Of Dreams and Nightmares
Author's Note: This story is set in a parallel universe with less advanced technology than our own, in a tiny village in a forest that is meant to resemble old rural Saxony. Notice Anya sometimes addresses people as "Dear (insert their name)" Other slang will be explained at the end. A villain from Monster Child and Moonlight and Shadows intrudes. What can Anya do?
Anya awoke from a terrible nightmare. She shivered at the memory, her heart fluttering - flames, crackling, bright, blazing orange and yellow and burning hot, all around her, the mirror cracking and her little table consumed. But it had only been a dream. She felt a great sense of relief and her mood lifted as she washed herself. She had been lonely and unhappy this summer, with all her friends gone away to summer camp and Jana her best friend not writing to her as promised, but well… she was alive!
She selected her light blue frock and stood in front of the mirror as she drew a brush through her long, brown hair before tying it into a ponytail and then sailed into the little stone kitchen and threw her arms around her mum, causing her to almost drop the sputtering frying pan she was holding above the hearth.
"I'm trying to fry the eggs, mouse," said her mother.
"Just glad to be alive today," said Anya, shrugging. "Where's Dad?"
"He has to work in the fields. Not everyone gets the whole summer off. The life of a churl is a laborious one."
"I don't want the whole summer off. I'm bored and lonely. If the farmer would accept a girl as a farm hand I would work in the fields with Dad. And Jana hasn't even written to me like she promised."
"Sorry dear, but we just didn't have the money to send you to camp this summer."
"You couldn't afford brothers or sisters for me either? Everything comes down to money in this world. I suppose I won't be able to go to the fairground when it opens because we'll have no silver."
Anya bit her lip and quickly hugged her mum a second time. "Sorry mum. It's just I've no friends in the village this summer, Jana hasn't written – there aren't even any neighbours, just that empty old house beyond the copse. But I can write to Jana and let her know I'm cross with her."
After helping with the washing up, Anya picked up her spluttering old quill and scratched out a note to her best friend, Jana.
Do tell me, how is camp? I'd love to be with you, hiking, swimming, canoeing and telling stories around the campfire. Have you made any new friends? Met any merry boys? I was so disappointed that I didn't get to come and I'm even more disappointed not to hear anything from you! What happened to writing every day, like you promised, hmmm?
Stay safe and don't let the bed bugs bite!
On reflection, Anya felt that the note contained the right amount of scolding and she set out to deliver it. The sky was a clear blue and the sun felt warm on her face. A pair of pale gold butterflies fluttered over the flower garden. She spread her arms and pretended she was flying down the pavement to the letterbox on the corner by the wool shop.
The wool selling lady was beside her stall today. Anya waved to her. "Hallo, Mrs Wolle!"
Mrs Wolle ignored her. Cheek! She could hear perfectly well. Was it because Anya couldn't afford any wool, that she wouldn't answer?
Feeling a bit huffy, Anya jogged away. She needed a friend her own age to talk to. The summer days were so monotonous that it was hard to keep track of time. The days all seemed to melt into one. there was so little to do here besides going for long hikes in the woods… and she wanted a companion. At least mum would not ignore her. She turned to go home, but as she passed the empty house near her own, she stopped in her tracks. There was a boy in the front garden. He had his back to her and he was pulling a large mullsack into the dustbin. His golden blond hair glinted in sunshine.
So they had a neighbour now! But how? The house had been empty for years and there was no sign of anyone moving in recently. Still, why question it? Maybe she now had someone to hang out with. She trod lightly up to the boy.
He gave a start and swung around. He looked about her age. His blue eyes were wide with shock for a moment, but it passed.
"Oh, you made me jump!"
"Sorry. I'm Anya. I live next door." She smiled and spread her arms wide. "Welcome to Green Forest Valley."
"You live next door?" He frowned at her.
Anya hoped very much that he wasn't going to be stand offish, but she would give him every chance not to be. She nodded. "Yes, I'm your new neighbour. I live in the cottage over there, beyond those trees." She paused as he shook his head, but when he offered no explanation she continued: "When exactly did you move in anyway? I never heard a sound. Do tell me about yourself. What's your name? Where are you from?"
The boy stroked his cheek pensively. "I'm Gabriel," he said slowly, "we moved here from the golden fields in the western lowlands. My mum, my sisters and I." Anya was taken aback by his narrowing his eyes at her, but she wouldn't let it put her off. She grinned.
