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"Aria will be getting anxious," she thought. "I must hurry. I do believe it is all going to come right, but – oh dear, I do feel frightened at the idea of finding my way here alone through these gloomy woods in the very middle of the night. Why wouldn't the robin let Aria come too? I suppose it had to be a rather dreadful thing to do, to make up for that cruel boy's wickedness. Oh dear, oh dear!"
But as she ran on as fast as her feet would take her, some things grew clearer. She must make the best of it to her sister. She must conceal her terrors as much as possible.
"For supposing," she reflected, "that dear Aria really wouldn't let me go and that it all came to nothing – the dreams and the feathers and this wonderful talking robin, how could I ever get over it? We should have to be parted pretty certainly, and would not that be a thousand times more terrible than having to face the dark forest for once? For deep down in my heart I feel certain that I shall be taken care of. I am proud to be chosen to break the spell and to make the forest again a happy place – a home for the dear robins, and favoured by the fairies as it used to be all those years ago – yes, I am proud to be the chosen one. And I know it will lead to our getting the precious leaves to sell, as many as we want, and that means everything to us, home and comfort and the being together. Yes, I will be brave."
So when, at some little distance from the boundary of the forest, she caught sight in the gloaming of her sister's figure anxiously looking out for her, she ran towards her with cheerful eagerness, calling out as loudly as she could, "It's all right, darling. Good news – good news."
Nevertheless, when Aria had heard the whole strange story, her face grew very grave.
"Linde, my sweetest," she said, "I cannot let you do it. Alone in the middle of the night, and winter close at hand! Wolves have been known to find their way into the forest, and not only that, we ourselves have every reason to believe there is some unhappy enchantment over the place – "
"Yes," Linde agreed. "That is exactly why I have been chosen – to break the spell."
"But," persisted poor Aria, "how do we know that the robin may not be deceiving us? Possibly he is a witch or wizard in disguise! Possibly a fairy, not wishing you harm, but hoping to steal you away. Fairies always try to lure human children to live with them. Folks say it prolongs their own spell of life if they succeed."
"No," she said at last. "The fairies who love these woods are good and true, I feel certain. I daresay there are different kinds of fairies, just as there are of people. But you can feel that these ones are kind and loving by their care for the robins. Then, remember my dreams, sister. Our mother's godmother would not wish harm to come to us, and so far, all her messages to us have only brought us great good, and greater is in store for us, I am firmly convinced.Be quite happy about it, darling. You know I am naturally rather cowardly, much less courageous than you, yet see how cheerful I feel about it. I have no misgivings."
And this was true. For the time, at least, all the little girl's fears had flown away. So Aria said no more, though from time to time during the next few days when she glanced at her sister she could not repress a sigh.
"Supposing," she thought to herself, "supposing I never see her again! They might steal her away and let her come back twenty or even fifty years hence without her knowing that more than a few hours had passed. She would find me an old broken-down woman, if she found me at all, which I doubt, for I could not live without her."
As these gloomy ideas floated through her mind she was standing in the porch of the cottage, gazing at the forest. Suddenly, a soft chirping reached her ears, and looking up, she caught sight of a redbreast perching on the little garden gate. He seemed to look at her, then spread his wings and flew away, passing near her overhead. And at that moment there came to the elder girl the same breath of the familiar delicious perfume which had cheered Linde when she parted with the robin, and with the same effect. From that moment Aria's misgivings left her, and to a great extent even her anxiety.
"Yes," she said to herself, "she must go. It is meant. It would be useless for me to interfere."
This happened on the very morning of the fated day.
The weather was already almost wintry.
"Linde," said her sister that evening, "I won't ask you to undress and go to bed, but I will keep up a good fire here in the kitchen, so that you shall at least start warm. And you shall have a cup of good hot soup last thing."
"Very well and thank you, dear," Linde replied. "I will sit here in father's comfortable old chair till the time comes for me to go. And I will promise to drink all the soup and to put on all my wraps, if you, Aria, will go to bed as usual and try to sleep till I come back again. The only thing that would make me lose courage would be to leave you standing at the door looking after me. I may sleep myself. I daresay I shall, if I know you are in bed. For I am certain I shall wake in good time. As to that I have no fear."
Rather reluctantly, Aria consented to do as Linde wished, on condition that the little girl gave her promise to come to her at once on her return, and to arouse her if by chance she were sleeping.
