How did I get here?
I try to remember, but my mind can’t follow my thoughts. Words form in my head and turn to dust in the wind, and I can’t recall what I was trying to think in the first place.
Where am I?
I look around but it’s like staring through fractured glass. Splinters of images that should fit together, but they don’t.
I came for a reason, wherever this is; I think I remember that. I want to be here. But be where? My feet move but I don’t know where they’re going. Or what they are walking on. Something soft. Dirt, moss, grass.
Yes, forest. The forest of Winterhollow. That is where I wanted to go when I left… Left where? There was a trail I followed. I remember getting cold because I only had my blue dress and no shawl.
I’m still cold, I think. Something is biting my skin and it might be cold but I can’t be sure because what does cold look like? Maybe there are little creatures nibbling at my skin, invisible creatures that I cannot see. There are strange creatures like that in Winterhollow, they all say so.
Wait, what do they say? I forgot again. My thoughts are too slippery. They won’t stick inside my head, they drift away like ribbons in a whirlwind, spinning around but never sticking to the side of my head where I can grasp them.
I’m in Winterhollow and I came for a reason. My head is muddled and cloudy yet I know this thought is true and important, so I cling to it like a crutch and try to think, to look at the world around me and truly see it.
There is a path beneath my feet. There must be, because I walk straight ahead and nothing blocks my way. My feet are bare; the dirt and moss are soft and hard at the same time, and sometimes small twigs prick at the skin. I can’t see the path.
Why can’t I see it? I’m looking down; it should be there.
It’s the fog, I realize. A thick layer of fog hovers above the ground, hiding everything below my ankles, making it look as though I’m hovering above ground, but I know I’m not because I feel the dirt between my toes.
Where am I?
No, no, my mind is slipping away again. I focus on the dirt between my toes, on the places where sharp little things stab against my feet. It feels solid, real, tangible.
My head can’t concentrate. Time is too fluid; it feels like I’m ten seconds in the future and ten seconds in the past all at the same time, and I can’t separate one for the other or tell which one is now.
There are sounds, I realize, surrounding me. They slip through the whirlwind of my thoughts and stick in my ears like wax. A tinkling like little bells but not bells. Glass? In a second of clarity, I remember the crystal trees of Winterhollow, and when I look around me, I see them there. All along the path I walk, rising from the fog and sheltering me from the sky.
Tree trunks like copper wires twined together. Bright, blue crystal leaves dangling from fragile branches, chiming together in the wind that isn’t there, making the forest sing. I focus on the glittering leaves and my mind seems to clear. I can touch my thoughts when they stick to the inside of my mind, and I try to grab them.
Look at the pretty golden trunks as they glow beneath the glassy leaves… Gold. Gold is important. I remember gold is important, but… why? Oh, there is too much fog, around my feet and inside my head. I don’t know why, but I reach out a hand and pick a glossy leaf off a thin twig and place it on my tongue.
The crystal dissolves like sweet, sugary water on my tongue, trickling down my throat, spreading through my body, into every finger and toe, into my head and my thoughts, washing away the fog until I can see my memories and hurry to grasp them in case they disappear again.
The golden apples.
That’s why I’m here; I remember now! The juice from the leaf clears my head and finally I know what is happening, and for just a moment, I wish I didn’t.
Queen Eidothea is ill. She is dying, and the Princess is lost in fear and grief, and it is our duty to help them both.
A bite from one of the Hesperide’s golden apples is the only thing that can cure our beloved Queen. The Hesperides are our sisters, our queen is their queen, but they don’t know that they hold the only key to her life, hiding as they do deep in Winterhollow with their treasures, separated from their sisters home in Esterbell.
Esterbell… Where is Esterbell?
No, my thoughts are disappearing again, splitting into pieces that I can’t put together because none of them look alike. Golden apples, golden apples.
I think the words over and over, willing them to stay even as other thoughts slither away, out of my head and fly off into the shimmering trees, melding with the fog at my feet that I know are still moving because I feel the tickling of moss on my skin.
Are those voices I hear, hiding in the trees? No, the wind is still making the forest sing. But aren’t those words? Trees don’t sing with words, do they? Perhaps in Winterhollow. But they don’t sound like singing words.
Are there ghosts in Winterhollow? Spirits watching me?
Everywhere there seems to be shadows moving – beneath every leaf, lurking under every tree. Each spot of darkness moves, and I feel a sudden fear course through my confused mind. Is it the shadows that I hear talking?
Can shadows speak?
