Written by Hillary Hunter / Artwork by Marge Simon
Beneath the Faerie Tree
































The mother screams, the father coaches, and the doctors instruct, “Push, push.”

The young parents pant with expectation, waiting for their child’s first gasp, but nothing comes. An agitated
mother cries out with a prayer, an exclamation of exchange, anything to the heavens, to the earth, to hell below to
make their baby live.

The doctors look to the stillborn child and then to each other. There was nothing that could be done, but there was
one thing that could be arranged. Such an exclamation could be honored. For these were no ordinary doctors.

~ * ~

Time stops. A dim memory, an emotional experience, and an exhausted situation. A contract is brought up,
outside of normal time. The room is no longer the room, and their stillborn child is no longer just a stillborn
child. An exchange, a deal, a contract, a choice. Death for life with perks.

“You can have a baby, in the gender of your choosing, and living. All you must do is allow us to have the remains
of yours.”

“I want a girl. I wanted a girl,” sobbed the bereft mother.

“A girl it is. All yours. Now, just for the contract.” The doctor took the stillborn child in his arms with a tender
look, laid it on a table that wasn’t quite a table: a small incision, whispered words, an odd humming noise, stated
terms to which were agreed, and the contract was complete. The other doctor, who wasn’t quite the same now as
he had been before, re-entered. Their child was taken away…Another left in its place.

~ * ~

Time seemed to stop. It seemed to pass. Things transpired. It was all a blur, but the couple looked to each other,
knowing God’s presence was among them and their prayer would be heard. They sat in expectation for yet another
moment, the father watching as the child the doctor held lie motionless in his hands still, and, then, with a gentle
tap of the chest and a small squeeze of its left arm, the baby not only breathed, but laughed.

“Life is given, and life is taken away. You have a baby girl. Her name?”

“Mara.” The father stated.

“A beautiful name.” The doctor smiled as he looked down into the baby’s clear green eyes that stared knowingly
back up at him.

~ * ~

The Johnson couple returned home famous, their tale of prayer, faith, and resurrection preceding them. The whole
town stood in awe, offering help, support, and admonishments only just for the sight of this child.

At home, the scene was not so equally accepting. Julius, the firstborn, was not as thrilled to see there was a baby,
that it was a girl, and that it looked nothing like him. His long, angelic blond hair and porcelain skin stood in stark
contrast to this baby’s dark hair, olive skin, and green, green eyes. He disliked this creature immediately.

Mara was a good baby. She never cried. She never fussed. She was always cheerful. Life was a joy for her.

Unfortunately, her love for life was not infectious. As soon as her fame wore off, the family quickly grew tired of
her. She wasn’t a bother. It was just that, well, she was just too damn happy, half the time for no reason at all.
She wasn’t natural. She wasn’t needy. She just simply was.

Six months passed, and she was nearly twice the size of the children her age and talking in full sentences. So much
so, the couple was embarrassed for her to be seen out. This was not the fame they had asked for. This miracle
they had brought upon themselves was beginning to draw all the wrong attention. It had become inconvenient for
them. They had wanted a normal baby, but, no matter how hard they tried, they could not conceive again.

~ * ~

Years passed and Mara went to school. She enjoyed school. It was a wondrous place where stories were told,
children talked, and children played. She watched the world around her, marveling at it like a blooming flower.

One day, Mara was sitting off on her own, as she always sat, playing by herself, as she always played, when
another child came over to sit beside her. Boogers ran down his face as his nasally voice addressed her, “I heard
Santa isn’t coming to your house this year. I heard you are on the naughty list, and that is why no one ever plays
with you.”

Mara looked at the boy and smiled sadly. “Oh, no, Santa doesn’t come to my house, because Santa isn’t real.”

The boy’s face froze in shock, turned white with horror, red with anger, and then slightly green as he burst into
tears. The teacher came over immediately, pulling him away from Mara with a look of plain disdain. In minutes, the
entire class was crying, grieving for Santa. Mara sat aside in her corner quietly watching in wonder as the adults
scowled at her in rage, for this was not the first time this had happened because of something Mara had said.

Days later, Mara was removed from school. Her parents, embarrassed by their daughter who did nothing but
publically embarrass them every chance she could, decided it was best she had as little exposure to the outside
world as possible.

And from there, our story begins in earnest.

~ * ~

It was Mara’s 13th birthday. No party was in order, because Mara didn’t have any friends to invite to a party. But
still, it was a special day for her, because it also happened to be Halloween as well. The Johnsons were Christians,
firm and founded, especially since they held the town’s resurrection story, so they didn’t celebrate Halloween. But,
Mara didn’t let that keep her from participating in her own little way. At night, she would watch the other children
from her bedroom window as they made their way around the neighborhood screaming “trick or treat” and
collecting candy in their different costumes.

Mara smiled to herself all day, thinking of the secret watching she would do later that evening when the full moon
rose and all the children came out. She wondered who would be what this year.  

Mara was skinning potatoes for dinner in the kitchen that afternoon when her brother, Julius came home from
school. Mara was so rapt in thought she didn’t notice he was standing there until he addressed her.

“Mara.”

She jumped and turned around to look at him. He had an odd smile on his face.

“I need your help with something upstairs.”

Now, Julius was allowed to go trick or treating to maintain appearances with his friends. The Johnsons’ didn’t want
him being at any social disadvantage. The Johnson’s didn’t let children come to their house, but Julius was allowed
to go to other people’s houses as a compromise.

