1. Tell us about your book or short story.
Darkling is one of the larger short stories in my collection – The Lights Went Out and Other Stories. It is set in the early Victorian period and tells of a maiden who becomes lost in the woods on Midsummer’s Eve. She slips out of her house unbeknownst to her parents to pick a plant for a posy she wishes to bind the son of a local gentlemen in matrimony. From behind a tree she watches a mysterious stranger walking in the moonlight and steps out to meet him. When she fails to return to her home, the village search the woods and surrounding area but to no avail. Weeks later a farm hand hears a sound in the forest in passing and discovers the dishevelled maiden. But the girl who returns tells a strange tale, her parents can barely recognise her from her behaviour. They hide her away for her confinement, keep her pregnancy secret and she breathes her last as she gives birth to her child. With her mother in a stupor, the stranger appears and takes the baby and they both disappear. Local children are warned from visiting the woods on Midsummer’s Eve when the king under the hill searches for a wife.
2. Who is your main character?
Emmeline Loxley is the only child of a well-to-do family in the picturesque town of Foxbridge. Like her friends, the other girls in the village they dreamed of sweethearts and often discussed little ditties and potions to bind loved ones in matrimony. On Midsummer’s Night she slips out to gather the required plants for her love potion but strays from the path. She meets a beautiful stranger who appears to have sprang up from the hill itself, she hears her name called and has no choice but to step out of hiding.
When she returns to the village she is changed, she speaks of her ‘husband” under the hill and being held captive. She is in part both fearful and excited at the thought of him coming back to take her and her parents bar her bedroom window, so she can’t escape. She wastes away into a shadow of herself through pregnancy and when she gives birth she dies so her changeling child can live.
3. What is your favourite Fae myth or story?
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Suzanne Clarke is one of my all-time favourite books – a huge tome of a book, it is filled with footnotes and snippets of old English faerie tales about a time when Magicians were rare and people talked of the coming of the Raven King.
4. The Fae – helpful magical creatures or mischievous tricksters?
Mischievous tricksters for sure. They only grant requests if there is something in it for them. Woe betide anyone who owes a favour to a faerie. Never trust a faerie or cross one. Leave the faerie fort alone and watch the old rowan.
5. What is your Fae elemental?
She slipped through into woods with the agility of one well used to nocturnal ramblings, knowing how to pick her way along the meandering path regardless of the moon’s milky glow that shone through the thickets of hazel and birch. She hummed low to herself a verse that was popular amongst the young girls in her village.
“Rose petals, rose petals, red and white, he that I marry, come to me this night”. It was custom for maidens on Midsummer’s’ Night to make potions to bind their admirers in love and matrimony and Emmeline Loxley needed only one more addition to a concoction she had ready: leaves that could only be harvested after nightfall.
She moved on further into the wood, her thoughts on the son of one of her father’s friends, a handsome boy who was much admired among her circle of friends, for his pleasing manners and brilliant blue eyes. Emmeline smiled to herself, pulling her cloak tight against the chill air. She was dressed for concealment, she wore a grey cloak over a brown wool dress, clothing she had changed into after her parents had retired for the night before she climbed from her ground floor bedroom window and slipped from the grounds .
As she wandered, the path narrowed and disappeared in parts. She stopped at a gap in the trees, a clearing of sorts. The area seemed strangely unfamiliar to her in the moonlight. Emmeline had wandered further this night than before, she had not missed the church bells chime the hour. The sounds of the outside world failed to pierce the dense canopy. Branches crossed above her head creating a network of tunnels where even the moon light found it hard to penetrate.
As she turned to make her way back to the more familiar path she noticed the dark pointed leaves that she required and pulled a small knife from the pocket of her dress and proceeded to cut several stalks low from the base careful to leave enough of the plant behind. So absorbed was she in her task that she didn’t notice the stranger until she was nearly upon him.
He walked upon the hummock between the ring of gnarled and ancient rowan trees, where the ground rose up to a point past the twisted branches to resemble a bald pate above a broken crown. An old place, the heart of the forest it was said, a place she had never trod as the light grew dimmer and the trees formed a ring that scratched and pulled at the wanderer who had strayed from the path. It was an area of the forest that local lore guarded against with tales of strange noises and lights. Emmeline pulled herself up smartly and half hidden behind the stout trunk of an oak she observed the wanderer.
