One year earlier
Willow sat inside her colourful marquee, the one she always erected during the three-day Market to tell her famous stories. Her face was old, the skin lined, and the eyes deep, yet one could see that she had been beautiful. Elegant feathers of silver streaked her long hair which was, as usual, tied behind her back with a narrow leather strip. The floor of Willow’s tent was scattered with soft, sequined pillows and the interior shone with a dim purple glow where the sun’s rays shone through the tent fabric. On those cushions sat fifteen young, wide-eyed children, eager to hear one of the old storyteller’s famed tales.
‘Please,’ cried a small boy who sat beside Willow’s feet, ‘tell us a story.’
‘A story, you say?’ she teased, tapping her forefinger playfully on her chin. ‘But which one to choose?’ The storyteller rubbed her hands together as if she was warming them in front of a fire, and tiny sparks swirled upwards, glittering like beads of dew in the morning sun.
‘Is that faerie dust?’ the boy asked, his protruding eyes wide with awe.
‘Oh, yes, Billy. Do you want to know how I came by it?’ Willow asked. She always knew their names. The children all nodded their heads eagerly. ‘What you have to do is wake up really, really early, before the sun rises, and find a faerie ring.’
‘My mother told me creatures like that don’t exist,’ a fair-skinned girl dressed in sullen grey, murmured. ‘She says they’re make-believe.’
‘I can assure you…’ Willow said, pausing as she didn’t remember the girl’s name – a new listener.
‘My name’s Emily Brown.’
‘Well, Miss Brown, I can assure you that they are very much a part of our everyday lives. Haven’t you ever seen a faerie? All children are visited by faeries, until the day that they are too grown-up and start thinking faeries are “make-believe”.’
‘All these children,’ Emily said, pointing around her at the other children, ‘you have them under some sort of spell.’ She looked around her at the children, ‘She’s poisoning your heads with lies. You should be at home with your own kind.’ She pulled a little girl up from the floor, picked her up and stormed out of the tent.
‘Oh, how unfortunate. Now, children, I can promise you that faeries are very real. And so are faerie rings,’ Willow said. ‘And you are under no spell. You are free to leave at any time.’
‘We know, Willow,’ Billy Mudd said, and the children all nodded their heads.
‘Is a faerie ring almost like a wedding ring?’ a little girl, no older than six, asked.
Willow chuckled, her vivid blue eyes framed with deep-set laugh lines, ‘No, dear one. A faerie ring is a circle of toadstools where one is sure to find a faerie. Now the thing about faeries that you all should understand is that they are fiercely private and timid creatures – they scare easily. You have to bring them treats, or peace offerings: pieces of honeycomb or pretty flowers like snowdrops or bluebells. Only then might they show themselves to you.
‘I asked a little dawn-pink faerie if she had any dust to spare and she answered me with a cautious smile. She bowed on my outstretched palm holding up the corners of her petal dress. I held this leather pouch out towards her and she fluttered her tiny wings so that a puff of dust drifted into it.’
The children had entered the tent in two distinct groups, but now Willow saw that they sat huddled together, clinging to each other in anticipation. Willow looked around her at the awed expressions of the children. The lessons their mothers had taught them from a young age, flung out the window.
Willow blew the dewdrop sparkles and they started changing colour and swirling in the air. The faerie dust glided and twirled into the shape of a woman. The figure stepped slowly towards the children, a tambourine shivering in her hand. The flower tucked in her hair resembled a rose.
The children huddled even closer to Willow to get a better view.
‘I shall tell you of a young woman I once knew.’
‘Ooh! I love this one,’ Billy whispered to his friend.
‘Her name was the Gypsy Rose.’ One half of the group shifted and gasped at the almost forbidden word – gypsy – the name given by the adults of Riverbend to the people of that kind, her kind, the kind that had magic.
Willow folded her hands over her knees and started to tell the story; the faerie dust woman moving and changing as her words wove their magic through the air.‘There once was a young woman whose beauty outshone even the brightest star in the heavens and could dance as though the music emanated from within her very soul. The people from Riverbend called her the Gypsy Rose. She would astound all with her enchanting singing voice and she could make even the most bitter old man smile at the sight of her dancing. She was well loved, but still, when she came walking by some would turn their backs. She was after all, a gypsy girl.'
The faerie dust woman lifted a tambourine above her head and started dancing and leaping around the children’s heads leaving a trail of flickering specks that resembled rose petals floating down from the air. The children giggled as they tried to catch the petals, looking rather downcast as the petals dissolved in their hands.
‘The Gypsy Rose, along with her kin, would come to the town at dawn, in the two days precedingthe full moon to trade their goods and services with the townspeople. On one of these days, in spring, she noticed a young man – he was an ordinary man from Riverbend, but she saw the kindness with which he treated the people around him. She saw him humbly help a complaining old woman from her cart to a bench under the shade of an oak tree. She admired him. He wasn't dressed like the other men of Riverbend either, with their silly collars and buckled boots. To her he seemed different, mysterious – with a handsome face and captivating green eyes.'
The children glowed, their hands folded under their chins, listening intently.
‘She kept an eye on him as he worked tirelessly in his workshop, so that by the end of the day she felt as though she knew who he was, although they had never met. That evening, after her performance she followed him to his home hoping to learn even more about him and saw that he lived alone, in a small room attached to a larger house.
‘The next night the Gypsy Rose sang and danced again at the local tavern called the Thirsty Thief. Her thoughts were churning like a river in full flood for she wanted to see him, and every few minutes she would seek around the crowded room, hoping to see him once more. She sang slow songs and hip-shaking songs. But it was after hiding her face behind a curtain of dark hair while singing a tragic ballad that he arrived. When she looked up he was there, looking into her eyes from his place in the crowd. When the bowing was done she walked up to him and whispered softly in his ear, “Follow me.” Together they walked towards where the Everglade River shone in the moonlight. “My name is Sienna,” she said as they walked.