“Do you need help with your costume?” Mara asked excitedly.

Julius looked confused for a moment. “Big kids don’t wear cost—” Then he cut himself off. “Oh, right. Uh, yes, yes,
Mara. I need your help with my costume. I wanted to see what you thought.”

It was Mara’s dream to go out in costume on Halloween for her birthday, and helping Julius with his costume was
the next best thing. Julius never asked her for help with anything. He actually really disliked her and ignored her
most of the time. So, this sudden acknowledgement was very exciting for Mara.  

Mara nodded. “Sure.” She followed him upstairs to his room.

Upstairs, Julius closed the door behind them and locked it. He sat down on his bed and looked at Mara with that
same odd smile he’d had downstairs. “I actually don’t need help with my Halloween costume.” His face turned
wicked as he unbuttoned his pants. She stepped away as he grabbed her arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Later, Mara returned to the kitchen to finish peeling the potatoes she had left behind so foolishly earlier. Her whole
body felt different. She seethed with anger. She would never be so stupid again.

~ * ~

Halloween’s trick or treaters were the furthest thing from Mara’s mind as she laid in bed that night. Mara had always
been different, but she had never FELT different before. And, it wasn’t just her. Everything was different. The tree
outside her window moved, but there was no breeze. The moon in the sky seemed to have a face with eyes that
watched, moved, gazed downwards. As she observed this, she was sure she saw something that looked like a
witch on a broomstick cross in front of the moon.

~ * ~

The following morning, she distinctly heard voices coming from the walls. As they became clearer, she realized it
was the wood paneling. Each board had a face, and each board had something to say.

“It’s about time she finally stopped smiling and started looking around her,” the panel to her left said.

“Not right, not right,” chanted another.

“Ah, they are in for it now. Bond one, broken, I say, broken,” the floor below agreed.

Mara’s eyes darting from one board to another, listening to their chatter until she went to move and realized she
couldn’t. Looking down, she saw her feet were no longer her feet, but they were roots fastened to the floor.

“Ah, now she sees, now she sees.”

“And hears too!”

“Never be the same that one, never be the same.”

Mara gasped. “What’s going on?”

“Now, you listen to us, missy. Go to the woods. Find the witch. She will tell you.”

And, just as soon as the voices had started, they went away, and her feet were her feet again.

~ * ~

Mara didn’t hear the walls talk for the rest of that week, but a few days later she found herself walking through the
woods behind the house. She walked until she came to a field on the other side of the woods. She had never seen
this field before, and it confused her. She stood at the forest’s edge looking out. A raggedy fox that wove its way
through the tall grass came to a stop and looked at her. His eyes met hers directly, and she watched his nose
wiggle from side to side as he caught her scent.

“You don’t smell like you look.” The fox said suspiciously. He took a few cautious steps towards her.

Mara cocked her head to the side.

The fox sniffed the ground in front of him and then pounced on a nearby baby rabbit, catching it in his jaws with a
deadly snap before continuing over towards her. He stopped at a cautious distance. His mouth was muffled now, as
he talked around the dead bunny, “Ooo ‘ell ‘ike ‘eh ‘oods.”

Mara’s brow furrowed. “What?”

The fox rolled its eyes and spit the bunny out. “You smell like the woods, but you look like one of _them_.”

“A human, you mean?”

“Of course, a human,” he huffed, picking up his bunny again. He waltzed off in the opposite direction, leaving Mara
alone again. Mara considered following him, but he was gone from sight in a matter of seconds. Only then did she
realize she had just spoken with fox.

Mara crossed the field until she reached the trees on the other side. There, she noticed a group of vultures sitting
in the trees above her. The day had been very rainy only a few hours before, and a thick mist covered the world
around them as the sun beat down on the wet ground. The vultures were stationed around the tree facing each
other with their wings spread out wide.

One vulture spoke to the other, “Did you hear all the commotion in the forest last night. Witch Betty had the deer
running all about.”

“She could at least lend us a hand and leave the darn body behind. Seriously, what could she possibly need it ALL
for?”

“The raccoon I shared a carcass with the other night said he had raided her trash and heard her muttering about
some changes on the wind and all that.”

“I still don’t understand what she needs a dead deer for.”

Mara stood below the tree listening to their chatter. She was quite taken with the whole story. “Excuse me, but
who are you talking about?”

One of the vultures flapped his wings silently and blinked down at her, startled. “What on the air are you?”

“She is most definitely alive, but I didn’t smell ‘er coming.” Said another vulture, flapping his wings and jumping
down to a lower branch. “You haven’t happened to see anything dead about, have you? It’s been too wet to have a
look about yet today.”

Mara shook her head. “No.”

“I say we go check the roads. I hate fast food, but it’s an easy meal, and I’m hungry.” Said the vulture highest up
in the tree. They all flapped their wings then and took off, circling over the field slowly until they flew out of sight.

The trees were bigger here, and they seemed to hum along with the slight breeze that blew. They each took
different notes, and their leaves kept rhythm as they clapped. She listened to their song as she made her way
deeper into the forest. Their singing got louder and louder, and she found herself singing along. She felt as if she
knew the song, as if she had always known it.

She carried on, her feet gliding across the ground as if she were flying now. And suddenly, the song stopped, and
she looked up to find herself standing beside the largest Sycamore tree she had ever seen. Its branches curled and
reached far up into the sky and all around. She marveled at it for a long time before noticing its leaves were black
and that all had grown still and silent, a silence that rang in her ears like iron as she stood below the tree’s
branches. It was so contrary to the trees around it, she couldn’t understand it.