He appeared to be of above average height with shoulder length golden hair that shone in the moonlight as he moved about the hill. He looked to be well dressed, like a noble man in his frock coat, waistcoat and breeches; each of a different woodland hue, the greens and browns of bark and leaf.
He wore knee length hunting boots, the leather bright as a new chestnut. A most beautiful creature, he strode with what purpose she could not tell. His long limbs moving with fluid grace. He seemed a part of the moss covered hill he walked upon, as if he had appeared from the earth itself.
Unable to take her eyes off the stranger, Emmeline moved from tree to tree until he seemed close enough to touch until finally as if in a dream, she stepped out from behind the cover of the trees to face him, a bird released from a trap with no choice but to fly towards danger.
The walker between the trees turned on his heel sensing her, he moved towards the slight figure of the girl in the grey cloak whose wide eyes shone at his approach. The stitching on his waistcoat glinted in the moons light as he neared. Her eyes were drawn to a face of contradictions; ancient yet youthful.
His skin was white as the light that the moon poured down.
White as bone bleached in the sun.
Pale as the ice in the village pond in midwinter.
Pale and cold as death.
He towered above her, the beauty of his features commanding her attention. As pale as his skin his lips were red as spilled blood. Wide set eyes, shaped like a cats with pupils of inky blackness stared down at her, the lashes as long as the legs of a spider. His fair hair fell from his forehead in sheets to hang past the shoulders of his frock coat.
His lips curved into a smile of pure delight and she shuddered as he suddenly threw back his head and laughed. And as he did so she noticed the stitching upon his waistcoat moved as miniature embroidered birds and woodland creatures flew between tiny trees and moved about the forest upon his chest.
A voice sounded inside her head, clear and high as a crystal bell. Emmaline. Emmaline. Emmaline. The voice sang her name over and over.
The voice sang to her, telling her of the stories of the forest, the beginning of things, of acorn and leaf, of moss and worm and creatures that burrowed beneath her feet. She caught the scent of the moss covered forest floor, of mushrooms waiting to push up through the fallen leaves. She caught glimpses of herself as a young girl with her hair plaited in ribbons running after a ball between the trees of the forest; a pretty child with auburn locks, rosy cheeked, a button for a mouth. She watched herself dreaming, her hair falling across the pillow, the soft purple of her closed eyelid, a doll clutched in her hands.
The voice spoke now of hidden halls and lofty towers, of caverns filled with roots and jewels, great halls floodlit with candles, rush covered floors and rock walls that sparkled like diamonds. She heard of kings and queens who ruled with both cruelty and gaiety upon carved thrones of oak and bone. And all about her were wings and the sounds of flying things. She could feel them about her, a fluttering across her closed eyelids like moths, soft and light, and larger touches on her shoulders. There were whispers like kisses on her neck and arms. Will you go? Will you go?
They searched the woods for a fortnight. The village girls spilled their secrets and made public Emmeline’s intentions on Midsummer’s night. They searched with sticks and fanned out to cover as much ground as possible. Her paring knife, they found beside the plant she had picked, the edge still edged with green. A set of prints could be traced leading from the path to the rowan trees that guarded the hill, not the soft print of slippers but the marks of a pair of large boots. Halfway up the mound the footprints faded from view and vanished as if into the hill itself. Of Emmeline Loxley there was no further sign.
There were no reported sightings of strangers in the surrounding area of Foxbridge on or around the time of Midsummer. None of the villagers had heard so much as a dog barking and it was noted that the cocks had crowed unusually late the next morning. All had slept the sleep of the dead, waking heavy headed and unusually befuddled. It was as if man and beast had come under the same enchantment.
All save one. An elderly woman living on the outskirts of the village recalled hearing strange noises coming from the meadow behind her house. It was after twilight and she was loathe to leave the safety of her dwelling but being a curious being she ventured out into her back yard and across her wall in the field beyond, she spotted a figure as tall as a house, striding amongst the cows wearing a bottle green coloured top hat with a large feather jutting out of the side, the moon was full and she could see him clear as day she owned. He was singing or chanting to himself she thought. She feared that she had made some noise to startle him for he immediately whistled and a full grown stag appeared over the bordering hedge and then to her amazement the tall gentleman hopped over the bushes to land on the deer’s back and the strange couple sped away in an instant.
