Under the cascade of red and gold and orange, she ran. Step upon step, the crispness of fall crunched underfoot. She glanced back. She could still hear the voices echoing in her head. But to her, the words were empty and meaningless. All she knew that moment was she needed to see the Queen Faerie, and the Mad Hatter, and the Faun.
She had met them about a year ago, when she had managed to escape the flying saucers back home, running out the backdoor into the scorch of summer air. The little girl felt she had been confined in the four walls of her pink bedroom for too long. She wanted out. And so she sneaked past the dining room, where the flying saucers danced across in succession, and into the kitchen where the backdoor had fortunately been left open.
Running into the shade of the woods, she felt sweat trickle down her temple and drip upon her back. Her skin was sticky and filthy; but as her heart pounded strange rhythms within her little chest, she knew she was freer than she had ever been.
Her steps halted when her eyes caught sight of it. In the heart of the forest stood a hollow oak tree. Even before autumn had come, the tree held no leaves, its bark dry and rough. Dead, that was how the grown-ups would put it. But she knew that inside there was life. This was where they had met, and this was where she was to meet them, every afternoon when the clock on the kitchen wall pointed to three.
She crawled into the hole at the bottom, amidst the tangle of roots, her bare knees scraped by the rough ground for the millionth time, the tulle of her white dress stained by the dirt. But she didn’t care: her friends were on the other side waiting for her, and that’s all that mattered.
Light flashed across her eyes, blinding her for a few seconds. Here she was, she knew, and a rare smile crept upon her face as she felt the pretty butterfly wings spread behind her.
“And so you’ve arrived,” said the gentlest of voices — the Queen Faerie.
“Ooh, and be careful with your wings, dear,” said the Faun. “We wouldn’t want them scratched, would we?”
The little girl’s eyes fell upon the sunlit hall and the stained glass windows surrounding them. Scanning the long table before her, she made out the cakes and the berries and the porcelain that filled the long slab of wood.
“Don’t just stand there,” scolded the Mad Hatter, playfully. “Sit yourself down. Have some tea.”
The little girl obeyed.
And so they ate, and they drank, and they played and talked. Her smile never faded as they flew and ran round the hall.
This, to her, was family. This was home.
But nothing so pleasant can last forever. Before the dark clothed the sky, she had to go. At half past five, they waved her good-bye.
The little girl crawled back into the hole, down the tunnel, out into the cool autumn air. Then she ran.
When her eyes caught sight of the old small house, the sun had already faded, and a handful of stars flickered amidst the black sky. Strangely, it was silent. She wasn’t used to this.
The door burst open, and the silhouette of a man stalked towards her. Despite the dark, she recognized him as her father. Her mother . . . Where was she?
She had taken her time still on the spot, and he had come close enough, his eyes wild and terrifying, his hands stained red. He waved a thick black wand; the girl took a step back.
Everything else, but the rapid beats of her heart, felt still.
There came the pull, an ear-splitting noise. Gravity took its pull, forcing her onto a mattress of cool dry leaves. The same kind of red on his hands dripped a thick flow from her nose. Somewhere near her chest, she felt a sting and a burn. There flowed the same hue.
Her head tilted to the left. She blinked, and a smile crept to her lips. The Queen Faerie stood before her, the Mad Hatter and the Faun by her side. The Faerie knelt upon the ground and reached out a hand. With what little strength she had left, the girl feebly took it.
“It’s time. Let’s go home.”