said that a long time ago, God sent Tom to save me and it was a task that once given, you did not walk away from – like being an older brother. He will not rest until he has found me.”
“My sweet Arwyn. Your choice to come here, while noble, I fear was not a smart one. You can never go back. It won’t ever let you leave here.”
“I… I can’t go back? Ever?”
Yllanys shook her head slowly.
“Ever?” Mary yelled.
“Arwyn, you do not yet comprehend how very special you are… the powers you have at your command are coveted by every mystical being here on earth and beyond the dark veil.”
“What are you talking about? I have no power. I am just a girl. And as I am now learning, a foolish girl.”
“You have never questioned why you are not like the other people in your village? Why you can do things that you keep hidden from others out of fear that they would not understand? Or approve.”
Mary was about to argue the point, but it seemed fruitless denying what she had always know. She was different. She had never had anyone in her life she could share her secrets with and even though they had just met, she sensed that Yllanys was a kindred spirit.
“The woodland creatures understand me when I speak to them. I do not understand what they are saying, but they understand me. And sometimes the wind whispers to me. And the trees.” Mary sighed deeply, a sound too weighted for someone as young as she was. “I’ve never told anyone that before.”
Yllanys squeezed her hand gently. “I know that, young Arwyn.”
“You don’t think me mad?”
“I think…” she paused, as if to choose her words with care, “I think that you’re a very special young lady and it’s a shame you had to keep all of this hidden for so long, Arwyn.”
“Arwyn.” Mary smiled. “It’s a pretty name. You’ve been kind to me, so I don’t mind if you call me that.”
“I need to depart shortly.” Yllanys noted the panic in her daughter’s eyes and laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Do not be alarmed, I will return. Blessed be, Arwyn.”
Mary awoke feeling rested and calmer than she had been the night before. She was alone in the cherry alcove, her clothes covered in cherry stains. Her thoughts, upon waking, were of a beautiful dark-haired woman, but the woman was nowhere in sight. It had been a dream. A fantasy conjured by a mind to lend comfort to a lonely child. She laughed, at first softly, then louder until she sounded half-demented, laughing until her chest heaved and the laughter turned to sobs.
She cried for the mother she had vanquished from this world with little regard. She cried for the father she had sent into the woods on a fool’s errand. She cried for Lizzy, whom she could not save. She cried for Tom, who would forever wander the woods in search of a girl who did not want to be found. And she cried for a girl who had lost more than just her way – she had lost herself.
What now? She did not know what to do or where to go. The evil she had brazenly come there to sate was no longer there. Even if it had been, what would she have done? Fight it and die like a brave, yet ignorant fool? Succumb to it and die like a naive sacrificial lamb? She was nothing more than a child – albeit one that had suffered more loss than any child ever should. She could not go back home. How would she explain her actions to a community who already believed her to be strange?
For reasons Mary did not yet understand, she felt safe inside the alcove, but soon her need for food and water drove her to leave its confines. The forest looked a lot different from the inside. While there were too many trees and plants for her to recognize, her mother had taught her well enough that she could find plants with edible roots. With every morsel of the uncooked, unseasoned roots she chewed, Mary thought about how much she missed her mother’s cooking, which only strengthened her resolve to find a way of making her parents proud.
While she knew the nights would soon grow too cold for her to sleep in the alcove, she headed back there, as it was the only place she felt safe. She had enough food left over for a light meal before bedtime – how she missed her father scowling at her when she was awake too late.
The moment she stepped inside the bay of trees, she felt herself relax once more, as if a healing hand had come to rest upon her wounded soul. Thus with the soft sounds of birds twittering on the surrounding branches and a fox snuggled up beside her, she soon fell asleep.
“You’re not real.” She said to the woman in white once she appeared.
“In this world of dreams, I am as real as you are, Arwyn.” She squeezed Mary’s hand as if to prove her point.
“World of dreams?” Mary didn’t want to speak to the woman, for it felt increasingly as if she had gone mad and was indeed having a two-sided conversation with herself, but curiosity got the best of her.
“Yes, you can only see and hear me when you are asleep.” Yllanys said. “You will find me gone when you awake each morning, but I am as real as the air you breathe.”
Mary sat deeply enraptured as Yllanys spoke, every word felt like something out of the fairy stories her mother used to tell, but she believed every word to be true. The woman in white told of a realm beyond Mary’s where battles waged over the fate of the world – and the immortal souls of man. She told of places on earth that held immense power – places like the forest that would now be Mary’s new home. She told of places mystical beings go to when they die - places not written about in books, but that are as real as the dirt beneath their feet. She told of a place of beauty where Elves rule with wisdom and justice, where dragons are not hunted, where unicorns prance proudly and where her family will live out their days in eternal peace. Her eyes narrowed as she told of another place where evil incarnate sat on a throne of darkness. Where terror, pain and desolation are no longer merely words – they are the reality you are fed every waking moment of your days.