“It’s sleeping,” a deep, velvety voice said. “It’s been asleep for many, many years now.”

Mara turned to see a large white stag standing beside her. His antlers reached out like the branches of the giant
tree, far beyond the width of his body. Mara startled.

The deer looked at her for a moment with his large, black eyes. “How did you find this place?”

“I just followed the song of the trees.” She said.

“This place is hidden.” He said, peering at her even more piercingly.

She didn’t know what to say, but she felt as if he was telling her to leave. She didn’t want to leave, though. She
wanted to wake the tree up, to ask it questions, to hear what it had to say. She felt that was what she should do.
“How—”

The sound of a hunting horn and hounds broke through the quiet around them. The two of them jumped. The
giant buck regarded her again. “That is Witch Betty. She is on the hunt again. I must see to my own before she
captures yet another one of our yearlings. You would be wise to be gone from here as well. Night is falling.”

The deer left, passing through the forest with soft footfalls as he leaped from trail to trail. She looked up at the
tree tops and noticed their blood red tips from the final rays of the setting sun. She decided to make her way back
now, wondering what sort of trouble she would be in when she returned home. It was much later than she had
thought.

Only, now, the trail that led her here seemed to groan as if chained. She listened to it grumbling as it fought with
someone or something. She made her way along in the waning light, but the trail seemed to be taking her in a
different direction than before.

And, then she entered a clearing and came upon a small cottage. It had a cozy fire burning from the chimney. She
certainly hadn’t seen this on her way into the woods along this trail.

The ground groaned again, as if released from its chains. A woman appeared out of nowhere as a small deer leapt
into the clearing behind Mara. Mara’s presence distracted the woman from cleaving the young deer’s head off, and it
bounded back into the woods bleating, “Beware the witch!”

“My, my what have we here?” Said the witch. She stomped on the ground and looked down, speaking to it, “Well,
you’ve outdone yourself this time, good old earth! You brought me the very thing I was looking for but didn’t know
how to find!”

The witch came over and sniffed at Mara. “It’s you alright.”

Mara shook her head. “What on earth do you mean?”

The witch looked confused. “What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’ You’ve set the trees to chattering for the last
week.”

Mara remembered what the floorboards had said earlier that week. “Are you the witch?”

Witch Betty reached out and grabbed Mara’s arm. She prodded the skin inside her left forearm where she had an
odd, squiggly reddish black mark. Her mother had always said it was a birthmark. “Ah ha! Now, that explains it. You
are still bound.” She squinted at Mara. “But, which bond were they stupid enough to break so you could go
wandering about?”

“I don’t have a clue what you are talking about.” Mara said. “But, I need to be getting home now.”

“Home? Where do you live now?”

Mara noticed a broom stick leaning against the door frame of the cottage. “I’ve seen you riding that at night. Would
you take me home on it?”

Witch Betty looked at the broomstick. “Have you now? That’s curious. That’s some powerful magic you’ve been
weaving to break through my invisibility spell, then.”

Mara shook her head. “No, no magic. I see you at night. Out my window.”

“Is it a magic mirror that you’re using?” Betty asked. “Please say you have a magic mirror. I’ll let you _have_ my
broomstick if you just let me see your magic mirror for one second…”

Mara was offended at that. She wrenched her arm out of Witch Betty’s hand and backed away from the cottage. “I’
m leaving.”

Witch Betty laughed. “Are you, now? You sure you know your way home? It’s dark now, and the forest has a mind
of its own at night, cursed as it is and all. Even the forest creatures who call this place home don’t wander around
without a cause after dark.”

“Well, I have to get home.”

“Alright, alright. Let’s come to a deal then. You stay here with me tonight, and I will take you home tomorrow
morning.”

“My parents will kill me if I’m not home.”

“Are you sure they are really your parents, then?” Witch Betty said, cocking her head to the side and squinting. “I
will make sure no harm comes to you. Now, stay. The forest is too dangerous at night.”

“How do I know I can trust you?” Mara said suspiciously.

“I won’t be taking any blood, hair, skin, or nails. I swear it.” A seal formed in the air, white as light, and then
vanished. “There, you have my word.”

Mara looked at where the light seal had appeared and vanished. “What was that?”

“My, my, you have a lot to learn.”

Mara looked at the witch, puzzled.

“Come with me.” Witch Betty made her way into the cottage.

Mara heard a scream from the forest behind her and saw what looked like a possum scurry across the trail behind
her, only it had hideous fangs and horns growing from its head. The night air was cold, and a creepy chill ran down
her spine. This place was not an ordinary forest…

“Come on now, before SHE catches whiff of you, and we both come to our ends.”

“Who?”

“Time enough for that. Now, get inside!”

Mara stepped into the cottage and instantly felt warmer, safer.

~ * ~

Witch Betty didn’t say anything as she set out two bowls and filled them with warm venison stew from a large pot
over the fireplace. She handed one bowl to Mara and sat down with the other. “There, now no talking ‘til we’ve
eaten. That’s how I do things.”

Mara sniffed at the stew. She thought of the poor deer the vultures had talked about, the large buck she had met
earlier, and finally the frantic yearling who had just barely escaped death moments before. She felt sick. She couldn’
t eat the stew. Something about it was just wrong.

“What’s the matter with ye’! Eat up!”

Mara was caught somewhere between anger and fear. She stared at the witch.

