Through History, Changeling
CW: Mild horror, endangered children
I will write you back to life, draw you like mould from a drywall and paint over the cracks until no-one but us will be able to see the changes. Are you ready? Do you remember? I do, so let me remind you how it happened.
When the winter came we used to visit my grandmother’s house, a tiny stone cottage set in an absentee lord’s estate, somewhere in the north of the country. Speeding out from beneath the city’s high-rise estates in our rented car, I’d press my nose against the window, and feel condensation shiver over my face, and vapour settle across my skin.
The concrete forest closed in on all sides, cars jostled for supremacy on the roads, and then, so gradually you might hardly have noticed it start to happen, the buildings vanished and vast swathes of countryside unfurled themselves around us. I remember that the world seemed infinite in those moments; the sky, bright white and pregnant with snow, and the sun, a droplet of golden ice wreathed in mist, trembling on the tip of the distant horizon.
Those car journeys seemed to last forever. The countryside, crisp and silver with frost, was both timeless and interminable. By the time our tyres crunched over the manor’s gravel driveway, the windows of our car were so thoroughly shrouded with fog, that we could hardly see grandma’s house as it approached in the twilight gloom.
She couldn’t see us from within our frosted time capsule, either, but she was always there, waiting in the cold. A woman, so old to my childish eyes, that the very fact of her existence seemed to be a miracle. The smell she carried with her was gentle with lavender, sharp with citrus, and heavy with pipe smoke. A deep purple shawl covered her hunched shoulders like a cape, and the large square glasses she refused to have replaced, made her eyes appear too small for the drooping parchment jowls of her face.
I loved her, it was true, and in return for my love she showered me with stories, sweets, and independence - a child’s true dream. When my parents had unpacked the car, she’d bundle us into the belly of her slumbering home, where the wooden beams creaked, the fire roared its warmth, and the piercing wind shrieked the memory of long-ago tragedy through the eaves.
“So,” she’d say, her too-small eyes illuminated by firelight. “What new things have you learnt this year?”
And there I’d stand, the dutiful granddaughter bathed in candlelight, and recite for her the newness of my world.
“Caesar was stabbed in the back; Medusa’s eyes could turn a man into stone; the sky isn’t really blue even though it looks like it; PVA glue is like a second skin if you let it dry over your hands; I don’t think I believe in ghosts anymore,” and so on and so on, with all of the babbling pride of a child who’s finally been given the space in which to speak.
What was special about grandma was that she’d always wait for me to finish. Her paper-thin lips would turn upwards into a smile as I spoke, her fingers would tap delightedly against her threadbare chair, and she would nod sagely, with all of the wisdom bestowed upon the old by the eyes of the watching young. But this winter, this special season out of many, she flicked her finger up with unlikely alacrity, and held it a few inches away from my startled lips.
“What do you mean, you don’t think you believe in ghosts?” She asked seriously.
“Well,” I hesitated, my eyes darting towards the ceiling, above which my exhausted parents were already sleeping.
“Well, only babies believe in ghosts,” I said. “And anyway, I’m much too old for ghost stories now.”
A strange noise filled the room. A deep, gurgling, happy, wonderful sound, that bubbled up from within Grandma’s ancient throat, and bounced in diminishing echoes around the night-filled room. The sound of her laughter both thrilled and frightened me.
“Only babies believe in ghosts, eh?”
“That’s right,” I answered, my jaw firmly set. “I’m too old for ghost stories.”
All of a sudden, her face grew hard and serious, and she stared into the flames with an expression I’d never seen before.
“Well, maybe you’re right,” she said eventually. “Perhaps you are too old for ghost stories. But you can never be too old for myths.”
She leant towards me then, the deep folds of her skin submerged in shadows, and took my hand in hers.
“Do you know many myths?”
I nodded hurriedly.
