It was that dream again. Cordelia wasn’t sure how much of it was real. She was so little back then, and the way her child mind interpreted it all seemed far too surreal to be true.
But she knew one thing for sure; that unassuming evening in the quiet village of Gibbs Hill was when her life changed forever. And the dream had followed her ever since.
As did they.
Her mother had told her bedtime stories until she drifted to sleep like any other night. Or so Annaliese thought. Cordelia had a plan that night.
She pretended to doze off, even pulled off a bit of a snore as her mother kissed her goodnight on the forehead. She was quite proud of herself.
The thing was, Cordelia may have been a child, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew her mother had been sneaking out at night several times a week, once she put the girl to bed.
She’d seen her put on that cloak and cover up her face, heard her tiptoeing out of their tiny cottage, in spite of Annaliese clearly doing her best to leave quietly.
And this time, Cordelia was determined to find out where her mother had been going all this time.
As soon as the door closed behind Annaliese, the girl jumped out of bed. She didn’t even bother getting dressed and dashed straight out of the house.
The streets of Gibbs Hill were quiet this time of night. Perhaps some of the Britechester students were out on the town, but none of them had spotted the little girl running past in her nightgown.
Following her mother led Cordelia to the edge of the village, out to the old castle. But Annaliese didn’t go inside the fort, instead, she looped around the battlements and headed into a secluded clearing.
There, she joined other hooded figures.
The meadow was unlike anything Cordelia had ever seen. Surrounded by rocks on all sides, the area was tucked away from the rest of the village. Plenty of strange mushrooms and odd plants were growing around. But all the cloaked people seemed to pay attention to was a ritual stone of sorts in the centre of the clearing.
Cordelia’s mother greeted the others with an elaborate arm gesture. The masked figures reciprocated, and then all of them proceed to continue putting items on the ritual stone.
The little girl watched in awe as the gems and plants placed on the stone disappeared into thin air. The hooded group got enveloped in sparkles and basked in their glow. It was mesmerising.
And then Cordelia spotted it. It looked like a butterfly, except more ethereal, with a bright light emitting from its very core. What was it? A fairy?
The girl came closer to take a better look.
It was then when they spotted her.
“What is this child doing here?” The only man in the group looked at Cordelia. His voice was deeper than she’d expected. He was scary. She unwittingly took a step back.
The girl noticed the surprise flicker in her mother’s face, followed by something else. Was it fear? Cordelia couldn’t tell, it only lasted a split second, and quickly turned into Annaliese shouting at her.
“Cordelia, what on earth!? Why aren’t you in the house? What were you thinking…”
It was unlike her mother to yell. The girl figured if she apologised, everything would be ok.
“I’m sorry, momma.” She tried to explain. “I was just curious. What is this place? It’s so pretty…”
“Does this child belong to you, sister?” The man turned to Annaliese.
“I apologise, grand master,” Cordelia’s mother made a subtle bow. “She must have followed me here. I accept full responsibility.”
“The sprites will not like having the secrecy unveiled like this, without a proper ritual. Besides, the girl is far too young to young to pledge,” the grand master frowned. “But perhaps this could be a good thing.”
“Oh, I can help for sure,” Cordelia nodded eagerly. “The sprites, are those the pretty glowing butterflies? What are they?”
The man ignored her. “Imagine the favours we could gain if we turn in the girl as an offering!” He told Annaliese. “The curiosity of a child would entertain them far more than the fleeting beauty of crystals and the sweetness of baked goods.”
“What?” Annaliese burst out. “Brother, you can’t be serious…”
The other two hooded women looked at each other uncertainly. But it was too late. The butterfly fairy things – sprites, did they call them? – surrounded Cordelia. They turned bright green.
The girl was confused. The sprites seemed happy. So why was her mother so upset?
“This is madness!” Annaliese protested. “I will not just sacrifice my child.”
