I enjoyed the crunch, crunch, crunch of leaves underfoot. I admired the fiery colors of the forest around me, and breathed the sweet, crisp autumn air. Hot cocoa, sweater weather – fall is a wonderful time to be alive. I wasn’t headed anywhere in particular. It was just such a beautiful day for a hike, and this particular path had, for some reason, felt like it was calling my name. I couldn’t remember ever having been her before, yet couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something familiar about these woods.
My steps went crunch, crunch…and then one was different. I looked down.
The path I had been following led into a large, round clearing. Mushrooms grew all around the edge, forming a huge circle. I had never seen a mushroom ring so big. Without really thinking, I put my other foot down inside the circle.
Suddenly, the world around me changed, just a little. The colors of the leaves on the trees outside the circle seemed dull and distant. The air was a bit more still, and sweeter, scented with cinnamon and cloves. And faintly, just on the edge of my hearing, I thought I could hear music. It was thin and airy, distant, but sounded like it was coming closer. I turned, looking around for the source.
When I saw the piper, I wondered how I could have missed her. She was only about 20 feet away from me, and capering closer as she played. She swayed, spun, and jumped, clearly enjoying herself. At first, she seemed given over to the music, unaware of the clearing, lost in the rhythm of her notes and steps. Then she turned toward me and gave an exaggerated wink. I grinned, and felt my feet walking closer.
She nodded, smiled as she took a breath, and played on. I realized I was putting my own feet down on her beat, my steps speeding up. When I reached the center of the clearing, she did, too. She stopped playing and smiled at me, meeting my eyes as she holstered her pipes on her belt. She held out her hands, and I saw my hands reach up to take them.
A band started to play, forming a circle around us, those without instruments clapping or stomping their feet in time. I had no idea where they had come from or who they were. I didn’t care. My gaze had fastened to my dance partner’s and wouldn’t leave. I didn’t mind. Somehow my feet knew where to go, following hers, the music filling me, filling us, and driving us on. It sped up and so did we. I felt like I was flying around the clearing, soaring on song, whirling through the air with this amazing creature who had taken my hands and whisked me up into this impossible joy, this delirious frenzy. Faster and faster. Higher and higher. Nothing in my mind but the music as it drove us on and on.
Finally, suddenly, the song came to an end. She held me close, arms around my body as mine were around hers. She leaned in, and I felt her whisper tickle my ear. “A pleasure, as always. See you next year, mortal.”
Crunch went my foot on the path. I turned and looked behind me. For some reason, I expected to see musicians and dancers, but there was only a clearing with a ring of mushrooms around it. Well, I thought to myself, good thing I didn’t go that way. Plenty of stories about what happens to the foolish mortal who dares the faerie ring. I laughed at my silly fantasy. For a moment, I thought I heard someone else laughing, too, but then I decided it must have been an echo.
The woods were so still and quiet, nothing stirring but the sweet, crisp autumn breeze, and the sound of my feet going crunch, crunch, crunch on the leaves. It was such a satisfying sound. Why did I always wait until so late in the year to go on a hike like this? The air was getting colder, and there wouldn’t be many more days like this one. Oh well, I reassured myself. After all, there’s always next year.