I shake my head, and my hands clutch my hair but I don’t remember moving them. The places where my fingers pull on strands set my scalp on fire. I feel every hair as it’s pulled to the brink of tearing, and it’s all I can focus on. Then my fingers release my hair and all is silent again.
No, not silent. The voices are still there.
Where did my thoughts go? I had them for a moment but now they have disappeared again. I have to find them… I look around me, at the glistening trees. Hadn’t they helped?
Somehow there is another crystal leaf between my fingers. On their own, without my help, they put the leaf on my tongue, and a cold clearness spreads through me.
The moment my mind puts itself back together, I know what happened. I was a fool, so lost in worry for Queen Eidothea that I didn’t heed my path, didn’t take note of the fog that followed me until it was too late and the toxins seeped into my body, turning my mind as blurry and disconnected as the fog itself.
I cover my mouth and nose with both hands, and I run. As fast as my sore feet can carry me, I run down the path, and it doesn’t take long before the fog begins to thin and I think it’s safe to stop.
But the moment I do, I feel a presence behind me that chills me to the bone, and I turn to see the fog gathering, crawling in on itself until it resembles a person, a shadow of smoke and ashes.
My feet want to keep running, but I stay and stare at the fog the shape of a shadow, with a bushy tail and claws, except I cannot see them, only the soft shape of them in the fog.
“Who are you?” my curiosity asks before my good sense can make me flee.
“I was once a lost soul as you are, wandering in search for… something,” the voice is a whisper, it sounds so confused. “I cannot remember what.”
“What are you?” I ask, because he can’t truly be fog. Can he?
“What am I?” the shadow creature sounds as if his mind is far away. “I do not know what I am. Or what I was. I think I had shape once, when I came here. I think I had a mind, too; one I was proud of. Too proud. It is gone now.”
“Your mind is gone?” Just like mine, when his fog touched me. Poor, poor creature, to have no escape from that confusion. “Who did this to you?”
The creature seems to curl in on itself, forming a ball of fog before it again takes the familiar shape of a person. “Someone… Perhaps it was me. I cannot remember.”
“Is there any way to help you? Can you be brought back to what you were?”
“There is no help for me. The singing women tried, I think…” His words are slurred, fading.
“Singing women? Do you mean the Hesperides? My sisters?” If they have tried and failed, then there is nothing I can do to help. They are stronger than me, and there are three of them and only one of me. “Do you know where they are?”
The shadow creature fractures into shapeless fog that drifts past me without touching my skin. It drifts down the path – except I now see that there is no path. Nothing but grass and moss and trees and flowers where the path used to be.
Pretty, pink flowers are all around, on tall stems with large petals that emit a sweet, sharp scent. The smell seems to clear the last of the cobwebs from my mind, and I realize what he’s trying to tell me.
Follow the flowers; their scent will keep the fog from infesting my mind. I allow one moment of sadness for this lost soul who can’t be helped, before I follow his advice and begin to walk. I’m constantly inhaling the perfume of the flowers and keeping an eye on the fog that now spreads and thins, reaching through the crystal forest but never touching me.
There is the voice again; the one I heard when my mind was gone, when I couldn’t comprehend what it was. It’s only one voice, I can tell now.
A soft voice that sounds frightened, frantic, going up at times then down so I barely hear. There’s no more path for me to walk, so I follow the voice through the crowded forest, hoping its owner might point me in a direction.
Soon I stumble out from the bushes and land on my knees in a clearing sheltered beneath tall trees, both brown and gold and blue, and overgrown with the pink flowers that keeps the fog away from my mind.
Daylight is blocked by thick branches above, casting an eerie glow across the dirt. Besides the earth and pink flowers, the only thing in the clearing is a pond.
The filthy green water leaves a foul smell hanging over the clearing, not even masked by the perfume of the pink flowers. Despite the smell, everything around the pond is so clean. Big, white stones frame the pond, spotless, not even a speck of moss marring the smooth surface of the rocks.
But the stone in the middle of the pond is green and slimy like the water itself – as is the woman sitting on it.
It is hard to tell, really, if it’s a woman or a girl, for her haunted eyes appear ancient, but her shivering, fragile figure seems so young. She is covering her bare chest with arms caked in dried pond-water and sludge, her legs dipped to the knees beneath the surface. Something that might once have been a giant leaf is wrapped around her waist like a skirt, torn and rotten and clinging to her thighs.
“I knew I heard voices,” I say, though the woman has ended her muttering and now stares at me with wide eyes.