“Oh. So, you are real then.” She reached over and took Mara’s bowl. “Very well, then. I guess I won’t be getting
away with that. More for me.” The witch returned to her meal. When she was done, she patted her belly, leaned
back, and burped before meeting Mara’s gaze with a creepy stare. “Me first. Who are you?”

“My name is Mara, and I live up off the road beyond the field.”

“That’s a ways from here.” She squinted. “I was sure you were closer than that with how all the trees have been
chatter day in and day out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they are sure you will break the curse, free the Faerie Tree, and defeat the Dark Faerie. A bunch of nonsense
if you ask me. You being bound and all!”

“What do you mean, bound?”

Witch Betty pointed to Mara’s arm. “That mark. It means the family you live with owns you. You are the family’s
Faerie. What they did to deserve you is beyond me.” The witch shook her head. “What did they do?”

Mara shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Hhmm.” The witch puzzled. “Was there anything special about the way you was born?”

Mara thought for a moment. “Well, yes, there was. I was stillborn. My mother prayed, and then I came to life. It
was the talk of the town.”

“Anything unusual about your childhood?”

“Not until recently.” Mara shook her head.

“Huh. And, when were you born?”

“I’m thirteen.”

“I knew it!” Witch Betty stood up triumphantly. She wandered over to the shelf. “That’s the same year the Reapers
came and the curse began.”

“Who are the Reapers?”

Witch Betty took an old book down from a shelf near the back of the room. Except it was no ordinary book. She
mumbled questions at it, and pictures and odd words drew and wrote themselves across the pages. “They are
Vampires who deal in magical beings. They harvest and assign Faerie babies to families, trap and sell unicorns,
collect stillborn children, etc.” Betty looked over at Mara. “According to this,” She pointed at the book, “You must
be the Faerie Tree’s missing Faerie. I wonder what your family traded for you.” Witch Betty squinted her eyes in
thought and stared off at the ceiling for a long while before mumbling at the book some more and then looking at
Mara eerily and saying, “It must have been their real stillborn child.”

“You’re saying my parents aren’t my parents?”

She mumbled at the book some more and then inhaled sharply before slamming it shut. “You must have been given
to them under contract in exchange for their stillborn child. Lots of dark magic can be done with a stillborn baby,
that’s for sure!” Betty said, thinking out loud.  

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t.” Betty said. She flung the book back open, “Your ‘parents’ think you’re theirs.” She laughed.
“What a perfect mess!”

“I—”

“Hush! I will explain.” Betty brought the book over and sat down with it. She paged through it for a few moments
before looking up at Mara. “You see. Each Faerie Forest has a Faerie Tree. Each Faerie Tree has a Faerie. Faerie
Trees make a Faerie every one thousand years. Faeries plant Faerie trees and make Faerie Forests, and so on.”

“Okay. And, who or what are Reapers?”

“The Reapers are two vampires who caught on to this process and started going around and stealing baby Faeries
from Faerie Trees before they were grown. Then, they auctioned off the forests to other Faeries and traded the
Faerie babies. In this case, they traded you for the stillborn child.” Witch Betty shook her head. “I wonder how they
managed to do it though. I mean, they have to bring up the contract and sign it in blood for it to work.”

“She prayed. She said she prayed…” Mara said, shaking her head.

“That must have been it. A vision or something. They must have disguised it in a fast track vision. You know those
Vampires, they can entrance people, and they must have been highly suggestible, especially if they were Christians.
Those people are highly suggestible. Had to be, or they wouldn’t have broken one of the bonds already.”

“What do you mean, ‘bonds’?” Mara asked.

“Oh, right. That. Well, when a Faerie is bound to a family for whatever reason—back in the day, old Faeries used to
bind young Faeries to families in exchange for land preservation deals and the such. Anyway, there are three rules
or bonds that hold the Faerie to the family. As each bond is broken, the Faerie gains more freedom and power.”

“So, that’s why I am suddenly hearing animals and trees speak?” Mara asked skeptically.

“Exactly why! And, work magic too. And, enter enchanted forests, for that matter.”

“Is this an enchanted forest?”

“It is.” Witch Betty nodded. “Which is probably why you never noticed it before.”

“What are the three bonds?” Mara asked.

“There is the bond of servitude which is broken if and when the Faerie works for the family for seven years. There is
the bond of blood, which is broken if and when a member of the family spills the Faerie’s blood. And then, there is
the bond of innocence, which is broken if and when a member of the family has sex with the bound Faerie.”

Mara gulped and stared. “So, what happens when the three bonds are broken?”

“You are free to be a Faerie. And, as each bond is broken, you gain more and more of your powers. You’ve gained
a lot of power, I must say. How many bonds have they broken?”

“I don’t know.” Mara said absently.

“Well, how many years have you been working for them?”

“What sort of work?”

“House work, working for the family business, cleaning, cooking, chores?”

“Maybe three years, since I was about ten or so. They have me do all the chores and cook.”

“And, you are thirteen now? Have you worked every day?”

“Just about.”

“Then, give or take, you have about four more years on the servitude bond, so it wasn’t that one.” Witch Betty
squinted. “Did anyone hit you, or make you bleed?”

Mara though. “Well, they hit me sometimes, but, no, no one has ever made me bleed, at least not on purpose.”

Witch Betty stared at Mara. “Then, that leaves the third bond, and they’ve obviously broken a bond. The third
bond is what’s won Faeries their more seductive reputations…Did, um, well—”

Mara’s face became very red. “I don’t want to talk about it. After that is when the floorboards and the trees started
talking.”

