The world beyond
“It is said that a mysterious Path crosses the Forest. A Path that does not start anywhere known to man and its course is a secret even for beasts. The spirits roam in silence and with gentle steps, avoiding the mortal beings who walk beside them.
“This Path leads to deep starry caverns. To the magnificent halls of the Elven kings. To the steep peaks of the northern mountains, inhabited by dragons. It runs across the villages of the half-breed, from the wild tribes of the north to the houses of the wise river folk.
“Fairies, deer, korred, and squirrels roam their winding routes, minding their affairs and in complete harmony. The trail leads to majestic waterfalls, impenetrable groves, and dangerous cliffs. If you’re lucky, it guides you to soft hills, covered with thousands of fragrant flowers. Their very existence leaves a pleasant warmth in your heart, even if the Path does not allow you to return to that wonderful place.
“Because, as every creature in the Forest knows, the Path has a mind of its own, and it will prevail over all others. If you find the Path, it speaks with your soul and guides you to the place you should be, even if it’s not the same you wanted to reach.
“But it is also unpredictable, and if you don’t watch your steps, it’s impossible to know‒”
“All right, children. It’s time for bed, both of you.”
The story was interrupted, her mother’s words hanging from her lips. Finn and Maeve turned to their father, who was watching the scene with a frown.
Dinner had ended long ago. While he smoked his pipe, sitting in a huge armchair in front of the fireplace, they were hearing the legends of the Forest. Both children loved those stories. Curled up on the carpet, they enjoyed the comforting heat of the flames and her mother’s soothing voice.
Neither of them was ready to end the night, but their father’s tone left no room to protest. The rest of the story would have to continue tomorrow.
“Just a little longer!” Finn pleaded, but his father remained quiet, giving him an impassive stare. “Our lands are at the edge of the Forest. Since we’re not allowed to get close, we can only learn about it through mom’s stories.”
Finn is not very smart. Maeve thought. Her brother had a natural talent to persuade others, and he usually got away with what he wanted. But his petty trick would never work with his father.
She also wanted to keep listening. At her young age, and unlike Finn, she knew it was better to do as told. She rose and kissed her mother’s cheek, who returned a sympathetic smile and pinched her nose.
Finn crossed his arms over his chest, stubborn. “Mom, please! I want you to tell us about dragons.”
“Finn, I will not repeat myself. Go to bed, now.” His father was a reasonable man, but his patience had limits.
“If the Forest is so dangerous, shouldn’t I learn as much as possible about it? How am I supposed to defend myself if‒?”
Maeve watched as her father rose from his seat and stood in front of Finn, who had lowered his gaze, tense. Beside her, her mother kept an eye on them with a gentle smile.
“The only thing you need to know about the Forest is that it is dangerous and that you should never enter, under any circumstances. It’s the territory of wild creatures and magic, and men are not to deal with those.”
Her father’s voice was grave. “It’s a crime, Finn, and if the king finds out, I’ll be severely punished.”
Finn looked at him, not understanding what he meant. Why would his father be punished if he was the one to enter the Forest?
“You, little one, will be very busy roasting in the cauldron of an ogre.”
Maeve gasped, covering her mouth. The thought of her brother being served as a monster’s lunch was horrifying. She had no idea how an ogre looked like, but her mind was quick to conjure one. If it was a child-eating creature, it couldn’t be nice. Big and mean, like a giant toad with sharp teeth and a mighty roar.
The argument had been settled, and her father pointed toward the door. Defeated, Finn kissed his mother and joined Maeve before heading to their bedrooms.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her father wrap her mother in a tight hug, kissing her on the cheek and making her giggle. Yes, he was a stoic man and could be very stern with his children, but nobody could deny he was in love with his wife. It warmed Maeve’s heart to see them so happy.
The walk through the halls was silent, each child lost in thought. Most of the servants had already gone to their homes.
Finn’s interest had not diminished at all. His father could threaten him with all the monsters and gruesome deaths he could think of, without causing the least effect. He was even more curious now.
Finn was suspiciously quiet. Maeve eyed him with worry.
“What?” the boy snapped.
“What are you thinking?”
“Nothing! I want to go to bed and sleep. I have fencing training tomorrow. Awfully early! You know how bad I am. I don’t want to find out how bad I am while half asleep.”
Maeve giggled. Her brother was always acting silly, and this didn’t seem to be an exception, so her worries were mostly quelled. Her father thought Finn had forgotten about the matter of going close to the Forest, but she knew better. They both enjoyed the stories, but Finn was obsessed with them. And he was an idiot.
So it was her responsibility to keep an eye on him.
The siblings said their goodnights in the hallway, and Maeve went to bed feeling very much alert.