“Why have you come here?” she asks, her voice slippery and murky like the water she sits in. “You shouldn’t have come here. Did you follow the fish-woman? Never follow the fish-woman!” She peers into the trees as if afraid something might jump out and harm her.
“I didn’t follow a fish-woman,” I assure her softly, because she seems so afraid, though I have no idea who she’s talking about. “I am here for my sisters, the Hesperides, to pick one of their golden apples and save my Queen. Who are you?”
“I was once a brave soul as you are, willing to risk everything for something more.” Her head tilts to the side and her gaze turns curious. “The Hesperides sing and dance. Their happy voices travel here on the wind, and they sometimes bring me gifts. The Hesperides are nice to all of us.”
I try to smile kindly, though the smell makes it difficult. “You know the Hesperides? Do you know the way to them? Could you point me on the right path? I’m afraid I’ve gotten myself a little lost.”
The woman closes her eyes, pinches them together and shakes her head. “Silly nymph,” she hisses. “No paths in Winterhollow. Better watch where you go or you might end up in a pond like mine and never get out. Like I will never get out.”
“What…” I look at her feet in the muddy waters, horrified on behalf of this poor, pathetic creature. “Are you a prisoner here?”
“Can’t be helped,” she mutters, eyes still shut. “Can’t be helped. Followed willingly, chose to go. No way out now. Got what I asked for, didn’t I? Nothing but adventure in Winterhollow.”
“You asked for this?” I gasp. Her eyes shoot back open and bore into me with wild fury.
“Never follow the fish-woman!” she yells. “She lies, she lies! Plays a trick and then you’re stuck, stuck because you chose to give everything up. Stuck! No way out of the water. No way back to the dirt where I belong. Oh, to play in the dirt with my brother again.”
She seems to calm as she gazes longingly at the ground beneath my feet. Such desperation in those wide eyes. I bend down and scoop up a handful of dirt, and take a tentative step towards her pond.
“I won’t follow the fish-woman,” I promise, and it seems to calm her. “Is there no way to get you out of there?”
“No way in, no way out, here’s the place for pain and doubt,” she mutters, lost somewhere I can’t see. “She doesn’t like questions, you see.”
I’m look at her with sadness and pity. What a miserable, lost creature. I wish she could be helped. But if my sisters, the Hesperides, know she is here, then surely there is no help to be had. Nymphs worship freedom – none of us could bare to see a woman held captive without trying to help.
Another step closer and I drop the handful of dirt on a white stone by the water’s edge. With a splash, the woman is submerged in the filthy water, sending droplets splashing onto the plants and dirt around, where they land with a puff of smoke before they evaporate.
She comes up at edge of the pool, staring at the pile of dirt. She reaches a shaking finger towards it, so much wanting in her eyes, but pulls back before she touches it. Never looking away, she lifts an arm and points towards a slim opening in the trees.
“The Hesperides and their tree is that way,” she whispers, and doesn’t lift her eyes from the dirt as I back away towards the small trail.
“Thank you,” I say before disappearing into the trees, but still she doesn’t look away.
Poor, haunted creature. I wonder what life she led before she found herself here, and the same for that misshapen shadow living in fog.
Then I remember my Queen and hurry on down the moss-covered trail.
The tall, pink flowers line the trail for a long time, shielding me from the fog I know lurks on the other side, but it doesn’t seep through and my mind remains clear.
Atop the melody of clinking crystal leaves, I soon hear the trickling of a brook, and see it cutting through the path ahead of me. The water isn’t deep, but it’s clear and fast and so beautiful that I stop for a moment to stare, and as I stare, I am overcome by thirst.
But if the fog made my mind slip away, what might the water do? The thought frightens me, yet now that I see the clean water, my tongue feels like the cracked, dry floor of the Red Hills desert, and my throat begs for this thirst to be quenched.
I bend my knees and cup the cool water in my hands, bringing it slowly towards my lips, watching the light reflecting from it, making spots of sunshine dance before my eyes.
My mouth aches for the clear liquid, and I’m about to take a sip when a branch strikes my wrist, hard, and the pain and shock causes me to spill the water back into the brook.
“Unwise, little nymph,” says a creaky old voice, but I look around and see nothing but the brook, the trail, the flowers and trees.
“Who’s there? Who are you?” I ask the air and forest.
“I was once a thirsty soul like you, lost in this great big place. A great deal older than you, little nymph, but I was no wiser. I, too, got thirsty and drank from that brook.”
