Ella had been walking this route for years and the tree must always have been there, but she only noticed it today. That kind of annoyed her, because she prided herself on her attention to detail.
Her well-established route into town took her down a path that ran between two tenements through the space once occupied by another block that had been demolished for some reason or other. The gap created a natural shortcut that cut five minutes off the journey to the train station for folks staying on her side of the street and over the years, a well-worn path had developed. Curiously, the residents on the right-hand side of the path had made an effort to spruce it up, with some well-tended flowerbeds and even a little bench having been installed by the community council. The left-hand side of the path, had however been allowed to grow wild with some rough bushes, hardy weeds and a few wispy trees gaining a foothold over time – but one tree loomed above them all.
It was a hawthorn tree with a brown/grey trunk, which split into several larger limbs before breaking further into branches & twigs that made a dense covering over the path and brushed against the walls of the houses on both sides with its white blossoms in full bloom on this spring day. The blossoms almost concealed some scraps of bunting, possibly left over from the garden festival last month. Despite all that and even though it appeared so rooted in the space, it seemed strangely out of place, like it was somehow too much tree for the space it occupied.
What was even stranger was that the tree reminded Ella of a much smaller tree that had been in her garden as a child. She’d loved that little tree and had sat playing next to it all through the long summer months, decorating it with pieces of cloth, pressing stones that she liked the shape of into the ground around it and leaving little offerings of sweets and sandwiches for the faeries she felt must live there. Those long summer hours had seen her whisper her secrets to the tree and its fae inhabitants as she twined together daisy chains and told stories with her toys until one year, she’d stopped going to the tree, discovering other more grown-up diversions and ultimately her parents had sold that house and moved away.
It struck her that she hadn’t thought of that tree, or those long lost summers in decades, so much had the tide of life taken her away from such carefree and innocent times. A wistful smile played across her usually thoughtful face.
She realised that she’d stopped in front of the tree, probably appearing to anyone walking by that she was in a daydream, momentarily rapt by the way the light played through the branches. That annoyed her because she didn’t like to be thought of as whimsical and she shook herself back into the moment.
She decided that she’d probably noticed the tree, which was not so remarkable as she’d previously decided it was – it was just a tree, after all – because she was more watchful today after hearing stories of attacks on women walking alone in the area, so she was more conscious of her surroundings as she made her way to the train station because you couldn’t be too careful these days.
As she walked away, a tiny part of her awareness seemed to feel the tree looking after her, turning a little on its roots to witness her departure but the rest of her oh-so-sensible modern brain told that remnant of the long lost little girl to stop being silly.
Still, the tree and its inhabitants watched her go and as she turned the corner at the end of the lane they sighed in regret and went back about their fae business.
Many hours later, having managed to catch the last train rather than pay through the nose for a taxi, Ella stepped out of the station and headed up the road as the shadows of dusk started to lengthen. It was a residential area so there weren’t many folks on the street at this time of night, but she’d lived in the area for years and so felt at ease. However, after walking a few steps she felt as if she was being watched and a quick glance over her shoulder showed that someone was walking after her and gradually starting to catch up.
Suddenly she remembered the newspaper stories about the recent attacks and stepped up her pace a little.
She was walking briskly when she came up to the gap in the houses and realised a little too late that despite its long establishment, nobody had ever seen fit to properly light it. She was faced with a sudden choice between taking the faster route home through the poorly lit short cut or taking a longer but better-lit route. She didn’t want to pause long and her moment’s hesitation had already narrowed the gap to her stalker by an uncomfortable degree. She looked up the gap and saw a silver ray of moonlight glimmer across the trunk of the tree and decided. As she turned, the following figure shouted something and on instinct, she upped her pace again. Another shout followed and she felt, rather than heard that the figure was now running so she followed suit.
Tired after her evening, encumbered by her bag and wearing flat shoes, her pace wasn’t what she might have hoped and before she was through the gap, she felt a hand grab at her. Calling on a half-remembered lesson from a self-defence class attended years earlier she twisted in the grip and aimed at kick at where she assumed their shin was.
