The leaf fairies danced and whirled, first in tight spirals, then growing wider and wider in their circling before zipping away on another twist of wind, off to circle some other tree.
“We must be nearly there.” Ally said softly. Her heart felt like singing. Warm and content. It felt like coming home.
“Really?” Madge looked at her curiously.
“Yes.” Ally nodded vigorously. “Leaf fairies don’t live in the Tanglewood, so we’re officially clear of it! And my village was right by the edge. Hey! Hello!”
Ally raced after the swirling brown and gold creatures.
“Excuse me!” Ally called over their shrill laughter.
A handful of the fairies broke away and fluttered up to her, ever moving and twisting in their breezy dance. Each fairy was dressed head to toe in fall leaves. Their wings mimicked the leaves of the forest, hickory and oak, maple and birch. They had long pointed noses and long pointed ears and floating hair in autumn colors.
Ally’s hair blew back in the ever-present wind that engulfed them. She had spoken to leaf fairies a few times before when she was young. They rarely listened to humans, but when they did they could be quite helpful. Perhaps these fairies recognized her. There was always a chance.
“Do you know the way to the treetop village?” Ally asked politely.
Her answer was a cheerful series of chirps and grins that reached from pointed ear to pointed ear.
Ally smiled. She would take that as a yes. “Can you lead us to it, please?”
More bright chirps and squeaks. The fairies zoom in furious circles around her head, stirring up her hair into a whirl-wind. Ally laughed, her nose tickled by the breeze and the scent of crisp autumn leaves.
The fairies departed, flitting through the forest in front of them, pausing a few feet away as if beckoning them forward.
“Whoa!” Madge stared at Ally with wide eyes. “You’re good.”
Ally shrugged. “I’ve always been good at speaking to sprites and fairies and the like. That’s why the Lighthouse job is a good fit for me.” Before she could overthink it, Ally grabbed Madge’s hand and pulled her forward to the cloud of excited fairies. “Come on!”
Laughing, Madge followed her lead.
The fairies, kind as they could be, were impatient creatures. The two girls had to run to keep up with them. Leaping over logs, crashing through the bracken, swinging around trees.
Started by the commotion, Flicker woke up, as he usually did, just in time for the fun. He happily ghosted his way out of Ally’s knapsack and rushed along by their feet, leaping in an attempt to catch the fairies in his claws. His incorporeal paws went right through them, and the fairies decided to torment him about the fact. They flitted along beside him, giggling and tweaking his ears.
Occasionally, the fairies would fly circles around Ally and Madge, just to prove they could, stirring up leaves and undergrowth and their hair.
“The little show-offs!” Madge swatted playfully at one of the fairies who stuck out their tongue at her.
Ally laughed again. The exercise warmed her. Her sprained ankle twinged when she hit the ground too hard, but she couldn’t find it in herself to care. Sunlight in her eyes and her cheeks rosy in the cold. Madge was holding tight to her hand, and a cool breeze whisked ‘round her. It felt like a moment for laughter.
It felt like being seven years old again, playing tag, contented by the fact that she was laughing with a friend. Simple joy. Because joy was simple, wasn’t it? How could she have forgotten?
“Look!” Madge pulled her back sharply. “Is this it?”
Ally stumbled and found her footing again, looking up to where Madge pointed. A wooden ladder stood solidly before them, wrapped in bits of vines. It was worn smooth and as familiar to Ally as an old sweater.
“Yes.” Ally nodded. Something tugged inside her chest.
“Whoa.” Madge’s head was tilted back as she stared up into the branches above, no doubt seeing the crisscrossing bridges of Ally’s home. “I think you’ll have to lead the way now.”
“Guess so.” Ally kept her eyes on the ground. She breathed in deeply, and at last, reached out and wrapped her hands around the rungs of the ladder.
Her ankle had already been protesting the run through the forest, although she had been able to ignore it. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, climbing the ladder sent pain bursting up her leg. Ally winced, but gritted her teeth, and made it to the top, where she grabbed ahold of the steady wooden railing of the Avenue.
Only then did she look up and take in the sight of the village she had not seen in a year.
Coming home after so long was the strange middle ground between adventure and mundane. The routine turned uncertain. Hot tea that had been iced. A fairytale retold.