Linde sat by the fire and listened to the ticking of the old clock, and the occasional fall of a cinder, till her eyes grew drowsy and she dozed. Though not conscious of being really asleep, she felt as if but a few minutes had passed, when the clock striking – more loudly than usual, it seemed to her – made her start.
"One, two, three," she counted, on to eleven.
"Yes, actually eleven," she said to herself. "I have had a nice long sleep and I feel quite fresh, and it is time to be off."
She drank the soup, and wrapped herself up; and after laying a large log on the fire, there to smoulder till she came back, she softly opened the door and stepped out, closing it again, though happily, in that peaceful and friendly part of the world, there was no need for bars or bolts.
A little exclamation of surprise escaped her as she glanced about her. It was full moon – the garden and the open space between it and the beginning of the forest were flooded with light. Somehow she had not expected this. In fact, relying upon the mysterious guidance and help which she felt sure would be given to her, she had not troubled herself beforehand about how it was all to be managed, and the sisters went so early to bed that they were often asleep before moonrise, if it were late.
Linde smiled to herself with pleasure and ran gaily through the garden and along the field-path. And for some little way inside the forest her route was quite clear. But after a while it grew darker. The trees became more dense, and denser still she knew they would be the farther she advanced. So she walked more slowly, looking well about her, and now and then pressing the three precious feathers in the front of her bodice.
"The great thing is not to miss the little path," she kept repeating, and after she had walked what seemed a considerable way, she began to fear she had done so.
Then for the first time her courage threatened to fail her, and her heart took to beating much faster than was pleasant. She stood still. Strange uncanny sounds seemed in the air. Wailings far off among the trees; faint groans and stealthy rustlings as if some weird creatures were trying to get near her, a sudden sharp screech – it was only an owl, but that the child did not know! – and then the very curious, very thin and minute squeal of a bat, so seldom audible to human ears.
"Oh dear," whispered Linde. "Robin, have you tricked me? I don't know where I am, and though it is so lonely, I seem to feel invisible creatures all about me. Oh, robin, you didn't tell me it would be so difficult to find the way."
Then something touched her foot; she gave a little scream, till looking down she perceived a point of light just in front of her, and heard a well-known voice.
"Foolish child," it said. "You might trust me. This is the entrance to the path. You have only to follow me."
"Are you carrying a lamp – a fairy lamp?" asked Linde in a tone of great relief. "Why – I could fancy it was a glow-worm, only it is far too late in the year."
"You are right," said her guide. "It is a glow-worm. We take care of them – they sleep down below all the winter. But I woke up this fellow on purpose. He is quite comfortable on my back. Now we must make haste. Follow me steadily till we come to the magic circle. Then you must act for yourself – you know what to do."
He flew forward – near enough to the ground for Linde to keep the tiny light well in view. And to her surprise she found she could make her way quite easily without stumbling or hesitation, and now and then a faint whiff of scent reached her, as if to increase her confidence, though whether it was wafted back from the redbreast's wings or upwards from the little bunch of feathers, she could not have told.
And at last – for, after all, making your way in the dark is very monotonous work – the light stopped just in front of her, and she realised that she was standing before the thickly growing bushes which hedged the clearing. And before she had time to wonder how to push her way through, the shrubs seemed to divide, as if held back by invisible hands, and through the opening thus made, Linde caught sight of the magic circle gleaming like silver in the moonlight.
Her guide had vanished, but now without hesitation she ran forward, till she reached the central spot, where the rose-bush had risen to view, and whence she had been told she would find her way to the unknown regions below.
She stood still for a moment or two, somewhat dazzled by the sudden radiance, soft and lovely though it was. Then she stooped and examined the ground, but the smooth, even turf showed not the least sign of an opening of any kind, such as she had half expected to see. As she stood up again her fingers touched the front of her dress and she remembered the feathers.
"I am to tap with them," she reminded herself. "But not till the fairy clock strikes twelve. Shall I ask what time it is now? No, I think it is better to wait quietly. I am sure I am not too late, but I think it must be nearly midnight."
She felt curiously calm, and very wide-awake. There was not the very slightest sound to be heard – a complete contrast to the surrounding forest – not a rustle, not a murmur, never had Linde before realised what utter silence could be. She almost felt as if she herself should not move a finger, scarcely even breathe. And when in a little she became conscious that her heart was again beating much faster than its wont, she felt as if she must press it tightly to make it be quiet. And the gesture once more recalled the feathers. She drew them out.
