The voice drifted on the hollow breeze, lilting faintly as the wind ran through her hair. She looked around, alarmed.
The glade was empty, save for the sway of the grass and purple wildflowers in the breeze. The trees that stood as silent sentries surrounding the glade were dark, quiet.
She was alone. And yet…
The voice came again, more insistent. Louder, sharper.
She wandered through the tall grass, the handle of the wicker basket cutting into her hands. Alette didn’t notice how tightly she was grasping the sharp material. Warmth oozed down her fingers, blood dripped down to the tips of the grass. But she hardly noticed.
Instead her eyes were scanning the horizon, squinting sharply in the brightness of the dusk. The sun was starting to set, and she knew it was time to head back. Her basket was full of mushrooms, which now harbored a crimson hue from the blood that dripped from her fingertips.
There was something urgent in the voice that caused her to shiver. A rogue voice, disembodied and mysterious, warning her of looming danger.
It was then that she heard the hooves. Several horses, all galloping at a fast pace towards the glade.
Alette's heart pounded in rhythm with the approaching hoofbeats. Panic gripped her, and she instinctively clutched the blood-stained basket closer to her chest. She scanned the tree line for a place to hide, but the dense forest seemed impenetrable.
She darted behind a large oak tree, her breath caught in her throat. Peering through the leaves, she saw a group of riders burst into the glade. They wore dark cloaks that billowed behind them, and their faces were obscured by shadows.
The leader reined in his horse at the center of the glade, surveying the surroundings with an air of authority. Alette held her breath, praying they wouldn't notice her concealed form.
"Where is she?" the leader demanded, his voice a menacing growl that sent shivers down Alette's spine.
His companions dismounted, spreading out in search of their quarry. Alette pressed herself against the rough bark of the tree, her eyes wide with fear.
She held her breath and squeezed her eyes closed, praying that she could make herself small. Invisible. Wondering who these men were and who exactly they were looking for.
Were they looking for her? And the voice. It was trying to warn her. Who did the voice belong to? And what did it know that she didn’t?
After a moment, the leader whistled out to his companions and the men climbed back onto their horses.
“We will find her. Of that, I am sure.” The man growled again, the hood of his cloak obscuring his face in shadow. Even in the early dusk of the day, there was an unnatural darkness to the men. As if they walked in a cloud of perpetual shadow, even in the light of the day. Without another word, they silently rode towards the maw of the wood, following each other in a line, and disappeared into the dense thicket of trees.
Once the sound of their hooves subsided, Alette exhaled. Took another breath, exhaled slowly. Her hand fluttered up to her chest, her heart racing and her skin clammy and cold.
Who were those men? Were they even men? Or something else?
Her mind was rife with questions, and no means of having them answered. Slowly she emerged from behind the oak tree and back again into the openness of the glade.
The sun shot a stark beam of light into the glade, warning of the impending darkness. She knew that she needed to make her way back to the orphanage before the sun set. Alette knew this forest very well, having spent years of her youth exploring them. And yet even she knew that the woods were wicked at night. What was inviting and warm during the day was cold and unyielding in the dark. She knew if she didn’t leave now, there might be no chance of her finding her way out.
As she started to wander in the direction of the orphanage, moving towards the mouth of the woods, she glanced up.
Sitting high up on the branch of a dark tree was a white raven. It stared at her silently, its dark eyes intense in their gaze. She was in awe. Ravens were not an uncommon creature to find skittering around the grounds of the orphanage, or scavenging in the dense thicket of the forest. And yet this was the first white raven she had ever seen.
Large, regal, stoic and pale. Its eyes were dark despite the hue of its feathers. It shifted slightly on the branch and continued to stare at her.
“Is it you?” She asked, the words hitting the cool air before she even had a chance to catch them.
The raven made no sound. It merely continued its gaze at the young girl, unfettered.
As she started to move again, and broke through the barrier of trees and further into the forest, she felt the raven’s eyes on her, shifting along in their gaze, following her as she moved along deeper and deeper into the forest.
A cold rivulet of fear dripped down her back, her flesh beginning to prickle.
Something was happening.
Something was very, very wrong.
Something was coming that would change everything she ever knew.
And yet she had no choice. No choice but to continue to put one foot in front of the other, step by step, into the maw of her destiny.