Not new, but still different.
The village was a web of sturdy brown bridges, and handrails woven from branches and vines. They seemed out from the long, wide path she stood on now, known as The Avenue, by residents. Nestled between the bridges, like raisins in cinnamon bread, were the cottages; all different shapes, scattered haphazardly, their windows squares of warm gold.
A few voices, a few footsteps, a few peals of laughter. People were about. Mothers and fathers and young people and older folks. Children were running. The sunlight was bright.
Ally stood blinking in the world she had re-entered, trying to take back what she had left behind. Familiar as an old sweater, but an old sweater that didn’t fit quite how she remembered it.
Ally started a little, to find Madge beside her, wide brown eyes absorbing the life strung up in the trees around her.
Madge turned to Ally in wonder. “This is so cool!”
“It’s… Where I grew up.” Ally shrugged.
“Is it just like you remember?” Madge asked curiously.
“It hasn’t changed a bit.” Ally admitted. _But I have._ She thought.
“Is that Ally Lichen I see?”
Ally glanced up to find a tall woman with dark hair and tan skin approaching. A warm smile was on the woman’s face. A smile, once again, strange in its familiarity.
“Mrs. Evergreen!” Ally said in surprise before she was enveloped in a hug.
“It’s so good to see you again!” Mrs. Evergreen stepped back, beaming. She had a deep, bold voice. “Back from all your adventures! Your mother will be glad.”
“How is she?” Ally asked quickly.
“I haven’t seen her much.” Mrs. Evergreen made a face in sympathy. “From what I’ve heard, the illness left her weak, but no harm has come otherwise. It will just be a slow recovery from what the herbalist said. Charlotte Hickory has been helping her a bit, I believe.”
“Thank you.” Ally put as much earnestness into the words as she could. “This is Madge, by the way.” Ally motioned to the girl beside her.
“Lovely to meet you!” Mrs. Evergreen said at once, extending a hand. “Do you work at the Lighthouse with Ally?”
“No. We’re just traveling together. But it’s nice to meet you!” Madge matched Mrs. Evergreen’s friendliness with her own bright grin.
Mrs. Evergreen leaned back and clasped her hands together, nodding knowingly. “It’s a good thing to do, isn’t it? On a journey through the Tanglewood no less!” She laughed. “Well, I’m sure you’ll want to see your mother, Ally, but I’ll see if I can send Takia over later. I’m sure you two will have plenty to chat about!”
Ally managed a nod to this.
“I’m sure she’ll want you to meet Clarence.”
Ally frowned. “Who’s Clarence?”
“Who—“ Mrs. Evergreen shook her head in surprise. “Oh. I’m sorry! I thought Takia must have written to you about it. She—Well. She’s engaged. To Clarence Thistle.”
“Oh.” Ally blinked. She could not feel happy, or even disappointed that she had not known. Pure surprise had rushed through her, pushing any other thought aside. A shocked laugh escaped her lips. “Congratulations!”
“That’s lovely!” Madge said politely.
“Thank you.” Mrs. Evergreen laughed as well. “It sounds as though you two _really_ have some catching up to do.”
“Yes.” Ally said. “Yes, we do.”
And then Mrs. Evergreen had called her goodbyes and was off down the Avenue, mixing with the jumble of passing villagers.
Coming home was strange, Ally mused, in more ways than she had even anticipated.
“Meow!” Indigent at having been left at the bottom of the ladder, Flicker sprung up through the boards of the bridge beneath their feet, lashing his tail. Madge bent down to console him with a tickle under his chin.
“May I hazard a guess?” Madge said from her place on the floor.
“I suppose.” Ally was still staring at the spot where Mrs. Evergreen had stood.
“This person who’s been engaged… Is that the friend you’re sort of nervous to see again?”
“Yes.” Ally frowned and glanced down at Madge, who now had Flicker curled contentedly in her arms. “That may have knocked the nervousness right out of me though.” Another giggle bubbled up. Ally covered her mouth and glanced sheepishly at Madge. “I’ve been wondering and worrying all this way about what it would be like to meet her again. And now… I realize I have no idea at all.”
docendo disco scribendo cogito
(I learn by teaching and think by writing.)