From the author: A young woman meets some very nice people on her way home through the woods. Will she be able to leave the woods after?
Lizzie was going to be in for hell when she got home. The sun was low already and there was no way she would make it back before dark. Their house was on the other side of the woods, up on the hill, and she was sure it would be moonlight that she found the path by. She’d only be an hour late but her mum was going to have her hide. It wasn't her fault, she had left in plenty of time, but John the bakers' son had tripped her and dallied while she was repacking her bag. Idiot.
She watched the lengthening shadows of the trees as she made her way on, cursing boys and their strange behaviour. She had managed fourteen summers and that fool was going to mean she got a hiding. Her mother was prone to fret, stories about young girls being carted off being Lizzie's dire warning every time she went to the stall. Lizzie knew the forest well: they’d lived in their little house all her life and she’d been going to market since she could keep hold of her mother's skirt. She’d been allowed to help at a stall last year, taking some of their produce for selling and bringing in a little coin. She usually got some old fruit or dried meat as well, a little variety for the winter.
Lizzie spotted company on the road, breaking her out of her mutterings curses on John. A woman was walking ahead of her. She looked out of place on the edge of the trees, her brightly coloured plaid glowing against the dark green of the pines. Lizzie moved to the far right of the road, giving the stranger a wide berth. It was unusual to see folk she didn't know on the way home and this lady was wealthy, if the red and deep blue of her material was anything to go by. It didn't do to be bothering money, her dad always said, best be out of the way of it. Lizzie didn't need any other reason for being late.
She was going to continue on her way past the strange lady when Lizzie saw the wolf up ahead, sunning itself on the path. She stopped, a prickling running up her spine and along her scalp. She had never seen a wolf alive before. There were pelts around and she had heard stories of them, but there weren't meant to be any living here. It was beautiful, she supposed, a lolling tongue hanging out and its dark grey fur shining in the remaining honey sunlight. The teeth still showed though.
She glanced over to the woman and saw that she was continuing on regardless. Lizzie couldn't see the woman's face, her bonnet the fixed arch favoured by proper ladies, so she coughed loudly. The woman stopped, tilting her head towards Lizzie but not quite looking at her. Lizzie could see the lower half of her profile, pale skin and a pair of full, pretty lips.
"Pardon me for bothering you Miss," Lizzie began, "But that up ahead is a wolf. We don’t have many of them here and I’d be worried he'll be hungry. I have to keep going on the road but there's a town not too far back the way I came, it has an inn and decent food. Might be safer than walking past him."
"What an unusual suggestion. Do you recommend the place?"
"The beds are comfy," Lizzie said, glancing back along the path. The wolf was still there, tongue out and eyes on the pair of them.
"Why don’t you turn back as well?"
"I have to be home." Lizzie shrugged. "My mum will be furious that I was in the forest at dark anyway, she'd be worse if I wasn't home at all."
"Why does your being in the forest anger your mother?" the woman asked, turning to look at Lizzie properly. Her face was beautiful, Lizzie realised, and wondered idly if that was why she wore the large bonnet. Such a gift could be enough to get attention a woman didn't need. Her eyes were the deep brown of the peat water after a storm, glints of green and gold freckling the edges of her irises.
"It's not the being in the forest itself, it's being in the dark. I know these woods well, I've played in them since I was able to," Lizzie said, before remembering the wolf again, "But that's why I'm nervous Miss, I've been here fourteen years and I haven't seen a wolf about before. Can't begrudge him being hungry but you'd best not be his meal."
The woman regarded her for a minute, her eyes taking in Lizzie's frame. Lizzie felt herself flush under the gaze, burning at the simplicity of her own clothes. The strangers plaid was lush in its colour, pinned at her shoulder with what Lizzie suspected was a sliver broach. She wore no coat but that wasn't too unusual in the autumn, the heat still enough to travel by. Her hair was mostly tucked away under her bonnet but Lizzie could see a framing of deep brown around her temples.
"Your mother worries that it is the night rather than the forest then?"
"Then it would be better that I walked with you, so you can tell her you were quite safe."
"Excuse me Miss, that is very kind of you, but there is still the wolf." Lizzie nodded to the creature who was still watching them. It seemed very relaxed for a wild animal, but given the size of it she supposed there was little really could worry it.
"The wolf will cause you no harm: he is my escort."
"You have a tame wolf?" Lizzie asked in awe, glancing between the two.
"You could say that, yes," the stranger agreed after a pause. "He may not say the same."