“Well, it seems you are on the fast track to freedom, then.”

“But, what’s wrong with this forest’s Faerie Tree? Why are its leaves black?”

“You saw it?” Witch Betty asked.

“Yes. I saw it today when I met the big white stag.”

Witch Betty looked spellbound. “I have been searching this forest for years looking for its Faerie Tree, and you find
it on your first day.” She shook her head. “Well, maybe all the tree’s talking isn’t nonsense. Still, you have a lot to
learn if you are going to beat HER.”

“Who?”

“The Dark Faerie who presides over this forest. She has for the last decade or so. She is a powerful dark demon
wielding creature. I’ve never encountered anyone like her before. I can only work my magic here during the daytime
or with great effort on full moons at night. Her hold over the forest is unlike any I have ever seen. Still, even she
can’t find the Faerie Tree of this forest. It’s the reason I moved here. It’s the most powerful tree around, powerful
enough to hide itself from her. I can’t believe you saw it. What did it look like?’

“It’s leaves were black. It looked dead.”

“Oh, it’s not dead, but, if she finds it, it will be along with every living thing in this forest.”


Mara wasn’t quite sure just what Witch Betty did, but, when the sun rose, Mara left the Enchanted Forest and
walked home, and it was as if no time had passed at all since the day before when she had entered the Enchanted
Forest.

~ * ~

The next four years or so passed, and the last day of her servitude bond found her mowing the lawn and chopping
wood out in the yard. She was working hard to dismember an old, dead apple tree with an extremely dull ax when
she hit one of the branches weird and another one of them came up and knocked her right in the temple. She fell
to the ground…

_The world above her seemed to split open. She could see stars in the sky even though it was broad daylight. She
saw things in the trees beyond the property she had never noticed before. They flew between the branches. One of
them was a woman in full Victorian garb. She had a perfect, pearly white complexion. When she felt Mara’s eyes on
her, she turned towards her and smiled. Her teeth were all sharp fangs. A monstrous, piercing howl broke through
the silence, and a tall, dark, prowling creature lurked in the shadows. Its mouth drooled a venom that dripped on
the ground around it, killing everything it came in contact with. It howled again and laughed. “We are waiting here
for you.” It said. “Just beyond the veil. Beware the forest at night!”_

Mara opened her eyes and looked around her. The world had returned to normal. She scanned the edge of the
forest, but nothing was there. Still, she felt different. She sat up and something about her arm caught her
attention. The squiggly black and red birthmark on her arm. It was now hard. She felt it cautiously. It felt like
something was under her skin, something foreign, almost like an extra bone. She shuddered, remembering her
vision.

~ * ~

That weekend, Mara, now 17, made her way back through the forest towards Witch Betty’s house. The second
bond had been broken. The world around her was clear, and its boundaries were blaring. She crossed over into the
Enchanted Faerie Forest she hadn’t visited since that day nearly four years before. She made sure to enter while it
was daytime though, as she didn’t want to encounter any of the dark creatures she had seen in her vision.  

She made her way along the trail, through the field, and into the enchanted forest. The trees no longer hummed as
they did before, and the air was thick and dark, like syrup. It hung. She set her intentions towards finding Witch
Betty’s house, and even as she did, the trail formed. Its borderlines glistened as the trees seemed to part for her
to pass.

She came to the clearing and entered. No smoke billowed from the chimney. The roof of the cottage was in
disrepair. The yard looked as if no one had been here in at least a year. Mara walked up to the door and knocked.
Finally, when there was no answer, she opened the door. What she found was not what she expected.

Witch Betty lie shriveled on the ground before the fireplace where the two of them had sat years before. Mara
walked over and knelt beside her. She reached out to touch the woman, and her body, completely void of an ounce
of fluid, disintegrated into dust. Witch Betty was dead. She’d been dead for a long time.

Frantic, Mara stood up and walked over to the table looking for any sign of what might have happened. There,
beneath a pile of leaves and other rubbish, she saw a small shiny stone that seemed to call her name. She reached
out and picked it up. As she did, the room around her came to life with shadows.

A tall, blond, curly haired, almost angelic being stood before Witch Betty. He looked to be rather young, but he was
well built. He towered over the old woman who didn’t seem to fear him as much as he wanted her to.

“We told you to bring her to us. Why didn’t you?”

Witch Betty glared up at him.

The tall man stepped closer. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with the song the trees are singing, would it?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. As you know, the trees sing what they will. I hold no sway here. I just
live here.”

“Why didn’t you bring her to us?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” Witch Betty’s voice quavered a little.

“Then, you leave me no choice.” The tall figure seized Witch Betty. Two large fangs came from his mouth as he
brought her old, wrinkled neck to his mouth and began to drink. He drained her dry and left her there. As she died,
the witch managed to bespell a nearby rock so whoever came along afterwards to find her would know what had
happened.

Mara hadn’t known Witch Betty for very long, but, Mara felt the witch’s loss. Her heart was heavy as she left the
cabin and came to stand in the clearing. She looked up at the sky and the surrounding trees, and she felt a song
rise upon the wind. She heard its words, and she hummed along. She raised her hands, and spoke the words that
came upon the wind. The trees along the clearing began to sway, and just as the witch’s promise had formed a seal
in the air upon their last meeting, Mara’s words formed a pattern upon the wind that blew around the circumference
of the clearing. The cottage was remade and ceased to be. In its place rose a tree unlike those around it. It grew
and reached its branches towards the sky as Mara sang. Then, it unfurled itself and multi colored leaves of gold,
silver, and copper budded from its branches.