O’Riordan Castle was a building as old as time. At least on Maeve’s eyes. Her ancestors had come to these lands centuries ago, when most families settled under the protective wings of the capital.
Since ancient times, humans feared and kept away from the Forest. The sheer extension of it was inconceivable, and it was brimming with magic and wild beasts. The church of the Ancients stated magic was a force not to be tampered with, and it’s heretic notions were foreign to humanity’s nature.
There were old stories about adventurers risking the wrath of whatever force dwelled within the trees. Men who dared trespassing, only to be violently expelled. They came back with tales of wild men and women. Half-breed, as ancient lore called them. Warriors with amazing strength and ferocious appearance.
Those who returned were terrified, but there were some who never left the Forest. Killed by the guardians, undoubtedly.
The firsts O’Riordans to settle near the border were deemed insane, but since they respected the Forest, never defiling it or causing any harm, they were left to live in peace. As they thrived, more and more farmers had dared to join them, and their lands became bountiful.
Only a handful of noble families followed their lead, and it soon became common knowledge, the only danger lay behind the thick veil of the greenery. The king decreed trespassing was a serious crime, and killing a Forest being was punishable by death.
This threat troubled Maeve’s heart.
The thought of her father being imprisoned, and Finn’s being killed had not left her since earlier, and she was restless.
Perhaps it was for that reason she was wide awake when she heard the hushed footsteps outside her door. She got up immediately, put on her leather shoes, and a coat before entering the corridor. The castle was dormant, engulfed in shadows. The footsteps were fading, so she followed.
Even in absolute darkness, she knew her way around the castle. The tall ceilings and narrow corridors felt cold at that time of night. But this was her home. Maeve knew every tapestry and every rug. Every corner and passageway. She didn’t hesitate even when the darkness and silence would have scared a regular child.
Ignoring the front door, Maeve slipped to the kitchens instead.
Upon entering the huge, cluttered room, she heard the door to the courtyard close and hurried. Not to lose track of her brother, she rushed through the empty yard. She moved in silence, narrowing her eyes as she followed the shadow that slipped past the servant’s quarters.
They moved through the garden and out of their family’s home. The night was warm and humid, and the air around her felt heavy. Foul weather was on its way, and Maeve was feeling pretty much annoyed.
Finn will spend the rest of his life grounded if he goes any further. She thought.
The wet grass soaked her shoes, unsuitable for a walk in the field. Soon, she found it increasingly difficult to move forward without betraying her presence. Finn didn’t seem close to stopping, and Maeve feared where her brother was heading.
Heavy clouds that threatened to release a downpour at any moment veiled the moon. Maeve noticed the omnipresent shadows of the Forest were getting closer with each step.
Maeve frowned. He wouldn’t dare!
She had to stop him. Not only did she fear her father’s punishment, the possibility of becoming ogre food felt too real. “Finn!”
The boy was startled by her closeness. He didn’t seem to have noticed her presence, too focused on his goal to enter the Forest.
He raised his arms and yelled. “What are you doing?! It’s dangerous, go back to your room!”
Finn retraced his steps until he reached Maeve, looking quite upset with the interruption. The Forest was within reach, the first trees rose in front of them, hiding the storm about to break loose.
His scowl vanished as soon as he caught up with her. Maeve was shivering, her little feet soaked. She was only 7 years old and she knew it was dangerous for someone so young to get sick from the cold. Finn knew it too, so he took off his coat and covered his sister with it.
“You shouldn’t have followed me, mushroom! I just want to see the Forest for a moment, I will not go far.”
“Dad is going to p-punish you! Come b-back with m-me now!”
The cold and dampness of the night had Maeve shivering, and it took Finn a moment to decide it was better to go back with her. He sighed and put an arm around her tiny shoulders, looking ratter disappointed by the change of plans.
They had only taken a few steps when they felt the change in the air.
A warm wind blew from the Forest, and the sound of tree leaves stirred by an enormous force reached them. Both siblings halted and turned to the woods, terrified and fascinated at the same time.
At the edge of the Forest, the trees were shaking to the rhythm of the footsteps of a colossal creature. Maeve opened her eyes wide, noticing that right in front of them, the terrain had changed. A huge hill, covered with shrubs and young saplings, stood among the trees that, a few moments ago, were motionless.
The hill shook sluggishly, advancing deep into the trees. Maeve felt her brother’s arms tighten around her, and she looked at him.
Finn was ecstatic. His eyes sparkled, reflecting the moonlight, shining only for a moment before hiding again behind the clouds. He whispered while trembling with excitement.
“Maeve! Do you see it? It’s a Wandering Hill!”