The man’s laughter was a little too shrill, almost as if he was on the edge of hysteria.
The light was sudden and bright, dazzling her eyes. Deidra was at first only able to make out the trunks of tress, grass, patches of yellow sunlight dappling the undergrowth. As her eyes cleared, she could see a small, distant clearing. Three people knelt in the long grass, talking, a man, a woman, and a child. Deidra began walking towards them, conscious of a strange, uneasy feeling at being along the forest. The trees were too big; the plants were too… green. Everything around her seemed huge and fiercely vivid.
But as she made her way towards the seated figures, she saw that something was wrong about them as well. The woman sat stiffly and her shoulders trembled slightly. The child—a girl—cowered behind the woman, her head bowed. The man was hunched over, as if he were crouched, ready to spring. Deidra stopped hesitantly.
Suddenly a dark shape loomed in front of her, a figure, so close it almost crashed into her. She muffled a scream and reeled backwards, tangling her feet and falling painfully on the unusually hard ground before scrabbling away.
Then, hearing laughter, she looked up. Another man, dressed in an elaborately embroidered silver-green suit, was looking down at her and clutching his sides. His large, widely spaced green eyes gleamed with amusement. After a moment, Deidra laughed along in relief, though she was uneasy. The man’s laughter was a little too loud, too shrill. He sounded almost as if he was on the edge of hysteria, and his large white teeth were bared wildly.
Abruptly, the man stopped laughing and smiled at her. Then, with stiff and exaggerated politeness, he bent slightly at the waist, offering her a gloved hand in a courtly gesture.
“Lady,” he said, “Forgive me. Please accept my hand in apology for my wretched manners.” Though he still grinned widely, his eyes were gentle now. Deidra smiled back uncertainly. Her cheeks flushed, both from embarrassment and his strangely formal address. She took his hand.
When she was on her feet and brushing herself off, she heard distant shouting echoing through the trees. Tilting her head to look around the man’s shoulder, she saw that the woman in the clearing was learning forward now and shouting at the man in the other stone circle. Something about her voice, about the way she moved, seemed familiar to Deidra. She pointed towards the clearing. “Who are they?” she asked the man in front of her. “Do you know them?”
The man’s smile had faded while she was looking towards the clearing. Now, ignoring her question, he stared at her with hard eyes. Then, without warning, he seized her hand with frightening speed.
“Ignore them,” he said urgently. “Please, come dancing with me instead.”
Despite the “please,” it was a command, not a question. Deidra flinched at the force of his voice. Just as suddenly, his face softened again. He smiled. When he spoke again, his voice was smooth and inviting. “Won’t you?”
Tongue tied, Deidra stared back at him, feeling slightly dizzy. Had she hit her head earlier when she had fallen? As she looked into his eyes it suddenly seemed so difficult—so unnecessary—to focus on anything else.
“Alright,” she said. Her voice came out fuzzy and thick. The man’s smile broadened. Large, white teeth gleamed. He took her other hand eagerly, and without warning swept her away into a fast, bounding dance through the grass. They were twirling around the trees, spinning and waltzing through grass and patches of moss. Deidra had never danced these dances before in her life, but it did not matter. All she had to do was let him lead, and she would be able to follow.
Gradually, Deidra became aware that they were an enormous ballroom. Other dancers filled the floor, dressed in elaborate outfits, bedecked with dazzling jewelry. As her partner continued to lead her through one dance after another, Deidra suddenly realized she had no idea how long she had been dancing. Whirling and twisting, watching the other dances blur around her, Deidra felt dizzy again and closed her eyes.
...And it was a strange thing, but though her eyes were closed she could still see. Not the ballroom, but the forest. She was far above the clearing where the three figures from before sat, the child, the man, and the woman. They sat facing each other in two circles of white stone, the woman and child in one circle, the man in another. The woman and the man were speaking heatedly.
Suddenly the woman stood and made a fierce, violent gesture at the man, as if to shoo him away. He did not leave—instead, he began to laugh. The sound was strangely terrifying. Then he rose. Staring directly into the woman’s eyes, he stepped deliberately out of the stone circle. The woman covered her mouth with her hands and screamed. The child cowered and wailed.
Suddenly, in a flicker of movement, the man was inside the other stone circle, gripping the child’s forehead in one hand. The woman cried, “No, no!” and seized the child around the waist helplessly. The man laughed louder, and pulled at the child’s forehead. When he released his grip, his hand dragged something wispy and insubstantial away with it. He laughed again, hard and cruel, as the child began to scream. Her scream was high and keening, full of pain, as though it were being torn in half.
And then Deidra was screaming. Her eyes flew open, returning her jarringly to the ballroom and her dancing partner--who was, she saw now, the man from the clearing. He was still laughing, and she continued to scream because just like the child she was being pulled apart, ripped to pieces. And then, overwhelmed, she was falling, fading, unable to look away from his face while he laughed harder and harder, the sharp white points of his teeth gleaming despite the growing darkness.