I see her, then – her face. The face of an old woman reflected in the trickling stream. She appears to be standing in front of an old tree whose roots are entwined into the brook, but when I look up at the tree beside me, there is no woman, only branches that seem to move in the breeze. Only there is no breeze.
Her reflection remains in the water.
“Where are you hiding?”
“Right where you see me,” she gravely replies. “I am this grand tree, but I have no face but the one I once had, long ago, that lingers in my reflection.”
“I’m so sorry for your suffering,” I say, staring into her crinkled eyes. “How did this happen to you?”
“It has been a long time, and I cannot remember. I know only that I am cursed to stay here and drink from this brook through my roots until the water dries.”
“And is there no way to help you? To turn you back into who you were?”
The face in the flowing water stares into mine. “You are a nymph. Surely you are here for the Hesperides?”
“Indeed,” I reply. “I need one of their golden apples to heal our Queen.”
“The Hesperides are good and sweet,” her old voice croaks. “They have tried to separate me from this tree, but even wood nymphs are not powerful enough for that. If they cannot help, then neither can you, so you best move on. If you keep to this little trail, you will find their paradise.”
“I hear the splashing from their waterfall, the singing of their rainbow birds, the rustling in the grass, and I know the garden of the Hesperides is magnificent. In my dreams I go there, though I never can. Now run, and do not take a drink along the way.”
“Thank you for your advice, madam.” I bow my head low to the tree. “I’m sorry you cannot be helped.”
“For the cursed souls of Winterhollow, there is no help.”
One of her branches snap at my legs, and I walk on down the trail as she has told me, feeling my soul weighed down with grief for the fog man, the pond girl and the old tree woman.
For such a beautiful place, Winterhollow doesn’t seem to take kindly to strangers.
I don’t have to follow the little trail for long before the trees thin out and I find myself in the garden of the Hesperides.
The old woman was right. There is more beauty here than I could have imagined, and for a moment I stare, overwhelmed by the joy and peace such a sight stirs within, as though all the bad inside is cleansed and washes away by beauty.
The meadow is covered in bright green grass, so soft and perfect it hardly looks real, but the feeling of it between my toes tells me otherwise. It’s much more pleasant than the grass of the forest.
The sky above looks somehow bluer here, clear of clouds and troubles and branches trying to keep it away.
A waterfall runs down the cliff over there, a steaming warm pool at its feet, framed by the smoothest grey stones that shine beneath the sun. A trail of red, yellow and orange flowers lead away from the pool and around the edge of the forest, encasing the clearing in a circle of fiery petals.
And at the center of it all, with resplendent blue and purple fairy birds fluttering about the top branches, stands the great tree carrying the golden apples.
Bestowed as gifts by the Earth Spirit to the Queen of the Ancient Gods and her husband on their wedding day, no fruits ever looked so splendid, shining bright beneath the sun, remaining buoyant on their branches despite their weight and value.
And below, in the shadow of that grand tree, at last I see the guardians of the golden apples; the Hesperides.
One lounges on the cool grass, stretched out on the soft green blades. Her sisters dance in circles about each other, singing pretty songs in our ancient language, some happy tune that brings out memories of my childhood in Esterbell, filled as it was with delight and music.
Among those memories is an image of Queen Eidothea, watching us and laughing as we play with her daughter in the gardens. Grief and urgency wins over the happy memories, so I raise my hand and wave.
“Sisters!” I call out, and they stop their dancing and snoozing and stare at me. There is one moment of silence before smiles spread on their beautiful faces, and all three run towards me with arms stretched out for an embrace, still not knowing what grave news I bring.
“Zephyra!” The first to reach me wraps her arms around me and I inhale the enchanting scent of home that still dwell on them. They don’t live with the rest of us, but they smell of forest and sea and wind and earth, as we all do, and an ache clutches at my chest as I think of what awaits me at home if I don’t fulfill my mission.
So much time has been lost already.
“What a blessing to see you, Zephyra,” trills the second to hold me close. “We do love our sanctuary, but how we miss the rest of our kind.”
“She has not come for happy reunions,” the third says. She takes my hand and squeezes it lovingly, but as she studies me I know she sees my grief. “What has happened, dear sister? Tell us.”
“It’s our Queen Eidothea,” I reply, and though my throat is thick with unshed tears, I force the words out with focused calm. “She has taken ill. Poisoned, we believe.” I carry myself onward despite their exclamations of shock. “The healers from Shadowcliff say that only a bite from one of your golden apples can restore her and force out the poison.”
