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24th October, The Singing Forest

A fortnight ago, a wailing young woman burst into my office, and immediately fell to her knees begging for help. When I enquired as to her problem, the poor thing was unable to string together a proper sentence. So, I instead decided to offer her some food, in the hope that it would calm her nerves.

For a small moment, I almost mistook the lady for Elizabeth, as they shared the same blue eyes. At first I wanted the woman to leave, because she reminded me of the pile of returned letters on my desk and the wife and child which I had lost. But, Elizabeth wouldn’t have wanted me to turn the woman away, and if I wanted to return home I had to show her that I could be a changed man.

It was almost nightfall by the time the woman’s uncontrollable sobbing finally grew quiet. She composed herself, informed me her name was Maria, and quickly began her tale.

Over a year ago, a hunting party left a village called Elm and never returned. She claimed that many assumed the townsfolk had been slain by wolves. That was until other people began to disappear; the latest victim was her little brother, Robin. By this point she was crying again, and unfortunately we’d run out of bread, and my patience was growing scarce. I reminded her that perhaps the Knights might be of more use to her than I, however, she assured me that only a man of my expertise was needed.

Now for the next part of her story, most people of course would have laughed. Maria claimed that the forest that surrounded her home was haunted by a siren, one which lured its victims into the forest with the sound of her voice.

I accepted the job immediately.

My contact informed me that she would not be returning to the village unless she was satisfied that the beast had been slain; instead she offered me a poorly drawn map with the location of her village circled with red ink.

I headed North through the City of Storeton, the place where my career began and my relationship crumbled.

Months ago, I overheard a conversation whilst walking home that the City was apparently overrun with strange winged creatures. A gentleman informed me that the Devil himself had come to begin his reckoning, and I quickly had to remind him that his theory was both ridiculous and absurd. When I finally reached Storeton half the inhabitants of the City had driven themselves mad with their own delusions. It was chaos; windows were being bricked up, shops looted, and many people had already fled. I spent three tedious nights in an extremely run-down tavern at the edge of the city, waiting for the proposed monsters to make an appearance, and yet none ever came. That was until the final night when Storeton’s streets were full of people screaming.

I ran into the centre of town and there in the sky were about a hundred bats, a creature that I had previously marked in my Bestiary years ago. I wasn’t disappointed, rather extremely displeased at my wasted journey and extreme lack of sleep. Upon further investigation, I found that the city was expanding the mines that ran underneath it, and had disturbed a nest which was causing the bats to flee to the surface. Nethertheless the experience has provided me with quite the celebrity status, and some of the children are now even calling me a ‘Beast Master’.

When I returned home I found Elizabeth waiting for me on the doorstep with our new-born son in her arms, and a suitcase full of my things at her side. She told me that I had made my choice. I made the decision to go off chasing an adventure, and had consequently forgotten that she was giving birth. I have spent each day since writing to her, trying to show her that I have changed but, I fear I might have lost her forever in the thrill of my job.

Whilst I was in Storeton I enquired as to whether anyone had heard about the mysterious Elm, and to my surprise many of the people had knowledge of the village. As I travelled through the city I once again encountered many different rumours, each one more elaborate than the first. A group of children told me that there was a witch who lived in the forest and devoured the souls of all who entered. In a store the shopkeeper told me the village was cursed, and another story claimed the entire town had been replaced by changelings. But throughout each tale the end message was the same: don’t go to Elm Village.

Their warnings didn’t deter me from my path, but made me more determined. I must make a name for myself so that Elizabeth will see that this job is worth it. That my discoveries are going to make us rich, and make a better life for our son.

I travelled along the coast until I reached Kirby, a local fishing town with a population of under a hundred people. It was here that I paid a large sum of money to a local man, Jim, to ensure me safe passage to Elm. For what felt like hours I sat on the back of Jim’s wagon surrounded by barrels of fish. My companion halted just outside a dirt track and quickly ushered me from his cart and handed me a burning torch. By the time I had stretched my throbbing back Jim had already departed, and left behind a cloud of dust and a single fish.

The further I trekked the more overgrown it became, the trees grew dense around me and vines and bushes obscured the path. It became tiresome, and began to wonder if Jim had robbed me of my money and led me on a journey to nowhere. That was until my toe roughly stumped against something hard in the ground, which caused me to lose my footing and rob myself of any sense of dignity I had left. Much to my embarrassment I was thankful for my fall, for it revealed to me a small sign half sunken in the mud, and carved into the oak was a single word ‘Elm’.

The town was the opposite of what I’d expected. I’d imagined a quaint little village which camouflaged itself in with the forest. Instead I was greeted with a very ugly brick wall and iron gates. It was here that I met the extremely stone-faced Mayor of Elm, Matthias Derwall. Our acquaintance is recorded as follows:

“State your name and your business,” Matthias, a short and stout man, emerged from the door flanked by poorly armoured Guards.

“Ethan Tear, Beast Hunter.” I tapped my hat as a sign of respect.

“Ah, so Maria found you then,” he purred and pulled a pair of gloves tight over his hands. “I’m afraid you have had a wasted journey my friend, as you can see,” The mayor proudly tapped the wall, “We are dealing with the issue.”

“In my experience,” I began and quickly added, “if you don’t mind the advice of course.”

“Not at all,” he said through gritted teeth. “Please continue.”

“People building walls is usually a defensive measure against the issue.”

Matthias then grew very pale.

“I don’t think you are handling the issue, rather running away from it.”

Around their mayor, I watched the surprised faces of the Guards who raised their eyebrows and smiled at me.