"Well someone should show you around and welcome you properly. Officially make you one of us. We're all friends here. I want to be your friend."
He seemed to relax. "Well that's neighbourly of you."
"Well, why don't I show you what there is around here that's fun? Come?" She beckoned and hurried off down the weather-beaten track into the woods where there was a plan afoot to build the fairground in a great clearing. Maybe they would have finally got started. She dashed off down the track. Gabriel was some way behind so she turned and gave him a reassuring smile before entering the shade of the trees. The track continued here and the trees pressed in on all sides. She heard the harsh cawing of crows nearby. Gabriel came crashing through the undergrowth.
"This is the path, Gabriel," she called and turned around a bend.
"Wait, why are you leading me into the wood?" he asked her as he came to a halt, panting.
She put her hands on her hips and looked him full in the face. "Don't you trust me?"
He shrugged. "Of course I do. You're a total stranger. I'd follow any stranger deep into the forest."
Anya shook her head. "Do you really think I want to hurt you? I'd never hurt anyone."
"Come on, don't you get irony?"
"Oh." She gave a small smile, shook her head and ran along deeper into the heart of the forest and into the clearing. To her surprise, she could see the shapes of a fairground all around the great expanse of the clearing – a Ferris wheel, a fun-house, a roundabout… They had really made progress with the fairground. It looked complete and yet…
Gabriel arrived in the clearing.
"Behold-" Anya gestured around them. A fairground stood around them,but not what she had expected… the surfaces of the roundabout looked grimy and it was covered in ivy. A sapling was growing up right beside it. In fact, everything here seemed to have an air of neglect. The front wall of the fun-house had been bedecked with a giant painted clown face and yet this was grimy… How odd. It must all be newly built, but it did not look it. Anya turned to the Ferris Wheel. It was immobile with no-one to work the mechanism, every carriage was in a fixed position. But perhaps that didn't matter. She turned to Gabriel. "See. The fun of the fair. I didn't know they had finished."
"Finished? It looks abandoned," said Gabriel glancing around.
"Well it can't have been here long. Want to ride the Ferris Wheel with me? I'd like that a lot."
She scrambled up the ladder that bisected the Ferris Wheel, astonishing herself with her speed until she reached a carriage near the top, Gabriel toiling behind her. She peered down at him. "Are you OK?" Suddenly he seemed to flicker and then he was right beside her. She gave a start. "How did you do that? Where were you?"
"Where were you? You just disappeared."
"I didn't..." Anya shook her head. She must be seeing things. She didn't want to spoil the moment. "So here we are. The first to see this view," she gestured over the clearing, the carved wooden horses of the roundabout and the looming structure of the funhouse.
"Now I don't regret so much that we moved here," said Gabriel.
"Why did you move here?"
"Well I told my mum: Mum, I want more than anything to move to a village that's little more than a hamlet fenced in on all sides by dense forest and I won't take no for an answer. The life of a land egg is the only one for me!"
Anya was puzzled. "Why though…? Oh! That's your irony again. Sorry, but you just say these things so matter of fact."
Gabriel laughed. "Not everyone gets irony. My sense of humour gets me in trouble sometimes." Anya liked seeing him laugh. He had such a warm smile. She gazed at him, taking in his freckled nose and cheeks, his dark blue eyes, his blond hair that gleamed like gold, his perfectly sculpted jaw… She felt calmer and happier than she had all day.
"Well I like your humour," she said decisively. "I'm glad you've come. It's been so lonely this summer – it's really, really strange… it's like it's just been me and mum and dad in the village. My friends are on holiday or at summer camp and today, no one else will talk to me." She gazed into his dark blue eyes again. "It was driving me crazy."
"I haven't been all that well either," he admitted, gazing back at her. "There's me, my mum and sisters, but nothing has really been right since Dad died two years ago."
"Dear Gabriel, I am so sorry," she reached out and touched his arm.
Instinctively they clasped one another's hands. Anya felt that she wanted this moment to last for hours.
Gabriel broke the silence. He spoke softly. "Anya, may I ask you something really serious?"
"Yes, dear Gabriel," she whispered.
"How do we get down?"
Of all the questions she had been expecting…!
She shook her head. "We don't. I never thought of that. We're stuck." She grinned. She thought she rather liked irony. She winked. "But keep your hand in mine and we'll find a way."
