Authors: Cassandra Golds
That's when the forest began.
They didn't understand at first. They were both so accustomed to the sound of rain inside Corbenic â trickling through drainpipes; dripping steadily, rhythmically from leaks in the ceiling into half-filled buckets; pelting onto iron roofs.
But this â this was not inside rain. It was outside rain. It was the soft patter of spring rain on the hard ground of winter. The healing rain whose tiny fingers painted green over brown, on which the drooping heads of flowers supped, in which birds preened themselves. The rain that fell on new graves and brought the buds of grass out of the freshly turned earth.
And it was falling on their heads and bodies, washing the plaster away, drenching their hair and their clothes. It was soaking the carpet in the hallway beneath them and streaking down the walls around them.
It wasn't long before they saw the first sproutings of life. First there was fungus â mushrooms and brightly coloured, uncanny-looking growths emerging quietly through the carpet, with a fresh, undeniably vegetative scent. Then there was grass, a fine shading of green at first, but it grew rapidly around them until they had to jump up out of its way, for it was pushing up uncomfortably beneath them, surprisingly powerful. Then there were the saplings, splitting the walls, their roots pushing under and then ripping open the carpet, the canopy of their leaves and branches destroying the ceiling and protecting them from the full force of the rain.
And then they were in a forest, and the remnants of the building had become rocks, and they were standing on a mountain path between the trees that seemed to be leading somewhere.
But the strangest thing of all was that the forest seemed so familiar. Deirdre stared around her. It was beautiful, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, apart from the treasure she could not remember, but she knew the forest was somehow like the treasure, that they had the same origin, were part of the same entity.
When she recognised it, she did so not so much from the way it looked, as from the way it made her feel.
âIt's you,' she said suddenly. âThe forest is you. We're inside you.'
Gal just stared at her, his face still dusty with plaster and streaked with tears.
âDon't you recognise yourself?' she asked him gently, loving his face, loving him.
âI â I â'
The rain was easing now. They were both soaked to the skin and should have been cold and uncomfortable, but Deirdre felt happier and warmer and safer than she had ever felt in all the days of her strange existence. She knew that, all her life, she had somehow been dwelling inside her grandmother, imprisoned in her grandmother's mind. Now she had entered the soul of Galahad.
The rain was Gal. The trees were Gal. The very air she breathed was Gal. His face, his warmth, his life were everywhere.
He seemed bewildered, but she took his hand and pulled him forward, along the path.
It was then that they caught sight of the little girl.
It wasn't the second little girl, the terrifying one with the blonde bob and the uncanny abilities who was the ghost of Deirdre's grandmother. It was the first one, the one in the white nightgown, with the long straight silvery fair hair, the one they had seen walking away from them when they first stepped out of the flat onto the landing, before they had got trapped in Deirdre's grandmother's memories. She was walking away from them again now, some distance ahead of them, along the path. She walked slowly, in a deliberate, absorbed, and yet somehow absent manner. She walked as if she was dreaming. She seemed about five years old.
They both knew they should follow her, but as they did so, a curious thing happened. The closer they came to her, the older she seemed to be.
She had been five or so when they first caught sight of her; before they had gone many steps she seemed seven or eight; then twelve; then fourteen.
And still she walked slowly away from them, and although they were walking as briskly as they could, and her pace never changed, it seemed difficult to catch up to her.
The path ahead of them became a rough stairway of rocks; slowly, gravely, dreamily, the girl began to climb it. The sun was shining through the heavy canopy of trees, dappling their vision, the window of sky directly above them was cobalt blue, and yet Deirdre knew they were still inside Corbenic; that it had somehow become Galahad's domain, as if the seed of him had been planted in the very centre of it and suffused it with life, his life. They climbed the stairway behind the girl, who was now almost a woman, and it was difficult â steep and uneven and mossy and damp; but as they climbed, Deirdre's joy grew and grew, for she already knew what the girl was leading them to; what they were about to find.
When the girl ahead of them reached the top of the stairs they saw her pause, as if waiting. They had almost caught up to her when she suddenly turned and looked at them calmly.
Deirdre froze on the stairway.
She was looking into a mirror. The girl's face was her own. And at the moment she recognised her, the girl disappeared.
There was a small cave at the top of the rocky stairway; the entrance was barred by an iron gate; the cave was suffused with a gentle red-gold light; the sleepwalking girl of many ages with Deirdre's face had led them to it.
Deirdre brushed away her confusion, dismissed her uneasiness. Surely, surely, their trials were over.
âIt's here! It's here!' she cried. âWe've found it!'
She was breathing hard with the effort but she dragged herself and Gal up the final steps and leant for a moment, all but exhausted, against the gate, before pressing down the latch and letting them in.
There was the room of glass. There was the iron plinth. There was the crystal box, from which shone the warm, red-gold light. And there, inside it, was the creature they had seen once before, all those years ago, and forgotten, the thing whose existence had haunted them ever since, the red-gold thing the size of a fist that moved constantly, rhythmically, as if clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing, like a little animal, like a ruby-coloured frog, like a sea anemone.
