When she finally reached Natalia, she found the music had dimmed to almost a whisper, and the child glowed even more brightly. Kneeling by a large round slab of limestone, the child traced her fingers along the branches of the tree carved on the top surface. The music seemed to swell gently as the tiny digits caressed the leaves, trunk, and roots that were etched in the stone. Seldom had Britta seen Natalia so subdued, bordering on somber. The radiant glow that had swallowed the child before now pulsed brightly in rhythmic patterns. It seemed as if Natalia aged before her, the cherubic cheeks becoming slimmer, more aquiline. Her fiery red hair grew and grew, cascading down her back, when moments before it had been barely past her shoulders. The indigo eyes seemed to elongate, becoming more feline.
“Do you feel it, Britta? Do you feel the call? They are here, all around, the fae folk. They’ve agreed to let you stay, as long as you do no harm. If they think you would harm me in anyway, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop them from taking you prisoner. I told you it was true, Britta. This is my world, not that Aunty Belle or anyone else has ever been unkind, but I’ve never belonged at Mercy Home. There’s always been an aching deep inside me that won’t go away. I love you and all the others, but I have to know why my parents haven’t come for me yet.” Tears streamed down the perfect little face. With a sniffle, she shuffled through her pockets for a tissue. With a loud blow, and even louder sigh, Natalia flopped down on the stone. Her eyes scanned the trees and brambles just outside the circle of oaks that encircled a glade of Black Eyed Susan’s. The oak trees formed a sentinel of silent protectors of what lay on the underside of the giant slab of limestone.
Britta’s eyes followed those of Natalia’s, sometimes she caught movements just outside the corner of her eye. Natalia watched the rustling of hedges and listened to the tiny telltale sounds of brownies and sprites. If one listened closed enough, you could hear the minute giggles as the girls were inspected by who knew how many invisible eyes.
“Natty Cakes, what are those?” Britta felt that she while she did not doubt Natalia was a fairy, she wasn’t sure she wanted to find out exactly what that meant. The princess didn’t laugh, but restrained a giggle. The humans amused her often. Natalia loved each and every human person she had come to call a family in Mercy Home, but sometimes they did the strangest things. Now for instance, Britta had always claimed to wish to see the creatures Natty had told them during story times, but her hands shook as she edged closer to the child.
“Come on now, Britta, you KNOW what these are. I’ve told you how many times about the Wee Ones. They’re only checking you out. Older people aren’t exactly welcome here, you know. It’s the law.” Natalia chattered on as she edged closer to the closest bush. Like a lightning bolt a miniature man streaked across the clearing headed straight toward the stone. Shrieking with laughter Natalia chased him, catching him in both hands as he tried to climb to the top of the slab. Britta peered in curiously as her princess slowly unclasped her hands, which she instantly shut again when a litany of grumblings came from the brownie.
“Hey, now, what are ya doin’ that for? A great beast such as yourself, capturing a tiny little thing like myself, I’ve half a mind to…..” the angry creature trailed off as he glanced up into the face of the Beauty of Nature herself, Natalia, Princess of all of Aedon. Stammering, he murmured apologies, kneeling and removing his hat. With head bowed, the brownie coughed nervously and began again.
“I’m begging your pardon, Your Grace, I didn’t know it was YOU! Please, you may catch me all you wish! It’s only that some of the Mercy Home children play a little too roughly with us, the girls dressing us up in the most ridiculous things, you know. OH! Where are my manners, Princess, forgive a humble brownie. I am called Welsey. Welsey Shroomhorn, at your service, miss.” Welsey bowed again quickly and stood looking up at Natalia as if light had shone for the first time.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Welsey Shroomhorn, how do you do?” asked Natalia. This was not the first brownie she had met, and knew the formalities when exchanging pleasantries with one of their kind. “And how are the mushrooms this season? Morels coming up nicely?” Natalia prattled on, setting the kindly brownie at his ease.
“Right nicely, Miss, right nicely. May I ask you what you are doing here Princess? The last thing anyone has ever heard about you was that you vanished into the night, across the border, and that no known magic could bring you back to us. You were a changeling.” Natalia gasped. A changeling, indeed! She was no mere trick played on the humans gone awry. She was Natalia, Princess of Aedon. Her parents had thought she had been changed during a switch! Sobs tore from the throat of the redheaded girl. Deep, guttural sobs. Suddenly, the strange beauty that had engulfed her snuffed out. She was simply a frightened child who missed her parents terribly and just wanted to go home. As the grief poured out of Natalia, Britta gently rocked her in her lap, stroking the coppery curls and humming a sweet nothing tune. Welsey watched the pair, and felt his heart melt. They were merely children. How could they be involved in what was happening beyond the veil? After a few moments, he A-hemmed very loudly.
“Being as you are here and all, I think it’s best you spoke with Ionia, you do know how to talk to a dryad, right? The rumors aren’t true, you didn’t turn into one of them? Begging ya pardon Miss….” Wesley’s attention strayed toward Britta, who was so stunned by the preceding moments merely nodded in acceptance. “I think Ionia would be your best bet, she is after all the tree whose limbs made the cradle you slept in.” Welsey hopped down off the slab, and sauntered off toward the other side of the oaken circle.
Natalia sat and thought a moment, holding the brass coin in one hand, Britta’s hand In the other. She turned and stared deeply into the older girl’s brown eyes. These two girls had gotten into more mischief together than the rest of the kids combined. But Natalia knew she had to decide if she could let Britta come with her through the veil. Her parents thought her as good as dead, that was why it had taken so long. Natalia didn’t know who had left the coin yet, nor why. Welsey had seemed genuinely surprised to see her, it was as if a bubble had popped and she had crossed the barrier between the human and fairy world. Maybe it was the music that had caused Welsey to be able to see her, which meant that all the times she had played here before, he couldn’t. A spell had been cast upon Natalia to make her invisible to the Fae folk.
“Britta, I think I should speak with Ionia. Are you ready for another surprise? Sit on the stone, hold the coin in your hand and trace the face and back with your fingers. Close your eyes and listen to the wind In the trees. I’ll play my flute, and she will come. Each second I am here, I feel an instinct returning, like memories I’ve never had. I know Ionia, she held me in her arms every night. Close your eyes, Britta, and let’s see if they can see and hear me.” Natalia pulled her flute out and began a gentle lullaby. As that song ended, she began another, a nameless tune that every mother has hummed to her child when it was in need of comfort. Her notes carried a peace, and the constant motion of Britta’s rubbing the coin created warmth and rhythm, A rustling of leaves joined in, swishing to the beat of Natty’s flute. It was a joyous dance of sounds, and then a voice came from the right of the girls.
Natalia’s flute played on, quieter but continuously. Britta stared at the miracle happening before her eyes. A woman was stepping out of the tall slender oak. She wasn’t so much stepping out, as flowing. It was almost liquid wood growing out of the tree. Thin branches and leaves made up her hair, her skin was a walnut color, her facial features carved into the flesh of the wood. Bit by bit she emerged from her wooden cocoon, until the only thing that connected her to the mighty tree was her fingertips. She studied the girls, her body swaying to the music Natalia was piping. Her graceful lithe body was clothed in leaves forming a simple one shouldered dress.