Once they had climbed down again they came across a dilapidated confectioner's cart, painted with bright pink stripes.
"Sweet treats?" Gabriel prized open the lid of the cart and peered inside. He reached in and extracted a pink sugarcloud.
"I don't know how long that's been there, dear…" Anya began, but Gabriel was already sampling it. Anya was determined to check it was safe and leaned over to lick at it herself. She got the sweet flavour, although strangely her tongue made no impression on it.
"It's gone hard."
He shook his head, his mouth full. "No it hasn't, it melts in the mouth."
Time passed pleasantly at the fairground. The place was deserted, but they could still play with the games at the different stalls, trying to fling wooden hoops onto a wooden post, rummaging through a lucky dip and playing catch with a wooden ball from another stall. That afternoon they came to the fun-house. Stepping into its gaping maw, they found two doors, one with the sign 'Hall of Mirrors' and the other with the sign 'Dance Floor.'
"Seeing oddly shaped reflections can only be so funny, for so long," said Gabriel, taking the handle of the Dance door.
"Agreed. I like dancing," said Anya as she followed him in.
This room was crowded with brightly coloured mannequins, all in dancing poses. The mannequins were all such bright, artificial colours. Perhaps this was supposed to be some sort of fantasy themed display. Gabriel went up to one of them in the shape of a tall, bright green lady. "I bet she could teach us to dance. And she may be a bit green in the cheeks, but she is really beautiful and confident. Too bad I would embarrass myself if I tried. I don't know any steps."
Anya grinned. "Well she's probably tired right now, holding that pose for so long. How about I teach you a little?"
She really liked the idea of dancing with Gabriel. It seemed proper somehow. They clasped hands again and Anya tried to guide him in a quick step. At first he nearly trod on her feet and she had to be alert and move quickly so that he wouldn't be embarrassed in this way. But he improved on the second attempt, even managing to twirl her around. She gazed into his deep, blue eyes as they began to dance in rhythm. His hair gleamed like gold. His cheeks flushed rosy pink. "Are you tired, dear?"
"A little. But you dance as if you were light as air. You'd probably prefer an expert. Like one of these mannequins."
"Oh Gabriel, it's a question of practice. And I like dancing with you, I don't want another partner." She halted, feeling a little self-conscious as they gazed at one another again, without speaking.
"Um… it's strange. This is a fairground and there's literally no living person here besides us and no one selling anything," said Gabriel breaking the silence.
"Ah well, I've got no money," said Anya. "We're too poor for me to go to camp, even."
"Well I would buy you a bunch of blue ribbons if I could, to tie up your bonny brown hair."
Anya recognised the nursery rhyme and smiled. "Oh dear, what can the matter be?"
"Oops… talking of which, my mum will worry if I'm gone long and my sisters will scold me." He chanted the nursery rhyme again: "'Oh dear, what shall I say to them? I've been so long at the fair.' And look." He gestured to the window. "The sun's setting."
"Well it was my idea. I'll explain to them," said Anya, "let them blame me."
They walked hand in hand back up the path that wound between the trees. Anya was thrilled to hold Gabriel's hand. The loneliness inside her was gone. The last rays of the setting sun shone through the foliage overhead.
But then night fell on them. All was no longer well. She could sense something in the air… something dreadful. The birds had fallen silent. Anya felt a chill to her very heart and a dark shadow reared high above the foliage. The darkness pressed in around them and she was aware of a groping horror that seemed to surround them both…
"Quick! Take cover!" she tried to cry out, but her voice came out in a strangled squeak and she pulled Gabriel off the path and into a hollow under a tree stump, where they huddled close together.
There was a terrible shriek above, like a file scraping on glass. The darkness outside deepened and then… Anya choked as a putrid smell of decomposition invaded her nostrils making her gag and heave. She had never smelled human putrescence or bloated corpses before, otherwise she would have recognised the stench. She sensed the poisonous probing tendrils of a chilling malevolence floating near the edges of her consciousness.
The children hugged one another tighter, terror overwhelming them, the evil presence looming closer.
"What is it?" Gabriel's voice broke and squeaked.
A bloodcurdling hiss sounded.
"You cannot hide… I sense you…"
Mouse = dear/ darling child
Mullsack = rubbish sack
Land egg = country bumpkin