âThis was why I couldn't leave!' Deirdre whispered. âThis was what I had to tend, and guard, in my sleep. This is what we found, when we were fiveÂ .Â .Â . Do you remember? Do you remember?'
And she took up the box and cradled it against her breast. Then she gestured with her head for him to open it. Gal stared at her. Then, carefully, he lifted the lid.
They both looked down at it.
At first all they saw was its beauty. It was jewel-like â a living ruby, only soft â its movements both strong and fluid. Then it began to move more violently and rapidly, as if in response to being observed.
They both recognised it at the same moment. All at once, at last, they knew what it was. They couldn't have known, at five. But they knew now. Confused, Gal lifted his hand as if to touch it, then let his hand drop.
And finally Deirdre understood.
She thought of her grandmother's hatred of Gal, the grandson of her father's mistress. She thought of her hatred of all men, because of that original man, her father, and his betrayal of her. She thought of her grandmother's resentment of their friendship â hers and Gal's â even when they were only five, and how she had hated Gal's scepticism, his resistance to her power, his cool appraisals of her statements. She remembered the rabbit, its death and disfigurement.
She remembered her grandmother's vow to take revenge â on Elaine, on men â for her mistreatment as a child.
She remembered the sheer intensity of her grandmother's emotions â an intensity so concentrated, so obsessive, so fanatical that it seemed to make possible the impossible.
And she remembered an experience so terrible that she had forgotten it until this momentÂ .Â .Â . even though she now knew that the ghost-child grandmother had shown it to them.
She remembered being in a dark room somewhere in the bowels of Corbenic with her grandmother, as Gal lay unconscious on some kind of stone slab.
She remembered a knife like a dagger with a strange design on its hilt.
She remembered a wounding, and a tearing, and a receiving into a crystal box, which she held, as a small girl, between her hands.
And she thought of all the years she had been sleepwalking â rising in the dead of night to visit the crystal room at the top of the stone stairs, to tend and to guard â and she thought of how she could not remember this practice, this obligation during the daytime, could not even find the room.
And she thought of the strange, rhythmic thudding sound one could hear throughout the building, sometimes soft and steady, sometimes louder, sometimes hectic with fear or passion.
âIt's a heart,' said Gal in wonder.
âIt's your heart,' said Deirdre.
For a moment Gal didn't understand what she was saying to him. He gazed at her blankly. Then his face changed and he lurched forward and caught hold of the plinth. He leaned on it, gasping for breath.
Deirdre just hung on to the box. She could not afford to let it go. She watched him trying to regain his composure, trying not to collapse utterly with the sheer weight of the revelation. She knew what he was feeling. She knew how terrifying it must be, to see your own heart, disembodied, in a crystal box.
And she thought, my grandmother has won. She is God after all. She took Gal's heart. She used me as a cat's paw. Between us we have destroyed his life. And yet he lives. Who but an evil god could work such cruelty?
And now, she thought, because of her, I have lost Gal's love, just when, at last, our love was fulfilled. This was her intention. This was her plan. Now he will hate me. For how could you love someone who helped your mortal enemy tear your heart out?
Her sense of doom â the sense of doom she had had all her life â had been justified, a thousand times over.
âI was right,' she murmured in sad wonder. âWhat I said to you that day was true. I am a witch. Like my grandmother. The kids at the high school â they weren't wrong. I was a witch all along. I belonged at the stake. It's like I told you, all those years ago. You shouldn't have saved me, Gal. You should have let me burn.'
You're not a witch
,' said Gal immediately, although he was still leaning, weak with shock, on the plinth. He said it as if he would have said it with his last breath.
Then he paused, trying to summon strength again.
He couldn't think about it. He couldn't think about it. He could not hold the thought in his head. This terrible knowledge â that he was not whole, that the most important part of him had been stolen, that violence that had been done to him â he could not bear the thought of it.
But he had to bear it.
He shut his eyes. He tried to find a way to live with this knowledge. But all he could do was float helplessly, as if there was no ground to stand on, nothing to hold on to.
So that was it. That was what she had done. That was her revenge. She had taken his heart.
And she had spent the rest of her life afraid â in mortal terror of the living heart she had buried at the very centre of Corbenic.
She had made the very building bigger and bigger, to bury it more deeply.
She had condemned him to a kind of life-in-death. And she had set Deirdre the impossible task of keeping his heart alive, outside his body, while he himself was banished, kept apart from his own heart and the person who tended it.
An impossible task. And yet Deirdre had achieved it.
In his head he heard the ghost-child grandmother during that last haunting, the strangest of all, the one he hadn't understood, hadn't even believed.
You trust Deirdre, don't you, Gal? You would trust her with your life?
She had tried to get him to lift the sheet; she had tried to make him see himself, the sacrifice, on the cold slab. But most of all, she had been trying to destroy his love for Deirdre.
But she could never do that. Never.