Her testament was deemed unsatisfactory due to the fact that she was a woman know for strange flights of fancy and a great liking for the her own specially brewed ale.
Emmeline Loxley had to all intensive purposes vanished into thin air. Her parents struggled with their despair. Her father walked the woods with his dogs calling his only child’s name over and over, his words coming back to haunt him in the echo of the stillness. Her mother took to her bed.
A change in the weather brought rain and thunder storms. The people of Foxbridge turned their concern to the land and the harvest.
One evening in late July, Thomas Palmer, a young farm hand of eighteen years was walking home from a day’s toil in the fields. He trudged wearily along the cobbled road that separated the fields of Foxbridge from the east side of Followhill Wood. His thoughts were on the meal his mother was at that moment placing on the table in readiness for his arrival. He quickened his step in anticipation, his mouth watering. He barely heard the moan until he had passed the style on his right side that provided entrance into the forest. So low was the noise that he nearly walked on in his hunger. Thomas stopped and listened.
The sound was coming from inside the forest. Thomas looked about him, he was alone on the road, and he cursed under his breath already seeing his mother putting the plate back to heat. He turned off the road, climbed the stile and followed the sound into the forest.
Following the well worn path, a path he had walked recently with his fellow villagers his pulse quickened as the sound became clearer. It was the soft cry of a woman, or young girl. Thomas felt the forest closing in upon him; he loosened his shirt and wiped the moisture that was already forming under his floppy fringe. He took a deep breath and walked quickly on. Minutes later he came upon the dishevelled form of Emmeline Loxley.
She sat hunched over against the roots of an old willow, her back to a large fox hole. Her hair was in disarray, her attire bedraggled. Her pretty features were twisted into an attitude of fear and distrust. She tossed her tangled auburn locks back and forth as if watching for something or someone. On sighting the young farm hand in front of her she jumped up rapidly and grabbed his arm, her fingernails he noted were ragged and black with earth, some nails were broken and bloody as if she had scratched and pulled them. She cried and fired words at him in such a garbled and rapid manner that he could not understand her.
“Slow down Miss Loxley, I can’t make you out”. He patted her arm awkwardly.
She stopped her crying, her tears cracking fissures in her filthy face and she gestured with one dirty hand to the large hole behind them and whispered more slowly than before as if it were an effort to get the words out so slowly.
“Quick! Before he comes through. Quick!” she scrambled up onto the path and charged off. Thomas watched her run barefoot through the forest as if the hounds of hell themselves were on her heels. She hopped the stile in one movement. He could see her frightened eyes, wide and unblinking in shock as she looked behind him into the forest, from whose clutches she had just made her escape. “Please “she mouthed at him.
Thomas paused as he crossed the stile with one leg still in the forest. Her fear made him glance behind him and it seemed to him that he heard a low whispering lament. And he was suddenly sorrowful, as if he had lost something precious to him though he could not think of what it was.
He caught a glimpse of movement, a flash of silvery light.
He felt a tremendous temptation to step back across the stile and walk amongst the trees, he yearned to discard his heavy working boots and to wander barefoot in the soft velvety moss. He wished to lie on the forest floor, scattered with the blanket of last years’ leaves and look up at the light that fell in mosaic patterns through the heavy canopy of the trees. He turned his back to the lane and was pulling his leg back over the stile when he felt an urgent tug on his arm.
“Please sir, I beg you. Make haste” Emmeline Loxley’s pallid face, her eyes twin points of fear burned into his own. She pulled his arm with such force that he half fell over the old wooden step. He shook his head and climbed out onto the road, his back to Followhill Wood and he walked the hobbling girl back to the safety of the village.
Opinion was divided in the village of Foxbridge. There were some who believed the tale coming from the Loxleys themselves; that Emmeline had been snatched by travelling Gypsies on the edge of the forest and held captive until she had escaped and made her way home on foot.
And there were those who had heard the other rumours.