“Of course!” I answered. “Medusa was a myth, and the minotaur, and Pegasus, and-”
“No no no,” she waved my tales away with a sweep of her arthritic hand. “Those are Greek myths; they have no power here. I’m talking about the stories from your own history. The ones you walk through every day. The ones you feel, every time a shiver creeps down your spine, and you’re not quite sure why. What about those, eh?”
I shook my head, my scalp prickling. My history? I didn’t know people like me or grandma had histories, let alone our own myths. Grandma’s chuckle came from deep inside her chest.
“Sit here with me,” she said, pointing to the cushion by the fire. “And I’ll tell you the strange tale, of this estate’s very own Changeling.”
The manor wasn’t always abandoned as it is now. When I was young, I travelled here as the wife of the gardener – your grandfather - and was set to work in the kitchens. Those were the days when a woman couldn’t earn her own living without the help of a husband, or a position arranged at a home like this one, and I was lucky enough to have both.
We arrived at the start of a glorious summer. There were garden parties and fêtes every week, with the lords and ladies dressed up in all their finery, playing fairground games, and sipping lemonade, cocktails, and champagne throughout the long hours of daylight. From my position at the sink, where I spent my days scrubbing the pots and pans, I could stare through the window at their peculiar little rituals and their expensive suits and dresses, and marvel to myself quietly.
The women seemed to me to be another breed of female entirely. They were so well powdered, perfumed, and pressed, that they hardly seemed to sweat in the heat. The beating sun was enough to scorch the tops of my arms, in those few moments it took me to carry the platters of food and decanters of drink to their tables, and yet they remained looking impossibly pristine and cool. To this day, I don’t know how they did it, but I suppose that’s just how the world is, sometimes.
Their men, of course, delighted in the passing of we kitchen maids in and out of the crowd. Many’s the time I had to scold one of the younger ones for his crude tongue, or slap the wandering fingers of a young upstart who sought to pinch what no man – aside from your dear grandfather – ought to be pinching. But it was merely the way of things back then, and Lord Dolsen was a better man than most. He and his lady wife, Isabelle, had given all their female staff the express permission to firmly rebuke anyone who tried to interfere with us - or with our duties.
And so that summer was a happy one, until, like most things that for one reason or another turn bad, it suddenly wasn’t anymore. The Lord and Lady Dolsen, you see, were good employers. Oh, they might have been born into silver spoons, fine china, and fancy clothes, but they never treated us as anything less than the people we were. Your mother, for instance, played alongside their little boy, Alastor, for a time, since they were about the same age when we arrived.
While I scrubbed and scoured the crocks at the kitchen window, I’d see the two of them playing havoc together in the garden, with another young local boy who’d been brought by his parents from the town. Your mother – my little Cate - blonde and pretty in her skirts; Alastor, with his head of dark, raven hair, which looked so strange against his pale white skin; and Connor, the little farmer’s boy, who was a couple of years older than the two of them, but had always been small for his age. He didn’t get on too well with the older kids, and Cate and Alastor were happy enough to let him join in with their games.
They had the best of times together that summer. Every evening, Cate would come tumbling in through the front door, carried by your grandfather, and kicking and squealing not to be washed. She’d have rips in her skirts and mud on her face, and she’d spend the whole of dinner telling us tales of fairies hiding in the woods down by the stream, and how Alastor and Connor had gone exploring, and had promised to bring her back one as proof.
“They’ve got green eyes, and they wear little crowns of twigs on their heads, and only the girls have wings. Alastor says he’s going to try and catch one of those, since they’re always flying just out of reach and making fun of us because we can’t fly-” and other such nonsense like that.
Well, she never did manage to bring us back a fairy, but whether or not they really existed didn’t seem to matter much. They existed in the minds of those three, thick as thieves as they were, and that made them real for the summer, at least. It seems a shame to tell of it now, but it was those damn fairy hunts that led to the whole sorry business, if you ask me.
You see, Lord Dolsen, though he was kind and fair to his staff, was also a man who didn’t hold much truck with nonsense. He didn’t believe in fairies, and he didn’t like the flights of fancy that tumbled from the mouths of those three babes, no matter how harmless their imaginings seemed to me. One day, towards the end of summer, I overheard an argument between him and his lady wife, as they passed beneath the window.