“Look how excited they got at the prospect!” The man seemed unaffected by her pleas. “You know how temperamental the sprites are, sister. If we take the offering away now, they will not be pleased…”
“To hell with the sprites!” Her mother shrieked, prompting the other two women to gasp. “I do not care if they’re pleased or not, I will not give them my daughter for mere entertainment!”
The master’s eyes grew wide in fear. “What have you done, sister?”
“I take it back,” Annaliese uttered quickly. “Of course I care about the sprites and their feelings… They are of an utmost importance… but… I can’t give them Cordelia. Please… grand master… there has to be another way to keep them happy.”
“Either way, an offering of great value has to be made,” the man said gravely. He turned to the other two women. “Let’s leave sisters. The matter is now between the sprites and the mother of the child to settle. We should not interfere any further.”
The two women looked at Cordelia reluctantly, but eventually made their way from the clearing. The grand master followed.
Cordelia was happy. The scary man had left, so now everything could go back to normal.
The sprites burst into a multicoloured cloud of sparkles around them. It looked like fireworks. “Wow!” The girl exclaimed. “So pretty!”
“Cordelia, step back!” Her mother told her.
They took on the butterfly-like form again, turning yellow. There was something sinister about it. Cordelia wasn’t all that happy anymore.
“Step back, Cordelia,” Annaliese repeated. “It’s going to be ok. You’ll be ok.”
The woman closed her eyes for a moment as the sprites flocked to her. They did not seem pleased, as the man had phrased it before.
“You cannot have her!” Annaliese shouted. “You will not!”
The sprites started attacking her, pecking at her. She fell to her knees.
“Momma!” Cordelia cried out.
“Don’t move!” Annaliese said sternly. She exhaled abruptly, collapsing fully under the persistent sprite attack.
The whole world slowed down. Cordelia saw her mother’s lifeless body hit the ground and the sprites flickered above her. The girl dropped to her knees.
“Momma, wake up!”
Another hooded figure approached, but his robes were different from her mother’s. He carried scythe, and a looming black cloud followed his footsteps.
“Wake up! Please… momma!” Cordelia shook Annaliese as he got closer.
“It is no use, child.” His voice echoed. “She is gone.”
“Who are you?” Cordelia stood up, forcing herself to look at him. She couldn’t see a face under the cape, just darkness.
He paused, then confirmed what she already knew deep down. “I am death.”
“You have come for momma?” Her voice was shaking.
“No, please, don’t take my momma away. It is all my fault!” She pleaded desperately. “I will be good now, I’ll never sneak out and always make the bed and do homework when momma says so… Please!”
He sighed and shook his head. “This is not my bargain to make. The sprites demanded a payment, and payment they shall receive. But even I don’t know if it will be enough for them. You have intrigued them greatly.”
The girl looked at the yellow sprites above her.
“You did this? Why?”
But they did not speak. Just fluttered around. And the reaper took her mother away from her.
The girl couldn’t watch. She turned away. She felt hot tears stream down her cheeks. She buried her face in the palms of her hands and sobbed and sobbed, unsure how much time had really passed. Or if any of this was even real.
When she finally stopped crying and wiped her tears away, they were all gone. The reaper, the sprites, and her mother.
She’d relived that moment in her dreams time and time again, but the older she got, the less and less sense it made. Had her childhood imagination come up with the whole story to help her cope with her mother’s passing?
She didn’t know. But she knew one thing in that moment; from then on, she was truly alone.
It took some time to learn that this wasn’t exactly the case. From that night on, the sprites would come and check on her from time to time. An unwanted and uninvited visitor.
Perhaps they meant well, wanting to check in on the girl they’d orphaned. Either way, they seemed unwilling to stop their little social calls, no matter what she tried over the years.
Eventually, she gave up on trying to come up with a solution to make them go away. She did the only thing she could still think of; run. On her eighteenth birthday, she left Gibbs Hill, where all that was left was bitter memories.
She followed the road out of the village, past the castle, past the strange clearing, deep into the woods, until the road ended.
And that’s how she found herself in Glimmerbrook.