She was rewarded with a grunt of pain and the release of her wrist, but as she tried to turn she tripped over her own feet and fell, hitting her head off of one of the stones at the base of the tree.
Dazed, she felt warm blood dripping from her head and the taste of iron filled her mouth. She was starting to black out as a shadowy figure loomed over her, seemingly silhouetted against a field of stars.
She floated back to consciousness, and while she could still taste blood and feel the pain from her head, she realised that there was no sense of having been further assaulted and so she carefully opened her eyes to wonder.
She was surrounded by tiny points of light, which filled the area around the tree, suspended in the night air like motes in the moonlight. No, not suspended – the points of light were moving with purpose, some flitting about the tree and some covering a figure slumped in front of it. She sat up and there was a small explosion of pain from her forehead and she lifted her hand up and saw blood on her palm.
Wincing, she looked closer and saw that the motes were actually tiny beings which emitted light, tiny beings that looked like people… people with wings.
She shook herself upright and started to breathe frantically, only for one of the little beings to fly close to her face and smiled, revealing a mouth of tiny yet undoubtedly razor sharp teeth.
Nonetheless, a sense of calm washed over her as she looked at the small creature, which appeared like a person but with a greenish hue to their skin and a set of wings like those of a butterfly projecting from their back. The tiny person was clad in clothes that seemed to have been carefully stitched together from leaves and pieces of thrown away fabric.
She couldn’t avoid the thought ‘faerie’ any longer as she noticed that there was little uniformity amongst the beings, with some coloured more red or blue, some with wings more akin to that of a dragonfly yet all essentially tiny, glowing people with wings.
“Faeries,” she said… “you are faeries.”
The faerie floating in front of her face nodded and then fixed her with a focused look and all of a sudden she could hear them, like a thousand tiny voices all speaking at once in her mind.
Yes, you would call us faeries. We remember you from before when you were smaller and more perceptive.
“This isn’t the same tree from when I was a child…”
The faerie smiled and flickered about as if amused.
As the faerie capered around, Ella looked at the figure on the ground covered in busily working faeries.
“Did you save me from him?” she asked.
The faerie swooped closer to her face and their expression was one of confusion for a second.
He is an offering to us, yes?
Ella was shocked and crawled over to the figure, which was shaking violently. The man had an outstretched arm, which Ella realised was holding her purse. She reached out and took it back, only to see that the faeries were swooping in and out and taking bites from the prone figure, while others were gradually dragging them towards a gap in the roots of the tree.
The same faerie that had spoken to her before swooped back in front of her face, and she realised that the cyan complexion of their face and hands was covered with a slick, crimson sheen.
A clever lure. You are still a friend to the fae, even though we feared you had forgotten us.
Ella gripped her purse tight and jumped upright, wincing at the pain in her head before looking down at the grisly tableau of the downed man being gradually eviscerated by the faeries and dragged towards the tree.
She turned on her heels and fled, feeling a tingle of electricity as she passed the area marked out by the stones around the tree and ran as quickly as she could for home.
The morning broke like any other and Ella tended to the wound on her head, before attempting to make sense of her dream over a cup of tea. She reckoned that a combination of one too many drinks after work and a scare on the way home had made her trip and then a minor concussion accounted for the silly memory of faerie people. In any case, she had business in town this morning, so she showered, dressed and headed back out towards the train station.
Passing through the gap in the houses, she couldn’t help but notice that the base of the tree seemed slick as if with resin and the blossoms had a pink tinge that they hadn’t shown the day before yesterday. Unable to avoid looking closer, she saw a small pile of shining objects scattered just outside the circle of the stones which appeared to be the various metallic parts of a smashed up watch, some dull coins, a set of keys and something that look distressingly like a metal tooth filling.
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the flitting of a luminous shape, and she heard the sound of laughter like bells.
She walked on quickly as the tree and its inhabitants watched her go.
For Fey, who taught me that faeries are real.
All my love, Chris.