“You are not of this world, are you, Yllanys?”
“I used to be, young Arwyn. Our time in this world is fleeting.” She smiled down at her daughter, heart swelling with pride at whom she had grown into.
“How is it I can see you? Are you dead? Which of those worlds are you from now?”
“Slow down, Arwyn. I will tell all, in time.” Her eyes lifted to the sky as she spoke. “Dawn will be upon us soon.”
“I do not want you to go; the forest scares me when I am by myself.” Mary looked up at her, eyes pleading. “Is there no way you can stay?”
“We only fear what we do not know; I will teach you about this place, in time. Soon you will have nothing to fear. Blessed be, Arwyn.”
As dawn broke, Mary awoke to find herself alone yet again. She no longer doubted her nightly visitor was real nor questioned her own sanity. She ventured further into the forest, vigilance her constant companion, for her father’s words on the night he died still rang in her ears. “Stay out of the forest, Mary. It is a place of dark terrors.”
She gathered what food her arms could bear, then rushed back to her shelter, for she conjured thoughts of eyes following her with evil intent. Once inside the alcove, panting for breath, she felt a fool for falling prey to her own child-like mind. After a day spent watching a family of rabbits going about their daily business, with a full belly, she soon fell asleep.
Yllanys was there waiting for her when she arrived, dark lustrous hair falling softly against her white gown. She was not sure if it was the soft moonlight lifting the shadows, but for the first time, Mary noticed the striking resemblance the older woman had to her.
Soon Mary was once again enthralled, never before had she heard tales more fantastical, yet real enough for her to feel afraid. That night, Yllanys told of a young druid mother forced into a cherry alcove by dark forces fourteen years ago, who sacrificed her soul to keep her daughter safe.
“I don’t understand. She died here? In this alcove?”
“This very alcove, Arwyn.” Yllanys’ eyes glistened with unshed tears. “She knew that once her child was born into this world, every form of darkness would come after her, so she did what she had to do to keep her safe, for she would indeed be a very special child.”
“What did she do, Yllanys?” Mary wasn’t sure if she wanted to know, something in the other woman’s eyes unsettled her, but her need to know was greater than her fear. “Where was her child? How did this all come to pass?”
As she told the tale of the young mother and her child, Yllanys lost herself to memories of the night both darkness and light entered her life.
“It is time to say goodbye, Yllanys.”
“I can’t leave her here.” Yllanys looked up at her mother with pleading eyes. “Mamma, I beg of you, please don’t make me leave her.”
“It is not for me or you to decide, child. The fates have decided.”
“No. No, I cannot leave her. I will not.” Yllanys clutched the newly born child tightly, feeling her tiny heartbeat against her chest. “I need to know that she will be safe.”
“She will be. There is no safer place than this sanctuary. The sun is rising, we have to make haste or you will be trapped here.”
“Trapped here, mamma? I would rather die a thousand more deaths than be trapped on the other side without her.” She hugged the child tighter, feeling her life-force grow weaker with every breath.
“Yllanys, this is not how it should be. Death is rebirth, we do not fear it. It is not our way, child.” Her mother’s voice seemed further and further away every time she spoke. ”She belongs to this world. We no longer do. There is nothing more you can do for her here.”
“Yes, there is mamma. There is one more thing I can do for her.” Yllanys hugged her daughter gingerly with trembling arms, her strength was failing fast, but her spirit felt stronger. “You should go now, tell them that I love them. I love you, all of you, but she needs me. Let Aeric know that his daughter will be safe.”
“This is not how it should be, but I cannot make your choices for you. Blessed be, child.”
And with that, her mother was gone.
Yllanys looked down at herself and her sleeping child, feeling the forces of darkness grow weaker as dawn broke over the forest. In life, Yllanys Silverkin had been nothing more than a soothsayer, a druid girl who sometimes, when the planets were aligned a certain way, could see glimpses of the future or the past. She’d always envied her brother and sister their ability to learn chants and spells taught to them by their mother, while all she had were blurry visions that came and went erratically. In death, she was so much more.
Someone had entered the forest – she sensed it the moment his feet hit the cursed soil. He was the only human within range of her powers – the only living human anyway and she had no immediate use for the non-living ones, much as it saddened her to feel them all around her. With her guidance, it did not take him long to reach the laurel alcove, his eyes sweeping across the expanse of trees in wonderment. Yllanys did not need to invade his thoughts to know that he was amazed at discovering a place of such beauty in the heart of the dark forest. His eyes widened in horror as it fell on the young mother and child, both covered in blood.
