Ellie scowled, scuffing at the leaf mulch with her new sandals. Those stupid boys had run off and left her yet again. Even when mummy told them to keep an eye on her, they just disappeared, merging into the undergrowth to storm some silly castle or hunt the wild beasts that they always protested lived in the heart of the woods. Ellie scowled harder. There weren't any beasts in there, not like they said. There were no Higglelumps or Jabbawocks or Boogywoos. Nothing with fangs or red eyes or big, big claws like they told her there was. She suspected it was just a way to get rid of her so they could be boys, but still she stood just outside the back gate and frowned at the shade of the tree line a few meters away, pacing back and forth, occasionally taking a few hesitant steps closer only to jump away again when her nerve broke. It looked dark and enclosed and scarily quiet in there. She preferred the hot sun and open, gentle slope of the lawn.
With a huff, she sat on the edge of the low garden wall and crossed her arms, just like mummy did when daddy was late home from work and missed dinner. At least last time she'd got what he should have eaten - it was Chinese. She liked the prawn crackers, but not the noodles – they were slimy and reminded her of worms Matty had hidden in her bed. She'd screamed the house down until daddy set them free in the wood.
For a while she sat there, swinging her legs and bouncing her heels off the rough stone of the wall. She was bored. Mummy was in the house with her loud lady friends and had sent them outside to play, and Daddy was at work. Matty and Louie had let her help build a fort out of a blanket, but when she accidentally pulled one side down, they decided it was time for a boy's game, and girls weren't invited.
Suddenly, from the corner of her eye, Ellie saw a flash of shimmering colour. She leapt to the ground, goggling at the iridescent glimmer of the sun dancing across the delicate wings of a dragonfly. It hovered for a moment, and then darted to the left, to the right, closer to her and then away towards the trees. Entranced, Ellie followed across the open ground, but hesitated when the creature flitted into the shade of the trees. She caught sight of it again as the dappled light breaking through the canopy made its elongated body glint. She took a deep breath, blowing up her cheeks, and, with a determined little frown on her face once more, she charged in after it.
The first thing she noticed was that the wood was full of noise.
A little thrush hoping among the ferns, her glossy brown feather speckled with gold, trilled occasionally as she turned over the mulch with her beak, hunting for worms and bugs. Above, her fellow feathered friends created brilliant streaks of sound in the air, twittering away with such abandon that it made the medley of notes into an exuberant melody, with the robins providing the soprano, the blackbirds the alto, and woodpigeons a deep bass note. To accompany them, a small stream gurgled just out of sight, winding its way unseen through the roots of the ancient, whispering oaks.
Wonderingly, Ellie trailed her hand along the pitted bark of sturdy trunks, watching, fascinated, as she interrupted the progress of a trail of ants and they just went right around her.
It wasn't as dark as she thought it would be; once her eyes had adjusted to the light, the shade cool and clean. The mottled light that decorated the carpet of fallen leaves and blankets of moss was almost honey in tone, it's harshness diluted by the protection of the green awning above.
Those stupid boys had lied to her. In Ellie's books, this was a very grave offence indeed. Like the time that daddy had said her would get her chocolate if she was a good girl at the dentist but mummy had words with him and then he said he couldn't get her any chocolate. Now Matty and Louie had done it too. They actually did it quite a lot, like telling her that if she ate too much sweetcorn she'd turn yellow, but this time it was bigger. She had yet to see a Boogywoo, or even a Jabbawock, and was beginning to suspect more and more that they had been telling porky pies as she ambled further into to embrace of the wood.
Ellie had by this time all but forgotten the dragonfly, but still unconsciously followed it's path towards the stream. It was fast running, following the slope the started in the garden and ran down through the wood towards the valley at the bottom. She'd been there with her parents once or twice, into the clearing where they had picnics and she'd once seen a wild deer. Little fish flashed among the smooth, water-tumbled pebbles, no more than an inch in length, their delicate scales almost luminescent in the crystalline water. Ellie crouched down between two clumps of ancient tree roots, and trailed her small fingers in the water. It was cool, numbing her fingertips for a few moments before she grew used to it. The transit of a small leaf enthralled her as it passed her, and she leapt up, racing it onwards, bumbling over more tree roots and clambering around large deciduous trunks.
At last, panting and giggling, she stumbled to a stop when the leaf caught on a root that was trailing in the water. The fish sheltering beneath it nudged it inquiringly, but when they found they could not eat it, they left it to bob gently in the current.
She wanted to find the boys, prove to them that they had been wrong and that the wood wasn't really scary at all. She considered telling mummy that they'd wandered off and left her, but the worms in the bed had been retaliation for the punishment they had received last time, so she decided against it.