“Don’t you try to tell me all of this fairy stuff is harmless. I won’t have my son running around with the farmer’s boy, looking for things that don’t exist!”
“But it is harmless. They’re just exploring, can’t you see that? Why ruin the children’s fun?”
“I’m warning you, Isabelle. Alastor’s got some strange notions in his head already, and I won’t have you or anybody else encouraging him to believe in a world that isn’t real.”
“If you stop him from making friends now he’ll never forgive you. It’s nearly the end of summer, after all. All of these people will have gone back to their homes by this time next week, and you can talk to him calmly then. Can’t you let the boy play at his make-believe for now?”
It wasn’t that I was trying to eavesdrop, you understand. It’s just that Lord Dolsen was raging so awfully, and poor Isabelle, I didn’t like to move out of earshot just in case something untoward were to happen. You can understand that, can’t you? Well, whether you do or not, they lowered their voices after that, and the last I saw of Lord Dolsen in his right mind, he was storming across the garden and heading right towards the stream on the other side of the grounds.
Now, if it hadn’t been for Cate, I’d know as little as the rest of the serving staff about what happened next that day. But I’d heard how angry Lord Dolsen was, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of where that anger might lead. I didn’t want Cate to get caught in the cross-fire of a man like that, particularly when the crimson fog had descended as it had, so I dried my hands on my apron, and followed him across the lawn.
By the gods, anger must have given wings to that man’s feet. By the time I’d hurried out of the house and started running towards the woods, there was no sign of him at all on the horizon. But still, I thought I knew better than him where Cate and those two boys had spent their days playing, so I hoisted up my skirts, and I ran right into the trees just as fast as my feet would carry me.
Well, mark my words, when you get into those woods, you can see quite clearly how three children might convince themselves of something as ridiculous as fairies. The moss grows thick and green there, and the great old oaks and birches crowd beneath sky, until you could almost believe that no world still exists above them. The smell of the undergrowth is strong under there, and even though it had been a blistering summer, the deeper I went beneath the boughs, the soggier the mud grew beneath my feet.
I heard the stream before I saw it, but not a sound of my Cate or of those two little boys reached my ears. I stumbled around in that shadowy green world for what felt like an eternity, and as soon as I reached the water I knew I’d taken too long. The flattened area on the banks, where they’d played for those long weeks, was deserted. All I could see were the little fairy traps they’d made, built of springy twigs, and weaved into miniscule cages that they’d filled with some of the treats they’d managed to scavenge from the adult’s tables.
As I knelt down to examine them more closely – not for signs of fairies, of course, but just out of curiosity - there came a great howling and crashing from the other side of the water, and out of the undergrowth on the opposite bank, ran Cate and Connor as though the devil himself were on their heels. Their little faces were rigid with fear, and when they saw me they waded straight into the water. Before I could even call out a warning, they’d crashed through their fairy traps, and stumbled to the ground at my side.
“He’s gone mad!” They shouted. “Lord Dolsen’s gone mad!”
“Calm yourselves, the both of you!” I said, although their terror had unsettled me a little, as well. “What has he done?”
But at that moment, another crash echoed from the other side of the stream, and both of them would have shot off through the woods, had I not already got hold of Cate’s squirming wrist.
As it was, only Connor fled out into the open, and just as he disappeared behind us, Lord Dolsen and little Alastor came flying into view. That poor boy. He was always so immaculately dressed; always wearing these miniature versions of his father’s black suits, ironed and pressed and without a speck on them. So, you can imagine, it was a frightful shock to see him there, bare chested and frightened, howling and running as if his very life depended on it. His father was right behind him, and as long as I’ve lived, I’ve never seen a man so consumed by rage.
“No son of mine!” He was screaming. “No son of mine!”