A neighbour who they said had been visiting the Loxleys on the evening of her return had a more interesting tale to tell. She herself witnessed Emmeline collapse into her mother’s arms and recalled her rambling words as she was carried up the stairs to her room. Emmeline had cried of a handsome prince from the forest who had taken her to his underground realm. Once there she had been married against her will. Her time in his kingdom was a nightmare of dancing and feasting and being locked in a barred room full of spiders and mice until she had woken up and dug herself out into the forest, pulling through the earth and tree roots with her own bare hands. It was soon afterwards that Thomas Palmer had heard her cries and helped her escape.
However, the only flaw with this tale was Thomas Palmer himself who on being first questioned recalled seeing a band of silver on her marriage finger but later his memory failed him and he could only remember walking back from helping with the harvest, eager for his dinner and then nothing more until he arrived in the village with the missing girl. Further more each time he tried to think on that day he felt drowsy and his head ached. After a while he gave up trying. And soon forgot the incident entirely. It was found he was suffering from heatstroke.
It was very unsettling for the villagers. And so provided a healthy subject for discussion on many a chilly autumn night about the fire.
Of the girl in question, not much was seen. The doctor called to the house daily for a week of so, it was found that she was suffering from extreme exhaustion and could receive no visitors.
She was spotted walking at night in the garden behind her house, a wisp of white against the night’s dark. It became a habit for her until her father put a stop to her rambling. A neighbour
who made it her business to keep an eye on the mysterious girl watched him dash out and with great cajoling and some force manage to pull Emmeline back into the house where he locked the back door and pulled the shutters in her bedroom window.
The neighbour noted that the girl had seemed to be humming to herself as she leaned by the back wall of the garden, with her head on one side as if she was waiting for someone.
That was the last time anyone in Foxbridge saw Emmeline Loxley. The next time she lay in a coffin in the village church.
Following her nightly perambulations she was kept hidden from sight.
The doctor’s visits ceased. The neighbours were told Ms Loxley had left Foxbridge to stay with relatives for her health. Those who enquired after their daughter’s health would be told that she was improving and would be soon well enough to return home. But one thing puzzled the people of Foxbridge, if Emmeline Loxley had left the village why then had bars appeared over the windows of her bedroom?
And so nothing further was heard of her and village life continued. Christmas came and went. Old folks slipped away in their sleep and babies came screaming into the world.
Eight months later Emmeline’s mother lay prostrate across the bed, her head on her dead child’s bosom.
The long months of worry and shame had taken their toll. Good looks had fled from the woman once deemed handsome, leaving her aged and drawn. Her daughter’s death held her heart in a tight fist of pain.
The events of last Midsummer’s night had unravelled the tidy lives of the three Loxleys. She recalled the despair of her daughter’s disappearance, the terrifying fear, the weeks of torment when every knock at the door caused a vibration through the house. What news? What news? What news? Her appearance had been a joyous relief until the following weeks were to show that contrary to appearances their daughter was not now the person they had known. Emmeline refused to alter the story of what had happened to her in the three weeks she had been gone. Her mother believed that her initial collapse and incoherent mumblings would fade away once she recovered her strength. But if anything the strangeness got worse. She screamed about her “husband” coming for her, she refused to stay indoors shouting to be allowed to walk in the woods, saying that he was calling to her. Her father caught her wandering the garden in only her nightgown with a far away look in her eyes, she scratched and bit him when he tried to bring her inside.
They were at their wits end.
A doctor came under the guise of a travelling salesman after nightfall one night. He was handsomely paid for his subterfuge. He diagnosed melancholia and advised a change of diet and various therapies to keep her mind occupied such as needlework and embroidery; none of which worked. After two months passed, he diagnosed another problem.
Emmeline Loxley was with child.
It was at this time that tales of Emmeline’s having left the area were circulated.
Things went from bad to worse. Pregnancy did not bring out the best in her; she spent the first four months being violently sick. Gone was the village beauty, her comely figure pared away to skin and bones, her once lustrous hair hung limply down her back, eyes that had shone so brightly on that Midsummer’s’ Night were now lifeless and dim seeming huge in her narrow pointed face.
She could not be made to rest, pacing the floors without cease. A nurse was employed to help the Loxleys; a woman from outside the village who had placed an advertisement in the local paper looking for a live in position. A widow woman in her fifties she seemed more than capable to deal with their daughter.
