Authors: Michelle Harrison
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Fantasy & Magic, #JUV000000
The metal railings came into view as they drew nearer. This hole was significantly smaller than the first, and did not look nearly so threatening. Tanya was relieved to see that the railings were intact the whole way around. There were no gaps in this, dog-sized or otherwise.
“How many of these are there, exactly?” Tanya wondered aloud.
“Seven.” Fabian craned his neck to peer into the cavern. “I’d love to know how deep this thing goes.”
Tanya made a face. “I wouldn’t. Just think of all the—”
“Quiet,” said Fabian, holding his finger to his lips. “There’s someone over there. Look—in the clearing!”
A girl in a green dress with long, dark hair was walking slowly toward them, bending down every now and then to add a wildflower to the bunch in her arms. For a moment Tanya thought the girl had not yet realized she was no longer alone, but then she looked straight at Tanya, smiling as she approached.
Tanya’s initial relief at seeing another human being was short-lived, replaced with suspicion as she recalled the passage on glamour in her grandmother’s book. She scrutinized the girl, searching for any clue that this might be some fey disguise, but there was nothing about her that suggested anything out of the ordinary.
“Why do you think she’s here all alone?” Tanya whispered, trying not to move her lips in case the girl saw that they were speaking about her.
Fabian did not answer right away. “I don’t know. She looks like she could be a gypsy—she might be a relation of the old gypsy woman. She lives in these woods.”
“That’s right. The one who gave you the compass. Which, by the way, I looked up in an antique book of Warwick’s. It’s worthless.”
Tanya looked toward the girl. “Shall we ask her if she’s seen Oberon?”
Fabian nodded. “Even if she hasn’t she might be able to help us find our way out. She seems to know her way around pretty well.” He stepped away from the railings and toward the girl, Tanya behind him.
The girl eyed them and smiled again. She looked to be in her early teens, with creamy skin and thickly lashed dark eyes. “Are you lost?” she asked softly.
“We’re looking for our dog,” Fabian said. His voice was quavering and unusually self-conscious. “He ran off, and we can’t find him. And now… yes, we’re lost,” he admitted finally.
The girl nodded. “I saw a dog come this way.” Her voice was quiet and well spoken, somehow sounding older than her years.
“When?” Tanya said urgently.
“Not long ago,” the girl replied. “Just a few minutes.”
“Was he all right? He didn’t look hurt, did he?”
The girl trained her dark eyes on Tanya. “No, he looked fine. Come with me, I’ll help you look for him. I know these parts well. Once we have the dog I can lead you out of the forest.”
Tanya shot a relieved glance at Fabian; then they began to follow the girl, who was moving quickly ahead, weaving in and out of the trees. Once or twice Tanya thought she saw faces in the bark of trees, or the limblike movement of a branch, but no longer felt able to distinguish between that which was fey and her own paranoia.
She noticed that this part of the forest was very quiet, and the trees seemed bigger and older somehow, the colors richer and the woodland scents heavier. They neared a huge tree, with a hole in its trunk wide enough to walk through.
“I wonder if this is the tree,” Fabian said. “It’s sturdy enough.”
tree!” He pulled a ghoulish face. “The one people used to be hanged from. There must be one. How else do you think the forest got its name? Go on, you go through first.”
“I don’t want to,” Tanya protested, but Fabian’s hand was between her shoulder blades, urging her through. Inside it was dark and smelled musty and damp, and she could hear the scuttling of creatures that were nesting there. In her haste to get out quickly she caught her foot on a root, and stumbled back through into the light.
A rough hand grabbed her shoulder.
Tanya yelled and kicked out as hard as she could. There was a horrible thud as her foot made contact, and her assailant gave a low groan. Fabian stumbled through, reaching for her blindly, then stopped dead.
“Warwick,” he gasped.
Tanya looked up into Warwick’s face. He was rubbing his shin with his free hand. Sitting meekly behind him was Oberon, a length of thin rope joined to his collar as a makeshift leash.
“That hurt,” Warwick told her through gritted teeth. “Don’t do it again.” He turned to Fabian, eyes flashing with anger. “And it’s
Tanya wrenched herself free of his grasp and fell upon Oberon. The dog licked her lovingly, not quite sure what all the attention was for but enjoying it all the same. Fabian reached over and patted him, relieved.
“How did you find him?” Tanya asked.
“You’re both in big trouble,” Warwick growled, ignoring the question. It was clear he was seething.
Tanya felt a sudden jolt of fear. She had never seen the man so angry.
“How many times have I told you, boy? These woods are dangerous!”
“It’s my fault,” said Tanya, before Fabian had the chance to speak. “Oberon ran off, and I panicked. I—I asked Fabian to come with me.”
Warwick eyed her coldly. “You should have waited for me. This forest is no place to be if you don’t know your way around.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied, hanging her head, which seemed to placate him a little.
“It’s lucky you were wearing that,” he said, jerking his head toward her red T-shirt. He gave Fabian a scathing once-over. “If you were wearing green like this idiot I wouldn’t have spotted you so easily—even though you were making enough noise to wake the dead.”
“Oh,” Tanya muttered. For a moment she had thought Warwick had known the real reason she had chosen to wear red—not that it had done her much good in the end. Fabian looked down at his brown and green clothes uncomfortably.
“Best be getting back,” said Warwick, although his tone was marginally less angry now. He turned and began to walk briskly.
She exchanged glances with Fabian behind Warwick’s back. He was looking glum, and although she was glad he had been with her, she was sorry that he was going to get into trouble.
“Hang on a minute,” said Fabian suddenly. He turned back to look the way they had just come. “Where did that girl go?”
Warwick spun around. “What girl?”