Before I could gather my nerves up again, Alastor had raced past me - bare chest and all - and Lord Dolsen was standing quietly on the bank opposite, his wild eyes staring unseeingly after his son.
I was glad to have the water between us when he turned his gaze on me and Cate, let me tell you. I’d never seen such madness poison the face of a man, not before and nor since. He didn’t say a word. He just trembled with his fury, and fixed me with a stare that meant I never, not until now, spoke a word to anyone about what I’d seen down by that stream. Not even to your grandfather.
Well, after he’d stormed off to God knows where, I marched Cate back to the cottage in absolute silence. By the time we made it home, dusk had settled over the lawns, and the lengthening shadows were creeping like ghosts across the grass. She’d snivelled all the while we’d walked, and held tight onto my hand even when I got her inside.
“Now,” I said, prising her hand away from mine. “You’re going to tell me everything that happened, right from the beginning.”
But the poor dear didn’t seem to know herself.
“We were just playing,” she said. “Connor and Alastor were in the bushes together, setting fairy traps, see, and I wasn’t allowed to go because the fairies can smell when a girl’s been around, so I was keeping watch so no fairies would slip past us and see what they were doing.”
A strange thought occurred to me.
“Then I heard this crashing and shouting, and before I could yell a warning to Al and Connor, Lord Dolsen stormed past me and, and-”
I couldn’t get much sense out of her after that. The shock had been a lot for her to take in, and in a short while I packed her off to bed, with promises that no-one would speak about it again, and that she wouldn’t get into any trouble. It turned out, after all, that those were promises I was able to keep.
Nobody ever did talk about what had happened down by the stream, but nothing was ever the same after that final day of summer. Lord Dolsen sent all of the lords and ladies away the very next day, and a fair few of the serving staff, as well. I often think he only kept me around in return for my silence, but no matter the reason, over the next few months, that madness I’d glimpsed on his face by the water spread through his mind like a sickness.
Alastor was kept under lock and key, chaperoned everywhere by his mother or the maids. If ever his child’s name was mentioned in Lord Dolsen’s presence, he’d fall into paroxysms so severe, that no-one could put an end to them for fear of getting hurt.
“He’s not my son!” He’d scream. “He’s a changeling! Give me back my son!”
And he’d barrel through the house looking for the missing child, turning over beds, pulling clothes out of wardrobes, and no amount of sensible words or persuasion could convince him that his frightened son was standing right in front of him, holding tightly onto his lady wife’s hand.
Well, they say that it’s the curse of the hate-filled to be followed by tragedy in return, and as summer turned into autumn, and the smell of wood-smoke and decay filled the air, Lord Dolsen’s anger continued unabated. Finally, as snow began to settle over the estate, his madness reached its inevitable conclusion. One night, when the rest of the house was asleep, he stole the boy from his bed, and carried him off into the woods.
No-one knows what happened next, but I have a feeling that I know better than most, having seen him that day down by the stream. I think that Lord Dolsen had planned to return the changeling to the fairies that night, and beg for his son in return. He took Alastor on the night of the winter solstice - a powerful time of the calendar if you believe in those sorts of things - and once he’d stolen him from his bed, I believe he carried him down to the stream. Heaven knows what that poor boy must have thought, dragged along by his father, who was raving mad by this point, and claiming him to be a curse of the fairy king. I’m sure he struggled. I’m sure he shouted for help. But what can a child do against the force of an adult so crazed?
I have half a notion that when they reached the stream, and no being other than himself and his boy appeared, Lord Dolsen truly lost his mind. One of the serving girls found the lord the next morning, half-naked on the banks of the stream, covered in mud, and shrieking curses into the air. There was no sign of Alastor, and to this day no-one knows what happened to the poor boy. Of course, a search was mounted, the police were called, but he was never found.