When Mara’s song was sung, a light seemed to shine from the tree in the clearing like a beacon into the dark forest
around it. Almost, as if in answer to a call, the white stag Mara had met before entered the clearing and came to
stand before her. He bowed himself before her and said.

“When the time comes, you will have my heart.”

The moist air from his snout blew down on Mara’s face when he rose and stood before her, and she raised her
hand and touched his snout. “Thank you.” No other words passed between them for a long while. Many creatures
came to stand in the clearing around the tree.

“The forest has grown darker, and the Dark Faerie who governs it has spawned a demon whose power is pure evil.
You are our last hope.” The white stag backed away to stand with the other creatures, two of each kind from
around the whole forest. “We shall stand with you when the time comes.”

Then, rather shyly, a fox with a rather shabby coat came to stand before her. He was very familiar, and Mara
recognized him as the fox that she had met in the clearing years before.

He smiled up at her hopefully and said, “I was the first to see you coming. Since then, I have waited for you to
return. If you will have me, I would like to go with you wherever you go.”

Mara knelt down beside the fox and smiled. “What is your name?”

“Vixen.”

“It would be an honor to have you with me.”

The white stag let out a call, the wolves that had gathered began to howl, the squirrels chattered, and all the birds
began to sing. A new Faerie Tree had been planted. Hope resided in the forest again.

~ * ~

A year later, Mara graduated from high school. The night of the ceremony, Julius came home from college for the
summer with a new friend. The two of them arrived just as Mara finished making dinner. The Johnsons were very
excited to see their son and meet his mysterious new friend.

Everyone gathered around the table as Mara brought the food in and set it on the table. She was still wearing the
green dress she had graduated in earlier that evening. Julius’s friend noticed.

“My parents were at the ceremony tonight. They said you looked very beautiful up there on stage, Mara.” He smiled
at her.

She thanked him and asked if there was anything else that she could get anyone before she left.

“You aren’t joining us, Mara?” Julius’s friend asked.

Julius and the Johnson’s looked at each other. Mr. Johnson spoke. “Mara…” He looked over at her, “I’m sure there
is something else you have to do, right?”

She nodded and began to leave the room. It had been years since she had eaten with them at the dinner table.
They didn’t enjoy her company. She made them all uncomfortable somehow.

“Are you going to a graduation party, then?” Julius’s friend asked. “Stay for a bit, and we will go with you.”

Julius shook his head. “I’m sure she isn’t going to a party. She doesn’t have any friends.” He glared at Mara, willing
her to leave.

Julius’s friend smiled at Mara again. His smile caught her attention. A power seemed to ripple from him, affecting
everyone around him. There was something odd about his smile. He looked familiar. She noticed his angelic blond
hair and broad shoulders. It had been almost a year since she had seen the shadow memory from the stone Witch
Betty left behind after her brutal murder, but she remembered the creature that murdered her, and Julius’s friend
looked just like him. Mara felt the room shift. She felt the power of this being who sat next to Julius like a black
hole, drawing the attention towards himself and redirecting it into chaos.

She turned away from him and looked at Julius, “Where did you say you met your friend, Julius?” She asked. “He
looks vaguely familiar.”

Julius looked up at his friend. “I doubt you know him.”

Mara turned her head sideways. “What was your name again?”

Julius’s friend’s smile grew wider and more wicked. He became more and more obvious in the room, as everyone
looked at him like they looked at her. Like Mara, he was different, but they didn’t understand how.

Mara caught a flash of red outside the window as Vixen peeked in, drawn to the growing tension of power. His face
panted with worry. Julius’s friend noticed as well. “There’s that darn dog we saw earlier!”

Julius looked out the window and saw the fox. “That’s no dog! That’s a fox!” Julius looked over towards his father.
“And, what do we do to foxes, Dad?” There was almost a drunken giddiness to his voice, as if he wasn’t quite
himself.

Julius’s friend’s smile broadened.

Mr. Johnson laughed back at his son, encouragingly. The two of them jumped out of their seats. Julius grab the
loaded gun that hung over the dining room doorway. “I’ll show you what we do to foxes in this family!” He aimed
the gun out the open window towards Vixen, who had noticed his danger but refused to go away, drawn towards
the danger he felt Mara was in.

Julius was cruel, but he wasn’t this cruel. Mara looked to the new comer and knew he had bespelled the entire table.
His chaotic influence melted off of him like smoke from a fire. Mr. Johnson yelled in excitement, watching as his son
fired it at the fox, who yelped and ran away. Julius fired again. Mara lunged across the room to grab the gun away.
As she did, Julius’s friend knocked her directly into the line of fire. Mara was shot. She fell to the floor and gasped.

Blood poured from her right shoulder where the bullet had entered and exited. A rush of power overwhelmed her
as she felt the third bond break. A tearing feeling erupted from her back as something large expanded from her rib
cage. She turned and looked to Julius’s friend, and she saw him for who he was. Time seemed to stop. She saw
straight to the core of his being. “You are Legion, the demon the Great Stag had warned me about.” She said
standing to her feet.

His face grew pale, realizing his actions had released Mara from her last bond to the family. But, then, a wicked grin
spread across his face as he grabbed a cloth napkin from the table and caught some of the blood that poured from
her shoulder with it. Then, Legion spoke a string of ancient words and vanished into thin air.