“Dear Lord,” he rushed forward and knelt beside them. “Miss, are you alright? Miss?” He shook the young woman’s shoulder lightly as he spoke, but she did not respond. The tears welling up in the young man’s eyes touched Yllanys deeply, for truly compassionate souls were a rare find. The baby stirred, her tiny fists beating the air as she struggled to be free of the swaddling. “Mother of God! Ahhh…” He fell back; more startled by the moving baby than he was when he thought it was dead. “Oh ohhh ohh dear, what to do… what to do…”
Yllanys’ voice was no louder than a soft spring breeze when she spoke, for her words were not the kind you were meant to hear, instead you felt them deep inside your soul. “Do not be afraid. Pick the child up.”
“Ahhh putter! You should have stayed in bed this morning, Tom. What an unholy mess you gone and got yourself into.” He lifted the child with such care, Yllanys knew without a doubt that he would never allow harm to befall her.
“Now listen and listen well… take the baby away from here. You need to take it out of the forest to a place built on hallowed ground. Blessed be.”
“I know where I shall take you.” The baby started to cry as he wrapped the soiled blanket securely around her. “You have to stop doing that. Do not need no fussing on the walk back, it be a long walk. And it might draw out the wolves. So you be still now.” The baby rested on both his palms, held out before him as if it were an offering in a macabre ceremony, yet the young mother knew that he would keep her child safe. He looked down at the lifeless body of the mother, his expression pained. “I will come back for you. I promise.”
Once Tom had left the forest and Yllanys was sure that her child was safe, she stepped from the druid sanctuary and called out to something dark. Something dangerous. Her last hope of keeping her child’s soul safe.
“I know you can hear me.” Yllanys paused, allowing her words to find whom she sought before continuing in a voice barely above a whisper. “You can no longer hide from me, Prince of Shadows, for I walk in your world now.”
“A druid girl summons me?” He laughed; a sound that shook the last remaining leaves from the trees. “What use has a druid of my favours?” His voice boomed from one side of the forest to the other, it was everywhere, yet nowhere at all.
“Show yourself.” Yllanys stood her ground, despite the fluttering she felt deep inside. “Or will you cower in the shadows from a druid girl, like a coward?”
The stench of rotting flesh invaded her senses as his rancid breath washed over her. “Is this close enough for you, Yllanys Silverkin?”
“Let us dispense with the formalities. I have no fear of you or your underlings.”
“Hmmm… bravery in death. I like that. It has a scent that’s oh so very pleasing to me…” He circled her, like a predator circling its prey, sniffing the air that surrounded her. “You wear it well, Yllanys Silverkin. I shall enjoy ripping it from you piece by piece.”
“I do not fear you. What more can you do to me than what has already been done?”
“There are worse things to fear than death, Yllanys Silverkin, mother of sweet Arwyn.”
“Keep her name off your filthy tongue, you vile beast.” Yllanys whispered through clenched teeth.
“Now is that any way to speak to someone whom you summoned for help? Where are your manners?”
It was futile trying to deny that she needed his help; so instead, she tossed all subtlety and guile into the wind and said all that she needed to say to him. “I am offering you my immortal soul in exchange for her safe passage in this world.”
He answered in precisely the manner she knew he would, “What use have I of your piteous soul when I can claim the most powerful soul ever to enter this world?”
Despite his taunt, Yllanys knew that he was quietly considering her offer, for druid souls were more valuable than gold in his world. Never before had a druid soul crossed into anywhere the devil has dominion, instead they move on to a place between worlds where they resume their lives as immortals.
“She is not yours to claim. I am but a simple mystic, but consider the esteem of being the first to own a druid soul.”
“Simple you are indeed, for you do not see the hopelessness of your bartering. What keeps me from going after the child instead? You are but a puny prize, albeit a temptingly ripe one.” He licked his lips and leered at her with a hunger that left little to the imagination.
“Do you think me a fool?” He had power beyond measure in his own world, but Yllanys knew that he could only claim souls that came to him willingly. “I may be a puny prize, but I am here. You can make either a wise choice or one that will spell your doom. The wise choice would be to seal the deal I have presented to you, while it is still to be had. The other would be to rebuff my offer and take your chances going after the baby. I would caution against that, for your sake…”
“For my sake? How magnanimous.” His laughter rang out again, a sound devoid of mirth. “My sake, hmm… I like you, Yllanys Silverkin. You amuse me. And perplex me.” Once again, he circled her slowly as he spoke. “Do you even know who I am? Really know? I think not. Shall I regale you with anecdotes of millenniums of undeath?”
“I have heard your abhorrent tales and they repulsed me nearly as much as your stench does.” Yllanys was growing weary of the inane banter, but she recognized his ploy to gain more time to weigh the proposal put before him.
“So tell me how you plan to hasten my doom… I want to hear this purely out of curiosity… I find that being in good spirits right before I devour a righteous soul assuages the risk of an unsettled belly.”