"Best have them ready," she thought.
Then she stood motionless.
And suddenly, coming upwards to her, and yet sounding in the silent air as if all around her, came the fairy chimes – one, two, three, four, for the completed hour, and then the sweet musical deeper note, twelve times repeated.
Linde was all alert.
She stooped at once and tapped three times with the three tiny feathers.
And then what exactly happened she could not have told. She felt herself lifted a little way and made somehow or other to sit down on what seemed a soft cushion. It was really a thick, round sod of turf, and as soon as she was seated on it, it began to descend – down, down, making her at first feel rather giddy, though it moved slowly. She shut her eyes, and the giddiness left her. Then she opened them, but all seemed darkness for some seconds, till a faint light began to creep up, growing brighter as her strange journey continued, and at last steadying into a pleasant glow, not glaring or bewildering, but clear and bright, so as to show all surrounding objects distinctly.
Linde sprang to her feet in delight. She was in the sweetest place she had ever dreamed of. Sweet in every sense, for it was a small garden of the beautiful rose-bushes, like the one the robin had shown her. And the scent was the exquisite one so familiar to her.
She was standing at the entrance to a sort of bower, or niche, in the midst of the fragrant bushes, and glancing into it she saw that there was a little hillock in its centre, and on this hillock were perched what at first seemed to her hundreds of redbreasts. In reality, I think there were about fifty – all motionless, till from their midst flew out one, whom by some instinct Linde recognised as her old friend.
"Birds," he said, for, to the fairy-touched ears of the child, chirps were words, "birds! She has come. And the time has come. Friends, bid her welcome."
And a lovely welcome it was which poured from the many little throats.
"Thank you, dear robins," said Linde, feeling sure that she was expected to say something, "thank you, dear birds. You know I love you, and I do hope you will soon come to live in the forest again. But now please tell me what it is you want me to do."
There was a sudden loud flutter of wings. All the robins at the same moment flew upwards from the hillock and perched themselves in clusters among the rose-trees which formed the bower. Only one remained on the hillock. Linde knew him for her guide. Beside him lay a small bright object. It was a finely made and polished spade.
He touched it with one of his claws.
"Take this, Linde," he said solemnly, "and dig. But first, stroke it with the three feathers."
"Where am I to dig?" asked the little girl, as she obeyed him.
"Here of course," was the reply, "here. It is the tomb of our ancestor, where for fifty years he has lain entranced."
Linde lifted the spade. It was beautifully light.
"What a dear little tool it is!" she thought to herself. "I wish they would let me keep it. It would be lovely for careful digging round the delicate tiny roots that are so easily damaged."
But these reflections she kept to herself, for she felt the fifty pairs of bright eyes upon her. Just at present it was a question of doing what she was told.
So she stroked the spade with her tiny feather posy, and then stepped forward close to the green mound. In her heart she felt doubtful as to whether the toy spade would be strong enough to cut through the turf. But as the robin flew up to a neighbouring branch, thus leaving the coast quite clear for her operations, there was nothing for it but to try. And to her satisfaction the blade glided through the sods almost without any effort of hers. In fact it seemed to direct her movements, so that in a very short time a neat round hole was made in the little hillock, revealing a sort of nest of the well-known dried rose-leaves, in the midst of which lay the tiny body of a – to all appearance dead – robin redbreast.
"Lift him," whispered her friend, evidently in the greatest excitement.
Linde did so, carefully and almost reverently. He was a most beautiful bird, a king of his kind. His feathers were smooth, his breast rich in colouring, his eyes closed. There was nothing death-like or painful about him, except – ah yes – Linde could not repress a little shiver at the sight – a small dart or arrow transfixed the dainty body, pinning one wing to his side, where a drop of blood told its cruel tale.
"Draw it out," came the next command.
"I feel as if it would hurt him," murmured Linde tremulously. But there came a sort of trill of entreaty from the fifty watchers, and she felt that she must obey. So mastering her own misgiving, she took firm hold of the head of the dart, and deftly drew it out, thinking as she did so, "It will hurt him less if I do it quickly."
It took some little strength, but it did not break, and to her surprise the hole it should have left, disfiguring the pretty creature, closed at once. Then the bird gave a sudden shiver, a thrill of returning life passed through him – Linde herself was conscious of it in her fingers – his eyes unclosed; he looked up at her, then, with a wonderful note of exceeding joy, he spread his wings and flew round the bower, returning again to perch on the child's still outstretched hand, as if in gratitude.