They all turn towards their tree, whimpering and frightened. “Our apples are not to be picked lightly,” one of them warns. “Though the great goddess would surely grant an apple to save our queen, there is always a price to be paid.”
“I am willing to pay it,” I vow, and know in my heart that this is true. “The Princess is not ready to lose her mother, not now. Not yet.”
“Then pick an apple,” one of the Hesperides says. “Make sure the Queen gets it. By your sacrifice, she will be healed.”
Her voice is full of sorrow, and her cheeks glisten from tears, but her fear does not infect me. I am not afraid to die for my Queen.
My time in Winterhollow has been short, but it feels so much longer. Walking through a place that is more dream than reality has filled me with a peace that overcomes any fear I have for my life, and the sorry souls I have seen have assured me that even those fates are worth the life of my Queen.
I cross the clearing, the grass tickling my toes. I reach the shade of the tree and stretch to the lowest branch and pick a golden apple.
It seems to shrink until it fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. Just another apple, if not for the glistening gold that warms my skin.
“There is no time to waste,” I tell my sisters who crowd around me. “Thank you,” is all I can say as I begin to leave their meadow, but a hand on my wrist forces me to pause and look into the eyes of the Hesperides.
“No, Zephyra. Thank you for saving our Queen, and the Princess along with her. May peace walk with you.”
“The apple will keep you from harm as long as you are within the borders of Winterhollow,” another assures me, and I leave them to ponder what might become of me.
I have a Queen to save.
The Hesperides spoke the truth. Nothing touches me as I follow a path that seems to spread before me with each step I take. No strange creatures speak around me, calling me to them. None try to warn or harm me. No fog muddles my mind.
Sooner than seems possible, I see the end of the path, the thinning of the crystal trees, and beyond them, waiting for me, are the Huntresses; the soldiers of Esterbell.
I see their faces as I come closer, see their captain as she spots me and the apple in my hand, and her worries seem to fall away as she smiles in relief. But as I come closer, to the final shadows cast by the forest of Winterhollow, I stop.
“Sister Zephyra, you made it!” the Captain greets me. “We’re here to escort you and the apple safely to the Queen.”
I smile at her from the shadows. “You will bring the apple to our Queen yourself, old friend. This is where my journey ends.”
The Captain and her Huntresses turn puzzled and confused, some even frightened. “What does this mean, brave sister?”
“I hereby pay the price demanded for picking one of the golden apples, and willingly and happily pass on the apple for our Queen, and keep the cost on my own shoulders.”
To their baffled eyes, I go forward into the sun, out of the shadows that mark the final border of Winterhollow. I step out with one arm stretched, apple balanced neatly in my cupped palm, the other arm resting gently on my side, and a look of peace on my face, because somehow I know what will happen when I reach the light, and this is how I want to be remembered.
As my body leaves the shadows and is bathed in light, the gold seeps away from the apple, into my hand, stretching down my arm and across my entire body to the horrified gasps of the Huntresses.
In no time at all, I am gold, and the apple is nothing but the flesh of fruit. I am locked to the ground where I stand.
They don’t recover from what they have witnessed right away. Some cry, some wail my name, some cheer and thank me. The Captain plucks the apple from my palm and looks into my eyes that are now nothing but unblinking gold.
“Your sacrifice will never be forgotten. Nymphs shall sing of your heroic act until we exist no more.”
And then, wasting no time, she orders her Huntresses to return to Esterbell, and they leave me here, next to the path that leads into Winterhollow, to save the life of our Queen.
I happen to know that our Queen did survive thanks to the apple. Once my friends got word of what happened to me, they flocked to my side, sat at my feet, wept into my cupped palm, caressed my smooth cheeks. They grieved my loss.
But eventually they went back home, and eventually they stopped coming back.
Yet I stand here still, watching all the poor souls who enter and the few that leave Winterhollow. Some of them give me curious looks, some consider me a warning and turn back, but they all see me. Because here I stand, and here I will always stay, another soul trapped in Winterhollow.
Like the creature of fog who muddles the mind.
Like the woman in the pond who cannot touch dirt.
Like the old lady in the tree, always drinking from the brook.
We all came in search for something, and we were all willing to give something up, and none of us ever left.
I truly loved my Queen. I wanted nothing more than to keep her alive, and I was truly honored to give up my life for hers.
But now it’s been a hundred fucking years, and I’m starting to get bored.
Should have let the snobby bitch die.