All I know, is that Lord Dolsen was carried off to the madhouse, still clinging to a stump of wood he’d torn from the forest floor. He seemed to believe that if he kept hold of it, his son would be returned and placed back into his arms. Poor Isabelle – Lady Dolsen, that is - she packed up and moved on back to her parents for a time, I believe, and neither lord nor lady have returned here since. But she left a generous stipend for your grandfather and I to stay on, so we could lease the cottage and tend to the house in her absence. Between you and me, I think she did it partly because she hoped one of us would stumble across something here; something in the grounds that might explain what happened to Alastor that night.
Well, I’m sorry to say that I’ve been here fifty years now, and I’ve never turned up anything that could explain how that boy disappeared. But of course, plenty of myths and stories have blossomed around the tale. There are some who say the boy really was a changeling, and that the real Alastor was taken by the fairies to punish his father for his cruelty. Some say you can hear the sound of their music on nights when the frost draws in, and fewer people are there to disturb them. Others say that the spirit of the boy still sits by the water, lonely and forgotten, trying to tempt other children to join him there, and play forever down in the stream.
The fire had burned low in the hearth by the time grandma finished her tale, and a strange disquiet had settled over the room.
“What do you think happened to him, grandma? Do you think he’s still there? And the changeling, too?”
She smiled, her face softened by the glow of the fire’s embers.
“Me? I think that madness leaves a mark on a place, and cruelty even more so. It wouldn’t surprise me if the anger of that little boy, or the madness of his father, does still linger here, somewhere in the trees.”
“Do you really mean that?”
“Oh, yes. On winter nights, I’ve often seen the glow of firelight in the windows of the old manor, but no trace of a fire’s been there when I’ve gone to look.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, suddenly wary that the whole long story had been a lie.
“Oh, don’t you?” She said. “Well, what about this then?
“What about what?”
Her eyes narrowed playfully. She leaned in close, her face inches from mine, the smell of pipe smoke and lavender overwhelming.
“Sometimes, when the darkness seems deep although the moon is still full, a person could convince themselves they’ve seen lights moving in that forest, and strange people dancing between the trees.”
I shivered, and my face suddenly felt warm and flushed. The shrieking wind howled around the little house, and for the rest of the evening, I snuck glances towards the blackened windows, for any sign of the ghostly lights moving in the distance.
Later, when I’d laid my head down in the tiny attic room, and bundled the bedcovers up over my head, I dreamt that the changeling was at my window, and the ghost of the pale-skinned Alastor was sobbing under my bed.
The next day dawned bright and crisp. The fresh air whistling through the grey-lit house washed away my terrors of the night before, and with nothing ahead of me but time and the deserted grounds, I set out to uncover the mysteries of Changeling Manor. That morning, after breakfast, grandma helped me pack a small rucksack with a sandwich, chocolate, a notebook, pens, a torch, a length of rope, two plasters, and a strip of bandages – just in case. My feet crunched over powdered snow as I trudged out onto the lawns, and I felt the smile in grandma’s eyes follow me all the way to the treeline.
At the threshold of the forest, I paused to look back at the grounds. Grandma’s cottage was dwarfed by the looming façade of the manor, and in the thickening snow flurries, I had the strangest impression that the old house was creeping closer to grandma’s home, like a predator stalking its prey.
Beneath the trees the world was sharp with ice. The bare oaks and trembling birches rose up like frozen sentries, their boughs bent low with snow, and their roots encased in frost. All the world was silver and white. As I walked still deeper between the creaking trunks, the anaemic sunlight flung itself over the snow and dazzled my squinting eyes, until it seemed that no matter where I looked, images followed me like spectres, and the same monochrome photograph imprinted itself across my vision.
My feet slid and slipped beneath me as I made my way further into the colourless world. Above my head, the branches began to crowd together, until the air was no longer white with snow-light, but muted in tones of softest grey. Shadows leapt and mutated out of the corners of my eyes, and I strained my ears for the sound of the rushing stream.
For a long while there was nothing. The ground was treacherous and the going was slow. And then: a whisper. A breath. And an unmistakable roar. My breath began to rasp in my throat, and my muscles burned in the cold as I quickened my pace. The sound of running water pulled me like a magnet towards it, even as my head was filled with the clamour of Lord Dolsen’s screams, and the frightened eyes of his raven-haired child.