‘At the river that marked the border of the two settlements, the Gypsy Rose spun around and around, her dress swirling, and when she stopped she tucked her curly raven hair back behind her ears.
‘The man's smile was relaxed, “I’m not allowed to cross this river. You know that, don’t you?”
‘Standing on the wooden bridge that joined the two settlements, the full moon bathing her with its blue-white glow, not quite light, yet not quite shadow, Sienna had never looked more dazzling. Her dark brown eyes were twinkling, her cheeks flushed. The man leaned forward to tuck away the wayward curl that obscured her right eye but he stopped himself.
“But why did you bring me here?” he asked again, staring at his feet.
“I did not want your people to see me.” She took a deep breath, looked around nervously and took a step forward. She took his face gently in her hands and kissed him. Her cheeks flooded with colour and she spoke again, softly, 'I want you to marry me.' She smiled at him, turned and strolled over the bridge towards the gypsy settlement of Myrrh near the Forest.
‘The man was left standing on the bridge, alone and confused. He took a step backwards and retreated into the shadows cast by the stone buildings of Riverbend and her scent of roses stayed with him.
‘He went on with his daily business, but the thought of the strange, beautiful girl lingered in his mind. It was forbidden for his people, the people of Riverbend, to be involved with her kind. So too, for her to be involved with him. Their love would be doomed.
‘But he could not forget her face. She was in his mind every time he closed his eyes and it seemed that everywhere he went roses bloomed, clambering up every stone wall, their scent entrancing him.
A month later, he sought her out at the Thirsty Thief and he whispered into her ear, “Follow me.”
‘That night on the bridge they exchanged roses, pricked their fingers on the thorns and married themselves to each other under the full moon.
‘They hid their love, they avoided each other’s gaze in public and did not dare stand too close, but they met at night and in secret places.
‘By Midsummer Night's Eve, a year later, Sienna knew she was expecting their child. She was bursting with the news and waited until that night to tell him, until dark had eventually fallen and the people in the tavern were settled and uncaring. Her life was about to change forever.
‘She told her beloved that they were going to have a baby. But instead of joy, it seemed that she’d dashed water into the face of a sweetly dreaming man. He looked afraid and he said the first thing that came to his mind, “No. It is not my child. It can’t be.” He pushed her away and she fell off her chair, the noisy tavern fell silent. All eyes now on them.
‘Her hand went first to her belly in the way that women with child have always done, in the way that mothers always protect their babies, “How can you do this?” she said, urgent but quiet. “What has happened to you, my love? I don't understand.”
“Get up and get out of our town. You gypsy scum!” he spat.
‘Sienna used her dancer's muscles and rolled up from the dusty floor. Tears streamed down her face but she smoothed her dress before carefully and slowly walking away. At the heavy oak doors she turned to look at her love once more.
“Go! And never dare show your face here, ever again!” His angry lips were as square as an ox's, but his eyes shone with regret. She saw it clearly, but knew she had to leave to protect her child. So she ran as fast as she could, speeding past the houses where windows had opened and heads of curious villagers had popped out to see where the commotion was coming from. The Gypsy Rose ran down a smaller road because she did not know what to do; she couldn’t go to her village. She was having a Riverbender’s child, unthinkable by her kin. The Gypsy Rose, now an outcast with her own people as well as in Riverbend.
‘She was only seventeen, and an orphan. She had nobody to turn to and nobody to ask for help. And so, running away from Riverbend first and then away from Myrrh, she came to the Forest. It seemed to welcome her with arms of darkness. She was never seen again.’
The fairy dust woman burst into a million shimmering specks that briefly illuminated the now dark tent like a million tiny, glowing fireflies. The children sat quietly, their mouths forming little ‘o’s and their eyes shining with wonder.
‘Why didn’t he believe her about the baby?’ asked one of the children.
‘Maybe he wasn’t ready to be a father,’ answered an older girl to Willow’s right.
‘I think you might be right, Daphne,’ answered Willow.
‘Did she die, Willow?’ asked the boy called Billy. ‘Did Sienna really just disappear?’
‘Hmm, yes. That was the last night anyone saw or heard of the Gypsy Rose. Many people believed that she had killed herself and in so-doing her unborn child. For months after her disappearance, woodcutters would tell tales of a spirit that haunts all who came near the heart of the Forest. They said that if you sat very still and listened, you could hear her weeping – her undying spirit still yearning for her lost love and the innocent child who died on Midsummer’s Night.’
The old storyteller got up slowly from her chair. ‘That is all for now, children. I shall be here again when the moon waxes full.’
Around her the large group of small children were still sitting, gaping at her. One small freckle-faced girl asked, ‘But he was a bad man. Why did she love him?’ Her eyes were rimmed with tears.
‘She saw only what she wanted to see, Lizzie, and overlooked what she should have.’
‘So, he was a bad man?’ asked Lizzie, frowning.
‘No, not really,’ Willow replied. Now up you get, young ones. Your parents must be getting worried. Hurry now!’
The children got up reluctantlyand walked off to their houses leaving the old storyteller alone in the tent.
A tall slender girl with bright green eyes and shoulder-length copper curls, dressed in a sunny red dress walked into the tent. ‘Are we going home now, Willow?’ the girl asked.
‘Yes, Lila, I think we are. It‘s been a long day and I am feeling rather tired.’
Lila turned and walked out of the tent, back into the dusky world outside. With a small flick of Willow’s finger, the tent and its contents vanished.