The Forest ~ Prologue

~ The Tale of Mad Meg ~

Everyone knew young Margaret Forrester wasn’t right in the head. Pixie-mazed, they’d mutter, casting thinly suspicious glances whenever she passed by, although she mostly avoided the village, her days spent roaming the Forest, aye, and nights too. Drove her poor mother to distraction it did.
In vain, she’d take young Margaret with her to the village well where the other women congregated to do their weekly wash, her smile fixed as she chatted, putting on a brave front of respectability, of normality, when all the time…
When all the time the lass would sit there, corn silk hair escaping from whatever arrangement her mother had forced it into, skirts riding up slim, bare legs tanned from the sun, bearing the scars of many an excursion into some briar patch or other, dreamy grey eyes unfocused, fixed on some point in the distance. She sees right through a body; the women would complain, once Dora Forrester had gathered up her recalcitrant daughter and made her disappointed way home. It’s as if she’s seeing something, they told their husbands, shivering at the memory, something unearthly, unnatural.
She saw people in the Forest, she said, would come home with such tales of encounters and adventures her older, more practical and unimaginative brother, Tom, would snort with derision, raising brows to the ceiling. But her father would narrow his steady, grey eyes in silent speculation, before telling his son to lay off teasing the poor lass.
One day, Margaret Forrester did not come home. At first unconcerned, merely annoyed, as day turned to evening and still no Margaret, Dora Forrester felt the first small frisson of fear. Her menfolk returned from their daily work in the Forest to be greeted with tightly controlled panic, immediately took lanterns and returned to the dusky glades and shadowy life of the twilight Forest, searching until darkness fell and they were forced to retreat to the safety of the outside world.
For the next three days, they searched. Word spread, anxious villagers trooped to the small cottage by the Forest, bearing gifts of food and drink, and words of comfort for poor Dora Forrester, fair near off her head with worry.
The young Lord also joined the search; being the only other apart from the forester and his family with the ability to enter the Forest. It was he who found her wandering a sun dappled glade, eyes blank and unseeing, humming a sweet ditty of lost love that made his skin creep with unfathomable unease.
Carefully, she was carried to the Hall. A healer was sent for, but for seven days and seven nights she lay as if in a trance and spoke not a single word, her eyes wide and frightening, and apart from a little warm milk, not one morsel of food did she eat.
The Lord, having persuaded her exhausted parents to rest for a few moments in an adjoining room, sat by her bedside, wondering what fate could have befallen the lass as to leave her witless. Suddenly, her expression cleared, and she looked at him. He saw the sanity resting in those gentle grey eyes and his heart rejoiced.
“I must tell you,” she whispered.
He leant closer, listening in puzzled disbelief as she murmured a rhyme, the like of which he’d never heard before.
“It must be remembered!” She clutched his arm in sudden passion, face twisted with anguish.
Moved by her urgency, the Lord sent for her parents and a scribe, and over and again Margaret spoke the words and they were copied down, exactly as she commanded. Only when she was satisfied they were correct did she fall back upon her pillow, spent and exhausted.
“But Meg,” begged her mother, taking her daughter’s cold, white hands in her own. “Where have you been? Who told you these words?”
“A man,” she whispered. “I met a man made of leaves, with roots for hair, who looked at me with eyes that burnt like fire. He put the words into my head, told me they must never be forgotten.”
Then her pretty eyes went still, and that young fey soul slipped away.
Years turned into centuries.
The tale of Margaret became a fairy tale none believed, a story to scare children at bedtime, “stay away from the Forest or Mad Meg will get you.” But her words, the words she’d caused to be written down, they were not forgotten, but passed into tradition and every year, at the most important village events, are faithfully recited by the villagers. Ignorant of their true meaning or intent, they are merely ancient ritual, comforting in their familiarity.
None ever stopped to wonder at their true purpose…

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