Time resumed. Mara stood in the room. Julius was still holding the gun he had shot her with. His father was behind
him. Mrs. Johnson stood on the opposite side of the table. They stared at her in horror. Julius aimed the gun at her
to shoot her again, but this time on purpose.

Mara realized then what they were staring at. A full set of human sized eagle wings had unfolded from her back. Her
shoulder pulsed blood, and she felt herself draining, but at the same time she felt more full of power than ever
before. She was free. She raised her hand as Julius raised the gun. He fired again, and she stopped the bullet in
midair. Time froze yet again. She could feel Vixen’s pain, off somewhere hidden and vulnerable. She had to find him
before it was too late. She looked at the still faces of what had served as her family for the last 18 years of her life,
and she was glad to leave them behind.

She spoke a spell, and instantly they all forgot she existed. She spoke another spell, and just as suddenly she was
no longer in the room, and Julius was firing his gun at nothing. She smiled, leaving them with that last bit of
confusion.

~ * ~

Mara flew to find Vixen. He was hiding in a nearby thicket. She gathered him up in her arms and flew them off to a
hidden place on the edge of the Faerie Forest and laid him down. He shook with pain and blood loss. Julius’s gun
had hit him in the side and shattered his right rear leg. She reached out towards him and placed her hand gently
over his wound. “I will make this right.” She whispered.

Mara’s eyes turned black as she reached out with her mind to find the power needed to save Vixen. She pressed,
searching. The trees around her groaned sleepily as they responded to her call and lent their life force to heal
Vixen. She stretched out her hand over his wound and pushed the tree’s energy into healing Vixen.

She tasted the leaves of the trees, their bark. She felt the water their roots drew from the earth. Vixen stopped
shaking. The bones in his crushed leg regrew. His wound closed and fur grew back over it. Then, she went even
further and restored his matted coat to a full, luscious red. His tail filled out until it was bushy. He jumped up and
barked, licking her face.

Mara reversed the remaining power the trees had given her and returned what was left to the trees. Vixen looked
up at the trees with a sparkle of laughter in his eyes. “The trees. You made their leaves furry and red, like me.”

Mara smiled and looked up. Her wings had retracted back into her back. Her thoughts recounted all that had just
happened. “Legion.” She said softly. “He is the one who killed Witch Betty. He was back there at the house. He has
some of my blood now.”

As she said this, a piercing pain ran down her left arm. She looked at it and saw that the area where the hardened
bone-like mark had been began to turn black running vein-like up her arm. “What is it?” Mara asked.

“It looks like a curse.” Vixen said. “Let’s get you to the healing springs. Maybe the water sprites can do something
to help.”

Mara and Vixen trudged through the forest until they made their way to the healing springs. It was daytime now,
so the forest was safe. Mara lowered herself into the spring. The sprites flew over and began working on closing
Mara’s shoulder wound. Once that was done, they all looked at the spreading black veins that branched out across
Mara’s skin.

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” Asked Vixen.

The oldest sprite nodded. “It is similar to the plague that caused the Faerie Tree’s leaves to turn black.” He ran a
small finger along one of the lines. “You must go to the tree you planted where Witch Betty died, and you must ask
for the cauldron. Then, you must go to the Faerie Tree, and you must retrieve five of its leaves. From there, you
must go to the place where the Dark Faerie herself lives, and you must boil the leaves and the bone that is
embedded in your arm in the cauldron with water from these healing springs. It will undo her demon. Then, you
must kill her if you wish to reverse the curse and live.”

Mara thanked the sprite, and they made their way to the clearing where the new Faerie Tree was. There, she asked
the tree for the cauldron, and it laughed, a face forming in its trunk. “What cauldron? You must give me its name.”

Mara searched deep, deep within the earth and found its name, which hid within the farthest reaches of the trees
roots. “The Cauldron of Life.”

“Here you are then.” A small hole formed in the trunk of the tree, and the cauldron appeared.

“But, that cauldron is made of wood. It will burn.” Vixen said.

“No, it is special. You will see.”

From there, Mara followed the song of the trees to the Faerie Tree as she had before. There, Mara and Vixen
entered the cover of the ancient tree’s canopy, and they asked the tree for five leaves. Five black leaves fell from its
branches, all of which Mara gathered and put into the small wooden cauldron. She knelt under the cover of the tree
and closed her eyes. Her entire body was covered with the black veins of the curse now. She looked up at the black
leaves of the ancient Faerie Tree and said, “Now, we are the same.”

The Great Stag appeared then and came forward and knelt beside her. “Remember when I told you I would offer
you my heart when the time came?”

Mara turned and looked at the giant creature beside her. “I can’t.”

“You must. We all depend on it.”

Mara looked deep into his eyes.

“I will always be.”

Mara turned away and groaned. She looked towards the ancient Faerie Tree and asked. “Give me what I need to
perform this task.” A small wooden knife appeared on the ground from underneath one of the tree’s roots. Mara
took the knife, and, with tears in her eyes, she watched as the great stag laid itself down and sacrificed itself to her
and the tree. She cut out its heart and ate it as she was instructed.

Mara became aware of the world in a far more ancient way once the deed was done. She felt every living thing, and
she knew things she had not known before. She could feel the spirit of the Great Stag within her.

“It’s time.” She told Vixen, and the two of them left the Faerie Tree and made their way into the darkness, beyond
where any living thing would go, deep into the haunted heart of the Dark Faerie Queen’s lair. Dark spirits accosted
them from all sides, the creatures from the vision she had seen years ago and worse, but Mara cast spells to ward
off evil, and they carried on.