She wandered along for a little while longer, briefly investigating a fallen, decayed tree that the moss had all but drowned in its soft greenery. She clambered on, toddling along its length before suddenly, her foot slipped on the damp moss and she tumbled off in a flurry of blond curls and yellow dress.
For a moment she sat there, staring uncomprehendingly at the bright red dribble of blood that now graced her knee. Then she let out a lusty howl.
"Ellie! Ellie! What's wrong?" The bushes exploded in front of her as Matty careered into view, Louie on close on his heels. He flung himself down beside her and gathered her up into his skinny ten-year-old arms and rocked her until her wails calmed to hiccups and then to snotty sniffles.
"Oh, Ellie, what are you doing here?" Ellie shook her head and snuffled into his t-shirt. Matty sighed and pulled her leg out, poking pragmatically at the fresh scrapes. Ellie let out a yowl and squirmed.
"Stay still, stupid. It's only a little cut, you shouldn't cry so much." But there was relief in her big brother's eyes. "Come on, get up, we'll wash it out."
Louie and Matty took one arm each and pulled her to her feet, leading her back to the stream. Louie sat her on a the roots of a willow while Matty took a scrunched up tissue from his pocket and dipped it in the stream. He dabbed at the cut. Ellie sniffled to herself and wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
"There's not Higglelumps here." She kicked at the edge of the stream, scattering clumps of soil into the water. "You said they'd eat me if I came into the wood but nothing's tried to eat me yet."
Matty sat back on his haunches and looked at Louie, who rolled his eyes behind Ellie's back. They both sighed.
"It's too hot for them today, silly." Said Louie.
"All that fur would weigh would make them overheat." Said Matty.
"It makes them slow and sleepy like it does to the cat."
"They need to be awake and fast to hunt little girls."
Ellie squealed and punched her brother in the arm. "Shut up! None of that's true!"
"How do you know?"
"Because I do! Miss. Merry at school would have heard of them if they were really real!"
"She lives in the city." Louie said dismissively. "She would never have seen one."
"Well, I saw a fairy."
"I am not!"
"You must be lying, fairies don't exist!"
Around them, the forest got a little bit quieter.
Ellie pouted. "If Jabbawocks exist, why can't fairies?"
"Because." Said Matty, snatching up a stick and proceeding to flick up stones from the streambed. He didn't really have an answer to that and Ellie knew it. She stood up, triumphant. "I saw a fairy. It had blue wings and it glowed."
"Silly girl, they can't glow because they don't exist. Louie, I'm bored, let's go."
"No-o!" Ellie flung herself around his legs, clinging tight to his trouser leg.
"Ellie!" He tried to shake her off. "You're pulling my trousers down! Let go!"
"Not until you believe me about the fairy!"
"What's to believe? They aren't real, Ellie." Louie interrupted. "Let go of him and go back to the house."
Louie sighed, grabbed her legs and pulled her backwards. She yowled again in indignation, and kicked at him. He dropped her and glared, folding his arms as she sulked. "Look, Ellie, if you admit fairies aren't real and go play on your own for a while, I'll bring you some chocolate later."
"What kind of chocolate?" She looked up through her curls, squinting at him.
"Chocolate with bits of popping candy in."
"Hm." She scrunched up her tiny nose in an imitation of deep thought. "What about two bars of chocolate?"
"Two!" Ellie scowled at him until he relented. "Okay, two it is. Now say it."
"Fairies aren't real."
The forest held its breath.
Ellie paused, then -
"Fairies aren't real. Can I have the chocolate now?"
"It's still in the shop, stupid. Now go away, I'll get it for you later."
"But you said-"
"Ellie, go away!"
With another glare she stood up, haughtily smoothed her dress and then flounced off in the direction of the house in that precious way which only small girls with such changeable tempers can manage.
The two boys looked at each other and shrugged. Girls were still aliens to them, especially little sisters. They picked up their sticks and mounted their imaginary steeds once more, leaving thoughts of fairies behind in favor of besieging the castle that was a fallen oak.
The children left, and the little glade became empty once again. There was a pause while the world readjusted itself once more, and then the birds and the animals reclaimed the area - only, it felt a little emptier than before. The sunlight still streamed down from the canopy, but it felt greyer and colder. Birds still sang but they felt more distant, disconnected. The stream gurgled on, but that's all it was now: a stream with a bland, gelid voice.
High in the branches of the willow tree, a small hand slowly slipped down and hung limply in the air. It was a pale mint green, no bigger than half a thimble, and the long, delicate fingers looked as fragile as glass. Attached to the hand was a lithe green body, lying slightly curled, still no bigger than an apple. Hair, fine and long and blue, stirred in a tiny gust of wind, but otherwise it was as still as the earth. The feminine chest did not move, the dainty eyelids did not twitch. From the back, gauzy dragonfly wings that once glittered and sparkled, gently, silently, began to crumble away, until they were no more than dust on the wind.