“Nearly there, nearly there,” I whispered into the air, my feet pounding over the hardened ground. What would I find down by the water?
My mind was full of pictures of fairy traps, of three children playing together one long ago summer, of green eyes and a crown made of twigs, and of a voice calling me to come to him and play. All of a sudden, the ground rose into a mound of steep-banked ice, and before I could slow down, my foot caught on a root hidden beneath the snow. For a singular moment, both of my feet went out from under me, and as I reached out for purchase with my arm, a sudden sharp pain glanced through my hand and I hit the forest floor with an echoing thud.
Blood fell in hot droplets onto the snow. I lay perfectly still on my back, staring up at a scrap of white sky, and feeling the trickle of heat drain from my palm and across the frost-bitten ground. Tentatively, I flexed first my fingers, then my toes, and by degrees became certain that nothing was broken. My head pounded where I’d hit it, and the thick ice on the branch I’d grabbed for had torn straight across my palm. Against the bright white of the snow, the redness of my blood seemed a wonder, but although the edges of the cut were jagged, it didn’t seem to be very deep.
“Don’t laugh!” I shouted. “It’s your fault anyway!”
My face burned with embarrassment, and I imagined the fairy king sitting high up in the trees, laughing at my clumsiness and vowing never to allow me sight nor sound of him. Muttering under my breath, I took the bandages out of my rucksack, and wound a cursory strip around my throbbing hand.
“I’m still going to find you!” I shouted. “Don’t you think I won’t!”
Carefully this time, and squirming to dislodge the flurry of snow from my back, I crawled on all fours over the bank of ice, and slid swiftly down the other side. Immediately, the sound of the stream faded into the distance, as though someone had clamped their gloved hands over my ears and muffled the world around me. I cast my gaze around for the source of the water flow, which had seemed so close only moments before, but it was no-where to be seen.
I walked for what felt like hours, deeper and deeper into the woods, until the creaking boughs closed in over my head, and the shadows lengthened across the ground. Dusk was fast approaching, and the cold had crept inside my jacket and trickled into my shoes. The day wasn’t fun anymore, and just as I promised myself that with my next step I’d turn back, it seemed as if the forest had heard me; because the very next moment, the stream from grandma’s story came rushing into view, and lit up my vision as though conjured from the air.
My heart leapt in my chest, as I recognised the flattened area at the water’s edge. The water there was crystal clear, and its mirrored surface seemed almost ethereal, as it sliced its way between the snow-white banks. I raced towards it, and stood stock still in the place where the traps had been, imagining my mother as a child weaving the sticks into cages, and Alastor and Connor searching the air for the flurry of beating wings.
Nothing still remained of those long-ago summer games, but a strange sensation of cold prickled at my scalp, and the forest suddenly seemed darker than it had before. What time was it? The crystalline waters caught the light of a deepening mauve sun, and the day seemed to be growing dimmer by the second. Blue-grey shadows leapt over the ground and slunk across the snow, and from the bank opposite, a shrill wind whipped over the pulsing tide. I cleared my throat, suddenly feeling ridiculous. I’d been walking for a whole day, and for what?
“I’m here!” I shouted into the trees.
My voice echoed back to me and the water ran on unabated.
“I came to find you!”
Silence. I stood at the water’s edge, and for a painful second, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more foolish or alone. Of course grandma’s story hadn’t been real! How could a child go missing and no-one ever find him? And how many people really believe in changelings and fairies? My face flushed with anger and I threw a rock into the stream in frustration. How stupid could I have been? The stone sank with a satisfying thunk, so I did it again, and again, and again, until-
-A breath of air pricked at my ears. I stopped in the middle of throwing the largest rock yet; my arm raised straight up towards the sky, and my fingers burning with cold. Music wafted towards me through the trees, almost too softly to be heard, but undeniably there. Slowly, I lowered my arm.