The Dark Queen’s Lair was an old, dead Faerie Tree, hollowed out and ridden with the bones of its Great Stag and
all the heads of the animal families that had once called this forest home. Vengeance burned strong in Mara’s blood.

Kneeling down, she made a fire, poured a flask of the sprite’s healing spring water into it, put the leaves from the
Faerie Tree into it, and then, taking the same knife she had used to kill the Great Stag, she dug the small, hard
bone out of her left arm. It was then she realized it was the small rib bone of a child. The stillborn child she had
been traded for. She dropped it into the cauldron, speaking a healing spell that closed her arm.

A howl of pain erupted from the Dark Queen’s Lair, and Legion materialized before them. Mara confronted him. “I
have come for you, just as you came for me.”

He smiled. “You think you are clever, but we have your blood, and we have cursed you. There is nothing you can do
to counter that with or without my bones.”

Mara looked at him and noticed just how much he looked like Julius. They could have been brothers. Then, she
realized they would have been brothers. He buckled in pain as the bone began to dissolve in the cauldron. Legion’s
hand went to his side.

“You were the stillborn child.” Mara said.

The sound of clapping announced The Dark Queen herself. “Congratulations. You figured it out.”

“You trapped…”

“—Demons inside the body of a dead child. My power quadrupled because of it.” She watched him as he drooled,
his body breaking down.

“Of course, you were the weakness. Those idiot humans didn’t know what they had, so they broke through all the
bindings that should have held you and the bone that could kill him for centuries.” She peered down at Mara. The
Dark Faerie Queen had to be at least 6’10”. “You are so small. So young. So weak. I could kill you in the blink of an
eye.” She turned to watch Legion begin to disintegrate. “I loved him, and I watch him die.” The Queen looked at
Mara. “Think of what I will do to you. Unless, that is, you want to beg, or better yet join me. Become my slave.”
The Dark Queen’s eyes burned with anger. “You will feel my pain.” She struck Vixen dead on the spot.

Mara watched in horror.

“How does it feel?” The Dark Faerie raised her hand towards Mara, and with a flick of her wrist sent Mara flying
backwards. “I have your blood, and, my curse, those black veins that run through your body, makes you mine to
do with you as I please.” She had a wicked laugh.

Mara turned and looked at the cauldron. She saw the dark leaves, they had just started to dissolve. She felt a
release of power. “You are nothing.” She whispered. Then again, she said it. “You are nothing.” She released herself
from the Dark Faerie’s hold and rose, burning on the power of the Great Stag, burning on the pain of the black,
dark power of the curse that coursed through her veins, burning on the grief caused by the destruction the Dark
Faerie unleashed past and present. She spoke ancient words and cast sigils into the air. She was a conduit for the
ancient Faerie Tree and the Great Stags’ power.

The Dark Queen, aware of her peril now tried to destroy the cauldron, realizing its purpose, but it was too late.
Mara soared up into the air, her wings spread. The Dark Queen took flight as well. The two of them battled. Ancient
against Ancient. Finally, Mara pulled upon a deep, dark, earthly place far within the depths of the earth, a place only
the ancient roots of the oldest living Faerie Trees knew, and with that knowledge, with that Power, she spoke words
that were older than the Dark Queen and unmade her.

And then, it was finished. She cast the dark hull of the Dark Queen’s lair down and burned it. She destroyed every
last inch of her and all she had. As she worked, it was as if a dark curtain was being drawn back from over the
forest. The curse was lifted. Life was restored.

When it was done, Mara gathered Vixen’s body into her arms and drew it close. She buried her head in his fur and
wept. “You said you would be there with me until the end, and even unto death you stayed.” Her tears fell upon his
fur, drenching it. Finally, when she could weep no more, she placed him within the cauldron, whose fire had long
burnt out. She picked it up and carried his body with her as she returned to the roots of the Ancient Faerie Tree.
All the creatures from the land came to watch her as she passed.

Once there, she rested Vixen’s body at the base of the Tree inside the cauldron and stepped back. The Tree’s
roots opened and took the cauldron, the knife, and Vixen’s body back to the heart of the earth. Mara’s grief was
great, but the joy of the forest was bounding. She sighed, falling to her knees and watched as the leaves of the
Faerie Tree changed from black to gold. She looked at the dark veins that ran all across her skin, but no such
change took place. She would bear the marks of the Dark Queen’s curse forever.

Then, a voice addressed her, and she looked up. A stag, the grown Buck of the very deer she had saved from
Witch Betty years before, walked towards her and knelt. “I will always be.” He said. The voice was the same. “You
saved me once, and you have saved us all. So, I give you this gift.” He breathed on her skin where the dark veined
scars branched out, and all watched as they took the forms of ancient sigils of peace, healing, and power. “May you
always have the strength and power of the Faerie Tree, The Great Stag, and Love to protect and keep us.” He
stepped back, bowed, and backed away.

Having received this blessing, Mara knelt down before the ancient tree and pledged herself to it, the tree from
whence she had come. In that moment, it’s knowledge became her knowledge. She knew the joy and grief of life
and death and all its power. When she rose, she was met with one last gift, the smiling face of her friend as he
barked and licked her face in greeting once more.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Hillary Hunter graduated with a Creative Writing degree
in 2011 and spends her days as a professional pet
sitter and her nights as a writer. She lives in a tiny
farmhouse built in 1703 near a small creek surrounded
by a giant field filled with wild life. She is married and
has three dogs. She loves her work and is passionate
about writing.