“There was a girl,” said Tanya. “She saw Oberon a few minutes ago—she offered to help us find him.”
“She can’t have seen him,” said Warwick. “He’s been with me for the best part of an hour.” He scanned the trees. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” Tanya replied. “She must not have seen that we stopped, and kept on walking.”
“What did she look like?”
“Pretty,” Fabian said, a hazy look in his eyes. “Really pretty.”
Warwick said no more. Instead he turned and continued to stomp through the woods. Tanya and Fabian plodded after him in silence. Tanya watched as a tiny fairy, much like the one she had buried, landed gently on Warwick’s back and collected a downy feather caught in his hair, then flew back up into the trees to make its nest. Tanya stayed close to him, feeling safer, but her dislike of Warwick left her confused and a little resentful of the feeling.
The journey back to Elvesden Manor was long and weary, but thankfully the fairies troubled them no more. For the second time in as many days, Tanya was glad to see her grandmother’s house.
As soon as Warwick had closed the garden gate behind them, Tanya untied the rope from Oberon’s collar, and then the four of them battled through the overgrown weeds toward the house.
“I suppose you’re going to have to tell my grandmother about this,” Tanya muttered as they trudged into the kitchen. Its familiar smell was oddly comforting.
Warwick turned to face her, his expression grim. “Under normal circumstances I would. But I understand you only went into the forest to find your dog, not out of disobedience, so the matter can stay between us.”
Tanya stared at him in surprise. Fabian looked equally flabbergasted.
“There’s one condition.” Warwick’s eyes bored into them. “You promise me now, both of you, that you’ll never set foot in those woods again.”
They both promised readily. Neither harbored any desire to repeat the experience. Apparently satisfied, Warwick turned up the volume on a small portable radio on the windowsill.
“Other news now. Reports are coming in of a suspected child abduction from the maternity ward of an Essex hospital. Security camera checks have so far proved futile, with evidence that the cameras had been tampered with prior to the incident. It’s been confirmed that the child in question—a boy thought to be little more than a week old—had been abandoned near the hospital shortly after birth, and was being cared for by staff there.
“Police are asking for the mother to come forward, and have also issued a description of a teenage girl who was seen acting suspiciously in the reception area prior to the incident. She is now wanted for questioning. An eyewitness described the girl as—”
Warwick turned the radio off and rubbed a hand over his bristly chin.
“I hate the news,” he said softly, then turned and left, leaving Tanya and Fabian alone.
“Oh, no,” Fabian said in an exasperated voice. He was craning his neck to view his sleeve. “My best T-shirt. It’s ripped! Look at it.” He sighed in annoyance, then looked at her hopefully. “Are you any good at sewing?”
“Terrible,” she answered.
“I’ll leave it here later on,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe Florence will mend it.”
“Thanks for coming with me,” she said, after Warwick’s footsteps had faded away.
Fabian shrugged. “It was partly my fault anyway. If I hadn’t scared the rabbit it might not have happened.”
“But you still came. Even though you knew we’d get into trouble if we got caught.” She shuddered, remembering how easily they had become lost, and the mysterious black holes in the ground.
“I couldn’t let you wander off alone,” said Fabian, his eyes darkening. “People have disappeared in there.”
“I know. I read about one of them, a girl with an unusual name. Something Bloom.”
“It was Morwenna.”
“That’s it,” said Tanya. “Morwenna Bloom. I read about her in a newspaper clipping that fell out of one of the books in the library.”
“What did it say?” asked Fabian, interested all of a sudden.
“It just said she had vanished in the woods, and that people thought she had fallen into one of the catacombs,” said Tanya. “Surely you know the story? You knew her name.”
“I was just making sure it was the same person. So many people have gone missing it’s hard to remember all of them.” Fabian removed his glasses and polished them on his grubby shirt. “She was the youngest person ever to disappear in those woods. It was because of her that the railings were put up.” He paused, and replaced his glasses. “I suppose you know she was Florence’s best friend?”
” said Tanya. “But I showed her the clipping—she didn’t say anything about being best friends.” She remembered the strange look on her grandmother’s face—now it made sense. “She said they used to be friends but had drifted apart. Are you sure they were best friends?”
“Positive,” said Fabian. “I’ve overheard her talking to Warwick about it more than once, but whenever I come into the room they stop. It probably brought back too many memories. Maybe it traumatized her—maybe she finds it too painful to talk about.”
Tanya was silent, flooded with guilt. “How many people have disappeared in the woods, then?” she asked finally, unable to contain her own morbid curiosity.
“Loads,” said Fabian. “Obviously not as many since the railings have been there, but still a few. Mainly it was poachers from Tickey End, or people passing through. There are probably numerous others that are unaccounted for though. Travelers, gypsies… too many cats and dogs to count.
“And the holes aren’t really catacombs.” Fabian walked to the sink to wash his hands. “A ‘catacomb’ is defined as an ancient burial chamber. The holes
are actually called deneholes. There are quite a few of them scattered over the country, especially in the south of England. Over the years people began to refer to them as the catacombs because so many people vanished there.”
“That’s horrible,” she said. She joined Fabian at the sink and caught sight of herself in a small tilting mirror on the windowsill. Her face was tearstained and dirty, and her hair hung in tangles.
“Listen,” said Fabian, in a low voice. “There’s something I want to show you, but you’ve got to promise not to say anything to Warwick or Florence.”
“Say anything about what?”
“I found something up on the second floor. I wasn’t sure if I could trust you until today.”
“What did you find?” Tanya asked.
Fabian shook his head. “Promise first.”
“Fine, I promise,” said Tanya, irritated. “I barely speak to either of them anyway.”
Fabian checked the hallway.