“Hello?” I asked quietly. “Is that you?”
I crouched down and placed the rock on the ground.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” I whispered. “I promise.”
The music grew louder. A haunting, eerie melody, neither flute nor strings, nor any instrument I could name, but somehow gentler and more beautiful than anything I’d heard before.
A dream-like feeling washed over me, and suddenly it didn’t seem so cold anymore. In fact, it was quite warm, and my hand didn’t hurt much, either. Adrenaline surged through my veins, and as the music continued to draw nearer, I felt joy pierce my soul like lightning. On the other side of the stream, somewhere deep beyond the trees, blue-white lights, like spectral fire, danced their way through the darkness.
“Wait!” I called. “Don’t leave me! I’m coming!”
The music was moving on, and the lights with it, pushing deeper into the woods and onwards without me. The thought of the music and the lights abandoning me to the darkness, split my chest with pain. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d waded out into the stream, and began splashing my way through the frigid water.
The current surged around me, tugging at my clothes and forcing me into its slipstream, but I kept my feet planted firmly on the shifting silt, and struggled to make it to the other side. My hands gripped the frozen earth tightly, my fingers scrabbling for purchase, and with strength pulled from somewhere I didn’t know I had, I hauled myself out onto the snow-carpeted ground, and lay there shivering and panting. The music was louder again, and this time accompanied by voices – oh, such voices! – and laughter rising from somewhere in the dark. A flash of movement blurred in the corner of my eye, and in the act of getting to my feet, I froze dead in my tracks.
There he was. A small boy, younger than me, his skin pale as the snow and his hair raven black, standing in the shadows and hiding between the trees. We looked at each other, and I realised too late that I was afraid.
The moment seemed to stretch on for an age. As the lights faded into the darkness, I felt the cold once again bite at my toes, and shivers wracked my body. Night had fallen swiftly, but still he didn’t move.
“I came to find you,” I said at last. “I came to find out what happened to you.”
For a second, nothing happened, and then, quicker than I thought possible, the little boy turned on his heel, and darted through the trees.
My heart trembled and my feet followed him almost against my will. Low-hanging branches scratched at my face, the ice bit and tore at my shoes, and my chest burned with cold. Up ahead, I could see flashes of movement and patches of black against the ice-warped trees, but my footing was less sure than his, and no matter how much I urged my shivering body onward, my fingers began to cramp and my muscles seized and juddered to a halt.
Just as soon as he’d appeared, the little boy melted back into the darkness. I stamped my feet against the ground and wrapped my quivering arms around my waist. The music had stopped, the lights had dissolved into shadows, and the silence was absolute. Where was the stream? I cast around for it, my panic rising. In the impenetrable night, every tree, silver with frost and eerie with moonlight, looked the same, and no trace of running water reached my ears. I was lost.
Grandma, or my parents, would come and find me. I was sure of it. But it was cold, and the water weighing down my sodden clothes was already splintering into frost as I watched. In the darkness, shadows deformed the trees, and gave to their trunks malevolent faces that mutated and grinned at my fear. Wafts of spectral laughter drifted to me on the wind, and every snap of a twig, or thud of falling snow, made my heart start to hammer and my body grow cold.
I tried to think clearly. It was impossible to find my way back to grandma’s cottage now that I’d lost the stream, and stumbling around in the dark was too dangerous – I might fall and break my leg, or worse. It dawned on me with creeping horror, that the only thing left to do was to try and keep warm, and wait to be found.
He wasn’t real.
I just had to wait. That was all. Shivering, I slipped to the ground with my back against a tree trunk, and tucked my knees up to my chin. Splinters of ice chipped at my fingers, and the chill seemed to burrow into my skin.
“This is your fault!” I yelled. “I didn’t want to find you anyway!”
Silence. The wind blustered and then quieted.
I was alone.