"Well I'll not ask him," Lizzie said with a giggle. "Should I call you something, Miss? The Lady of the Estate is just called Lady Barbour after the house, and it wouldn't be right to be calling you the wrong thing."
"I think Lady would be quite fine," the woman said with a pleased smile. "And you, my kind girl?" The woman started walking again, leisurely making her way forward.
"I'm Lizzie," she said, doing a little bow before matching her pace to the Lady. "My mum is Margaret and by dad is Richard, if you know the village? We live a little away on the hills but everyone knows us."
"I'm sure they do with one so helpful as you. Would you like to speak to Alasdair?"
"Is that your wolf?" Lizzie asked, eyeing him as they got closer.
"Yes. He is quite friendly."
Lizzie moved closer to the mass of fur and knelt down as she knew to with new animals, offering her hand out to him. The wolf cocked his head to the side and she felt warm breath puffing against her wrist. She got a small lick and a further blink from him before his attention turned to the Lady.
"He's very gentle," she said, glancing over to the Lady.
"Only when I wish to be, child," came the reply. Lizzie felt her mouth drop but was proud that she made no sound. She turned back to look at the wolf and would have sworn it was smiling at her.
"Alasdair, that was rude," tutted the Lady. She continued walking, almost smiling at him. Lizzie stood, unsure if there would be any point in running. They were in the woods now, the smell of damp and night all around, mixed in with the pines and silver birch and the wolf was bound to be fast. She continued on, catching up with the Lady.
"A sensible choice," agreed the wolf quietly. He moved the left hand side of the road, slinking along with them.
"Excuse me, Lady, if you don't mind my asking, but do all wolves talk?" Lizzie queried after a few minutes.
"No, not all of them, Alasdair is special."
"I did think that would be something mentioned in the books if it was common," Lizzie nodded, peeking over to animal again.
"I am servant, I protect the Lady and those she wishes protected," Alasdair said, amber eyes flicking around them. He talked like a man but his voice was deep and scratchy, like a branch snapping.
"I prefer to think of you more as a companion, Alasdair," the Lady murmured, stroking a hand along his head and back.
"Protect her when she travels?" Lizzie asked, holding her pack close. The cool of the evening was starting to come on and while her coat was warm she could feel chills creeping over her.
"Then, and whenever is necessary."
"I would hope it wouldn't often be necessary," Lizzie said, "Your Lady seems very nice, would be a wicked thing for someone to want to hurt her."
"You are very kind for a young one," said the Lady, smiling at her.
"There are many possible dangers for my Lady, not just when she travels. I make sure they stay possible rather than actual."
"Such as thieves and rogues? My mum warns me about them whenever I go to market."
"A human thief would not manage much: she can protect herself perfectly well from such trivialities." There was pride in the voice of gravel and dust.
"Alasdair helps me with other threats. Is it thieves and rogues your mother fears in the forest at night?"
"No, she fears other things. Things you're not meant to say out loud in the woods," Lizzie whispered the last part.
"Why not?" asked the Lady with a smile.
"Lest you summon them. My mum is a good God fearing woman but she knows old ways. My Granny did too. She knows you have to respect the forest because it’s old and has been here a lot longer than we have. And there are things that live here, sometimes."
"What things?" the Lady pressed, glancing down to the wolf.
"Well, if you don't mind my saying them," Lizzie chewed her lower lip for a minute, glancing about. It was dark now, the moon casting a blue bright light over the woods and washing the silver birch white as bones.
"I'm sure Alasdair will keep us safe from anything you might summon," the Lady said, her hand dancing along his back again.
"There are the wee folk," Lizzie whispered, glancing around again before looking back to the Lady. She quirked an eyebrow in response. "The fair folk. The good men. The people of peace?"
"She means fairies," Alasdair supplied with a smirk.
"Hush, you shouldn't call them that!" Lizzie hissed, frowning at him.
"And why shouldn’t you call them that, kind Lizzie?"
"Because it's rude. We don't know their names, and we're not meant to, but it’d be rude to just call them that. You should call them by the good they do."
"And what good do they do?" the Lady asked, watching Lizzie with her deep brown eyes. In the moonlight they seemed silver, the flecks of other colours drowned in the reflection.
"The fair folk do all sorts. They charm the cows and help the sheep. They push the salmon up the river when they're tired. They bring joy to the forest and children."
"And have you seen them do this?" the Lady pressed, stroking a hand down Lizzie's shoulder and left arm lightly.
