There is a forest at the end of our garden. Years ago, when I was a scrawny youth, decorated in scrapes and bruises, I ventured through the trees in search of wisdom. I never walked alone – Henry followed at my side. A blue-furred hippopotamus, he held my hand, his soft fur as warm as sunlight against my fingers. His eyes were golden pools of joy and laughter, his mouth pulled upward in an endless smile.
We stepped into the shadows, the air growing chill away from the sun's smouldering gaze. When we grew tired, we came to rest against a tree trunk, pink flower petals pirouetting around our shelter. I crunched on ready salted crisps with Henry pressed against my side, looking upward at the branches swaying in the breeze.
“Where are we going?” Henry asked.
“To find the wise woman of the forest,” I said. “She’ll know what to do about Lucy.”
My cousin, Lucy, was five years older than me. For years she had been my companion on quests into the deepest, darkest edges of the garden. We would sit cross-legged in the grass, constructing daisy chain crowns to protect us from the Raven Lord in the nearby castle. We would search for treasure amongst the wilderness, then count our riches as the day drew closed.
Lately, she had forsaken our forest. Her mind had been corrupted by the scholars and the princes. They lured her away with promises of a future in their gilded halls, far from the wilds of the woods. I knew I must rescue her, but how?
As we stood and dusted ourselves off, preparing to continue our journey, the Raven Lord alighted on a nearby branch. His obsidian feathers gleamed in the light and he opened his beak to cackle with joy.
“He thinks Lucy is lost for good,” Henry said. “He says he’s won, if we’re all that’s left.”
“No!” I replied. “She’s not lost!”
I reached down for a fallen branch and aimed it at the heartless corvid above us. He spread his wings and danced away, returning to his castle.
We walked on and I held Henry close, missing the comfort of my cousin’s voice.
“You’ll be okay,” Henry said.
“You are the Lady Alexandra, defender of the forest. Why wouldn’t you be?”
“I just wish she was here. It’s more fun with her.”
When we reached the edge of the forest, there was no wise woman. A metal barrier barred our passage, hedges twined around its horizontal lines. My stomach churned with disappointment – would we have to return in failure?
“Look,” Henry said.
Alighting on an emerald leaf was a harlequin ladybird, black shell and red spots its badge of honour. She did not belong on our shores – an explorer just like us. Her tiny legs tapped against the leaf and her wings fluttered as she turned to watch us.
“Can you help us?” I asked.
Henry relayed her words. “She says magic never dies. She says the forest will always be here, waiting.”
“But what about Lucy?”
“She has bigger adventures ahead of her. Forests with no boundary except her own imagination. You will too, one day.”
Her wings fluttered and her body lifted into the sky. She disappeared over the hedge, moving beyond our reach. I cuddled Henry to my chest, tears filling my eyes. My limbs trembled and my lip shuddered outward. I’ve failed.
My feet grew wings and I raced back the way I came, chased by doubt and fear. I emerged into the sun’s embrace and stumbled into my mother’s arms. She dropped her gardening trowel and held me close, though she knew nothing of my fruitless quest. When she asked what was wrong, I brushed her concern away and left with Henry to hide in our climbing fort.
I am Lady Alexandra, defender of the forest.
“Be brave, my lady,” Henry said. “And nothing will be lost.”
From the patio doors, my gaze sweeps over the grass to two old crab-apple trees, branches reaching up to the sky. Pink petals drift through the air and fall in a carpet around their feet.
Lucy never returned to the forest. For weeks the Raven Lord danced jigs above our heads, cackling his glee over our lost companion. I hunched under a tree, my heart in shadow and my spirit fractured.
A dunnock's voice interrupted my gloom. Her feet tapped a rhythm on the grass as she sought help in searching for a mysterious bramble, whose juice was a sweet ambrosia upon the tongue. My spirits rose like a flower in bloom. I smiled at Henry and he smiled back – he had never doubted me.
My baby brother runs ahead of me, clothes caked in dirt, tiny fingers gripping the arm of his fluffy rabbit companion.
Now I am Lucy, my head turned by other adventures, far from the forest of my youth. A new defender has risen to take my place. Henry rests atop a shelf, his adventures over, but his eyes filled with pride.
My brother turns to smile at me, mouth open in a gap-toothed grin, and I lift my hand in a wave. He leaves me behind as he ventures into the shadow of the trees. Fare thee well, brave adventurer.