Hours passed. The wind sliced through my frozen clothes and my cheeks stung in flurries of snow. The ringing in my ears as the cold sought its way inside, grew louder until I could hardly bare it. A wave of anger consumed me. Why did I have to come out here in the first place? Why did grandma have to tell me that stupid story? Why did the mad lord have to steal the little boy away anyway? Tears pricked at my eyes as the night stretched on interminably.
“I hate you!” I screamed into the wind. “Do you hear that? I hate you!”
Almost instantly, a feeling of dread engulfed me, and at the whim of some primal instinct I scrambled to my feet, stricken with pain, and pressed my back against the tree.
I felt him before I saw him. The cold touch of his arm at my side sent spasms of terror to the depths of my soul. Before he could fix me with his deadened stare, I screwed my eyes up tight, and turned my face away. Panic rose in my chest, and my hands gripped the ice-blanketed bark so tightly that my fingers started to bleed.
“Look at me,” I heard him say, his voice strange and twisted in the wind. I shook my head.
“I don’t want to!” I answered. “Leave me alone!”
I felt him move still closer, his breath rotten, and colder than the air.
“Open, your eyes,” he hissed.
Inexorably, I felt my eyelids flicker, and the shadow of my future-self passed swiftly in front of my eyes, before fleeing away into the night without me. I stared into his face. I took in the pale coldness of his skin, the unnatural ridge of his monstrous jaw, and then, with a tremor of unbearable fear, I looked deeply into the glowing eyes of the manor’s furious changeling.
All I was left with was pain. Great waves of needle-driven agony burrowed deep beneath my skin and drenched my heart in horror. I felt my body, as though it was apart from me, drop to the ground and writhe against the ice. Strange images passed before my glazed eyes: shadows of people formed and broke within the driving snow; great wheels of silver-blue fire burst all around me; the white terror of the changeling’s eyes slipped in and out of my gaze; and the cacophonous screams of a long-dead lord, bored into my skull relentlessly. There was no escape. No him, no me, no history and no joy. I was simply lost.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, or how badly my soul was torn. All I know is that it felt like an eternity, before the horror began to retreat, and soft arms were pulling me up and away from the pain. Frightened voices shouted words I didn’t understand. In a haze of screaming that I thought might be my own, I was carried inside, and the heat from grandma’s fire scalded my face, and sent blood pulsing back to the tips of my frozen fingers.
The heat was worse at first than the cold. I screamed and begged to be taken back outside, to be placed into the snowdrift and left there to freeze. But my parents held me down against the floor, as grandma tucked more and more blankets around me, and I was moved ever closer to the agonising flames.
“It’s a fever,” I heard grandma saying. “If it doesn’t break soon I don’t know what we can do.”
I looked past her stricken face, my eyes rolling in their sockets, my body both hot and cold, and every inch of it aflame.
In my delirium, the fire roared like a leviathan. Its eyes were burning coals, and the fingers of flame reached out and lapped at the edges of my consciousness. Thick gasps of snow beat against the window, and the shards of ice were white with the glow of the changeling’s eyes. His fingers scratched relentlessly at the shuddering glass, and when the wind whistled through the eaves, I heard his incandescent screams.
“Stay still,” someone was saying. “Stay still, you’ll be ok.”
But the fever had all but consumed me, and as I lay there, watching the fire beat back his ice, nobody but me noticed the gap beneath the window, where his silver-blue darkness dripped steadily inside, and he crept into the cottage like a sickness.
I lay there for hours in my torment, and by the time the morning had finally broken, I knew that I’d been changed; that my old self had been taken and the changeling put in its place. The relief in my parents’ faces proved to me they didn’t know, but when grandma looked into my eyes, I understood that she could see. She, with all her history, had seen the mould inside my bones, and the gaping space within my chest, where my future should have been.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
LAURA ELLIOTT is a twenty-something disabled writer and journalist. Her short-fiction has been published by Strix Magazine, Rhythm and Bones Lit, and Vamp Cat Mag, and she hosts the monthly politics and disability podcast, Visibility Today. You can find her screaming into the void on Twitter at @TinyWriterLaura.