2: The Voice and William Taylor
Maddy's whole universe sped by her in a heartbeat. At the edge of the forest, she paused. Beyond lay the forbidden world she so often dreamed about, but here the darkness yawned like a great beast with rows and rows of swaying teeth. Then she heard the voice say, Look for me, and tore through the undergrowth without a trace of self-preservation. She tried ordering herself to be prudent, but her body redoubled its speed each time the voice spoke.
Come and find me, it said.
"Please," Maddy pleaded with it. "Give me a moment to catch my breath."
The voice answered, Do you expect me to believe you're actually winded?
She gasped. Had it heard her? No one ever heard her. She turned to see whether anyone followed her, but no one was there. "Of course it hears me." She spoke louder than usual, just in case. "It's my own sick imagination."
As her body pressed on, Maddy grew more and more convinced her brother's stunt would be the end of her. Why else had he kissed her? She rubbed her mouth with her sleeve until it hurt. She'd read about death-kisses before. They almost always meant betrayal. Now, just like in the story of Judas and the teacher, Maddy had been thrown to the soldier trees, who would hang her up to die.
Where are you? The voice interrupted her thoughts.
Maddy shouted back, "Surrounded by soldier trees, if you must know! Now I'm going to die like the teacher, only I won't be able to come back!" Then she muttered, "No one really comes back," and thought of her father.
There was a pause. What on earth are you talking about?
Maddy slumped to the ground and bit her lower lip. Even the voice in her head thought she was crazy now. What would her mother say? "I'm pathetic." She buried her face in her hands.
She was also lost. She had gone too far too fast. All around her, the trees pressed in, mere shadows of the things they were during the day. Maddy considered crying, but decided against it. It wouldn't do her any good and she didn't want to be embarrassed further. "It's only a delusion, stupid girl," she reminded herself. "It isn't going to laugh at you."
To her horror, the voice chuckled. Ah, there you are.
She shivered and twisted around, but saw no one behind her. "If you're real, goblin, then help me. I'm lost."
She meant to insult it by calling it names, but it didn't seem insulted. Instead, it said, Of course, I'm real. And if you follow me, I'll lead you out of the forest.
She stood and wrung the rain from her hair. "I can't see you," she said. "How am I supposed to follow you?"
You don't need to see me. When I tell you to follow me, you will obey. The voice paused. You know that.
"I do?" Maddy glanced over her shoulder again, hoping to catch something out of the corner of her eye. "Who are you?"
You don't know me?
"Oh, I know you, all right," she said, still looking all around her. "You're my tormenter. You're the reason I was hidden from the world and tied to my bedposts at night."
The voice groaned.
"You're the reason I'm lost in the woods where I'll probably die."
You won't die, it said, but its tone had changed. It was no longer confident. Is that the only way you know me?
"How else should I know you?"
The voice refused to answer. Maddy decided she did not like it and would not talk with it any more. Instead, she watched the mud ooze between her toes as she walked, and realized that her brother had thrown her to the wolves without even considering her dignity. She had no shoesno decent clothes, for that matter. Because her brother kept watch over her at night, she was usually obliged to wear a petticoat and corset to bed, for which she was suddenly grateful. Even so, if she did find her way out of the forest, she was not fit to be seen. She stopped walking.
Girl, why have you stopped?
Girl? Maddy forgot her resolve to be silent. "My name is Madeleine Lavoie, and you, sir, are the rudest delusion I've ever had. Why can't you just leave me alone? You have ruined my life and made me an outcast. My poor mother"
Mother? The voice interrupted her. Who is your mother?
"What does it matter to you? You're leading me to die, aren't you?" She wrung her hair again. "I don't see how you're anything other than a manifestation of my illness, which means if I don't know how to get out of these woods, neither do you. I could have wandered in circles for the last hour and not even realized it. No, I'm sure you're not real because you can hear me and that's impossible."
I have always been able to hear you, the voice paused, Madeleine. It seemed uncomfortable with her given name, which struck her as an odd quirk for a delusion to have.
She jumped at the chance to assert herself. "I am the daughter of Her Majesty's fallen general and Lady Charlotte Lavoie, and you are being too familiar, sir."
The voice laughed again. Miss Lavoie, it said. I can see I've troubled you. If I bring you out of these woods and then leave you alone, will that make you happy?
"Possibly." Maddy scanned the forest one last time. "I mean I don't even know you, sir. And if you're real, I wonder whether it was proper for you to spend so much time in my bedchamber. But I'd like to live through this, if I can."
I never set foot in your bedchamber. I merely told you to hear my voice, and you did, regardless of your location. I apologize if I lack propriety in speaking to nobility such as yourself. I'll take you to the edge of the forest and I won't trouble you further.
"I suppose that's agreeable," Maddy said, "though, I do wish I could see you."
The voice heaved a miserable sigh. Miss Lavoie, you wouldn't recognize me even if you could.
Maddy wondered whether the voice's new courtesy was tainted with sarcasm or even a hint of regret. But before she came to a reasonable conclusion, it said, Now go to sleep, and she did, without any forewarning drowsiness or the dizzy feeling that comes before collapse. The universe simply faded away.
Maddy dreamed she was riding through the forest on the back of an enormous stag. And the longer she dreamed, the less she was able to distinguish herself from her mount. She felt the jolt of the stag's movement in her own bones. She pressed her ear to its back and heard her breath match the animal's heavy pant. Even her heart beat in time with the stag's.
She considered how peaceful it would be to just let go and sink into the creature, but she didn't want to be a stag. She didn't want to be anything other than herself. So she fought the dream. She imagined her brother's illustrations in place of the scenery around her. She recited his stories and sang his songs. She stopped running, pulled herself out of the stag's body and sat up, breathless in her own, with the strangest sensation that part of her was not dreaming at all.