“Round, round, round we say,
Come the imps,
Come the fae.
Blue blood is finer,
But red blood is thick,
Best hop in your bed,
And to sleep be quick!”
The thwack-thwack of the rope punctuated the rhyme as the two girls breathlessly jumped together. Angie held on to her older sister’s waist as Bronwyn drew the rope around them, hopping in time to the beats of the old song.
They nearly got through it twice before Angie caught her heel on the rope, and they tumbled down, laughing. Angie bolted upright at once, but Bronwyn lay on the ground, leaves tickling her neck, and stared up at the canopy above her. Sunlight winked down, dazzling her eyes, and she sat up.
“Let’s play something else,” Angie said, kicking over a stone near them.
Bronwyn tugged the jump rope from under her and stood. “Like what?”
Angie considered, tugging on the ends of her fiery red hair, her dark eyes wandering around as she thought. “Explorer? We’ve never been all the way down this path. Let’s see what’s there.”
Bronwyn looked nervously down the path Angie was talking about. The forest of Glynneath wasn’t dangerous, at least, no more dangerous than any other forest, which is to say, probably a lot for unwary children, but she didn’t want to admit that her beloved forest ever scared her.
“Alright,” she said, looping the jump rope over her arm. “Just until it gets dark. We don’t want to get lost.”
Angie rolled her eyes as they started off. “You’re afraid, aren’t you? Afraid the old devils and imps will come get you? Like in the song?”
Bronwyn paled. She was already pale, and dark-haired, so unlike Angie with her freckles and red hair, whose moods were so easy to tell. No, Bronwyn burned white, and Angie burned red.
“I’m not afraid,” she said, hitting the jump rope on the ground. “But we could get lost. So there.”
“We won’t,” said Angie assuredly, walking forward and swinging her arms hugely in a display of bravado. “And if we do meet any demons, we can just play with them until they go away. They like to play.”
“They like to play and then eat people,” Bronwyn said under her breath as she followed, thinking of the dark and menacing fairy tales they had at home. The stories had always frightened her, but nobody else at school seemed to know the stories. All of their fairy stories were silly, light things, with fairies as little women in pretty dresses, or pixie-type creatures that could only do small mischief.
She shuddered as she thought of the fairies of her stories; the dark red fae, evil, selfish, and full of mischief, of the kind that involved blood and bone. There were other stories too, of blue fairies who were taller and more kind, who fought the red fairies, but were too weak. In every story, the red fae won. Bronwyn hated those stories. She wished she had never read them. Especially now, as they walked deeper into the woods, the trees becoming thicker and denser, so the light was dim, and she thought she saw grinning faces in the gloom between the trunks.
“Let’s go back,” she said to Angie, almost whispering, her heart beating fast, and her hand slick with sweat around the jump rope.
“Not yet,” Angie hissed back, but Bronwyn could see her face was pale too. She was as unnerved as Bronwyn.
“Look!” Angie cried suddenly, stopping so abruptly Bronwyn ran into her.
“What?” Bronwyn said irritably, following Angie’s pointing hand with her eyes. Bronwyn felt her breath catch as she saw what Angie was pointing at.
Ahead of them, in a small clearing in the trees, was a large ring of mushrooms.
“A fairy ring,” Angie breathed, her excitement evident.
“We should go back,” Bronwyn said at once, clutching at Angie’s sleeve. “Angie, come on. We should go.”
“Nonsense,” Angie said at once, shaking Bronwyn off and stepping nearer. “We should set up a table and chairs for them?”
“What?” Bronwyn said, astonished. “Set up a- are you crazy? Why?”
“What if they come while we’re here? Wouldn’t it be fun?”
Bronwyn stared at her sister. She thought, dazedly, if Angie had ever read those fairy stories she had, where no fairy was good, and some were very, very bad.
But Angie was already looking about for small stones, and Bronwyn could only watch as she gathered up an armful and dumped them into the ring, then sat down, right in the middle, to arrange them.
“Aren’t you going to help?” Angie said, looking over her shoulder.
Bronwyn shook her head, frozen in place, staring as Angie shrugged and went back to work. Angie had found several rocks that could serve as chairs, and piled smaller ones on top for seat backs. Then she took a flat one she had found, a large white stone, and set it on four small rocks for a table.
“There,” Angie said, standing and brushing her hands on her knees. She came to stand beside Bronwyn, looking down at her work. “Now they should come.”
“Well let’s not hang around to see,” Bronwyn said, her heart still jumping about like a scared rabbit in her chest. “It’s getting dark anyway. Let’s go, Angie. We can-” she cast around wildly for something that would convince Angie to leave. “We can come back tomorrow and check. I doubt the fairies will come right now while we’re here. They’re shy. Let’s check back tomorrow, hm?”
Angie considered for a moment before nodding. “Good idea. Let me just take this flower.”
She bent down to pick a small bunch of red flowers, and Bronwyn felt her heart, so rapidly beating before, stop. The flowers were Anagallis arvensis, Scarlet Pimpernel, which did not open in forests where no sun shone down. Bronwyn loved plants and knew this. So how on earth were these red flowers blooming so brightly here? She looked around and saw many more, fanning out around them, their faces all pointing to the two girls.
Bronwyn turned right around to look down the path, and red faces looked back at her as far as she could see.
“Angie,” she whispered, looking down the path, “put those back. Don’ take them. I think-”
She cut off as a loud thump sounded behind her. Terrified at what she might see, Bronwyn turned slowly, and let out a high scream as she saw Angie lying on the ground.
Her hand was still clenched around the bunch of pimpernel, the faces of which were turned to Bronwyn. Angie’s eyes were open, as was her mouth, but her eyes looked all wrong, too dark, almost black, and out of her mouth was sprouting more pimpernel. The flowers spread, and grew, racing along her sister’s body, tiny green shoots reaching for her…