“Would you think me fool enough to call on you unsanctioned?” Yllanys smiled, her eyes reflecting the veracity of her words. “With the veil dropped, I can draw on the power of every druid who has ever crossed over… including Emrys.” For the first time since she’d encountered the demon, she sensed acute fear. “Would you I prove the point?”
“There are to be conditions… if I agree to this pact.” There was still a slight tremble to his voice, but he masked his unease as best he could. “The bond will be an unbreakable one.”
“Agreed.” Yllanys readied herself for her fate, one that had been writ by her own hand. “I am ready to hear your requisites.”
“The child will be safe from me in fair exchange for your soul.”
“No. Say her name.” Yllanys knew trickery when she heard it. “Or there will be no deal and I will unleash the power of my forebears to vanquish you back to Hell – for all eternity.”
“I am going to enjoy you, when you are mine, Yllanys Silverkin.” He hissed at her. “Arwyn Silverkin will be safe from me in fair exchange for her mother’s immortal soul.” He paused, his eyes ablaze with fury at being routed. “And Yllanys Silverkin, if you have ever doubted your fate, I will lay it before you now… your soul will be dragged into Hell, where it will endure every inhumanity you have never been bold enough to imagine. And when we are done with you and you’ve been given opportunity to heal… it will all begin afresh...” His voice was barely a whisper as he continued. “…for all eternity.”
“Safe from you and all others like you.” Yllanys did not know what to attribute her strength to remain unruffled to, but she had no doubt that motherhood had a hand in it. She did not flinch at his words, her words spilling forth calmly. “No dweller from Hell may harm her.”
He snarled at her, brilliant-white fangs glistening against his dark skin. “You dare command me?”
“It was not a command. It was a request. You may refuse at any time.” The challenge rested not in her words, but in her eyes.
“None who dwell in Hell or has ever dwelled there will harm her.”
“Then we have a…” Yllanys started, but her words were cut short.
“But…” No more the impish charmer, his eyes darkened, then turned red as the coals of Hell. “If she ever sets foot inside the forest, she will be mine.” Yllanys was about to interrupt but he held a finger to her lips. “Mine.”
There was no mistaking the finality of the last word. It was not a negotiable point. She nodded, his finger scorching where it touched.
“You have my word, Yllanys Silverkin; she will be safe out there. If she ever steps in here of her own will, her soul may never leave.”
“May I have until the veil lowers tonight?” Yllanys was ready to agree to anything that would keep her child safe. “I need to see her one more time before I leave.”
“Do as you please… for now. Your soul is of no use to me without the vessel from which it came; your blood is required to seal the pact.”
Earlier, Yllanys had sensed people entering the forest. They had come to carry her remains to the village, as Tom had promised.
“Do not fret, I will recover what was earlier removed,” he spoke as if he could read her mind. “Once I have what we need, it can rot in here, with the rest of them.”
Yllanys watched as her infant girl was fed and rocked to sleep by the holy man’s wife. The pastor wore a scowl every time he looked over at his wife and the child she was nurturing, but Yllanys sensed a purity of heart in him that put her at ease. She stood watch over the sleeping child until the sun set over the western mountains.
Before departing, she whispered to the man as he sat outside on the porch steps. “Do not allow her into the forest, for it is a place of dark terrors. Keep her safe. Blessed be.” Then she left to embrace the inevitability of her fate without even a glance backward.
On her return to the crossroads at the heart of the forest, Yllanys called out to her soon to be master yet again. In a flash he appeared, a snap of his fingers instantly summoning one of the vilest creatures she had ever laid eyes upon in her life. It had the appearance of a wolf, but its eyes glowed red and its fangs protruded lewdly from its misshapen mouth. It approached on two legs, like a man, dragging something in its wake, something shrouded in a filthy white cloth. Only once it moved closer and dropped to all fours before prancing off and leaving the offering to its master behind, did it dawn on Yllanys that she was looking down at her own corpse.
No words were needed, since the terms of their pact had already been agreed upon earlier. With one sharp fingernail, he slashed at what once used to be her breasts, slicing the flesh to reveal bone, sinew and blood vessels. He ripped her heart from her chest and raised it above his head, allowing the blood to drip onto the earth at his feet. Only a few drops of blood had spilled before he tossed her heart aside like waste, yet the ground was soaked in red, trembling all around her as the words to their arrangement spelt themselves out in the sand and glowed a deep red – the colour of dark hearts.
The pact was sealed in blood – her blood. Yllanys felt no different, yet she knew that nothing would ever be as it was before. Red eyes glowed in the dark, a low growl coming from all around her, before the fanged beast pounced from out of the shadows.
“I think you’ve already met my doggie…”
The last thing Yllanys Silverkin heard before being dragged to Hell by the hound was the maniacal laughter of her new master.