And then – and then – oh if you could have heard the carol of delight that burst out from the comrades of the spell-freed redbreast! It was too beautiful to describe; nor could it be described in human language. For after all, exquisite as may be the bird songs – nightingales' or thrushes', blackbirds' or larks', which delight us, it cannot, I fear, fall to our lot to hear them, as did favoured Linde, in fairyland!
She stood enraptured till the melody subsided and there was silence again, broken by the voice of the small master of the ceremonies.
"It is done," he said, "and perfectly done. The spell is broken, the sad enchantment ended. The forest is our own again. Our beloved ancestor restored to us and to the life of which he was so cruelly deprived before he had had his rightful share."
"Oh the joy of it, the joy of it!" trilled the resuscitated bird, as he fluttered from Linde's hand to her shoulder, and a chorus of sympathy burst out again.
But Linde's guide had not yet finished his speech. He held up one claw and there was silence.
"Friends," he began again. "What is to be this maiden's reward for what she has done? Our gracious lady protector, the Queen of the Fairies, has left it to us to decide. We must be generous as well as grateful, for Linde deserves it of us – and remember, but for her sweet and loving nature, not all her courage in braving alone the cold and darkness could have succeeded. Brothers, shall we let her choose her reward?"
A universal chirp of "Yes, yes" was the reply.
So the speaker turned again to the little girl.
"Linde," he said, "good Linde, you who have never been guilty of a cruel unkind deed, Linde, you who have been brave and obedient, what do you choose?"
"Oh robin, dear robin," she exclaimed, "I think you must know already. The leaves, the delicious leaves from the redbreast's roses – if we may always have these, Aria and I will be safe and happy. I will come to fetch them in the middle of the night or whenever you like – and," she added, with a little smile, "might I have the fairy spade too?"
The robin held up his claw again.
"Yes, yes," came the answer in bird language, followed by some chirps which Linde's ears were not yet "fairy-wise" enough to translate.
"Your requests are granted," said the president. "You may keep the spade," for it was still lying beside her. "Small as it is, it is endowed with magic power. If you keep it bright and clean it will do good work in your garden. And my friends and relations, headed by our revered ancestor," he waved his claw, and the kingly robin fluttered to Linde's head, where he gave an approving chirp, replied to by the audience, "desire me to say that it will not be necessary for you to fetch the leaves. You will only require to place the old jar on the window-sill overnight whenever it needs replenishing, laying the three feathers inside it; and in the morning it will be filled as you wish."
"Thank you, thank you," cried Linde again, "and now, dear robins, I must hurry home. I shall never forget this lovely place. May I never come again?"
Her guide answered rather sadly.
"I fear not. Few, very few, mortals have come even as far as an entrance to fairyland. Nor could you ever find this spot again, try as you might. But we – we robins, will often see you in the forest, no longer forbidden ground."
"Yes, that is true," Linde replied cheerfully. "Then good-night – not good-bye, to you all, and please tell me how I am to get up again to the clearing, so as to run home to relieve Aria's anxiety and tell her the good news."
"That we will manage," said her first friend. "Birds!"
There was an answering flutter.
"Seat yourself comfortably, my child, and close your eyes."
Linde obeyed, but not before seeing and feeling that all the assembled robins were flying down and surrounding her, so that with the velvety softness of the grassy sod and the fluffy feeling of the feathered creatures encircling her, she seemed in a cosy nest, and already somewhat sleepy. Then a slight touch on the top of her head made her start a little.
"It is only we two," chirped her guide, "I and the noble bird who owes his life to you. We are here to direct the air voyage. Rest, my child, rest and be at peace."
Linde did not know that she fell asleep, though afterwards she knew it must have been so. She felt herself rising, rising – then a breath of colder air met her face, and – that was all she knew, till – she awoke, and found herself in the porch of the cottage, and – to prove the night's adventures had been no dream, in one hand the little spade, in the other the three red feathers, still firmly clasped.
She was a very practical maiden, in spite of her fairy perceptions, so the first thing she did was to lay the small treasures safely in the old jar, saying to herself, and "to-morrow night – no, I should say to-night, we will place it outside on the window-sill and in the morning it will be filled with the lovely leaves. What news, what joy to tell Aria!"
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