Emmeline no longer resembled their daughter either physically or mentally. She frightened them with her ravings about those who dwelled beneath the ground, talking to her parents as if they were her subjects asking for delicacies the likes of which they had never heard before. When happy in her self she danced about the bedroom ripping the flowers from the jug on the dresser and arranging them in her lank locks. . Most times she sat in the wicker chair by her window listening to the wind whistling through the shutters whispering over and over “Does he come? Does he come?”
She tried to climb out of the bedroom window one wild autumn night when lightning cut up the lawn and the animals whined and cried in their fear. The next day her father bolted heavy bars across the windows.
She was quieter when she was heavy with child, the child lay uneasily in her belly, hampering her movements, she grabbed her mother’s arm as she moved about the room for aid. Her mother tried not to shudder in repulsion for her daughter’s finger nails appeared sharp and pointed as a cat’s claws.
As the pregnancy progressed so did her mental decline. She recognised neither parent nor nurse, wandering in a daze of incoherence, muttering and singing strange songs. She refused to dress preferring to remain in her nightgown and would eat only sweet cakes and drink syrupy concoctions. When the pains finally come her parent’s welcomed them as a release. Hoping their child would be returned to them.
And now she was gone. Her mother sobbed against the bones of her only child. Then spent, she lay as if in a stupor willing her own barren life to end.
The nurse rocked the infant in her arms as she sat on the wicker chair, crooning tunelessly over and back. She placed the now peaceful child in the wooden cradle, tucking him in tightly with deft fingers. “Sleep tight my prince” she called as she moved quickly back to her customary chair by the window and folded her hands into her lap. She smiled and in that moment her face changed in aspect – her cheekbones sharpened, her pupils darkened and the shape of her eyes became more almond shaped, the edges drawn up to the sides of her head. Sharp teeth rested on her now plump lips. But only for a moment and the observer would have thought that it was just a trick of the light for then it was as if her features realigned and she again became the weary nurse troubled by the evening’s occurrences and worried about the babe in her charge. Emmeline’s mother remained stretched across her dead daughter’s corpse, unmoving and uncaring.
With a crash, the door to the chamber was flung open wide. Into the room strode a tall flaxen haired gentleman swinging an ornately carved stick in his hand as if bracing for trouble. He came to an abrupt beside the cradle and plucked the slumbering child into his arms. He held him up above his head crying with unbridled delight. The child woke and chuckled as he was swung about and it looked as if both were dancing, they moved so quickly. The infant never muttered a cry or wail. The tall gentleman tucked him under one arm and crossed to the centre of the room. Dropping gracefully to one knee he held the child out.
“Look last on your mother, my darkling” and he laid a kiss on the dead girl’s forehead.
And then turning thrice on the spot he disappeared, baby and all.
When Emmeline’s mother came to from her stupor she had no recollection of preceding events. She wept afresh to see her only child lying dead before her, taken by a fever, a result of her wanderings in the Fallow Wood. Her face finally peaceful and so full of the beauty of youth that it broke the hearts of all who later came to pay their respects.
Only a handful of autumn leaves, already curling remained on the wicker chair by the window. Of a child no trace remained neither hair nor crib.
Mr Loxley left the local ale house the worse for wear, grieving for his sick daughter. He saddled his horse and returned to discover the death of his only child, now cradled in his wife’s arms.
They lived out the remainder of their lives in quiet bereavement in the sleeping village of Foxbridge where they spent their days gardening and visiting their neighbours.
And so the story of Madeline Loxley faded away with the passage of time. But on Midsummer’s night when the thoughts of young maiden’s strayed to sweethearts and love potions they recalled the tales told by the hearthside on cold winter nights. They recalled the whispered warnings of their grandparents and the village elders against wandering through Followhill Wood when the moon was high and the king under the hill walked the land in search of a wife.
About the Author:
Fiona Cooke Hogan is a writer, poet, blogger and editor from the beautiful fey midland of Ireland. She has published four books on Amazon - The Lights Went Out and Other Stories; a collection of unusal fiction with tales ranging from the supernatural, humorous and romantic, to horror and dark faerie. What Happened in Dingle is a romantic comedy novella set in County Kerry.
Fiona has two collections of dark, gothic horror published under the name FB Hogan - The Nightmare and Death Comes Calling.
She blogs at Unusual Fiction about nature, her work, and random musings.
Find her at her facebook author page - the Hazel Hedge
Check out her books on her Amazon Author Page
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”