After the initial search party, the police had told them to leave the searching to them. Donall was not usually one to pander to the law (or to anything else, for that matter), but on the matter of his missing daughter, he had drunk their words like whiskey, stashing them away and taking them out whenever he needed them.
“It’ll do more harm than good, son. Like they said, if we want to catch the man, we need to trick him into thinking we’ve given up.”
“You have given up,” Kieran growled. “You’re talking about catching the man. What about Darcy? What if she’s still there somewhere, unconscious?”
Donall wouldn’t look at him. “She’s safe somewhere, I’m sure of it. Your mother would know.”
“No she wouldn’t, father. Mother’s -” he stopped himself before repeating the words he’d said to Darcy on that fateful day just a week ago. His father’s shoulders stiffened. “She doesn’t know any more than the rest of us, father.”
Donall went back to writing, or pretending to. “Go and talk to her,” he said. “Go on.”
Leah wasn’t much help, but then he hadn’t expected her to be: she was asleep.
“She sleeps all the time these days,” Sally told him, looking worried. “And when she doesn’t sleep, she weeps.”
“Does she say anything?”
“Less and less, sir,” she said. “Usually pining for her daughter. She says the folk have got her, whatever that means. I can never tell if she’s talking about fairy folk or real folk. She seemed to understand when we told her what had happened. Oh I do miss the young lady, sir, she was ever so good at bringing her round.”
“Darcy was always the favourite,” Kieran said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, sir…”
“I would.” He smiled at the nurse. “I haven’t minded in years. She deserves it much more than me.”
Dusk found him outside, skirting the edge of the forest. Occasionally he would meet a police officer in peasants’ clothes, who he would greet and ask if they’d seen anything. The men were generally kind. Mrs. Stephens came periodically to bring them food and tea. Before, she would have sent Martha – but Martha was pregnant with their grandchild and there was a kidnapper about.
“I hope they find her in time for the wedding,” Mrs. Stephens had said. “I’m sure she’d be awfully disappointed if she came back and it was over already.”
Mr. Stephens had hushed his wife, but as usual she hadn’t listened, and Kieran was grateful. Mrs. Stephens was one of the only ones left still acting like Darcy wasn’t dead.
John Cross was one of the others. Kieran had found a blind spot between two policemen, and was about to run and tell one of them when movement in the forest caught his eye. He turned and saw John standing some way in the forest, watching him. He frowned, uncertain what to do. John had claimed to have seen everything, but rumours of what the witness statement contained were strange at best. According to the police, there was enough information to recognise the kidnapper should he return – that, or John himself was involved. The chief of police had ordered him let go, though not all of his subordinates were happy about it.
After a long silence, John beckoned for Kieran to follow him, and he did. What did he have to lose? Having thought about the matter, he was on the chief’s side. He knew what madness looked like, and John Cross looked perfectly sane.
Tired, though. Haunted, even. Kieran noted the bruise-dark circles under the boy’s eyes, the pallor of his face, and the way his hair stuck up like he’d been pulling at it. He could see why some might think him mad. He wondered what he himself looked like. He hadn’t seen a mirror in days.
John put a finger to his lips and led them deeper into the forest via a half-hidden path he seemed to know well. After a while he stopped.
“I can’t find the path she took,” John whispered hoarsely. “I keep looking, but it’s like the forest has changed.” He looked up at Kieran, eyes desperate, and Kieran realised that whatever guilt he felt concerning that day, it was nothing compared to John’s. “Maybe you’ll see something I haven’t,” John said. The hope in his voice was painful to hear.
Kieran hesitated. This was what he’d been wanting to do since the beginning. Why had he listened to his father, staying home like a good little boy while his sister was surely somewhere out there, praying to be rescued?
Why hadn’t he done this from the beginning?
John fidgeted. It occurred to Kieran that John was waiting for him to speak, to judge him, tell him it was his fault, or that it was alright. Kieran couldn’t. He blamed John, but then he blamed himself, and his father and mother, and all the children who’d been outside the woods that day, and the police for giving up so soon, and Darcy herself for wandering so far, and he whole damned world. He had no words of comfort, but he had to do something.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.”
John relaxed, handed him a candle lamp to light, and the two boys headed into the forest to find a stolen child.