"Oh no, I've never ever met one. But that's not unusual: us humans are very stupid to them. We're only able to be here, not in the world that they see, so I imagine we must be very boring. Have you never been told about the fair folk, Lady? I know the church doesn't like the chatter about them but most mums warn their girls."
"I have never been told about them this way, no," Lady replied.
"They're good though," Lizzie continued, "The ones you have to watch out for are the others."
"Others?" asked Alasdair.
"The hobgoblins, or the bocans, or the brownies. They're not bound in the same ways as the fair folk and they like mischief. They'll spook your horse or run off with you into the night."
"And they run off into the woods with you?" Lady asked in an amused voice.
"Oh no, they run off with you into another world. It's meant to be beautiful, like the valley in the most wonderful summer, forever and a day. But you might never leave, or you might thought you stayed a day and come back to see it's a hundred years later, all your loved ones dead and your name forgotten."
"Your mother worries she would never see you again."
"Surely. She trusts I could soon punch the face of some man that tried to be away with me, but the woods at night do not run wild with those."
"Yet you are walking in them now," Lady pointed out, not unkindly.
"I didn't mean to be, that oaf John tripped me and tried to keep me talking in the town. He wants to court me but I'll have none of it."
"You don’t like him?" Alasdair asked, glancing over to her.
"I like him well enough but not for a coupling. I'm fourteen summers, I don't need a husband yet. And he only wants the sheep my father could offer. I'll not be making pies for him for the rest of my life."
"A bold little miss," the wolf laughed, a surprisingly pleasant sound.
"A wise young woman to know her worth so soon." Lady smiled, nodding to Lizzie, "One of the treasures time gives you is an understanding of your worth, it is good to see you know it."
"Thank you, Lady." Lizzie smiled back, ducking her head slightly as she felt her face heat. "But I never asked, where are you going that you're travelling so late? This road isn't often used by anyone outside the village and there are no grand houses in ours. The next closest is over the hills and that's a full day's travel."
"I am going home. It is not too far now, though I think we may part ways before then. Your house is at the end of the woods, yes?"
"Yes Lady, up the hill. We can see the river and watch the fish jump from where we are."
"It sounds lovely. Would you like to see my house?"
"I'm sure you'd have no use for one such as me at your house," Lizzie said, shaking her head, "I help at a stall and I knit, but neither of those would be much use in a grand place."
"You speak well and are interesting, kind Lizzie. But, I can see you prefer the life here. I'm afraid we must part ways now," Lady said, stroking Alasdair again and nodding to the edge of the forest.
"I hadn't realised we were here already. It's still so light by the moon."
"Time goes swiftly with good company," barked the wolf, his laugh a low growl at the end.
"Thank you for your company, Alasdair," Lizzie said, moving round to stroke the fur on his shoulders and back, "And you for your kindness of letting me share his protection, Lady. I shan't tell anybody of him."
"A sensible decision." Lady smiled, leaning down and planting a small kiss on Lizzie's forehead. "Travel safe up to your house and let us not meet in the woods at dark, next time. Punch that John should he try and keep you again."
"Yes, Lady." Lizzie nodded, tuning to make her way up the path home.
She ran up the road, her pack held tight to her as she practiced what she would say to her mum in her head. She couldn't see any lights which was good: maybe her mother had gone to bed.
She pushed the door open and was surprised to find her mother at the table, knitting.
"Lizzie, you've made good time from the town," her mother said with a smile, "John sent a message that you would be staying at the inn because of the market being busy. You must have been up at the crack of the sun."
"I just walked back," Lizzie said with a frown. She glanced out the window and saw the sun up, creeping from the horizon but proud and bright. No moon anywhere. Lizzie swallowed hard. "I'm actually still tired, would you mind if I went to bed for a little while then started the day?"
"Of course my girl, you've been such a pace this morning I'm surprised you have a head on you." Her mother laughed, a happy sound that Lizzie liked to hear.
"Here, we got a few nice pieces from the stall," she said, handing her pack over as she went to seek her bed.
"Lizzie, are you sure this is right?" her mum called, making her pause.
"Yes, I packed it twice," Lizzie answered.
"Well you certainly did well for our vegetables and wool; this is dried salmon you have here." Lizzie knew she hadn't had dried salmon in the pack. "And this broach is more than we've made all year, how did you come about this?"
"There was a lady I met," Lizzie said slowly, "She liked stories, so I told her some about the woods."
"Good girl, keeping other women safe," her mother said approvingly, handing the silver pin over, "You keep that since you earned it yourself."
"Thank you, mum."
"Sweet dreams, Lizzie."