“I mean no disrespect friend, only I have quite the resume in the discovery of these ‘creatures’.” From my bag, I pulled my first Bestiary and held it out towards him. “I am merely here to help.”

“Unfortunately,” Matthias pursed his lips, “We are perfectly capable of handling our situation.”

“Please allow me to investigate the issue. I need only seek shelter until dawn, and if I find nothing then I will not bother you or your village again.”

The Mayor of Elm placed a finger to his chin and contemplated my offer.

“I will of course pay for my lodgings.” I threw a bag of coins at the man, and watched as his eyes danced eagerly.

Matthias shook the bag and held it to his ear.

“I presume that will cover my stay here.”

“Why of course, Mr Tear it would be my pleasure.” The mayor beamed, taking my arm and escorting me into Elm.

Behind the great wall was a selection of very bland and boring houses. Many of the homes were covered in moss and in certain parts the wood was rotting away. All the windows were either completely bricked up or not there at all. There was an empty barn and an overgrown and unnaturally small selection of crops. Towards the back of the village some workmen were laying down stone bricks to finish their protective wall. I was given a room in the basement of the Mayor’s home on bed made from straw. In the evening, a servant came and handed me a bowl of flavoured water which she had called soup. Before she left she walked over to the small basement windows and sprinkled something on the ledge. Upon further inspection, I found the most bizarre thing. Lining the windows and the underside of the doors were rows of salt, and it was in that moment that I realised I’d stumbled into a village of the mentally insane.

By the time the sun rose I kept to my word and left the village under the watchful eye of the Mayor.

The wood around Elm had no clear path, apart from a few incidents where the foliage had been disturbed and broken by an obvious human figure. What immediately came to my attention was how quiet the forest was. It was an eerie, deafening silence, which was only broken my own footfalls or the gentle rustle of leaves. Elizabeth would have loved it there, she had always said there was a beauty in the quiet. But the beauty shattered the instant the singing began.

At first I thought it was my senses playing tricks, as though I’d spent too long in the silence and my mind was conjuring up these noises. But then the sound abruptly grew louder until suddenly it surrounded me from every direction. The sound was sweet and cheerful and flowed between the trees as easily as the wind. It appeared that the canopy of the forest had suddenly launched into an uncontrollable chorus of song. From within the heart of the wood the lullaby reigned and expanded with each passing second. I tried to follow the music, however, it was impossible. It led me in circles, around and around a single point. But the tune all at once grew thick and heavy, and twisted and changed into a sinister blend of noise.

For the first time, in my career I truly felt afraid. The forest’s song just hummed louder. I could feel eyes peering down at me form the treetops. Shadows seemed to merge together and form strange shapes which creeped out from behind the trees. They launched at me, I felt their tiny claws scratching at the back of my hands. I lost my mind in the sound and began to run through the unbearable music, attempting to drown it out with my own screams. You see, I was drowning in that forest, over-come with my own fear. I let the superstition take control and shackle me to the ground. My thoughts focused on Elizabeth and our son, of all that I had given up. I thought I was going to die in that wood. My soul, would be forced to wander through the woods, lost in the music.

Suddenly, I found myself tumbling into the clearing, and it was then when I came face to face with the dreaded siren.

In front of me, waiting in the tree line, sat hundreds of small creatures, no bigger than my hand, who seemed to belong to a family of birds. Beautiful, delicate things whose feathers were a mixture of light brown and white. Each one had their beaks open wide and expelled the song of the forest. It was light and pleasant and glimmered like the sun. I was absolutely overjoyed and could hardly hold my pencil in my hand whilst I documented my new find. My new creatures I decided to name nightingales after their wonderful song. My day was then spent in that forest, sitting listening to their music and completely absorbing myself in nature. I was reluctant to leave when the sun finally began to set, however, I left the forest using the nightingale’s song to guide me home.

I returned to the locals and promptly informed them that their singing sirens were no more than some overly zealous nightingales. My attempts to persuade Matthias that the people who had gone missing, simply allowed their fear to dominate them and consequently had got lost, were futile. My suspicions about Maria’s brother were that the boy had simply ran away of his own accord. Of course, this displeased the Mayor highly, who accused me of trying to challenge his authority and then had me thrown out of the village. I’ve since been informed that Elm village is now completely deserted as people became too terrified to remain there. The Mayor’s great wall even collapsed, for which I blame nothing but the man’s own karma. I later found that Matthias used it as the perfect excuse to show how witches were infiltrating Elm and forced everyone to leave.

When I returned home I found a bag of coins on my desk as payment from Maria for my work, and I immediately went to visit Elizabeth. I wanted to tell her about Elm, and prove to her that my work finally meant something. She was sitting on the porch with our son, William, in her arms. My wife smiled when she saw me, however, her smile soon faded as I handed her the coins and told her about my trip. I spoke of the nightingales, and how they were as beautiful as she but, Elizabeth slammed the door in my face and told me I still didn’t understand.

I return to Elm every week and wander through the deserted village. In the evenings I fall asleep listening to the singing forest. Still, all those who pass claim to hear the siren’s call. I haven’t the heart to go back and tell them.

Emily Davies

Emily Davies

Emily Davies was born in the North-West of England, on a little peninsula known as the Wirral, where she spends her time between the pages of works by Cornelia Funke, Sarah J Maas and V.E Schwab. She has a passion for fantasy fiction, and is currently working on her first Young Adult novel. The book, entitled “Celestial”, follows the story of twins, Luna and Tristan, as they try to unravel the secret of their parents’ death, and discover their own destinies in the process. In the future, she hopes to publish her own novel and work within the publishing industry.